EWELME – A ROMANTIC VILLAGE ITS PAST AND PRESENT. ITS PEOPLE AND ITS HISTORY.
THE RISE OF THE CHAUCER and DE LA POLE FAMILIES.
Geoffrey Chaucer, the poet, was connected with Ewelme through his son Thomas, the rumour said that because he stood high in favour with John of Gaunt (who was his godfather) that Thomas was in reality John of Gaunt's own son, but this has never been proved.
In any case, the Chaucer family rose from comparative obscurity into high official positions, and the poet Geoffrey having married Philippa Roet, a Flemish lady who had come over to England as one of Queen Philippa's attendants, no doubt came into connection with court circles through his marriage and soon stood high in favour with the King, Edward III. It is to be noted, too, that there was a further connection with John of Gaunt, as Philippa Roet's sister, Katharine Roet (Swynford by her first marriage) ended by becoming John of Gaunt's third wife. (This story is told romantically by Anya Seton in her novel “Katharine” in which also the Chaucer family is mentioned.)
Thomas Chaucer came into possession of Ewelme Manor through his marriage with Matilda Burghersh - a marriage which says the old chronicler was much “to the great increase of his living and amendment of his blood ”. He was knighted by Edward III and rose to be five times Speaker to the House of Commons. He was also guardian to Sir Thomas Stonor of the neighbouring Stonor Manor and Park during his minority and they remained friends throughout their lives. (It is of interest to note that this Thomas Stonor was also Speaker to the House of Commons and was knighted by Edward III. The Stonors were also connected with another old Chiltern family, the Hampdens).
Matilda Burghersh was the only child and heiress of Sir John Burghersh, who had married the daughter and heiress of the Bacon family, former owners of Swyncombe and Ewelme Manors.
Of Matilda herself we know little, but she and Thomas appear to have lived happily at Ewelme Manor when Thomas was not in London on Speaker's business, and they are commemorated in a handsome grey granite polished altar tomb in St John Baptist's Chapel in Ewelme Church, their effigies being two full length brasses of the best period, the whole tomb being decorated with their coats of arms in colour and those of the noble and royal families with which they were connected - the Roet wheel and the Plantagenet leopards being prominent among the heraldic devices.
It is said that Thomas and Matilda Chaucer entertained Edward III at the Manor and also John of Gaunt, who must have visited his godchild and protégé, Thomas, on more than one occasion with his wife, Katharine, Matilda's sister, and it is likely that they noticed the child Alice, who doubtless showed early promise of beauty and a strong will. For this girl, Alice, born in 1404, a great and spectacular future was reserved. She was betrothed at an early age to Sir John Phelip, a Knight of Norfolk, who, however, died before she was twelve years old so that the union was never consummated.
Later on, as a young woman, she made an ambitious marriage with the Earl of Salisbury, Thomas Montacute, who was then in command of the English Army in France under William de la Pole then Earl (later Duke) of Suffolk. Thomas Montacute was the opposer of Joan of Arc at Orleans and was described as being “ a man more like the old Romans than people of his own age, so great were his virtues and his chivalry ”. He was killed at the siege of Orleans in 1428 and Alice was left a nobleman's widow and Countess of Salisbury.
Alice must have made acquaintance with William de la Pole during Salisbury's lifetime, as she was in France with her husband and the English Army which he was commanding under de la Pole.
Two years after her first husband's death Alice married William de la Pole, then Earl of Suffolk, in 1430, she being then about twenty-seven years of age and William de la Pole thirty-four, so that we may conclude that this marriage was one of mutual attraction as the pair seem to have lived happily together until William's tragic death. Alice must have been loved and respected by both her husbands who entrusted her with matters of business and William de la Pole certainly carried out his plans for the betterment of Ewelme and the construction of the church, school and almshouses with Alice's advice and help,
William de la Pole, it may be noted, had earlier contracted a marriage with the unfortunate Duchess Jacqueline of Hainault, which was, however, soon annulled owing to the ambitious projects of Jacqueline's guardians, so that we may presume that William was heart free when he met the widow Alice, then in her prime, and ready to contract a mature and lasting union. Suffolk succeeded the Earl of Salisbury after his death as Commander-in-chief to the English forces in France. He was for a time a prisoner in the French hands, and is said to have knighted his captor so that he should not fall into the hands of a “ common man ”. William inherited the title of Earl of Suffolk after his elder brother Michael's death at Agincourt. Michael's death has been depicted by Shakespeare in a moving scene in Henry V, Act IV, Scene 6, where Suffolk and York lie together mortally wounded on the battlefield and York pleads with his friend not to die before him and so leave him alone in death:
“Suffolk first died, and York all haggled o'er
cries aloud, tarry, dear cousin Suffolk!
My soul shall keep thee company to heaven.
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast
As in this glorious and well foughten field
We kept together in our chivalry”.
Michael de la Pole was buried by the King's command and by his own express wish on the north side of the rood screen in Ewelme Church, where a plain gray marble slab inscribed with his name marks his resting--place. Michael left three daughters, and as the only surviving one became a nun, the title descended to his only surviving brother, William, as mentioned above.
It is curious that the name Michael had been much favoured by the earlier de la Pole family, but after the death of the last Michael, leaving no male heir, the name was dropped (perhaps it was considered of ill omen) and never appears again in the Suffolk pedigree.
The rise of the de la Pole family from obscurity to the highest rank is easily explained when we learn that the first knight in the family was the son of a certain William Pool or Pole, a merchant of Hull, who “obliged” Edward I by lending him money for the French wars, and this led naturally to the advancement of the family. It is and old story yet ever new --- And the final fall of the de la Poles is as spectacular as their rise, and they displayed the very human weakness when ennobled of adding a Norman prefix to the rather undistinguished name of Pole or Poole, the good merchant's original name. This is recalled by Shakespeare in his word play on the name in Henry VI Part II Scene 1 “ Pool, Sir Pool thou sink ” being the last insulting words thrown at Suffolk by the ship's Captain just before his murder, and a reminder of the noble's bitter jealousy of his origin..
After William de la Pole's marriage with Alice, he was honoured by being chosen to go to France to negotiate for the young King Henry VI's marriage to Margaret of Anjou and it was this which doubtless gave rise to the cruel and unfounded slander that he became Margaret's lover (Shakespeare perpetuated this slander in his play Henry VI Part I Act I Scene 3 in the well known words “ she's beautiful and therefore to be wooed - she is a woman and therefore to be won! ”),
For this service as ambassador for the royal marriage William de la Pole was created first Marquis and then Duke of Suffolk, and remained high in the King's favour for some years being appointed Lord Chancellor of the Realm, while Alice was close in attendance to Queen Margaret, being a highly honoured lady-in-waiting. When not engaged at court or on official functions, the Suffolk pair lived a good deal at Ewelme Manor, and the chronicle says “ Suffolk, from love of his wife and the commodity of her lands, fell much to dwell in Oxfordshire and Berkshire where her lands lay ”.
In 1437 the Duke and Duchess founded the Almshouses or “God's House” at Ewelme, as well as the school, and they rebuilt the church about the same time on the site of an older edifice. They also enlarged and improved the Manor and its grounds and built a large dairy, one wall of which still remains standing. One can imagine the natural pride they must have felt in surveying the progress of the model village they had created. Some of their retainers from Wingfield in Suffolk followed them to Ewelme as is betokened by the various families of Winfield residing in Ewelme to this day, who still preserve their East Anglian type. Ewelme Manor is thus described at this date: “ The inner part of the house is set within a fair moat and is builded richly of brick and stone. The hall of it is fair and hath great bars of iron athwart it instead of crossbeams. The parlour is exceedingly fair and lightsome and so be all the lodgings there. There is a right fair park to the Manor ”.
It was at Ewelme Manor that William and Alice's only child was born after nearly ten years of marriage - John de la Pole - who was destined after his father's fall to retrieve for a time the family fortunes, through his marriage with the mew King Edward IV's sister, Elizabeth Plantagenet.
Jealousy of Suffolk's power and the signal favour showed him and his wife by Henry and Margaret was meanwhile smouldering among the nobility and was to break out into sudden flame and cause Suffolk's downfall to be as sudden as was his rise. About this time Suffolk made his will in which he appoints: “ His best-loved wife to be his sole executrix, for above all the earth my singular trust is in her ”- a remarkable token of his high opinion of Alice's character and capabilities.