By the time Edward II was captured by invading forces in November 1326, Robert Baldock, along with the Despensers, was one of the most unpopular men in England. As Chancellor, he held one of the most powerful positions in the kingdom and was one of the king’s most trusted servants – but this also meant that he was in prime place to abuse his role for his own ends too.
It is not known when he was born, or the details of his youth, but he was most probably born in Baldock in Hertfordshire. What we do know is that he had a brother, Richard, who was a clerk in royal service and that he was also most likely to have been related to Ralph Baldock, the bishop of London (d. 1313) for whom he was an executor. Haines, in his bio of Baldock (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) mentions that the Pauline Annalist says that the real Baldock family name was Catel. From my own research this looks to be true – but more of that later.
Following Ralph and Richard, Robert (anyone noticed a certain theme on a letter here?) entered the priesthood. He went to Oxford to be educated and gained his BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law (1) ) by 1294. In other words, he was a lawyer. In 1316 he entered into service with Edward II as a king’s clerk and was involved in several diplomatic missions to Scotland and France.
Throughout the next four years his star was in the ascendant for by 1320 he became the keeper of the Privy Seal. It is quite possible that he met Hugh Despenser the younger during this time, as Despenser seems to have been responsible for advancing Baldock’s career. Maybe he saw a kindred soul in Baldock – another ambitious man on the make – with a talent for law. However Baldock didn’t just stop at having the Privy Seal – he also combined that role with the role of the Controller of the Wardrobe. Indeed in 1320 he was a very busy man: not only having his administrative duties, but also partaking in diplomatic trips to the Continent and to Scotland (to try and treat for peace with Robert the Bruce).
Edward and Despenser may have been impressed by his energy and intelligence, but others were not so happy with his influence. By 1321 Baldock was so entrenched with the Despenser regime that he was named during the meeting of the Contrariants at Sherburn in Elmet as the first among the evil and false counsellors that Despenser had placed around the king contrary to the Ordinances. It is almost certain, too, that Baldock would have conspired with Despenser on the acquiring of land in Gower and elsewhere by re-interpreting the law – and that was hardly likely to endear him to such as Damory, Audley or Mowbray. After the Despensers had been exiled, Baldock seems to disappear temporarily from view. Hardly surprising, of course: he was lucky not to have been exiled too. My theory is that he retired from court and lay low – maybe, like Despenser, he also found his way to the protection of the Cinque Ports, who were still loyal to Edward.
After the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, everything continued pretty much as before – although with much less opposition to the royal party. On 20th August 1323 Baldock replaced Bishop Salmon as Chancellor, thereby becoming one of the most powerful men in the land and a leading henchman of the now all-powerful Despenser regime. Indeed, Tout describes him as ‘the brain and hand of the younger Despenser’(2), implying that Despenser relied on his services just as Edward relied upon Despenser to run the country. It seemed that Baldock had achieved everything he could ever have dreamed of as a lowly clerk – but that wasn’t quite true. Despite numerous maneuverings by Edward, Baldock never managed to acquire a lucrative bisophric of his own. He was put forward by the king as a candidate for the sees of Coventry, Lichfield, Winchester and Norwich in 1321, 1323 and 1325 respectively, but each time he was thwarted – usually by the efforts of the Pope and Curia who had taken a particular dislike to him.
In the end he had to settle for the archdeaconry of Middlesex and some canonries – but even these were subject to litigation from time to time. Edward also attempted to secure for him the Lincoln prebend of Aylesbury but this only led to a bitter argument with the Pope, one that lasted until Baldock’s death and Edward’s deposition. From accusations pointed at Baldock and the Despensers it seems that they took this opportunity to despoil some of these bishophrics of their goods – especially Norwich – actions which were later to work against them in 1326. In 1324 Baldock was excommunicated, but it does not seem to be in any connection with his actions against the English prelates; rather it was for his suit in the Curia against one Cardinal Gailhard de la Mothe. (3) Unfortunately further clarification of this matter is not forthcoming.
That Baldock was not quite the pious man of God he should have been is really no surprise. It appears that he came from a family that, today, would have had a collective ASBO (Anti Social Behaviour Order) – a bit like the Dunheveds (see Alianore’s post on this). Although not as notorious as the contemporary Coterels or Folvilles, the Catels were involved in a bit of local thuggery. A petition of 1327 describes one of their crimes (both family names of Catel and Baldock are mentioned here):
John de Baunebury complains that Richard Catel, John [?], and others, dressed as monks, feigning a visitation of the parsonage of Hackney, attempted to steal the money for the farm of the parsonage with menaces, and when John de Baunebury fetched the constables of the peace, they afterwards broke into his house, tied up, beat and wounded him, his wife, and his whole household, and stole money and jewels. By maintenance of Robert de Baudak, Richard de Baudak, Roger de Waltham, John Fot, and John Cullyng, they gave the former king to understand that John de Baunebury and the people of Hackney had robbed them, so that the king granted an oyer et terminer. Robert de Baudak and Richard de Baudak procured justices who wore their robes and took their fees, and threatened anyone who might dare to oppose them, and demanded ransoms with menaces from the petitioner, the vicar of Hackney, John de Tuwe and the other people of the vill. He requests a remedy. (4)
It certainly seems from this that Robert Baldock’s connections in the field of justice, as well as his position in the royal household, benefitted his family as well as himself. Haines also mentions another brother of Robert, called Thomas Catel, whose property in Baldock was ransacked by Isabella and Mortimer during their invasion and pursuit of the king. It can be assumed that this was done because of his brother’s unpopularity and adherence to the Despensers.
On November 16th, 1326, Baldock was captured with Edward, along with Hugh Despenser the younger and other loyal followers of the king between Caerphilly and Neath. Because he was a cleric, the Church claimed him as their own, thus saving him from the same fate as Despenser (see here for the post on Despenser's execution). He was taken by Bishop Adam Orleton of Hereford to be kept indefinitely as a prisoner at his townhouse in London. However, as it is reported, the London mob broke into the house and seized him. They claimed that only the City had the right to have a jail and that no individual could hold a prisoner. Baldock was then taken to Newgate Prison where, he died – reportedly of horrible abuse – on 28th May 1327.
This episode has always struck me as a little too convenient. Custom at the time dictated that a man of the cloth had to be punished by the Church. Therefore, the fact that Baldock lived whereas other enemies of Mortimer and Isabella had now been dispatched must have felt embarrassingly like unfinished business. There is no proof that Orleton and the new regime engineered the taking of Baldock by the London mob, but I, for one, would put money on it. It takes little imagination to see how the crowd – already in a lawless state – could be whipped up into greater anger when they found out that a hated man was imprisoned in a house in the City – within their reach. It certainly seems that they must have had some intelligence – and the breaking into the bishop’s house also seemed to have been achieved easily. All it would have taken was a person, or persons – strategically placed – to plant information and suggestions among an already anarchic crowd.
It was a savage end to a ruthless career. But however unscrupulous he may have been, Baldock – like the Despensers – never deserved the kind of death he received.
(1) Civil law was basically that which was embodied in the Justinian code. It was concerned with the rights of private citizens. Another good term for it would be statutory law. The other strand of law at this time was Canon law. This dealt with the body of ecclesiastical laws established within the church and including papal edicts and bulls. The concept of common law developed a little later and was based on the outcomes of court cases and customs rather than anything formally set down – in other words, precedents etc set by test cases.
(2) The Place of the Reign of Edward II in English History, TF Tout, Kessinger Publishing Reprint (originally published 1914), p. 137
(3) Haines, Roy Martin ‘The episcopate during the reign of Edward II and the regency of Mortimer and Isabella’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Oct 2005
(4) PRO SC 8/31/1539, Accessed online at: <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue/displaycataloguedetails.asp?CATID=-4319542&CATLN=7&accessmethod=5&j=1>
Haines, Roy Martin, King Edward II, McGill Queen’s University press, 2003
Haines, Roy Martin, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Haines, Roy Martin ‘The episcopate during the reign of Edward II and the regency of Mortimer and Isabella’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Oct 2005
Tout, TF, The Place of the Reign of Edward II in English History, Kessinger Publishing Reprint (originally published 1914)
The National Archives, Petitions