Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke

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Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (c. 1275 – June 23, 1324) was a French-English nobleman, with strong connections both to the English and French royal houses. One of the wealthiest and most powerful men of his age, he was a central player in the conflicts between Edward II and his nobility, particularly earl Thomas of Lancaster. He suffered a great insult when Piers Gaveston, a prisoner in his custody, was removed and beheaded on the instigation of Lancaster. This led Pembroke into close and lifelong cooperation with the king. Later in life, however, political circumstances combined with financial difficulties would cause him problems, driving him away from the centre of power.

Pembroke left no legitimate issue, but is today remembered through his wife's foundation of Pembroke College in Cambridge, and for his splendid tomb that can still be seen in Westminster Abbey.

Family and early years

Arms of de Valence Earls of Pembroke
Arms of de Valence Earls of Pembroke

Aymer was the son of William de Valence, son of Hugh X, Count of La Marche and Isabella of Angoulême. William was Henry III’s half-brother through his mother’s prior marriage to King John, and as such gained a central position in the kingdom of England. He had come to the earldom of Pembroke through his marriage to Joan de Munchensy, granddaughter of William Marshal. Aymer was the third son of his family, so little is known of his birth and early years. He is believed to have been born some time between 1270 and 1275. As his father was on crusade with the Lord Edward until January 1273, a date towards the end of this period is more likely. With the death in battle in Wales of his remaining brother William in 1282 (John, the elder brother, was dead in 1277), Aymer found himself heir to the earldom of Pembroke. William de Valence died in 1296, and Aymer inherited his father’s French lands, but had to wait until his mother died in 1307 to succeed to the earldom. Through inheritance and marriages his lands consisted of – apart from the county palatine in Pembrokeshire – property spread out across England primarily in a strip from Gloucestershire to East Anglia, in south-east Ireland ( Wexford), and French lands in the Poitou- and Calais areas.

In 1297 he accompanied Edward I on a campaign to Flanders, and seems to have been knighted by this time. With his French connections he was in the following years a valuable diplomat in France for the English king. He also served as military commander in Scotland, and won an important victory over Robert Bruce in 1306 at the Battle of Methven, only to be routed himself by Bruce at Loudon Hill the next year.

The Ordinances and Piers Gaveston

Edward I died in 1307 and was succeeded by his son Edward II. The new king at first enjoyed the good will of his nobility, Valence among them. Conflict soon ensued, however, connected especially with the enormous unpopularity of Edward’s favourite Piers Gaveston. Gaveston’s arrogance towards the peers, and his control over Edward, united the baronage in opposition to the king. In 1311 the initiative known as the Ordinances was introduced, severely limiting royal powers in financial matters and in the appointment of officers. Equally important, Gaveson was expelled from the realm (as Edward I had already done once before). Pembroke, who was not among the most radical of the Ordainers, and had earlier been sympathetic with the king, had now realised the necessity of exiling Gaveston.

When Gaveston without permission returned from exile later the same year, a baronial council entrusted Pembroke and John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, with the task of taking him into custody. This they did on May 19, 1312, but not long after Thomas of Lancaster, acting with the earls of Warwick, Hereford and Arundel, seized Gaveston and executed him on June 19. This criminal act had the effect of garnering support for the king, and marginalising the rebellious earls. As far as Pembroke is concerned, the seizing and execution of a prisoner in his custody was a breach of the most fundamental chivalric codes, and a serious affront to his honour. The event must therefore be seen as pivotal in turning his sympathies away from the rebels and towards the king.

Later years

Pembroke Castle, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Pembroke Castle, Pembrokeshire, Wales.

In the following years Pembroke worked closely with the king. He was appointed the king’s lieutenant in Scotland in 1314, and was present at the disastrous English defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn, where he helped lead Edward away from the field of battle. In 1317, however, while returning from a papal embassy to Rome, he was taken capture by a Jean de Lamouilly, and held for ransom in Germany. The ransom of £ 10,400 was to cause Pembroke significant financial difficulties for the remainder of his life.

Although ostracized by the murder of Gaveston, Thomas of Lancaster had regained virtual control of royal government in the period after Bannockburn. Proving himself as incapable to rule as Edward, however, he soon grew unpopular. Pembroke was one of the magnates who in the years 1316-18 tried to prevent civil war from breaking out between the supporters of Edward and those of Lancaster, and he helped negotiate the Treaty of Leake in 1318, restoring Edward to power. Peace did not last long, however, as the king by now had taken on Hugh Despenser the younger as another favourite, in much the same position as Gaveston. Pembroke’s attempts at reconciliation eventually failed, and civil war broke out in 1321. In 1322 Lancaster was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge, and executed. Pembroke was among the earls behind the conviction.

After Boroughbridge Pembroke found himself in a difficult situation. The opponents of Hugh Despenser and his father had lost all faith in him, but at the same time he found himself marginalised at court where the Despensers' power grew more and more complete. On top of this came his financial problems. On June 24, 1324, while on an embassy to France, he suddenly collapsed and died while lodging somewhere in Picardy.


T.F. Tout, in 1914 one of the first historians to make a thorough academic study of the period, considered Pembroke the one favourable exception in an age of small-minded and incompetent leaders. Tout wrote of a 'middle party', led by Pembroke, representing a moderate position between the extremes of Edward and Lancaster. This 'middle party' supposedly took control of royal government through the Treaty of Leake in 1318. In his authoritative study of 1972, J.R.S. Philips refutes this view. In spite of misgivings with the king’s favourites, Pembroke was consistently loyal to Edward. What was accomplished in 1318 was not the takeover by a 'middle party', but simply a restoration of royal power.

Aymer married twice; his first marriage, before 1295, was to Beatrice, daughter of Raoul de Clermont, lord of Nesle in Picardy and constable of France. Beatrice died in 1320, and in 1321 he married Marie de St Pol, daughter of Gui de Châtillon, count of St Pol and butler of France. He never had any legitimate children, but he had an illegitimate son, Henry de Valence, whose mother is unknown. Pembroke’s most lasting legacy is probably through his second wife, who in 1347 founded Pembroke College in Cambridge. The family arms are still represented on the dexter side of the college arms. Aymer de Valence was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his tomb can still be seen as a splendid example of contemporary architecture.

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