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The Girl in the Tower

TowrlndnMuch of the childhood of Strongbow’s daughter was spent in the Tower of London. Why? Was she alone? What were her mother’s feelings on having her children taken into protective custody?

The immediate cause was the fact that, following Strongbow’s death in 1176 the four-year-old was placed under the protection of the king. This was a common practice in medieval times for the children of the nobility following the death of a father. But it was more usual for the ward to remain in the family home, over-seen by the king’s local representative. Perhaps the location of the De Clare family homes in Wales and Ireland were deemed too dangerous.

Lands in Ireland and Wales

To begin with, Isabel was not expected to inherit her father’s lands and titles; her brother Gilbert was the rightful heir. This raises the question: did both children spend their childhoods in the Tower? Surely the answer must be “yes”. It seems incredible that the boy who was expected to inherit vast tracts of land in Wales and Ireland, the son of the king’s representative in Ireland, would not be given the same protection as that afforded to his sister.

So the scenario that emerges is one of two very young children, the girl aged 4, the boy anything from 2 to 5 years old, being taken under escort to London where they spend their days being educated and groomed for, in the case of the boy, a career as a knight and, in the case of the girl, marriage to such a man, a role in which she would be expected to manage his estates whilst he fought for the king.

There are a lot of unanswered questions in this scenario: how old was Gilbert? I have been unable to find any reference to his birth date so it is unclear whether he was the first born of the union. All we know is the year of his death, 1185, at which point Isabel became the sole heir to Strongbow’s land and titles. Nor do we know from where they were taken; Isabel’s birth is recorded as having taken place in Pembroke but there is no certainty that she remained there until her father’s death or that Gilbert was born there. Pembroke, Chepstow, Dublin and Ferns are all possible locations for the children’s home at the time of Strongbow’s death.

Turmoil in Ireland

Given the turmoil in Ireland throughout these years and, especially, during the period after the late summer of 1173 when Strongbow was nominally the ruler of all Ireland in the king’s name but was constantly opposed by the native Irish, it is probable that both parents thought it safest for their children to reside in Wales. Were she not her father’s daughter, Aiofe too may well of deemed it safer to depart from Irish soil. Upon her husband’s death she was granted the dowerage of Chepstow and could have chosen to live out her days there.

A Place of Safety

For us in the twenty first century it is hard to imagine the feelings of a young woman, newly widowed, having her children removed to a “place of safety”. In modern parlance those words reek of intervention by state welfare services. But in medieval times, in Ireland as well as the England of the Normans, there was a long tradition of the children of important families being fostered by friends.

Aiofe’s father was brought up by foster parents following his own father’s death in battle and remained close to the foster family throughout his life. So it is unlikely that she would have opposed the removal of her children upon the death of her husband. But there can be no doubt either that she continued to fight for retention of her father’s beloved Leinster.

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