God’s House: Part I

William and Alice de la Pole’s Foundation at Ewelme[i] – Family Background and Ewelme Manor

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Ewelme and its St Mary’s Church with the adjacent almshouse and school.  This was an experience which has resonated with me since that day.  It was an opportunity to come close to “normal” medieval people, not just the high-status people.

Ewelme is a village approx. 25 km south east of Oxford.  Its name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “æwelme”, meaning a fresh spring, which refers to the stream which still runs through the village.

580 years ago, on 3 July 1437, William and Alice de la Pole, the Earl and Countess of Suffolk. received a royal licence to found an almshouse supporting a community of two priests and thirteen poor men, which was to be called God’s House.  The priests and poor men were to pray for the King, and the Earl and Countess during their lives and later for their souls, as well as the parents and friends and benefactors of the Earl and Countess.

There was nothing unusual about founding an almshouse such as this, many wealthy people in the 15th century did so.  Almshouses, as well as chantries and other religious foundations, served a variety of functions.  The prayer of the inhabitants was thought to support the founder while still alive and then speed up the progress of his or her soul through purgatory.

However, almshouses were also symbols of power and status, the grander the building the more important the founder.  The tombs of ancestors were also a good opportunity to show off one’s descent and importance.  As Goodall says in God’s House at Ewelme: Life, devotion and architecture in a fifteenth-century almshouse, “these foundations were … an institutional celebration of dynastic power that pointedly proclaimed status, wealth and Christian nobility”.[ii]

Ewelme is one of three religious foundations of the de la Pole family.  Earlier generations had founded Hull Charterhouse and Wingfield College, all three served as family mausolea.[iii]

The connection to Ewelme came through Alice de la Pole and her mother.  She was the only daughter and child of Thomas Chaucer, and thus granddaughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.  Geoffrey was married to Philippa Roet, the sister of Katherine, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt.[iv]

Geoffrey Chaucer

Alice’s mother was Maud Burghersh[v], daughter and coheir of Sir John Burghersh of Ewelme.  Maud died in 1437 and her daughter Alice inherited the property in Ewelme.

At the time, Alice was married to her third husband,[vi] who was 8 years her senior.  Both her previous husbands had died in the war with France, and left her not only a rich woman, but also one with valuable contacts.  William and Alice received a licence to marry on 11 November 1430, when Alice was approx. 26 years old.  They were probably married early the following year.  Lengthy legal arrangements to safeguard Alice’s position took another two to three years to complete.  No, doubt, they also covered her future inheritance of Ewelme.[vii]

The de la Pole family were originally wealthy wool merchants in Kingston-upon-Hull.  William was politically ambitious and Alice, apart from her wealth, must have been an attractive choice for him, because of her family ties to the uncles of the young king Henry VI.  It seems likely that it was Alice’s father Thomas, who secured William his place on the king’s council soon after their wedding. William was created first Duke of Suffolk on 2 June 1448.  Their only child, a son John, was born in 1442.

Alice Chaucer must have been a remarkable woman, who exercised a lot of influence, and showed herself an astute judge of the political landscape.  For instance, after the demise of her husband in 1450 and the upswing of the Yorkist faction, she swiftly moved away from her own Lancastrian family ties and her husband’s Lancastrian loyalties.  She arranged the dissolution of the marriage of her son to Margaret Beaufort (then eight and seven years-old respectively).  Instead she negotiated a marriage to Elizabeth, sixth child and third daughter of Richard, duke of York.  Alice Chaucer appears in some of Margaret Frazer’s Sister Frevisse novels and this character seems to come very close to the actual person, to judge from the information available.

William is known for his patronage of architecture.  He was involved in the construction of Henry VI’s foundation of a college at Eton in 1440 as well as King’s College chapel in Cambridge.  After her mother’s death in 1437, Alice inherited it and Ewelme became their principal residence.  There, they created a coordinated architectural landscape consisting of

  • rebuilding the manor house
  • rebuilding the church
  • building an almshouse
  • building a school

However, it seems likely that, with the exception of the manor, the foundation was Alice’s project much more than her husband’s.   Ewelme Manor had been the seat of Alice’s parents and her inheritance.  Her parents were buried there. She continued to live there after William’s death and was eventually buried there, while her husband’s remains were buried at one of the foundations of the de la Pole family.

Ewelme Manor

Before dealing with God’s House itself, just a few words about Ewelme Manor.  Obviously, there had been a manor house before the de la Poles, as ancestors of Alice’s mother had lived there for a quite some time.  However, for an ambitious statesman like William, it was better located than his traditional properties in Suffolk and it became their main residence.  Both Cardinal Beaufort and the Duke of Bedford held lands in the area.  Once William had been made Marquess in 1444, they started to rebuild the place to reflect his elevated rank.  It was then referred to as Ewelme Palace.

The building material was brick.  Today bricks are ubiquitous, but in England they only caught on in the mid-15th century.  By that time, brick architecture was widespread in northern parts of the Continent .  Bricks were used at Eton and Queens’ College in Cambridge.   Given that William de la Pole was involved with the construction of Eton and was also supervisor of the royal brickworks at Slough, it comes as no surprise that this fashionable material was also used at Ewelme.  It seems likely that they established local brickworks for easy supply.

A geophysical survey in 2011 established that there had been “a moated courtyard house, a three-range ‘base court’ beyond (including a gatehouse and accommodation block for servants and guests), and a detached stable and barn”.[viii]  The accommodation range survived the longest, until the 18th century.  It is depicted in an engraving by the Buck brothers of 1729.  By now, it has changed completely and hardly anything of the de la Poles “Palace” is left.


[i] The main sources for this series of posts are Goodall, J.A.A., God’s House at Ewelme: Life, devotion and architecture in a fifteenth-century almshouse. Ashgate Publishing, 2001; Guide to St Mary’s Church Ewelme and to the Almshouse and the School.  St Mary’s Church Ewelme, n.d.

[ii] Goodhall, p.3

[iii] Heale, M., ‘Colleges and Monasteries in Late Medieval England’, in:  The Late Medieval English College and Its Context, ed by Clive Burgess & Martin Heale.  York Medieval Press, 2008, p.79

[iv] For biographical information see the entries in the ODNB:  Archer, R.E., ‘Chaucer, [married names Phelip, Montagu, de la Pole], Alice, duchess of Suffolk (c.1404–1475)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn 19 May 2011 [last accessed online 25 May 2018]; Rawcliffe, C., ‘Chaucer, Thomas (c.1367–1434)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 23 Sept. 2004, online edn 3 Jan. 2008 [last accessed online 25 May 2018]; Watts, J., ‘Pole, William de la, first duke of Suffolk (1396–1450)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 23 Sept. 2004; online edn 4 Oct. 2012 [last accessed online 25 May 2018]

[v] They may have married earlier, as quoted in Goodall, God’s House, p.7

[vi] Alice was only 11, when her first husband, Sir John Phelip, died.  After 1421, she married Thomas Montagu, earl of Salisbury (1388–1428).

[vii] Curran, S., The English Friend. Lasse Press, 2011 (Kindle edition), Ch.37+38

[viii] Mileson, S., ‘The South Oxfordshire Project:  Ewelme Manor (SU 6440 9148)’, South Midlands Archaeology, No.41 (2011), p.61

This is the first part of a four-part series on God’s House in Ewelme:

Part II: Statutes and Community

Part III: St Mary’s Church

Part IV: Domestic Buildings & School

6 thoughts on “God’s House: Part I

  1. Pingback: God’s House: Part II | Dottie Tales

  2. Pingback: God’s House: Part III | Dottie Tales

  3. Pingback: God’s House: Part IV | Dottie Tales

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