Leader of Battles (V): Medraut by David Pilling

Friday, 26 February 2016

Civil war, gout, and rebel earls...

Robert de Ferrers, 6th Earl of Derby (1239-79), was one of the strongest - and strangest - characters in a period of English history stuffed full of dynamic, larger-than-life personalities. He tends to get a bit overlooked or dismissed in the histories, so I thought I’d shine a flashlight on him for this post. 


Ferrers' ancestors were among the original mob of land-hungry Normans who came over with the Conqueror in 1066. The centre of their power was in Derbyshire, though it wasn’t until the early 13th century that they really started to piece together a mighty chunk of territory in the north and midlands. Despite their wealth, they were an unlucky family in some ways: the males suffered from hereditary gout, a debilitating and embarrassing disease for noblemen required to take active roles in war and politics. Robert’s father William, the 5th Earl, suffered so badly from the malady he had to be carried everywhere in a litter. In an age when only condemned men travelled in litters, this was a severe humiliation. The final insult came in 1254 when his litter overturned on a bridge and tipped him into the river. He did shortly afterwards of injuries sustained in the fall.

Ferrers, only fifteen when his father died, was left in a difficult position. Too young to inherit, the wardship of his estates was handed over to his cousin Lord Edward, Henry III’s eldest son and future Edward I. Edward promptly sold the wardship to his mother, Eleanor of Provence, and Peter of Savoy for the handsome sum of 6000 marks. The sale effectively mortgaged his kinsman, body and soul, until he was old enough to do homage and take possession of his lands. When Ferrers finally came of age in 1260, he encountered further difficulties. His mother’s dowry ate up most of his income, while he also had to provide for his younger brother William, his wife Mary, and his kinsman Edward, who retained some of the Ferrers estate after the earl came of age. There were also debts to pay, inherited from the previous earl. Ferrers was left with a stipend of just £100 a year to run one of the largest estates in England and sustain thousands of dependants.

Peveril Castle in Derbyshire
His money woes, allied to his wild and ungovernable nature, drove Ferrers to violence. Shortly after coming of age he attacked Tutbury Priory, a religious house his family had been patrons of for generations, and partially destroyed it. He also encouraged his tenants to illegally hunt beasts inside the Derbyshire forests, as well as commit assaults and robberies against his neighbours.

In 1263 Ferrers fell in with the baronial reform movement, keeping company with Simon de Montfort and Richard de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. After de Montfort’s return to England in April 1263, as the leader of an armed rising against Henry III, Robert swung into action. In May and June of that year his forces were active on the southern marches of Wales, seizing the ‘Three Castles’, as they were called, that belonged to the Lord Edward. His long-running rivalry with the prince was the defining feature of Ferrers’ life: “of no-one was Edward more afraid”, wrote the chronicler Robert of Gloucester.

In February 1264, after some skirmishing and renewed war on the marches, Ferrers’ army descended on Worcester. The town was stormed, and the Jewish quarter sacked, with many Jews murdered or kidnapped by his troops. The earl deliberately stole bonds recording Jewish loans he had taken out and carried them off to his castle at Tutbury - a neat way of wiping out one’s debts. He then advanced down the Severn to Gloucester, where he hoped to snare Edward. To his fury, a truce made by Henry de Montfort allowed Edward to slip away to his father at Oxford, ravaging Ferrers’ lands en route. The gloves were now off between the two noble kinsmen, who embarked upon a series of brutal tit-for-tat raids. In March Edward harried his enemy’s lands in Staffordshire, stormed Chartley Castle, and in the following month razed Tutbury and extorted protection money at swordpoint from the earl’s tenants.

After Edward’s capture at the Battle of Lewes, Ferrers was able to respond in kind. His forces overran Edward’s castles in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, captured the castle of Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, and in late June seized the prince’s chief stronghold, Peveril Castle in Derbyshire. Flushed with his successes, Ferrers then swept west at the head of twenty thousand horse and foot, seized Edward’s base at Chester and routed an army of Welsh troops under the command of Dafydd ap Gruffydd. By now his fearsome reputation preceded him: “they did not dare to come against the earl in battle,” a chronicler wrote of Dafydd’s men, “and so fled....when it came to the pursuit, he killed up to a hundred of them, and captured others; and only one of his men was wounded.”

Ferrers’ days of glory were numbered. Simon de Montfort himself was nervous of his violent and unpredictable ally, and wanted the power base of Chester for himself. He soon cooked up a scheme to nullify the earl. Displaying a typical lack of political cunning, Ferrers accepted de Montfort’s summons to London, where he was promptly arrested on various trumped-up charges and thrown into the Tower. With few friends among the English nobility, Ferrers was powerless to prevent de Montfort stripping away the assets he had only recently made his own. Thus the vicious circle was complete: Edward had robbed Ferrers, Ferrers had robbed Edward, and now Ferrers was robbed by de Montfort.

The victor didn’t have long to enjoy his spoils. In August 1265 Edward pulled off a spectacular reversal of fortune and smashed the de Montfort clan in two bloody engagements at Kenilworth and Evesham. Simon himself was hunted down by a specially chosen death-squad and his body mutilated on the field at Evesham. Perhaps surprisingly, the vengeful prince took no action against Ferrers, still cooling his heels in the Tower. In December the prisoner was released and allowed to buy a pardon for 1500 marks and a gold cup studded with gems. Despite his hatred of Edward, Ferrers was too important to be done away with: he was popular among his tenants in the north midlands, and the ageing King Henry needed his money and support in the region.

Edward I
Dame Fortune had chosen to smile on Ferrers. His response was to spit in her eye. In the spring of 1266 he joined a new band of rebels in the north, headed by Baldwin Wake and John de Eyvill, a rough northern baron described as ‘the bold d’Eyvil, a canny and hardy warrior.” This new baronial coalition ravaged the northern and eastern counties of England in an orgy of fire and sword and rampant bloodletting. They made their base, like so many Robin Hoods, in the greenwood at Duffieldfrith in Derbyshire, close to Ferrers’s chief stronghold at Tutbury. 

Ferrers’ decision to go back into rebellion has baffled historians. He is generally assumed to have acted out of sheer greed and stupidity, but that seems a little unfair. Efficient roughnecks like John de Eyvill wouldn’t have accepted a fool for a leader, and Ferrers and his allies may have had valid causes for complaint. King Henry was still hanging on to their lands, even though they were supposed to have been returned the previous year. For the barons, raised and trained to settle every dispute with the sword, there could only be one response.

Henry’s response was to send an army racing north to quash the rebellion. The rebels were ambushed at Chesterfield and their forces scattered. John de Eyvill escaped to carry on the fight, but Ferrers was quite literally caught with his pants down: he was being bled for his gout when the royalists attacked, and had to stagger away and hide under a pile of woolsacks in a nearby church while his enemies looked for him. In the end he was betrayed, locked up in a cage and carted south to Windsor. No matter what they did, his family just couldn’t stay out of carts.

This time the King and his sons meant to de-fang the troublesome earl once and for all. He remained in prison for three years while a scheme was hatched to strip him of all his lands and goods. Finally, in October 1269, the prisoner was offered a hopeless deal: unless he paid the sum of £50,000 inside ten days, the whole of his estate would be taken away and given to King Henry’s second son. Edmund. Ferrers could not possibly hope to find the money in such a short time. Even so his enemies took out a bit of extra insurance, just in case. On 9th July he was taken from Windsor to Chippenham, where in the presence of the Chancellor he was ordered to formally sign away his inheritance. The demand was almost certainly made with the threat of physical torture if he refused: in later years Ferrers certainly claimed as much. He had no choice but to obey, and at the end of May was released, a free man, but now landless, penniless and utterly dishonoured.

Whatever else he might have been, Ferrers was no quitter. Even a broken man may still have teeth, and he still had the loyalty of his old tenants. Shortly after his release the Midlands was hit by a staggering wave of violent crime, as bad as anything experienced in the civil war. Hundreds of armed robbers, mounted and on foot, plagued the forests and highways, attacking secular and religious persons alike, thieving and murdering with impunity. At the same time a band of ‘night robbers’ emerged from the Derbyshire woods and attacked Nottingham, smashing the timber defences and killing a number of the citizens.

Battle of Lewes

The leader of this army of footpads was one Roger Godberd, a yeoman farmer who held the manor of Swannington in Leicestershire of Ferrers. Evidently a useful bit of muscle, Ferrers had employed him in the garrison of Nottingham Castle in 1264, from where Godberd and other men rode out to commit large-scale poaching offences inside Sherwood Forest. Given the close relationship between lord and tenant, and the timing of Godberd’s revolt, it seems most likely that this new uprising was inspired by anger at Ferrers’ disinheritance. Alternatively, Godberd may simply have been acting on his master’s orders.

Ferrers himself was not idle. While the Midlands descended into anarchy, he led a band of armed men to seize and occupy the manor of Stanford in Berkhire. Stanford was one of his confiscated manors, recently given to Roger de Leyburn, the Lord Edward’s favourite crony. Leyburn had gone to the Holy Land on Crusade with his master, and his absence may have encouraged Ferrers to make the attempt. However, King Henry’s troops soon arrived on the scene and turfed him out again. Soon afterwards he suffered another blow when his ally, Roger Godberd, was finally captured inside Sherwood by royalist forces and imprisoned. Godberd was shunted about between various prisons until his trial at Newgate in 1276. Incredibly, he was acquitted of all charges and released.

Even now, Ferrers was not done. By this point he was little more than an outlaw, leading a gang of brigands in the woods and wild places of the land he had once owned. In 1273 he popped up in Staffordshire at the head of another band of armed loyalists and drove out the royalist garrison at Chartley Castle. His old rival Edward, now King Edward I, was informed that the rebels had not only seized the castle but started working the land nearby, felling timber for sale and using the mills to grind corn. Alarmed and no doubt deeply irritated by Ferrers’ stubborn refusal to go away, Edward despatched an army to retake Chartley and smoke out the men occupying it. His troops were succesful, though not without suffering casualties. Ferrers escaped, thus avoiding a probable third term of imprisonment.

After this latest setback, Ferrers switched tactics. He finally found a friend in the person of Gilbert ‘the red’ de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and with his support tried to seek redress at law. Technically he had a good case - his disinheritance in 1269 was a monstrous injustice - but the crown had no intention of allowing the fallen earl to rise again. Almost all of his claims were thrown out of court, though in 1275 King Edward relented a little and allowed Ferrers to recover the manor (though not the castle) of Chartley and the manor of Holbrook in Derbyshire.

If this was a sop to keep the old pest quiet, it had the required effect. Ferrers spent his last years living quietly at Chartley with his second wife, Eleanor de Bohun, and their young family. Having lost the majority of his vast inheritance, he did at least suceeed in fathering a son, John, to inherit what remained. He died in 1279 at the relatively young age of forty, probably from an illness related to gout, and was buried at the Augustinian priory of St Thomas in Staffordshire. His descendents, reduced to the lower levels of the English baronage, proved remarkably enduring, and the title of Earl Ferrers has survived to this day. Hopefully the present incumbent doesn’t suffer from gout.