Thursday, 12 December 2019

What to do with Amaury

Part of a letter from John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, to Pope Martin IV. This is dated April 1282 and concerns the release of Amaury de Montfort from prison.

Amaury was the youngest son of Simon de Monfort. He was the brother of Guy, the murderer of Henry of Almaine, and a papal chaplain and graduate of the Schools of Padua in Italy. Described as ‘a litigious man with a vitriolic tongue’, he accompanied his sister Eleanor in 1275 on their ill-fated voyage to North Wales. Amaury had been forbidden by Edward I from setting foot anywhere in the British Isles; in his defence Prince Llywelyn wrote to the king and claimed that Amaury had not intended to get off the ship.

Unsurprisingly, this argument cut no ice. Amaury was imprisoned at Corfe Castle for seven years, where he wrote a poem complaining of his unjust treatment. He cannot have been comforted by the knowledge that Corfe was the scene of the murder of Maud de Braose and her son, starved to death by Edward’s grandfather, King John. Later Archbishop Peckham was allowed to be Amaury’s warden, responsible for his safe-keeping. One pope after another begged Edward to release him. At last the archbishop, in a personal interview with the king at the castle of Devizes, in April 1282, got Edward’s consent to Amaury’s departure form the country.

As the archbishop observed in the report to Pope Martin IV, the timing was awkward. War in Wales had begun again, news which, in the common opinion, suggested the detention rather than the release of Amaury. The king decided to let him go against the counsel of the magnates of the realm, even though ‘the wishes and counsel of no few had been to the contrary’.

It seems the king simply wanted to be rid of the Montforts. Amaury was required to swear a solemn oath that he would never return to England. Amaury immediately went to France and on 22 May wrote to the king from Arras, thanking him for his grace, promising fidelity, and asking for liberty ‘to recover his rights’. The demand was either refused or ignored, so in December 1284 he began a suit in the court of Rome against Edmund, the king’s brother, for restitution of his inheritance. Amaury made little progress with his claim. He is known to have been in Paris in June 1286, and upon the death of his brother Guy renounced holy orders and took up knighthood. Amaury is thought to have retired to Italy and died in 1292, unmarried and childless.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Lacy's war

On the Feast of St John the Baptist (24 June) 1296, Henry de Lacy set out to besiege Dax, a fortified town just forty kilometres northeast of Bayonne, the main English stronghold in Gascony. Dax had fallen to the French in 1294, and its garrison threatened the ducal enclave in the south of the duchy.


Lacy chose to attack Dax while the French field army was concentrated on Bourg in the north. First he had to recreate the ducal army that had disintegrated after the death of his predecessor, Edmund of Lancaster. He was short of funds and could only hire one knight, Sir Montasivus de Noillan, who received £40 to serve with horses and arms for eight weeks. Montasivus had presumably completed his feudal term of service and now continued on mercenary pay.

Somehow Lacy scraped together enough men, and laid siege to Dax from about 24 June to 12 August. The Anglo-Gascons threw everything they had at the town, with daily assaults for almost seven weeks; the scale of the effort is reflected in financial accounts, which show the besiegers consumed almost £100 worth of wheat, while labourers were hired to press the attack by land and river.

The siege failed due to lack of food, and the build-up of another French army at nearby Mont-de-Marsan. Lacy was not prepared to risk the only English field army in Gascony in a pitched battle, so withdrew to Bayonne.

Lacy’s failure at Dax could also be attributed to the attitude of the citizens. Unlike many towns in southern Gascony, the people of Dax were not uniformly loyal to the king-duke of England: as early as 1278 Edward I had pardoned them for their ‘disobedience’. Immediately after the siege in 1296, on 25 August, Robert of Artois granted the citizens a privileged exemption from tolls. In context this looks like either a reward or a bribe. In addition, Dax does not appear on the lists of towns in Gascony that advanced loans to the English cause.

The war was rapidly drifting into stalemate: neither side made any ground in the roasting summer of 1296, and the English and French commanders had failed dismally in their siege operations.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Slave girls

Today is the (probable) anniversary of the death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in December 1282. Rather than go through the murky deed all over again, it might be worth rewinding a couple of generations.

In 1222 Llywelyn ab Iorwerth - Llywelyn the Great - asked Pope Honorius III to abolish the custom in Wales that illegitimate children could inherit just as if they were legitimate. Further, the prince asked that the pope would confirm Llywelyn’s statute that his son Dafydd, ‘by his legitimate wife Joan, daughter of the late king of England’, would succeed him in all his possessions.

Llywelyn’s original petition is lost, but several responses from the pope survive. The archives at Vatican City contain the pope’s final judgement:

“To the nobleman Lord Llywelyn of North Wales. Bringing about from us the attached petition. Certainly your petition showed that since some detestable custom or rather corruption has developed in the land subject to your authority - as evidently the son of the slave girl could be the heir together with the son of the free woman and illegitimate sons could obtain the inheritance just as the legitimate - you [Llywelyn] and your Lord Henry, illustrious king of the English, beloved sons of Christ, have agreed in harmony and also further with the intervening authority of our beloved sons, our venerable brother Archbishop Stephen of Canterbury…that Dafydd your son, who from Joan the daughter of Clementia and the king of England, your legal wife, should succeed in receiving your inheritance by right in all your possessions.”

Llywelyn’s elder son, Gruffudd, was thus condemned as ‘the son of the slave girl’ and barred from inheritance. Far from being a slave, his mother was in fact the daughter of King Reginald of Man. This was all swept aside by Llywelyn the Great, in his desire to get rid of his first wife and marry into the Plantagenets: one might draw comparisons with the behaviour of his eighth great-grandson, Henry VIII.

Gruffudd’s son was the aforesaid Prince Llywelyn, killed near Builth in 1282 by his kinsmen, the Mortimers. The decision of his grandfather Llywelyn the Great to change the inheritance laws in Wales meant that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was the son of a legally declared bastard and the grandson of a woman condemned as a slave by the Holy See. The Mortimers, on the other hand, were legitimate heirs via the female line of Llywelyn the Great’s son, Dafydd, who died without issue in 1246.

Whether or not the rules of succession influenced the rules of engagement near Builth in December 1282 is speculation, but it’s something else to throw in the mix.

Monday, 9 December 2019

The army that didn't vanish

It’s almost that time of year again - no, not Christmas. I refer to the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, on 10 or 11 December 1282.

The usual populist stuff is doing the rounds at the moment. One particular conspiracy theory refuses to go away. In his book ‘Ghosts on the Fairway: the Army that Vanished’ the late Anthony Edwards suggested that Llywelyn and his men were all murdered, after being lured to a peace conference in which they were persuaded to put down their weapons. After this act of remarkable stupidity, they were all slaughtered and dumped under a nearby field, which is now a golf course. Edwards challenged his critics to dig up the golf course. Nobody took him up on that, so - the theory goes - it must be true.

Edwards based his suggestion on the following line from the Chronicle of Peterborough:

“Furthermore, not one of the prince’s cavalry escaped death, but they were killed with 3000 of the foot and also the three magnates of the land who died with him; namely, Almafar, who was lord of Llanbadarn Fawr, Rhys ap Gruffudd, who was seneschal of all the land of the prince, and thirdly, it is thought, Llywelyn Fychan, who was lord of Bromfield; of the English, truly it is said, none in that place were killed or wounded”.

Because the chronicler states that no English were harmed, Edwards came up with his truce theory. To be fair to the author, it was only a suggestion on his part. It is now accepted and aggressively marketed as fact in certain quarters.

The Peterborough chronicler also states that Llywelyn’s army consisted of 160 cavalry and 7000 footsoldiers. If only 3000 of the foot were killed, that means the rest got away. If the Welsh had laid down their arms, it is difficult to see how over half the army could have escaped. This point is seldom acknowledged or discussed, because it is inconvenient to the narrative. You either use the source in full, or you don't. You don't get to pick and choose what you like and dump the rest.

Peterborough aside, there are over thirty chronicle, poetry and letter sources for the death of Llywelyn, English and Welsh, contemporary or near-contemporary. Many conflict with each other, a few make no sense at all, virtually all of them have some kind of spin or political bias. The one reasonable certainty is that Llywelyn was lured to an ambush by his cousins, Edmund and Roger Mortimer, and executed by their retainers. His army had either already been put to flight, or was ambushed and routed shortly afterwards. The context and motive for the killing is complicated, and can be traced all the way back to the time of Llywelyn the Great.

But people don’t like complicated. It gets in the way. It makes them think, and question, and engage with unpleasant realities they would rather ignore or avoid. People don’t like that sort of thing. I know I don’t.

Too bad. I doubt Llywelyn liked having his head cut off, but that’s what he got.


Sunday, 8 December 2019

A judgement of blood

In 1305, as most of us are aware, William Wallace was executed in London. That year witnessed another ‘state trial’, just as notorious at the time in England, though all but forgotten now.

The trial concerned Nicholas Segrave, younger brother of the John Segrave who was captured at the battle of Roslin and later presided over the sentencing of Wallace. In 1304, when the English army was in Scoland, Segrave quarrelled with another knight, John Cromwell, and challenged him to trial by combat.

Segrave knew the king would forbid the duel, and so asked Cromwell to accompany him to the French court in Paris, where trials by combat were permitted. Cromwell’s response is unknown, but Segrave deserted the army and fled south. He was arrested at Dover while trying to find a ship to carry him to France. While he awaited trial at Westminster, Segrave was imprisoned at Dover Castle. King Edward caustically ordered the constable of Dover to allow Segrave to exercise in the castle grounds, since “we well know that knight has no little talent for escape”.

Segrave was brought to trial in February 1305. He was charged with deserting the army in time of war, thus exposing the king to danger from his enemies. He was also charged with adjourning his case to the French court, thus subjecting the king and realm to the authority of a foreign power. After three days of deliberation, the earls and barons of England gave judgement that Segrave was guilty of treason, and therefore the penalty was death. They also gratuitously informed the king that he might show mercy, if he chose. At this Edward snapped:

“Fools - of course I can, but I will give no more mercy, just for your sake, than I would show a dog!”

When his feathers had settled down a bit, Edward declared he preferred the life to the death of one who had submitted to his will. Therefore he reversed the judgement of blood and decreed that Segrave should be pardoned and allowed to go free. In exchange the prisoner would find seven men to act as sureties for his future good behaviour. These sureties were called ‘manucaptors’, and they undertook to deliver Segrave to prison if he offended again.

The acquittal of Segrave stands in contrast to the judgement on Wallace, just a few months later. Edward’s attitude was not coloured by one being an Englishman and the other a Scot: the king did not comprehend nationalism and regarded the two peoples as being one and the same, certainly at aristocratic level. Possibly Segrave was pardoned because he submitted himself to the king’s grace and will, which Wallace refused to do.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

It's a trap!

Lacy’s war.

As they lay siege to Bourg in the summer of 1296, the French also attacked Bellegarde, a ducal bastide on the edge of English-held territory in southeast Gascony. The English are said to have ‘thrown themselves’ into Bellegarde, implying the attack was unexpected.

The French were led by Jean de Brienne, the young Count of Eu, and the provost of Toulouse. Neither seems to have been over-endowed with brains. When they arrived before the town, they found the gates had been left open. In the ‘boldness of his mind’, the young count decided to charge through the gates with a few followers, leaving the rest of his army outside.

Surprise, surprise - it was a trap. The gates clanged shut and the English rushed out from hiding. They put all the French to the sword with the exception of Jean himself, who was impaled with a lance. Incredibly, he survived and was ransomed, only to die six years later in the muddy carnage of Courtrai.

His lieutenant, the provost, decided now was the time for a really futile gesture. He drew his sword, leaped over the ditch under the walls of Bellegarde and cut through the nearest ropes. Alas, he failed to notice the ropes were attached to some beams on the battlements, upon which the citizens had placed baskets full of stones. The beams now overturned and tipped the stones onto his head, crushing him to death.

After witnessing this spectacular display of tomfoolery by their commanders, the French decided to call it a day and withdraw. And who can blame them.

The above pic is of the massive triple walled fortress built in the 18th century on top of the old medieval fortification at Bellegarde, to guard the borders of the First French Republic.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Lacy's war

In July 1296 the French army under Robert of Artois laid siege to Bourg. Along with Blaye, this was one of just two remaining English strongholds in northern Gascony. If it fell, Blaye would soon follow, and half the duchy would be lost.

One of the hazards of campaigning in Aquitaine, especially in high summer, was the prevalence of heat and subsequent disease. Artois himself was not a well man. His household accounts show frequent payments for medicines from April to July, used for himself and members of his household. These include syrups, potions, cordials and electuaries, probably used to treat fever and dysentery. While he lay siege to Bourg, supplies of rose-water, pomegranates, camomile and other herbs were bought specifically for Artois at Bordeaux and Bergerac, and then carried to the French camp.

Rather than sweat and poo himself to death, Artois handed over command of the siege to the Sire de Sully, a French knight, and went off to recover elsewhere. He continued to be treated with an increasingly bizzare set of medicines, including crystallized rose petals and violets, Damascus rose-water and fifty pomegranates. To keep his spirits up, the count was entertained by a fool and a female dwarf. The mind boggles.

Meanwhile the French continued to bombard the town. It seemed Bourg must fall, but then cometh the hour, cometh the man. The man was Sir Simon Montague, a knight of Somerset. Simon, described as ‘miles strenuus et cordatus’ - a valiant and prudent knight - grabbed a supply ship, sailed it down the Gironde and smashed through the French blockade to bring vital provisions to Bourg.

Seeing this, the Sire de Sully gave up and withdrew. Edward I sent a letter contragulating the garrison on their successful defence, and fresh supplies of corn, hay, beans, bacon and other victuals were rushed over from England to stock the town.