12 June, 2017

The Valets of Edward II's Chamber; And A Time Machine of Sorts

As I mentioned recently, the word 'valet(s)' which was so often used in the fourteenth century is rather difficult to translate; it can mean a servant of a certain rank below squire, a young man of higher rank serving in a lord's household, a young gentleman, a household official, an assistant or deputy, etc. When the archbishop of York sent his letter to the mayor of London Simon Swanland in 1330 telling him that Edward II was then alive, for example, he addressed Swanland as 'our dear valet'. Edward II's accounts often refer to the vadletz or valletz of his chamber, who were also often called portours, which kind of means 'porters' but can also mean 'bearers' as in 'the bearers of these letters'. There were also half a dozen pages of the chamber, who were lower ranking as they were paid two pence a day and the vadletz/portours received three pence, and Edward II also had at least nine squires of the chamber, knights of the chamber, clerks of the chamber, two ushers of the chamber, and no doubt more staff of the chamber who do not occur to me at the moment. All the chamber staff were officially under the command of the chamberlain, i.e. Hugh Despenser the Younger in and after 1318.

Edward II's Household Ordinance of 6 December 1318, also often called the York Ordinance, stated that he should have eight vadletz of the chamber, who made beds, held and carried torches, and "other things according to the orders of the king's chamberlain." In fact, Edward's last chamber account of 1325/6 reveals that he had as many as thirty-three chamber vadletz. As always. the sheer number of royal servants baffles me; what on earth did they all do all day? Sometimes the vadletz were sent out of court to catch fish or make purchases for the household, but as far as I can make out at least twenty-six or twenty-eight of them were always at court at any given time, and sometimes all of them. They were paid approximately every two weeks in arrears, and sometimes were given permission to leave court for a while to visit their families. When they did so, the king paid all their expenses, and often gave them gifts for their families: for example, Robin Traghs the chamber valet was given twenty shillings or the equivalent of a few months' wages because his wife Joan "was delivered of a daughter" (awwww), and Joan the wife of the chamber valet Richard Mereworth got a massive forty shillings when she came to court "great with child" because she had heard that her husband was ill. (It was not actually the case that every woman alive in England in the 1320s was called Joan, though it often feels like that.) Robin and Joan Traghs came from London, and the Mereworths came from Henley-on-Thames, as did Will Shene (another vadlet/portour) and his wife Isode; the Shenes married at Henley on Tuesday 22 October 1325 and got twenty-five shillings as a wedding gift from Edward II. As well as their wages and holiday pay, the chamber valets - in common with all members of the royal household - were provided with all their food, drink, clothes, shoes and bedding for free.

Not only individuals but families served in the king's chamber: I've mentioned Edmund aka 'Monde' Fisher and his son Litel Wille (Little Will) Fisher before, valet and page of the chamber. There were also the father-son pairs Richard aka 'Hick' and Henry Hustret and Simon and Henry Baker, and the brothers Simon aka 'Syme' and Henry Lawe, who had another brother with the excellent name of Willecok and a sister called Alis Coleman. As well as Litel Wille Fisher, there was a vadlet called Litel Colle or Little Colin; Colle was a nickname for men called Nicholas, which in the fourteenth century was always spelt Nichol. Edward II also had a sergeant-at-arms called Colle of Derby. There was also Litel Phelip or Little Philip, page of the chamber, and one of my favourite names of Edward's chamber valets was Grete Hobbe, i.e. Great Hob, i.e. Big Rob. (No last name ever given. He was just Big Rob.)

Apparently in the belief that thirty-two valets of the chamber simply wasn't enough, Edward hired another while he was sailing along the Thames between Bisham and Sheen in May 1326. This was 'Ambrose son of Will de la Wyk'. And as I've also mentioned before, Edward hired two of the wives of his chamber valets to do the same job as their husbands, Anneis wife of Roger May and Joan wife of Robin Traghs, at the same wages as the men. What a champion of sexual equality!

What I love so much about Edward's last chamber account of 1325/6 (sadly it's the only one of his chamber accounts extant in its entirety) is that it's such a delightful glimpse into the lives of not only the king but also of his servants, of the normal everyday people alive in England in 1325, who were getting married and having children and drinking ale and calling each other by affectionate nicknames and falling ill and catching fish and dropping knives into the Thames by accident and repairing their houses and having their houses broken into and losing keys and singing songs for the king every time he sailed past and playing dice and making cheese and digging ditches and repairing windows and and and...Reading Edward's last chamber accounts is like looking back into the distant past of almost 700 years ago and seeing how people were living then. I can't even express how much I love it. I read it and I think, awwww, Joan and Robin Traghs have had a daughter, how lovely! Will and Isode Shene are getting married next Tuesday, how lovely! Oh no, someone broke into Hick Mereworth's house, and Robin atte Hethe is suffering from a great illness, and now Monde Fisher is dying, this is awful! Then I remember that actually all these people have been dead for a realllllly long time. But they don't feel dead to me.


countrygal said...

I do so enjoy reading about the 'common' folk; it's so easy to pick up a book or watch a film about the aristocracy of hundreds of years ago and get the impression that everyone ate salmon/venison/eels etc; wore velvet and pearls; rode beautiful horses or had carriages; had chimneys; and multiple servants fawning at one's feet. Thanks for this post, really enjoy learning about the simpler folk. Amanda

sami parkkonen said...

Fantastic stuff once again! Tons and tons of information and details. All these things make the history come alive. Thank you very much.

When I was doing research for my novel I came across this one. Have you come across this? http://disneysrobin.blogspot.fi/2010/10/robin-hood-and-edward-ii.html

I have no idea is that just a puff of smoke and mirrors or what, but wouldn't that be great! Robyn Hode as Edwards valet :-D Just like it says in the earliest versions where the king is "our comely king Edward".

Henrik Thiil Nielsen said...

Sami, for Robin Hood, porter of the Chamber to Edward II, see Joseph Hunter's pamphlet published in 1852 (you can download it via the link there). Hunter, who was an assistant keeper of public records, discovered entries relating to this Robert Hood in the Journal de la Chambre for 1323/24 and argued (on no direct evidence) that this Robert Hood should be identified with another of the same name figuring in the Wakefield Manor court rolls a few years earlier. He constructed a biography of sorts of this individual (or composite), but it is largely based on wishful thinking and a tendentious reading of A Gest of Robyn Hode. Several other writers have elaborated on Hunter's hypothesis, the most significant being John Bellamy's Robin Hood: an Historical Enquiry (1985).

My MA thesis (1990) (download via link on page) is probably the most detailed and extensive criticism of these hypotheses, though you will find, if you read it, that I do not rule out some sort of connection between aspects of the biography of the royal porter and the hero of the Gest. During the reigns of the three Edwards, the Privy Seal can be found referred to as the "great targe", a name also used for it in the Gest. There are also references in that poem to Edward II's "progress" in Lancashire, a county not often visited by medieval kings. Having killed the sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood takes refuge with a knight named Sir Richard at the Lee, whose castle is located in Lancashire. When Edward II passes through the county he notices the scarcity of deer and has no doubt that this is due to Robin Hood's poaching there. During the later years of the reign of Edward II, Lancashire was plagued by feuding and crime. It is possible that the Gest preserves a memory of this. On the other hand there is no evidence at all that the royal porter was ever an outlaw, and J.C. Holt showed in 1982 that the known chronology of the career of the royal porter does not match the "biography" Hunter extracted from the Gest.

Intriguingly, however, a Little John was employed by Edward II as a ship's master, and Robin Hood's Bay is now known to have been known by that name much earlier than was previously thought, probably as early as 1324-27. Louis, Count of Flanders, probably the first of that name, writes to a king Edward, probably Edward II, asking him to help Flemish fishermen who have been caught by English sailors who have taken their ship and cargo to "Robin Oeds Bay". In 1323, Little John, the royal ship's master, was in prison for a similar crime committed at Newcastle, which for a sailor with a ship is not far from Robin Hood's Bay. These events could have been simple piracy, but as a lengthy period of trade war between England and Flanders had recently been ended by an agreement between Edward II and Louis I, it is also possible -- though there is no evidence for this -- that the pirates were simply continuing to do what they had been legally doing as privateering (or perhaps on behalf of the Crown) before the peace agreement. Perhaps they were unaware of the agreement, perhaps they chose to ignore it. In all events it is noteworthy that this was happening , and was in part perpetrated by a Little John in royal employ, during a period when a Robert Hood was among the king's vadlets.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you for the very helpful comment, Henrik! I've come across Litel Johan (as it was spelt by Edward's clerks) a couple of times in the king's chamber account of 1326. I didn't know he was in prison in 1323, so that's great info. He was out by August 1326.

I think I've come across your thesis before, but will head off now and have another read!

Henry Funk said...

You're welcome, and thank you for all your work on this excellent blog. Bellamy in his 1985 monograph (see my message above) discusses the career of this Little John. He refers to several entries in the Journal de la Chambre, but as far as I remember he does not mention the references relating to Little John's piratical or privateering activities.