Two Tales of the Earls of Suffolk: Heirs Male and Heirs General

By the date of the first surviving inquisition post mortem in 1236 all lands that were  held by knight service were governed by the inheritance  customs known as primogeniture, which preferred the direct heirs (children, grandchildren) over collaterals (brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins). Within each generation males were ranked in order of birth against females, who shared equally. When there was no direct male heir,  a daughter or daughters, sister or sisters might succeed. Sisters of the same degree were coheiresses who divided the estate. Thus the three whole sisters of Gilbert Earl of Gloucester and Hertford (k. 1314) partitioned the huge Clare estate.[1] Later in the middle ages much of this land was resettled by entails or into trusts (enfeoffments to use). In consequence many landowners came to hold land that was subject to different titles. All these passed together to sons (heirs male) – the eldest surviving son always inherited the whole – but should sons be lacking this might not be the case. Sometimes there were both heirs male and heirs general (females or via females) who were different and the estate was split between them. When Thomas Earl of  Arundel died in 1415 and Thomas Lord Berkeley died in 1417, their male heirs – cousins – and daughters each inherited different portions of their estates.[2] Often enough such fissures were deliberate: thus Thomas Earl of Warwick (d. 1369) re-settled his estates in favour of his younger sons to cut out the daughters of his deceased eldest son Guy.[3]  Not infrequently, however, lords were unable to entail all their lands. Often enough they inherited from other ancestors, received royal grants, or even purchased properties, each of which were held by different titles and could potentially have different heirs. A key contributor here was the crown, which from 1337 settled new peerage titles (earls and above) and their endowments in tail male.

The earldom of Suffolk interestingly illustrates these issues not once but twice.



First of all,  Robert 2ndLord Ufford (d. 1369) was already a baron and had modest landed possessions before he was created earl of Suffolk in 1337.[4] He was endowed in tail male at the minimum level of 1,000 marks a year (£666 13s.4d). [5]The earldom failed in 1382 with the death of William Ufford, Robert’s fourth but eldest surviving son, who had succeeded asthe 2nd earl and died without male issue. Earl William actually married twice: firstly to the great heiress Joan Montagu, sole daughter of Alice, one of the two daughters and coheiresses of Edward I’s son Thomas of Brotherton, earl of Norfolk (d. 1338). They did bear a son, another Robert Ufford, who  predeceased the earl in 1375.[6] Earl William was able therefore to retain Joan’s lands by courtesy until his death. Secondly he married the young dowager Isabel Lady Strange of Blackmere (d. 1416). They had no children, but she outlived him by 34 years. When Earl William died therefore, his lands devolved in four ways. The earldom itself and its endowment reverted to the crown. Countess  Joan’s property reverted to her aunt Margaret Marshall, Alice’s sister and eventually duchess of Norfolk. As Earl William’s three sisters predeceasedf him, the Ufford estates were partitioned between Henry Lord Ferrers of Groby (d. 1388), Roger Lord Scales (d. 1386), and Robert Lord Willoughby (d. 1396). The IPMs merely state these were his heirs, without explanation how. [7] Actually these were the eldest sons of Earl William’s three sisters Cecily, Catherine and Margaret, all of whom had predeceased him.[8] A fourth sister Maud was not mentioned in the IPMs because as a nun of Campsey Ash she had renounced property and could not inherit. Earl William’s dowager-countess Isabel was assigned dower from the lands in fee simple and in tail and held them beyond the lives of all the original heirs.

In 1385 King Richard II  bestowed the earldom and the endowment on Michael de la Pole I. (d.1389) and the heirs male of his body (an entail in tail male).  Michael was the eldest son and heir of the wealthy Hull merchant, financier and creditor of the government William de la Pole (d. 1366).[9]  Michael was a significant landholder by inheritance: three manors and numerous parcels of land, all in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, 40 messuages in Hull, and a 400 mark (£266 13s.4d) annuity were listed in William’s IPMs. [10] Moreover Michael I pursued a career of distinguished service, as a soldier and statesman, serving finally as chancellor of England. He was impeached in 1386,[11] but his son Michael II was allowed to succeed. Richard II gave Michael II only £500 a year as endowment, not 1,000 marks (£666 13s.4d.), and none of it in hand. The endowments were to revert to him on the deaths of Queen Anne of Bohemia  and the Dowager Countess Isabel. In the interim he received only annuities to the same value. The de la Poles were possibly the poorest of earls before (beyond the compass of this paper) becoming in due course the poorest of dukes. Queen Anne died in 1393. Neither Michael I, nor his son Michael II, nor even his grandson Michael III secured Isabel Ufford’s dowerlands.


Michael de la Pole II joined in Henry V’s invasion of France in 1415 but was among those who perished at Harfleur on 18 September. [12] His eldest son Michael de la Pole III  also served and was killed at the battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415 aged about 21.[13]He had three daughters, but at this point the make entail took effect. Michael III had several brothers: it was the next oldest William de la Pole who succeeded as earl of Suffolk. Later William was to be elevated to marquis of Suffolk in  1444 and then duke  of Suffolk in 1448 before his failed impeachment and successful murder in 1450.[14]It was he also who benefited at last from the reversion of the dower of Countess Isabel Ufford. [15] The inheritance and two dowers of his wife Alice Chaucer were important to him. Not only was his own Suffolk heritage limited anyway, his estate was limited by the dowers of both his mother Katherine Stafford (d. 1419)  and his brother’s widow Elizabeth Fitzalan (d. 1423) and moreover by his nieces.

Earl William was heir male of his brother Michael III. Although without male issue, Michael III was not without legitimate children. He had fathered three daughters: Katherine (born 6 May 1410, aged 5 at his death), Elizabeth  (born 22 July 1411, 4), and Isabel (born 4 June 1415, 0).[16]Aged about 21 at death, had he survived Earl Michael III might well have fathered a son, but his marriage was foreshortened. His three daughters, the only offspring of an earl, could never have inherited as the earldom or its endowment were entailed in the male line. However they were coheiresses of any other estates – e.g. the original de la Pole  estate[17] – to which Earl William was next heir after them.Their most important possession was the manor of Costesey in Norfolk extended at 40 marks. [18]They were also royal wards: not therefore in the guardianship of the girls’ mother Countess Katherine. Henry V granted their wardship to Earl William.[19] It was a convention, indeed almost the rule, that wards were not placed in the custody of the next heirs who had a material  interest in their demise. Certainly Earl William hadsuch  an interest and he did indeed eventually succeed to all their properties. Of course there is no evidence extant that by cruelty, neglect, or lack of care William contributed to the girls’ deaths in childhood.

The inquisition post mortem on Michael de la Pole III in 1415 recorded the three daughters as stated above.[20]They outlived their father, Countess Isabel, and their mother Countess Katherine. Then there were two – the middle sister Elizabeth died on 26 December 1421 whilst still a minor. A writ of devenerunt solicited her IPM, which found her two remaining sisters Katherine aged 12 and Isabel aged 6 to be her heirs.[21] Isabel died on 12 January 1422; another writ of devenerunt prompted yet another IPM that found the eldest sister  Katherine as sole heiress – actually quite a valuable heiress.[22] She would come of age in 1426, when she and her inheritance would pass beyond Earl William’s control.

But Katherine did not enter her estate and marry. Instead in 1419 she became a nun in the house of Minoresses at Bruisyardin Suffolk on 9 May 1423, three days after her fifteenth birthday. A writ quia habitum religionis assumpsit generated an inquisition, which found that she had indeed taken the veil and had thereby renounced her property – to the benefit of her uncle Earl William, still aged only 26.[23]That this was her intention is stated in a later family pedigree, but the inheritance renounced cannot be the earldom, to which she was not entitled, but merely the original de la  Pole estate.[24]Moreover her mother Countess Katherine also took the veil, to Earl William’s very obvious benefit. She might have lived for another thirty years. Earl William did not know that she was to die so soon, in 1423. In due course the daughter Katherine became abbess of Bruisyard. Medieval ladies did sometimes take up monastic vocations – nunneries were not the cheap dumping ground that is sometimes supposed – but not usually heiresses. Katherine de la Pole is the only heiress in the IPM calendars for 1422-47 who entered a nunnery. Did she volunteer or was she pushed? It is an intriguing story.

William gradually accrued all the de la Pole and Chaucer lands. His widow Alice outlived him by 25 years. Their son John had to wait until 1475 to inherit.

These two tales of the earls of Suffolk illustrate strikingly how entails could divide estates and how male collaterals could shut out females in the direct line, even daughters of the last tenant in chief.





[1]Complete Peerage, v.713-14.

[2] Ibid. i. 246;  ii.131-2.

[3] K.B. McFarlane, The Nobility of the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 1973),

[4]Complete Peerage, xii(1).149.

[5] M. Hicks, ‘The Neville earldom of Salisbury 1428-71’, in his Richard III and his Rivals: Magnates and their Motives during the Wars of the Roses (London,1991), ch.20;idem, ‘Entail in Tail Male: The Earldom of Salisbury 1337-1428’,

[6] He had married Eleanor FitzAlan, but there was no issue and she died about the same time.

[7]CIPM xv.599-626.

[8]Complete Peerage v.349; xi.502-3; xii (1).660-1.

[9]E.B. Fryde, ‘Sir William de la Pole, financier and merchant (d. 1366)’, Oxford DNB accessed 22/03/16; E.B.Fryde, William de la Pole, Merchant and King’s Banker (+ 1366) (London, 1988).


[11]J.S. Roskell, TheImpeachment of Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk in 1386 in the context of the reign of Richard II (Manchester, 1984).

[12]Complete Peeragexii(1).441-2; CIPM xx. 441-8.

[13]Complete Peeragexii(1). 442-3; CIPM xx.452-5.

[14]Complete Peerage. xii (1). 444

[15]CIPM xx.593.

[16]Complete Peerage, xii (1).442n.


[18]CIPM xxii.47.

[19]CPR 1416-22, 48, 256.

[20]CIPM xxi.452, 593.

[21]CIPM xxii.42.

[22]CIPM xxii.48.

[23]CIPM xxii.54-60.Ellen Abbess of Bruisyard certified that Katherine was indeed professed at Bruisyard.

[24]Complete Peeragexii(1).442-3.