29 November, 2008

Brief Biographies (2): Robert Lewer

Today, a post on one of the baddest of all fourteenth-century bad boys, Robert Lewer (or le Ewer), who murdered his mistress's husband, threatened to kill and dismember Edward II's sergeants-at-arms in front of the king, and was condemned to be crushed to death with a great weight of iron.

The Vita Edwardi Secundi has quite a lot of info on Robert. According to the author, he grew up at court and was was the king's 'water-bearer', responsible for drying the king's clothes and preparing his bath (hence the name 'le Ewer'). [1] To say the author strongly disapproved of Robert would be a major understatement, and he says "relying on his influence at court, and accustomed to lax morals from youth, he was always ready for plunder and killing." As Robert was already an adult by the time of Edward II's accession in 1307, it was at Edward I's court that he acquired his 'lax morals', not Edward II's.

Robert was also, however, "shrewd and active in military matters," though he wasn't a knight. Edward II showed him great favour, and in 1311, Robert was one of the men whom the Ordainers ordered away from Edward, at the same time that they sent Piers Gaveston into exile: "Item, Robert Lewer, archers and such manner of ribaldry shall be removed from the king’s wages, and not stay in his service, except in war." [2] Edward had appointed him constable of Odiham Castle in Hampshire, which belonged to Queen Marguerite, a few weeks earlier. [3] At some unknown date, says the Vita, he "killed a certain good man, and made off with his wife, with whom he had previously committed adultery." Edward II's reaction to this murder is not recorded. In the summer of 1313, Robert accompanied Edward on his trip to France, with Queen Isabella, to see her three brothers knighted. [4]

In April 1309, Edward granted Robert the reversion of the manor of Warblington, nowadays a suburb of Havant near Portsmouth, and in December 1318, gave him a water-mill and adjacent meadow in Basingstoke, also in Hampshire. [5] Robert made efforts to deprive Isabella, widow of Hugh Bardolf, of her free tenements in Emsworth, and disseize her of Warblington. [6] He failed to appear before King's Bench to answer Isabella's plea, and on 6 July 1312, Edward sent three separate writs to the justices of the King's Bench, ordering them to acquit Robert of his forfeiture because of his non-appearance, "as the said Robert was with the king in his service at that time and is still with him." [7]

In February 1320, Edward II replaced Robert as constable of Odiham with his friend Hugh Despenser the younger. [8]. Some months later, the king ordered Robert's arrest on the grounds of his "trespasses, contempts and disobediences." Precisely what these were is not clear, but most likely, Robert was angry about his replacement as constable by Despenser and went on some kind of rampage. His later actions demonstrate that he detested the Despensers and their influence. Robert resisted "by armed force" the attempts of Edward's sergeants-at-arms to arrest him, "threatening some of the king’s subjects with loss of life and limb, asserting he would slay them and cut them up limb by limb wherever he should find them, either in the presence or absence of the king." Edward, who had previously shown Robert such favour, was by now severely out of patience with him, calling him "so vile a person," and ordered all the sheriffs of England to arrest and imprison him and his adherents with their "receivers, abettors and maintainers." Robert evaded capture, and was still being sought in January 1321. [9]

In May 1321, the Marcher lords went on a trail of destruction through the Welsh lands of Hugh Despenser the younger, and it evidently occurred to Edward that Robert, an excellent soldier, would be more useful to him out of prison than inside. On 20 May, Edward granted a safe-conduct for Robert "and others with him coming to the king and departing," and on 9 June, pardoned Robert for threatening to 'slay and dismember' his sergeants, released Robert’s wife Margery and his 'friends' from prison, restored his lands and goods, and re-appointed him constable of Odiham Castle. [10]

On 19 October 1321, Edward commissioned Robert "in conjunction with the keepers of the peace and the sheriffs of the counties of Surrey, Sussex, Southampton, Wilts, Oxford, Berks, Somerset and Dorset, to enquire touching malefactors making confederacies there, and to arrest and attach the guilty and to send them to the nearest gaols until further order." [11] On 6 and 7 December that year, the king sent Robert, with Oliver Ingham, to arrest his former favourites Roger Damory and Hugh Audley, his former steward Bartholomew Badlesmere, and several others - unsuccessfully, as it turned out, as they weren't captured until the following March. [12]

Robert was one of the men, with the earl of Surrey and unnamed others, who took Roger Mortimer and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk, after they "deserted their allies and threw themselves on the king's mercy" at Shrewsbury, to imprisonment in the Tower of London - just after dinner on 14 February 1322, according to the Croniques de London. The Vita says Robert commanded Edward's household infantry at the battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322. [13] Later that year, however, things once more turned sour between the king and his thuggish, murderous commander. Robert accompanied Edward on the Scottish campaign of autumn 1322, but arrived late, and left early, to Edward's annoyance. On 16 September, Edward commanded Robert to come to him to explain his "withdrawal from the king's presence," and four days later, when Robert hadn't appeared, ordered the sheriff of Hampshire to arrest him and "cause him to be guarded safely until further orders, as he withdrew himself secretly from the king's presence...and as he has not come to the king or sent lawful excuse." [14]

On the same day Edward ordered the sheriff of Hampshire to arrest Robert for leaving him, he ordered all the sheriffs of England "to pursue with hue and cry until they be taken dead or alive" Robert Lewer, John Wyard, John du Chastel, and Richard and Robert de Harle, "the king being given to understand that the said Robert and the others have risen against him." [15] Wyard was an associate of Roger Mortimer. Robert had gone to some of the manors belonging to Hugh Despenser the elder, now earl of Winchester, and "carried off victuals and other necessaries."

He then went to manors which had formerly belonged to Warin Lisle and his brother-in-law Henry Tyes, whom Edward had had executed that spring, which now belonged to Winchester. "And there Sir [sic] Robert made a great distribution to the poor in the name of alms for the souls of the said barons. From this he profited little, because God has regard to the intention rather than the deed. That cannot be called alms which comes from theft or rapine. For, as is said elsewhere, it is a kind of theft to distribute largesse from the goods of another without consent of the lord." [16]

Throughout late 1322, Edward made strenuous attempts to arrest Robert. On 1 November, he sent out writs to sheriffs and keepers of the peace in places as far apart as Bristol, Cheshire, Lancashire, Wales and the Marches and Oxfordshire. Eleven days later he sent his half-brother the earl of Kent to "the parts of Wales" with men-at-arms and footmen to pursue Robert. By 28 November, Edward had heard that Robert had tried to seize Odiham Castle and had entered the king's manor of 'Ichehull', where he stole "the king's goods and beasts," and by 3 December, believed him to be in the forest of Malvern, in Worcestershire. [17] All this suggests that Robert had, or at least was believed to have, supporters and adherents all over the country. Possibly, though, this was just Edward's paranoia, and the Vita says that "Robert's plan failed, and his men deserted day by day." His plan, such as it was, was to capture the earl of Winchester, who "took refuge in Windsor Castle and set a watch night and day" - meaning that Robert rebelled against the Despensers, rather than Edward II.

Robert had been captured by 19 December 1322, on which date Edward rewarded Janekyn, the messenger who brought him the news, with forty shillings (£2) - a pretty small amount by his standards, which perhaps suggests that by then he had lost interest in Robert or no longer considered him a threat. [18] The Vita says that Robert went to Southampton with his wife - who had presumably forgiven him for taking a mistress and killing her husband - to try to cross over to France, but was recognised there and imprisoned. If that is true, it was pretty foolish of Robert, who was very well-known in Hampshire, to go to the one English port where he was bound to be recognised. The Vita's account is in fact likely to be correct, as it was Robert Kendale, appointed to search for Robert in Hampshire, who sent his messenger Janekyn to inform Edward II of his capture. (This implies that Edward had sent his brother Kent off on a wild goose chase to Wales.)

Robert refused to speak in court and to answer the charges against him, and was sentenced to the usual punishment for people who refused "to submit to the law of the realm": peine forte et dure, 'strong and hard punishment'. The prisoner sat on the bare floor wearing thin clothes, and a huge weight of iron - several hundred pounds - was placed on top of him (or her). Death normally took several days. Prisoners were allowed a small amount of mouldy bread and cloudy water; on the days they received bread, they were allowed no water, and vice versa. [19] This grotesque punishment wasn't abolished in Britain until 1772.

Robert Lewer survived several days of this horror, and was dead by 8 January 1323. [20] The author of the Vita, at least, approved of the manner of his death: "Robert at length died, receiving at last a punishment fitting for his crimes and healthy for his soul, provided he bore it with resignation." Robert's widow Margery was released from prison on 30 July 1324, and pardoned on 9 September "for having been lately in rebellion against the king." [21] Probably that same year, she petitioned Edward II, denying any complicity in the murder of one Peter Luscombe. [22] Presumably, Luscombe was the husband of Margery's husband's mistress, unless Robert also murdered another man - which, given his brutal character, is hardly improbable.

RIP Robert Lewer, one of the thugs of the fourteenth century!


1: Vita Edwardi Secundi, ed. N. Denholm-Young (1957), pp. 117-118, 127-129.
2: Annales Londonienses 1195-1330, in W. Stubbs, ed., Chronicles of the Reigns of Edward I and Edward II, volume 1, Rolls Series, 76 (1882), p. 199.
3: Calendar of Fine Rolls 1307-1319, p. 103; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1307-1313, pp. 400, 405, 481; Calendar of Close Rolls 1307-1313, pp. 375, 378.
4: CPR 1307-1313, pp. 580, 584.
5: CPR 1307-1313, pp. 160, 304-305, 319 and CCR 1307-1313, p. 387, for Warblington; CPR 1317-1321, p. 253 and The National Archives SC 8/92/4562B, for the mill and meadow.
6: TNA SC 8/4/190; CPR 1313-1317, pp. 139-40; CCR 1323-1327, p. 436.
7: CCR 1307-1313, pp. 399, 429, 430.
8: CFR 1319-1327, pp. 15, 18.
9: CCR 1318-1323, pp. 260, 285-286, 326.
10: CPR 1317-1321, pp. 586, 596, and CCR 1318-1323, pp. 312, 394, for the safe-conduct, pardon of Robert, his wife and friends, and restoration to his lands and goods; CFR 1319-1327, p. 64, and CPR 1317-1321, p. 595, for Odiham.
11: CPR 1321-1324, p. 28.
12: CPR 1321-1324, p. 40.
13: Croniques de London depuis l'an 44 Hen III jusqu'à l'an 17 Edw III, ed. G.J. Aungier (1844), p. 43; Vita, p. 118 (infantry and Mortimer quote).
14: CCR 1318-1323, p. 597; CPR 1321-1324, p. 206.
15: CCR 1318-1323, p. 685.
16: Vita, p. 127.
17: J. C. Davies, ‘The First Journal of Edward II’s Chamber’, English Historical Review, 30 (1915), p. 680; CPR 1321-1324, pp. 215, 221, 222, 254.
18: Davies, 'First Journal', p. 678.
19: CPR 1324-1327, p. 142, for the quote; Vita, 128.
20: CPR 1321-1324, p. 232.
21: CCR 1323-1327, p. 203; CPR 1324-1327, p. 21.
22: TNA SC 8/122/6098.


Jules Frusher said...

That man sounds like a one-man crime-wave! Not nice at all. Sounds lik at first Edward did his usual thing - choosing an unsuitable person as a friend. But at least he saw the light on this one. Strange that Lewer seems to have had mer against the elder Despenser than the younger though. Maybe they had clashed during his days at court.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I love the comment about the punishment being "healthy for his soul." I'm sure he was immensely consoled by that!

Carla said...

Sounds like a man you'd try hard to avoid!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, the first paragraph says it all.

But it's always fun to read about bad guys, they at least had an interesting life. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Lady D: like the Dunheveds, another candidate for an ASBO. ;) I don't know why Lewer had it in for the elder Despenser rather than the younger one - it'd be interesting to know why.

Susan: amazing attitude to such a horrific punishment, isn't it?

Carla: exactly! ;)

Gabriele: I'm really in the mood for writing about 14th century bad boys at the moment. ;)

Anonymous said...

According to research done by my father before his death (which I have been very indequately continuing), Robert was an ancestor of mine.
I think we'd all like to think we are descendants of Kings, Nobles, or great figures. Just my luck, I get Mr Nasty. However, upon reflection, Robert is OK as an ancestor. I wish I could have met him! Does anyone know any more about him?

Stephen Lewer

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Stephen! That's great that you're descended from Robert. Such a bad boy, but I can't help having a sneaking fondness for him. ;) There isn't much more known about him than what I've posted here, unfortunately. Except I could add that the Westminster chronicler says that he died on 26 Dec 1322. His wife was called Margery, but I don't know anything about their children. :(

Anonymous said...

Hi Alianore

Judging by how he died, he must have had a pretty rotten christmas!

I'll join the blog group as soon as I get back from holiday (ie in a couple of weeks) so that I can e-mail you what I have, which is very little other than a family tree. Margery subsequently had lands returned to her, so she didn't die destitute, although reading between the lines she must have had it pretty tough for a while. I think she returned to favour after Edward II was toppled - although you must understand that I'm doing this from O level history!

As for Robert, I owe you great thanks because I've learned more about him from this site than I ever knew. And I'm afraid to say that the more I read, the more I like him. I wonder how much of his bad press comes from the fact that the victors write the history books? Having said that, this Machiavellian doing away with lovers husbands is really the stuff of a good drama.
My fiancee has read this blog too, she said that she had suspected all along that my character defects were genetic. :-))


Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Steve! You're very welcome, and I'm really glad you found the post helpful. I'd love to see the family tree! You can contact me any time at: mail(at)edwardthesecond(dot)com. (There's a link in the sidebar to my contact details, too.)

My fiancee has read this blog too, she said that she had suspected all along that my character defects were genetic. :-))

*Grins* :-)

I'd imagine poor Margery had a pretty rough time after Robert's death - Ed II could be remarkably vindictive to anyone who crossed him or who he thought had betrayed him, or even anyone associated with anyone who crossed him. And yes, I'd guess her quality of life improved after Ed III's accession!

Kind of rough on the husband Robert murdered, I know, but I can't help being fascinated by that whole situation - as you say, great drama, and presumably a crime of passion! Robert may have been, umm, a bit of a thug, but he does come across to me as a real, vivid person, with strong passions! :) And he certainly had some good qualities - a really terrific soldier, and completely loyal to Ed until the Despensers' dominance started to really hack him off. Presumably he must have had something that made Ed like him so much - personal charm, magnetism, good humour, maybe...I kind of see him (I have no evidence at all for this, it's just a feeling) as the life and soul of a party, great company, with an endless supply of amusing anecdotes.

Have a great holiday!
Best wishes, A.