Chester and the civil war – besieged.

John1stLordByron.jpgEven before the Civil war started various key ports and fortifications were being snaffled either by Parliament or the Crown.  Some, like Bristol and Lichfield, changed hands more than once inflicting severe damage on the local populations.

Chester sitting as it does on the River Dee was one of those strategic locations.  It gave access to Wales, to Ireland and to the North. It was also Royalist in sympathy.  Before the war it was a very fine town indeed.  After the civil war, the siege and the plague which struck in 1647 it looked very much worse for wear.

william_brereton_original.jpgBy the end of 1643 Sir William Brereton (pictured right) who had been one of the MPs for Cheshire and been elected in 1640 to the Long Parliament had secured most of the surrounding countryside for Parliament.  The Royalists extended Chester’s defences to include new earthworks recognising that their time would come.  In 1644 those defences were improved by Prince Rupert – who seems to have got everywhere.

Rupert, had been named President of Wales in February 1644 but very swiftly irritated the local military commanders – mainly because he replaced them with experienced English commanders.  The Welsh, unsurprisingly, were also becoming a bit fed up with the war.  Rupert, having rocked the metaphorical boat left the region with rather a lot of its soldiery to lift the siege at York.

Parliament took the opportunity to gain an advantage over the depleted Royalist troops and took Oswestry which had, until then, been in Royalist hands.  As the year went on things became even worse for the Royalists.  A shipment of gunpowder on its way to Chester from Bristol was captured.  The gunpowder was then used against the Royalists at Newton.  This in turn led to the loss of Montgomery Castle.  On the 18th of September the two forces met in open battle.  The Battle of Montgomery is the largest battle to have taken place on Welsh soil during the English Civil War. The Royalists lost.

As a result of this loss Lord John Byron, the Royalist military commander (pictured at the start of this post) could not put an army in the field and so Chester was effectively besieged.  The Wheel of Fortune had turned in less than a year – from besieging Nantwich at the start of the year Byron now found himself besieged. By the summer of 1645 Brereton had control of most of Cheshire but the royalists still controlled the crossing point of the River Dee which enabled forces and supplies to get into and out of the town via North Wales which was Royalist.

Basically the siege was somewhat protracted by the fact that both sides kept nipping off to have a fight somewhere else.  For example Prince Maurice, Rupert’s little brother, arrived in February 1645 but then left again taking a large number of Byron’s Irish troops with him.

With depleted numbers it was only a matter of time before the Parliamentarians drew closer to the town. There was also the bombardment.  Byron wrote that Brereton had sent a barrage of 400 canon balls into Chester – which is pretty impressive. The original aim of the Parliamentary command had been to break the walls so that the town could be taken by storm.  This proved ineffective and a tactic of bombardment was employed. There was widespread damage to property, injury and terror.  On the 22nd September 1645 there was a partial breach of the wall but Byron received word that King Charles was coming with 4,000 cavalry.

On the 23 September Charles marched out of Wales and crossed the Dee into Chester – he had approximately 600 men.   The rest of them were with  Sir Marmaduke Langdale who crossed the Dee south of Chester with the intention of outflanking the Parliamentarians -making them the filling between his force and Byron’s.

Unfortunately the Northern Association Army were in the vicinity and upon receiving news of what the Royalists were up to had made a forced night march to intercept Langdale.  The two armies spent the morning of the 24th September in a staring match before repositioning themselves at Rowton Heath.  The king and his commanders inside Chester could do little but watch from the walls as the royalist cavalry was broken.

On the evening of the 25th September Charles recrossed the Dee with the tattered remnants of his relieving force.  Byron refused to surrender.  The Parliamentarian noose grew tighter  around Chester and the bombardment became ever more intense.  This didn’t stop Byron from trying to attack his besiegers on occasion.

When Chester did surrender it had more to do with starvation that the number of rounds of artillery fired at it. The mills and water supplies had been badly damaged by the bombardment.  Lack of ammunition meant that the Royalists lost control of the crossing point and supplies could not enter the town.

Brereton shot propaganda leaflets across the walls to persuade the defenders to surrender but from October onwards there were no further attempts to breach the walls.  Approximately 6000 people behind Chester’s walls were starving and diving of disease.  It was just a question of waiting. By December 1645 the town’s defenders began to desert.

Chester’s mayor persuaded Byron to surrender in January 1646.  The able bodied were allowed to leave whilst the sick and the starving were to be permitted an opportunity to recover.  Brereton took possession of Chester on 3rd February 1646.

A quarter of Chester had been burned. What their artillery hadn’t destroyed the Parliamentarian soldiers now smashed.

 

The De Clare family – royal relations.

clare1So who are the de Clare family from yesterday’s post who seemed to be loitering in the New Forest when William Rufus met his end? Complicated – that’s what rather than who. Richard son of Gilbert arrived with the Conquest.  Gilbert was a son of the Count of Brionne.  Gilbert was actually one of Duke William’s guardians during his childhood and was killed in a bid to control William.  Richard fled Normandy along with his brother only returning when Duke William was able to control the duchy. He was also one of Duke William’s extended family (Gilbert’s father was one of Duke Richard of Normandy’s illegitimate sons).

 

Richard Fitz Gilbert was with the Conqueror in 1066 and did rather nicely from the whole affair, acquiring more than 170 holdings including Tonbridge in Kent and Clare in Suffolk.  The Domesday Book identifies him as a very wealthy man indeed.  Not only rich but trusted by William who left him in England with the justicar role while he returned to Normandy in 1073. It was in this capacity that Richard helped to suppress the so-called Earls Rebellion in 1075.

 

Whilst more of Tonbridge Castle stands today than the castle at Clare in Suffolk, it was at Clare that the family chose to make their administrative seat- hence the de Clare element of the name.  All that remains today of the castle is the motte – the mound of earth on which the wooden keep once stood.  It must have been an impressive sight given that the motte is over 60ft tall today and can be something of a surprise to a casual visitor to the town.  In the thirteenth century the wooden keep was replaced with a stone  shell keep structure.

 

Rather interestingly, after William  the Conqueror died Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare (to give him his full name) was one of the Norman lords who rebelled against William Rufus in favour of Rufus’s older brother Robert Curthose.  He died in 1090 having retired to the priory at St Neot’s in 1088. He and his wife had re-founded the priory in the years after the Conquest and it should be noted that the de Clares were important monastic patrons wherever they held land.

Despite his retirement from worldly affairs Richard de Clare left a tribe of powerful sons.  There were at least six of them as well as two daughters, not to mention a wife, Rohese Gifford, who owned land in her own right.  The de Clare family were well placed for power – they were related to the ruling house and were extremely wealthy. They were marriageable and therefore families sought alliances with the de Clares – which meant it wasn’t long before they were related to most of the other powerful Anglo-Norman families in the country adding to their political power.

Roger, the eldest son, inherited the Norman de Clare land. Gilbert who was the second of the de Clare sons inherited the English estates.  In 1088 Gilbert and his brother Roger rebelled against William Rufus at Tonbridge.  William promptly turned the motte and bailey castle into rubble – let’s not forget it was a wooden structure at the time. Gilbert and Roger were captured.   Interestingly the family despite having rebelled against the king; being suspected of being involved with Bishop Odo’s conspiracies in 1083; and were undoubtedly part of Robert de Mowbray’s conspiracies against William Rufus, kept hold of their lands.

Gilbert turns up in William Rufus’s army fighting the Scots.  The de Clare brothers appear at William’s side as part of the hunting party in August 1100 when he was killed.  Had it been an ordinary hunting party it would have been evidence that the de Clares were reconciled with William but since William suffered his rather nasty accident it is almost inevitable that historians point out the earlier hostility as circumstantial evidence of a conspiracy.   In 1101 Gilbert was at court with Henry I.  It could all be perfectly innocent but  there are rather a lot of coincidences – sadly all without the necessary documentary evidence to suggest conspiracy.

 

Gilbert remained hugely wealthy and influential.  He founded Cardigan Priory having been given the area around Cardigan by Henry I (no thought was given to what the local population might think- essential you have the land providing you can keep hold of it!).  Gilbert did secure Cardigan and Aberystwyth.  It is almost impossible to write about Welsh Castles without mentioning the de Clare family.

 

Brother Robert, another of the hunting party was the Baron of Little Dunmow and steward to Henry I. Walter de Clare would found Tintern Abbey.  He was a marcher lord in South Wales having been granted land by Henry I near Chepstow.

Between the brothers there were many children ensuring that de Clares married into important families, acquired land and a name for themselves but that’s an entirely different story which should include Richard de Clare, the Earl of Pembroke better known to History as “Strongbow.”  His daughter married William Marshal.  The two families would intermarry thereafter.  The Earls of Gloucester were de Clares and stood surety for the Magna Carta. Eventually the de Clares would marry back into the royal family with the 7thEarl of Gloucester – another Gilbert de Clare- marrying Joan of Acre, the daughter of Edward I ensuring that the family were knee deep in the Scottish Wars of Independence and Edward II’s familial difficulties over the Despensers.  This must have caused some head scratching as Hugh Despenser the Younger’s wife, Eleanor, was another member of the de Clare family.

Eleanor was the 8thearl’s sister.  She and her two other sisters became co-heiresses after the 8thearl died at Bannockburn. She was sent to the Tower when Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer deposed Edward II.  Three of her daughters were forced to become nuns at that time.  Eleanor’s story is a complicated and cruel one  – she escaped only by signing over most of her de Clare inheritance to the Crown.  It was only when Edward III took control of his throne that Eleanor was able to regain her lands (she’s going to get a longer post another day.)

 

Whilst we’re at it let’s not forget Walter Tyrel the man who is supposed to have shot William Rufus – he was Richard de Clare’s son-in-law. All of which brings us back to the starting point – was William Rufus’s death an accident? Yes – it still might have been but when you start to look at the de Clare family and their previous relationship with William you do have to wonder.

And before I forget Gilbert Fitz Richard’s son was also called Gilbert.  His wife was Isabel de Beaumont.  The Beaumont family had also fought at the Battle of Hastings but more important to this post is the co-incidence that Isabel was a mistress of Henry I – what a tangled web.

 

Christmas comes but once a year…

 

 abergavennyChristmas 1175, Abergavenny Castle. The Anglo-Norman in charge, one William de Braose (there were many of them all very inventively called William), invited Seisyllt ap Dyfnwall from nearby Castell Arnallt around for a Christmas meal. Seisyllt, his son Geoffrey and the chieftains of Powys accepted the invitation. The intention, so William said in his politely worded invite, was to spend Christmas in each other’s company- to bury the hatchet. They would feast and celebrate and make a lasting reconciliation following the death of Henry Fitzmiles- an event incidentally that had ensured vast tracts of lands were now in de Braose’s ownership.

 

And what could be nicer at Christmas than peace and reconciliation? The Welsh left their weapons at the door and settled down for an evening of serious eating and drinking.

 

They didn’t notice when someone quietly shut and barred the entrance to the great hall. De Braose’s men were intent on burying the hatchet…firmly in the backs of their Welsh guests. They finished the evening by cutting down all the Welsh in the hall. De Braose even murdered Seisyllt’s seven-year-old son.

 

The fact is that Henry Fitzmiles was William’s uncle. His death at the hands of the Welsh triggered the massacre, another round in an on-going blood feud. What made the massacre at Abbergavenny different was that de Braose broke the unwritten laws of hospitality. Camden, writing in the sixteenth century described the act as one of “infamy and treachery.”

Joan, Lady of Wales

siwanJoan was the natural daughter of King John. She is known as Joanna, Joan of Wales, Lady of Wales or Siwan to the Welsh.

She was born in about 1191 but history isn’t entirely sure who her mother was. It may have been Clemence Pinel but this information is gleaned from a sentence in the Tewkesbury Annals. Or it may have been Clemence wife of Nicholas de Verdun. This later is circumstantial evidence based on Henry III placing his niece in Clemence de Verdun’s care (http://plantagenesta.livejournal.com/53309.html)

We do know that Joan was brought up in Normandy and that in 1205 John arranged her marriage to Llywelyn the Great. This according to Morris was a mark of John’s favour to the Welsh prince. The pair were married the following year in Chester when Joan was fifteen. Joan bore at least one son and one daughter to Llywelyn – maybe more.

The marriage was certainly important for the peace of Wales. In 1210 there was a bit of a misunderstanding with Llywelyn having a bit of a rebellion whilst his father-in-law was in Ireland. The result was that John collected men and resources and proceeded to invade North Wales where his men promptly began to starve. John had to withdraw- presumably covered in embarrassment. He returned later in the year – and burned Bangor.

Joan was sent to have a chat with her father. Everything East of Conwy was handed over to John along with thirty hostages but Llywelyn remained at liberty and in possession of Snowdonia.

Inevitably the peace was short-lived which wasn’t terribly good news if you happened to be one of the thirty hostages. By 1212 open warfare was raging along the Welsh border. Chroniclers make it clear that John arrived in Nottingham on the 14 August where he made himself at home by having twenty-eight of the Welsh hostages hanged on account of the failings of their countrymen. Then he sat down for a meal – as you do.

If coffee had been available it would have been at about the coffee and mint stage of the meal that a letter arrived from Joan warning her father that there were traitors in the midst of his court and that his life was in danger if he went ahead with his planned invasion of Wales. In the event of a battle he would have a nasty ‘accident’. This was the second note of the evening. The first one had arrived shortly before from the King of Scotland containing a similar message.

Rumour ran a-mock. The chroniclers of the time became carried away by every bit of gossip available from the rape of the queen to invasion by the French. Sticking to facts- John cancelled his invasion of Wales; ensured the safety of four-year-old Prince Henry; sent all his barons home and then sent politely worded notes to the men he suspected demanding hostages flushing out two conspirators in the process.

In April 1226 Joan obtained a papal decree from Pope Honorius III, declaring her legitimate on the basis that her parents had not been married to others at the time of her birth. This did not give her a claim to the throne.

Unfortunately this respectability, which came in part from her impact in keeping the peace between Wales and England, came to rather an abrupt end in 1230. Joan was caught alone in her bedroom with William de Braose, 10th Baron of Abergevenny, a Norman lord.  Bad enough to be found in a compromising position but De Braose was hated by the Welsh, who called him Black William.

De Braose had been captured by the Welsh in 1228 and then ransomed. Llywelyn and de Braose had used the time to arrange the marriage of de Braose’s daughter Isabella to Llywelyn’s only legitimate son and heir, Dafydd. So when William visited during Easter 1230 there were no raised eyebrows. However, when William turned up in Joan’s bedroom in the dead of night – more than eyebrows were raised. Llywelyn raised a gibbet in his backyard and strung de Braose up. It didn’t stop the pre-arranged wedding going ahead in 1231 – you couldn’t make it up.

Joan was locked up for twelve months but was forgiven and reinstated. She died seven years after her unfortunate interlude with de Braose and was much mourned by Llywelyn who died in 1240 having founded a Friary in Llanfaes in Joan’s memory.

The friary was dissolved along with all the other monastic foundations in England and Wales by Henry VIII and Joan’s burial place was lost – her stone coffin was rediscovered being used as a horse trough. Today it can be seen in Beaumaris Church.

Joan appears largely in footnotes of books pertaining to the men in her life and no doubt had she not been married to Llywelyn we would know even less about her.  As is often the way when the truth is not known fiction is given freer reign.  Sharon Kay Penman’s book Here Be Dragons develops Joan’s story and that’s where I first encountered her.

joan03

Morris, Marc. (2015) King John- Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta. London: Penguin

Warren, W.L. (1978) King John. London: Methuen

Dafydd ap Gruffydd

EdwardDafydd was the grandson of Llywelyn the Great.  He was also the first nobleman in Britain to be executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered for treason.

The story is a complicated one and begins with Llywelyn the Great.  Llywelyn married Joan, the natural daughter of King John.  They had one son who inherited his father’s kingdom.  He died without heirs so the kingdom was inherited by the heirs of Llywelyn’s other son Gruffydd who had been excluded from a share in the power because of his illegitimacy.  This had followed the English way of excluding all but the legitimate heirs.  Now though Gruffydd’s four sons all had an opportunity to make a bid for power.

In 1256 Llywelyn ap Gruffydd managed to wrest power from his brothers.  The early years of his reign were helped by the fact of the Baron’s War in England and the role of Simon de Montfort.  Dafydd formed an alliance with King Henry in 1263 and continued to fight against his brother alongside Edward I from 1274.

The alliance with King Edward served Dafydd well.  He married Lady Elizabeth Ferrers, the daughter of the Earl of Derby and widow of William Marshall (2nd Baron Marshall).  He gained land and prestige in England.  But then Dafydd thought better of his links with the English and returned to fight alongside his brother.  He attacked Hawarden Castle during Easter 1282.  Edward was unamused.

That same year Llywelyn was killed and Dafydd became the next Prince of Wales.  It probably wasn’t a very comfortable position as Edward was hot on Dafydd’s heels.  In fact he was captured once but managed to escape into the Snowdonian Mountains.  Finally he was cornered along with his younger brother Owain.  Also imprisoned were Dafydd’s wife, their seven daughters, two sons and one niece.

The Lanercost Chronicle takes up the story:

The King sent him forward to the Tower of London with wife and children….David’s children were condemned to perpetual imprisonment, but David himself was first drawn as a traitor, then hanged as a thief; thirdly, he was beheaded alive, and his entrails burnt as an incendiary and a homicide; fourthly his limbs were cut into four parts as the penalty of a rebel.

 

This all took place in Shrewsbury.  As for his wife and children.  Their fates are not completely known.  His wife is thought to be buried in the church at Caerwys.  One daughter, Gwladys, a child, was sent to the Gilbertine convent in Sixhills Lincolnshire where she spent the rest of her life along with her cousin.  Her brothers Llywelyn and Dafydd were imprisoned for the rest of their lives.  Llywelyn died in suspicious circumstances in 1287 in Bristol Castle.