17 January, 2019

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a novel I've read several times over the years, and is a novel I both love and hate. In 2054, they've invented time travel (and, for reasons which are never explained, it's controlled by incompetent historians at Oxford University), and a young student called Kivrin goes back to 1320, during Edward II's reign - or so she thinks. In fact, she ends up in 1348 by mistake, and gets caught up in the first terrible epidemic of the Black Death.

The novel was published in 1992 and written in the late 1980s, and unfortunately the author did not anticipate mobile phones or email or the internet, with unintentionally hilarious results. It's supposed to be set in 2054, but a person who could sort the mess out is on a fishing holiday in Scotland and is therefore as unreachable as if he'd travelled to the far side of the universe, and there are more scenes than I can count where desperate people phone other people's landlines but they're not at home so they have to leave messages, but the people don't receive these urgent messages because the people who were meant to pass them on don't or because bits of paper where the urgent messages have been written down flutter to the ground and are missed, and so on. A scene where someone gasps out 'something is wrong' then conveniently faints or rushes off before he can explain what's wrong seems to happen about 147 times, and the astonishingly inept historians at Oxford who for unfathomable reasons have been put in charge of time travel finally clock that Kivrin is in 1348, not in 1320, on p. 405 of the 578-page novel. Basically, the whole thing makes much more sense if you assume it's set in an alternate reality 1954 where they have a time machine rather than in 2054. There's a quarantine going on in the Oxford of 2054, people wear ear muffs and shop at Woolworths, and the author seems to think that in British English a 'muffler' is a kind of scarf rather than a car part. The word 'muffler' in the context she uses it is so hilariously old-fashioned I'm not sure if even my great-grandparents would have used it, so the novel sometimes gives the impression of being set in 1854, never mind 1954. The last couple of times I've read Doomsday Book, I've skipped the weirdly dated supposedly futuristic scenes and just read all the fourteenth-century scenes, and it improved the experience immeasurably.

The names of a few of the characters throw me too. Why on earth is the main character from 2054 called 'Kivrin'? Why does a fourteenth-century English nobleman (whom we don't meet, Eliwys's husband and Imeyne's son) have a French name, Guillaume? Another thing I find deeply irritating is that fourteenth-century people are always referred to as 'the contemps', i.e. contemporaries. Could you not just call them 'people'? I also really did not warm to Kivrin as a character at all.

Early in the novel before Kivrin travels back in time, she talks to Dunworthy, her professor who has a fixation on her that I find deeply creepy. He tells her that no-one has ever travelled back to the fourteenth century before as it's too dangerous, as they 'were still burning witches in 1320'. Heh?? Burning witches in 1320? He says this again a bit later, when he comments that life expectancy was thirty-eight in the early fourteenth century and that was only if you didn't get burned alive for witchcraft. Why does this professional historian in charge of time travel not know the difference between 1320 and 1620? He also thinks that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the fourteenth century. Errrrmmmm. People fret that Kivrin will get cholera, which didn't actually exist in England at the time, and the narrative tells us that we have No. Sources. Whatsoever! for people's lives in the Middle Ages except tax rolls and parish records and that therefore we don't know anything. This is nonsense on stilts. So many sources survive; we have thousands of wills from fourteenth-century England, the chancery rolls, lots of household accounts, letters, petitions, court rolls, parliament rolls, plea rolls, mayors' rolls, coroners' rolls, the London Assize of Nuisance, and much more. So, so much more. And the narrative endlessly contradicts itself by making wild sweeping generalisations that 'the contemps did X' and 'the contemps thought Y' and 'the contemps believed Z'. As one example of many, in 1348 a puppy dies, and Kivrin smugly tells us that 'the contemps disposed of dead animals by tossing them into the underbrush or dumping them in a stream,' as though she's canvassed every single medieval person's opinion on the matter. But I thought we had no sources and didn't know anything, so where are you getting this? Throughout, there's a tendency to portray the fourteenth century in the most cliched and negative way possible, so everyone and everything is filthy all the time, and a twelve-year-old character, Rosamund, who looks even younger than she is, is shortly to marry a man in his fifties. To me, it seemed as though Kivrin was looking at the people she met down her nose all the time and that the reader is meant to share her distaste of OH MY GOD LOOK AN ADOLESCENT CHILD HAS TO MARRY A MAN OLD ENOUGH TO BE HER GRANDFATHER AND OH MY GOD THEY HAVE FLEAS, HOW PRIMITIVE AND HORRIBLE THESE PEOPLE ARE.

When Kivrin first arrives in 1348, for the first few days she can't understand the Middle English the 'contemps' (heh) are speaking. Their speech appears on the page phonetically, the way Kivrin hears it. A lot of it, I can work out, but a lot I can't. Thanway maunhollp anhour means 'Then we must help [holpen] her', and Spaegun yovor tongawn glais? means 'Speak you our English tongue?', and Got tallon wottes means 'God alone knows'. Other bits, I can't get. Auf specherit darmayt is beyond me, except darmayt probably means 'the maid'. Or Maetinkerr woun dahest wexe hoordoumbe and Nor nayte boorcows derouthe. I really think Connie Willis should have explained and translated all this in an author's note at the end. It's very frustrating that it isn't.

Kivrin is seriously ill and burning up with fever when she arrives in the past, and hallucinates that the 'contemps' are burning her at the stake, because, you know, that's what people do for laughs in 1320 according to our stunningly brilliant historian Dunworthy; they encounter women in the woods and randomly burn them alive. A large part of the novel involves Kivrin lying in bed seriously ill, and she spends most of the rest of it wondering how she's going to locate and get back to 'the drop', i.e. the place where she arrived in the past, as she needs to be there at a certain pre-arranged time in order to return to 2054. The words 'the drop' and 'slippage' appear so often in the novel you could play a drinking game with them. You'd think that an advanced society able to invent time travel and to come up with a 'memory enhancer' in the brain which enables Kivrin to speak and understand Middle English might be clever enough to put some kind of locator on her so that they know exactly where and when she is. Instead, as noted above, they finally figure it out on page 405. Durrrrrrr. These are the people in charge of time travel. Or you'd expect them maybe to be able to open 'the net' that will bring her back to the twenty-first century anywhere, instead of requiring her to find the exact clearing in the large wood where she arrived, or even to realise that forcing Kivrin to find and identify a specific clearing in a large wood full of clearings and snow-covered trees and paths might not be the most efficient way of going about things, but maybe that's just me.

The first person Kivrin meets in 1348 (or 1320, as she thinks it is) is Father Roche, the simple but kindly and compassionate parish priest, whom Kivrin assumes for several chapters is a 'cut-throat' who wishes to harm her, for no reason that I could fathom except that somehow he has a face that makes him look like a cut-throat. 'Cut-throat', like 'the drop' and 'slippage', is a word that appears approximately 1,754 times throughout the novel, or at least that's what it feels like. Actually, when we get to meet him properly, Father Roche is a very well-drawn and sympathetic character. In one scene, Kivrin wanders into the church and hears him chatting to God, as though God is his friend, telling Him all about the villagers and what they're doing and how their health is. I thought that was lovely. The other main characters are Eliwys, a young noblewoman, her daughters Rosamund and Agnes, her mother-in-law Imeyne, their servant Maisry, and Gawyn, the man-servant of Eliwys's absent husband Guillaume. We also meet some of the villagers who live near the manor-house, envoys from the bishop, and Sir Bloet, the elderly future husband of Rosamund, and several members of his family.

Once the Black Death arrives in the village, just after Christmas 1348 - when Kivrin finally, 386 pages into a 578-page book, realises what year she's in - Doomsday Book packs a real emotional punch. Let's just say that Connie Willis isn't afraid to kill off her characters, and it's incredibly moving. Near the end of the novel, two people come through from the future to rescue Kivrin, and come across a black horse in the wood. Although they have no way of knowing it, the horse belongs to Gawyn, who rides off to fetch Sir Guillaume and never comes home. Eliwys, who loves Gawyn and is waiting for him, dies without ever seeing him again, without knowing that he fell from his horse and died just a couple of miles from home. At this stage in the novel, I am in absolute floods, and just thinking about it now makes me want to howl with grief. Then we have the villager who goes mad when he has to bury all five of his children and digs himself into their grave, and freezes to death there. Father Roche, who seems to be well enough to travel away from the village with Kivrin, but suddenly begins hallucinating and turns out to have a massive bubo in his groin, and who thinks that Kivrin is a saint come from heaven to save him. Little Agnes, who dies screaming for Kivrin to come, although Kivrin is right next to her. Ohhhh God. It really brings home the horror of what the Black Death must have been like, as we watch the characters we've got to know suffer and die and Kivrin's utter helplessness and hopelessness as she tries to do what she can for them. The last few chapters of the novel are so moving they almost make me forgive all the endless irritations up to that point.

Doomsday Book would have been an absolutely fantastic novel without the disconcertingly old-fashioned and almost entirely pointless future scenes, and if Kivrin had been a more proactive heroine who didn't have to spend half her scenes feverish in bed and most of the rest fretting about 'the drop'. There's a brilliant story here, unfortunately surrounded by about 500 pages of filler. 

12 January, 2019

Oliver of Bordeaux (c. 1290? - c. early 1360s)

Oliver of Bordeaux was a squire of Edward II's chamber, a Gascon who lived in England for most of his long life and who often appears in the English chancery rolls as 'Oliver de Burdeux' or 'Oliver de Burdegala', the Latin form of his name. Here's a post about him. (Second part of my post about Hugh Despenser the Elder is coming soon, by the way, but I'm still working on it.)

I've first found Oliver on record in England on 29 March 1308, when he is mentioned as a valet of Edward II's household, a few months after Edward's accession to the throne. [1] I assume, given how long Oliver lived - he was still alive in 1359/60 and perhaps later - that he was a very young man then, no more than eighteen or twenty or so, and perhaps had not long arrived in England. As a Gascon, from the territories ruled by the English kings in their capacity as dukes of Aquitaine, he was a subject of the English Crown, and plenty of other Gascon men served in Edward II's household throughout his reign. Oliver was one of four sons of the curiously-named Lop-Bergunh or Loup-Borgoun, a merchant from Morlaàs in Béarn, 115 miles south of Bordeaux and only about four miles from the village of Gabaston, where Piers Gaveston's family originated from. There is a reference on the fine roll of September 1243 to an Oliver de Bordeaux, burgess of Morlaàs, almost certainly an ancestor, and this book states that our Oliver "belonged to the great family which once governed the capital of Aquitaine" and that Pey (or Pierre) de Bordeaux, seneschal of Gascony in Henry III's reign, was also an ancestor.

Oliver's eldest brother, their father's heir, was also named Lop-Bergunh and was mayor of the city of Bordeaux for some of the 1310s; he was still alive in the early 1330s (see here for one of his many petitions to Edward III; his name is spelt 'Lopborgoign de Bordeux' and he refers to "Lord E., formerly king of England, your father, whom God absolve"). They had another brother called Guilhem or Guilhem-Bergunh, and a fourth whose name appears as 'Domengeon de Burdeaux' and who joined the Church in or before March 1308. [2] Oliver and his brothers Lop-Bergunh and Guilhem were all in England in 1315, and were said to be "on the king's service at Berwick-on-Tweed." [3] In the early years of his reign, Edward II gave Oliver almost 500 acres of land, pasture, meadow and wood, and houses and gardens, in Eton, Windsor and Old Windsor, and houses in Sevyng Lane, London (later called Seething Lane). [4] He was constable of Guildford Castle in Surrey and Windsor Castle in the late 1310s. [5]

As well as giving Oliver lands and frequent gifts of cash, Edward II arranged a very favourable marriage for him with a noblewoman called Maud Trussell, née Mainwaring, a widow with sons called John, William and Warin Trussell. The king personally attended Oliver and Maud’s wedding "at the door of the chapel within the park of Woodstock" near Oxford on 26 June 1317, gave them two rings worth thirty shillings each, and five days later on 1 July granted them an annual income of 100 marks (£66) from the Exchequer. [6] Maud was of noble birth and one of the three co-heirs of her father, while Oliver was the son of a merchant and not his father's eldest son or heir, and was never knighted. Assuming that Maud consented to the marriage and was not forced into it by Edward II, she was happy enough to marry a man of lower rank than she; perhaps Oliver was an attractive and personable man, and to be fair he was far from being a nobody but came from quite a prominent family of Béarn. Oliver must have paid out the £42, 14s, 1d it cost for Maud to travel to court in June 1317 and to stay there with the king before their wedding, as on 3 August 1317 Edward ordered that sum to be paid to him for Maud's expenses. [7]

Maud Trussell, née Mainwaring was the third and youngest daughter of Warin Mainwaring, sometimes spelt Meynwaring or Menwarin, who died at the end of May 1289. At Warin's inquisition post mortem on 23 June 1289, Maud was said to be "aged half a year and more," hence must have been born about the end of 1288 or thereabouts, and was twenty-eight when she married Oliver of Bordeaux in June 1317. (Her sisters Joan and Margery were five and three respectively in June 1289.) [8] Her second husband Oliver was probably about the same age. Maud Mainwaring married her first husband William Trussell sometime in the early 1300s. There were several Sir William Trussells active in England in the early fourteenth century, and I'm not entirely sure which one Maud married; obviously it can't have been the Sir William Trussell who read out the charges against Hugh Despenser the Younger in Hereford in November 1326 (and had done the same for Hugh the Elder a month earlier), as claimed on Wikipedia and here, as Maud married Oliver of Bordeaux in June 1317 when she was a widow. A William Trussell, perhaps the man of this name who was Maud's husband, was knighted with Edward of Caernarfon and more than 250 others on 22 May 1306. See here and here for posts in soc.genealogy.medieval about the family. There is no inquisition post mortem for William Trussell, and I haven't found any entries in the chanvery rolls relating to his death, so the date when he died is not clear; perhaps 1316 or early 1317, just a few months before his widow married Oliver.

There are numerous references to Oliver of Bordeaux in the chancery rolls, the chancery warrants, Edward II's chamber and wardrobe accounts, and so on, and it is apparent that he was very close to the king and favoured by him. Various entries in the chancery rolls in the 1310s and 1320s state that Edward II made grants or appointments "on the information of Oliver de Burdegala," revealing that the young Gascon had access to the king and was willing and able to intercede with him on others' behalf. Oliver accompanied Edward to the north of England in the autumn of 1310 when he went on an unsuccessful mission to defeat Robert Bruce, and on the day Edward heard of Piers Gaveston's murder a week after it happened, on 26 June 1312, the king ordered the keeper of the royal manor of Burstwick to give 'bay colts' from the stud there to Oliver of Bordeaux, Sir Edmund Mauley and Sir Henry Beaumont. [9] Oliver was with the king at Langley at the beginning of 1315, just after Gaveston's funeral, when he sent a letter to the chancellor, John Sandal. [10] He went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in or soon after February 1316, the year before Edward II arranged his marriage to Maud Trussell, and in December 1316 was appointed keeper of the bastides of 'Froundeboef, Seint Gyn and Lieuz' in his native Gascony (though given that he got married in England a few months later, I assume he was an absentee keeper). Oliver took part in the king's campaign against the Contrariants in 1321/22, and was with Edward when the royal cousin Thomas of Lancaster was executed in Pontefract in March 1322. On one occasion, Edward II used Oliver's seal on a writ: "Because we did not have our privy seal near us when this letter was made, we used the seal of our dear valet Oliver de Burdeux." [11]

A curious entry in Edward II's chamber account states that at Harpley in Norfolk on 7 February 1326, Edward sat beside Oliver of Bordeaux's bed at "a little before midnight", and gave him a gift of twenty marks. (Earlier in his reign, on 4 March and 26 April 1311, Edward had given Oliver hugely generous gifts of 100 marks on each occasion, and another twenty marks on 6 September 1322.) [12] The 7th of February 1326 was the night before Edward had it proclaimed around his kingdom that his wife, Isabella, had made an alliance in France with the remnant of the Contrariant faction, led by Roger Mortimer of Wigmore. Perhaps Edward had just found out that his wife had allied with his enemies and was shocked and unable to sleep, and unburdened himself to Oliver (though of course I'm only speculating). Oliver of Bordeaux stayed with Edward until the bitter end after the queen's invasion, and on 10 November 1326 just six days before the king's capture, was one of the five men Edward appointed as envoys to the queen and her and Edward's son Edward of Windsor. [13] As noted above, a Sir William Trussell read out the charges against the two Hugh Despensers in October and November 1326, and he was surely a relative of Oliver's wife Maud. I'm not sure how; this William Trussell was a Contrariant in 1321/22, and Maud, born c. late 1288, would seem much too young to be his mother. At any rate, it is possible that Oliver and Maud's loyalties were somewhat divided in the autumn of 1326, though Oliver did remain with Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger until days before their capture, and did not abandon them as most others did.

After Edward II's downfall, Oliver joined his son Edward III's household, and is named as one of the king's squires in June 1328 and again in 1330. In 1329, Oliver was appointed keeper of the castle of Bayonne in his native Gascony, and on 15 December 1330 a few weeks after he overthrew his mother Isabella and took over control of his own kingdom, Edward III praised Oliver's "laudable service" to his father. It seems that Oliver appointed a deputy to act on his behalf, however, and remained in England. [14] In 1352, Oliver was apparently serving in the household of Edward III's eldest son Edward of Woodstock, prince of Wales: on 7 November that year, there is a reference in the prince's account to 40 shillings being paid "by the hands of Oliver de Burdeux for play in the queen's [Philippa of Hainault's] chamber at Berkhamsted." [15]

Oliver of Bordeaux and Maud Trussell had no children together - Maud had three sons and apparently a daughter from her first marriage, so perhaps Oliver was infertile - and Maud died sometime before 23 May 1336, when an entry on the patent roll states "...inasmuch as the said Matilda [i.e. Maud] is now deceased leaving no heir of her body by the said Oliver...". She was still alive on 30 September 1334. [16] Edward III exempted Oliver for life in February 1342 from taking up knighthood and pardoned him for not having done so in the past; as Oliver had an annual income of £40 or more, he was qualified for knighthood and was obligated to become one, yet obviously did not wish to. In February 1331, he had his own squire, John le Taillour. [17] In 1336 and perhaps in other years, he acted as the attorney of his stepson, Sir William Trussell, second of Maud's three sons (John was the eldest, and Warin, named after Maud's father, the youngest). Oliver had also acted as the attorney of 'the burgesses of St Quitterie' in 1317. [18]

Edward III commissioned Oliver of Bordeaux and three other men "to survey the works in Windsor Castle" on 12 May 1351, and he was serving the king's eldest son in November 1352, so evidently Oliver was perfectly fit and healthy well over forty years after he had arrived in England. Oliver was still alive on 2 January 1359 when Sir William Trussell (either his stepson or his late wife Maud's grandson, I'm not sure) promised to pay £50 annually to hold various lands in and around Windsor "for the life of Oliver", and he was apparently also still alive on 1 June 1360, when Edward III pardoned a man "for the taking of twelve swans at Dorneyemore and in the water of [the River] Thames of Oliver de Burdeux." He was dead by 20 February 1365, when mention is made of "lands and meadows in Wychemere, Kyngefrede and Daylese, late of Oliver de Burdeux." [19] It seems that Oliver lived to be a good seventy years old or more, and he spent almost all his adult life in England. His name was remembered as late as 1473 - 1473, not 1373 - when a piece of land in Eton was said to be 'sometime of Oliver de Burdeux', a whopping 163 years after Edward II gave it to him and over 100 years after his death. [20] Over a century after he died, Oliver's name was still well-known in the parts of England where he had held lands. This book describes Oliver of Bordeaux as a "wise and able man," a judgement with which I can only concur.


1) Chancery Warrants 1308-48, p. 270; also CPR 1307-13, p. 66.
2) Chancery Warrants 1308-48, pp. 270, 417; and see the gasconrolls.org website.
3) Chancery Warrants 1308-48, pp. 407, 417.
4) CPR 1307-13, pp. 95, 271, 301, 386, 481, 494, 516; CPR 1317-21, pp. 259, 556; CPR 1324-7, p. 214; CPR 1327-30, pp. 236, 525; CCR 1318-23, p. 311.
5) CCR 1318-23, pp. 11, 158-9, 173 etc.
6) Thomas Stapleton, ‘A Brief Summary of the Wardrobe Accounts of the tenth, eleventh and fourteenth years of King Edward the Second’, Archaeologia, 26 (1836), p. 339; CPR 1313-7, p. 677.
7) CCR 1313-8, p. 490.
8) CIPM 1272-91, no. 742.
9) C 47/22/3/115; CCR 1307-13, p. 428.
10) SC 1/35/142.
11) CPR 1313-7, pp. 390, 396; Documents Relating to Scotland 1307-57, no. 747; Chancery Warrants 1308-48, p. 453.
12) SAL MS 122, p. 50; J. C. Davies, The Baronial Opposition to Edward II, p. 222.
13) CPR 1324-7, p. 336.
14) Memoranda Rolls Michaelmas 1326 - Michaelmas 1327, nos. 2270, 2271; Gascon Rolls, C 61/41, nos. 102-104, 213, 214.
15) Register of the Black Prince, vol. 4, p. 76.
16) CPR 1334-8, pp. 28, 271.
17) CPR 1340-3, p. 389; CCR 1330-3, p. 285.
18) CCR 1333-7, pp. 670, 685; CPR 1313-7, p. 640.
19) CPR 1350-4, p. 69; CPR 1358-61, pp. 148, 380; CPR 1364-7, p. 95.
20) CPR 1467-77, p. 394.

04 January, 2019

My New Article

The second volume of the peer-reviewed academic Journal of the Mortimer History Society is out now, and there's an article I wrote in it! As I write this blog post, the new volume hasn't been added to the Society's website, but here is the page for the first volume. If you'd like a copy of the journal and aren't a member of the MHS, you can buy one for five pounds, plus postage.

My article examines some of the extortions carried out by Edward II's powerful chamberlain Hugh Despenser the Younger in the 1320s. The first part of the title, 'We Might be Prepared to Harm You', comes from a letter Hugh wrote in c. October 1322, which I've translated (well, some of it...it's a seriously long letter). That's Hugh for you...threatening, blackmailing, extorting and imprisoning! As well as this article, there's also my new bio of Hugh. He was, let's face it, not the nicest person you could ever meet, but he was a fascinating one, and I've examined his misdeeds in detail and translated a lot of his extant letters to give the full flavour of the man.

31 December, 2018

Happy New Year

I'll post again properly soon! I'm working on the second part of my post about Hugh Despenser the Elder, and intend to keep posting regularly throughout 2019.

In the meantime, here is an article I wrote about Edward II for About-History.com! He spent 1 January 1319, 700 years ago, in Beverley in Yorkshire.

24 December, 2018

Merry Christmas, 2018

Astonishingly, 2018 is the fourteenth Christmas since I started this blog in December 2005! I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you again soon.

20 December, 2018

Lance Orlando, Edward II and Isabella, and Me

Lance Orlando, to quote their website, "is a nonprofit organization which exists to provide the highest quality live action experiences and stage combat performances to educate and entertain while striving to promote an active, creative community in the Southeastern United States." They recently held an event at the Orlando Renaissance Festival called 'Isabella and the Unconventional King', a title based on my book Edward II: The Unconventional King. Basically, to settle their differences, Edward and his queen Isabella hold a game of 'battle chess'. Again to quote Lance's website, "Our theme for this year is going to be based on the reign of Edward II of England and Isabella of France. Inspired by the events leading up to and beyond The Despenser War (1321-1322). Watch as our story of betrayal and corruption unfolds on the chessboard."

The great thing is, I am one of the characters taking part in this battle! They wrote me into it! Edward announces me as 'Kathryn Warner, my famous scribe'. And I defeat William Montague with a pen. :-D Here is the video of the entire event on Youtube. I'm mentioned at 43.55, then appear at about 47.28, though can be seen throughout, writing things down with a large pen. :)

I don't think I've ever been so flattered and thrilled in my entire life!

12 December, 2018

Hugh Despenser the Elder (1)

First part of a two-part post about Hugh Despenser the Elder, who was earl of Winchester for four and a half years in the 1320s and who was executed in 1326 when he was sixty-five.

Hugh, known to posterity as Hugh Despenser the Elder to distinguish him from his son of the same name, was born on 1 March 1261. [Cal. Inqs. Post Mortem 1272-91, nos. 101, 389; Fine Rolls 1272-1307, p. 152] He was the only son of Hugh Despenser, justiciar of England, and Aline Basset, who was probably Hugh the justiciar's second wife (though the identity of his presumed first wife has never been established). Hugh the Elder had at least two sisters or half-sisters, Eleanor and Joan, and possibly Anne and Hawise as well. His father Hugh the justiciar was born around 1220/23 and was, inevitably, the son of a man also called Hugh Despenser, who died in 1238. Aline Basset was many years her husband's junior and was born sometime in the 1240s; she was said to somewhere between twenty-two and thirty years old in late 1271. [CIPM 1216-72, no. 807] As she gave birth to her son Hugh in early 1261, she is unlikely to have been born after 1245. (Aline may have been the mother of one or several of Hugh the justiciar's daughters as well, but their dates of birth are unknown, as is the date of Aline and Hugh's marriage.) Aline was one of the two daughters of Philip, Lord Basset (d. 1271) and his first wife Hawise Lovaine (d. 1254 or before), and as her sister Margery FitzJohn died childless sometime before their father, Aline was Philip's sole heir. His sizeable inheritance across the south and midlands of England, from Wiltshire in the west to Essex and Suffolk in the east, thus passed entirely to the Despenser family.

Hugh 'the Elder' was three years old when his father Hugh the justiciar fought at the battle of Lewes in May 1264, on the side of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, against Leicester's brother-in-law King Henry III and Henry's brother Richard of Cornwall and son the future Edward I. Philip Basset fought for the king against his son-in-law Hugh the justiciar, and was badly wounded and captured. Hugh 'the Elder' was four years old when his father was killed at the battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265, again fighting for Simon de Montfort against Lord Edward. Hugh's maternal grandfather Philip Basset, as a royalist baron, had enough influence with the king to ensure that, although Hugh the justiciar died fighting against the king and his son, Henry III granted three of the late Hugh's manors in Leicestershire to Aline Despenser née Basset two months after Evesham.

Hugh the Elder lost his Basset grandfather in October 1271 when he was ten years old, and he was eleven when Edward I succeeded his father Henry III as king in November 1272. By then, Hugh had acquired a stepfather: Roger Bigod, born c. 1245, last of the Bigod earls of Norfolk, nephew and heir of Roger Bigod the previous earl of Norfolk (d. 1270). Hugh's mother Aline had a stepmother, Ela Basset née Longespée, daughter of Henry II's illegitimate son William Longespée, earl of Salisbury (c. 1176-1226), and dowager countess of Warwick by her first marriage. Aline Despenser née Basset - rather interestingly, she kept her first husband's name throughout her second marriage to the earl of Norfolk even though Norfolk was of higher rank than Hugh Despenser the justiciar - died in early April 1281, and Hugh Despenser the Elder, as Aline's only son, was her heir. He was allowed, on acknowledgement of a payment of 500 marks, to take possession of his mother's lands though he was still a few months underage. The rest of the Basset lands passed to him sixteen years later when his step-grandmother the elderly Ela died in 1297, when she must have been in her early seventies or older. Hugh held lands in Wiltshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Suffolk, inherited another three manors in Worcestershire and Leicestershire from his father's childless first cousin John Despenser (d. 1275), and from his father the justiciar several more in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Over the years and decades, Hugh the Elder added considerably to his already large estates and by the early 1320s held close to seventy manors across the south and Midlands. Even before his son Hugh the Younger rose high in Edward II's affections in the late 1310s and both men were able to augment their estates by force, coercion and other illegal and quasi-legal methods, Hugh the Elder was already a wealthy landowner who in 1291 shortly before his thirtieth birthday was able to make a loan of £500 to the perpetually impoverished young earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan.

As the stepson of the earl of Norfolk and in possession of a sizeable inheritance, Hugh the Elder was a baron of some substance. Probably in 1286, though the date is not recorded, Hugh married Isabella Chaworth née Beauchamp (b. c. 1263/66), eldest daughter of William Beauchamp, earl of Warwick (c. 1240-98) and Maud FitzJohn (d. 1301), and widow of the Marcher lord Patrick Chaworth (d. July 1283). Isabella had one child from her first marriage, Maud Chaworth (1282-1322), who married Edward I's nephew Henry of Lancaster in or before early 1297 and was the mother of Henry of Grosmont, first duke of Lancaster, and great-grandmother of King Henry IV. Hugh Despenser and Isabella married without a licence from Edward I, and in January 1287 Hugh acknowledged liability for a fine of 2,000 marks for doing so. His father-in-law William, earl of Warwick, died in 1298, and was succeeded as earl by his son Guy, Isabella's younger brother.

Hugh the Elder and Isabella née Beauchamp had six children: in probable birth order, they were Alina, who married Edward Burnell in May 1302; Hugh the Younger, who married Edward I's eldest granddaughter Eleanor de Clare in May 1306; Isabella, who married Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond, in c. 1306 and later married John Hastings in c. 1308/9 and thirdly Ralph Monthermer in 1318; Philip, who married Margaret Goushill in or before June 1308; Margaret, who married John St Amand in December 1313; and Elizabeth, who married Ralph, Lord Camoys in or before May 1316. Hugh the Younger, the second child and first son, was the Despenser/Basset heir after his father. Five of the six Despenser children had children of their own; Alina was the exception. She lived until May 1363 when she was in her mid-seventies, and was almost certainly the last surviving child of Hugh the Elder, though the death dates of her younger sisters Margaret St Amand and Elizabeth Camoys are not known for sure. Neither are the dates of birth of any of Hugh the Elder's children, even Hugh the Younger's, though Alina was probably born c. 1287 and Hugh the Younger c. 1288/9. Elizabeth the youngest may have been born as late as c. 1300/02, and was almost certainly only a young child when her mother died in May 1306.

Hugh the Elder's father had died in rebellion against Henry III and his son the future Edward I, but Hugh himself followed an entirely different career path, and served Edward I and his son Edward II faithfully for four decades. He was first summoned to parliament in 1283 when he was only twenty-two, and fought in Edward I's Welsh wars of the early 1280s and in his Scottish wars of the 1290s and early 1300s. He fought at the battle of Falkirk in July 1298, took part in the siege of Caerlaverock in the summer of 1300, and fought for Edward II at the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314 when he was fifty-three. He and his son Hugh the Younger were among the 500 or so knights who accompanied Edward II during the king's long and desperate gallop to Dunbar Castle after the loss at Bannockburn. Hugh the Elder also sailed to Flanders with Edward I when the king led a campaign there against Philip IV of France in August 1297, and is often mentioned as one of Edward I's closest allies in that difficult, crisis-ridden year, unlike his father-in-law the earl of Warwick and stepfather the earl of Norfolk.

Between 1286 and 1307 when Edward I died, the king often - just about every year - sent Hugh the Elder abroad on important diplomatic missions to the pope, the king of France, the king of Germany, the archbishop of Cologne, the Guardians of Scotland, and so on. Hugh was evidently a talented and capable diplomat, and in early 1297 was appointed justice of the forest south of the river Trent as well, a position he held for many years. He was accused of brutality and corruption in his capacity as justice of the forest, and from the 1290s onwards increased his lands by a series of perhaps rather dubious deals with others. Hugh was not exactly overburdened with scruples, and in 1298 a Londoner called Saer le Barber was sent to Newgate prison for stating that he "kept more robbers with him than any other man in England." [Early Mayor's Court Rolls, 23] In 1315, Edward II - or it may have been his cousin Thomas of Lancaster, then in semi-control of the English government - ordered an investigation into the 'oppressions' Hugh the Elder was alleged to have committed as justice of the forest. Basically, Hugh was an intelligent and immensely able man, a talented diplomat, politician, soldier, and estate manager, and if he had been able to rein in his and his son's greed and had not been so prone to brutality and corruption, the story of his life would make for far more pleasant reading and he might well not have ended his life on the public gallows in Bristol. There is much to admire about Hugh the Elder; there is also much to condemn him for. Second part of this post coming soon!

06 December, 2018

Edward II Was Not Starved To Death

Or at least, there's not a single shred of evidence that he was or that this particular cause of death ever occurred to anyone in the fourteenth century, but the idea has taken off in at least one Facebook medieval history group I sometimes look at, where it's claimed that Edward II's death by starvation (at Berkeley Castle in September 1327) is the 'current theory' of his demise. Well, no, it isn't, except on Facebook.

I suspect this latest theory might represent a confusion with Edward II's great-grandson Richard II, the next deposed king of England, who almost certainly did starve to death at Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire in February 1400. Or perhaps even with Edward's powerful chamberlain and 'favourite', Hugh Despenser the Younger. Hugh refused all food and drink between his capture on 16 November 1326 and his execution in Hereford eight days later, according to the Brut chronicle, which states that by the time he arrived in Hereford he was "almost dead for fasting."

Starvation is one of the few causes of Edward II's death that fourteenth-century chroniclers didn't speculate about. They did mention illness, grief, natural causes, suffocation, strangulation, poison, a fall, and of course somewhat later the mythical red-hot poker, or stated that they didn't know what happened to him or merely that he died at Berkeley without further explanation. Starvation doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them, and even Geoffrey le Baker, who invented the tales of Edward's mistreatment at Berkeley Castle some decades later in the interests of promoting him as a suffering saint, didn't claim that he starved to death.

Sometimes you can actually see new myths about Edward II developing. It's weirdly fascinating. Now that the film Outlaw King has come out, depicting him as some whining psychotic rolling around in the mud screaming with an anachronistic fifteenth-century pudding bowl haircut - at a battle he didn't even participate in - no doubt there will be even more. Oh yay.

02 December, 2018

Edward II's Visit to Eleanor Despenser, 2 December 1325

On 2 December 1325, 693 years ago, Edward II visited his eldest and favourite niece Eleanor Despenser née de Clare (born c. 14 October 1292) at his manor-house of Sheen - later known as Richmond Palace - west of London. The day before this visit, Edward had written to his queen, Isabella of France, who was refusing to return from her brother Charles IV's court in Paris or to permit her and Edward II's thirteen-year-old son Edward of Windsor to return to England either.

Edward II was staying at Westminster in early December 1325, and parliament had recently taken place there. An entry in his chamber account states, in French (my translation):

"Monday the second day of December, paid to my lady, Lady Eleanor Despenser [ma dame dame Alianore la Despensere] of the king's gift, by the hands of the king himself, when the king went from Westminster to Sheen to my said lady and returned the same night back to Westminster, in going and returning in a flat-bottomed boat, 100 marks."

The next entry states:

"Item, paid to Syme Laweman, Will Shene, Ric[hard] Hustret, Henry Hustret his son, Robyn Curre, Jak Edriche, Watte Couherde, Ric[hard] Gobet, to each of these eight valets, porters of the king, following the said boat between the said Westminster and Sheen, of the king's gift, by the hands of John Harsik giving them the money in the said boat in the king's presence, to each of the eight four shillings for boots for the water, twenty-four shillings."

So it seems that the king rowed himself along the River Thames, with these eight men - all of whom frequently appear in Edward's extant chamber accounts of 1322 to 1326 - following behind in another boat. A third entry relates that John Harsik, the chamber squire who gave the eight men their money to buy boots, bought fish for the king and Eleanor's supper at Sheen: roach, dace and loach. Given that it was December and the days are very short at this time of year, it must have been dark when Edward returned to Sheen, and perhaps even when he left Westminster. Imagine rowing yourself along the Thames in the dark and the cold, though for sure Edward must have known the river really well.

Eleanor Despenser had been staying at Sheen, at Edward II's expense, since 9 October or a little earlier. He bought firewood for her chamber there. She was either very close to term at the time of her uncle's visit or had just given birth; another entry in the king's chamber account on 14 December 1325 states that Edward gave thirty shillings as an offering to the Virgin Mary in gratitude that God had granted Eleanor a prompt delivery of her child (though the date of this offering is not clear and it may have been made a few days before the king's clerks recorded it). Eleanor's husband Hugh Despenser the Younger may have been at Sheen with her after his recent return from Wales, where it was rumoured that he had been killed, though he isn't specifically mentioned in the account as being present. Annoyingly, the child Eleanor bore in early December 1325 is not named or even given a sex in Edward's account - it's as though his clerks didn't care at all about historians 700 years later who would dearly love to know such things - though it may have been Eleanor's fifth and youngest daughter Elizabeth Despenser, future Lady Berkeley.

And finally and as a completely off-topic point, tomorrow, 3 December 2018, is the thirteenth anniversary of this blog! I started it on 3 December 2005, and it has now had just under 2.4 million visitors. Here's to the next few years!

29 November, 2018

Lancaster and York Article; The Spellbinders Novel

Here is a link to an article I wrote about the houses of Lancaster and York for the BBC History Magazine website! Here is my book Blood Roses about the two houses before the Wars of the Roses, and oh, here is a link to Chris Brown's new book about Robert Bruce, that I'm looking forward to reading.

Links to two more articles I've written, for the History Press website: The House of Lancaster in Seven People; Edmund of Langley and his Children.

And my friend Aleardo Zanghellini has written a novel about Edward II, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger, The Spellbinders, which I'm dying to read. Here it is on Amazon, and here is Aleardo's website dedicated to the book.