22 November, 2011

Brief Biographies: Simon of Reading

Today, a post about Simon of Reading, or Symond or Syme de Reding or Redyngg or Redynges as the name was spelt at the time, who was executed with Hugh Despenser the Younger in Hereford on 24 November 1326.  When the two men were brought into Hereford before Hugh's trial, Simon was forced to parade in front of Hugh bearing the Despenser arms reversed, and some time later was hanged next to him but on a much lower gallows (Hugh's was a massive fifty feet high).  Unlike Hugh, it appears that Simon was hanged until dead, rather than cut down and disembowelled and all the rest of the horrors inflicted on the royal favourite.  I wonder whether many, or indeed any, people watching the execution had any idea of Simon's identity.

Before I look at who Simon was, let's look at who he wasn't.  Natalie Fryde says in her 1979 work The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326 that he was "one of Despenser's closest friends" - well, possibly, but she doesn't cite a source for this and I've never seen one that confirms her statement - and also calls him "the loyal knight of Despenser."  Simon wasn't a knight.  Neither was he the marshall of Edward II's household, the younger Despenser's standard-bearer or marshall, or pretty well anything else claimed about him in modern times.  He was in fact a sergeant-at-arms of Edward II's household (see below for the evidence for this).

What I find most puzzling about Simon is why Isabella and Roger Mortimer wanted to execute someone so obscure; as far as I can tell he was just one of Edward's sergeants-at-arms, among many others, so why did they deem it necessary to execute him so publicly with Hugh Despenser?  Simon was not even given a trial, though according to the Brut chronicle he was drawn and hanged "for encheson [reason] that he despisede the Quene Isabel," and the Anonimalle, a French version of the chronicle, talks of "une Symond de Redyngges, qavoit despise la roigne..." (a Simon of Reading, who had despised the queen...).  'Despise' in this context means insult, humiliate, scorn, disregard.  A 1327 entry on the Fine Roll relating to Simon says that he was "hanged for a felony."  Hmmmmm.  Was insulting the queen a felony, and when did it become a capital offence and such a serious one that no trial to prove the truth of the allegation was required?  Natalie Fryde in Tyranny and Fall says that Simon was "included in the punishment meted out to his master [i.e. Despenser] because he had in some way insulted Isabella," as though these were reasonable grounds to execute someone without trial, and assuming that what the Brut says is certainly true (she doesn't say he was 'alleged to have insulted Isabella' or similar).

Unfortunately I don't know who Simon's parents were, or if he was married, or almost anything else about him.  The Fine Roll entry of February 1327 which refers to his hanging is an "order to the bailiffs of the manor of Bray to take into the king's hand the lands, goods and chattels, which Simon de Redyng, who was hanged for a felony, held in chief of Edward II in their bailiwick."  [1]  The Berkshire village of Bray is fifteen miles from Reading, itself about forty miles west of London.  Judging by his name and this entry, Simon must have grown up and lived in or close to Reading.  The earliest mention I can find of him is in November 1318, when a commission of oyer et terminer was ordered "on complaint by Simon de Redynge touching the persons who assaulted him at Gedenoye [Gedney], co. Lincoln."  [2]  On 20 September 1324, Simon was one of six men granted a 'general pardon' by Edward II, and on 16 April the year before had been granted the Worcestershire manors of Kyre Wyard and Woodhall forfeited by John Wyard, an adherent of Roger Mortimer, in which manors and two others in Worcestershire, 'Salynes' and 'Smytheslond', Simon was granted rights of free warren.  [3]  His being granted the manors of one of Roger Mortimer's followers was presumably a reason why Mortimer hated him.  Simon must have become pretty well-off: in July 1325, William Nicol of Selsey acknowledged that he owed twenty pounds to him, a large amount of money for a man of his rank and position (Edward II's sergeants-at-arms earned twelve pence a day).  [4]

Simon appears three times in Edward II's chamber account of 1325/26 that I've found.  In August 1325, Edward sent him to pay money to someone (not sure who; that entry is hard to read).  In May 1326, there are two references to 'Syme de Redyng', whose horse needed shoeing while the king and his household were travelling along the Thames, near Henley.  As far as I can make out, Simon lost his mace (I assume that's what 'mase' is) in the river shortly afterwards, and it was later returned to him by John Feryman of Sonning, who received three shillings from Edward II for his efforts.

Simon is next mentioned on 28 September 1326, the day after Edward II, in the Tower of London, learned that his queen and Mortimer's invasion force had landed in East Anglia on the 24th.  An entry on the Patent Roll says "The like* of Simon de Redyng, king's serjeant, to select 100 footmen out of the men arrayed in the counties of Oxford and Berks and lead them to the king to repel the invaders."  [5]  (* The previous entry says: "Appointment of Daniel de Burgham in the county of Kent to select and lead all the horse and foot who will go with him against Roger de Mortuo Mari" (Mortimer).)  Two c. 1327 petitions by a William de Whithurst say that Edward II gave Whithurst a hundred pounds at Gloucester to pay the wages of the men-at-arms coming to his aid, and that Whithurst gave some of this to Simon at Edward's command and that the rest was taken by Isabella when she arrived in Gloucester shortly afterwards.  [6]  Simon is named in the Annales Paulini and Adam Murimuth's chronicle as one of the men still with Edward II and Hugh Despenser the Younger when they were captured in South Wales on 16 November.  He was to pay the ultimate price for this loyalty eight days later.  The manors granted to him in Worcestershire, as well as "two messuages and land in Boclington, co. Worcester, and the messuage in Wyndesore, co. Berks, which belonged to Simon de Redyng", were granted back to John Wyard in 1327 and 1328.  [7]

Martyn Lawrence in his D. Phil. thesis on the Despensers points out that there are no specific references to Simon of Reading as a Despenser adherent.  Nigel Saul says "The chroniclers are surely doing no more than reflecting popular opinion when they associate his name with that of the younger Despenser...Yet the actual position he held was that of a serviens ad arma [sergeant-at-arms] in the royal household.  Whatever his nominal position, his familiarity with the Despensers meant that he was denied any chance of making his peace with the regime that succeeded theirs."  Earlier in his article, Saul says "We know also that they [the Despensers] had some very unpopular officials like Simon de Reading, who was to share a traitor's death with his lord...".  [8]  There is no evidence I know of to suggest that Simon was a Despenser official, or particularly close to them, or involved in any way in their tyranny, land-grabbing and other crimes.  It is Simon's execution alongside Hugh Despenser that leads writers to draw the obvious conclusion that he must have been a henchman of theirs and grossly unpopular throughout England for aiding and abetting their schemes, even though no known contemporary source suggests this.  The Brut, Annales Paulini and the chronicle of Adam Murimuth do not say that Simon was executed for complicity in any of the Despensers' crimes; indeed, the Brut claims that he died because he insulted the queen.  You'd think that if a man was so notorious and guilty of such horrendous crimes that it was necessary to execute him publicly alongside Hugh Despenser without a trial, there would be more mentions of him somewhere and more obvious associations with the Despensers.  Even if Simon were famous in his time as a Despenser adherent and yet no evidence of this has survived, it's peculiar that other far more influential and better-known supporters of theirs, such as Sir Ingelram Berenger (a former sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire), and Sir John Haudlo, were pardoned for their adherence within weeks of the new regime taking control.  Perhaps Simon just had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as John Daniel and Robert de Micheldever appear to have been a week earlier when they were executed with the earl of Arundel, to have irritated Roger Mortimer by being given two manors which formerly belonged to his adherent John Wyard, and to have irritated Isabella by saying something about her which perhaps hit a little too close to home.  Whatever Simon's misdeeds, public humiliation and execution without trial hardly seem a fair and just punishment, and don't lend much credence to the notion that the revolution of 1326/27 was intended to improve, and in fact did improve, the situation in England; Isabella and Mortimer's decision to execute Simon appears just as petty, capricious and vindictive as the decisions of Edward II himself often were.


1) Calendar of Fine Rolls 1327-1337, pp. 19, 21.
2)  Calendar of Patent Rolls 1317-1321, p 289.
3) Cal Pat Rolls 1321-1324, p. 275; Cal Pat Rolls 1324-1327, p. 23; Calendar of Charter Rolls 1300-1326, p. 462.
4) Calendar of Close Rolls 1323-1327, p. 494.
5) Cal Pat Rolls 1324-1327, p. 325.
6) The National Archives SC 8/239/11922, SC 8/169/8413.
7) Cal Pat Rolls 1327-1330, pp. 338, 343, 419.
8) Martyn Lawrence, 'Power, Ambition and Political Rehabilitation: the Despensers, c.1281-1400' (Univ. of York D. Phil. thesis, 2005), p. 102 note 49; Nigel Saul, 'The Despensers and the Downfall of Edward II', English Historical Review, 99 (1984), pp. 4, 11-12.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Poor Simon! Sounds to me as if Roger Mortimer was simply taking an opportunity to exact some petty revenge on behalf of one of his followers.

Kathryn Warner said...

Agreed, Susan! The public execution of a sergeant-at-arms seems so petty and vindictive.

Anerje said...

I enjoy all your posts - but I really enjoyed this one - how fascinating that Simon of Reading should create so much speculation. It's not surprising he has been portrayed as a Despencer adherent as he was executed before Hugh - but thanks to your research, it seems poor Simon was a victim of the petty hatred and already emerging tyranny of Mortimer and Isabella.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks so much, Anerje - really glad you enjoyed the post! Yes, I agree.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Maybe Isa just had a bad case of PMS and poor Simon was indeed in the wrong place at the wrong time. ;)

Carla said...

Not a period of history that does either side much credit, sadly. Is it known what happened to the other men who were with Edward II and Hugh Despenser when they were captured? It does sound as if poor Simon de Reading was unlucky to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla, oddly enough, the other men with Edward all appear to have been former Lancastrians, so were spared. I wonder if this was deliberate on Edward's part - thinking that it was quite likely that his loyal supporters would suffer for it, he sent them away, except for the Lancastrians who could be presumed to be safe (and Simon).

Jules Frusher said...

Only just seen this. Great research work on this very obscure man. Whatever his connections were or were not with Hugh, he was certainly loyal to the Royalist cause and Edward.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Jules! I feel so sorry for Simon and the two men executed with the earl of Arundel, all of them without trial.

dspesert said...

I suspect Simon was not as innocent as all that, but Mortimer, in his time would be even worse. They were a scary and sorry lot, all of them, King, Despensers, Isabella, and Mortimer, and dangerous to know

Kathryn Warner said...

He might not have been 'innocent as all that', but he still absolutely had a right to a trial to determine his guilt, and as he didn't have one, we have no way of knowing what crimes he committed. 'Insulting the queen' was not a felony.

Will said...

Could be wrong place, wrong time. An associate of Despenser would have been an extension of Despenser's tyranny. It was likely on Isabella's word that Simon was dealt the death blow, especially if he has insulted her. An example or two needed to be made, I'm thinking.