Before I continue with my prisons posts, I just wanted to announce that I've finally reached 100 posts! When I started this blog, I never thought I'd reach this mile-stone. The whole thing was one heck of a learning curve both in learning how to blog and also the subject matter itself. But along the way I've had so much fun that all I can say is, bring on the next 100! Big thanks though to Alianore and Susan who were my biggest helpers at the beginning - and most valued friends now.
To celebrate, I thought that I'd do a long-overdue shortish review on a book that I finally finished a couple of months ago (and when I saw 'finally', it wasn't because it was hard to read but because of lack of time). So, here it is:
Within the Fetterlock by Brian Wainwright
I always love to read the books of people I know, but often that wish is tinted with some trepidation that it might be absolutely awful. After all, what on earth do you say then? Even worse, if you are a reviewer how can you be absolutely honest in your review and yet maintain that friendship. For a view from the front line on this issue see Susan's post on the topic. So, having known Brian from blogging, it was with some nervousness that I started to read Within the Fetterlock. But, as it turned out, I shouldn't have worried at all - it was marvellous! As some of my fellow bloggers have already reviewed this book, I won't go into great detail.
In a nutshell, it is about Constance of York - the wife of Thomas Despenser (Hugh the younger's great grandson). The novel starts in the year 1396 - during the reign of Richard II - and documents the turbulent relationship between Richard and his followers, and those of Henry of Lancaster. Constance, a relative of both Richard and Henry is caught in the middle of the court politics as the succession to Richard's throne is fought over by Yorkists, Lancastrians - and the Mortimers. Of course poor Thomas gets beheaded in the end (it's always a dangerous business being a Despenser in troubled times!) and Constance is left to fend for herself in a world where nothing is as it used to be. And to add to her woes she has a duplicitous brother who seems to cause trouble for her no matter who is in power.
Brian has done a fantastic job in bringing this era to life and keeping me hooked on reading what was going to happen next. His historical detail is well-researched and I learned a great deal about this period. As with any novels set during the Middle Ages, there is always the problem of several characters having the same name. And in such a setting there are also alot of players on the stage. In short, it can become confusing, but Brian has managed to steer his ship safely around these sandbanks by having a comprehensive character list at the beginning, so that if at any time you are unsure as to who is related to who, it is an easy task just to look them up at the front.
I also thought that Brian had captured Constance's voice well - no small task for a man to write a woman! My favourite characters though were Edward of York - Constance's slippery brother. He was just such a bad boy, and well, you know how I like those! And also Edmund Mortimer. I never thought I'd hear myself say that I grew attached to a Mortimer - but there you go! As well as good characterisation, the dialogue flows naturally and develops both the scene and the characters (anyone who has been taught creative writing by me knows just how much I loathe exposition when the same object can be achieved through dialogue, action etc). Finally, the other thing that I thought worked well (as it does in any historical novel), were the notes at the end. There Brian makes clear which parts were actual history and which were supposition on his part. I won't get into the whole historical accuracy debate - but as a reader I was really glad of this end section.
All in all then a super read from an accomplished writer.
You can view Brian's wonderful blog at http://yorkistage.blogspot.com
Lady Despenser's Scribery - Introduction
- This small corner of the web concentrates mainly on the life and times of Hugh Despenser the younger, as well as the reign of Edward II and the fourteenth century in general. It contains snippets of some (though certainly not all) of the research I have done in order to write a novel about him (and hopefully, later, a biography as well). Oh yes, some 21st century stuff sneaks its way in too, from time to time!
Sunday, 22 February 2009
Monday, 16 February 2009
Prisons - or gaols - in Medieval England operated very differently than they do today: in fact today’s prisons – even the toughest ones - would seem like a holiday camp in comparison. The primary function of a gaol in the 14th century was to hold a prisoner until they could be either brought to justice or else pay a fine or debt. In addition, the prisoner (or their family) had to pay for the unfortunate’s admission, bed, food, chains, and eventual release (some prisons were even known to turn away prisoners who could not pay!). Hence, conditions – never pleasant at the best of times – could be even worse for those with little money. Gaolers were often corrupt and violent men, and any notion of single cells for one or two prisoners (as we have today) was non-existent. Men and women often shared the same, insanitary rooms: murderers, thieves, debtors and prostitutes were thrown together without much control on who did what to whom.
Long term imprisonment was rare – certainly for the lower classes. Even when used as a punishment it didn’t usually exceed a month or so (although there is the odd exception). Longer term incarceration was normally reserved for political prisoners or high born lords who didn’t deserve execution, but who weren’t safe to be let free either. Such as these generally found themselves in the Tower of London. Other long-term prisoners might be clergy who had committed a serious felony but, because of the Benefit of Clergy, could not be condemned to death.
All towns and cities had their own gaols, but it is London – with its large population – which is the most interesting to look at. Irritatingly, details such as what these prisons looked like etc, are few and far between for this century – but glimpses can still be obtained through records and also later accounts – such as Stow’s Survey of London and a Map of Henry VIII’s London.
This first post looks at the prisons serving the west of London: Newgate, Ludgate and the Fleet:
Newgate prison was situated - as suggested by the name – at the Medieval city gate of Newgate. It was originally built in 1188 on the orders of Henry II and was expanded in 1236. Newgate had two sheriffs – elected annually - who then appointed ‘keepers’. The keepers had to pay the sheriffs for the privilege, but were allowed to recoup the price from the prisoners themselves – for food, a bed – and even for being released. This system changed later, however, in the 14th century when certain gaolers were found to be guilty of charging fees way above the permitted maximum.
During Edward II’s reign, Newgate was primarily used for prisoners convicted of serious crimes – such as treason or murder. In fact most of the inmates housed there were awaiting execution for their crimes – usually on the gallows at Tyburn. The conditions within the prison were notoriously extremely harsh: one can only imagine the hell some of the prisoners must have endured at the hands of both the gaolers and the other inmates.
Repairs were always a concern – and were the responsibility of the Mayor and Aldermen of the City. They were allowed to collect certain taxes by Edward in order to pay for any such works – although any repairs or construction obviously had to be given the royal seal of approval. In the Letter Books of London there exists a writ dated 28th March 1316 from Edward to the Mayor telling them to postpone work on a new turret on the City wall and to instead repair the chamber and sewer of Newgate Gaol.
But despite its fearsome reputation, it wasn’t always secure. Several prisoners managed to escape its clutches, including Stephen Dunheved, of the Dunheveds who tried to free Edward in 1327.
Newgate remained a prison until the late 1800s, being rebuilt and expanded many times during that period. It was also one of the buildings destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. Eventually it was demolished and in 1907 a new building was constructed on the site – the current Old Bailey – or, more officially, the Central Criminal Court.
Not far from Newgate and situated at the westernmost gate of the old city wall was Ludgate prison. In Edward’s time it was not very big and probably consisted of rooms over the gate itself. It became established as a serious concern in 1378 when it was decided that it was to be used for Freemen of the City and clergy who had found themselves in debt or who had committed any minor offences. Anything more serious meant a stay in Newgate. It had a gentler reputation than Newgate but despite this was demolished in 1760.
The Fleet Prison was purpose-built in 1197 on the eastern bank of the Fleet River (which now runs under the streets of London– as a storm relief sewer - rather than on top!). Unlike Newgate and Ludgate it was situated just outside of the City walls, in Farringdon Street. One source (London Geezer blog) states that, according to archaeological evidence it was a square tower with four polygonal turrets – but the page cited is no longer in existence so I can’t vouch for this fact. In its early days it was a royal prison, second only to the Tower in its importance and status. Its keeper was known as The Warden of the Fleet. Its use was generally for debtors and those sent there by the Courts of Chancery and Common Pleas.
The area around the Fleet was not a particularly nice place to be as it not only contained many of the prisons but also plenty of butchers’ businesses and these butchers were often in the habit of throwing entrails into the water. In addition, the consequence of privies being emptied into it as well made sure that it was one nasty, odourous place. Needless to say, there were often complaints and once even the Prior of the nearby Hospital of St John of Jerusalem petitioned the king on behalf of the prisoners. (The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, Terence Scully, DN Dumville, 1997). Later on in the 14th century, laws were passed to try and stop the fouling of the Fleet and surrounding area but it continued to be a problem for centuries.
The Fleet was closed in 1842 and demolished in 1846. Today a brand new office block called Ludgate West stands on the site.
By the way, if you are interested in the application (and I use that term loosley) of law and justice in the 14th Century, I recommend Ian Mortimer's book - The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (reviewed here). He has an excellent chapter on the subject
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
The rather dodgy title of this post actually refers to the state of my life at the moment: so many balls in the air that I could do with being one of those Hindu goddesses with six arms! And, as I've not yet quite managed to finish the next 'serious' post I thought I'd throw in a little 21st century ramble.
As you may remember from a recent post, I am trying to get an online business up and running. Yep, that's still a goer but - priority-wise- has been pushed back a bit. The reason? Some more writing work has - unexpectedly - come in. I can't say too much at the moment as I shall be ghost-writing for someone, but I can say that the project is extremely exciting, if not immediately lucrative. So, as it stands at the moment, I am researching and writing blog posts both for this person and for the Scribery too (which means lots of reading and research). There is also the prospect of another ghost-writing job coming on line soon too!
So, I am chaining myself to my computer, getting in barrels of coffee and stamping down hard on procrastination! Any more tips on how to do this will be heartily appreciated :-).
But a little bit about what is coming up in the next few posts... while writing about Robert Baldock and his death in Newgate, I became rather interested in forms of punishment in Edward's reign. So, the following three or four posts will be on this subject. I already have three lined up on London prisons in Edward's day and there will also be one on forms of corporal punishment (other than hanging, drawing and quartering which I have already done here). From the number of blog searches I get on the subject of execution (yep, strange, I know), it seems that it is quite a popular topic with more than a few people out there (and the more gory details the better!). And, if it raises my blog stats ... ;-).
You might notice the odd poll cropping up now and again too, as I would like to find out what you guys like and don't like etc, as well as having a bit of fun.
Just to finish things off (not literally!), here are a few photos of the snow we had here during the past week or so which, for us in the UK, was actually quite a lot (and yes, the light really was that grey!):
Looking down the road where I live (that blue car in the distance on the right is mine by the way).
Saturday, 7 February 2009
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
Sunday, 1 February 2009
I thought that I’d round up my series of posts on the Despenser War with a few little musings of my own. While researching for these posts it was interesting to note that some modern historians seemed to be engaging in a mini Despenser War all of their own depending on whether their own natural inclinations were towards the Marchers (pro Isabella/Mortimer historians) or fairly impartial (pro Edward). I can’t with any honesty say that any historians that I have read are pro Despenser! There are so many bits and pieces of information in the various Rolls, Statutes and chronicles that it is easy to pick and choose bits of evidence to suit your theory on the events.
Of the chronicles, the Vita perhaps presents some of the better commentary, even though generally it is critical of Edward’s reign and the influence of the Despensers. The author’s judgements on Hugh the elder’s behaviour before 1321 is quite detailed and rather damning:
But in truth in the opinion of many this misfortune fell upon them justly. For the cruel and greedy father had in the past wronged many, and obtained the excommunication of many. For when he was justice of the forest he accused many of illegal hunting, he wretchedly disinherited many, forced some into exile, extorted unjust ransoms from many, collected a thousand pounds' worth of land by means of threats, and behold now he feels the hand of God coming to correct him. The general judgement was that he justly lost what he had formerly accumulated from the loss of others. (1)
Hugh the elder had, before his son came to power as chamberlain, generally been thought of – as far as we know – as a wise counsellor and able administrator. His position as Justice of the Forest would certainly have made him some enemies and laid him open to accusations of harshness and corruption. Whether these had any real basis, we will never know, but I think it is safe to assume, considering the practices of the time, that he probably did indulge in many of the things described above. He certainly did acquire a lot of lands and money – more than is often generally acknowledged.
The Vita did not mince words about Hugh the younger’s conduct either – as you’d expect:
But according to some the son's wickedness outweighed the father's harshness. For, confident of the royal favour, he did everything on his own authority, grabbed everything, had no regard for the authority of anyone whomsoever, set traps for his co-heirs; thus, if he could manage it, each would lose his share through trumped up accusations and he alone would obtain the whole earldom. (2)
So, according to this chronicler (a voice among many it would seem), the Despensers got what was coming to them. Their outright greed and increasing power more or less guaranteed such a reaction among the other barons who, in most cases, had a right to feel aggrieved by their actions. At this point the Marcher rebels certainly held the high moral ground and could reasonably feel self-righteous in their demands that Edward removed the men from his side. However, it could be argued that what happened next somewhat dented the virtuousity of their cause.
The destruction of the Despenser estates was violent and thorough. Throughout their lands, properties were destroyed, goods and livestock stolen and people threatened and displaced. And the main people to suffer were the Despensers’ tenants – poor serfs and farmers who had a hard enough life already. A later petition illustrates the effects on just one village which was attacked in this way:
The poor people of Hugh le Despenser, earl of Winchester, of the town of Loughborough show that on the morrow of the feat of the translation of St Thomas, 15 [Edw. II], Holand and Bredon with many armed men came to Loughborough and chased the people from their house so that they dared not return for three months, and carried away many of their goods wrongfully and against the king's peace. The people request a certain restoration from the lands, goods and chattels of Holand and Bredon that have come into the king's hand having regard for their great loss and poverty and relief of their estate. (3)
In their condemnation of the actions of the Despensers, many historians conveniently forget the suffering of the innocent – the collateral damage as it were, to use a modern term. Because their cause could be construed as just and good, it then becomes rather inconvenient to admit that they were also responsible for some of the same acts they were accusing their enemies of. Even the Vita does not spare them on this issue:
Yet in the judgement of some worthy men the barons went too far in their persecution. For even if they found just reason for the banishment, nevertheless they did not seize their goods justly. Why did they destroy their manors, for what reason did they extort ransoms from their followers? Although they had a just cause before, they now turned right into wrong. (4)
In fact the Despenser Wars could be summed up as a huge disagreement between those with money and power, the only real long term effect of which was to cause greater suffering and poverty to those without. According to Haines, Bishop Cobham of Worcester wrote a letter to the Pope bemoaning the civil war that had broken out. According to him, the barons were besieging castles and wreaking havoc across the land and he had no idea why. In fact he went even further and said that no-one knew the reason, except for those involved. (5)
Indeed, it was a horrendous few months of strife and violence which in the end was to change absolutely nothing. Well, almost. Although the barons briefly obtained their demands for the exile of the Despensers and pardons for themselves (as well as restitution of lands, some of the Ordinances etc), their victory was not to last long. Within a few months the Despensers had returned, and within the year many of the rebels had either died at the Battle of Boroughbridge, been executed or imprisoned. It seemed as if all opposition to Edward’s will had been crushed.
This civil war should have been a wake up call for Edward. It should have shown him the deep feelings of antipathy against his choice of favourites. For the Despensers too, it should have served as a warning against future aggressive avariciousness. Sadly it seemed to spur them on to even more self-destructive behaviour (that is, self-destructive for their futures). As J. Conway Davies commented: 'They were too old in the ways of greed to learn'. (6)
So, in summary then, a war that could and should have changed the way Edward ruled his kingdom (with or without the Despensers), changed absolutely nothing. It was a chance, wasted.
(1) Vita Edwardi Secundi, edited and translated by Wendy R. Childs, p. 195
(3) Petition SC 8/106/5268, National Archives. <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/details-result.asp?queryType=1&resultcount=1&Edoc_Id=7712015>
(4) Vita, P. 197
(5) Haines, Roy Martin, King Edward II: His Life, His Reign and Its Aftermath, 1284-1330, McGill Queen's University Press, 2006
(6) Conway Davies J., The Despenser War in Glamorgan, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Third Series, Vol. 9, (1915)