Yalding Project : Introduction

The birth of this project dates back to 1990. It was while I was researching Medieval Realms, that I first came across the name of Elizabeth de Clare. In her fascinating book, Medieval Women, Margaret Labage points out that during a five-month period, Elizabeth de Clare gave financial assistance to 5,000 different people. Most of the people helped by Elizabeth came from the manors under her control. A considerable amount of this money was used to educate poor people, with over 800 people receiving a daily allowance. Elizabeth was also willing to provide a university education for those who showed the necessary talent and in 1336 she founded Clare College, Cambridge. This information intrigued me as I was aware that many lords of the manor were usually totally opposed to peasants being educated. Even before King Richard II's Parliament passed a law in 1391 making it illegal for serfs to go to school, lords of the manor had for centuries used village by-laws to stop peasants from learning how to read and write.

This brief passage in Labage's book raised two important questions. How did Elizabeth de Clare obtain so much wealth and why did she give so much of it away? The first question was easier to answer than the second. Elizabeth de Clare was the sister of Gilbert, the 10th Earl of Clare. Richard Fitz Gilbert, the 1st Earl of Clare, had arrived in England with William the Conqueror in 1066. As a reward for his contribution to the Norman victory, Richard was granted 179 manors in England. By the time Elizabeth's brother inherited the estates, this territory had grown to over 500 manors.

Gilbert, the 10th Earl of Clare, was killed at the age of 23 at the Battle of Bannockburn. Gilbert did not have any children and so his death brought an end to the male line of the Clare family. The estates were now divided between Gilbert's three sisters, Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth. This wealth made the three women very desirable and both Eleanor and Elizabeth were kidnapped and raped by knights who wished to grain control of their estates. In both cases the knights were loyal supporters of Edward II and instead of being prosecuted they were allowed to marry the women.

Elizabeth was only 27 when her third husband, Roger Damory, was executed for treason. Edward II now came to the conclusion that it would be safer to allow Elizabeth to remain a widow. It is not known why Elizabeth was willing to give so much of her wealth away. What is clear is that Elizabeth was the first member of the Clare family to show any real sympathy for the serfs. The Clare family provides a good example of how the feudal system worked. The Clare family history between 1066 and 1390 also illustrated other issues that were important features of the Medieval Realms course. I therefore decided to try to provide information on the history of the Clare family in a form that could be used in the classroom.

While researching the Clare family I became interested in finding out what life was like for the peasants living under their control. Eventually I discovered that there was a considerable amount of information available on the village of Yalding in Kent. The records are not complete and where there were gaps I have either used information from other manors owned by the Clare family or from villages close to Yalding. Most of the neighbouring villages were owned by the Canterbury Priory, an institution that took great pride in its record keeping.

The materials were first used with Year 7 pupils at Sackville Comprehensive School, East Grinstead in 1994. I would like to thank John Bird, Head of History at Sackville School, and the rest of the department, Katharine Arratoon, Jane Dunnell and Chris Truman, for their willingness to try out the materials and the numerous suggestions they made on how they could be improved. Comments made by Sackville pupils also contributed a great deal to the final version of the project.

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I would also like to thank Sarah Parry, Paul Blake, Sue Korman, Philip Tapsfield, Steve Pick, Paul Roberts, Christine Oakley, Joe Donnelly, Giles Falconer, Winifred Wright, David Porridge, Sally Dennison, Helen Gregson, Shelia Miller, Giles Dicks, Michael Boyden, Lisa Copping and the pupils of Chailey, Beacon, Dover Grammar, Epsom & Ewell, Westlands, Oldborough Manor, Hampden Park, Southlands, Abbeylands, Rosebery, Rodborough and Worlingham who piloted the materials in 1995-96.

Other people who made this project possible include Steve Johnson, the former Head of Humanities at Sackville School, Michael Leppard, Tony Kremer, David Simkin, Kim Leslie at West Sussex Record Office, Dr. P. Draper and the staff at the Centre for Kentish Studies at Maidstone.

The book version of the Yalding Project was first published in 1997. The free online version appeared in October, 2003.