ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “Henry III”

From underage groom to powerful magnate

Today I thought we’d spend some time with a man named Richard. Okay, so very many men in medieval England were named Richard, including three Plantagenet kings, but nope, we won’t be talking about them today. Instead, we’re going to spend time with a baron so powerful, so wealthy, he probably could (and now and then likely did) outshine his king. As his king was Henry III, this was not all that hard to do: Henry may have been possessed of an extremely well-developed aesthetic sense, but his political and military acumen were somewhat weaker. Our man of the day was substantially more successful in the area of worldly power-mongering.

Richard de ClareMind you, it had not always been like that. Born in 1222, Richard de Clare was the heir to the huge de Clare estates. His father was Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hereford. His mother was Isabel Marshal, daughter to the William Marshal. None of this, I suspect, really helped when Richard’s father died in 1230. In one fell swoop, the boy was converted into one of the richest magnates in England—well, he would be, once he was invested with his inheritance. At the time, Richard was a child, a minor, and many were the barons eager to put themselves forward as a suitable guardian for this very, very rich ward.

HENRYIIIEngland in 1230 was ruled by a young king. Henry III had ascended the throne in 1216, all of nine years old. Since reaching his majority, Henry ruled in his own name—with Hubert de Burgh as his principal counsellor. Hubert had been unfailingly loyal to John and been rewarded accordingly. He was equally loyal to Henry, but like all barons of the time, Hubert always had an eye out for his own interests and when little Richard de Clare’s wardship came up for grabs, Hubert was in a position to award himself this very juicy plum.

Richard had to leave his mother, his siblings, and was instead transferred to Hubert’s care. It was de Burgh who was responsible for Richard’s future education—his widowed mother had no say. Not that this was uncommon: usually, a boy of noble birth would be raised in another noble household, spending his formative years as a page and squire far from home. And mothers rarely had a say in how their sons were educated beyond the first years—at least not officially.

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Hubert, stripped of power

Now, like all powerful men Hubert de Burgh had collected plenty of enemies during his long political life. In 1232, these enemies managed to discredit the earl of Kent who ended up imprisoned. This impacted Richard in two ways: one, his wardship was transferred to two others of Henry III’s favourites, Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester, and Peter de Rivaux, nephew to de Roches. Secondly, this is when Richard was probably married for the first time.

What? You might say, having made some quick calculations prior to concluding Richard was a child of ten. Youth was not a hindrance when it came to marriages as such—many a young child was married in medieval times. The church, however, required two things for such a marriage to stand: that consent was given and that it was consummated, neither of which a boy of ten was considered capable of doing. (Phew!)

Richard’s first bride was Margaret de Burgh, daughter to the disgraced Hubert and his third wife, Princess Margaret of Scotland. Some say this clandestine wedding was arranged by Hubert’s wife as a desperate measure to safeguard some sort of future protection for her daughter. It has also been said that, no matter their tender age, Margaret and Richard were genuinely in love.  Makes me spontaneously break out in “They try to tell us we’re too young, too young to really fall in love. They say that love’s a word, a word we’ve only heard, and can’t begin to get the meaning of…” (Nat King Cole, in case you’re wondering)

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Seriously, I have my doubts about two children experiencing emotions so strong they asked Margaret Mater to help them wed. But whether true or not, it does seem they were married. Without royal consent. Oh, dear…You see, a magnate as powerful as Richard would one day become needed royal approval before he wed. At least in theory – Henry’s own brother, also called Richard, seems to have ignored this when he married our Richard’s mother. (So yes, Richard had an in on the royal family. Henry III was his step-uncle)

Henry III threw a fit. It was him, only him, who would decide who Richard was to marry. (By then, Henry III had taken custody of Richard himself, the Peter double-act having fallen out of favour in 1234) Pressure was brought to bear on the young couple. As the marriage was unconsummated, it was easy to annul—assuming Richard and little Margaret agreed to do so.

From the distance of eight centuries it is difficult to know what really happened. Edith Pargeter has written a heart-wrenching version of events in The Marriage of Megotta according to which our star-crossed lovers were kept forcibly apart to ensure they did not seal their love with more than a kiss. (Read it! Wow book) A somewhat more pragmatic take on things would suggest the marriage was just annulled. In the event, whether it was annulled or not became a moot point as Margaret de Burgh died in 1237 at the age of fifteen. It no longer mattered if the marriage had been valid, had been consummated: Richard was free to wed as it pleased his king.

A marital prize such as Richard could be used for all sorts of alliances. At first, Henry toyed with the idea of marrying Richard to a member of the powerful French family, de Lusignan. As an aside, this is the family Henry III’s mother, Isabella of Angouleme married into after the death of John, effectively stealing her daughter’s intended. Not so sure little Princess Joan was all that depressed by this turn of events—her intended was old enough to be her father and then some—but Isabella’s behaviour was frowned upon. It just went to prove how lecherous women in general and beautiful women in particular were. Right: back to our Richard and the hunt for a suitable bride. Turns out the de Lusignans weren’t that interested.

Someone else, however, was very interested. John de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln was eager to see his eldest daughter as Richard’s wife—and he was willing to pay the king handsomely for the honour. Which was how Richard ended up marrying Maud de Lacy in early 1238.

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Richard himself?

Richard remained under royal wardship for several years more. In 1243 he came of age and was knighted by the king plus received official seisin of his vast inheritance. At last, Richard was in control of his own life. At last, he need answer to no man but himself—and his king. Thing is, a baron as powerful as Richard was destined to be, could use that to his advantage: there would be numerous occasions when Richard’s support would be the difference between success or failure for whatever plans Henry III might have.

In 1243, Richard already had an heir, named Gilbert after Richard’s father. All in all, Maud and Richard would have seven children and while Richard concentrated on expanding his territories—he added substantially to them via his mother’s Marshal inheritance—Maud dedicated a lot of time to arranging advantageous marriages for her children. I get the impression theirs was a successful marriage, which does not mean it was a happily ever after marriage. Few medieval ladies and lords had such expectations—to them, a marriage was an alliance with the purpose of forwarding the family interests.

Richard was good at managing his huge estates. He developed an impressive administrative system that allowed him to keep tabs on what was happening but left the running of his estates in the south-east and in Ireland to his efficient stewards. He himself focused on his Marcher lordships and on expanding into Wales. This he did through a combination of ruthless campaigning, castle building and implementation of English law. He stomped any Welsh rebellions on his lands into the ground and made sure everyone knew that in this part of the world only one man’s word was law: his word.

As many of you know, Henry III’s reign was plagued by upheaval, all of it coming to a head in the late 1250s when a certain Simon de Montfort set himself up as the leader of the baronial opposition. Initially, Richard sided with de Montfort and when he threw his weight behind the Provisions of Oxford the king had little choice but to accept them. But Richard had spent most of his youth at the royal court, had a close relationship with his step-father who was also Henry’s brother. And he had little liking for de Montfort, who was not only an eager reformer but also very acquisitive, both when it came to land and power.

In 1261, Richard abandoned the baronial cause and returned to the royal fold. What role he could have played and how things would have developed had Richard been in a position to influence events we will never know.  In 1262 he died, not yet forty years old. Some say he was poisoned—there had been a previous attempt some years earlier—but as the main chronicles don’t mention anything about a suspicious death I dare say we can rule it out.

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Richard died in a time of turmoil. Civil war was to rage for many years more and his own son the fiery Gilbert de Clare was to play a central role. First as de Montfort’s loyal second-in-command, then as Prince Edward’s equally loyal second-in-command. Seems those de Clare men had an ambivalent relationship with the crown…

By the time he died, Richard’s memories of his first little bride would have been very hazy. Since those childhood days when he’d wed Margaret de Burgh, so much time had passed. It was with Maud he’d built a life, fathered children so any last thoughts would reasonably have been of her. Whether he did think of her or not, he died knowing that his capable and tenacious wife would keep on protecting the family interests.

Maud de Lacy never remarried. Her dower contracts left her an immensely wealthy widow, to the chagrin of her eldest son who would go as far as to sue her to push through a reduction in her dower income. I guess this was a case of like mother, like son: Maud de Lucy has the dubious reputation of being the most litigious lady in 13th century England!

In the fullness of time, Richard’s and Maud’s grandchildren were to play important roles on opposing sides in the conflicts that afflicted England in the 1320s. One of their granddaughters would be the first ever woman to be imprisoned in the Tower, two would be left widows after the executions of their husbands. All of them would be smack in the middle of the unfolding events. Not exactly unusual if you were a de Clare…

Two kings and their ostentatious piety

EHFA HenryIIII’m going to come clean right at the start and say I am not a fan of Henry III. Through the centuries that separate us, he comes across as petty and ineffectual, and yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being stuck between the exciting (?) turmoil that defined the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but still, Henry was in many ways a most inept king – as demonstrated by the rebellion of men like Simon de Montfort.

To be fair to Henry, he did not have an easy start in life. Becoming king at the tender age of nine, with your kingdom invaded by French mercenaries, your barons at each other’s throat, and your father vilified by every man around, cannot have been easy. Things were probably not made better when his mother, the famously beautiful Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, decided she was not cut out to play the part of grieving widow. In 1217, a year after Henry had lost his father, Isabella chose to return to her native Angouleme where she subsequently married Hugh de Lusignan and went on to present Henry with nine half-siblings. It is testament to how much Henry desired to be loved that he would make his Lusignan half-brothers more than welcome in England, despite the protesting grumbling of his barons.

So: our little Henry must have been lonely. A dead father, a mother who abandoned him. Yes, he had a brother he loved dearly, and yes, he definitely had older men who acted as regents in his name, but ultimately he was still a child, however much a king he was expected to act. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising if Henry grew up to be reserved, turning inwards rather than outwards. Neither is it a surprise that he found solace in his faith – Henry is described as being a most pious king. And here, dear readers, lies the seed to the magnificent legacy Henry III did leave us: Westminster Abbey.

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Westminster abbey, photo Bede 735

Westminster Abbey qualifies as one of my favourite places. I don’t go there to gawk at the headstones and effigies of the famous, I go there to imbue the atmosphere, to sit in the Chapter House, peek at the cloister gardens. I go there to rest my head against the stone and listen to the sounds of all those who’ve walked here before me, a silent shuffling and rustling as shadowy monks, richly dressed magnates, the odd veiled woman pass by. Yes, yes: of course I know I’m imagining things – or am I?

Westminster Abbey is first and foremost a church, built in testimony of deep faith. Two English kings were to spend the equivalent of a major fortune on this their favourite church – one of whom is today’s protagonist, Henry III – but the origins are far older than that. In fact, we probably have the Romans to thank for the original settlement on what was then known as Thorn Ey (Island of the brambles), a small patch of solid land in the marsh that abutted the northern shore of the Thames. You see, the Romans had a logistic problem: somehow they wanted to join up Watling Street with Dover Street, and the self-evident intersection was round Thorn Ey, where the Thames was fordable at low tide.

As to the abbey, its roots are lost in antiquity. As per one legend, the Romans built a temple to Apollo on the present day site of the abbey. Out went the Romans, in came the barbarous Saxons, and the temple was razed to the ground, a forgotten ruin, no more, until King Sebert of Essex (a gentleman who lived in the 7th century) saw the light and decided to build a church on top of the Roman ruins to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.

Unfortunately, there is little proof of this ancient church. The Westminster monks went a bit wild and crazy in the 11th century, producing a number of skillful forgeries in their attempts to substantiate Westminster Abbey’s claim to be the oldest Christian abbey in England. In the event, Glastonbury won that particular fight after having produced their own legend, that of  Joseph of Arimathea, come to England in the aftermath of Jesus’ death with the Holy Grail and a staff that was to take root and become the Glastonbury thorn. Whether true or not, I leave to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.

The 11th century ushered in a Danish dynasty and Knut (Canute), son of Sven Tveskägg became king of all of England in 1016. He rather liked Westminster, despite having issues with the temperamental tides of the Thames, so he decided to build a royal palace next door to the monastery. In doing so, Knut indirectly forged the first of several links that would forever tie the future abbey to the English royals.

By then, Westminster had grown into one of the more important monasteries in England. Several years of royal patronage had resulted in a wealthy monastery, and an impressive collection of relics ensured a steady stream of eager pilgrims.

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Westminster Abbey as per the Bayeux Tapestry

The Danish dynasty was to be one of the more short-lived in England, and in 1043, Edward the Confessor (of Wessex royal blood) became king. He expended a fortune on Westminster Abbey, as per tradition because he’d promised to make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s grave in Rome should he ever regain his crown from the Danes. Once crowned, he was reluctant to leave his kingdom, and he instead promised to build  – or enlarge and restore – a monastery dedicated to St Peter. Somewhat coincidental, all this, seeing as just opposite the royal palace in Westminster was a monastery dedicated to…taa-daa…St Peter.

The church Edward built was,by all accounts, magnificent, and people gawked and exclaimed as stone by stone, the building rose towards the heavens, testament to Edward’s faith and unswerving determination to build one of the finest churches in Christendom. Unfortunately for Edward, he never got to enjoy his finished church. He sickened some days after Christmas of 1065, was incapable of attending the consecration and instead was buried in Westminster Abbey – in front of the altar in early January 1066. A not so auspicious start to that particular year, one could say…

Anyway: as we all know, William the Conqueror defeated Harold in October of 1066, had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and as of that day the kings of England were Norman. Henry III was the great-great-great-grandson of William but shared few characteristics with his bellicose and determined ancestor. Where William was more into world dominion, Henry was more into the arty stuff in life, which to some extent explains why he chose to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and dark Westminster Abbey church into what it is today. Plus, of course, Henry was determined not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.

The two young kings were of an age – Henry was born in 1207, Louis in 1214. They were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the Count of Provence. Both were pious – very pious. If Henry went to mass every day – so did Louis. Louis fed hundreds of orphans – so did Henry. One gave alms – so did the other. If Henry went on pilgrimages, chances are Louis would also go. When Louis washed the feet of lepers to show his humility, very soon after, Henry was also washing leprous feet. A competition in being the most Christian king, one could say, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood to proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.

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Sainte-Chapelle, photo Michael D Hill

Then, of course, Louis went ahead and started building Sainte-Chapelle – he needed an adequately beautiful church to store all those precious relics of his. Sainte-Chapelle was (is) a work of art and light. The upper part of the chapel was given fifteen huge stained glass windows, allowing light to stream in and illuminate the magnificently painted walls, the resplendent fabrics, the life-size statues of the apostles, and, of course, the huge silver chest in which Louis stored his precious relics.

What did Henry have that could match this? Nothing. Nada. Yes, Westminster Abbey was steeped in history, but did it have a lofty nave, did it invite the heavens to come within? Nope. So Henry rolled up his sleeves – figuratively speaking – and decided to rebuild, to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done. (Okay, so it wasn’t only because of Louis – after all, Henry had always had a major interest for art and architecture…)

Henry had a trump card: within the abbey was the shrine to St Edward the Confessor – Henry’s patron saint – and Sainte-Chapelle had no such shrine, no such saint. (Although, to be honest, I find it difficult to understand why Edward was ever canonised. Neither here nor there…)

The shrine was remodelled. It was decked out with paint and gold-leaf, it was so adorned it immediately drew the eyes of any visitor, rising huge beyond the altar. The nave was rebuilt, rising to new heights. Light streamed in – not, perhaps, as much as in Louis’ chapel, but substantially more than before. And then Henry turned to the decoration within.

We may be excused for believing medieval churches were austere, mostly whitewash and wood – modern man has a tendency to equate starkness with piety. In truth, entering a medieval church was an assault on the senses, and especially that of sight. The walls were painted with scenes from the bible, statues glowed in blues and reds and golds, pillars rose towards the ceiling decorated with stonework and colour. Candles cast further light on gold decorations, glimmered off priceless church silver. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, dappling the floor with coloured reflections. A bit, I imagine, like entering a full-size kaleidoscope, with so much to see, so much to gawk at.

This was the reaction Henry strived for. He wanted people to enter and stop, amazed at what they saw within. So not only did he lift the nave, order the walls to be painted and decorated, St Edward’s shrine to be adequately highlighted and gilded, he also added a magnificent floor just before the shrine, and to top it all off, the high altar was adorned with a magnificent retable.

Amazingly, the Westminster Retable is still with us. Close to eight centuries old, badly damaged and scuffed, it is still there, still retains sufficient traces of the images that must at one time have had people going ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’. To be frank, it is difficult not to do the ‘ooo’ and ‘aaa’ thing now as well – assuming you’ve taken the time to find the retable, which relatively few visitors to the abbey do, seeing as they never feel sufficiently motivated to visit the museum.

EHFA Westminster retableI, of course, have found my way to the museum – and will gladly admit that I’m somewhat in love with the retable. Specifically, I am intrigued by one image, that of Christ holding the whole world in his hand. Because you see, dear readers, the world Christ is holding is round. It’s a sphere. On a work of art from the 13th century. I shall leave you to mull that one over…

As an aside, it is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were stripped of what was considered as excessively popish decorations, wall paintings were hidden under whitewash, statues of saints and the Virgin destroyed. And then, during the English Civil War, the Puritans had a tendency to go wild and crazy when it came to what they perceived as idolatry. The retable was not destroyed. It was just bundled off into storage somewhere, and in the 18th century someone came up with the bright idea to use the ancient thing – newly painted – as a cask for William Pitt the elder’s wax effigy.

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St Louis and the pope, Bibliotheque Nacionale de France

It is, I suppose, an open question which king succeeded in best demonstrating his piety to the world. In their constant competition, they left the world two marvels, the pure gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle and the somewhat more grounded Westminster Abbey, its ancient roots still visible. And as to which one of them was the most devout, that too must remain an open question, although Louis would probably sniff and tell me not to be an idiot: after all, there is no St Henry while there most definitely is a St Louis – and by all accounts, deservedly so.

 

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