Reiver by David Pilling

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Withermen

In my last post I made reference to Sir Robert Thweng, one of the ringleaders of the anti-papal riots in England in the early 13th century. I thought it was worth writing a more complete piece about the Thwengs, one of the many extinct and largely forgotten baronial Norman families. They caused quite a stir in their time, though they never progressed to the upper ranks of the nobility, and several members of the family achieved a fame out of proportion to their worldly status.



The arms of the Thwengs of Kilton

The earliest surviving references to the Thwengs date from the late 12th century, where they are recorded holding a knight's fee from the Percies in Lincolnshire. They appear to have taken their odd surname - also spelled as de Tweng, Thwing, Tuenge etc - from the manor of Thweng in Holderness in East Yorkshire, a few miles south of Scarborough. A Sir Marmaduke Thweng was part of the baronial opposition to King John and acted as a coroner in Yorkshire in 1230.

So far, so unremarkable, but the family history took a turn for the dramatic with Marmaduke's son, Robert. Evidently a hot-tempered Norman with the usual acute Norman awareness of property rights, Robert de Thweng achieved national fame by his revolt against the imposition of foreign clergymen upon the English church. The granting of so many English church revenues to foreigners saw a constant flow of wealth streaming out of the country, while the imposition of a heavy tax on ecclesiastical incomes by the Pope further rubbed salt into the wound. Desperate to win favour with Pope Gregory, the young King Henry III had turned the English church into a gigantic milch cow, ripe to have her udders squeezed by grasping hands.   


Kilton Castle in North-East Yorkshire, family seat of the Thwengs

Enraged by all this lovely money slipping through his mailed fingers, and by the appointment of an Italian to a church he claimed to own, Thweng decided to perform a sort of medieval Batman routine. In 1232 he assumed the nickname William Wither, possibly meaning William the Avenger, and put himself at the head of the various gangs of rioters and protesters infesting Yorkshire. William Wither and his 'Withermen' descended on barns and grainstores owned by the 'aliens', pilfered the grain and burned the property. They gave the stolen grain to the poor, or sold it off cheap. Were it for the fact he already had a nickname, one might be tempted to identify Robert de Thweng as the historical genesis figure for the legend of Robin Hood.

Violence had already broken out in other parts of the country. In the autumn of 1231 a group of northern barons sent out letters to English bishops and monasteries, declaring that they would rather die than submit to the tyranny of the Pope and Roman clergy. Violent incidents followed. A group of foreign clerics were attacked at Saint Albans as they left a council meeting. One, a man named Cincius, was taken prisoner and only released upon payment of a hefty ransom. Another was forced to take sanctuary in York minster, in fear for his life after the protestors threatened to cut his head off.

The Great Charter

King Henry could do little to suppress the Withermen. By the winter of 1232 the protests had spread from Yorkshire down as far as Hampshire and Kent. The Justiciar himself, Hubert de Burgh, was no friend to the aliens and issued letters declaring that the rioters were immune from the authority of local Sheriffs. Hamstrung by de Burgh's effective desertion, Henry could do little except complain to the Pope and watch as England burned.

Meanwhile, Thweng had been busy. He appealed for support among the northern barons, and these hard-faced, brutish, politically volatile men were not slow in responding. The Percies, Nevills, Fitz Randolph, de Mauley, de Menyll, de Ros, and de Brus, plus some twenty other knights, all converged on Thweng's castle at Kilton in Yorkshire to plan the campaign ahead. It is easy to imagine them gathered in the smokey vault of the great hall, faces enflamed with drink and righteous indignation, fingers bloody with tearing meat from the carcase of a deer slow-roasting over a great fire. Their fathers had rebelled against old King John and wrung concessions out of him in the form of the Great Charter. Now it was time to remind John's son that royal tyranny would not be tolerated in England, so long as privileged men with swords existed to oppose it.

Hubert de Burgh at prayer

Pope Gregory supported the hapless monarch, and in February 1232 every one of the protesters was formally excommunicated. This did little to halt the attacks on the aliens. The Pope sent a further letter to Henry, threatening him with serious consequences if the violence was not stopped. Still, Henry could do nothing. His agents reported that so many high-ranking men, clerics, nobles, knights and barons, were involved in the uprising that it would be impossible to punish anyone.

Left high and dry, and with nothing to turn to save his own wits, Henry resorted to mediation. William Wither/Robert de Thweng was induced to lay down his arms and received no punishment for his crimes beyond a heavy fine. He was later reconciled to the king, and travelled to Rome with letters of safe conduct so he could voice his complaints before the Pope in person. The immediate results of this stormy meeting are unknown, but in 1240 the Pope wrote to Richard Earl of Cornwall, the King's brother, recognising the rights of English lay patrons over the claims of foreigners.

The onset of middle age did nothing to calm Robert's temper. In 1245 he again incurred the displeasure of the king, and his lands were briefly seized as punishment for a violent assault on Richard de Sarr, a clerk employed by the Archbishop of York. During the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, when Robert was an old man, King Henry did much to keep his family on the side of the royalists, granting them a number of fees and manors. Henry needed all the swords he could muster against de Montfort, even that of the one-time rebel who had caused him so much distress in his youth. Having the Thwengs onside gave the King a useful ally in the northeast, and a counter-balance to all the turbulent northerners, such as John Deyville, who had thrown in their lot with de Montfort.

Robert's date of death is unknown, but he probably died sometime in the late 1260s. Both his sons proved to be loyal servants of the crown, and his grandson Marmaduke earned fresh fame for the family by his exploits during the Scottish wars. That is for Part Two...

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