Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Men of his own tongue

On 25 April 1283 the defenders of Castell y Bere in the heart of North Wales surrendered to the armies of Edward I. In exchange for handing over the castle, they received about two-thirds of a promised bribe of £80 in silver: the shortfall might have rankled, but they were probably just relieved to get away with life and limb.

Castell y Bere

The fall of Bere was an important step in the Edwardian conquest of Wales. Seen from other perspectives, it was one of the final acts in a very long-running drama. Among the royal commanders were Rhys ap Maredudd, lord of Ystrad Tywi in south Wales, and several of the sons of Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, lord of southern Powys. These men chose to fight for the King of England against the Prince of Wales because the latter, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, was their hereditary enemy.

The conflict between the lords of southern Powys (Powys Gwenwynwyn) and Prince Llywelyn's family went back over two hundred years. Their ancestor, Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, had once ruled Gwynedd and Powys in the mid-eleventh century, including the site of Castell y Bere inside Meirionydd. Bleddyn lost Gwynedd to the ancestors of Llywelyn, and a feud had rumbled on ever since. At times the lords of Powys joined with their ancestral foes against the English, but they were uneasy allies. Gruffudd had been Llywelyn's ally for a time, only to conspire with his brother Dafydd to murder the prince in his bed.

That plot had failed, but in December 1282 Llywelyn fell victim to another. The Chronicle of Peterborough Abbey claims that Gruffudd and his sons were present at the death, and it is difficult to believe they were not complicit in luring Llywelyn to his doom. After his death, the crown of Wales passed to his treacherous brother Dafydd, who continued to resist Edward's invasion. This meant that the former conspirators, Gruffudd and Dafydd, were now on opposite sides.

It seems Edward was well aware of the feuds between rival dynasties in Wales, and the value of symbolism. When Bere fell, the castle was handed over to one of Gruffudd's sons – ironically named Llywelyn – and a force of Powysian soldiers. The lions of Gwynedd were torn down from the battlements and replaced with the red lion rampant of Powys Gwenwynwyn:

The symbolic significance, and the irony, of his custody of the castle built by his grandfather's great enemy, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, in the heart of the land that had long ago been held by members of his dynasty, cannot have been lost on Llywelyn or his father. The revenge of the house of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn was complete. (David Stephenson)

In the spring and summer months of 1283 the war devolved into a man-hunt. After the loss of his castles, Dafydd and his remaining followers scattered and went on the run. The payroll for this campaign shows the men of Powys were heavily involved in hunting down the fugitive prince. For instance:

Item, payment to William de Felton and David ap Griffin ap Wenonwin, with 2 covered horses, for themselves and 140 foot-soldiers returning with them to Cymer from the parts of Powys, seeking David ap Griffin, for Saturday 22 May, for 1 day, 26s 6d.


Item, to the same William and David ap Griff’ ap Wenonwin, with 2 covered horses, for themselves and 200 foot-soldiers going towards the parts of Powys, for Tuesday 18 May, the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday following, for 4 days, each day counted, £7 8s, to pursue David ap Griffin.

These payments indicate Dafydd was thought to be hiding somewhere in Powys, perhaps on the lands of one of his late brother's followers, Llywelyn Fychan of Bromfield. He was eventually caught on 22 June on the Bera mountain in Gwynedd, by 'men of his own tongue'; possibly men of Gwynedd, or perhaps of Powys and Ystrad Tywi.

The killing of Prince Llywelyn

In the final days of the war, on 28 June, Gruffudd and his Marcher ally Edmund Mortimer were ordered to clear all the passes under their control of trees. This was because one of Dafydd's sons, Llywelyn, was lurking with 'certain thieves' inside the woods; the last dregs of resistance. Gruffudd and Edmund's men soon flushed them out and delivered Llywelyn into royal custody. His fate was to spend the rest of his days as a prisoner at Bristol Castle with his younger brother, Owain.

A few years later Gruffudd died in his bed at Welshpool, aged about 65. He had been entirely successful:

It was thus, with the territorial extent of his lordship largely restored and in one region extended significantly beyond the territories that he had entered in 1242, with his principal rivals eliminated and his erstwhile persecutor, Prince Llywelyn, dead and his house all but destroyed, that Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn died in 1286. (David Stephenson)

Friday, 12 June 2020

Split open to the teeth

In the summer of 1296, while Edward I launched his invasion of Scotland, a number of similar conflicts raged in the Iberian kingdoms south of the Pyrenees. One particular war, the invasion of Murcia by Jaume II of Aragon, shows how monarchs of this era would seize upon the weakness of their neighbours to seize power and territory.

At first King Jaume (reigned 1291-1327) was on friendly terms with the kingdom of Castile, but later intrigued to depose the boy-king, Fernando IV, and to divide Castile-Léon among Fernando's kinsman. The civil war that ensued left Jaume with a free hand to invade the province of Murcia in south-east Spain.

Jaume II presiding over his court

Murcia had once been part of the
Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba , only  to be captured during the Reconquista in the 1240s. In the early years of his reign, Jaume had agreed to a division of Murcia with Aragon, but in 1296 he tore up the agreement and launched a full-scale invasion. Distracted by their internal divisions, the Castilians could do nothing to stop him.

The progress of Jaume's invasion is vividly recorded by Roman Muntáner, a Catalan mercenary and writer who would later lead a 'Free Company' to help the Eastern Romans fight the Turks (before promptly changing sides and helping the Turks fight the Eastern Romans). In July 1296, even while John Balliol was being stripped of his empty coat in Scotland, the armies of Aragon swept over the borders into Murcia and laid siege to the town and castle of Alicante.

The castle should have been a tough nut to crack. The Castillo de Santa Bárbara (pictured) was a mighty fortress perched on the heights of Mount Benacantil. Originally a Moorish stronghold, it had been captured by Castilian forces in 1248, who named it after the feast day of St Bárbara.

Fortunately for Jaume, it was in poor repair. According to Muntáner, the king led his knights on foot up the slopes of the mountain to attack the castle gates. They found part of the wall had fallen in, and attempted to storm the breach. Jaume was almost killed when one of the defenders, a 'big and brave' knight, hurled a hunting spear at him. It penetrated the first quarter of the king's shield, more than half a palm's length, but stopped short. Jaume rushed at his attacker and gave him such a blow the king's sword carved through the cap of mail and split him open to the teeth. Jaume then pulled his blade free, attacked another knight and lopped off his entire arm and shoulder. It seems Jaume was no less fearsome in a fight than the likes of Richard Marshal, Saint Louis et al. 

The knights of Aragon poured through the breach and made short work of the defenders. Jaume himself killed five more men, and no mercy was shown to the 'alcaide' or Christian constable of the garrison. This man, En Nicholas Peris, defended himself stoutly with sword in one hand and a bunch of keys in the other. Muntáner remarks that his defence was of little use, since he was cut to pieces. Afterwards Jaume ordered that the corpse was not to be given Christian burial, but instead thrown to the dogs as a traitor.

Muntáner uses the alcaide's dire fate as a lesson to other men who wish to betray their lords:

Wherefore, Lords, you who shall hear this book, be careful when you hold a castle for a lord. The first thing he who is holding a castle for a lord should have at heart, should be to save the castle for his lord; the other, to leave it only with honour for himself and his descendants...for in one day and one night that happens which no man imagined could happen.”

The rest of Jaume's campaign was little more than a military promenade, as one town and castle after another fell without offering much resistance. After the city of Murcia itself had fallen, Jaume installed garrisons and appointed his brother, En Jaime Pedro, as governor or procurator of the newly conquered territory.

Jaume's lightning campaign and apparently easy victory were as deceptive as Edward's triumph in Scotland. His success relied on the turmoil in Castile, and when Fernando gained his majority Jaume's position was weakened. In 1304 he entered into renewed negotiations with Castile over the division of Murcia, which ended in the agreement of Torrellas on 8 August. Most of Murcia was restored to the Castilians, with the exception of Alicante, Eliche and Orihuela, and the territory north of the river Segura. Jaume's allies in Castile were also forced to renounce their claims to the throne. 

Not to worry, though. Once the matter of Murcia was settled, Jaume and Fernando joined forces to carve up the Islamic kingdom of Granada. And so it went on.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

'For the glory of your cause...'

The Anglo-French war between Edward I and Philip IV was a mightily confusing affair. After several years of bloody stalemate in Aquitaine (south-west France) both kings decided to widen the conflict into northern Europe. They set about spending vast reservoirs of cash on recruiting allies in the Low Countries, Scotland, Norway and the Holy Roman Empire: both kings intended to use these alliances as part of a strategy of encirclement to stretch each other’s military capacity to breaking point. In practice they simply cancelled each other out.

It didn’t help that many of their allies took the money on offer and ran, or used it for their own purposes. Adolf of Nassau, one of Edward’s allies and King of the Romans, used his English funds to wage two private wars in Thuringia in east-central Germany. By doing so he earned Edward’s undying wrath and the hatred of his own people, which ended very badly for him (perhaps the subject of another blog post).

Edward got better service from another set of allies in Adolf’s territory. These were a league of nobles in Franche-Comté, now eastern Burgundy in France. Edward had some bitter memories of this region. In 1274, on his way back from the Holy Land, he was invited to take part in a tournament in Franche-Comté. The local bigwig, the Comte d’Auxerre, had really lured Edward into a trap with the intention of capturing the English king and holding him to ransom. The plan backfired when Edward threw the count from his horse and ordered his infantry to slaughter the Burgundian knights:

He said to his men, "Spare no-one you set eyes on now, and do the same to them as they are doing to us." So they began killing the other side, savagely attacking them everywhere with the sword. The men on foot had retreated from the slaughter of their fellows when they saw many of their people fall, but boldly joined the combat of the mounted men; they gutted many of the horses and cut their girths, so that their riders fell to the ground.” (Henry of Knighton)

A contemporary German depiction of a tournament

Over twenty years later, in 1297, Edward hired these same nobles to fight for him against Philip. Led by Jean de Arlay, a kinsman of the man humiliated by Edward in 1274, they agreed to serve for a payment of 60,000 livres tournois for the first year of the alliance, with 30,000 in each subsequent year

Unlike many of the so-called Grand Alliance, the Burgundians actually went into action. Jean and his followers had vested interests in doing so. At this time Franche-Comté was still part of the empire, which made them vassals of King Adolf. Philip wanted to conquer the region, and to that end had bought out Count Othon IV of Burgundy, a feckless character who was quite happy to sell his inheritance for a comfortable life at the French court. When the barons of Franche-Comté heard of the deal, they swore an oath never to surrender their lands and ancient rights to the French king.

In the spring of 1297 the Burgundians met Adolf at Koblenz, where he gave them money and promised to send German troops to aid them before 22 July. Despite his thunderous public denouncements of Philip, Adolf failed to deliver on any of his promises. The French didn’t take him seriously at all. Charles of Valois, Philip’s brother, is said to have sent Adolf a letter containing just two words - ‘Troupe Almande’, which translates as ‘Too German’ or even ‘Stupid German’.

King Edward finally landed in Flanders on 23 August. The campaign that followed was a mess and a muddle, if not quite the total fiasco often depicted. After several weeks of farcical manoeuvres and vicious brawling between Flemish and Welsh infantry, the allies started to get themselves in gear. On 6 October they stormed Damme, the port town of Bruges and the most direct route to the Channel. Two days later Edward received a triumphant message from Jean de Arlay:

Most dear sire, this is to inform you, that on Tuesday, the eve of the feast of Saint Denis, myself and my companions of Burgundy captured and razed the castle of Ornans, which was held by Burgundy of the King of France and was the strongest castle in the whole of Burgundy. And know that, I and my other comrades broke down the walls of the castle and forced our way inside, and secured the castle, and took nine prisoners and a great quantity…put a large number to the sword, apart from those who threw themselves down below the rock…”

The remains of the castle of Ornans
Ornans, a dramatic fortress perched upon an outcrop, was the birthplace of Jean’s bitter enemy, Count Othon. Some of the defenders, poor souls, hurled themselves off the high precipice overlooking the valley. Afterwards the town and castle were looted and burnt, and Jean wrote a second letter promising to join Edward in Flanders, ‘for the glory of your cause’.

The English king had also received a note from two more of his allies, the counts of Bar and Savoy. They were gathering troops on the eastern borders of France and would also ride to join him. At this point Edward might have been tempted to continue the war. His chief ally, Count Guy of Flanders, begged him to carry on. The rains would soon come, Guy pointed out, and force the French to retreat.

Edward had a difficult choice to make. By now he had received word of the revolt in Scotland, where his northern army under Earl Warenne had been smashed at Stirling Bridge. The Scots under William Wallace had invaded and ravaged the northern counties. Edward did not trust his lieutenants to deal with the mess, but neither did he wish to completely abandon the war against France.

He compromised. In March 1298, from his new base at Aardenburg near the Zeeland border, Edward renewed his contract with the Burgundians. The said nobles agreed to ‘make and continue lively and open war’ against the French until a final peace was made. In return they would be paid another 30,000 livres tournois on top of the 60,000 they had already been paid, to be handed over in two instalments in June and December.

A few days later Edward set sail for home. While he mounted an enormous military operation to defeat Wallace, the Burgundians continued to harry the French. They destroyed more castles in Franche-Comté, including Clairvaux and the ‘hall’ or palace of Pontarlier. At one point they captured the bailiff of Mâcon, Count Othon’s lieutenant, and locked him up with other French prisoners in the castle of Roulans. The Burgundians were still active in September 1299, when Philip engaged a local knight, Geoffrey d’Aucelles, to defend his town of Gray against the rebels and deliver them to the king if they fell into his hands. Philip’s particular enemy, Jean de Arlay, was named as one of the targets.

A final peace was struck in 1301. By this point the Grand Alliance had collapsed into dust, and the rival kings had buried the hatchet. This left Jean de Arlay and his associates with little choice but to sue for peace. Philip was merciful. Instead of destroying the Burgundians he offered to pardon them all, if they swore homage and agreed to pay for the damage they had committed during the war. This was a bitter deal, since it meant Franche-Comté would become part of a greater France. Philip sugared the pill by offering to make Jean constable of the Franche-Comté. Jean accepted, and another piece of the tottering German empire was swallowed up.


Sunday, 7 June 2020

Bruce and the king

On the anniversary of the death of Robert de Bruce, King of Scots, in 1329, I thought it would be interesting to look at his relationship with Edward I of England.

What was Bruce’s attitude towards the would-be conqueror of Scotland? Bruce’s private opinion is a mystery, of course, but circumstances dictated his behaviour. There were many other factors at work. Bruce was not too proud - or too patriotic either - to make use of the English king when it suited him. Edward in turn appreciated Bruce’s value as an ally, and the shock of the latter’s final revolt may well have hastened the old king’s death.

To begin with, the Bruce faction were thoroughly on board with Edward’s Scottish project. They rode with the king when he invaded Scotland in 1296, which led to accusations of treachery from Scottish writers. As Walter Bower later put it:

"All the supporters of Bruce’s party were generally considered traitors to the king and kingdom…”

Just like anyone else, the Bruces were out for themselves. They supported Edward in the hope that he would depose John Balliol and put a Bruce on the Scottish throne: Bruce’s father, the sixth earl of Carrick. Balliol was duly dethroned and sent off to captivity in England, but Bruce senior’s tentative reminder met with a stern brush-off from the king:

“Have we nothing else to do than win kingdoms for you?”

Edward had no reason to fear the earl: he had always obeyed the king, and served him faithfully in Wales and Ireland. Bruce junior was made of sterner stuff, even if he took a while to show it. When Andrew Moray and William Wallace raised their standard in 1297, Bruce and other nobles threw in their lot with the ‘rebels’. In July they promptly threw in the towel before Edward’s captains, only to be shown up by Moray and Wallace’s stunning victory at Stirling Bridge in September.

The news of Stirling Bridge inspired Bruce to go back into revolt. When Edward came north again in 1298 - ‘a great black storm of rage’- as one writer put it - Bruce remained a Scottish loyalist. After his victory at Falkirk, Edward turned west and rushed over to Ayr to try and catch Bruce in his stronghold. He found his quarry long gone, vanished into the hills, and the town and castle in flames.

Bruce’s eyes were firmly fixed on the empty throne. He knew that Wallace would not survive as Guardian much longer, and that the rival Comyn faction was planning to take over. Bruce could not allow that to happen, but ended up sharing power with his chief rival, John ‘the red’ Comyn of Badenoch. This uneasy alliance ended in a fight, in which Comyn is said to have seized Bruce warmly by the throat. More bad news arrived from France, where John Balliol was now in papal custody. For a few awful months it looked as though Balliol might return to Scotland at the head of a French army.

This was an equally horrifying prospect for Edward, which meant he and Bruce now had shared interests. In early 1302 Bruce turned himself in at Lochmaben and surrendered to the king’s keeper of Galloway, John de St John. For the next four years he was Edward’s man, at least on the surface. We can only speculate, but it would seem that Bruce meant to use Edward to crush the opposition in Scotland, before breaking loose to claim the throne. Therefore his aim was to achieve a free and independent Scotland, but only with himself as king.

This, at any rate, is what happened. In 1304, when Edward launched his final all-out effort at conquest, Bruce played a key role. He was with the Irish when they landed on the western seaboard, and supplied the king with artillery for the siege of Stirling. Edward seems to have regarded Bruce as his best boy at this point, and sent him a letter applauding his efforts:

“For if you complete that there which you have begun, we shall hold the war ended by your deed, and all the land of Scotland gained. So we pray you again, as much as we can, that whereas the robe is well made, you will be pleased to make the hood.”

Contemporary MS illustration of Edward I

Bruce’s long-term goal was in sight. Edward was an old man in poor health, albeit with an irritating tendency to rally. Even as English war-machines pounded the walls of Stirling, Bruce was arranging his future. On 11 June he met secretly with the Bishop of St Andrews at the abbey of Cambuskenneth, where they finalised a treaty of mutual aid. The treaty did not state as much, but the implication is that Scotland’s most senior churchman had agreed to support Bruce’s bid for the throne.

Yet the time was not ripe. Edward was not ready to keel over just yet, and in February 1305 Bruce attended parliament at Westminster to advise on the Ordinance for Scotland’s new government. This was a surprisingly conciliatory effort on Edward’s part to include the Scottish magnates in his administration: Bruce, now thirty years old and in the prime of life, was rewarded with the revenues of the earldom of Mar.

No amount of gifts and compromise would conceal the hard fact that Edward was once again overlord - ‘Lord Paramount’ - of Scotland, and that he called the shots. Bruce bided his time, perhaps encouraged by the increasing frailty of England’s king. Of more concern was the growing power and influence of the Comyns in Scotland. Since he gave up the guardianship, the Comyns had come to dominate affairs north of the border, which presented Bruce with another problem. Edward had defeated John Comyn, or at least persuaded him to submit, but (most annoyingly) allowed the man to live. Indeed, the Comyns had flourished since: most of the Scottish delegates to London, chosen at Perth or Scone in May 1305, were of their faction.

This was no good at all. Bruce had to change tack, and the result was the famous meeting at a church in Dumfries on 10 February 1306. Here, John Comyn and his uncle were done to death by Bruce and his followers in an almost certainly pre-meditated double homicide. After the bloody deed was done, Bruce went into open revolt.

The news of the crime, when it reached Edward, was almost too shocking to believe. At first Edward had no idea who was responsible. When he found out, according to John Barbour, the king temporarily lost his reason:

“And when King Edward was told how the Bruce, who was so bold, had ended the life of the Comyn, and then had made himself King, he nearly went out of his mind.”

The rest is well-known. Edward spent the remaining months of his life attempting to catch ‘King Hobbe’ (as he termed Bruce) from a sickbed. At first Bruce suffered a string of defeats, but emerged from hiding in the spring of 1307 to harry Edward’s forces. The dying king executed every male Bruce he could lay his hands on, and shut up the women in solitary confinement, but his chief quarry always remained beyond reach. In the end Edward was striking at a mirror of himself:

“A crowned warrior, careless of men’s lives, who meant to have his way at any price.”

The mirror finally crack’d for Edward on 7 July 1307, at a bleak outpost in the Cumbrian marshes. King Hobbe still had a long war ahead of him, with no guarantee of success, but the first hurdle was overcome.