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Britain’s top burial sites?

This Sun article, which originally confused Richard’s Leicester with Henry I’s Reading, lists what they consider to be Britain’s top burial sites, although there is no detail on the supposed “Princes” in that urn, especially now that there is evidence to test the remains.

Are there any others you might have included?

The Death of Robert, Earl of Gloucester

In writing Stephen and Matilda: Cousins of Anarchy, I was keen to apply the same narrow-eyed pursuit of solid facts that I hope comes across in my books on the Wars of the Roses. More than being about battles and, well, anarchy, I wanted to discover the real personalities behind the stories, the people who are sometimes lost in the moralising and misogyny of chroniclers. Few characters are as fascinating and worthy of admiration as Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

RobertConsul_TewkesburyAbbey_FoundersBook Monks of Tewkesbury Abbey, c. 1500-1525 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Robert, Earl of Gloucester and his wife Mabel FitzHamon from the Founders’ Book of the Monks of Tewkesbury Abbey

The first person to hold a peerage title centred on Gloucester was the oldest, and favourite, illegitimate son of Henry I; a man who might have been king. Henry I holds the record for the most known illegitimate children fathered by an English or British monarch. He had at least twenty-two, and possibly more, illegitimate sons and daughters. Robert was his oldest, born around 1090, either his grandfather William the Conqueror or his uncle William Rufus were on the throne and his father was the king’s third son, unlikely to inherit anything more than a hefty lump of cash.

The identity of Robert’s mother is not known for certain. Once conjectured to have been Nest, a daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, the last King of Deheubarth, it is more likely that she was a member of an Oxfordshire family, like the mothers of many of Henry’s other illegitimate children. She was possibly a daughter of Rainald Gay of Hampton Gay, but she remains lost in mystery. Her son, however, would be propelled into the political limelight, feted as the favourite son of a father who took the throne as Henry I.

Robert’s importance solidified after The White Ship Disaster of 1120, when Henry lost his only legitimate son. Shortly afterwards, Robert was created Earl of Gloucester, probably reflecting the amount of land and the number of honours his wife, Mabel FitzHamon, brought to him within the area. He also held extensive lands in Wales and Normandy. When Henry appointed his only other legitimate child, his daughter Empress Matilda, as his heir, he extracted oaths from his barons that they would support her. More than most, though, Henry would have been aware of the fragility of such pledges: he had not been his brother’s heir but had snatched the throne on William Rufus’s sudden death.

Robert was promoted further, given lands that made him one of the most wealthy and powerful men on both sides of the Channel. The plan was clear: Robert was to be a crutch for his half-sister as she tried to exercise power as a woman in a strictly man’s world. Crutches come in pairs, and the other one readied for Empress Matilda was her cousin, Stephen of Blois, Count of Boulogne. Stephen was the son of Henry’s sister Adela of Normandy and was another of Henry’s favourites, made powerful to help support Matilda.

Henry’s plans, however well laid, ultimately fell to pieces on his death in 1135. It is possible the king changed his mind on his deathbed, since he was at odds with Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou, but whatever really happened behind closed doors, it was Stephen who rushed to have himself crowned in place of Empress Matilda. Robert trod a difficult and strained line. He eventually submitted to Stephen, but the king was never quite sure of his cousin. Whether Robert had planned to remain loyal to his half-sister all along or Stephen’s suspicion drove him away is unclear – chroniclers have their ideas based on their prejudices, but Robert alone knew the secrets of his heart.

When Empress Matilda landed at Arundel Castle to formally launch her bid to take the crown in 1139, she was accompanied by her half-brother Robert. While she remained inside the castle until Stephen arrived, Robert sped west to his stronghold at Bristol, a castle deemed impenetrable and which would form the beating heart of Matilda’s bid for power for years. Robert became the military arm of his half-sister’s efforts, allowing her to overcome the problems of putting an army into the field. In 1141, it was Robert who led the army against Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln that resulted in the king’s capture. Later the same year, when Matilda was driven out of Winchester, it was Robert who fought a rear guard action to allow Matilda to escape safely, but which led to his own seizure by forces loyal to Stephen.

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Medieval knights riding into battle from wall paintings at Claverley Church, Shropshire

It is a mark of the importance to Matilda’s cause of Earl Robert that he was part of a prisoner exchange, his release secured with that of Stephen in a complex arrangement of hostages and releases. The chronicler William of Malmesbury, who knew Earl Robert and is unfalteringly positive about his patron, believed that Robert demonstrated his courage, guile and humility when he initially refused to be exchanged for the king, since he was a mere earl and worth less than Stephen. Even when he was offered control of the government, he still refused. It was Matilda who blinked first. Robert was perhaps not as clever as William of Malmesbury believed (if the earl didn’t exaggerate his role in the negotiations for his writer friend!). Matilda’s case was largely based on the illegitimacy of Stephen’s rule; he was not the rightful king and had broken his own oaths to support her. Robert, in recognising Stephen as a king and as one of higher worth than an earl, undid that pretence and handed Stephen all of the religious authority and infallibility that went with being king.

Robert died on 31 October 1147, aged around fifty-seven, at Bristol Castle, still trying to lift his half-sister onto the throne. He was buried at his own foundation of St James’s Priory in Bristol. The hammer blow to Matilda’s cause is amply demonstrated by her decision to leave England in the early months of 1148, abandoning her own claim to the throne but bequeathing the effort to her son, Henry FitzEmpress, the future Henry II. Robert had been a paragon of chivalry, and shared many attributed with his rival King Stephen. William of Malmesbury is full of gushing praise for the brave, chivalrous, unflappable earl, and it is clear that he was the strong core of his half-sisters efforts.

Many urged Robert to make his own claim to the throne in 1135 and afterwards. This presented problems, not the least of which was his illegitimacy. His grandfather, William the Conqueror had been a bastard, but becoming a duke was different from becoming a king, and William took England by conquest, not by right. Illegitimacy was always much more of a bar to becoming a king, with all of the associated religious aspects of being chosen by God. On the other hand, he was the favourite son of the old king, Henry I, and solved all of the problems of female rule that Matilda relentlessly encountered. Capable, both militarily and politically, he was more acceptable to some despite his illegitimacy than any woman would ever be.

Robert refused at every turn, and at every request, to even consider trying to make himself a king. It is perhaps unkind to suggest that he lacked confidence that he would succeed, because he relentlessly spearheaded his half-sister’s efforts to unseat Stephen. William of Malmesbury may not have been far wide of the mark when he admiringly assured his reader that Robert would not consider such a step because he accepted Matilda as the rightful heir to their father’s throne. He swore oaths to her and, once Matilda launched her bid for the throne and turned away from Stephen, he spent the remainder of his life trying to keep those promises.

Robert died without seeing the eventual success of their cause, but he never gave up. He managed to be the military arm of an attempt to implement female rule in England more than four centuries before it would finally be accepted. That he did so without blurring the lines of his half-sister’s claim to the throne or allowing himself to become embroiled in efforts to make him king speaks volumes for the man and his abilities. There is an awful lot to admire in this dedicated, honourable and capable first holder of a peerage based on the city of Gloucester.

Stephen and Matilda: Cousins of Anarchy is released by Pen and Sword on 30 October 2019.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stephen-Matildas-Civil-War-Cousins/dp/1526718332

THE HOLY HAND OF ST JAMES FROM READING ABBEY

A fascinating article  from the Royal Berkshire History site on the preserved hand of St James, which was discovered in 1796 walled up in the ruins of Reading Abbey and now resides in the Catholic Church in Marlow.  Recently,this medieval artefact has undergone scientific analysis with interesting results.

Reading Abbey was a highly important place in the Middle Ages. Not only  was it the burial place of a King  (Henry I–lost and still waiting to be found) and a child of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (a boy who died of a seizure and was buried at his great grandfather’s feet)  but it contained a great many relics, including bits of the True Cross, Christ’s sandal, Christ’s foreskin (apparently 17 of these existed, ahem), crusts  from the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’, head hair from the Virgin Mary, pieces of Mary’s tomb and so on. These appeared to have been shipped in from Constantinople. The abbey became a great draw for pilgrims and it was here Edward IV first publicly presented Elizabeth Woodville as his “wife” and guided her to a chair of estate as Queen of England.

One of the most famous  relics at Reading was the arm of St James, which was probably donated by the Empress Matilda. Having survived both the Reformation and Cromwell, the mummified hand has recently given up some of its secrets…including the fact it cannot have belonged to St James, as the date is wrong. (So here we have a case of bones long thought of as belonging to a certain individual being found by science to be someone else’s, despite centuries of deeply-held belief. Hopefully science will continue to verify such relics where possible. *Cough “Princes in the Tower” Cough.*)

Interestingly,  a preserved hand  was found in the city of Salisbury many years back, within a  medieval house  known as The Haunch of Venison, now currently a pub/restaurant (and supposedly very haunted!). The smoke-dried hand grew many legends, including that the hand was cut from a cheating whist-player in the 1700’s  (there were some old playing cards placed by it at some time) or that it was a ‘Hand of Glory’, a magical talisman used by thieves to put an inn’s tenants to sleep while the thieves robbed them. However, a local  historian surmised it might have in fact been a religious relic hidden during the  reformation; the Haunch had belonged  to the nearby  church of Thomas a Becket, and was used to lodge craftsmen who were building the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. Unfortunately, the hand had a habit of being stolen from the pub, and the last time it was snatched in 2010, it was never returned. A replica lies in its place but any chance of dating and learning more of its past it is now lost…unless it mysteriously returns again!

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preserved hand from Salisbury

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mummified hand of St James

THE CASE OF THE RUNAWAY NUN

Below is a rather amusing recently discovered account of a young nun in York called Joan of Leeds, who escaped her convent in the early 15th c by pretending to be dead and leaving a fake body in her  place.

Many monks and nuns, especially those who had entered a monastic house at a very young age and not by their own free will found themselves unsuitable for the religious life as they grew older. Most of the escapees  would vanish to join a prospective lover.

Even royalty sometimes left monasteries under a cloud. Edith, later known as Matilda, the wife of Henry I was in Wilton Abbey for her education, not to become a nun. However, when it came time for her to marry, many insisted that she had taken vows while in the convent and hence was not eligible. Edith was having none of it. To show them she was truly not a nun, she flung her wimple to the ground–and trampled on it.

 

THE NAUGHTY NUN–JOAN, WHO FAKED HER OWN DEATH

 

 

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The Castle of Leicester and St Mary De Castro

Leicester Castle

leics castle

Leicester Castle as it appeared in 1483

 

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The Castle gardens

Since 2015 going to Leicester is the equivalent of going to visit the tomb of the last Plantagenet King who died in battle: Richard III. Everything there speaks of him from the Visitor Centre named after him, to The Last Plantagenet Pub not to mention attractions and shops that display his portrait or sell items with the name of the king. Of course, the Medieval Cathedral where the warrior king was buried in 2015 is the most visited place in Leicester but if you go there, don’t forget to pay a visit to the remains of Leicester’s Castle and its church St Mary De Castro. It is difficult today to imagine how the Castle could be at the time of Richard III but it is still there indeed even in a different shape. 

IMG_2840The Castle was probably built immediately after the Norman Conquest so around 1070. The Governor  at that time was Hugh de Grantmensil one of the companions of William the Conqueror. The Castle was the favourite residence of John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster and the fourth son of Edward III. From the north end of the hall, it was possible to access the lord’s private apartments whilst from the south end there was access to a kitchen above an undercoft called John of Gaunt’s cellar where beverage and food were stored. Some people erroneously think it was a dungeon. 

The castle today looks totally different. What remains are the Castle’s Mound (Motte) located between Castle View and Castle Gardens. The Motte was originally 30-40 feet Prince Rupehigh topped with a timber tower. Unfortunately no buildings survived  and the motte was lowered in Victorian times to form a bowling green.

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The Castle House

The Great Hall is the oldest surviving aisled and bay divided timber hall in Britain. Even though the exterior is Victorian, the building still retains some of its original 12th century timber posts. The criminal court in the castle’s Great Hall was the scene of Leicester’s “Green Bicycle Murder” trial 1919 so exactly 100 years ago.

Other things are still visible of the ancient castle. The wall, the remains of the castle especially the Turret Gateway also known as Prince Rupert’s Gateway, the Castle Gardens (once used for public executions) the Castle House and the stunning church of St Mary De Castro.

St Mary De Castro

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St Mary De Castro

Close where the Castle stood, there is an ancient church called St Mary De Castro. It is a very special place especially for Ricardians. In this church Geoffrey Chaucer married her second wife, Philippa de Roet and 44 people were knighted in just one day among them Henry VI and Richard Plantagenet Duke of York, Richard III’s father. He was just 15 years old. However, the most famous event to be remembered today is that it is said that Richard III worshipped there before leaving for Bosworth and prepared himself for his last battle.

St Mary De Castro means St Mary of the Castle. It was built in 1107 after Henry I gave the

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The Chapel in St Mary De Castro ground to Robert de Beaumont 1st Earl of Leicester. It was the chapel of the castle and a place of worship within the bailey of the castle. It is assumed but there is no proof of evidence, that Ethelfleda, daughter of King Alfred the Great, had founded a church on the very spot where today is St Mary. It also seems that there was a college of priests called the College of St Mary De Castro founded before the Norman Conquest.

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The tower of St Mary was built not beside the church but inside of it so visitors can see 3 sides of it while still in church. The medieval spire, rebuilt in 1783 was declared dangerous in 2013. Following the unsuccessful attempt to raise money to save it, it was demolished in 2014. The church’s structure is quite odd because in ancient times there were two churches. One was the mentioned chapel of the castle, the other a church for common people. This explains why there are two sedilias and two piscinas both from medieval times.

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Henry VI and Richard III

Curiosities

It is said that King Richard III’s mistreated body was brought to this church to be washed before being displayed for the world to see he was actually dead. Considering the evident haste he was buried in and the lack of respect showed by the Tudors, it is unlikely this ever happened.

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The Nave of the Church

Philippa de Roet, Chaucer’s wife, was the lady-in-waiting of Philippa of Hainault one of Richard III’s ancestors.

In this church Edward of Lancaster and John of Lancaster are buried. Both died in infancy.

 

 

Romsey Abbey and the “dark, disturbing” painting….

Romsey Abbey painting

Well, I’m afraid I find the above picture outlandish. She looks as if her neck has been twisted and then pulled! Why do religious houses think such things are desirable and respectful? To me they are anything but. I know, I know, it’s a matter of taste, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc. etc., but this particular work remains outlandish! The scene depicted is of the lady’s hands producing holy light…instead she looks like a throttled chicken in a habit!

 

The remains of Henry I not found yet at reopened Reading Abbey….

Reading Abbey - without Henry I

Reading Abbey is reopening, but without the remains of Henry I having been found. He’s there somewhere, having definitely been buried there after his “surfeit of lampreys”. Well, they found Richard in Leicester, so there’s still hope of locating Henry.

Horton Priory…my dream of a home….

Horton Priory

£5.5 million? What’s that between friends? I know…far too much. But I can dream. This wonderful old priory in Kent would suit me down to the ground and the link above includes a number of photographs that show you exactly why I like Horton Priory so much.

It may not have been beyond the capacious pockets of Henry I, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but it’s beyond mine. Oh, and Thomas Cranmer lived there too. Alas, not any Ricardian connections, but I suppose I can’t have everything.

You can read more about the priory and its history here.

James Tyrrell’s Ancestor

You may know or suspect from a previous post in Murrey and Blue, that Sir James Tyrrell, Richard’s henchman, was a direct descendant of Sir Walter Tyrrell, the ‘Killer Baron’, who fled during a hunting expedition with King William II (Rufus) after shooting him with an arrow. It is not known whether this was an accident or murder on the orders of Rufus’ brother, Henry!

But you may not know that he is also a direct descendent of Sir John Hawkwood, through Hawkwood’s daughter, Antiochia, (by his first wife, whose name is unknown for sure but who was probably English). He was Hawkwood’s 2 x great grandson. You can see this on the family tree below (you may have to enlarge it to see clearly).

Tyrell family tree

 

So, who was Sir John Hawkwood? Well, he was reportedly the second son of a tanner from Sible Hedingham in Essex, Gilbert Hawkwood. However, it seems Gilbert was actually a land owner of some wealth. John Hawkwood was apprenticed to a tailor in London, but obviously wasn’t content with that career and became an archer, a longbowman, in the Hundred Years War under Edward III, and it is thought he participated in both the battle of Crécy and the Battle of Poitiers. He may have been knighted by the Black Prince but there are no written records and it is possible he was just styled a knight by convention in Italy at the time.

A little later, when free companies of soldiers began to form, Hawkwood joined the largest, The White Company or The Great Company, a gang of mercenaries who fought for various factions in France and collected bribes, ransoms and booty as they went. After two years, Hawkwood rose to be their commander and proved an expert in pillaging, blackmailing and duplicity. Eventually they arrived in Italy, where there were many city-states who were always in conflict with each other. This proved to be rich pickings for Hawkwood and his Company, as over the next thirty years he fought both for and against the Pope, Florence, Milan, Pisa, Siena and Perugia. He extracted huge bribes from all of them and such was Hawkwood’s military reputation that he never lacked for clients. This was even though over the years he betrayed them all!

Detail of fresco of Sir John HawKwood

(Image – Public domain)

He eventually signed a contract with Florence and remained there in a mainly defensive role for the rest of his career. He died on 17th March 1394, just before he could return to England as he was planning to do. Florence granted him an elaborate funeral and there is still a fresco there which commemorates him.

Fresco of Sir John Hawkwood

Image credit: By Paolo Uccello (Italian, 1397–1475) (Jastrow, own picture) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard II requested that his remains be returned to England and this was agreed, though there is no written record of his remains being actually buried in the Church of St Peter’s in Sible Hedingham, where there is also a monument to him.

Pic of St Peter's Church, Sible Hedingham

Image credit: Robert Edwards [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikim

Hawkwood’s reputation was one of ruthlessness, guile and intelligence. He was obviously a clever tactician as witnessed by his success and he must have been courageous to lead that sort of life. However, he did have a reputation for brutality and deviousness. He was known to have had two wives as well as several mistresses and illegitimate children, as many men did in that occupation. Conversely, he had Mass said before his campaigns. He is also described as showing honesty and fidelity. I wonder whether his 2 x great-grandson inherited any of these traits?

 

 

 

More news from Reading

When I watched this video, talking about the precise location of the high altar of the Abbey with respect to Henry I, the parallels with the search for Richard III in Leicester’s Greyfriars are almost exact:

Neither should we forget Henry I’s Queen, Edith (Matilda) of Scotland, who reintroduced Anglo-Saxon royal (Wessex) blood to the English monarchy.

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