20 November, 2008

Brief Biographies (1): Giles Argentein

Starting a feature where I turn the spotlight on some of the more obscure men and women of Edward II's era. Today, Sir Giles Argentein, who is not well-known today, but in his day was considered one of the greatest knights in Europe.

John Barbour, a Scottish poet of the later fourteenth century, called Giles Argentein the third greatest knight and crusader of his era, behind the Holy Roman Emperor Henry of Luxembourg and Robert Bruce. [1] Giles' parentage is rather obscure; he might have been the younger brother of Sir John Argentein (died 1318), who married Agnes, daughter of William Bereford, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas. If not his brother, then Giles was presumably John's cousin. Giles' date of birth is unknown, but I'd guess around 1280 (John Argentein was born about 1278). I also have no idea if he was married or not, but he left no children. If he was John's younger brother, this would make him a son of Reynald Argentein, himself the son and heir of Giles Argentein, who died shortly before 24 November 1282. Reynald Argentein was born in about 1242 and died shortly before 3 March 1308, when his lands passed to his eldest son. [2]

In July 1302, Giles was accused with twenty named men and "a multitude of armed men" of breaking into the houses of Master Peter de Dene at 'Lilleseye' (Lawshall?) in Suffolk, where they "consumed and appropriated his goods, and beat his servants." [3] In November 1302, he and several other young men deserted from the Scottish campaign, to fight at a jousting tournament at Byfleet in Surrey. [4] Edward I issued an order on 8 March 1303 for Giles' lands in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk to be seized, and sent the sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire "to arrest the body of Giles de Argenteim for certain trespasses and contempts, and have him before the king fifteen days from Easter next to answer touching the same." [5] He was released from prison to fight at the siege of Stirling Castle in April 1304, and earned himself a pardon on 28 June that year "in consideration of the service in Scotland of Giles de Argenteym, and especially of the harm he sustained" at Stirling. [6]

In October 1306, Giles again deserted from a Scots campaign, this time to go jousting on the continent, with twenty-one other young knights including Piers Gaveston, Roger Mortimer and the Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond mentioned in my last post. A furious Edward I seized their lands for "deserting the king and his son in those parts in contempt of the king and to the retarding of the king's business" and ordered various sheriffs to "take the body of [Giles, etc] and keep him safely, until further order." [7] Sixteen of the men were pardoned on 23 January 1307 thanks to the intercession of the Lord Edward, prince of Wales, and Queen Marguerite; Giles Argentein, perhaps not surprisingly, was not one of them. [8]

Possibly, Giles was rather relieved when Edward I died in July 1307 and Edward II succeeded to the throne! On 12 March 1308, Edward II appointed Giles constable of Cambridge Castle, which belonged to the dowager queen Marguerite, and sometime before 12 March 1310 granted him the wardship of William, son and heir of William Criketot, tenant-in-chief. [9] Giles took part in the great jousting tournament at Dunstable in or about March 1309 with John Argentein, his brother or cousin. On 28 May 1309, he held the field against all comers at the tournament of Stepney, and was crowned 'King of the Greenwood' (given as the half-Latin, half-French rex de Vertbois by the London annalist, and as rex de viridi bosco by the Pauline annalist). [10] Four weeks later, rather less chivalrously, Giles was accused with three named men and unnamed others of assaulting a Richard Aylward in Colchester, Essex. [11]

Giles Argentein accompanied Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall, on the Scottish campaign in the autumn of 1310. [12] Piers was also a champion jouster, and I wonder if the two men ever rode against each other? (Piers was in Ireland in the spring of 1309, so couldn't attend the tournaments at Dunstable and Stepney.) Now that would have been worth watching. On 15 February 1311, Giles was making plans to go to the Holy Land, and appointed Alan Houel as his attorney for a year. [13] A Stephen Houel, probably a relative, was one of the men co-accused with Giles in 1302 of breaking into Peter de Dene's houses.

Unfortunately for Giles, he was captured on the way to Rhodes by people whom Edward II later described as "the men of that island, who are commonly called 'maleveisine'" ('bad neighbours'), and was held in prison at Thessalonika. By the summer of 1313, Edward II knew that he would have to take an army to Stirling the following summer and probably have to face Robert Bruce in battle. His thoughts turned to the greatest of all English knights, and on 7 August 1313, he sent a "request to aid in procuring the release of Giles de Argenteyn, knight" to the master and preceptor of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, saying "the king is informed that the master of the hospital can aid the delivery of the said knight more than any one else." Edward sent a letter in the same vein to the podestà and community of Genoa, "as the king learns that the merchants of that city are conversant with the abovesaid men [the 'bad neighbours'], and are more able to aid and procure his release than any others." [14]

On 12 October 1313, Edward also wrote to ten highly influential people to ask their aid in releasing Giles Argentein, or 'Egidius de Argenteym' as it appeared in the Latin original: "his dearest friend" the Byzantine emperor Andronikos Palaeologus; "the most serene lady, and his dearest lady in Christ" the Empress Eirene; Andronikos's son and co-emperor Michael; his other son the marquess of Montferrat; the king of Sicily; Francesco Fieschi, count of Lavagna; Carlo Fieschi; Opicino Spinola; Conrad and Bernabo Doria. [15] (In 1315 and 1317, Edward appointed Francesco and Carlo Fieschi, nephews of Cardinal Luca Fieschi and his distant cousins, "to be of the king's household forever and to wear his livery.") [16]

This major, and extremely well-informed, diplomatic effort on Edward's part soon produced the desired results, and Giles Argentein was back in England by 12 March 1314. [17] At the battle of Bannockburn on 23 and 24 June that year, he was appointed with the earl of Pembroke to hold the king's reins, or in other words, to be Edward's bodyguard. When the battle was lost, the earl of Pembroke dragged Edward off the field, with hundreds of his knights, to prevent his capture. As soon as Giles knew that Edward would be safe, according to Sir Thomas Gray in the Scalacronica, he declared "Sire, your rein was entrusted to me; there is your castle [Stirling] where your body will be safe. I am not accustomed to flee, and I have no intention of doing so now. I commend you to God." (Sire, vostre reyne me fust baillez, ore estez a sauuete, veiz cy vostre chastel ou vostre corps purra estre saue. Jeo nay pas este acoustome a fuyre, ne plus auaunt ne voil ieo faire, a Dieux vous commaunde.)

Gray continues "Then, setting spurs to his horse, he returned to the melee, where he was killed." [18] Giles galloped towards the schiltrom of Robert Bruce's brother Edward and was cut down either by their pikes or battle-axes, or as Aryeh Nusbacher puts it in his book Bannockburn 1314, "It was just as his horse was preparing to jump the men twelve feet away that Giles de Argentine realised that death wasn't something that only happened to other people." [19] The Vita, on the other hand, which describes Giles as "very expert in the art of war," says that he watched the young earl of Gloucester hit one of the Scottish schiltroms full on and die, and "hurried up in eager anxiety to help him, but could not. Yet he did what he could, and fell together with the earl, thinking it more honourable to perish with so great a man than to escape death by flight; for those who fall in battle for their country are known to live in everlasting glory." [20]

Giles left no children, and his heir was his nephew Sir William Argentein; Edward II gave William the 288 pounds on 18 July 1314 which he had owed to Giles, for William to "defray his uncle's debts and discharge his soul." [21]

Although I'm sure that Giles' contemporaries greatly admired and yearned to emulate his suicidally reckless courage - the authors of the Vita and the Scalacronica certainly admired him enormously - from my 21st-century, armchair perspective I can't help wishing that he hadn't been quite as foolhardy, and had lived to serve Edward II longer and more usefully, not thrown away his life in a battle that was already lost.


1) Cited in G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland (2nd edn., 1976), p. 296.
2) Calendar of Fine Rolls 1272-1307, pp. 174, 176, Fine Rolls 1307-1319, p. 16.
3) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1301-1307, p. 86.
4) Calendar of Close Rolls 1302-1307, p. 66.
5) Calendar of Fine Rolls 1272-1307, p. 471; CPR 1301-1307, p. 121.
6) CPR 1301-1307, p. 242.
7) CFR 1272-1307, pp. 543-544.
8) CCR 1302-1307, pp. 481-482.
9) CPR 1307-1313, p. 52, for Cambridge; CCR 1307-1313, p. 251, and CFR 1307-1319, p. 181, for the wardship.
10) Annales Londoniensis, p. 157, and Annales Paulini, p. 267, in Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, ed. W. Stubbs, vol. 1 (1882).
11) CPR 1307-1313, p. 174.
12) J. S. Hamilton, Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall 1307-1312: Politics and Patronage in the Reign of Edward II (1988), p. 82.
13) CPR 1307-1313, p. 324.
14) CCR 1313-1318, p. 71.
15) CCR 1313-1318, p. 76; Foedera, p. 229.
16) CPR 1313-1317, p. 340; CPR 1317-1321, p. 10.
17) CCR 1313-1318, p. 42.
18) Scalacronica: by Sir Thomas Gray of Heton, knight, ed. Joseph Stevenson (1836), pp. 142-143.
19) Aryeh Nusbacher, Bannockburn 1314 (Tempus Publishing, 2005), p. 209.
20) Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. N. Denholm-Young (1957), pp. 53-54.
21) Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland 1307-1357, p. 71.


Carla said...

That's the difference between then and now :-)

He sounds a larger than life sort of guy, so I don't suppose he'd have liked the idea of dying prosaically in his bed. Nowadays he'd be into extreme sport or paragliding to the South Pole or something.

Gabriele C. said...

Now that's an interesting chap. He breaks into houses, he flees from a war to fight in tournaments, manages to get himself captured while being on a pilgrimage (did his confessor sent him because of that house breaking stuff, lol?) and in the end dies heroically in a battle where he would have had every excuse to flee. Makes you wonder what motivated him. And what motivated Ed to go such a long way to get him out of prison. Mind, meet gutter? :)

Alianore said...

Carla: yes, I can just see him snowboarding down Everest, or crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, or something equally insane and suicidal. ;)

Gabriele: I assume the trip to the Holy Land was definitely planned with fighting (someone, anyone!) in mind, rather than a pilgrimage. LOL, the official explanation for Ed's interest in getting him out of prison was because of his great skill in war, but I'm sure you and I know better. :-)

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, yes. After all, he must have been physically fit, with all that tournamenting and stuff. And he reminds me of Piers, the same who cares attitude, dashing, a bit arrogant. Ed's type, for sure. :)

Lady Despenser's Scribery said...

Great post Alianore - lots of interesting stuff you've researched here!A few of my random thoughts:

To have see Giles and Piers go up against another in a tournament - now THAT would be something! My heart beats faster just to think about it!

Those 'maleveisines' - were they by any chance related to the ASBO Dunheveds do you think? ;-)

Giles going to Gloucester's aid on the battlefield and dying with him - wouldn't that make for a great film moment? Must remember that for the novel!

By the way, Alianore - did Giles ever marry that you know of?

Alianore said...

Gabriele: *grin*. I hadn't thought of it like that! But Ed did go for the arrogant types, didn't he?? Wonder about Hugh Despenser though - he wasn't a great jouster, to my knowledge (except for Dunstable in 1309).

Thanks, Lady D. Oh, for a time machine to watch Giles and Piers competing! And I hope one day someone makes a decent film about Bannockburn and shows Giles' death (there are so many books about the battle these days, I live in hope).

LOL, I bet the inhabitants of Dunchurch certainly thought of the ASBO Dunheveds as maleveisine. :-)

I'm 99% sure Giles left no children (legitimate ones anyway), but I haven't found any evidence at all about whether he was married or not. :( Most likely, yes, given that he was a landowner and would have wanted children to pass them on to.

christy k robinson said...

"those who fall in battle for their country are known to live in everlasting glory." [19]

"Known"? Harking back to Valhalla? Was this a Saxon or Viking theological perspective? It's not biblical, that's for sure. It sounds very contemporary, maybe something George W Bush would say about his made-up war.

As for Giles not having children, it's as well he didn't contribute to the gene pool, with his penchant for violence and crime. Hey, our ancestors were violent enough! ;D

Thank you, Alianore. Fascinating, as always.

Alianore said...

Thanks, Christy. It is an interesting comment by the author of the Vita, who was a deeply pious man. In Old English literature, Jesus Christ is often portrayed as a kind of soldier, willingly laying down his life for mankind, so maybe the concept of living in everlasting glory when you've died for your country harks back to that? That attitude certainly persisted for a long time, till WW1, I suppose - dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

john b. macphee said...

I once read, that Sir Giles deArgentein met his death in single combat, at th hands of, Chief Malcolm MacPhee. john b. macphee.

MRats said...

Ladies, ladies, I implore you! Desist from turning my boy into a flamin' 'mo. (British translation: raging poofster.) Every time Edward favors a man (as in the case of Edmund Fitzalan) you lot tuck them into bed together! While I realize my wayward beliefs could be wrong and I fully respect the opinions of others, crikey! Can't a man just have a friend? Bring not the curse of Brandy Purdy down upon your heads! In her odious "Confessions" she put Piers with virtually every man on the scene at the time. In fact, Giles may have been one of them, but there were so many that I forget after awhile!

Giles and Piers jousting as opponents? The thought, though a bit thrilling in a way, also terrifies me. I can't imagine either of them backing down and it might have been a battle to the death!

I wonder if Giles rode with the challengers at Wallingford? (Yes, that was another unabashed "plot bunny" in hop--um, I mean, hope--of a post about the tournament.)

"No one can show greater love than by giving up his life for his friends"--John 15:14, The Bible, An American Translation. Perhaps the devout author of the Vita was referring to the words of Jesus.

I agree that Giles must have been the son of Reynald, since Reynald's father was Giles, and he would, "inevitably", as you once put it, have given him the same name.

A fascinating biography, Kathryn! But I have an ulterior motive for skipping ahead to this post. I've got--wait for it--a question. I found a notation long ago, which I thought was in Tout's "The Place of Edward II in English History", but I have that book now, and the footnote isn't in there. Trying to recall where I discovered the information is driving me mad. (A short ride, to be sure, but I know you'll appreciate my proper usage, yank though I am, of the word "mad" as "insane" and not "angry".) I read that John of Surrey, or rather John de Warenne, as he might not have inherited yet, "deserted" along with Piers, Giles and Gilbert (the cousin) during the Scottish campaign of 1306. Is that true? Since I can't find my source on the subject, I'm starting to doubt my own memory. Either way, when you have a moment, please let me know.

Another terrific post, Kathryn!

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much, MRats! :)

To answer your question briefly, the list of knights who deserted to go jousting is given in the Calendar of Fine Rolls, and no, John de Warenne was not one of them. Roger Mortimer was, and Gilbert de Clare, lord of Thomond, and Piers of course, and a knight called John de la Warre, which may be where the confusion with John de Warenne comes from. ;-)

MRats said...

That's it! I'm sure you're right. I know that there must be many demands on your time now that the holidays are over. Thank you for taking a moment out of your busy schedule to solve the mystery! :-D