This post looks at Robert le Ewer, a former royal sergeant who became a right royal pain.
I would also like to wish you all a peaceful and happy Christmas, whereever you are, and send you wishes for a healthy, happy and prosperous 2012!!
Robert le Ewer
Robert le Ewer is one of those men who rose from obscurity to royal favour before falling from grace in spectacular fashion, not just once, but twice! He is first mentioned as a sergeant of Edward I responsible for serving water in the hall, drying the king’s clothes and preparing his bath. This gave him the name of le Ewer, or the water carrier, a name he kept all his life (hence we don’t have any idea of his family, place of birth etc).
Evidently, he found favour in the royal chamber, for he was still active years later when Edward II came to the throne. He was not popular with everyone, however. The author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi, a contemporary chronicle, and one of the most accurate, writes about le Ewer in a disapproving manner:
This Robert, who had been brought up at court, was shrewd and active in military manners. Nevertheless, relying on his influence at court, and accustomed to lax morals from youth, he was always ready for plunder and killing.
The Vita goes on to tell us that on some unspecified date, Robert had, “killed a certain good man, and made off with his wife, with whom he had previously committed adultery.”
There is nothing to back this up in extant records so either it didn’t happen (unlikely considering his later known character and the usual accuracy of the Vita) or else he got off pretty lightly due to his position at court. That he was still in favour is shown by a grant in 1309 of the reversion of the manor of Warblington near Portsmouth. He was also mentioned by name in the 1311 Ordinances as one of those who should be banished from court:
Item, Robert Lewer, archers and such manner of ribaldry shall be removed from the king’s wages, and not stay in his service, except in war.
This may have been another a comment on his ‘lax morals’ especially as he was lumped together with archers, known for their bawdy behaviour. His expulsion, if it happened at all, was not long-lived. He was soon put in charge of Odiham Castle, a place that was to become central to his later misdemeanors. Confident that he was more or less untouchable, he pushed his luck to the limit, disseizing Isabella, the widow of Hugh Bardolf of the manor of Warblington and also attempting to take some free tenements from her in the neighbouring manor of Emsworth. She in turn petitioned Edward for their return but he ignored the summons to appear before the King’s Bench. On July 6th, Edward sent the justices of the King’s Bench no less than three writs in le Ewer’s defence,overturning the forfeiture. Le Ewer, he said, was at the time in his service, and was still with him.
Up until 1320, le Ewer seems to have more or less behaved himself (or if he didn’t, there is no record of it). However, by 1320 things had changed at court and Hugh Despenser the younger was now high in favour. In February of that year, Edward made Hugh constable of Odiham Castle and ordered le Ewer to hand the place over. This wasn’t necessarily unusual, constables of castles were replaced or moved on elsewhere all the time. However, le Ewer seemed to take great exception to being removed and committed several acts of disobedience and trespasses which soon came to the king’s notice. An order for his arrest was issued in August but le Ewer did not intend on submitting peacefully. He successfully threw off the arresting officers by force, and also:
...threatened some of the king’s faithful subjects with [loss of] life and limb, asserting that he would slay them and cut them up limb by limb wherever he should find them, either in the presence or the absence of the king, in contempt of the king’s order and in rebellion.
Another order to arrest and imprison him, directed mainly at the sheriff of Southampton was made on August 18th, with Edward calling le Ewer “so vile a person”. It seemed that le Ewer had finally tested Edward’s patience too far and that the only prospect left for him was a slow death death at the end of a rope. Somehow, though, he managed to avoid capture and during his time on the run, the politics at court took a turn for the worse for Edward. Several of the marcher barons rose up against Edward in protest at Hugh Despenser’s land grabbing and general conduct in an action that saw the Despenser lands despoiled and England in danger of civil war. Remembering that le Ewer was a capable soldier and commander, the king, in June, sent out a safe conduct for le Ewer’s return and pardoned him in return for le Ewer’s return to loyal service to the crown. Le Ewer, once again given the custody of Odiham castle, must have thought that God certainly moved in mysterious ways.
|Odiham Castle, as it looks today|
Robert was very active in the king’s service during the Contrariant rebellion in 1321-22. After the siege of Leeds Castle, he was sent to help arrest certain rebels, including, in December, Bartholomew Badlesmere and the king’s former favourites, Roger Damory and Hugh Audley. The accused contrariants escaped, however, and headed north. Le Ewer was one of the men named who took Roger Mortimer of Wigmore and Roger Mortimer of Chirk to the Tower in London after their surrender in January 1322, and he was put in command of Edward’s household infantry at the battle of Boroughbridge in March.
So all seemed to be going swimmingly well for Robert post Boroughbridge: he was back in favour, with a position of responsibility and had Odiham Castle back. Surely, for a man who wasn’t even a knight, he must have been happy with his lot. Apparently not. He was summoned for duty once more on Edward’s Scottish campaign of late summer 1322 but this time he seemed less keen to be by Edward’s side. He arrived to the summons late and seems to have been one of the men who deserted the king at some point in the whole debacle. Already furious from his failure to subdue the Scots and his near capture at Byland, Edward ordered le Ewer to come and explain his unexpected disappearance. There was no answer from le Ewer, so four days later the king once again ordered his arrest, and that of John Wyard, John du Chastel, Richard de Harle and Robert le Harle, to be taken dead of alive, “the king being given to understand that the said Robert and the others have risen against him.”
Le Ewer’s about face may have had something to do with Hugh Despenser the elder. At the very least he seemed to have something against him, as one of le Ewer’s first acts was to attack some manors belonging to the now earl of Winchester and to carry off his goods. However, instead of keeping the ill-gotten gains to himself, he distributed them to the poor of the area. The author of the Vita has this to say about the incident:
And there Sir [sic] Robert made a great distribution to the poor in the name of alms for the souls of the said barons. From this he profited little, because God has regard to the intention rather than the deed. That cannot be called alms which comes from theft or rapine. For, as is said elsewhere, it is a kind of theft to distribute largesse from the goods of another without consent of the lord.
The said barons, by the way, were Warin Lisle and Henry Tyes, both executed after Boroughbridge. It was their former manors, given to Despenser, that le Ewer raided. Another possibility for his desertion of Edward was that he had links with these men and had been angered by their treatment. Certainly something had provoked him beyond good reason for him to risk so much.
As for Despenser the elder, he feared for his life at the hands of le Ewer and so retreated to Windsor Castle where, so the Vita says, he, “set a watch, night and day, until he gathered a force sufficient to capture Robert and his retinue”.
That September, Edward once again took Odiham castle from le Ewer and gave its custody to John de Sancto Johanne (de St John) of Basing. It seems that le Ewer may have still been using it at the time as the relevant entry in the Calendar of Patent Rolls says: “Appointment [...] of the said John and Ralph de Camoys to attach Robert Lewer (sic) and to take the castle by force if he refuses to surrender”.
Once again le Ewer escaped capture and went into hiding for a couple of months. Then, in November, he launched an attack on Odiham castle but failed to seize it. Then he ransacked the king’s manor at Ichehull and “carried away the king’s goods”.
It must have been obvious, even to le Ewer, that this time there was no way back. According to the Vita, he, along with his wife, Margery, went to Southampton (rather a stupid place to go, as he was well known there), to try and find a passage to France. However he was seen and arrested; this time he did not manage to escape.
At his trial, Robert refused to answer to the accusations put against him, and so was sentenced to the punishment that was commonly used for prisoners who refused to submit to the law: peine forte et dure (strong and hard punishment). The Vita describes the punishment thus:
The prisoner shall sit on the cold, bare floor, dressed only in the thinnest of shirts, and pressed with as great a weight of iron as his wretched body can bear. His food shall be a little of the worst sort of bread, and his drink cloudy and stinking water. The day on which he eats he shall not drink, and on the day on which he has drunk he shall not taste bread.
|Peine forte et dure (picture is of Giles Corey undergoing the torment in 1692)|
Le Ewer lasted for a few days under this torment before he died. Several people around the country were indicted, arrested and imprisoned for aiding and abetting him, their goods and lands forfeit to the crown. His wife was also imprisoned, and while others of the accused were soon released upon the payment of a fine, it appears that she was kept in prison until 30th July 1324. On 9th September she was finally pardoned, “for having been lately in rebellion against the king”.
Interestingly, there is a petition in the National Archives dated 1324 in which Margery, le Ewer’s then widow, asks that she be acquitted of the murder of one Peter de Boscombe, claiming that she has been falsely accused. It is more likely that the murder was committed by her husband, given his reputation, but who Peter de Boscombe was, I cannot ascertain. He may have been a man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time during one of le Ewer’s rampages, or maybe he was the husband of le Ewer’s mistress that the Vita talked about.
In summary then, le Ewer was a bit of a thorn in the royal side during the later years of his life, but up until then he had been a loyal servant (if not always popular with the other courtiers). The reason for his first defiance of Edward was probably due to losing Odiham. Maybe he felt he deserved the position of constable there, that he’d worked hard for the king and been unappreciated. The reason for his second rebellion is not as easy to speculate upon, but probably had something to do with the executions of Lisle and Tyes and also some sort of feud with the elder Despenser. He was certainly an angry man, most likely an over-proud man, and one who obviously didn’t think through, or didn’t care about the consequences of his actions. That he was forgiven once was a tribute to his military prowess, but there was very little chance that he would be forgiven twice.
Vita Edwardi Secundi
Calendar of the Close Rolls, 1313-1318, 1318-1323
Calendar of the Patent Rolls, 1317-1321, 1321-1324
Calendar of Ancient Petitions (accessed at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/details-result.asp?queryType=1&resultcount=1&Edoc_Id=7712991
The Fine Rolls, Vol III
Natalie Fryde, The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326