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The Perils Of being an heiress In the Middle Ages: The story of the Countess Alice De Lacy

Born: 25 December 1281 (approx.)

Died: 2 October 1348

Women of the 14th Century in Germany (image created in 1913 by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs), [Source: The New York Public Library].

Last week marked 675 years ago, on 2 October 1348, since the death of Countess Alice De Lacy.

Something about her story drew me to know more and before I knew it, I’d fallen down yet another (albeit relatively small this time) rabbit hole, so here are just highlights from the life of woman who 100% would have faced a different fate if she were a man. This little piece has been harder to put together than I anticipated when I began as her name does not appear in ANY of my English history books and I have a lot. This itself is telling not only because many would say she didn’t necessarily play a role in the “bigger picture” of English history but her role and plight as a woman in history has been relegated from its pages. That’s why I think these little deep dives are important.

Alice descended from one of King Henry II’s illegitimate sons and after both of her brothers died during childhood, she stood to inherit two earldoms, one from her mother, the Countess of Salisbury & one from her Father, the Earl of Lincoln, as the sole heir.

Due to this King Edward I, I arranged for her to marry his nephew Thomas of Lancaster (who was set to inherit three of his own earldoms) when she was just thirteen years old, and he was around sixteen.

At this time her father’s earldom was promised to Thomas so even if the couple had no children it would pass to Thomas family & their line of succession (it would not revert to anyone in her extended family). By comparison, when her mother died, Alice inherited her title and estates becoming Countess of Salisbury in her own right.

The marriage was not a happy one with both couples living separate lives and no heirs being produced.

Due to the number of earldoms Thomas inherited directly and indirectly he became the richest and most powerful man in England at the time. In 1317, when she was in her mid-30s, Alice was abducted by knights acting on the orders of the Earl of Surrey. Though, he never asked for his wife’s return Thomas waged war on Surrey and was suspicious of King Edward who he thought was involved & supported the Earl of Surrey.

Thomas learnt the hard way that you should never cross the king. Five years later, during which time we suspect Alice was kept a prisoner, Thomas was captured and executed for treason. It is unknown where Alice was during these five years, but modern interpretations of this story suggest that perhaps she had a hand in her husbands’ downfall. This may not be true though as the King had her arrested and imprisoned in York. It was only after she surrendered to the King and agreed to pass much of her lands to the crown that she was freed. She lost her earldom of Salisbury, but her Earldom of Lincoln was returned to her.

Two years later she married English Baron, Eubulus le Strange and this is reported as a happy marriage however just over a decade later he died leaving her heartbroken.

The arms of Henry de Lacy, Father of Alice and the arms suspected to have been used by her (Source:

Despite only having the one title to her name, at the death of her second husband, Alice was one of the richest women in England and a widow, making her a much sought after “prize”. She had however taken a vow of chastity and refused to be married.

Despite this Baron Hugh De Freyne abducted her & after raping her forced her to marry him. The marriage was conducted without the approval of the king, but all seems to have been forgiven with the Baron paying some type of fine (or what could be called tribute to the King). Karma was on Alice’s side though as within two years the Baron died without laying a finger on her in heritance.

The same can’t be said for her second husband’s nephew who with the support of her illegitimate half-brother stormed her castle at Bolingbroke and imprisoned her yet again shortly after the death of her third husband.

It seems that she had the support of the King this time, who helped her regain her property and maintain her earldom of Lincoln where she was ruling as sole Countess.

The next decade of her life transpired with little incident compared to the rest of her life until she died aged 66. With no heirs her lands were divided amongst her first-husbands nephew, a distant cousin of her mother’s line and her second-husbands nephew (yes, the one who imprisoned her ten years earlier).

Before I finish this blog, I should point out that she was not the first sole female to hold the title of Countess for either Salisbury or Lincoln. The first female to inherit the Earldom of Salisbury was Countess Ela back in 1196 and Alice’s own Mother had inherited the title herself in 1256. When it comes to the earldom of Lincoln, Hawise of Chester (the co-heiress of Earldom of Chester) had the title created for her in 1231 by her brother with the endorsement of King Henry III. The following year when her brother died, she inherited Bolingbroke and all of his estates. Hawise’s daughter would also inherit the title in her own right, making Alice the third female to inherit the Lincoln title.

Bolingbroke Castle no longer exists however the castles remains can be visited and are cared for by English Heritage. The castle was built in the 1220s by the Earl of Chester and Lincoln after he returned from the Crusades (so it was still pretty new during Alice’s time). The castle was destroyed in 1643 after it was besieged by the Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War. At the time it was being used as a Royalist garrison, so it came under heavy bombardment.

Pictured Above: the remnants of Bolingbroke Castle today (left) and the layout of the castle (right) [Source: English Heritage].


Further Reading (a selection):

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