Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the category “Life and death”

A lady with claws

The other day, I was at the dentist. I detest going to the dentist, no matter how much I like the actual dentist. My dentist is a charming man who entertains me with anecdotes from Paris while he drills. Doesn’t help much, but at least he tries. Anyway: the single upside with going to the dentist is that the waiting room has a very varied selection of magazines. So while I was waiting I came upon an article about the Lioness from Brittany. The article made me smile and remember a very enthusiastic history teacher when I was in fifth grade. Mrs Miller was a big fan of spicing up her lessons with plenty of human interest, and the story of the Lioness from Brittany (or La Tigresse Bretonne, as Mrs Miller always called her, seeing as Mrs Miller was French which led to a somewhat alternative take on The Hundred Years’ War in general and Henry V in particular) comes with a huge dollop of drama. You haven’t heard of this feline lady? Not to worry, as I feel she deserves some airtime here on my blog—after all, I have a thing about strong women who flaunt convention and carve their own path through life.

Today’s protagonist was born around 1300 in France, more specifically in the Vendeé to the wealthy nobleman Maurice Montaigu de Belleville and his wife, Letice. The baby was christened Jeanne and at the tender age of twelve she was married to Geoffrey de Chateaubriant who was all of nineteen. Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, a son, to be followed by a daughter some years later. If she gave birth to more children, these must have died young as there is no record of them. So far, her life had been nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the death of her husband in 1326 an unusual event. People died all the time back then. Come to think of it, they still do. Anyway: Jeanne was not destined to remain a widow for long. Already in 1328 she remarried, but a year later that marriage was declared null and void by the pope, maybe because by then Jeanne had met the love of her life, Olivier de Clisson.

Now, there is some evidence indicating Jeanne and Olivier went years back. In fact, some say Jeanne gave birth to a daughter fathered by Olivier already in 1325, when she was still married to hubby nr 1. Rather unlikely, IMO—a child born to a married woman was automatically assumed to be her husband’s child. For a baby to be recorded as being fathered by another man, the mother would have had to come forward and admit to adultery. Seems like a stupid thing to do for a medieval lady.

Clisson by Cyril5555 800px-Vue_château_et_pont_Clisson

Clisson – photo by Cyril555, licensed under Creative Commons

Anyway: in 1330, Jeanne wed Olivier de Clisson, a well-off Breton who swept her off to live happily ever after with him at his castle in Clisson. Soon enough, Jeanne gave birth to a son. And another. And another. First son died young, but as some sort of compensation Jeanne and Olivier also had a daughter. All in all, the Clissons were happy with each other. Thing is, the times were complicated politically – and that is putting it mildly.

In 1337, King Edward III of England officially claimed the French crown, this based on the fact that he was the grandson of Philippe IV. Obviously, this did not go down well with the crowned French king, Philippe VI, who was the nephew of Philippe IV, son to the rather impressive Charles of Valois. Now, at the time there were some regions which we would call French that were pretty much independent. One such region was Brittany, which was of strategic importance in a war between England and France as it offered a lot of coastline for English ships to safely land English knights, men-at-arms and archers.

The situation in Brittany was somewhat messy: The previous duke of Brittany, Arthur, had married twice. In his first marriage, he had three sons, one of whom was named John and was recognised as his heir. In his second marriage he had yet another son, also called John but known to history as John de Montfort as he inherited the title of count of Montfort through his mother. One wonders why the same father would name two sons John, but maybe he had a special fondness for this particular name.

When Arthur died, his eldest John inherited as John III. This John detested his half-siblings and expended a lot of energy on trying to get them branded as bastards. Didn’t work. As John III had no children of his own, his younger brother was his obvious heir. This John III didn’t like, so instead he chose his niece, yet another Jeanne as his designated heir. This Jeanne was married to a certain Charles de Blois who was delighted at the notion of becoming Duke of Brittany.

clisson john_entering_nantes

John de Montfort entering Nantes

In 1341, John III died – after changing his mind and naming his half-brother as heir. Too late. Charles de Blois claimed the dukedom on behalf of his wife. John de Montfort was not about to give up his patrimony without a fight, and soon enough he had Edward III in his court, while Charles de Blois had the support of Philippe VI of France. The stage, as they say, was set for a very long and very bloody conflict…

The local nobility took sides. Olivier de Clisson seems to have supported Charles de Blois. His brother, Amaury de Clisson, supported John de Montfort. Olivier was ordered to help defend the city of Vannes against the English. In 1342, Vannes fell to the English and Olivier was captured. He was subsequently exchanged for Ralph Stafford (a gentleman whose rather high-handed marital exploits you can read much more about here) and a ransom. A suspiciously low ransom according to Philippe VI who suspected Olivier might be in cahoots with the English and John de Montfort.

Clisson Exécution_d'Olivier_IV_de_Clisson_(1343)

Olivier and his Breton buddies being executed

The French king had a devious side to him. In 1343, a treaty was signed by Philippe VI and Edward III, creating a bit of a breathing space in the ongoing war. To celebrate, Philippe organised a major tournament and Olivier, together with some other Breton lords, was invited to take part. Turns out there wouldn’t be much jousting for Olivier. Instead, he (and several other Breton lords) was arrested, dragged off to Paris where he was tried by his peers and sentenced to death. Early in August, he was beheaded, his body displayed in a gibbet and his head sent off to adorn a spike in Nantes.

In France, such a public display of a nobleman’s body was not the done thing. Besides, there was no evidence of Olivier’s guilt. Contemporaries were therefore not impressed by their king’s actions, with quite a few expressing concern an innocent and loyal man had been murdered on the king’s say-so.

Back in Bretagne, Jeanne received the news of her husband’s death. She took her two surviving sons with her to Nantes to show them their father’s head, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for her (and her boys, at the time seven and five) to see her husband’s head displayed as a trophy. Something snapped in Jeanne. There, in front of her beloved husband’s decapitated head the forty-three-year-old widow swore revenge: King Philippe would live to regret having murdered her husband.

Clisson 500px-De_Belleville_Montaigu-1

Supposedly, this is Jeanne.

First, Jeanne sold everything she had of value—likely the lands had been attainted, but what she could sell, she sold. Then she armed herself (legend says with a huge axe), hired several men-at-arms and began her own personal war on the French. Supposedly she attacked a couple of castles, slaughtered the garrisons (she left one or two alive as witnesses) and openly declared her support for John de Montfort—and Edward III.

After this initial killing spree, Jeanne bought three ships (probably with financial support from the English) that she painted black and fitted with crimson sails, and began to wreak havoc on the French. This was not a pirate out for spoils. Jeanne targeted French ships to kill, exacting a grisly and bloody revenge for the death of her husband. She participated herself in the killing—or so the legend says—using that big axe of hers to lop of the heads of whatever unfortunate Frenchmen she captured. French nobles could expect no mercy, no matter that they promised huge ransoms. The Lioness of Brittany was not interested in gold: she wanted blood.

clisson BattleofSluys

Battle of Sluys

The French had nothing with which to fight back—at least not initially. After all, the French had lost most of their fleet at the Battle of Sluys in 1340, and Philippe was beginning to feel the pinch of being constantly at war: he simply did not have the money or the men to outfit a new fleet.


Clisson Capture_Charles_de_Blois

Charles de Blois being captured

In Brittany, it seemed Charles of Blois had finally managed to gain the upper hand. By 1345, John de Montfort was dead and most of his supporters had no choice but to make their peace with Charles. However: Charles did not inspire much loyalty among the Bretons—especially not after slaughtering huge numbers of civilians when he took the town of Quimper. And when the English defeated the French at Crecy and went on to capture Charles of Blois in 1347, the de Montfort cause revived somewhat.

Not that Jeanne cared. She’d helped the English transport provisions over the Channel in preparation for Crecy, but otherwise she preferred to expend her time on her favourite pastime: murdering Frenchmen. However, her luck could not hold for ever, and somewhere around 1346-47 the French managed to sink her flagship. Jeanne and her two sons ended up drifting around for days. Her younger son died of exposure before they were rescued and she decided to send her surviving and eldest son, Olivier, to England to be raised in the household of the English king. After this, she went back to her pirating and would continue to be a scourge on the French until 1356 or so.

After thirteen years as a pirate captain, Jeanne had apparently had enough. Her husband’s death had been avenged many times over and her eldest son was safe in England where he was a close companion of John de Montfort Jr. At well over fifty, she was probably tired of living on a cramped ship. Or maybe it was more a case of wanting to spend time with her new hubby, an English gentleman called Walter Bentley. Whatever the case, she settled down in the Breton town of Hennebont with her husband, the castle in which she lived situated right by the sea.

In 1359, Jeanne died. She would therefore never know that her eldest son was destined to become the most famous Clisson male, ending his life as Constable of France and the richest man around. But that, as they say, is another story. Besides, I’m not entirely sure our Jeanne would have been pleased by her son’s change of sides. For her, Philippe VI had permanently killed any loyalty to France when he unjustly beheaded her husband.

So lived and died La Tigresse Bretonne, a lady who brought home just how dangerous a woman can be when sufficiently riled. And frankly, thinking about her did serve as an adequate distraction while my dear dentist went at it with his drill. After all, if she could survive her excessively exciting life, then I can live through a visit to the dentist. Maybe.

Treason on Twelfth Night

HenryBolingbrokeClaimsThrone (1)

Henry claiming the throne

On October 13, 1399, Henry of Lancaster was crowned king of England. There was just a teensy-weensy problem: the king he succeeded wasn’t dead. Instead, Richard II had been forced to abdicate.

Henry and Richard were cousins, their common grandfather being Edward III. Richard became king as a child and grew up to be a firm believer in royal prerogative. He surrounded himself with favourites whom he showered with offices and wealth and this led to a conflict with a group of his barons, the so called Lords Appellant which included dear cousin Henry and Richard’s uncle the Duke of Gloucester. The Lords Appellants did away with Richard’s favourites and curtailed his power significantly. Richard nursed a grudge against these lords for over a decade after which he struck back, ordering the murder of his uncle and exiling Henry as well as denying his cousin his huge inheritance. Did not go down well with Henry—or with Richard’s other barons who realised that if he could cheat his cousin of his lands, then he could cheat them as well. So when Henry returned to England in the summer of 1399, stating that he only came to claim what was rightfully his, he met little opposition. Rather the reverse, people being rather sick of Richard and his high-handed personal rule. A few weeks after landing at Ravenspurn, Henry had effectively taken control of England – and of Richard, who was now his prisoner.

Henry richard-ii-renounces-his-throne-1399-from-jean-creton-histoire-du-roy-dangleterre

Henry IV presenting the captive Richard (in red) to the Londoners (Jean Creton)

There was little love lost between Henry and Richard, but Henry went out of his way to treat his dethroned cousin with courtesy and does not seem to have known just what to do with him. Killing an anointed king was out of the question—Henry is one of those rather likeable medieval grandees who seems to have had a well-developed conscience, plus he was genuinely devout. While Henry felt obliged (and to some extent entitled) to usurp Richard’s crown to safeguard his own life and that of his sons, that was as far as it went. At first.

The problem with deposed kings is that they’re not exactly grateful for having been allowed to keep their head. They also remain a focal point for those determined to oppose the new king—not necessarily because they loved the previous king, but because causing unrest can be quite lucrative.

The first few months as king were happy months for Henry IV. He brimmed with self-confidence as he went about the business of securing his realm. He established good relationships with Parliament, retained most of Richard’s administrators and in general went out of his way to assure people he intended to be a good king, a king who took counsel and listened to Parliament.

It was therefore in a good mood that Henry IV retired to Windsor Castle with his sons to celebrate Christmas – his first Christmas ever as king. At the time, the unhappy Richard II was held at Pontefract Castle, albeit in some comfort. Henry must have felt he had everything under control – the realm, his people and the former king.

Henry msharley1319f25

John Holland and John Montacute (BL, MS Harley)

Ha! Henry was in for a surprise. Already in mid-December, a group of conspirators met. They included John Holland, half-brother to Richard II and Earl of Huntingdon , John’s son Thomas, Earl of Kent, John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury,  Thomas le Despenser, Baron Despencer, and Edward of Norwich, Earl of Rutland. These men had benefited from Richard’s largesse and considered Henry a usurper (which he was). There were other men present, such as Thomas Blount and Ralph Lumley and a certain Richard Maudeleyn who in looks was an eerie double of Richard II. The meeting was held at Westminster abbey, whose abbot was in on the conspiracy as was the ousted Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Carlisle.

henry tournamentThese men were determined to rid the world of Henry IV, and indirectly the new king had handed them a golden opportunity in that he was holding a tournament at Windsor on Twelfth Night. A perfect way of gaining access to the king with arms, and the plan was relatively simple: the various earls were to call on their retainers and pull together a sizeable force of armed men. This rebel army was to muster as discreetly as possible at Kingston while the conspiring lords, together with a smaller force, were to ride for Windsor on January 4th, gain access to the unsuspecting king, murder him, his sons and the new Archbishop of Canterbury (I’m guessing this was a condition imposed by the ousted Archbishop, who very much wanted to regain his see, no matter how bloodily). Once all these foul deeds were done, they’d order their army to ride forth to seize a number of important towns. As King Richard was nowhere close, it fell to Maudeleyn to dress as the king and stir the English people to rise on behalf of their former king.

Successful conspiracies depend on two things: not including too many people and that the involved peeps don’t spill the beans. In the case of this particular conspiracy, there were quite a few magnates involved. One of them, Edward of Norwich, was Henry IVs cousin and as the plans were set in motion it appears he got cold feet. While dining with his father, the Duke of York, Edward supposedly told him about the plot. His father was horrified and convinced Edward to tell Henry.

There is another version of how Henry found out, involving a tender-hearted prostitute who’d spent one night with a man loyal to one of the rebel lords. A talkative fellow, this man told her all about the plot and the next night, when she shared her bed with a man loyal to Henry, she was so affected by the thought that maybe her most recent bedfellow would die during the upcoming rebellion that she told him everything she knew. Hmm.

Edward was never punished for participating in the conspiracy—in itself an indication that he was the one who blew the whistle on the others.

Whatever the case, the moment Henry found out, he acted with impressive speed. In a matter of hours he’d swept up his sons and was riding madly for London, making a wide detour so as not to run into the conspirators and their armed retinues who at that same moment were riding to Windsor to set their plan in action. At some distance from the city, Henry met the mayor of London who was on his way to warn him that something was afoot—why else had 6 000 armed men assembled at Kingston?

Once his sons were safe in the Tower, Henry decided it was time to deal with the rebels. He closed all ports, issued writs ordering the arrest of the rebel lords and called up the Londoners to ride with him, offering good silver to all those that would ride with him. Come morning, Henry was ready to act.

First, he sent Edward to inform the rebels that the king was riding towards them with a huge army. (Yet another indication that Edward must have had one foot in each camp, the king using his hapless cousin as some sort of spy) As a consequence of this information, the various rebel lords rode hell for leather for their own lands, hoping to inspire their people to join in the rebellion.

Thing is, Richard wasn’t a popular king. He’d overtaxed his people, was considered rather shifty and with little genuine interest in his subjects. Henry, on the other hand, was popular. Here was a man who gladly spoke English, who wanted to rule with Parliament, who hoped to bring back the halcyon days of good king Edward III. (Not that those days were all that halcyon, at least not for the common man and woman, but nostalgia is not exactly a modern invention). To the shock of the rebels, the people rose against them.

Richard Maudeleyn was captured in London—and hanged. John Holland tried to flee the country in a small boat, was blown back to the English coast and ended up in the custody of Henry’s mother-in-law. This impressive lady had no qualms about transporting John to Pleshey Castle and handing him over to a mob which promptly beheaded him. Thomas Holland and John Montacute were captured in Cirencester. They too were beheaded. Thomas le Despenser tried to flee the country by boarding a ship in Cardiff but the crew refused to help a rebel and transported him to Bristol where he was summarily executed. Other leading rebels were rounded up and brought before Henry at Oxford Castle.

HDQ 13251b

gruesome death – such as Thomas Blount’s

The king chose to personally act the judge and most of the frightened and desperate men brought before him were pardoned, very much in line with Henry’s magnanimous character. Twenty odd were beheaded and half a dozen were condemned to die the full traitor’s death, one of these being that Thomas Blount who’d been present at the first meeting in December. And whatever one may think about this gent, he had his fair share of courage. As he was watching his entrails being burned before him, he was asked by one of his guards if he needed a drink. Thomas Blount politely declined the offer, saying that he did not know where to put it…

Henry IV The National Archives Illumination_of_Henry_IV_(cropped)The Epiphany Rising was a major failure, but it was to have dark consequences. Henry had been brutally reminded of just how insecure his hold on the crown was and felt compelled to act to safeguard himself and, more importantly, his sons. There are indications that already on January 6th he sent a trusted retainer north to Pontefract with the order to kill Richard should the rising garner support. As we’ve seen, there was no support, but killing Richard was no longer quite as anathema to Henry as it had been some months ago. In fact, he’d probably come to the conclusion that Richard’s death was a prerequisite for political stability.

On February 14, 1400, Richard died (at least officially) The standard story is that he starved to death, some saying it was self-starvation (because the rising failed and he despaired of ever seeing the world outside again) some saying he was denied food so as to ensure he died without any marks on his body. Sadly (as I like Henry IV much, much more than Richard), IMO things point to the latter. The Epiphany Rising made Henry a murderer and the burden of guilt was to haunt him for the rest of his life.  Uneasy indeed, did his crowned head lie…

Dead #otd: Roger Mortimer

There are a couple of death dates I know by heart: Being Swedish, I know the death date of Karl XII who died in Norway November 30, 1718 purportedly having been shot by one of his own with a button. Hmm. Since then the button part has been dismissed, but whether or not he was shot by a Swede who had had it with this very bellicose king we will never know. I also know the death date of Gustav II Adolf who sadly died on November 6, 1632. Note the month peeps, and then it may not be a surprise that another of those death dates I know by heart is that of Roger Mortimer, first Earl of March, who died on November 29, 1330. In other words, he died today – well, 687 years ago, but still.

Bishop beheading-650x387Opinions about Roger Mortimer are divided. I belong to those who see in him a man of great capacity and ambition who was ultimately corrupted by power. Alternatively, some of his more questionable actions were driven by fear: Mortimer was no fool, and the older Edward III became, the closer he knew the day of reckoning was coming, because Edward III was as capable, as ruthless, as ambitious, as Mortimer himself and would not tolerate being on a leash forever.

I have in a previous post told the story of how Edward, some weeks shy of eighteen, had Mortimer arrested, using the famous tunnels under Nottingham Castle to get to him. Mortimer was hogtied and transported back to London where he was walled up in a room in the Tower as Edward didn’t want a repeat of Mortimer’s famous escape from the Tower eight years before.

I assume they left a little hole through which to pass victuals, water and a chamber pot, because a month later Mortimer was condemned to death by the assembled parliament. He had no opportunity to speak in his defence, the king ordering him to be gagged and bound. In one way, Edward’s personal rule therefore began under the stain of illegality – an accused man had the right to answer charges brought against him.

As Mortimer was found guilty of treason (usurping the young king’s power could be considered treasonous I suppose, but at the same time it was Mortimer who’d secured the throne for Edward III) he could have been condemned to suffer that rather awful death of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Edward chose to go for the drawn and hanged version, and I suspect Mortimer shivered in relief. To die with dignity was difficult if you were first hanged until you were almost dead, cut down, castrated, disembowelled while still alive, and then mercifully killed by the separation of your heart from your body. Rephrase: not so merciful…

HDQ 300px-Drawing_of_William_de_Marisco

Alternative A

On this day in 1330, Mortimer was drawn through the streets of London to Tyburn where he was divested of his clothes and hanged until dead. Mind you, by the time he reached Tyburn, his fine black tunic would probably have been in shreds – being drawn behind horses caused a lot of wear and tear.

HDQ harclay-man-drawn

Alternative B

Now, one thing I’ve always wondered is if Mortimer had his hands or his legs tied to the horses. There are medieval depictions of men being drawn either way, and I suppose that if it was by your legs, chances were your head would be badly knocked about. By your arms, you’d have the dubious pleasure of seeing the surrounding crowds as they catcalled and pelted you with whatever objects they felt you deserved, be it rotten eggs, stones, mud or the odd veggie.

My soon-to-come book In The Cold Light of Dawn will of course have to address this issue. I can reveal that I have made a choice of arms vs legs purely based on what works best for the specific scene I have in mind. “My” Mortimer (who now and then takes up a lot of space in my head – I’d say we have a close relationship after all these years reading up on him. He doesn’t agree, as he is still sulking at my refusal to go alternate history on him and change the events in Nottingham) has expressed a preference and I’ve decided to go with his choice. After all, the end result is still the same: a forty-three-year-old man standing naked and shivering as he offers a short speech before the noose around his neck is drawn tight and he is heaved up to die. Takes some time to die when you’re hanged that way as your neck isn’t broken by the fall…

Anyway: once I’ve recovered from the pang of grief I always feel on this date I will do what I usually do on this day (and on November 6. Not so much November 30 as I don’t rate Karl XII as much of a king. Weird man who indulged in such hobbies as beating bears with cudgels…) I will light a candle and hope Roger Mortimer’s soul is at rest.

(NOTE! This is a rewritten version of the post I was asked to write for the FB Group The History Geeks)

Holding hands through eternity

In medieval times, a man with titles and lands very much wanted a male heir, someone to take over when Papa clocked out. This doesn’t mean that daughters were unloved or unwelcome. For families eager to cement future alliances, daughters were valuable assets, albeit too many daughters could become something of a financial strain: after all, if you wanted your girls to marry well, they had to come with dowry.

Marriage love Manesse1Roger Mortimer and his wife Joan de Geneville were married in 1301. Joan was one of those precious daughter—even more precious as a bride because she had no brothers and her elders chose to send Joan’s sisters to convents so as to make Joan one very impressive heiress. For the Mortimers, this marriage was a major coup, increasing their holdings in the Welsh Marches substantially. Fourteen and fifteen respectively at the time of their marriage, Roger and Joan seem to have hit it off. Not only did Joan accompany her husband much more than was usual at the time, but over the coming two decades they would have at least 12 children that we know of. Four of these children were sons. The rest were daughters, and soon enough Roger and Joan were scouring their world for adequate grooms for their girls.

One of their daughters was called Catherine. She was born around 1314 or so, and already in 1319 her father sought a papal dispensation for her as she and her intended groom, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, were related within the forbidden degree.

Thomas Beauchamp was a great catch as a groom. As a toddler, in 1315 he inherited his father’s title and vast estates. As was customary at the time, he was placed under wardship. Whoever was granted the wardship stood to make a minor fortune, as any incomes derived from the Warwick estates would go straight into the pouch of the one holding the wardship. Unsurprisingly, such a rich plum was coveted by many. Edward II granted it to Hugh Despenser Sr, one of his favourites. To be fair, Hugh Despenser could claim kinship with the fatherless little earl: his wife was Thomas’ aunt, his children by her were Thomas’ cousins.

Usually, the future marriage of the ward went with the wardship, i.e. in this case Hugh Despenser would have chosen Thomas’ bride. But in 1318, Roger Mortimer was granted the marriage. Turns out there was an arrangement between Thomas’ father, Guy de Beauchamp (who was not a man Edward II had any warmer feelings for, seeing as he was instrumental to the murder of Edward II’s first favourite, Piers Gaveston) and Roger Mortimer to have Thomas marry one of Mortimer’s daughters, mainly to resolve a feud between the families related to some land.

Roger became Thomas’ guardian and I guess the idea was to raise him with his future wife. Except that things didn’t quite turn out that way. In 1321, a frustrated Mortimer, together with the most powerful baron in England, Thomas of Lancaster, and Humphrey de Bohun, rebelled against Edward II. They had had it with Hugh Despenser Sr and Hugh Despenser Jr controlling the king and obliged the king to exile them.

By 1322, the king had turned the tables on his uppity barons. Lancaster and Bohun were dead, Mortimer languished in the Tower and all his worldly good now belonged to the king.

Thomas’ marriage was re-granted to the Earl of Arundel who had plans to marry the young earl to one of his daughters instead. (Poor Thomas, yanked around from one prospective bride to the other with no one giving a whit about what he might want) Catherine, as all of Mortimer’s young daughters, was sent to a convent—a genteel if dreary form of imprisonment.

As we all know (What? You don’t? Read up here!) Mortimer managed to escape the Tower, flee to France, join forces with Edward II’s disgruntled queen, Isabella, and return to England in 1326 to depose the king and take control of the kingdom. Once he was in charge, Mortimer granted himself the wardship (and marriage) of Thomas de Beauchamp and could resume his plans for marrying his Catherine to the earl. In 1329, Catherine and Thomas wed. As a gesture, Mortimer granted Thomas his lands that same year, allowing the fifteen-year-old earl to manage his own affairs from that day forward. (The mind boggles: fifteen and independently wealthy and an earl to boot)

Catherine Beauchamp_Elsing


Once married, Catherine and Thomas settled in Warwick Castle, the principal abode of the earls of Warwick. Soon enough Catherine’s father was dead, hanged at Tyburn on orders of the young king Edward III. Did she miss him? Hmm. For several years between 1322 and late 1326, she had not seen him and likely not heard from him either. But a powerful daddy is always a good thing to have and Roger took his duties as a parent seriously so I suppose that if nothing else she prayed for his soul–or cursed him in private, because being the daughter of a traitor didn’t have quite the same ring to it as being the daughter of a regent.

It took quite a few years before Catherine could welcome her first child to the world, but by 1339 she had two thriving sons and over the coming years she would give Tomas at least twelve children, some say fifteen. If we assume the number of children are an indication of how successful the marriage was, this would indicate Catherine and Thomas were happy bunnies indeed. We don’t know, of course, but I rather like imagining they cared for each other.

Mind you, such romantic notions as marrying for love were not around at the time: marriages were contracts uniting family A to family B thereby (hopefully) increasing the standing and wealth of both involved families. So Catherine would not have expected to go weak at the knees at the sight of her husband, fell her heart flutter madly in his presence. She would have expected her husband to treat her with respect and in general take care of her. Likewise, Thomas’ expectations on his wife would have been that she managed their household (major, major task, that) and gave him the heir he needed.

Battle-poitiers(1356)Just because Thomas was an earl he couldn’t slouch about and sniff the flowers while enjoying his wealth. No, Thomas was expected to serve the king in a military capacity, and Thomas was good at war. Very good, in fact. So good he was appointed the Earl Marshal for England and was one of the first knights to become a Knight of the Garter. His ferocity and courage in battle gave him the nickname “le devil Warwick” and supposedly just the mention of his name would have the enemies knocking their knees together in fright.

For Thomas to have such a successful martial career, he had to spend a lot of time away from home. Obviously, he made it home at reasonably regular intervals, departing for more adventures on the Continent while leaving his wife adequately content and yet again with child. While he was away, Catherine would have shouldered the overall management of his estates, albeit supported by Thomas’ stewards and clerks and whatnot.

While Thomas was away fighting, Catherine ensured their large brood of children were adequately raised. Her sons were educated in other households than hers, preparing for a life as warriors. Now, the thing about sons being raised to fight is that they quite often end up dead on some battlefield or other. In 1360, Catherine’s eldest son, Guy, died in France. In his case, the death was not due to having something sharp and hard sticking him in an armpit. No, Guy died of injuries he received in a freak hail storm.

Thomas and Catherine were devastated by the loss of their eldest. In 1361, they lost two more of their sons. Fortunately, they had two sons left plus their daughters.

Other than fighting wars and taking rich Frenchmen prisoners & holding them for ransom, Thomas spent a lot of time improving his ancestral home. Towers were added, walls were reinforced, and then he decided to turn his attention to the church of St Mary in Warwick proper. Ironically, he used the ransom for a French archbishop to finance the renovation of this collegiate church. The renovation of the church was still ongoing when Catherine died in August of 1369. Three months later, Thomas died too—not of a broken heart, but of the plague. At the time he was in France, yet again fighting the French.

20160830_120014Catherine and her Thomas share a tomb in St Mary’s Church. The alabaster effigies that decorate their resting place were added some years later when the chancel was completed. There they lie, side by side and holding hands for eternity. I rather like it that,  after all they had been each other’s companion through a (relatively) long life, so why should they not walk hand in hand through the gates of heaven?

The Silent Man who Founded a Nation

William the silent Philip_II_of_Spain_berating_William_the_Silent_Prince_of_Orange_by_Cornelis_Kruseman

Today’s protagonist, William, to the right. Philip II to the left

It is an obvious challenge for someone as vocal as myself to approach the historical gentleman known as William the Silent. Given the times he lived in, holding his tongue was probably a wise move – not that it ultimately helped. Still, let us not get to the end before we’ve even touched upon the beginning, which is why I hereby grab you, my dear reader, by the scruff of your neck and pull you straight back to 1533.

Now, by 1533, Europe was no longer the harmonious continent it used to be (kidding: Europe has seldom been harmonious). In fact, since 1517, Europe was being rent apart for religious reasons, some countries clinging to the Old Faith, a.k.a. the Holy Roman Church, others embracing Protestantism in one of its many forms. After all, Protestants was an umbrella term encompassing various new versions of the Christian faith, from Calvinists to Lutherans and onwards.

People who convert to (or adopt) a new faith are generally very intense about their beliefs. So, as a consequence of the Reformation sparked by Luther on the last day of October 1517, religious fervour swept the European nations. Those who chose to remain Catholic experienced a resurge of devoutness as they took a stand against the heretics, and thing in general became very tense.

William the silent father Willemderijke

William Sr

William, Count of Nassau, and his wife Juliana were among those very devout, very intense Lutherans. In 1533, Juliana gave birth to the first of their twelve children, a boy named William after his father.

Our young William grew up in a big family who took their Lutheran religion very seriously. But in 1544, little William’s cousin, Rene of Chalon, Prince of Orange died. He had named William as his heir with the condition that he be raised a Catholic. Now, one would have thought that for such devout people as William Sr and his wife, the thought of having one of their children raised a papist was anathema. Not so. Taking a leaf out of Henri IV’s book (except, of course, that Henri IV had yet to appear on the French stage) William Sr obviously concluded that a principality was worth a mass or two. And it was a LOT of land, both in France and present-day Germany as well as in the Netherlands. In one fell swoop, the Nassau family became truly important, adding a hyphen and Orange to their family name. Today, the Orange-Nassau line still sits on the Dutch throne, and William remains a preferred family name.

William the silent Mary_(1505–1558),_Queen_of_Hungary

Mary of Hapsburg, Queen of Hungary

What William himself thought of all this is unknown, but being an obedient lad he did as his father wished, bid his large family farewell, and went first to Breda, then to Brussels, to be properly educated in his new faith under the supervision of Mary of Hapsburg, one of those rather impressive female relatives of Emperor Charles V (in this case she was Charles’ sister) whom he liked to place in positions of great power. In fact, Charles V can be viewed as something of a trailblazer when it comes to gender equality, but that is probably the subject for another post.

Now as William was a minor, all his new vast lands were managed by Charles V who also ensured William was properly educated. Clearly, there was a strong bond between William and Charles—I guess William saw in the Emperor a second father.

william the silent Anna_von_Egmond

Anna, wife nr 1

By the time William turned eighteen, he had become an exemplary Catholic and a much-admired up-and-coming young man. Four years later, he was made commander of one of the Emperor’s armies, which, I presume, indicates William was quite good at the martial stuff. By then, William was a married man and father, having married his first wife, Anna van Egmond in 1551. It was a happy marriage, but unfortunately Anna died already in 1558. A difficult year for William, who not only lost his wife but his mentor, Charles V.

Philip II of Spain trusted William as implicitly as his father had done, and by the end of 1559, William was not only in control of his own various lands, but also the Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Obviously, Philip expected William to be adequately grateful and toe the imperial line when it came to policies and religion, but William was having second thoughts about his Catholicism—even more so when Philip unleashed the Inquisition in Spanish Netherlands.

Even worse, in 1559 William discovered a secret. While in France as a hostage, William was invited to ride out with Henri II on a hunt. Now Henri was all chatty, sharing with William the not-so-appetizing fact that he and Philip II had a secret alliance.
“Mmm,” William said. (This is supposedly the incident which gave him his nickname, hence the monosyllabic response)
“Well, you already know, don’t you?” Henri continued.
“Mmm,” came the enigmatic reply. Henri went on to describe that the purpose of his and Philip’s collaboration was to exterminate all Protestants. Violently. That did not sit well with William—after all, most of his family were Lutherans, as were many of the people living in his domains.

According to Apology, a text William published in 1581, this was when he realised he could no longer side with the Spanish king. Soon enough, he had become the leader of the Dutch rebels, thereby instigating a period of conflicts that would last for eighty years (which is probably why it is called..ta-daa…the Eighty Years’ War).

William Avsachsen

Anna, wife nr 2

One indication of his new loyalties was his choice of a second wife. Anna of Saxony was impeccably Lutheran (and very rich) She was also not the easiest of women, prone to tantrums, depressions and an over-consumption of alcohol. But the marriage gave William valuable connections in Germany—connections he needed to take on the might of the Spanish Empire.

By 1567, William was persona non grata in the Hapsburg domains – sort of comes with the territory if you lead a rebellion. Even worse, his eldest son, Philip, had been seized by the Spanish and sent to Spain as a hostage. William would never see him again. Furthermore, his Dutch estates were confiscated which meant he depended on his wife’s wealth to tide him over. She had just given birth to their third child, having recuperated after an attempted suicide after the death of their first son. She was worried about their financial status and this resulted in quarrels and discord.

William escaped from all this by throwing himself into the religious wars, spending months away from home. In retaliation, his wife contracted a lawyer, a certain Jan Reubens, to help her claim her jointure from what little remained of William’s estates.

800px-William_I,_Prince_of_Orange_by_Adriaen_Thomasz._Key_Rijksmuseum_Amsterdam_SK-A-3148 (1)

William himself. A rather handsome man, IMO

Anna and Jan hit it off, so when William came home for a visit he was surprised to find his wife pregnant. Major scandal, although I suspect that in secret William punched the air and said “Yes!” Finally he had the means with which to push through a divorce from his difficult wife. Said and done, and as Anna’s family were utterly disgusted by her adultery poor Anna spent her last years locked up in a room reinforced with bars at the window and the door. She died in 1577, and was, sadly, not much missed.

By then, William had married for the third time. He had also had some success against the Spanish, plus he’d eschewed his Catholic faith and instead declared himself a Calvinist which could be considered opportunistic but probably reflected his true religious preferences. This didn’t exactly endear him to the Spanish, and the somewhat extreme views of the Calvinists regarding Catholics in general led to a partition of the Spanish Netherlands, where the southern provinces (more or less present-day Belgium) remained Spanish, while the northern provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, thereby laying the grounds for present-day Netherlands. William was not happy with this partition. He felt all the provinces should be ruled as one entity, but he didn’t have the resources with which to oust the Spanish, and years and years of warfare had worn him down.

William the Silent 220px-Charlottebourbon

Charlotte wife nr 3

If he was less than satisfied with what was happening with the Spanish Netherlands, he was extremely happy with his new wife. Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier had been raised by a mother who leaned towards the Reformed religion but was forcibly made a nun at the age of thirteen. Instead of accepting her fate this spirited lady escaped from the convent, declared herself a Calvinist and fled to the Electorate of the Palatinate. She and William hit it off from day one, and over the course of six years she gave him as many daughters, the eldest of whom would go on to become the ancestress of the House of Hanover.

In 1580, Philip formally outlawed William. The Spanish king was sick to death of the stubborn Dutch and especially of William. What do you do when you just need someone to disappear? Well, you put out a contract on him, which is just what Philip II did, offering a minor fortune to whoever assassinated that foul outlaw, William the Silent.

In 1581, the Northern Provinces declared that they no longer recognised Philip II as their king. Instead, the fledgling state pronounced William their stadtholder. A very determined Spanish bounty hunter ambushed William in Antwerp. His injuries were life-threatening, and for some time, his life hung in the balance. The dedicated efforts of his wife and sister kept him alive, but unfortunately this dedication came at a cost, and an exhausted Charlotte died in May of 1582. William was devastated—but had no choice but to soldier on, for the sake of his subjects and family.

William 250px-Louisecoligny

Louise, wife nr 4

I think that when Charlotte died, life lost some of its vibrancy for William. But he still had a duty to fulfil, and albeit that he had a full nursery, he only had one son at home, his eldest being held in Spain. One son was not enough—anything could happen to an adolescent boy—so in 1583 William decided to marry again. This bride was also French, a Huguenot named Louise de Coligny who’d lost her first husband and her father in the St Bartholomew massacre. Nine months after the wedding, a son was born.

Unfortunately, William was not destined to enjoy life with his new wife and son for long. A certain Balthasar Gerard had made it his mission in life to rid the world of William. Gerard was a Catholic and a most loyal subject of Philip II. According to Gerard, William was a disgusting traitor, a man best erased from the surface of the earth. His plan was simple: earn William’s trust and then kill him. So in 1584 he presented himself at William’s court, pretending to be a French noble. He also offered to travel to France on William’s behalf and deliver messages to various of William’s allies.

Some months later, Gerard reappeared in Delft and requested a meeting with William. When William entered the room, Gerard produced two wheel-lock pistols and shot William at close range. William thereby became the first head of state in history to be assassinated with a handgun, a distinction I suspect he would have preferred not to have.

There is another version of how William was murdered, whereby Gerard simply loitered in the vicinity of the Prince’s residence, armed with two wheel-lock pistols he had bought off one of William’s soldiers. When William paused to talk to one of his Welsh soldiers, Gerard took the opportunity to shoot him and then fled, pursued by the Welshman. Both versions agree on William being shot.

Gerard fled but was apprehended before he made it out of Delft. So instead of living the good life in Costa de Sol at the Spanish king’s expense, Gerard suffered through horrific torture and one of the most extended and brutal executions in history. First, he had his right hand burned off with a red-hot iron. Then he had huge pincers ripping flesh off his body in six different places after which he was quartered while still alive, disembowelled, had his heart cut out and thrown in his face before he was beheaded. The beheading was probably unnecessary—I don’t think anyone survives being quartered.

William the silent Willem.zwijger.grablege.delft

17th c depiction of William’s grave

As to William, he was buried in Nieuwe Kerk, Delft. Since then, most of his descendants have joined him there, generation after generation of Orange-Nassau men and women, including all Dutch monarchs. His original grave was a modest affair, but in the early 17th century our William was already considered some sort of Founding Father, and accordingly it was decided he needed an impressive monument. Like really impressive.

Other than liberty and all his descendants, William has bequeathed the Dutch not only an obvious connection to the colour orange but also their flag and their national anthem, the Wilhelmus, which began its days as a little ditty sung back in William’s day. This makes the Dutch national anthem the oldest in the world (with the possible exception of the Japanese anthem). It is also an anthem I know how to sing, thanks to lovely Dutch friends. But that, dear peeps, is neither here nor there.

A gift fit for a queen

In a feudal society, the first-born son generally hit the jackpot. His was the future title, his were his father’s lands, and not very much was left for his younger brothers – unless, of course, the mother had her own lands and titles that could be settled on a younger son. Alternatively, the younger son entered holy orders. The church, you see, offered an interesting and lucrative career path to the ambitious younger son. Not that the younger son was always given a choice: your medieval ambitious daddy saw the benefits in having a son or two high up the ecclesiastic hierarchy.

Obviously, not all bishops in medieval England were younger sons of noblemen. Take, for example, today’s protagonist, Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter and loyal servant of Edward II. Not as much as a drop of noble blood, but our Walter was a younger brother. Big brother Richard was to inherit some minor landholdings from their father, and little Walter was therefore destined for the church.

The Stapledon family was not without means, seeing as both Richard and Walter were educated at Oxford. Richard would go on to become a lawyer and local judge, on top of his day-to-day management of his lands. Walter, on the other hand, made his way to Exeter, where he became a cathedral canon in 1301. By then, Walter was in his mid-thirties, a well-educated man who in 1305 became a doctor of canon and civil law, which qualified him for royal employment.

EHFA medieval-bishopIn 1307, the bishop of Exeter died, and Walter was chosen as his replacement. Not a unanimous vote, and there was a lot of quibbling back and forth before Walter’s backside was firmly welded to the bishop’s chair. But once there, Walter had arrived: as a bishop, not only did he have access to substantial means, but he was also a member of Parliament. And somewhere along the line, Bishop Walter found favour with the king, Edward II.

During his first decade as bishop, Walter not only organised his diocese and founded Stapledon Hall in Oxford (present day Exeter College). He also served Edward as an envoy to Gascony on several occasions. Things weren’t all that good in Gascony, the French encroaching regularly on English land. From a French perspective, the land was French. From an English perspective, Gascony was what remained of the magnificent Angevin empire that had been built by Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and which started crumbling the moment Henry II died – albeit that his son Richard held it together for some more years. Gascony therefore had immense emotional value for the English – and Edward II was not about to let this last toe-hold on the continent slip away.

Edward had problems closer to home. Due to his blatant favouritism of the Despensers, father and son, he had alienated most of his powerful barons, who felt he was in breach of his coronation oaths, whereby he was supposed to take counsel from a larger group of barons, not only the Despensers. When Edward II repeatedly turned a blind eye on the Despensers’ rapacious appropriation of land belonging to others, the barons were further enraged. When Hugh Despenser the younger took it upon himself to hang, draw and quarter a man without a trial, the barons had had enough. In 1321, the barons, led by Roger Mortimer and Thomas of Lancaster, rebelled, and Walter Stapledon was one of ten bishops who had their work more than cut out for them as they hastened back and forth between the king and the barons in an attempt to broker a peace.

Ultimately, the king was given no choice: The Despensers were exiled and Edward retreated to lick his wounds and plan vengeance. Stapledon retired to his diocese, resigning from the role of Treasurer he’d been given by Edward a year or so earlier (this appointment was one of the issues of contention with the barons; such appointments should be discussed with the baronial council). Maybe Walter felt an element of relief at this development, hoping to expend his considerable energy on his diocese. Alternatively, he was disappointed, seeing as he’d earned the reputation of increasing his own wealth due to his position, not above applying extortion when so required.

EHFA E IIIn the event, Edward II rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Clearly, the risk of never seeing Hugh Despenser again sufficed to have the king act swiftly and resolutely, and by 1322 the tables had been turned on the barons, with Mortimer languishing in the Tower and Lancaster very dead. The Despensers were recalled, Stapledon was reinstated, and things were, in Edward’s opinion, good. Well: except for Gascony, where things had taken a turn for the worse.

Stapledon had his work cut out for him as Treasurer. The hostilities in Gascony, the skirmishes with Scotland – it all cost money. And when Mortimer escaped the Tower in August of 1323, money had to be expended on increased security for the king and his favourites. Stapledon was an efficient administrator, but money was scarce – the king was not given to parsimony, neither was dear Hugh – and in 1324 the king seized Queen Isabella’s dower lands to supplement his income. Some say this was Stapledon’s idea, but whether it was or not, the bulk of Isabella’s holdings lay in his diocese, so Stapledon was put in charge of doing the actual seizing. This did not go down well with Isabella, who was reduced to an allowance and blamed Stapledon for her humiliation.

The political situation in England became increasingly volatile. Spurred on by Hugh Despenser, Edward turned England upside down in his search for potential allies to his rebellious barons – first and foremost Mortimer. Suspects were hauled before the assizes, in some cases deprived of their lands, in others imprisoned or executed. Tensions rode high, putting it mildly. In Gascony, the French under Charles de Valois routed the English. If Edward wanted to retain his Gascon lands, he had to act – which he did, by sending his queen to negotiate with her brother, the French king Charles IV. Isabella was successful, Charles IV was willing to be magnanimous, and all that remained was the thorny issue of homage.

Charles IV wanted Edward II to do homage – in Paris – for Gascony. This would mean leaving England in Hugh Despenser’s hands, and while Edward himself had no problem with this, Despenser most certainly did, convinced that the moment the king was gone, he’d be attacked and murdered by the disgruntled barons. Probably a legitimate fear, and so in September of 1325 Edward II despatched his son, Edward of Windsor, to do homage in his stead. The young prince was accompanied by Walter Stapledon who was charged with one further task: bring Queen Isabella home.

By then, Isabella had been in France for six months or so, and she showed no inclination whatsoever to return to her husband. Seeing as Roger Mortimer was at large on the continent, this made Edward decidedly uncomfortable – he was intelligent enough to realise that his disaffected and humiliated wife might entertain the notion of supporting the traitorous (as per Edward) baron. He had repeatedly ordered Isabella to return, and at her non-compliance had cut off her funds, hoping this would bring his wife to heel. The only thing that happened was that Isabella moved in with her brother, still stubbornly refusing to return to England.

Stapledon oversaw the homage ceremony, tried to corner Isabella into having a private conversation, and when that didn’t work he chose to stand up before the entire French court and tell her she had no option but to return home immediately, her husband would not tolerate any more excuses from his disobedient wife. Isabella stood and told Stapledon she would not go home – not as long as Hugh Despenser the younger was the third wheel in her marriage. Stapledon turned to the French king – a man-to-man demand that the king send his sister back to her husband. Charles, unsurprisingly, refused. Stapledon had no choice but to retire, utterly humiliated. Some days later, he chose to flee the court in disguise, convinced there was a plot afoot to assassinate him. Left behind in France was Prince Edward, now firmly under his mother’s control. The rebellion against Edward II had just acquired its figurehead – the heir to the throne.

Stapledon returned to an England in turmoil. Over the coming months, it became apparent that Isabella and Roger had joined forces, even embarked on a passionate relationship. In England, all those suffering under the double yoke of Despenser and Edward II organised themselves, while the king and his advisors concentrated on defence strategies. Stapledon was made responsible for defending his part of the country, and as the winter of 1325 became the spring of 1326, people waited. And waited. And waited.

EHFA Retour_d_Isabelle_de_France_en_AngleterreIn September of 1326, Isabella and her son, accompanied by Roger, landed in England. In a series of rousing speeches, Isabella declared that they were here only to safeguard England from the tyranny of the Despensers and the other evil counsellors of the king (I am convinced she included Stapledon in this little club), and to ensure the rule of law was restored within the land. At every opportunity, she presented her handsome fourteen-year-old son, ensuring everyone got an eyeful of the heir – the future king.

Despenser urged the king to flee. Edward II did not lack personal courage, and with the funds in his treasury he could easily have fielded an army substantially larger than that of Isabella and Roger. But in view of Hugh’s abject terror, he did as his favourite asked him to and rode west, making for the relative safety of Ireland. London was left in control of Stapledon – a dangerous task, seeing as the Londoners were major Mortimer and Isabella fans.

On October 15, 1326, London exploded. Angry citizens decided to take justice in their own hands and the mayor (who, incidentally, was one of the men who condemned Roger Mortimer to death in 1321) was forced to sign the death sentences of two men: one was a purported Despenser spy, the other was none other than the hated Treasurer, Walter Stapledon. Now, Walter was a bishop, and as such could only be tried by an ecclesiastic court, but the mob had gone beyond trials – they wanted blood, and they wanted it now. The Despenser spy was hunted down and dragged to Cheapside where he was beheaded. And then they went in search of the bishop.

Stapledon was not at home when the mob burnt down his doors, ransacked his house and carried off his precious belongings. But upon hearing that his house was being looted, the bishop donned armour and rode into the city, ignoring the advice to stay away. By the time he’d realised his error, it was too late, the mob baying for his blood as they chased Stapledon and his squires through the London streets.

Bishop beheading-650x387Desperately, Stapledon made for St Paul’s, hoping to claim sanctuary. At the north door, the crowd caught up with him, and he was pulled off his horse, screaming in fear as he was hauled towards Cheapside. Once there he was forced to his knees and his head was sawed off with a breadknife. I can only imagine just how much time that took…

The ecstatic Londoners sent Stapledon’s head as a gift to Isabella, throwing the rest of the bishop’s mauled remains in a dungheap to be eaten by dogs. It is to her credit that Isabella was horrified – mostly because one should not saw off the head of bishops. Isabella needed the church on her (and her son’s) side, and no matter what her feelings for Bishop Stapledon might have been, she had to express her disgust at the horrible way in which he’d been put to death. The Londoners who’d been dispatched to present their queen with the grisly gift were curtly thanked and on Isabella’s orders, the battered body (and head, one assumes) of Walter Stapledon were returned to Exeter. There the poor man was buried before the high altar as befitted a bishop, and a good bishop at that. Whatever his other faults, Stapledon had been a good administrator of the diocese, a man with a passion for learning so strong he founded Stapledon Hall at Oxford University to offer young men of little means the opportunity to study. These days, Stapledon Hall is known as Exeter College.

Walter Stapledon does not lie alone in Exeter Cathedral. Close by is the grave of his brother, Richard, who tried to defend Walter from the London mob and in so doing lost his life too. An older brother defending a younger, a knight defending a priest. Two men caught up in a power struggle which ended with a deposed king and a new, very young, king. I wonder if now and then they rise from their graves to chat about that distant past, two ghostly outlines gliding through the dark interior of the cathedral. Likely, they don’t. Likely they lie silent and still, have done so for close to 700 years.

The abducted heiress and the gallant traitor

In a previous post I told the story of Marie de Blois. This lady was an abbess, seemingly content as a nun, when she became the heiress to Boulogne, thereby attracting the unwanted attention of one Matthew of Alsace who abducted her, forced her to marry him and fathered two girls on her before submitting to the church and returning a somewhat tarnished Marie to her religious life.

Ida_of_BoulogneToday, I thought we’d spend some time with Marie’s eldest daughter, Ida of Boulogne, who was as wealthy and as tempting an heiress as her mother had once been. Obviously, suitors were lining up for her hand in marriage from the moment it became clear she was the legitimate heir to Boulogne. In 1181, Ida married one of these gentlemen, in accordance with the wishes of her uncle, Phillip of Flanders. But her first spouse, Gerald, was not long for this world, and no more than a year later, Ida was back on the marital market. (And thank heavens Ida’s mother wasn’t around by then: she’d have been quite distraught by what would happened to her daughter…) This time, Ida’s new husband was a certain Berthold, close to 35 years older than her.

Whether the Berthold and Ida union developed into a winter-spring romance is unknown. What is known is that Berthold expired already in 1186, and so Ida was back to being a merry widow. By all accounts, Ida was rather merry—and more than eager for an amorous adventure. As per Lambert of Ardes, her roving eye fell on the handsome and Arnold of Guines and she fell passionately in love, doing her very best to seduce dear Arnold. Not that Arnold seems to have been averse to the idea. According to Lambert, he either loved Ida back or pretended to do so, his eye on the tempting prize of Boulogne. What can I say? Men!

However, the Ida and Arnold union was never to be, no matter how they batted their eyelashes at each other. Instead, a certain Renaud de Dammartin entered the scene, his eyes very firmly affixed on the marital prize that was Ida.

Initially, Renaud attempted to advance his suit through the normal channel—he spoke to Ida’s uncle, the Count of Flanders. This gent probably looked the young Renaud up and down and smirked before showing him the door. After all, Dammartin may have been of good French noble blood, but his family was not exactly rich and powerful. Plus, of course, Renaud had a wife. Well, he’d had a wife until he set this inconvenient appendage aside and decided Ida was more to his taste.

Seeing as Renaud’s spurned wife was a cousin of Philippe Augustus, the French king, I dare say we can assume the French king was aware of Renaud’s intention to wed Ida. Not, according to Philippe Augustus a bad idea, as by doing so Renaud would bring Boulogne under the influence of the French king rather than the Count of Flanders, and Philippe Augustus was rather fond of expanding the territories he controlled—a sentiment he shared with most of his contemporary kings.

IDA Vereker Monteith Hamilton _The-RescueAs you’ve already gathered, Renaud was all for expanding his own territories, and the fact that his bride was some years older than him was no deterrent. In view of the Count of Flanders’ opposition to the match, Renaud decided to take matters in his own hands and resorted to the age-old tradition of abducting his intended and carrying her back to Lorraine with him. How unwilling Ida was is something we don’t know. By all accounts, Renaud was the medieval version of Dark & Dangerous, and some women just can’t resist such men.

Whatever the case, by the early 1190s Ida was wed to Renaud, and there is even a little story whereby the love-sick (or seriously pissed off at having the prospect of ruling Boulogne stolen from him – take your pick) Arnold rode after her but was lured into a trap and imprisoned, supposedly with Ida’s collusion. Whether this is true or not is difficult to assess. What is indisputable is that Renaud became Count of Boulogne through his wife and soon enough there was a little daughter, Matilda.

This Renaud is one of the more fascinating characters of the late twelfth century. Of an age with Philippe Augustus, he was raised with the future French king, and by all accounts Renaud and Philippe Augustus were firm friends—until Renaud was ordered by his father to join the Plantagenet side in the endless conflicts between the Angevins and France.

Somehow, Renaud and Philippe Augustus managed to salvage their relationship, and as the Plantagenets spent most of the 1180s fighting each other, Renaud did not end up in the unenviable position of having to meet his friend in battle. In 1189 Philippe Augustus joined forces with Richard Lionheart (likely Renaud was with Richard) and together these two young lions crushed the aging Henry II with Renaud in the happy position of not having to choose between his present master (Richard) and his liege-lord (Philippe Augustus).

By the time Renaud carried off Ida, he already had a reputation as a skilled fighter and leader of men. He was also fond of the good life and was something of a patron of the arts, a true renaissance man before the term was even invented. I imagine that after the somewhat decrepit Berthold Ida appreciated her young and vibrant husband, albeit that there must have been moments when Renaud’s continued allegiance to Richard caused Ida moments of severe worry.

As many of you will know, the Richard & Philippe Augustus relationship crashed and burnt when these two kings went off on a crusade together. Philippe Augustus did not like it that Richard hogged all the glory, and so he abruptly left the scene and returned to France. Once Richard had made it back home (and an arduous journey that was, what with being locked up by the Holy Roman Emperor for 18 months or so while his mother collected the huge ransom demanded to set Richard free) he spent the rest of his life waging war on Philippe Augustus – with Renaud on his team.

Fortunately for Renaud, Richard died already in 1199. This was most unfortunate for a lot of other people, but I imagine Philippe Augustus did a happy dance, while Renaud wept for a while before taking the opportunity to mend his fences with his king. Philippe Augustus welcomed Renaud back with open arms, even more so when some years later Renaud was instrumental in taking Chateau Gaillard from the Angevins. Renaud ended up showered with honours and lands, and life was good to Renaud and Ida. For a while.

In 1211, Renaud refused to appear before Philippe Augustus in a legal matter. Philippe Augustus retaliated by seizing Renaud’s lands. A wiser person might have recognised this as a moment when it would make sense to do some brown-nosing—after all, so far the French king had always forgiven his dear childhood bestie Renaud—but Renaud was having none of it. Miffed, he decided to renew his alliance with the Angevins, more specifically John.

How on earth Renaud came to the conclusion that John was a safer bet than Philippe Augustus I have no idea. But suddenly Renaud was riding to war against his liege-lord and this time Philippe Augustus was enraged. This time, Philippe Augustus vowed, Renaud would pay. This time, Renaud de Dammartin was branded a traitor.


French knights facing off against the knights of the Holy Roman Emperor

At the Battle of Bouvines Philippe Augustus smashed any hopes the Angevin kings might have had of regaining their lost lands. Not that King John was anywhere around when his nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Otto, and his half-brother William Longsword together with Renaud and Ferdinand of Portugal (and Flanders) met the French army.

With roughly 9 000 men on either side and the excellent Flemish infantry under the command of Otto, at first things did not go well for the French, whose undisciplined infantry lost heart when faced with the Flemish. Philippe Augustus had no choice but to join the battle himself, leading his cavalry in a charge that broke the Flemish infantry and almost cost him his life.

Soon enough, the French had their enemy on the run—except for Renaud. With a group of around 700 Brabant pikemen, he made his stand, having every intention of selling himself dear. I guess he knew that this time there’d be no mere slap on the fingers should Philippe Augustus take him prisoner.

For hours, Renaud and his men stood firm, no matter what the enemy threw at them. Long after the battle was over they refused to yield, a knot of desperate men surrounded by a sea of blood and death. Ultimately, of course, it didn’t help. Philippe Augustus ordered 3 000 men to charge the stubborn Renaud and his men. Under such force, the brave Brabant pikemen buckled, and in the resulting melée Renaud was not killed. Much, much worse, he was taken captive and hauled before the French king.

Ida Prisonniers_Bouvines

Renaud carried off into captivity

What Ida thought of all this we don’t know. I dare say she was less than delighted when Philippe Augustus stripped Renaud of all his honours, all his lands, and instead gave them to his bastard son Philippe Hurepel. But at least she had Boulogne, albeit that the French king was keeping a very narrow watch on things. If Ida interceded on behalf of her husband is yet another thing we don’t know. I think she realised it would have been fruitless, but maybe she at least requested to be allowed to see him? Somehow, I suspect the answer was no…

Ida died some years after the Battle of Bouvines. Boulogne passed to her daughter Matilda, but Philippe Augustus was not about to let this juicy morsel pass him by, which was why Matilda was given to Philippe Herupel as his wife. One wonders how that must have felt, to marry the son of the king that presently held your father locked up in the dark somewhere.

As to Renaud, he was to live out the rest of his life in very harsh captivity. Legend has it that he was kept chained to the wall by a chain so short it made most movements impossible. Legend also has it that when he realised he would never be released—not even after the death of Philippe Augustus—he committed suicide, killing himself on the anniversary of Ida’s death. One last flamboyant gesture or an act of despairing love? We don’t know. We will never know.

A very wicked woman

medieval 88f855d6c9f5df3111d4a8a6e1b9e99c

The not-so-paragon Eve…

Not all medieval women were paragons of virtue. Not all that surprising as I’d hazard the paragons among us were as much of a minority back then as they are now, but still.

Today’s protagonist falls in the category, mean, cruel and generally bad-ass, at least if we’re to believe her near-contemporary Orderic Vitalis, who has nothing good to say about her in his chronicle. Orderic is generally considered a trustworthy source, but when approaching today’s formidable Mabel, one should keep in mind that Orderic was a monk at an abbey generously endowed by Mabel’s hereditary enemies, ergo we should take some of what he says with a pinch of salt. Still, no smoke without fire, and while Orderic may be exaggerating, this particular lady is not one I’d present my back to after a heated quarrel as she might very well be tempted to sink a dagger in it.

Mabel de Bellême probably had her contrary character from her father. William de Bellême , known as William Tavalas I, comes down to us as being as rapacious and ambitious as all of his family with the added qualities of cruelty and sinfulness. Supposedly, this gent was so irritated by his wife’s piety that he had her strangled on the way to church.

How this affected his little daughter, Mabel, we don’t know. It does seem to have horrified his son, Arnulf. Some years later, William added to his list of sins by imprisoning, mutilating and blinding a certain William fitzGiroie, this due to an infected feud between the two men. Even worse, he took the opportunity to imprison fitzGiroire when he was attending William Tavalas’ second wedding.

Somehow, fitzGiroie survived his torture and retired to live out his days in a convent. His sons promised revenge, and Arnulf, who clearly inherited his character from his pious and strangled-to-death mama, was so disgusted he ousted his father in 1048 and forced him into exile. For some odd reason, Mabel chose to accompany her father into uncertainty and penury (well, everything is relative) rather than stay with her goody-goody brother. Says a lot about her character, albeit that at the time she can’t have been more than a teenager.

Father and daughter ended up as charity cases with the powerful Montgomerie family. William decided to bargain with what he had, which is how Mabel ended up betrothed to the eldest Montgomerie son, Roger, in return for William promising she’d inherit his lands upon his death. A somewhat worthless promise at the time, seeing as Arnulf was in control of the Bellême lands and honours. However, William was the rightful owner, and I suppose he (and the Montgomeries) gambled on him somehow regaining control.

mabel childbirth (1)

Something Mabel  did a lot – at least ten babies

Fortunately for everyone involved (except poor Arnulf), Arnulf died very soon after exiling his father. William was restored, the value of Mabel as a bride spiked, and Roger was quick to convert the betrothal into a marriage, thereby adding considerably to the Montgomerie lands. Maybe having a termagant in bed was worth it, or maybe he had Mabel well and truly tamed in the privacy of their solar. Or maybe they liked each other, seeing as they would go on to have ten children. They do seem to have shared certain traits, such as ambition, ruthlessness and greed, but Roger is rarely vilified for these qualities, while Mabel, according to Orderic, was an unnatural, evil woman who’d go on to bequeath all her nasty attributes to her eldest son, Robert, known as a singularly cruel man.

Roger Montgomerie was one of William the Conqueror’s most trusted men—this long before he’d earned the epithet Conqueror and still struggled with being nick-named the Bastard Duke. When William concentrated on pacifying his new realm after 1066, he entrusted Roger with helping Matilda rule Normandy. This Roger did well—he seems to have done most things well—which is why he ended up as the Earl of Shrewsbury.

mabel Hunterian_Psalter_c._1170_Eve_spinning

A lady with her spindle – not for our Mabel

Upon William Tavalas’ death, Mabel became the Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême. Together with her husband, Mabel now controlled a sprawling collection of lands, all the way from southern Normandie and Maine to England. Life, one could say, was good, and with so much stuff to administer, Mabel should not have had time for mischief. Not so. Mabel, according to Orderic, greatly enjoyed being a pain in the nether parts. In particular, she enjoyed needling the powerful Church and the various religious establishments that were slowly expanding their hold on the land.

Mabel was no fool: to challenge the religious institutions outright would be to court serious danger, not only from the Church itself but also from her husband’s overlord. William the Conqueror was one of those complicated characters who combined an outward show of personal piety with a ruthless approach to anyone who threatened what he considered his. Mabel therefore decided on a subtle approach, whereby she would descend on an abbey complete with a HUGE entourage, and stay for several days as their guest, thereby depleting their stores. Her favourite target was the Abbey of Saint-Evroul (where Orderic would, some years later, become an oblate), and when the abbot dared protest at her extended visits, she threatened to return with an even larger retinue.

As told by Orderic, this is when the abbot rebuked her for her wicked ways, suggesting she cease them before they brought her great pain. Mabel just laughed, but that self-same evening, she was afflicted by a terrible, terrible pain. As per some, the pain centred round breasts, so when she stumbled upon a nursing infant, she insisted on placing said child at her breasts. The baby nursed, Mabel felt immediate relief, and the baby died. No major loss, according to Mabel: peasant brats were of no major importance.

It seems that this incident made Mabel somewhat wary of inflicting her presence on religious houses. Besides, she had other fish to fry, notably the personal vendetta of her family against the heirs of fitzGiroire, the man who her father had tortured so cruelly. Already back in the early 1060s, Mabel and Roger succeeded in convincing Duke William to seize the fitzGiroire lands and hand them over to Mabel. Obviously, this did not go down well, and the fitzGiroire heir, Arnold de Echauffour, protested loudly. So loudly, in fact, that in 1063 Duke William relented and was all for returning the lands to the rightful owner.

“What? Take my lands?” Mabel spluttered, almost choking on her wine. “Over my dead body!”
“If we’re going to be correct, they’re really his lands,” Roger said.
“Once mine, always mine,” Mabel retorted. She considered just what to do for some days, before concluding that the solution was simple. Kill Arnold and the problem would go away.
“We can’t just ride in there and cut him down,” Roger protested. “Duke William would nail my balls to the closest church door for breaking his peace!”
“Well, we can’t have that,” Mabel said, pursing her lips. “I’ll find another way. Maybe, if we’re fortunate, God will strike him down.”
Even Roger raised his brows at that…

mabel article_5825fbe79c7ae

Jezebel – Mabel’s role model? (Yet another vilified female, IMO)

Mabel wasn’t about to wait for God to intercede. Instead, she resorted to that most classic of female murder weapons: poison. On one occasion when Arnold was visiting (and one can’t help but wonder why he’d do that—unless, of course, he’d been lured there with promises of discussing the return of his lands) Mabel doctored his goblet of wine. Unfortunately for her, Arnold wasn’t thirsty. Instead, Roger’s younger brother Gilbert drank the poisoned brew—and died. I imagine this sparked heated discussions in the privacy of the solar.

“My brother! Damn it, woman, you’ve murdered Gilbert!”
“That’s what you get for hogging the visitor’s cup.” She sidled closer. “I didn’t mean to, you know that. I liked Gilbert.” Her fingers slipped inside her husband’s shirt, tugging at his chest hair. “But those lands of his won’t come amiss, dear husband. There will be a new babe come spring.”
“Huh!” He slid her a look. “Truly? A new babe?”

One failure was not enough to stop Mabel. Soon enough, she’d sunk her claws into one of Arnold’s servants, promising him gold and gratitude everlasting if he’d only do this teensy-weensy little favour for her: poison his master. Which he did, thereby ridding Mabel’s world of the hated Arnold.

Now, before dismissing this story out of hand as being the figment of Orderic’s heated imagination, it might serve to remember that Orderic does have a reputation for telling things as they were—and that one of his fellow monks was the son of the murdered Arnold. Plus, Orderic’s father had served Roger Montgomery for his whole life, so Orderic did have access to very good sources.

mabel medieval-nail-through-the-head

Seems like a thing Mabel would do…

With advancing age, one could have hoped Mabel would mellow. Very little indicates she did, remaining as rapacious as ever well into middle-age. In 1077, she went after the lands of one Hugh Brunel, sending her men-at-arms to drive him from his home. Hugh fled, but promised retribution. Mabel probably laughed. What on earth could Hugh do to her, Dame de Alençon, de Séez, and Bellême in her own right, Countess of Shrewsbury and Lady of Arundel through her husband? Turns out she underestimated Hugh…

In late 1079, Mabel was enjoying a warm bath in one of her castles when out of nowhere several men broke into her room.

“Remember me?” Hugh said, drawing his sword. And just like that, he cut her head off before fleeing the castle with his brothers.

An apt end to an evil woman according to Orderic, who goes on to quote her epitaph, adding a sour comment along the lines that whoever wrote it was doing her friends (and husband) a favour rather than portraying the lady in question correctly.

Sprung from the noble and the brave,
Here Mabel finds a narrow grave.
But, above all woman’s glory,
Fills a page in famous story.
Commanding, eloquent, and wise,
And prompt to daring enterprise;
Though slight her form, her soul was great,
And, proudly swelling in her state,
Rich dress, and pomp, and retinue,
Lent it their grace and houours due.
The border’s guard, the country’s shield,
Both love and fear her might revealed,
Till Hugh, revengeful, gained her bower,
In dark December’s midnight hour.
Then saw the Dive’s o’erflowing stream
The ruthless murderer’s poignard gleam.
Now friends, some moments kindly spare,
For her soul’s rest to breathe a prayer!

Assuming Ordric has things right, I somehow think breathing a couple of prayers would not suffice to give Mabel’s soul rest. Alternatively, the epitaph has it right and Orderic, otherwise so credible, had personal reasons behind his character assassination. We will never know, will we? Still, I do believe that a lady who has her head chopped off by “revengeful Hugh” must have done something to deserve it.

Death by Viking – a painful way to achieve sainthood

All old European kingdoms have a martyred royal or two. In Sweden it’s St Erik, in Norway it is St Olof, Scotland has St Margaret, and England has St Edward. And St Edmund. Two royal saints – one of whom was martyred by the ancestors of St Erik and St Olof.

Edmund 800px-Stedmundcrownedbyangelspierpontms736f42

St Edmund, crowned in glory

So who was this Edmund, and what did he ever do to deserve the honorific of saint? Well, obviously he died – rather painfully – but many people throughout history have done that without being rewarded with a sainthood.

Very little is known about Edmund. In fact, what comes down through the ages is a story of a beleaguered hero, a symbol necessary to keep the fire burning in the hearts of his people, cowering under the weight of the Viking yoke. And what a yoke it was, the Nordic raiders returning year after year to plunder. At times, attempts were made to buy them off, but in the latter half of the ninth century, Ingvar Benlös (Ivar the Boneless), as per the sagas one of Ragnar Lodbroke’s sons, assembled a huge Viking army – adequately named the Great Heathen Army – and landed on English soil. This time, they did not want plunder. This time, the Vikings wanted land. I guess they’d had it with war and blood, hankering instead for meadows and tilled fields. After all, even bashing innocent monks over the head to rob them of everything they have gets a bit old after a while.

Due to all that Viking raiding and pillaging, most East Anglian written records of the time have been lost. Vikings didn’t read books – they burnt them. (Which is not to say they were illiterate. It’s just that the Vikings preferred carving runes into stones – a far more permanent record of their doings than ink on parchment) Despite this lack or records, we do know there existed an Edmund – coins with his name testify to this. Those same coins indicate he succeeded a gentleman named Aethelweard as king of East Anglia. It is thought he was related to Aethelstan, king of Kent, and whatever the case, the general supposition is that he was of a “noble and ancient race”, i.e. of royal Saxon blood.

EHFA 12th-century_painters_-_Life_of_St_Edmund_-_WGA15723

Edmund’s death

Edmund became king at the tender age of fifteen – or so the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us, which means we need to take things with a pinch of salt, as the Chronicle showed little interest in the events unfolding in East Anglia until twenty years after Edmund’s supposed death. But let us assume the Chronicle had it right – if nothing else because it makes for a better story. A young, gallant prince takes up the ermine (well…no ermine at the time, but still) and proceeds to lead his people. By all accounts, he did a good job, showing plenty of promise.

He was also a good Christian – a pious young man who in everything was the perfect role model for all those future young men who aspired to be brave and heroic. Here we had a king who refused to compromise when it came to his faith – no matter what it might cost him.

In the 860s, the Viking army landed in England with the intention of staying – for good. This did not go down well with those already there, but the Vikings were a somewhat brusque race, and what people didn’t give them, they took. They started by marching north to conquer York and Northumberland, went from there to Mercia where they forced the king into accepting a treaty, and then turned south to formally conquer East Anglia.

Edmund defended his kingdom as well as he could. But however competent Edmund may have been, he wasn’t much of a match for the battle-hardened Vikings, and his men were pathetically inadequate in facing up to the roaring Northern horde. To be fair, all of the Saxon kingdoms except Wessex were to succumb before the Viking warlords.

In November of 869, Edmund and his men ended up surrounded by the Vikings. There are various versions of what happened, but I prefer the one where Edmund yielded to save the lives of his men. There’s another variant whereby Edmund hid himself under a bridge in Hoxne – hoping no doubt to live and fight another day – but his spurs caught the sunlight and a young girl gave him up. However it came about, our Edmund was now in the less than tender care of the Danes.

EHFA Edmundbeingmartyred05

Killing the saint

Vikings were practical people. Why kill someone you could milk until they were dry? They therefore suggested that Edmund buy his life by giving them half his treasure. But, they added, he would have to embrace their faith as well. Anathema to Edmund. He might consider parting with what little treasure he had left, but his faith was not up for discussion. Edmund squared his shoulders, prepared to meet his fate. A young man still, not yet thirty, about to be cut down in his prime.

The Vikings found this rather hilarious. In general, Vikings couldn’t quite understand how anyone could worship such a weakling as the White Christ – the silly man got himself nailed to a cross, and as far as the Vikings could make out, he hadn’t even tried to fight himself free. Very strange, as per the Norsemen. It therefore amazed them that so many men were willing to die for this – in their opinion – useless god.

Edmund was tied to a tree. He was whipped with chains until he was bleeding from all over. He still refused to disavow his god. If Christ could die for all humanity, then Edmund could die for Christ. Very well, said Ubba – the man in charge – and ordered the half-dead man to be peppered with arrows. Still he didn’t die, but by now his tormentors had tired of their game, so they chopped off his head and threw it into the surrounding woods, leaving the decapitated corpse tied to the tree.

Edmund ysengrin 7699555250_093359f3cb_o

A talking wolf (?)

No sooner had the Vikings ridden off, but Edmund’s men cut him down, weeping (I suppose) at this futile death. They looked everywhere for the head, but it was dark and cold, and no matter how they looked they couldn’t find it. But Edmund had friends among the wild creatures that lived in the woods, and so it was that a wolf found the head, and called out a series of “hic, hic, hic” until Edmund’s men cottoned on and came charging through the underbrush, marvelling at the miracle of a talking wolf (in Latin, no less).

Edmund was buried in a nearby church and there he remained for twenty-odd years. By then, the myth and legend of Edmund, the brave and handsome young king who died for Christ, had found its ways to the Church, and it was decided that the saintly king needed a more suitable shrine – which is how Edmund ended up being reburied in Bury St Edmunds. ( I like it when place names are this straightforward :))

By then, those Viking raiders had settled firmly into their new land. The Danelaw covered most of England, but interestingly enough those savage heathen warriors developed a softer side when living in peace. Many of them became Christians, and thirty years or so after Edmund’s death, the mints of East Anglia produced pennies with the legend SCE EADMUND REX (St Edmund King). Those ferocious Vikings and their descendants were proud of their brave saint, conveniently choosing to forget he wouldn’t have been a saint had the Vikings not killed him.

Edmund Martrydom_of_St_Edmund_by_Brian_Whelan

St Edmund’s martyrdom depicted by Brian Whelan ( Creative Commons)

By 925, the cult of St Edmund had grown to such size it required a separate community devoted to this English saint. The abbey of Bury St Edmunds grew fat and happy thanks to their resident saint. Until the Reformation, the cult of the saint remained strong, and when the shrine was defaced and destroyed in the 16th century, it is said gold and silver to the value of 5 000 marks were carried away. Interestingly enough, at the time the shrine was probably empty, as it is said the French invaders who fought King John in the early 13th century stole away the body. As per this story, St Edmund’s remains ended up in Toulouse and were venerated by the French for centuries.

In the early 20th century, some of the remains in the French shrine were returned to England. It has never been determined if they belong to Edmund, which is why these sad little fragments remain in Arundel, under the care of the Duke of Norfolk rather than being buried under the high altar of Westminster Cathedral as originally intended.

Well over 1100 years ago, a young king was tortured to death by barbaric invaders. To this day, his name is remembered, even if the man behind the saint remains forever enigmatic. Me, I hope he did other things in his life but die. I hope there was love, and comradeship, moments filled with the sheer joy of being alive. I hope there were women and beer, nights of peaceful dreams and days of wondrous beauty. I hope Edmund had a life, before he so valiantly gave it away to save his companions.

Hanged, drawn and quartered – not a death to aspire to

HDQ main-qimg-6d1cf921e99741e6559b96e99e88897bBeing a medieval king came with all sorts of challenges, chief among them how to stop people from rebelling and in general causing unnecessary upheaval in your country. Sheesh: couldn’t they just accept that the one in charge was the king? Only the king? Clearly, something had to be done to keep people on the straight and narrow, which is why – or so the story goes – late in the 13th century, Edward I decided he needed to up the death-penalty somewhat, make it even more of a deterrent. Specifically, Edward I wanted people considering treason to think again – which was why, on October of 1283, he had the last Prince of Wales, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, subjected to horrific torture before the poor man finally died. Dafydd thereby became the first recorded person to be executed by the gruesome means of being hanged, drawn and quartered. I’m guessing Dafydd would have preferred being remembered for something else…

HDQ 300px-Drawing_of_William_de_MariscoTo be thus executed involved a lot of stages. First, you were tied to a horse (or in some cases several horses) and dragged through the town. Doesn’t sound too bad, you may think, but imagine being dragged over uneven cobbles, over gravel and stones, mud and slime, while the spectators lining the road pelt you with stuff – hard stuff, mostly. By the time the victim arrived at the gallows, he was a collection of bruises and gashes, his garments torn to shreds. Chances were, the man couldn’t stand, but stand he had to, and soon enough he was hoisted upwards, to the waiting noose.

HDQ france-used-to-torture-and-execute-its-finance-ministers-for-policies-gone-badThe second stage involved the hanging as such. Now, in medieval times, hanging rarely resulted in a broken neck. The condemned man didn’t drop several feet. Instead, the victim was set to swing from his neck and slowly strangled to death. A painful and extended demise, with the further indignity that when a man dies, his bowels and bladder give. However, the unfortunate sod who’d been condemned to being hanged, drawn and quartered, never got to the bladder and bowels part. He was cut down before he died and placed before the executioner and his big, sharp knife. The horror was just about to begin.

In some cases, the executioner started by gelding the man. Loud cheers from the spectators – or not, depending on who was being executed. Executions generally drew huge crowds, people standing about and snacking on the odd fritter or two while watching the condemned die. Nice – but hey, we must remember this was before the advent of TV and stuff like Counterstrike 4. People have always enjoyed being entertained with violence – which says a lot about the human race in general.

HDQ02ef126bf225e1545b51ecb2094efd20Once the condemned man had been relieved of his manhood (not something he’d ever use again anyway), he was cut open. A skillful executioner would keep him alive throughout the process, ensuring the dying man saw his organs being pulled from his body. And then, once he’d died, they chopped him up, sent off selected parts to be displayed in various parts of the kingdom, and buried what little was left over.

Not, all in all, a nice way to die. Men condemned to die that way must have swallowed and swallowed, knowing full well that no one could bear such indignities and die well. Before he drew his last breath, he’d have cried and wept, suffered horrific pain, hoped for the release of unconsciousness, only to be brought back up to the surface so as to fully experience what they did next to him. A truly demeaning death – most definitely a deterrent!

Edward Gal_nations_edward_iEdward I was rather fond of his new method of execution (although, to be honest, it is still a matter of dispute if it was Edward I who “invented” it – there seems to have been earlier cases, like when a man tried to assassinate Henry III). Other than the unfortunate Dafydd, Edward had several Scottish “rebels and traitors” – in itself a strange label to put on men fighting for the freedom of their country – hanged, drawn and quartered, notably among them William Wallace and some of Robert Bruce’s brothers.

It is unlikely that any man subjected to such a gruesome death would be in a position to inhale and yell “FREEDOM!” as William Wallace does in Mel Gibson’s interpretation. It is far more likely that by the time the cutting began, the victim was in severe shock, incapable of uttering more than high-pitched shrieks and grunts.

Edward I’s son and heir, Edward II, was in many ways a lesser king than his father, but it is to his credit that he was substantially less blood-thirsty. (Edward Sr would probably have called him squeamish, going on to harangue his son about the importance of keeping his barons toeing the line. Wise words, but wasted on Edward II). Anyway: there are very few recorded instances of men having been hanged, drawn and quartered during Edward II’s reign. But among these unfortunate souls one man stands out: In 1318, Llywelyn Bren was executed without having been sentenced to die – a serious violation of existing law.

Llywelyn Bren was (taa-daa) Welsh. His real name was Llywelyn ap Gryffudd ap Rhys, and his father had been one of those men loyal to Llywelyn ap Gryffudd, often referred to as the Last True Prince of Wales (He was Dafydd’s brother. Dafydd was something of a weathervane when it came to his loyalties – he had actually sworn allegiance to Edward I long before he decided to throw his lot in with his Welsh brethren, which was why Edward I was so incensed when Dafydd turned around and proclaimed himself Prince of Wales after big brother Llywelyn had been killed…Apologies for the multiple Llywelyns. Seems teh Welsh were as fond of that name as the medieval Castilians were of Alfonso) Bren is a Welsh honorific meaning something akin to “royal”, and our Llywelyn had earned the sobriquet, not only due to his lineage, but also because he acted like a king should – he defended “his” people.

The story starts in 1315. England was in something of a disarray after the Battle of Bannockburn, and this was especially true of the Welsh Marches, where the powerful Earl of Gloucester had died without a male heir. Young Gilbert de Clare did leave three sisters, but until the inheritance issues could be properly sorted, the huge de Clare lordship was administered by royal officers – with varying success. The period also coincided with famine. The second decade of the 14th century saw a sequence of failed harvests, and by 1315, the people were hungry and finding it increasingly difficult to pay the royal taxes.

The king, of course, insisted his taxes be paid, and his various sheriffs were charged with ensuring the subjects coughed up their pennies. In Wales – and especially in Glamorgan – the situation was very bad, and the newly elected sheriff, a certain de Turberville, did not make things any better when he started by dismissing all Welshmen holding office. One of the men so discourteously snubbed was Llywelyn Bren.

Bren had been a respected sub-lord under the Earl of Gloucester, held in high regard by Welsh and English alike. When de Turberville resorted to force – he sent out armed men to terrorise the Welsh into giving up what little they had, some of which he kept for himself – Llywelyn Bren protested. De Tuberville responded by accusing Bren of sedition, and Llywelyn was so outraged he penned a letter to the king, asking that he remove de Tuberville. Edward II answered by telling Llywelyn Bren to present himself before Parliament – and prepare to hang, should the court find him guilty of the charges made by de Turberville.

De Turberville continued with his persecution of the Welsh. Forced into a corner, Llywelyn Bren had no choice but to defend his people. In a well-planned action, he surrounded the detested sheriff and his closest men while they were holding court just outside Caerphilly castle. De Turberville tried to reach the safety of the castle, but the portcullis came down, the drawbridge was pulled up, and so a number of Englishmen – including de Turberville – were cut down in the outer bailey of the castle. The victorious Welsh then descended on Caerphilly town, looting and burning as they went.

Obviously, the king could not allow this to happen. He ordered the Earl of Hereford, Humphrey de Bohun, and the Lords Mortimer (Roger Mortimer and his uncle Roger Mortimer. I know, I know: more name confusion) to handle the issue, supported by further troops. Llywelyn quickly realised he was hopelessly outnumbered, and decided he had to do what a true leader had to do: set the safety of his men before that of himself. So he gave up, offered himself as a prisoner on terms that allowed his men to keep their lives. Llywelyn himself was to be taken to London, and I dare say he held little hope of ever seeing his homeland again.

Llywelyn’s bravery made a huge impression on both de Bohun and Roger Mortimer. Both of them pleaded with the king that he be lenient – Llywelyn had served the king loyally for many years. Besides, there was ample proof that de Turberville had exceeded his authorities. This time, the king listened, and Llywelyn Bren had the threat of being hanged, drawn and quartered commuted into imprisonment in the Tower. Phew, Llywelyn probably thought.

Time passed. Roger Mortimer was sent to Ireland to handle that Scottish would-be-Irish-king upstart Edward Bruce, and in England a certain Hugh Despenser nestled himself closer and closer to the royal bosom. Hugh was wed to Eleanor de Clare, one of the heiresses to the Earl of Gloucester, and as a consequence of his new position as the king’s favourite, in November of 1317 he (well, formally his wife) was awarded the plum pieces of the huge inheritance – the lordship of Glamorgan, where Llywelyn Bren held his hereditary lands. Neither Roger Mortimer nor de Bohun were too thrilled by the news that Despenser had acquired the lordship of Glamorgan. In one fell swoop, the royal favourite had become a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, thereby threatening Mortimer’s traditional power base.

HDQ harclay-man-drawnTo celebrate his new lands, Despenser had Llywelyn Bren removed from the Tower. Despite the lack of a formal royal approval, the Welshman was handed over into the less than loving hands of Despenser and carried back to Wales sometime in early 1318. In Cardiff, the poor man was attached to two horses, dragged through the town to the waiting gallows where he was subsequently hanged before being cut down and resuscitated enough to see (and feel) his heart being cut out. Once dead, he was quartered and Hugh Despenser appropriated Llywelyn’s lands, imprisoned his widow and as many of his sons as he could lay his hands on.

The English nobility was appalled. More particularly, Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun were enraged. With what right had Despenser deprived Llywelyn Bren of his life? After all, Llywelyn Bren had been sentenced to imprisonment in London, not execution in Cardiff. Even worse, the man had died the death of a traitor, an awful extended death that a man like Llywelyn Bren did not deserve – this was a man both de Bohun and Mortimer held in high regard, an educated man with whom the Mortimers even shared (distant) kin. The king was expected to act, punish his favourite for this blatant disregard of the law. Except, of course, that Edward II didn’t, proving yet again to his disgruntled barons that he was not much of a king – or a man of his word. Or a defender of law and justice. All in all, a lesser king than his father.

When Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun – together with the royal cousin Thomas of Lancaster – rose in rebellion in 1321, one of the reasons they put forward was the despicable treatment of Llywelyn Bren. The royal chancellor Hugh Despenser had violated the law and effectively murdered a loyal servant of the king, with not so much as a slap on the wrist as retribution. England, the rebel barons claimed, deserved to be ruled by better men, men who respected law and order.

EHFA BNMsFr2643FroissartFol97vExecHughDespenser

Hugh dying

And so, indirectly, the awful death of Llywelyn Bren set in motion events that would subsequently lead to the deposition of a king – and the equally harrowing death of Hugh Despenser, who died just like Llewlyn Bren did, in November of 1326. Maybe Llewlyn smiled down from the skies as he saw Hugh suffer. One who definitely smiled was Roger Mortimer, now permanently rid of that personal burr up his backside, the equally ambitious – and capable – Hugh Despenser.

(The original version of this post was written for English Historical Fiction Authors – but it has been somewhat modified) 

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: