12 December, 2008

Brief Biographies (3)

Brother John of Newminster and John of Towcester

First off, let me admit that I know next to nothing about the first subject of today's post, Brother John of Newminster. I don't know where he came from or when he was born or when he died or anything else, except that he was one of the men who in 1327 joined the Dunheved brothers, Stephen and Thomas, in their attempts to break Edward of Caernarfon, the former King Edward II, out of prison at Berkeley Castle.

Brother John was a monk of Newminster Abbey, a Cistercian house near Morpeth in Northumberland, which was founded in 1138 and dissolved 399 years later. Edward II occasionally stayed at Newminster during his reign, the last time in August 1322. [1] After Edward's deposition in January 1327, a group of men who were fanatically devoted to him started making plans to free him. They made an unsuccessful attempt on Kenilworth Castle in March 1327, and carried on plotting after his removal to Berkeley on 3 April.

Somehow Brother John, tucked away in his abbey up in Northumberland, heard that the Dunheveds and their allies were plotting to free Edward. He left his abbey and travelled down to Gloucestershire. That's a full 300 miles away. Did he leave with the permission of his abbot, or not? How did he make contact with the Dunheveds? There are far more questions than answers, and I really doubt I'll ever know. All I can say is, Edward II must have made a powerful impression on John for him to leave his convent and travel 300 miles to fight for Edward, nearly five years after the last time he had - presumably - seen him.

Thomas, Lord Berkeley, Edward of Caernarfon's joint custodian, sent a letter on 27 July 1327 to the chancellor of England, informing him that some men had attacked Berkeley Castle and seized Edward out of his custody. The letter names seventeen men, with four other men named previously in letters patent, which cannot be the entire gang - surely they couldn't have successfully attacked and plundered the castle with only twenty-one men - and probably only means the leaders. [2] The letter begins "Sire, please it you to remember that I recently certified you by my letter of the names of some people indicted before me in the county of Gloucestershire, for coming towards the castle of Berkeley with an armed force, for having seized the father of our lord the king out of our keeping and feloniously robbing the said castle against the peace."

Berkeley asked for special authority to arrest the Dunheveds, saying that the commission granted to him twelve days earlier did not give him authority to 'take' them (he wrote that lawyers, or literally 'people of law', had advised him of this). The previous commission had been granted by letters patent on 15 July 1327 and named men said to have ‘withdrawn themselves’ after being indicted before Berkeley for various felonies. [3] By 27 July, Berkeley had evidently learned the names of other men who took part in the attack, including Brother John. Another commission was granted to him on 1 August 1327, naming the four men mentioned on 15 July and the seventeen men in Berkeley's letter, and granting him full powers to arrest them. References to their abduction of Edward were, of course, judiciously omitted. To mention the event in a private letter to the chancellor was one thing; to do so in a public commission was quite another.

The leader of the gang who - temporarily, at least - seized Edward was Thomas Dunheved, Dominican friar, whose attempts to free Edward did not go unnoticed by some contemporary chroniclers (including Annales Paulini, Anonimalle, Brut and Lanercost). He is the only member of the gang mentioned by name in any of these chronicles. Berkeley's letter, however, puts Brother John of Newminster's (frere Johan de Neumoster) name first on the list of plotters, even before Thomas and his brother Stephen Dunheved. Although I don't suppose that Berkeley wrote (or recited to his clerk) the list of names in order of their importance, I wonder if this is significant. I also wonder what skills Brother John brought to the attack on Berkeley Castle. He was a monk, but had he once been a soldier? What was his role in all this that made him important enough to order sheriffs and keepers of the peace over a large tract of England to pursue and arrest him?

Another question that strikes me is, how did Lord Berkeley or anyone else at Berkeley Castle know who John was? Berkeley's first letter about the attack, which does not survive but resulted in the commission of 15 July, names only four men. By 27 July, however, Berkeley had learned the names of seventeen others who had taken part in the attack or who were its leaders. Who told him? How would anyone in Gloucestershire have known the identity of a monk from 300 miles away in Northumberland? Does this perhaps imply that some of the gang had already been captured and were forced to reveal the names of their co-conspirators?

Can I ask any more unanswerable questions in this post? :-)

I have no idea what happened to Brother John of Newminster after 27 July 1327. Either he was captured, and killed or thrown into prison, or he went into hiding somewhere in England, or he fled abroad - there is evidence that some of the Dunheved gang, or *Team Dunheved!!* as Lady D and I call them, did escape overseas. I'd like to think that John lived to a ripe old age, but somehow I doubt it.


John of Towcester in Northamptonshire, or Johan de Toucestre as his name was spelt in the fourteenth century, was a middle-ranking member of Edward II's household for most of the king's reign, and was appointed keeper of several manors, Queenhithe in London and the gate of Norwich Castle. [4] In November 1325 he retired, and Edward II sent him to Reading Abbey to 'receive sustenance for life'. [5]

Evidently, however, John came out of retirement to fight for Edward after Isabella and Mortimer's invasion, as on 10 October 1326, Edward ordered him to bring men-at-arms to him. One of his fellow appointees was Thomas de la Haye, who joined John of Newminster and the Dunheved brothers and was one of the men who attacked Berkeley Castle. [6] At a time when most of Edward's household began leaving him - in the manner of rats deserting a sinking ship - John left the safety of his abbey to go and fight for him.

Thomas Berkeley's letter of 27 July 1327 stated that 'a great number of people' in Buckinghamshire and neighbouring counties were also plotting to free Edward, and though I can't prove it, I strongly suspect that John of Towcester was one of them. As a suspiciously large number of commissions of oyer and terminer were issued against members of the Dunheved gang in 1327, so John was accused of several crimes in Buckinghamshire at the same time, in the company of a few other former members of Edward II's household. One of them was John le Keu, appointed with John of Towcester and Thomas de la Haye to bring men-at-arms to Edward II on 10 October 1326. [7]

After 1327, John of Towcester disappears from the records for a while, presumably because he'd gone back to Reading Abbey and because the announcement of Edward II's death in late September 1327 rendered further plotting to free him somewhat pointless. John crops up again on 31 March 1330 when an order for his arrest was issued, with dozens of other men, for adhering to Edward's half-brother the earl of Kent, who believed that Edward was alive and in prison at Corfe Castle and was plotting to restore him to the throne. [8] John must have been pretty elderly by then; I've seen a reference to him being appointed the attorney of one Thomas de Croylaunde all the way back in 1293. Even in 1330, his loyalty to Edward inspired him to fight and plot again for his former king, two and a half years after Edward's supposed death.

Of course it's beyond question that most of Edward's kingdom rejected him in the autumn of 1326, and even *I* have to admit with very good reason. But he was capable of inspiring such devotion in some people that even in 1327, after his disastrous downfall, there were plenty of men willing to fight and to die for him. One of them was a monk who left the safety of his convent and travelled the length of England for him, nearly five years after the last time he'd seen Edward - and who, most probably, died for him. Another was a man willing to leave retirement to fight for Edward, not once but twice.

And that's not a bad epitaph for anyone.


1) Elizabeth M. Hallam, The Itinerary of Edward II and his Household 1307-1328 (List and Index Society, 1984), p. 229.
2) F. J. Tanqueray, ‘The Conspiracy of Thomas Dunheved, 1327’, English Historical Review, xxxi (1916), pp. 119-24.
3) Calendar of Patent Rolls 1327-1330, pp. 154, 156-157.
4) CPR 1307-1313, p. 513; CPR 1313-1317, pp. 77, 214; Calendar of Fine Rolls 1307-1319, p. 195; CFR 1319-1327, pp. 95, 269, 314.
5) Calendar of Close Rolls 1323-1327, p. 517.
6) CPR 1324-1327, p. 326.
7) CPR 1327-1330, p. 81.
8) CFR 1327-1337, p. 169.


Gabriele Campbell said...

There's a story featuring John of Newminster somewhere in those few documents. Maybe he was indeed not always a monk, or maybe Ed was lonely one night he spent in that monastery. ;)

Carla said...

"All I can say is, Edward II must have made a powerful impression on John for him to leave his convent and travel 300 miles to fight for Edward, nearly five years after the last time he had - presumably - seen him"
Another possibility may be that John's loyalty was primarily to one of the other members of the 'gang', maybe one of the Dunheveds. John may have been willing to help a particular friend in any enterprise, which happened to be trying to free Edward II.
I agree with Gabriele; there's a story in there!

Anerje said...

Very interesting post - and I think John's loyalty must have been to Edward II. There's a huge difference helping a friend out and being involved in treasonous and dangerous plots. To put his life at risk, he must have believed in Edward's cause.

Kathryn Warner said...

Gabriele: *naughty grin* :-)

Carla: I did wonder if Brother John was a relative or friend of the Dunheved brothers or one of their allies, and that's how he heard about their conspiracy. But I do agree with Anerje what they were planning was so dangerous that I find it very hard to believe that John only acted out of a desire to help a friend. Only 3 of the men who attacked Berkeley were certainly still alive after 1327, one of them only because he escaped from Newgate prison, and another because he seems to have betrayed his colleagues in exchange for his freedom. The others were either dead or in prison, or they'd fled the country - either way, they could never go back to their old lives. For a few months in 1327, the gang members were being hunted by sheriffs and keepers of the peace over a large part of the country.

But yes, there is a great story there!

Anerje: excellent points, thanks!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Who knows, maybe John escaped to Italy where he became Giovanni and lived with Edward happily ever after. :D

Jules Frusher said...

I am always 'much astonished' (to use a phrase of Edward II's) that so many men of the cloth had a warlike side. Not just in this rebellion either, e.g Henry Despenser 'The Fighting Bishop'. Could it be perhaps that we have a slightly romanticised view of monks in the 21st C, whereas back then they were more radical?

Of course, it is also possible (as you mentioned, Alianore) that some of them may have been ex-soldiers who had (temporarily perhaps) become tired of fighting and wanted to serve God instead. Until of course, some issue of conscience, such as Edward's capture and deposition brought them out of their convents to lend their skills to the rebels.

Kathryn Warner said...

Gabriele: now there's a lovely end to the story! Plotbunnies everywhere. ;)

Lady D: at least two of the clerics who joined the Dunheveds (William Aylmer and William Russell) had previously been accused of assault, one of them (Aylmer) so badly that he left the victim 'in danger of his life'. Aylmer was also accused of going to a woman's house with the support of Hugh the younger and breaking her doors and windows! Lovely man...;)

I wonder if Brother John had once been a member of Ed's household before he joined Newminster Abbey? I can't check unfortunately, as I don't know his surname. Another cleric who joined them (with his nephew) was a canon of Llanthony Secunda priory, where Ed and his armed escort spent the night before they arrived at Berkeley. Maybe that's a case of stricken conscience.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, it's not impossible, look at Cadfael. :)

Or Turpin, the legendary fighting bishop in the Song of Roland. Since he's presented as a very positive character, one can assume that an early 12th century audience thought it was ok for a bishop to personally chop the heads off a few Saracens. That attitude might not have changed much during Edward's time.

Anonymous said...

>>>John of Towcester in Northamptonshire, or Johan de Toucestre

And as a drive-by show-off, let me just point out that however Towcester/Toucestre was pronounced then.... nowadays its pronounced Toaster.

Anonymous said...

by chance i was at Newminster Abbey remains today and have been trawling the net for info about it. on a genealogy site i discovered that a baron de Umfraville (well known local aristocracy) married an Alinore de Kyme or de berkeley around 1318-1320 (the records given are confused) - it would seem that there was a strong connection to Newminster as de Umfraville was buried there in 1325, though his wife - who some accounts state was born in Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire, lived in the region til her death in 1368. might it be that John of Newminster went all that way because Alinore had "inside information" about Berkeley Castle's layout? if her husband was buried in the abbey two years earlier, might she have kept good connections to the abbey, and might that account for why one of the abbey's monks went with the supporters of Edward II to free him from Alinore's house (castle) of birth? it's a thought! enjoyed your website - if you wish to contact me (i can't work out how to become a subscriber) try bennett.hogg@ncl.ac.uk.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks a lot for the info! That's fantastic. Sorry for this short comment, but I've just come back from holiday - will think more about this and contact you soon! :-)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Kathryn on your fantastic blog. I found it while researching my Hedley connections to William de Ercalewe(Hedley). I live near Newminster Abbey and have family connections with it.
I have been interested in Brother John myself for quite some time. My theory is, he may have been a Templar monk from Temple Thornton just down the rd. Newminster was the only Cistercian house in Northumberland and was probably very connected with the camera/preceptory. During the dismantling of the Templars Edward gave them plenty of time to escape. Many templars went to Scotland,some joined the hospitallers. I think John may have gone to Newminster. I will have to read Scropes accounts of Temple Thornton again, maybe find a new lead. I'm sure Ercalewe may have been with John at Berkeley. Very interesting times.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hello, thank you for sharing your thoughts! Fascinating!