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The Rebels of Ely
The Second Barons’ War in England ended with the fall of the Isle of Ely in July 1267, almost two years after the Battle of Evesham. Henry III’s vengeful decision to disinherit all of Simon de Montfort’s surviving followers prolonged the civil war, which ought to have ended with the earl’s death. The king also seized the lands of of men who had never supported de Montfort in the first place. Thus Henry succeeded in driving approximately half the landowning class of England into armed rebellion.
Ely in Cambridgeshire had been a natural home for rebels and outlaws since the days of the Conqueror. A vast, waterlogged stretch of misty bog and fenland in Cambridgeshire, it was virtually impenetrable save to those who knew the paths. The baronial rebels first occupied the isle in April 1266, and used it as a base from which to plunder and ravage the surrounding countryside. They sacked Lincoln, where they destroyed the chests or ‘archa’ containing bonds of debts taken out from Jewish moneylenders. A number of Jewish moneylenders were murdered or kidnapped for ransom, their synagogues razed, and a hundred and sixty women and children murdered in the street.
Efforts by local militia to drive out the rebels met with disaster. Henry ordered the commons of the counties to blockade the isle and prevent the barons from making sorties. In response the barons rode out in force and drove the ‘vulgar herd’ - as Matthew Paris termed them - to flight, driving them as far as Norwich. There some of the rebel party split off to carry away loot and provisions from the town. A short while later, the people of Lynn offered to attack Ely if Henry would guarantee their liberties. This he promised to do, and the citizens manned vessels with crossbowmen, archers and men-at-arms to sail upriver and storm the isle. The wily barons saw the fleet coming and planted their standards on dry land. When the people of Lynn saw the standards, they leaped off their boats and charged. The barons pretended to retreat, then turned and closed on the citizens from all sides. Some were captured, many slaughtered or drowned, and only a few limped back to Lynn - where they were ‘received with derision.’
In the spring of 1267 the captain of the Ely rebels, John de Eyvill, left the isle to join Gilbert de Clare in the march on London. They succeeded in capturing the city, and for three months the capital of England was a rebel camp. Peace was brokered when King Henry and his son, the Lord Edward, threatened to lay siege. After some complex bartering de Eyvill and de Clare were pardoned in return for payments of money and land. The severest punishment fell on de Eyvill, who was mortgaged to the crown for the rest of his life and had to do military service in Wales as part of his redemption.
After the surrender of the barons in London, Ely was left as the only rebel fortress of any note. The captain of the isle was now Henry de Hastings, an interesting brute with a sense of humour. Hastings had led the epic defence of Kenilworth Castle, at 172 days the longest siege in English medieval history. During the siege, the papal legate had called upon the garrison to surrender. Hastings’ response was to dress up as a cardinal and stand on the battlements waving his arms in mockery of the legate’s piety. Less amusingly, when the king sent an envoy to treat for peace, Hastings cut off one of the envoy’s hands and sent him back with the severed hand in a box.
Other knights in the isle included the likes of Sir Robert Peche and Sir Ralph Perot. Neither were ideal house guests. Peche had won a reputation as one of the chief ravagers, burning farms and villages near Ely and robbing barns of their grain. He had also extorted protection money from the burgesses of Cambridge, promising to leave them alone in exchange for cash. Perot rode as far afield as the Priory of St Peter in Dunstable, where the chronicler gloomily notes he stole a horse from the mill, more horses from the town, and took ten marks as protection money.
Edward, in his role as firefighter, was sent to destroy this nest of robbers. Easier said than done. The Conqueror himself had experienced difficulty in reducing the isle, and suffered several embarrassing defeats before finally overcoming Hereward the Wake and his Saxons. Tales of Hereward’s last stand were still popular in the late 1200s. Paris describes how medieval sightseers were in the habit of visiting an old earthwork known as Hereward’s Castle at Aldreth: probably the remains of the fortress built by the Normans when they laid siege to Ely.
The prince marched on Ely and ordered his men to build a bridge of hurdles and planks. This sounds similar to the pontoon or floating bridge William the Conqueror had built to cross into the isle. Edward, who had some knowledge of military history, may have taken a leaf from the Bastard’s book. As king, he made use of pontoon bridges in his campaigns in North Wales, though the strategy didn’t always meet with success: in 1282, at Moel-y-Don near Anglesey, the bridge collapsed under weight of bodies and hundreds of his men were drowned.
At Ely the bridge was merely a distraction. While his men laboured on the construction, Edward rode to the monastery of Ramsey and gave the monks a pep-talk, encouraging them to stand firm against the rebels. Shortly afterwards he had a private meeting with an aged noblewoman, Lady Amabilia de Chaucumb.
An observer might have wondered what Edward was up to, with his bridge and his monks and his mysterious old lady. All soon became clear. Amabilia was the mother of Nicholas de Segrave, one of the baronial rebels who had submitted at London. Segrave had been a member of the Ely garrison, and after his surrender escaped from London and went back into the isle. It seems his escape was pre-arranged. While in the capital he struck a secret deal with Edward to betray his comrades, and the prince later met with his mother to make final arrangements.
There was one main path into the heart of the isle, defended by a stockade of earth and timber. Segrave persuaded Hastings to let him garrison it. When the pontoon bridge was complete, Edward crossed the water with a strong force of archers and crossbowmen. He was now faced with the stockade, guarded by Segrave. As agreed, Segrave and his men promptly abandoned their post and let the royalists pass. Edward moved on through the marshes until he arrived within sight of the rebel camp, divided from his men by a narrow rivulet.
The barons, astonished by the sudden appearance of enemy soldiers, rushed to arms. While they dragged on their armour, some bowmen and slingers were hurled forward to block the royalist advance. Meanwhile Edward placed his missile troops on high ground overlooking the camp, so they could shoot down on the heads of the rebel archers.
Seeing this, the rebels hesitated. Edward now rode forward and read out the riot act: “Any man who attacks my soldiers, or tries to stop me entering the isle, will die. Either now or after my victory. The guilty shall be hanged or beheaded.”
In the face of these threats, the barons wilted. “Consumed by sudden dismay,” according to the chronicler, they “immediately lost their indolent savageness, and walking with their heads lowered, assumed the meekness of a lamb.”
Perhaps the grim memory of Evesham was still fresh in their minds. The Leopard - as the baronial poets called Edward - had presided over one massacre. He could do it again. In the event there was no bloodshed. Edward accepted their surrender, and Hastings and the other knights were allowed to redeem their lands. Segrave was well rewarded for his treachery, and later became 1st Baron Segrave. He died in 1295, rich and respected. No doubt his mother would have approved.