08 August, 2007

Freeing Edward, 1327: the Attack on Berkeley Castle

[Photo: the courtyard (inner bailey) of Berkeley Castle, taken on 1 October 2006. The open gateway would have been a fortified, guarded gatehouse in 1327. Edward II was held in the keep, on the right.]

I've already written a post on this amazing event, but here's a more in-depth look at the events, and the men involved. There were at least four attempts to free Edward II (I'm calling him 'Edward II' to avoid confusion, though of course he was no longer King) in 1327 that we know of:

- one led by the Dunheved brothers, Thomas and Stephen, sometime in March 1327, when Edward was still at Kenilworth. This attempt was certainly a major factor in the decision to move Edward to Berkeley - the indenture transferring him to the custody of Thomas Berkeley and John Maltravers was drawn up on 21 March.

- the successful one by the Dunheved gang in June/July 1327, which (temporarily) freed Edward. "They came with an armed force towards the castle of Berkeley, seized the father of our lord the King from our guard and feloniously plundered the said castle, against the peace" (de lor venir aforceement devers le chastel de Berkel', d'avoir ravi le pere nostre seignor le roi hors de nostre garde et le dit chastel robbe felenousement encountre la pees) - from a letter by Thomas, Lord Berkeley to the Chancellor, John de Hothum, on 27 July.

- Berkeley's letter informed the Chancellor of another attempt by men in Buckinghamshire and neighbouring counties at the same time ("a great number of people in the county of Buckingham and in adjoining counties, have assembled for the same cause", i.e., freeing Edward). Unfortunately nothing more is known of this plot or who was involved, as it isn't mentioned anywhere else.

- and yet another attempt in August and early September led by the Welsh knight Sir Rhys ap Gruffydd, and supported by Edward II's close friend Donald, Earl of Mar, who was involved in most or all of the plots to free Edward. Intriguingly, this one was said to have the support of 'certain great lords of England', though their identity remains a mystery. The plot was betrayed to Roger Mortimer's Deputy Justice William Shalford on 7 September, and inspired his letter to Mortimer at Abergavenny, urging him to find a solution to the Big Edward Problem.

I should point out that Edward II, Prince of Wales, was always popular there - Thomas Walsingham, a chronicler of the later fourteenth century, wrote "...the Welsh in a wonderful manner loved and esteemed him. As far as they were able, they stood by him, grieving over his adversities both in life and in his death, composing mournful songs about him in the language of their own country. His memory remains to the present day, which neither the fear of punishment nor the passage of time can destroy." During the fourteenth century, many Welsh people travelled over the border to Gloucester, to pay their respects at Edward's tomb.

I'll focus in this post on the attempt of June/July 1327, as it's the only one we know anything about. The first sign that something was going on comes in March/April 1327, when several of the men who took part in the attack on Berkeley (and presumably the earlier attempt to free Edward in March) were frequently accused of affray, breaking and entering, assault, stealing and carrying away goods, and so on [more details in my next posts on the individual gang members]. Probably, at least some of these alleged crimes were a cover, an excuse to arrest the men - but trying to free Edward II was far too politically sensitive to mention openly. (It's only fair to point out that Edward II and the Despensers had often done the same thing.)

[Photo: a close-up of the Berkeley keep.]

After their unsuccessful attempt to release Edward from Kenilworth in March, the gang went to Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and stirred up a riot. Then they vanished for a few weeks, and showed up in Chester in early June. On 8 June 1327, Richard Damory, Justice of Chester (elder brother of Edward II's former favourite Roger Damory) was ordered by royal mandate to arrest and imprison Stephen and Thomas Dunheved, along with William Beaumard and John Sabant, who I haven't been able to trace, and "other malefactors who have assembled within the city of Chester and parts adjacent and perpetrated homicide and other crimes, and to enquire by jury of those parts who were their accomplices, and to keep them in prison till further orders."

From there, they must have started travelling towards Gloucestershire, to plan and execute their attack on Berkeley (Chester is over 140 miles from Berkeley). They probably travelled individually or in pairs to avoid attracting attention.

Exactly when the Dunheveds' attack on Berkeley Castle took place is not known, but was sometime between mid June and mid July. The first sign of trouble may be that on 26 June, the Sheriff of Shropshire was ordered to arrest troublemakers on the Welsh border - this may mean that the authorities knew, or assumed, that the Dunheved gang were making their way to Gloucestershire, or it may mean that the attack had been successful. On 1 July, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Stephen Dunheved, who along with his brother Thomas, was the driving force behind the gang. On 3 July, Thomas Berkeley was excused from his knight's service on the Scots expedition and "charged with special business of the king [Edward III]". On 11 July, Berkeley and John Maltravers were appointed commissioners of the peace "in the counties of Somerset, Dorset, Wilts, Southampton, Hereford, Oxford and Berks". It's not clear if any of this was in anticipation of a rescue attempt, or after the fact.

On 15 July, four known members (Edmund Gascelyn, Roger atte Watre, William le Parker and John de Hill) of the gang were ordered to be arrested, "who were indicted before him [Thomas Berkeley] and the other justices in the county of Gloucester for divers felonies, and have withdrawn themselves." On 22 July, two men were granted a writ of aid to arrest four named men "and others of their confederation, who lately went to Scotland in the company of Dunald [Donald] de Mar, a rebel, and have returned to do what mischief they can to the king and the realm." So Donald and his adherents were definitely involved, though it doesn't seem that Donald took part in the attack on Berkeley. Probably he was involved in planning it, though, and as the nephew of the King of Scots, he may have been considered too valuable to risk in such an obviously suicidal mission.

It was on 27 July that Berkeley sent his letter to the Chancellor, John de Hothum, asking for extra authority to hunt down the gang, which was granted on 1 August. (Berkeley seems to have been extremely keen to follow the letter of the law, which is rather odd, given the emergency.) Presumably, Edward II was back in custody by then, as no mention is made of a search for him - though you could argue that Edward's being free was far too dangerous to commit to paper, and Berkeley's messenger was told to inform Hothum in person. There's no way of knowing for sure, but on balance it seems likely that Edward was back at Berkeley, or at least back in custody, by 27 July. In September, John Maltravers was paid the large sum of £258 for the "expenses of the king's father in Dorset" and received letters from Thomas Berkeley at Corfe Castle, which may indicate that Edward II was re-captured and taken to Corfe at some point.

However, I should point out that it's not entirely clear if Edward was taken out of Berkeley Castle or not - the phrase "seized the father of our lord the king from our guard" is rather ambiguous. It might simply mean that the gang took Edward out of his room, but didn't manage to leave the castle with him.

[Photo: the gateway leading into the courtyard (inner bailey) of Berkeley. In 1327, this area would have been the outer bailey, where the stables, armouries etc were located.]
How did the gang manage to assemble close to Berkeley Castle without being spotted? That part probably wasn't too difficult - Berkeley, which lies close to the Severn Estuary, is rather a remote and lonely place, even today, and considerably more so 700 years ago. There were woods and heathland in every direction.

The more important question is how they ever got into the castle. The fact that they did proves that the attack was carefully planned, well-equipped - and brilliantly executed. Berkeley Castle was surrounded by around 200 acres of marshland - there was a causeway, which would have been guarded. There was the moat to get across, then a choice of either scaling the curtain walls or breaking through the gatehouse into the outer bailey. Needless to say, both were heavily guarded. Then, the gang had to get into the inner bailey, through yet another gatehouse, then into the keep (the most secure part of any castle), where Edward was held, and up a steep and narrow, and easily-defended, staircase, into his, presumably locked, room. They would have had to fight, hard, all the way.

It's fascinating to contemplate that the gang may have had inside information and help - it's hard to imagine that when they were planning the attack, they allowed time to search the entire castle for Edward. Possibly one or more gang members had managed to enter the castle before the attack; Paul Doherty speculates that they might have got in during the restoration work that was going on, pretending to be labourers. There were a few gang members apparently not known to the authorities before the attack, as no warrants were issued for their arrest, so they would have been ideal. Alternatively, perhaps some of the Berkeley garrison were sympathetic to Edward, and helped the gang.

[Photo: courtyard of Berkeley Castle. The keep is just out of shot on the left.]
There were a hundred reasons why attacking Berkeley Castle should not have worked. But it did. It should have been a suicide mission for the gang. But many of them survived, though of course there's no way of knowing how many men may have been killed. During restoration work at Berkeley in the 1920s, six skeletons were discovered near the keep. Possibly these were gang members killed during the assault - though, as the skeletons have never been examined, they could have come from another century altogether.

Thomas Berkeley's letter of 27 July states also that the gang "feloniously plundered the castle". This implies that they had overpowered the garrison, taken temporary control of the castle, and had time to search the storerooms, stables, other rooms, and take what they wanted. Almost certainly, they stole weapons, food, and horses. Did they take all the horses? Or at least let some loose, so that they could escape on horseback with their plunder, and couldn't be pursued? If they were on foot, they could have been followed on horseback the moment they were out of the castle - even if they'd plunged into the woods around the castle, it's hard to imagine them getting very far if pursued by men on horseback. If they didn't take horses, they must have taken carts to carry their plunder, which would have drastically slowed down their escape. Or possibly, they locked up the entire garrison somewhere.

It's basically impossible to know what happened that day (or night) - the expressions 'shroud of secrecy' and 'wall of silence' are particularly apposite here, as is 'I haven't got a sodding clue what really happened and I can only speculate'. I don't know how many men were guarding Berkeley that day. Thomas Berkeley had in his retinue about a dozen knights, twenty-five squires, about twenty men-at-arms, archers, etc - in total, a household of around 300 people, though of course not all of them were military. But given that the authorities knew that the Dunheved gang were plotting to free Edward, it's reasonable to assume that other soldiers were brought in and the castle was guarded by many dozens of men, possibly several hundred.

The whole thing is quite incredible. It suggests a level of organisation, planning, purpose and sheer guts that can't be explained by simply assuming that the gang were a handful of mindless ruffians. They have often been described by their contemporaries, and more recent commentators, as ruffians, rioters, rifflers, a minute handful of marauding malcontents, and mostly clerical. But they managed not only to get into a heavily defended Berkeley Castle, they seized Edward, and had time to loot and plunder the castle. This was an incredibly dangerous undertaking in a castle full of armed men, and proves the gang's determination to free Edward - and by extension, their devotion to him (although some of the participants were probably attracted more by violence and possible plunder, the core of the gang were dedicated to Edward.)

A small group of clerics, untrained in fighting, could not have achieved this; only a large number of fighting men (including fighting priests), ruthless and determined, could have managed it. Although a fair few of Edward's supporters were clerical, many of them were not, as I'll show in the next posts.

Assuming the gang were being helped, which seems highly likely, who could it have been? Possibly Edward II's half-brother the Earl of Kent, given his actions in 1329/30, and maybe even their cousin Henry, Earl of Lancaster, Edward's custodian at Kenilworth. Some historians, following the chronicler Henry Knighton (who died in 1396, so probably wasn't even born in 1327), have stated that Lancaster willingly gave up custody of Edward in April 1327. However, the fact that Roger Mortimer was sitting nearby with an armed force during the transfer of custody to Thomas Berkeley and John Maltravers suggests that it was forced on him. By the summer of 1327, Lancaster - the legal guardian of Edward III - had probably realised that Isabella and Mortimer were freezing him out of power, although neither of them were members of the Regency Council. Isabella and Mortimer had good reason to be very wary of Lancaster, who was enormously wealthy and influential; in 1328/29, he would (unsuccessfully) rebel against them, and one of his stated grievances was that Mortimer had removed Edward II from him by force. In the summer of 1327, Lancaster may have been keen to regain custody of Edward II, to give him leverage over Isabella and Mortimer - if they angered him (which they often did) he could threaten them with Edward II's restoration to the throne. So perhaps he secretly funded the Dunheved gang, and gave them weapons and so on. But - of course! - I'm only speculating. I might be totally wrong.

[Photo: courtyard again. Much of the castle was rebuilt in the 1340s by Thomas, Lord Berkeley (the one mentioned in this post). It's in wonderful condition.]

Almost all of the gang vanish from the records after the summer of 1327. I'd like to think they some of them at least went to ground or fled the country, but they don't even crop up after October 1330, when Edward III took charge and it would have been safe to come out of hiding. The unfortunate conclusion is that they were dead, perhaps killed trying to defend Edward during his recapture, or 'were disappeared', thrown into prison and quietly killed. Even the clerics. At least two members, who I'll talk about in my next post, were sent to Newgate prison and were never heard of again.

The announcement of Edward II's death in late September 1327 inevitably put an abrupt end to attempts to release him, as of course it was intended to do. This was still not the end of the story, though. Two and a half years later, Edward's half-brother Kent was executed after trying to release him, a spectacularly odd event I'll be looking at in detail in future, including the people involved with it. The next posts, though, will look at the men of the Dunheved gang in as much detail as I've been able to find on them.


Kate Plantaganet said...

How on earth did they smuggle arms into Berkeley in order to take it by force? It would be very difficult to hide a sword (for example) up your cassock! I would imagine they had weapons stashed somewhere inside, which would involve inside help. Even disguised as building workers there would be no place to hide their weapons under their clothing. Fascinating.

The plot thickens. Bring on the next exciting installment!

Alianore said...

Good question, Kate. Maybe they smuggled weapons into the castle on carts, with the building materials?

The more I think about it, the more I wonder 'how the heck did they do it??'

Carla said...

It might be possible to hide a sword under a cassock if it was sheathed down the owner's back. But I like the idea that they smuggled weapons into the castle in carts of building materials - that would be easy, provided the load either wasn't searched or you knew a friendly guard would turn a blind eye. Disguising themselves as builders also sounds like a plausible way in.

Is it odd that Berkeley had the builders in at all, if it was known that a plot to rescue Edward was afoot? You'd think that if Berkeley knew that the Dunheveds were around and planning to rescue Edward, his natural reaction would be to keep his castle hermetically sealed until they were caught. Surely he could have delayed his home improvements if he'd wanted to. Unless the repairs were to something like a breach in the defences that would have compromised security? Is it known what building work he was doing?

Alianore said...

Carla: while Thomas Berkeley was in prison, 1322-26, Hugh Despenser the Younger got custody of his lands, and his officials despoiled them. I presume that Berkeley's building work had something to do with that. I'd also presume that the work was considered essential, for security reasons - given the risk the Dunheved gang posed, it would be odd if it was only to do with cosmetic work.

But then again, if Berkeley Castle wasn't totally secure in the first place, why was Ed taken there?

I find it very odd, too, that gang members managed to join the labourers - assuming they did, which isn't at all certain. For obvious reasons, you'd think that anyone allowed into the castle, anyone at all, would have been checked very carefully, only allowed in with express permission, and their carts searched.

Just some of the reasons why I find the successful attack so fascinating - and hard to explain! :)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alianore said...

Anonymous said...
How interesting, I note the referance to Henry Knighton, my sirname is Knighton and it's still quite an unusual name in the UK, any idea where it came from or how old it is?
Mark Knighton

Thursday, August 9, 2007 2:21:00 PM CEST

Alianore said...

Hi Mark,

I took the liberty of deleting your comment and reposting it without your email address - I didn't want you to be plagued by spam, which often happens when you put your email address on Blogger, I'm afraid.

I don't know much about the name Knighton, unfortunately. There are a few places in England and Scotland called Knighton, so I assume that the chronicler Henry K came from one of them. Maybe you could try this site: http://www.theoriginalrecord.com/cgi-bin/search/shownames

Paul said...

What do you mean how did they smuggle arms into the castle? Haven't you seen any Robin Hood movie (or for that matter any other medievel drama)? It's a bog standard plot that a horse and cart filled with straw/food/barrels hiding the protagonists is driven into the castle. The cart is usually stopped at the gate for the guard to stab the cart a few times, perilously close to the good guys, before being waved on. The castle probably had a few cart loads of straw filled to bursting with heavily armed pals of Edward.

Alianore said...

LOL! I suppose the guards would have used a pitchfork to stab the bales of hay and/or straw - or does that particular plot device only apply to gutsy wrongly-accused-and-actually-terribly-heroic-and-noble outlaws hiding in a barn? :-)

*Giggles, thinking about numerous Medieval Movie Cliches*

Susan Higginbotham said...

Plainly, I haven't watched enough medieval movies. But can't a woman dress up as a man at some point to help things along?

Alianore said...

Or maybe the gang members dressed up as washerwomen. ;)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Oh, I can see them now. "Lots of dirty laundry to take care of today! Let us in!"

Kate Plantaganet said...

Paul, you are right and I have seen that film. Must have slipped my mind...


Paul said...

Since reading the article I'm plagued by the image of the workmen passing through the gate with a sword down each trouser leg.

Doffing their cap to the guard with a "Mornin guv" as they totter in on unbending legs and the guard looks on suspiciously wondering what's up with this picture.

Alianore said...

"Yes, lots of dirty washing that needs to be taken care of by us strangely tall and deep-voiced washerwomen!" :-)

Paul: you see, this is where the washerwomen come in. To distract the guards with their feminine wiles while their colleagues with the unbending legs totter into the castle. ;)

Carla said...

Just make sure you cast Alan Rickman as the villain in the film version. And Errol Flynn as the hero :-)

Alianore said...

Oooh yes, Alan Rickman simply has to play the baddie! (Thomas Berkeley?) But for our heroes, I'm going to have to stick with the original cast list we talked about last time - Sean Bean, Clive Owen, Hugh Dancy, and so on. ;)

Paul said...

The plot is sounding more and more like Carry On Up The Castle as we go. The one good looking bloke as Edward obviously, Sid James as poor old under pressure Berkeley, Kenneth Williams as Mortimer alongside Barbara Windsor's buxom Isabella?

Shame most of them have died.

Alianore said...

Hey, we can always get a new Carry On cast...;) Carry On Up The Castle...great idea!

Carla said...

No, no, surely the rugged-but-a-bit-common Sid James for Roger Mortimer, and Kenny Williams for poor put-upon Berkeley ("Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!")

Alianore said...

Weeellll...OK, that does sound like fun. Buxom Barbara Windsor and Sid James it is as Isabella and Roger Mortimer. ;)

Liam said...

I never knew anything about this! It's very interesting, I look forward to reading the other two posts (I've been offline for a while).

Alianore said...

Great to see you finally back online, Liam!

This whole thing is great, isn't it? Deserves to be far better known, IMHO! :)