Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 11 June 2015

God help poor soldiers...

As part of my research for the next novel - an indirect sequel to The Half-Hanged Man - I've been researching the lot of common soldiers in the medieval period. Not the usual kings and knights and nobles, but the grunts or Poor Bloody Infantry. 

Unlike the nobles, whose deeds were recorded by chroniclers, poets and bards (etc) the rank and file of medieval armies are a shadowy, faceless cast of thousands, mere also-rans to the 'glorious' deeds of their high-born masters. As individuals, they generally left no mark other than lists of names on muster rolls, and the occasional petition or passing reference in a chronicle. I've decided to rectify the situation, in my own small way, by writing a series of posts about some of the common soldiers who did make their mark on written medieval history. 

First, one Stephen de Franckton of Ellesmere in Shropshire. This man lived in the 13th century and was a tenant of Roger Le Strange, a powerful baron of the Welsh March. He served his lord as a 'centenar' or minor officer in charge of a small troop of cavalry, and is remembered (not with any great affection by the Welsh) as the man who struck down Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the enemy of King Edward I. 

Memorial for Llewellyn 'the Last'
Accounts of Llewellyn's death vary, but one version claims that the prince somehow got isolated from his main force at Orewin Bridge in mid-Wales, and encountered Franckton by chance. Franckton stabbed Llewellyn with his lance and rode on, not realising who he had been fighting. Later that day, the dying prince was discovered by another English soldier, Sir Robert Body. Body recognised the prince and cut off his head, to be sent as a welcome present to King Edward. 

Other accounts claim that Llewellyn was deliberately lured into a trap by the Marchers and murdered/executed while unarmed and defenceless. Perhaps de Franckton and Body together acted as Llewellyn's executioners, watched by the Marcher Lords and Welsh nobles who had conspired to lure the prince to his doom.  

A closer look at Franckton's career yields some startling results. Back in 1275, some seven years before Llewellyn's death, he was granted a pardon for past offences:

'Calender of Patent Rolls, Chester, September 10th 1275:

Ratification, at the instance of Roger Le Strange, of a pardon to Stephen de Franckton, granted by Henry III, at the instance of the said Roger, of his abjuration of the realm and also of all trespasses during the late troubles of the realm or at other times, and pardon to him at the king's suit for the said abjuration and trespasses...'

Intriguingly, this entry appears just under one of the formal summons made by Edward, ordering Llewellyn to come to court and pay homage to the English king. It seems that our Stephen was no common or garden grunt after all, but a former rebel who fought against Henry III during the Second Baron's War of the 1260s. 'Abjuring the realm' doesn't necessarily mean he fled the country. He might just have easily fled into Wales for a time, or another part of the March where the King's writ did not run. 

Le Strange evidently valued him as a useful bit of muscle. One can picture Franckton as an experienced soldier and hired killer, a hard-faced old sweat untroubled by moral doubt: just the man to do a spot of dirty work when required.... 

King Edward I
Franckton seems to have profited little from his part in Llewellyn's death. He next appears in 1287 as a centenar or officer in charge of the soldiers raised in Ellesmere to help crush the revolt of Rhys ap Maredudd, a disgruntled Welsh lord who had rebelled against Edward I. Franckton led his company at the siege of Dryslwyn Castle in Carmarthenshire, again under Roger Le Strange. Other than his command of the Ellesmere men, there is no hint of any promotion or reward for his role in the death of Llewellyn. 

Possibly Franckton got himself into fresh trouble, or the validity of his earlier pardon was questioned, for in 1293 Le Strange was obliged to seek a pardon from Prince Edmund, King Edward's brother. He was charged with harbouring a known felon, namely Stephen de Franckton, in Suffolk, back in the reign of Henry III. A separate record from the time places Franckton in York, again with his lord. What he and Le Strange were up to in York and Suffolk, far from their home territory in the Marches, is something of a mystery. It could be they were among the many groups of rebels and outlaws that roved about England in the last years of Henry III's reign, robbing and pillaging and generally making a nuisance of themselves. 

Le Strange got his pardon, probably because by this time Franckton was dead. Sometime before 28th May 1292 he was killed, in unexplained circumstances, by a knight named Sir William de Vaus or Vaux. As yet I've been unable to discover much about Sir William. He served on the ill-fated Stirling campaign in 1297, and so could have been a knight of the royal household. 

Arms of Sir William de Vaus

There's something sinister about Franckton's death. Not long after he was killed, his old lord Roger Le Strange forcibly disinherited his wife and son, and gave their lands over to another man. The son, Stephen Fitz Stephen, was still petitioning to get his lands back nearly forty years later, towards the end of Edward II's reign.

What secret history lies behind all this? Did Franckton know too much about the murky circumstances of the death of Llewellyn? Did Sir William kill Franckton in some private quarrel, or was he acting under orders? Why did Franckton's long-time lord and master, who had always favoured him in the past, suddenly turn against his bereaved family and throw them off their land? 

It's all too easy to wallow in conspiracy theories, and suggest that Franckton was assassinated by the English crown for 'knowing too much'. Still, there is something murky and mysterious about his fate, and the sudden change in attitude of his lord. Plenty of room for speculation, if nothing else! 

So much for Stephen de Franckton. Next, I fast-forward to the 15th century and a one-eyed veteran in the service of Henry V...


  1. Fascinating post, David. I am looking forward to reading the next ones in the series :-) I don't think that Stephen was killed for knowing too much about Llewellyn's death - to the contrary, killing the Welsh prince was rather sth to be given an award for at the time (Stephen should be rewarded for his services to the crown). The English monarchs could not have seen his involvement in Llewellyn's death as a crime.

    1. Well yes he *should* have been rewarded, but he wasn't, and a few years later he was killed in mysterious circumstances and his family disinherited. What was that all about...?

    2. Interesting indeed. Yet, I will insist that Llewellyn's murder could not have been taken as a crime in the then England - his head spent a long time "on display" in the Tower, if I am correct, and everyone must have known that whoever killed the Welsh Prince, did their king a great favor. Edward made sure that it could be "admired" by as many of his subjects as possible. Perhaps Stephen was just one more victim of the turbulent times and general unrest. Although the matter of his family disinheritence does leave us with much food for thought, it's true.

      I look forward to the next posts. These obscure figures are really fascinating. I love such a "digging" as well, so I do understand how absorbing and exciting it can be :-)

    3. You're missing the point - I'm not suggesting that Stephen was killed because his involvement with the death of Llewellyn was seen as a crime. Obviously that would be ridiculous. What I'm wondering is whether he knew too much about the real circumstances of Llewellyn's death i.e. that the prince was lured into a trap and murdered/executed rather than killed in battle.

    4. I'm not :-) It's just my English - does fail me sometimes ( I have problems with expressing my thoughts clearly). I am asking if it really mattered how Llewellyn died. Even if his death was a murder and the fact became common knowledge, were the Welsh in a position to do sth about it at the time? Llewellyn's own brother was executed as a mere traitor and the worst of criminals. Wales was in turmoil. After their Prince's death the divided Welsh stood no chance to defend themselves against Edward, not to mention to assert their rights. Do you thnik that Stephen was killed because Edward cared so much about his good name? The whole situation reminds me of John, Arthur and de Braose family, but I think there is a difference - Arthur was not only John's nephew but also first in the line of succesion at the time, which makes John's occupation of the throne of England illegal. John had a good reason to be afraid, that's why William de Braose had to go and other members of his family with him. But Edward didn't have the same problem. There was nobody to stand up for Llewellyn and justice, even if the prince had been murdered mercilessly.

      I may not be around these days - busy elsewhere - but I will read your response ASAP :-) I hope I expressed my view clearly enough this time :-)

    5. The Welsh were in no position to take revenge on Edward, but the circumstances of Llewellyn's death may have given Edward a problem - if, as seems likely, the prince was lured into a trap and assassinated, then that would be seen as an illegal act by the other crowned heads of Europe: Llewellyn was an anointed prince, and his murder without trial was technically a crime.

      Obviously my suspicions are no more than that - Stephen's death occurred ten years later, and it seems unlikely that Edward would care much what anyone thought by that point. The whole thing has a slightly sinister air about it though.

    6. Still here, working on a post for my Polish blog. Let's assume Edward did have a problem - what the other crowned heads could do? Appeal to the Pope? Not being an expert in legal law, I am genuinely curious how those things worked back then. If Llewellyn was assassinated and the truth about the manner of his death came to light, what could be done to make Edward answer for it?

    7. I'm not sure anything could have been done about it, in the sense of directly attacking Edward - the other kings of Europe were hardly likely to go to war for the sake of a dead Welsh prince. But the knowledge might have done Edward a deal of harm, especially since he was often invited to act as mediator and power-broker - such as the dispute between France and Aragon, for instance.

    8. Exactly my thoughts, I can't really imagine the other European rules hastening to wage war on Edward because of a DEAD WELSH prince. Nothing could be done about it.That is why I wrote about Edward's good name. Loss of it could be the only damaging consequence he would have to bear. I mentioned appealing to the Pope, for I can remember all the letters of the important personages, Louis VII of France included, to the Holy Father after Becket's murder in 1170. All were too eager to bring Henry II down as if he hadn't already done it himself. Still the letters must have added fuel to the fire and pushed Alexander III to act decisively against Henry.