Royal wedding at Ipswich

In the year of a royal wedding, it is appropriate to remember an earlier royal wedding which took place in Ipswich, 721 years ago. However, Ipswich was not an obvious place for a royal wedding; there is a shortage of information and disagreement over the actual date and location in the town.

On 8 January 1297, Elizabeth of Rhuddlan, the daughter of King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, married John, Count of Holland at St Peter and St Paul’s church, Ipswich, now known as St Peter’s by the Waterfront. In attendance at the marriage were Elizabeth's sister Margaret, her father, Edward I King of England, and her brother Edward, (later King Edward II). Queen Eleanor was already dead. The great nobles of the land and the low countries would also have been in attendance.

There is a rival claim to the location of the wedding: the now demolished Chapel of Our Lady, which until the reformation was a chapel on the corner of St Matthews Street and Lady Lane. It was a major site for pilgrimage; its attraction was the miraculous healing powers of the statue of The Virgin Mary. It is likely that the actual wedding took place in the larger church of St Peter, but that the royal party made a devotional visit to the Chapel of Our Lady as part of the overall wedding proceedings.

Elizabeth was 15 when she married, and her husband was 13. The marriage with Count John was dynastic and political. Holland had close trade links with England. They were betrothed when John was only 1. As part of the agreement, John was raised in England at Edward’s court; effectively a hostage for his father’s continued allegiance.

The context for this wedding was a complex proxy military and trade war between England and France, involving Holland and Flanders. The essence of the conflict was substantially about Edward’s control of Gascony, which was the remaining province of England’s possessions in France, and his assertion of control over Scotland. In both areas Edward was being challenged by France. It was a great power conflict between England and France, which drew in the Low Countries, because it was also about control of the wool trade. Wool was England’s main export and the greatest source of tax revenue.

By the time of the marriage, John’s father Floris V Count of Holland, had been murdered in a botched kidnap attempt in 1296, because he had changed allegiance in favour of France. Edward I was implicated, but it is unclear how much he was actually involved. Edward condoned the murder as it suited his purposes: he now had the successor, John Count of Holland, in his power.

The marriage between Elizabeth and John would have become very urgent and was brought forward to immediately after the Christmas feast. Edward would have been keen to establish his control over Holland through John who would become his son-in-law, to stabilise the all-important wool trade, and secure the alliances against France. King Edward invited a number of nobles from Flanders with English sympathies, to witness the wedding and the king’s power in the Low Countries. After the wedding John of Renesse (one of these lords) was appointed regent by Edward I, on behalf of John count of Holland who was a minor.

St Peter’s in Ipswich would have been chosen as the location for the wedding for symbolic reasons. In medieval times Ipswich was an important trading town and port it was crucial to the economic and political power of the country. In particular it was the major cloth and wool exporting port for England. The wool trade was an important source of royal revenues through taxes on exports. Edward probably chose Ipswich to demonstrate his power over the wool trade to the French, his own people, and his allies.

It was an Augustinian Priory of St Peter and St Paul which occupied a six-acre site. As a large priory, it would have had the necessary buildings to accommodate the king and his retinue. Much of the town would have been taken over for the lodgings of other notables and all the attendant clerks, servants, soldiers, priests and others,  as guests or functionaries.

Importantly for this event was that it was easily accessible by sea. It is likely that the king, his retinue and the bride and groom travelled by sea; it being quicker and easier than by road. The royal ships would have been able to moor very close to the priory, where College Street and Key Street are now, which would have been the original quay. The foreign guests from Holland and Flanders would have found it conveniently accessible by sea. It is of course also possible that the king travelled by road from London after the Christmas feast. It is likely that much of the king’s baggage and retinue travelled by road and arrived ahead of the wedding to prepare the accommodation at the priory, and to finalise the arrangements for the wedding. The royal baggage train would have brought everything for the king’s comfort; furniture, the king’s bed, tapestries for wall hangings, plate, clothes jewellery.

After the wedding John, Count of Holland was sent to Holland to establish his authority as ruler, although he was made to promise to heed the council of Edward’s Regent: he was effectively under the power of Edward I. Elizabeth was expected to go to Holland with her husband, but did not wish to go, or Edward I did not want her to go; it is not clear.

Elizabeth did join her husband in Holland in 1298. Edward I travelled with her, through the Low Countries with her two sisters Margaret and Eleanor. This can readily be seen as a royal progress with Edward demonstrating the extent and reach of his power. They remained for several months and celebrated Christmas there in 1298.

On 10 November 1299, Count John died of dysentery, though there were rumours of his murder. No children had been born from the marriage. His usefulness to Edward had been served. Edward had negotiated a peace treaty with France. To seal that, Edward himself married again to Margaret, the half-sister of Philip IV, King of France.

Elizabeth is only connected with Suffolk through this marriage. She was born at Rhuddlan, north Wales in 1282, and died in childbirth, in 1316, and was buried at Walden Abbey, Essex. She was born in north Wales because Edward was at war with the Welsh rulers of Gwynedd, and Eleanor of Castile his wife was accompanying him as she always did.

But for all this, we have a royal wedding which took place in Ipswich for strategic reasons: these explain its choice for a royal wedding. When Elizabeth married her second husband, Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford in 1302 it was at Westminster Abbey.

Trevor Cooper

[The name King Street originated from the King's Head Inn (opened in 1531 and demolished 1880/1 to make way for the Corn Exchange), which was possibly on or near the site of a building called the King’s Hall where Edward I feasted at the time of the marriage of his daughter in 1297. So the street could indirectly have been named after the ancient 13th century hall. -Ed.]

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