Monthly Archives: November 2013

Chaucer and the de la Poles.

chaucer3This is one of those surprising connection posts.  It also reflects the way in which society changed as a consequence of the Black Death and the decline of feudalism.  The descendent of an inn keeper became a Duke of Suffolk and was embroiled in the bloody aftermath of the Wars of the Roses.

The Chaucer family were upwardly mobile, of that there’s no doubt.  Geoffrey’s great-grandfather was a inn  in Ipswich, his grandfather was a shoemaker – not a humble cobbler- think wholesale shoe sales with entrepreneurial tendencies; he was also a vintner.  In addition, he had the good sense to marry a pepperer’s widow called Mary Heron which added a further very lucrative string to his bow.

Their son, Geoffrey’s father, John Chaucer was an established merchant and freeman of the City of London.  He was sufficiently wealthy for his aunt to attempt to kidnap him in order to marry his cousin when he arrived at a marriageable age.  The plot was foiled but it demonstrates how much the Chaucer family circumstances had changed in four generations.

As the Chaucers climbed the social rungs they became soldiers and served in royal households.  Geoffrey Chaucer was talented not only as a poet but also as a diplomat.  It helped that he was married to the sister of John of Gaunt’s mistress – Katherine Swynford – which is in itself a fairly unexpected connection but one of history’s more well-known links.

However it is in Geoffrey’s descendants that the really unexpected connection begins to take shape.  Geoffrey’s son Thomas- there are some suggestions that Thomas was in fact John of Gaunt’s son but there is no evidence to confirm this- had a daughter called Alice who married three times.  Her final husband was William de la Pole – who became the Duke of Suffolk.  They had one son – John who married Edward IV’s sister Elizabeth which turned the de la Poles into Plantagenets which was an excellent step up the social ladder in the world before the Wars of the Roses but was not so useful in the Tudor world.

Alice’s grandson John took part in the ill-fated  uprising against Henry VII  with Lambert Simnel.  He was killed.  His younger brother Edmund took on the family title but fled to Europe where he found protection at the court of the Hapsburgs. Unfortunately Philip the Handsome was shipwrecked on the English coast and Henry VII was able to have the troublesome Plantagenet returned to his care and a comfy room in the Tower of London.  In 1513 Henry VIII had Edmund executed.  The third de la Pole brother was called Richard who became a soldier of fortune and was killed at the Battle of Pavia – an event which Henry VIII celebrated.

But who would have thought that any of the three were related to Geoffrey Chaucer?



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Sir Ralph Eure, a murder and a castle.

DSCN6689What more could anyone want – a knight, a murky sort of murder and a Yorkshire castle – Scarborough Castle to be precise.

Sir Ralph Eure or Evers came from an old Yorkshire family that had originally arrived with William the Conqueror.  His ancestors had been Sheriffs of Yorkshire as well as wardens of the marches. One of them died at the Battle of Towton.  Our Sir Ralph’s moment of history came during the reign of Henry VIII.  He had temporary charge of Scarborough Castle at the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace. As a result of his loyalty to the king he was made constable of the castle for life.  When the castle was besieged in 1536 he kept the gates firmly shut despite the fact that the king had failed to send him supplies for fear that they should fall into rebel hands.   Though this appointment was not without a whiff of scandal as Sir Ralph was accused very early in his tenancy of taking the lead off the towers and turrets for his own profit: some of the lead was exchanged for French wine. Despite his inability to read and write Sir Ralph overcame the accusations that he faced and was able to  pursue a claim to Sir Francis Bigod’s lands.


Sir Francis had been involved in the second part of the Pilgrimage of Grace which occurred against Robert Aske’s advice in January 1537 and which gave Henry the excuse he needed to execute all the leaders of the pilgrimage including Robert Aske.  Sir Francis paid with his life and Sir Ralph benefitted in April 1538 when was he appointed chief steward of Sir Francis Bigod’s lands in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.  All straight forward so far.  Sir Ralph was on the winning side while Sir Francis gambled and lost.


Except, of course, there was more than the Pilgrimage of Grace between Sir Francis and Sir Ralph.  The year before the uprising a man named Davy Seignory was murdered by a group of 10 men from Settrington took place in Malton. Seignory was Eure’s servant.  The murderers rode to Scotland where they were safe but returned to England sometime later.  However, they remained outside the reach of the law because they stayed in the Bishopric of Durham – at this time the whole county was effectively a sanctuary.  Cromwell, apparently, tried to persuade Bigod that although the king could do nothing about this unfortunate situation that Bigod could and indeed should take matters into his own hands.  Bigod said that sanctuary was more important than the murder and that was that…well apart from the fact that one of the murderers was related to Thomas Cromwell and also the fact that Bigod was in debt at a time  and was in effect Cromwell’s man.  Let’s just say that the paperwork necessary to bring the murderers before the court in York was incorrectly completed.

Strangest of all, Sir Francis Bigod had written a treatise recommending the reform of the monastic system – he was a Protestant, a reformer and Cromwell’s man.  Yet somehow he ended up taking the side of the Pilgrims.  A  fact which enabled Sir Ralph to exact revenge, it would appear, for Sir Francis’s part the shadowy events surrounding his servant’s death.  A national event but also a question of neighbours vying for power and perhaps – and this is entirely supposition- a matter of personal dislike.  Sir Francis’s version of events and his letters can still be read in the National Archives while Sir Ralph did not have the skills to save his thoughts for posterity.

Sir Ralph’s lack of literacy didn’t stop him from becoming  in 1542,  on the Duke of Suffolk’s appointment, keeper of Redesdale and Tynedale.  He took part in many raids and was part of the Earl of Hertford’s ‘Rough Wooing’ in 1544.   His actions during this campaign won him the hatred of the Scots.  In addition to the usual pillaging of the border he managed to distinguish himself by burning Brumehous Tower- not unusual – but on this occasion the lady and her children were still inside.

Eure, a commander of the army, died at the battle of Ancrum Moor on 27 Feb. 1545, where the Earl of Angus ‘revenged the defacing of the limbs of his ancestors at Melrose upon Ralph Evers.’  The Earl of Arran is said to have wept when shown the body and said, according to Henry VIII’s state papers:

“God have mercy on him, for he was a fell cruel man and over cruel, which many a man and fatherless bairn might rue, and wellaway that ever such slaughter and bloodshedding should be amongst Christian men.”

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Filed under Anglo-Scottish history, Border Reivers, Castles, Sixteenth Century

Fortified Churches in Cumbria

DSC_0065There are officially three fortified churches in Cumbria.  Two of them lie on the Solway Firth and the third, the first picture in this post, lies in the Eden Valley at Great Salkeld a few miles north of Penrith.

St Cuthbert’s Church in Great Salkeld was a brief resting place for the body of St Cuthbert when the monks spent seven years wandering through the north in fear of the Danes.  These days it is more noticeable for its tower.  The thick walls, narrow doorway and staircase as well as the ironbound door indicate that it was a place of safe haven from marauding Scots.

At Newton Arlosh they say that the door is so narrow that the bride and groom have to decide who is leaving the church first.  The spouse who sees daylight first will be the one in charge of the partnership so the locals say…I couldn’t possibly comment.

The third church is at Burgh-By-Sands and it is probably the oldest of the fortified towers which is not surprising given that it lays so very close to Scotland.  Its stones once formed part of the Roman fort of Aballava; a Celtic carved head reminds visitors that people have lived here for thousands of years.  The church lay in the domain of one of the knights who killed Thomas Becket and in 1307 Edward I was laid here in state after dying on his way to war with the Scots.  The tower caused the Bishop of Carlisle some distress because when the villagers built it they managed to undermine the foundations of the church.  One thing is for sure the builders meant business.  The tower is heavily buttressed and several feet thick as well as the narrow entrance, the iron yet is still in place with its three great bolts and there is a huge slot in the masonry for a bar to be slid into place.  There are narrow windows through which arrows could be fired and there is evidence of archers having sharpened the tips of the arrows on the walls of the tower.  When gunpowder became more readily available someone cut a gun loop in the lower room and a height that would leave attackers facing kneecapping at best.  The tower is vaulted and there is a narrow spiral staircase just the same as in Great Salkeld.DSC_0128

Of course there are a number of other churches in the area where villages- and certainly the priest- sought sanctuary in time of trouble.  The tower on the church at Edenhall (another St Cuthbert’s and another resting location for the saint’s mortal remains) has a funny little tower that includes a ‘mini’ steeple.  It was built in the fourteenth century and was probably used in much the same way as the three fortified churches already described but unlike the towers at Newton Arlosh, Burgh by Sands and Great Salkeld the tower in Edenhall lacks the narrow doorway and the iron bound door.

Other strategies were devised elsewhere. In Corbridge the vicar came up with an alternative means of self-preservation.  There is a peel tower in the churchyard where the vicar could flee in the event of trouble and the wall around the churchyard is fairly stout too.  At Kirkby Stephen the church tower is a handy vantage point that enabled two Westmorland’s Pilgrimage of Grace ringleaders to evade capture by Henry VIII’s men and is also part of a more general defense strategy whereby the streets narrow so that the townsfolk could defend their property more easily against border reivers.

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Filed under Anglo-Scottish history, Fourteenth Century, Kings of England