Monday, 1 June 2020


On 15 May 1266 (I’m late, as usual), the Disinherited barons under Robert de Ferrers, 6th Earl of Derby, suffered a bad defeat at Chesterfield in Derbyshire. It was more of an ambush than a pitched battle, in which the rebels were attacked as they lay in camp outside the town. Some of them were even confident enough to go off hunting in the woods, and were thus taken completely by surprise.

The royalist army was led by Henry of Almaine, Henry III’s nephew, and his lieutenants Earl Warenne and Warin of Basingbourne. Warin was the chap who raised his helm at the battle of Evesham and delivered a speech to the royalist knights, just as they were on the point of breaking:

“Again, traitors again,

And remember how vilely ye were brought to the

ground at Lewes,

Turn again,

And think that the power is now all ours,

And we shall,

As if they were nought,

Overcome them to a certainty.”

Earl Ferrers was a sickly fellow. He had inherited the family curse of gout, and on the day of battle was lying flat on his back in his pavilion, having his blood let. This was a common remedy for gout, though one imagines the treatment was worse than the malady. His comrades Sir John de Eyvill, Henry Hastings and Baldwin Wake had led the hunting party into the forest, to chase after deer with spear and bow.

A pleasant time was being had by all, then, but not for long. As soon as word of the northern conspiracy reached London, Henry of Almaine had raced north to deal with the threat. Whatever their faults, all the Angevins could move at speed when they wanted to, and his army arrived near Chesterfield at dusk after a forced march.

The royalists attacked at once. Ferrers’s men scattered, while the earl himself fled into Chesterfield - trailing blood and stained bandages - and took refuge in a church. The only serious resistance came from John de Eyvill and his fellows, who stormed back from the woods and hurled themselves at the enemy. John was knocked off his horse by a royalist knight, Gilbert Haunsard, but climbed aboard a spare:

“With a lance he brought a knight at the first onset down;

Yet he broke through the host, and wounded many a one.”

John and his comrades saw the battle was lost, and fled back into the forest. They made their way back to the Isle of Axholme, an impregnable hideout deep inside the dreary fens of Lincolnshire:

“The Deyvill escaped, bold and valiant,

Into the Isle of Axholme, where he was before.”

There was no such escape for Earl Ferrers. Not exactly a born hero, he was eventually found hiding under a pile of woolsacks in the church. His position was given away by a young woman of Chesterfield, whose lover Ferrers had allegedly hanged outside the town gates. He was packed off to prison at Windsor, where he spent the next three years cooling his heels in (probably quite comfortable) captivity. His men weren’t so lucky. At least one of the earl’s knights, Henry Ireton, was killed in the fight outside Chesterfield. Another, Robert de Wollerton, was taken and hanged on Sheene hillside. The rest scattered into the wilds of Sherwood and the High Peak, where they gathered in sullen bands and plotted revenge:

“They collected in bands in the woods, which were suitable hiding-places, and made hide-outs in various places. They were more dangerous to meet than she-bears robbed of their cubs and seized everything they wanted from anywhere.

- the Bury chronicler

Thus England continued to slide into ruin and chaos. As the Scottish chronicler, Walter Bower, put it - nowhere was there peace, nowhere security.




Saturday, 30 May 2020

Mercy and ferocity

The future Edward I of England had an unpromising start to his career. He was surprisingly malleable, torn between loyalty to his father, Henry III, and the rebel barons led by Simon de Montfort. At one point he was suspected of conspiring to depose the king, and his habit of oath-breaking was satirised in a Montfortian ballad, The Song of Lewes:

He is a lion by his pride and ferocity; by his inconstantly and changeableness he is a pard, not holding steadily his word or his promise, and excusing himself with fair words.”

The nadir of the young Edward’s fortunes came at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, when his undisciplined pursuit of the Londoners lost the battle for his father. He spent a year in humiliating captivity, which gave Edward much time to ponder his mistakes. In the summer of 1265 he broke free and staged a dramatic coup that ended in the bloody slaughter of Evesham. The massacre of Earl Simon and his followers saddled Edward with fresh problems, as he was now the target of a blood-feud.

When the revolt of the Disinherited broke out, Edward was among the first to seize forfeit land and money. He wasn’t quite as rapacious as his colleague Earl Gilbert de Clare, the ‘red dog’ of Gloucester, but certainly grabbed his share. Among other lands, Edward seized the manor of Luton, once in the possession of Henry de Montfort. Henry had been cut in half by a broadsword at Evesham, and Edward wept at his funeral. He managed to wipe away his tears before taking possession of Luton just four days later.

Over the winter months of 1265, Edward came to realise two things. First, the sheer folly of the policy of disinheritance, which left half the landed class of England destitute and with no option except to fight. Second, the pressing need to reconstruct his reputation in the public eye. A prince who was perceived as faithless, one who waged war on his own people, was never going to enjoy popular support.

The first sign of his changed attitude was at Axholme in Lincolnshire, where Edward laid siege to a nest of rebel barons holed up in the dreary fens. When they eventually surrendered, he spared their lives on condition they stood trial at London. Predictably, every one of the barons broke their oath and went back into rebellion.

Edward showed the same clemency in further military operations. After he stormed the rebel-held town of Winchelsea, he spared the townsfolk on condition they abandoned their lives of piracy. As a result of his mercy, ‘great tranquillity was spread over that sea’. Nor was there any question of disinheritance. Instead the barons of the port towns were permitted to have their lands, houses and chattels, as well as ancient liberties guaranteed by the king and his predecessors.

A few months later Edward defeated the outlaw knight, Adam Gurdon, and let him live: this clemency was not extended to Adam’s peasant followers, who were hanged on the trees of Alton forest. In 1267 Edward raced north to crush the revolt of John de Vescy in Northumbria, and spared the ringleaders after he stormed their base at Alnwick Castle. John had carried the severed foot of Simon de Montfort back to Alnwick and kept it inside a silver shoe; it was said to have magic healing properties, but proved unable to repel swords and arrows.  

This policy had the desired effect. Edward’s reputation soared among English chroniclers. In place of the devious ‘Leopard’ of earlier years, he was now ‘a gallant knight who should be king hereafter’; the king’s ‘renowned first-born son’; one ‘whose mercy is always inestimable and universal’.

Edward arguably took mercy too far. He pardoned a dangerous pirate, Henry Pethun, and an outlaw named Walter Devyas. These men showed their gratitude by immediately reverting to lives of crime. Henry Pethun vanished on the high seas, never to be seen again, but Walter was finally caught on the Scottish border and beheaded for his many arsons, robberies and murders.

All of this is virtually unrecognisable from the Longshanks of popular imagination: the ruthless tyrant who brutally executed William Wallace and harried the Welsh and the Scots without mercy. The truth is that the gallant knight and the brutal conqueror existed in the same man. Much of the success of Edward’s reign was due to the calculated mercy he showed after Evesham. Men who had surrendered to him, such as Adam Gurdon and John de Vescy, served him loyally in the Welsh and Scottish wars. The king’s peculiar mixture of ferocity and mercifulness was expressed in The Song of Caerlaverock, composed in 1300:

“For none experience his bite

Who are not envenomed by it.

But he is soon revised

With sweet good-naturedness

If they seek his friendship

And wish to come to his peace”.



Friday, 29 May 2020

To the woods and fields

The death of Simon de Montfort and most of his captains at Evesham in 1265 left their supporters in England scattered and divided. When the war of the Disinherited blew up the following year, the rebels had to adopt new tactics.

Many of the Disinherited abandoned their castles and took to what we would call guerilla warfare - ‘to the woods and fields’, as one chronicler put it. In this respect their strategy was very similar to that of the Scots in the Wars of Independence. Both deliberately avoided battle and operated from hideouts in wild country: the forest of Selkirk in the case of the Scots, the meres and fens of Ely and Axholme in the case of the Disinherited.

Unable to face the superior forces of Henry III in open battle, the Disinherited switched to hit-and-run tactics and hitting royalist supply lines. This kind of strategy was nothing new, and indeed central to medieval warfare. As Robert Wace, a twelfth century Norman poet, expressed it:

“Go through this country with fire,

destroying houses and towns,

take all booty and food,

pigs and sheep and cattle.

Let Normans find no food

Nor any thing on which to live.”

The rebel bands in the midlands lurked along the Great North Road, the main artery of trade and commerce linking north and south. From their base at Axholme, they rode out to plunder royalist merchants moving up and down the highway. One of their particular targets was Peter Beraud, one of the Lord Edward’s Italian creditors. They even attacked foreign dignitaries. In the summer of 1267, Alexander the Steward of Scotland was waylaid inside Sherwood Forest and held prisoner until his ransom was paid.

Many of these exploits have a distinctly Robin Hood flavour, which may be no coincidence. Later chroniclers such as Walter Bower placed the famous outlaw hero among the Disinherited in 1266, though he also made clear his disapproval:

“In that year also the disinherited English barons and those loyal to the king clashed fiercely, amongst them Roger de Mortimer, occupied the Welsh Marches and John de Eyvill occupied the Isle of Ely; Robert Hood was an outlaw among the woodland briars and thorns. Between them they inflicted a vast amount of slaughter on the common folk, cities and merchants”.

Another rebel tactic was to attack the Jewish communities in England. This was a way of wiping out their debts while also destroying a useful source of credit for the crown. The poor Jews themselves were left defenceless against the onslaught of savage fighting men.

In 1266 a band of Disinherited swooped down upon the Jewish quarter in Lincoln. They razed the synagogue, destroyed charters and deeds and butchered scores of innocents:

“That they have taken Lincoln, the Jews now

They take and destroy, breaking open the coffers;

Charters and deeds and whatever is injurious

To the Christians they have taken,

Treading them under foot,

Among the lanes, and woman and child,

They have put to the sword a hundred and sixty”.

Such ruthless tactics enabled the Disinherited to sustain a war of attrition for several years. They were up against some able opponents. Henry III himself, not renowned as one of England’s warrior-kings, could soldier when he really put his mind to it: witness his victory at Northampton in 1264, for instance. His heir the Lord Edward was an energetic and supremely confident military leader, while other royalist captains such as Henry of Almaine, Earl Warenne and Roger Leyburn were all formidable.

Outnumbered and out-resourced, the Disinherited had to find new leaders, and quickly. Their search for the next Simon de Montfort will be the subject of another post.