‘Like an Owl of the Desert – Lady Anne Clifford

In 1590 at Skipton Castle in Yorkshire the Countess of Cumberland, Margaret Russell gave birth to a daughter, Anne. Her father was George Clifford one of England’s heros; explorer, commander of ships during the Spanish Armada, favourite and champion of Queen Elizabeth I. However, whatever his public reputation, privately he was not much of a husband and father.


Skipton Castle Gateway

George Clifford died in 1605 when his daughter was just fifteen. His final act of neglect was to disinherit his daughter of all the land, titles and possessions of the Clifford estates. Why he did this is not clear. Perhaps he felt that the responsibilities were too much for a young lady to carry. The estate was substantial encompassing the old county of Westmoreland and parts of North Yorkshire. Five castles stood within the boundaries – Skipton to the south, Brougham in the north  with Appleby, Brough and Pendragon in between – in all some 90,000 acres.He willed his estate to his brother, Anne’s uncle Francis and his brother’s male heirs. The problem was that legally, he could not disinherit his daughter. By an entail made by an earlier Clifford, the estates were to be left to direct descendants regardless of gender. In effect George Clifford’s will was invalid and the fight was on!

George had reckoned without his daughter’s persistence, even stubborness and her very acute sense of what was due to her. Together with her mother they start a legal action in the earl marshall’s court which is dismissed. A year later in 1607 they demolish her uncle’s case and the judges decide that half the estate is rightfully hers. Her uncle however refuses to yield any of the estates.

In 1609 Anne marries the Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville.


Richard Sackville

Like her father he is a courtier with expensive tastes and frequently empty pockets. He takes charge of the lawsuit and in 1615 the courts decide she can chose one or other half of the estates Skipton or Westmoreland but she cannot have them both. But no, Anne is adamant, she wants what she is entitled to and that is that.

The situation hots up. Anne is now subject to criticism from her friends who urge her to settle. Her husband uses both threats and fine words and she suffers an hour and a half of sermonising from the Archbishop of Canterbury. She digs her heels in.

In 1616 she buys time to relieve the pressure on her. She insists that she must discuss the settlement terms with her mother. She goes north to meet her and the response she sends back is ‘a direct denial’ to agree to the settlement. Now the situation really sizzles.

In May that year her husband tells her she may no longer live in his houses, Knowle and Bolebrooke. He sends a message saying he will see her one last time. A further letter is sent telling her to send their only child to London, to be separated from her. Then her husband changes tactics. He tries to sweeten her and delays the separation from her child. The whole affair becomes the talk of the London society and she comes in for heavy condemnation for her intransigence. All the while she is quite alone, living quietly in the country, suffering ill health whilst her husband enjoys himself, expensively, in London. She writes sadly,

‘Being condemned by most folk…I may truly say I am like an owl in the desert.’*

At the end of the month Anne loses her only ally, her mother who dies at Brougham castle.


Brougham Castle

Her husband, ever with an eye to the main chance, sends her to Brougham to take possession. Fights break out between Anne’s faithful retainers and her uncle’s men. Her husband and her cousin are set to fight a duel. The king, James I steps in. He tells her husband to fetch Anne back from the north and he, the king himself, will settle matters once and for all.

So, in January 1617 Anne finds herself back in London and summoned to the king’s presence. He asks both Anne and her husband to trust him and leave the matter in his hands. Her husband readily agrees but Anne beseeches the king to:

‘pardon me for that I would never part with Westmoreland while I lived under any conditions whatsoever.’

The king subjects her to both fair and foul means of persuasion yet still she resists. Two days later she is sent for again. This time she has not only the king and her husband to contend with but also her uncle and cousin plus any number of other nobles.  Everyone agrees to submit to the king’s judgement…except Anne. At this, she is subjected to much harassment. In Anne’s words:

‘The king flew into a great chaffe’

at which point, fearing that she might be publicly disgraced, her husband puts her out of the room. After which a settlement is agreed upon. Her uncle gets all the estates and she is awarded £17,000 compensation which is quickly snaffled by her husband. In effect she has nothing. The fight is over.

However, in all good stories there is a twist in the tale. Anne’s great great grandfather Henry was a keen astronomer and astrologer. There is a tradition that on the birth of his grandson (Anne’s grandfather) he read the stars. He predicted that this new grandson would have two sons ‘between whom and their descendants there would be great lawsuits and that the heirs male of the line should end with these two sons…or thereafter’.

And that is what happened. Anne’s uncle Francis died and the estates passed to his only son, her cousin Henry who died without a male heir.

Nearly forty years after it all began Lady Anne Clifford regained her inheritance and as she approached her sixtieth year she moved back north to claim her lands and never again left them. She died in the great chamber at Brougham castle in 1670.

anne clifford

Lady Anne at 58 years old


*’I am like an owl of the desert; loving solitude, moping among ruins, hooting discordantly.’ Psalm 102:6



Isabella de Forz – The Lady of the Isle (1237-1293)

Born into a wealthy Devon family; married at twelve years old; widowed at twenty three having borne six children, Isabella de Forz outwitted both the king and Simon de Montfort to remain resolutely a widow and manage her own affairs. She became one of the great medieval landowners and one of the richest noblewomen in England.


Isabella’s Corbel – thought to be the lady herself

Isabella was the daughter of Baldwin de Redvers, 6th earl of Devon and Exeter and Lord of the Isle of Wight. As such she was accustomed to life in a wealthy noble family and understood the expectations held of her particularly in relation to her marriage- an alliance aimed at increasing wealth, power and influence.

At twelve, she was married to William de Forz, the Count of Aumale who was twenty years her senior. He was a loyal supporter of the king, Henry III and was often away on the king’s business. As a result, Isabella, despite her youth, became deeply involved in supervising the management of her husband’s considerable estates in France and the north of England.

In 1260, William died whilst abroad leaving Isabella a young and rich widow when her dower lands reverted to her. Two years later Isabella’s brother died and she became, in her own right, the heiress to the family estates and all at a time when the politics of the country were in turmoil.

In brief the nobles of England, rich and influential, were dissatisfied with the king, Henry III. They wanted more say in the governing of the country and were not at all happy with the favours bestowed on his wife’s (Eleanor of Provence) relatives. After several failed attempts to resolve the barons’ grievances, matters came to a head with Simon de Monfort leading the Baron’s War against the King. (1264-7). Isabella’s husband William de Forz remained a staunch royalist and close adviser to Henry. Whilst her husband lived Isabella followed his royalist lead. After his death however, she trod circumspectly between the two warring factions in an attempt to protect what was rightly hers. Throughout her life she maintained strong personal links between Henry and Eleanor and their son Prince Edward, later Edward I. Equally she remained in contact with Simon de Montfort’s wife, another Eleanor.

Isabella developed a taste and an aptitude for managing her own life as an independent woman rather than as the wife of a nobleman. She put in place a competent team – her affinity – to see to the day to day management of the estates and to advise her. She ran her fiefdom mainly from Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight –Isabella’s family home where she extensively remodelled the Castle turning it into a sumptuous private residence and styled herself as the Lady of the Isle.


Carisbrooke Castle Today

However as a wealthy an influential widow she was a fine catch for any noble. Simon de Montfort, after seizing control of the country saw this very clearly and sold the rights to Isabella’s remarriage to his eponymous son. Isabella was having none of this. During the year 1264/5, She was chased the length and breadth of the country by Simon the younger in an attempt to abduct her and force her into marriage. She hid in Brearmore Abbey in Hampshire but the Abbot revealed her whereabouts to the would-be husband. Later, apparently after suitable gifts, the Abbot helped her escape and she took herself off to Wales to lie low. After the battle of Evesham in 1265, described as ‘murder of Evesham for battle it was none’ both de Montfort elder and junior were killed and Henry held the reins of the country again. The question of Isabella’s marriage raised its head once more. This time Henry sold the rights to her marriage to his second son, Edmond, Duke of Lancaster. In that way the wealth and influence she had amassed would eventually accrue to the crown. However, instead of taking flight, this time Isabella negotiated with the king to arrange the marriage of her daughter and heir Aveline to Edmond and thus eventually the crown would inherit. The plan was thwarted by the death of Aveline and the estates reverted to Isabella.

Although Isabella’s vast estates were enticement enough – she held land and property in more than half the counties of England – it was her possession of the Isle of Wight that worried Henry and Prince Edward.  The island held the status of a semi-independent feudal fiefdom with Isabella’s family, the de Redvers, ruling from Carisbrooke Castle.  The Isle was considered to be of great strategic importance particularly in times of war with France. When Isabella inherited her family estates she took up residence in Carisbrooke and ruled there almost as a queen in her own right, outside of royal jurisdiction.

However, Isabella managed her relationships with Henry and Edward with intelligence and acumen. She was not cowed by either of them, standing up for what she saw as her rights. She is said to have possessed a copy of the laws of England which she used in her many legal spats with the king, other nobles and tenants. Even family members were not exempt from her insistence on her rights. There was a long-running dispute with her mother concerning the income of Isabella’s northern lands. The monks at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight were said to have “an unwholesome fear” of her because of her claims to rights and lands previously held by the Abbey.  She stoutly defended her rights to the wrecks of the seas around the Isle which often had high value. Attempts by Henry and Edward to claim these rights were given short shrift by Isabella.

Her relationship with Henry seems to have been one based on mutual mistrust. Perhaps Henry believed her sympathies to lie with the Barons. When she inherited her estates from her brother she was slow to come to court and swear homage to him, ignoring one summons and responding to the second summons only after Henry appointed the sheriff of Hampshire to take charge of her English lands. For Isabella’s part she appeared to mistrust Henry’s promises and at periods when the threat of war with France loomed she formally negotiated detailed terms with him by which he could garrison the Isle of Wight, such garrison to be withdrawn when the crisis was over. This was also probably part of her strategy to demonstrate her loyalty to him.

Her relationship with Edward, once he became king, was quite different. Edward, always careful of royal rights appeared to be equally solicitous of Isabella’s. Whilst carrying out his own review of the appropriation of royal property and rights, he discovered a number of cases where manors had been illegally taken from her. These he restored to her. However Edward was not averse to putting pressure on Isabella and constantly sought to persuade her to sell the Isle and her other estates. When she was at her most vulnerable after the death of her daughter, Aveline, he was quick to draw up deeds of sale of her lands. However grief stricken she was, she held firm and the sale came to nothing.

In 1293, when she was fifty six years old and after thirty three years of widowhood and independence Isabella was taken ill on her way to Canterbury.  She had outlived all her children and so, on her deathbed, she finally agreed the sale of the Isle of Wight to Edward for about six thousand marks (c. four thousand pounds).


Isabella’s Seal reads “Personal seal of Isabella de Forz, Countess of Devon and the Isle”

Edward later claimed that Isabella had made him her heir and so he immediately inherited the money he had just paid out. The transaction later had to be defended by Edward’s son since it was regarded as highly dubious. Isabella was buried in Breamore Abbey in Hampshire.

In many ways Isabella acted as a conventional noblewoman. Managing her estates, interceding for her tenants and employees, giving grants and gifts of land to those of her affinity, religious patronage – these were normal areas of activity for noblewomen. However she went beyond these local responsibilities and acted on equal terms with the other barons. As one of the wealthiest noblewomen in England (at her death her fortune was around two million pounds in current value) she had influence and authority. The extent of her estates and particularly the Isle of Wight and her need to defend them against the encroachment of others brought her into the highest level of society where she gained the respect and confidence of the other nobles. She had a clear sense of self and what she was owed, a strong will and the intelligence to pick her way through the politics and allegiances of these troubled times to guard ‘her own’.