Usk Castle

Usk lays on the edge of Norman Gwent and the Welsh kingdom of Caerleon. Orders for the motte and bailey Norman castle to be built there were given by Roger FitzWilliam, the son of William FitzOsbern the first lord of Striguil and the Conqueror’s standard-bearer. Unfortunately Roger got himself tangled up in the 1075 rebellion against King William and lost his estates which were taken back into crown hands until King Henry I gave the lordship away to Walter de Clare who also became the Lord of Striguil, Netherwent or Chepstow depending on what you want to call it.

After Walter’s death the Welsh reclaimed Usk Castle and it was only regained by the de Clare family briefly in 1170. Strongbow gave orders for a stone keep to be built in place of the wooden motte but it availed the Normans little as it was back in Welsh hands by 1174 – Strongbow being occupied in Ireland and Henry II being occupied by his family revolting.

The castle was back in Norman hands by 1185 – as was the priory down in the town which Strongbow had founded on the site of the Roman fortress of Burrium. The Crown held the castle for Strongbow’s daughter Isabel de Clare who was a sole heiress. In 1189 very shortly after Richard I became king William Marshal claimed her as his bride and Usk became part of his responsibility. In about 1212 he upgraded the fortifications with the so-called garrison tower which was round and built on French principles into the curtain wall. He also added some more comfortable domestic buildings including a solar and chamber – which Isabel may well have appreciated when she visited the castle.

After the death of William and all five of his and Isabel’s sons Usk passed into the hands of Richard de Clare the 6th Earl of Gloucester by right of his mother Isabel Marshal (yes a dispensation for the marriage between Isabel and Gilbert de Clare 4th Earl of Hertford was required.). The de Clares continued the building programme in 1289 when the North Tower was added to the castle but the new grand domestic dwellings were not completed before the death of Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester in 1314 at Bannockburn.

Usk fell to the portion of the 8th earl’s youngest sister Elizabeth de Burgh who was married at the time to Edward II’s favourite Roger Damory. They continued the building work in the castle to make it more comfortable. Unfortunately in 1321 the whole edifice was given to Edward’s favourite Hugh Despenser the Younger whilst Elizabeth and her children were imprisoned at Barking Abbey. Following Despenser’s execution the castle was returned to Elizabeth in 1326. Just to round things off the castle eventually ended up in the hands of the Mortimer family through marriage. Eventually the castle passed from the Mortimers, by female inheritance, into the hands of Richard Duke of York (the one who gave battle in vain at Wakefield) – turning the castle into a royal property thanks to his sons Edward IV and Richard III. In time it passed into the hands of Prince Arthur (Henry VII’s eldest son) and then into the property portfolio of Katherine Parr.

The castle was a ruin by 1587 and being used as a quarry for dressed stone.

Striguil Castle – medieval power and conflict

Striguil or Chepstow Castle sits between the Rivers Usk and Wye. In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror pursued a policy of containment with three earldoms at Shrewsbury, Chester and Hereford. The man William chose for Hereford was William FitzOsbern who was known to have been at the Battle of Hastings. Like so many of William’s trusted companions and barons FitzOsbern was part of the king’s extended kinship network.

FitzOsbern became Earl of Hereford in 1067 but it was only in the aftermath of Edric the Wild’s rebellion which was crushed in 1069 that FitzOsbern began to encroach into Gwent. Prior to this his main residence was on the Isle of Wight – it was he who began building Carisbrooke Castle. In the marches he was responsible for fortifications at Monmouth and at Chepstow as well as other key locations including Hereford and in Shrewsbury itself. He died in 1071 whilst on campaign in Flanders.

Unfortunately for FitzOsbern’s legacy his eldest son wasn’t as loyal to William as he had been. In 1075 the new lord of Striguil was part of the plot to overthrow William. Inevitably the family estates were forfeit to the Crown when the uprising came to nothing.

In 1115 King Henry I granted Striguil to Walter de Clare the son of Richard of Tonbridge and his wife Rohese Giffard. Walter founded the Cistercian abbey at Tintern. Walter died without direct heirs so the lordship passed to his nephew Gilbert and from there to his son Richard de Clare better known as Strongbow. Strongbow had only one surviving child – a daughter Isabel de Clare so the lordship passed into the hands of her husband William Marshal. The Marshals did rather a lot of castle improvement – the keep even in a ruinous state screams wealth and status – as well as dominating the landscape around it. Quite remarkably the original castle doors are still in the castle – they date to no later than 1190 …just imagine Isabel de Clare and William Marshal passing through them with their entourages.

After all five of William Marshal’s sons inherited Chepstow in their turn the castle became the property of Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk by right of his mother Maud Marshal, the eldest of Isabel and William’s daughters. When he died in 1270 his nephew inherited the castle- easy to remember his name – it was another Roger Bigod. It was he who turned Chepstow into an even more magnificent residence. He died in 1306 without heirs and the castle returned to Crown hands – King Edward I died within the year and the property became part of King Edward II’s estates. Edward promptly gave the castle and the lordship to his half-brother Thomas of Brotherton but in 1324 Hugh Despenser got his hands on the lordship. Two years later he and Edward II paid a surprise visit when Edward fled his wife Isabella of France and her lover Roger Mortimer – Despenser and Mortimer were Marcher lords with a history. The castle was prepared for a long siege but Edward chanced his hand with a voyage to Ireland. It didn’t go well and they were forced to land back in Wales – the rest is, as they say, history.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century the castle was in the hands of the Mowbray Earls of Norfolk. During the Wars of the Roses, The Kingmaker arrived at the castle gates and the garrison promptly handed over Richard Woodville Earl Rivers and his son John – they were swiftly removed to Kennilworth Castle and executed.

As with many castles in England and Wales the seventeenth century saw Chepstow face action once more. It was a royalist garrison. In 1648 Cromwell demanded its surrender and yes, Chepstow is a castle that Cromwell knocked about although within two years Parliament paid for some repairs to be carried out so that William Marshal’s former stronghold should become a prison.

Medieval hostages

William Marshal

I’m currently working on Isabel de Clare and her family. Her husband William Marshal was famously a hostage during the Anarchy whilst a very young child and was very nearly hanged when his father John failed to comply with King Stephen’s demands – it appears that William’s touching candour and the king’s kind heart saved the little boy from an early death. Isabel’s two eldest sons became hostages of King John when he began to distrust Marshal. This possibly accounts for why William Marshal the Younger sided with the barons in the First Barons’ War rather than with the king. The Marshal’ friend and fellow Marcher baron William de Braose fell foul of the king when his wife Matilda, who sounds like a truly formidable woman, refused to hand her sons over to the men sent to collect them when de Braose failed to pay the Exchequer instalments on the debt he owed to the king for the grant of Limerick. Matilda and her son William were starved to death in Corfe Castle – to cut a long story short. And before I finish this particular paragraph one of Isabel’s Irish uncles was killed whilst he was a hostage and another was blinded – so Isabel and her husband were all too aware of the risks of giving hostages.

Oh yes and her grandfather Gilbert De Clare, Lord of Striguil also known as Gilbert Strongbow fell out with King Stephen when Stephen imprisoned Striguil’s nephew Gilbert Earl of Hertford and confiscated all of his castles when Hertford’s kinsman Ranulph Earl of Chester attacked Lincoln contrary to the agreement he made with the king and to which Hertford was surety. I should add that Striguil didn’t become grumpy with Stephen because of the unjust incarceration of his nephew or even the confiscation of the estates – he threw his toys out of the pram when the king wouldn’t give everything he’d just bagged to Striguil – no one comes out of the Anarchy particularly well behaviour-wise it would have to be said.

So – hostages-what exactly were they? A hostage, in medieval terms, was the physical embodiment of an agreement’s guarantee. A political or even a financial agreement required a demonstration of submission or good faith until a particular set of terms or conditions were met. It meant that the hostage or hostages had to have value to the person making the agreement – no point in accepting a fourth or fifth cousin it had to be a close family member. The hostage taker was also able to demonstrate his or her authority over the person required to offer a hostage or hostages as surety.  Anyone could become a hostage – the Scottish princesses Margaret and Isabella sisters of Alexander II were held as hostages from 1209 onwards to ensure that the Scots complied with the Treaty of Norham. it brings to mind the fact that international treaties were often cemented by a marriage treaty. This instance reflects the fact that hostage giving and taking was part of the arsenal available to medieval diplomats where marriage agreements weren’t an option.

King John was demonstrating his feudal overlordship of the Marshal family and therefore reminding the rest of his barons to behave themselves – in fact John was notorious for demanding both hostages and large sums of money. The hostage was often a guarantee that a fine or amercement would be paid to the Crown and an insurance policy on the king’s part that the fine wouldn’t be ignored. Having lost his Continental domains in 1204 he used it as a method of levying funds. When Maud de Braose and her son were captured having fled from Ireland to Scotland John initially incarcerated them in Bristol Castle. He came to agreement with William de Braose that he could have his family back for the staggering sum of 40,000 marks. In this instance the hostage taker was effectively ransoming his hostages – which is more akin to our modern understanding.

In fact hostages and hostage taking varied throughout the medieval period depending on the situation. For instance men captured in battle might arrange that their place was taken by hostages as surety of their intention to return with the ransoms that their captors demanded of them. One of the main difference between medieval hostages and modern hostage situations was that in medieval times hostages were given rather than taken (not that the de Braoses handed themselves over willingly but if nothing else it demonstrates the complicated nature of the whole business.)

 The situation in which hostages found themselves being kept might have been more akin to ward, foster child or guest rather than prisoner depending on the circumstances in which the arrangement was made. And of course, hostages received in good faith might find that if the hostage giver didn’t meet his/her obligations that life could become very painful, very short or possibly both. You’ll all be delighted to hear that I have no intention of running a series of posts about the demise of some of history’s more unfortunate hostages.

Kosto, Adam J., Hostages in the Middle Ages

Mercator projections – changing navigation

Gerardus Mercator

Gerardus Mercator was a sixteenth century Belgian cartographer. In 1569 he created a world map based on straight lines of contstant course known as rhumb lines. He successfully presented a three dimensional object (the world) on a two dimension piece of paper. For the mathematical minded amongst you its a line that creates an arc on a constant course – I tend to think of it as cutting the world into sections straight through the middle of the planet like so many slices of cake at a constant angle (its not a right angle) but I have the feeling that I have horribly over simplified and may have become fixated on the cake part of the equation…but you get the gist.

Essentially Mercator used the rhumb lines which were constant to draw his charts and maps. He imagined the world, or a chart, as a piece of paper which was rolled into a scroll. This enabled him to link all the lines of latitude (east west lines) that we imagine going around the world. So far so good and on a small scale it works well. But a problem arises because the world is not a cylinder – it’s a sphere. This means that the lines of longitude (the north south lines) are distorted and if you draw countries based on the straightened out lines the countries at the top of the map like Antartica and Siberia look much bigger than they really are unless you draw the segments so that the top of the world looks like a series of fingers with white paper between them – which isn’t great if you’re trying to navigate somewhere. So having ruled that option out the Mercator projection makes Greenland looks huge – bigger than Africa and that folks is just not true! But Mercator was creating charts for sailors – the oceans needed to be right for them to make navigational decisions not so they could compare the relative size of land masses. Nor does it help that the world is ‘Old World’ centric – the sailors were setting off from the known world into the New World. Basically a world map based on Mercator Projections sees its priorities through sixteenth century eyes.

Essentially, anything past 70degrees latitude isn’t quite the right shape on a map created using Mercator’s projection. Corrections were made even in the sixteenth century but we’re not going there today because that’s more than enough for my brain to cope with in one go. Suffice it to say at the time it was an excellent step forward because it made navigation by mathematical means far easier.

Robert Dudley, calling himself the Duke of Northumberland and the Earl of Warwick was the first Englishman to create an atlas of the sea using mercator’s projections. It was published in 1646-1647 in Florence. It contained more than 100 beautifully engraved maps.

Summer quiz 4 – heraldry

There are many heraldic charges and I don’t propose to work my way through a list of them at this precise moment. However, I have written about quite a few of them over the years. So, taking a Late medieval and Tudor theme before we move on to quarterings lets get started:

  1. Which Tudor queen used a personal device of a crowned falcon?
  2. Which Tudor queen’s arms featured a pomegranate?
  3. Whose coat of arms depicted a portcullis?
  4. What kind of dog was a supporter for the Tudor coat of arms.
  5. If you went to Hampton court you might find a panther – whose royal supporter was this?
  6. Whose heraldic device featured a black bull?
  7. And what about a white boar – or more correctly a silver boar as white isn’t a heraldic colour.
  8. What is depicted in the image – Richard of York used this with a falcon on his arms.

Labeling- The eldest son was permitted to carry his father’s arms after his father’s death. During the father’s life time a label was attached to the coat of arms of the son. After the father’s death the label was dropped.

differencing – younger sons were not allowed to carry their father’s coat of arms. Instead they had to make some permanent difference to it. They could change the colour, add a boarder, stick in a new charge or else combine it with their wife’s coat of arms. In time a regular system for differencing developed. The second son added a crescent, ht third a mullet, the fourth a martlets, the fifth a ring, the sixth a fleur-de-lis, the seventh a a rose and the eighth cross moline. over time the coat of arms gets more crowded as each successive generation apart from the eldest son of the eldest son was required to continue differencing….it can also be called cadencing. As you might expect the system doesn’t always work particularly neatly because it evolved.

cadencing for younger sons
A label!

Impaling – essentially if a man entitled to bear arms married a woman whose family carried arms their shared coat of arms – theirs arms could be impaled – the field would be divided in half along the vertical. The husbands arms are displayed on the dexter half and the woman’s arms are displayed on the sinister half. before marriage a woman would be denoted by her father’s arms alone.

Quartering –

A son might quarter his coat of arms – divide the shield into 4 and add his father’s coat of arms on the top left and bottom right section of the shield and his mother’s on the top right and bottom left – the arms were the arms from both sides of the family inherited by their owner. So far so good – just remember that there can be many quarterings where a family has married many heiresses. So you can have a quarterly of ten or however many coats of arms you are entitled to. See the Heraldry Society’s explanation and a rather wonderful coat of arms:

9. Identify which of these arms has a label, which is impaled and which is quartered.

10. Which one of these coats of arms belongs to Eleanor of Castile and which one belongs to Edward I’s younger son Edmund of Woodstock?

Answers to summer quiz 3

So – where to find coats of arms other than shields at tournaments- they turn up often in churches. It was a way of identifying patrons- an identity stamp to godliness, wealth and quite often ownership. I love spotting different coats of arms on medieval tiles or Victorian reproductions. They can also be found on effigies and brasses – which is always helpful.

Maud Marshal’s son – Roger III Bigod, 4th Earl of Norfolk – revolutionary grandson of William Marshal.

Dlkeller999 at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Bigod coat of arms (or, a cross gules)

The death of Ansel (Anselm) Marshal just eleven days after his brother Walter ended the Marshal line of earls of Pembroke. The division of the estates which followed was not straight forward – there were three widows with dower rights. Ansel’s widow could not claim the rights of a dowager countess of Pembroke because her husband was not licensed to enter the estates and had not paid the necessary fees but it still complicated matters. Of Isabel de Clare’s five daughters only Maud Marshal was still alive in 1245 but in total there were thirteen co-heirs of whom Roger Bigod stood to gain most. Maud was the eldest and therefore the senior of the co-hieresses. To her came one fifth of her parents’ estates. With the land came the role of marshal which was a hereditary title – a title which Maud transferred to Roger the following year. Now is not the time to discuss the profits that could be accrued from this job or what else it entailed although when Roger was sent off to campaign in Gascony it was regarded as part and parcel of a marshal’s duties.

Maud died on 28 March 1248. Roger inherited the estates. Whilst he may have been very sad about his mother’s demise he now regained her dower lands as well as her portion of the Marshal inheritance including Chepstow and the county of Carlow in Ireland as well as other scattered manors the most valuable of which was Ross and the port of New Ross. Maud had already used some of the estate to provide for her younger sons as well as giving grants to various monastic houses to secure a speedy passage through purgatory with masses said for her soul. But essentially Roger was now a very wealthy and thus very powerful man-not as powerful as the de Clare- but still the most powerful man in East Anglia as well as being related by marriage through his Marshal connections to King Henry III. Having secured his inheritance Roger doesn’t seem to have spent much time at court. It was his younger brother who was the courtier.

As well as his inheritance Roger was also trying to ensure the future of his line by getting his marriage annulled. He and his wife Isabella of Scotland, a daughter of William the Lion, had been married for about twenty years since he was thirteen years old- he spent the rest of his childhood in Scotland. But the couple still had no children. He visited Rome himself in 1249 but he remained married to Isabella as there were no grounds for an annulment. It perhaps didn’t help that he had previously complained about papal taxes.

Roger served Henry in France, did what marshals were supposed to do and that might have been the end of the matter until Robert de Ros got into King Henry III’s bad books because he was a guardian of King Alexander III of Scots who was married to henry’s daughter Margaret. In 1255 Henry received word that Margaret was complaining that de Ros and his co-guardian John Balliol were mistreating the royal couple. Henry promptly confiscated de Ros’s land and fined him and Balliol. Roger did not think that the king was being fair and he argued with the king who called Roger a traitor. Roger was unamused and said that the king was wrong. ‘If you are just’ he said, ‘how can you harm me?’

The king’s response was that essentially he could seize the earl’s corn, thresh it and sell it.

Roger retorted that the king could try but that Roger would send the threshers back to the king sans their heads.

Henry responded by calling in Roger’s feudal scuttage (shield tax). There was inevitably a disagreement about what the correct dues might be and the matter of the dower owed to Eleanor, William Marshal the Younger’s widow was also raised. Eleanor was Henry III’s sister now married to Simon de Montfort. The king ordered that the exchequer should extract every last penny that Roger was supposed to owe to both the Crown and his sister (it was true that Roger hadn’t paid up his share of Eleanor’s dower for several years).

The row was about to escalate. Roger was not alone in feeling that the king’s justice was not everything it was cracked up to be. By 1258 Roger was involved in the reform movement agitating against the various misdeeds of King Henry III’s half brothers and their influence over Henry’s heir the young Prince Edward. It was Roger who told Henry that his Lusignan favourites had to go – it helped that he was backed up by many other barons and knights. And it was Roger who told the king that he and Edward should in future swear to follow the advice of their barons. The king’s decisions were going to be perused by twenty-four ‘prudent’ men according to the Tewkesbury Chronicle. He wasn’t the most important baron present at the gathering which brow-beat the king but he was the king’s marshal and it was the culmination of the Marshal family’s various opposition to some of King Henry III’s policies.

Oh yes – he died in 1270 without heirs and was succeeded by his nephew – another Roger who was just as stroppy as his uncle. It was this Roger- the 5th Duke of Norfolk- who refused to go to Gascony on King Edward I’s orders arguing that feudal tenure meant he only had to serve overseas in the company of the king rather than on the king’s orders. Edward threatened to have Roger hanged and Roger responded – ‘I will neither go nor hang.’

Marc Morris – The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the Thirteenth Century (which is incidentally a fascinating read)

Summer quiz 3 – more heraldry

Original: Eixo Derivative work: Silsor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Charges are the objects, birds or animals that are added to the field of the shield to identify its owner. The field can also be divided and coloured with different tinctures (colours).

Party is not an invitation to a shindig – it simply means parted or divided. A shield can be divided per fess – halving the shield across with a horizontal stripe or per pale which means halving the shield down the middle. The per is important as it makes it clear in the description that its the way the shield is divided and coloured where as a fess is a horizontal charge on the field and a pale is a vertical charge on the shield. Look for the per to see if its describing the tinctures of the field. The shield can also be divider per saltire which is a snazzy two tone colouring based on a saltire cross or even just per cross. And if you want to get really carried away then there is per bend – which is a diagonal division. Per chevron is nice and straight forward as the inverted ‘v’ shape should be becoming familiar and then there’s per pall. A pall can also be a charge.

And just to make life that little bit more exciting bends can be per bend sinister (top right to bottom left) or per bend dexter (top left to bottom right). Sinister is left and dexter is right. Another thing the Romans did for us.

With the passage of time those nice neat straight lines were adapted to be pointy or wavy further complicating the names that anyone interested in heraldry has to learn but extending the range of fields available for use.

Can you identify the following signatories of the Magna Carta from some of the elements of their coat of arms. One of them should be very familiar to readers of the histroyjar:

  1. Geoffrey de Say – per cross or and gules.

2. William de Mowbray – lion rampant argent

3. William Marshal – per pale or and vert

4. Robert de Ros – three water bougets argent ( a pair of water bags on a yoke)

5. Robert de Vere – mullet argent.

Heraldic summer quiz 2 – answers

In an attempt to be organised the answers for last week’s quiz are below. I hope that the captions are clear to read.

  1. Starting with some charges based on shape -bezant = circle or disc, mullet = star, lozenge = diamond and annulet= ‘little ring’

2) Lion charges

3) County coats of arms – in some cases with some rather wonderful crests.

Lord of Little Dunmow – from the de Clare family to Maid Marion in five steps

And lets not forget the journey involves one king with more than twenty illegitimate children who appears to have had a bad reaction to a dish of lampreys and the king ‘who was not a good man and had his little ways’…no prizes for knowing which two monarchs before reading on.

Oldsoldier38, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Robert de Clare, the fifth son of Richard of Tonbridge and Rohese Giffard, was granted the lordship of Little Dunmow by King Henry I. So far so good! He was often at court during the later years of King Henry I’s reign but died a year before the king in 1134. He was married Matilda de Senlis a daughter of the Earl of Huntingdon who granted five acres of land to the priory at Little Dunmow after her husband’s death so that they could pray for his soul. Their son Walter gave a further ten acres of land for prayers to be said for his cousin Earl Roger de Clare (2nd Earl of Hertford).

Little Dunmow was previously a Baynard honour and had been confiscated by the crown. Geoffrey Baynard inherited eight manors from his mother but he became embroiled in a plot against King Henry I in 1111 along with Robert Malet, Lord of Eye – and lost some or all of them (more research needed there). Robert de Clare benefited from Henry’s policy of elevating younger sons to increase the debt of loyalty owed to him. The gift also had the effect, according to Hollister, of binding the whole de Clare family to him (Hollister pp.339-340)

As might be expected Walter FitzRobert was married for political and financial advantage. A wedding to Maud de Lucy bought the Lordship of Diss in Norfolk under his control. She bore him a son Robert – Robert FitzWalter was one of the key figures in the Baron’s War. According to the story John, not yet king, lusted after FitzWalter’s daughter Marian but when she spurned his advances he had her poisoned with an egg – I’ve posted about her and her father before. In due course Marian who was actually married

Walter de Clare whose family links to the de Clares would be remembered in the coming generations largely through the chevrons of the FitzWalter coat of arms had the common good sense not to become enmeshed in the Anarchy between the Empress Matilda and King Stephen even though he was one of King Stephen’s stewards. The direct line of the FitzWalters died out during the fifteenth century.

FitzWalter arms – Or a fess between two chevrons gule

Dr Paul Fox’s wonderful book on the heraldry in the Great Cloister of Canterbury Cathedral shows the FitzWalter arms in the cloister as ‘Or a fess between two chevrons gules’. He adds that the de Clares were the first family to have adopted heraldry in the British Isles (think its page 155). And a fesse is a charge – a band which runs across the middle of the shield whilst the chevrons are an inverted “v” shape for want of a better description.

Fox, Paul A., Great Cloister A Lost Canterbury Tale, (Archaeopress, 2020)

Hartley, Alfred, ‘The Priory Church of Little Dunmow’, The Essex Review: An Illustrated Quarterly Record of Everything of Permanent Interest in the County. (E. Durant and Company, 1895) pp.167-180

Hollister, Charles Warren, Henry I,  (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2001)