Friday, 24 July 2009
Choose your friends carefully Part 2
After realising who his real friends were, i.e. those who held power, Gilbert de Clare achieved great things. In 1290 and in his forties, he married a twelve year old girl. She was Joan of Acre and the daughter of Edward I. Unfortunately Gilbert died five years later leaving behind a four year old son also called…Gilbert de Clare, along with an unresolved war with Morgan ap Meredydd of Machen and a devastated Newport.
Worse, the boy’s mother went on to scandalise both king and court.
Having delivered four children, and still an attractive teenager, Joan of Acre fell in love with a squire and secretly married him. Things turned out reasonably well. In 1307 both Joan and her father, the king of England died, and Gilbert de Clare junior, now sixteen years old, inherited the earldom of Gloucester and the Newport estates.
Gilbert de Clare junior was also rubbish in choosing his friends but unlike his father he was never given the chance to learn from his mistakes. The new king of England, Edward II, was Gilbert’s uncle but was only a few years older than Gilbert and the two men had grown up as boys together in the Royal Household. They became close friends and as Gilbert developed into a brave and daring warrior it is not surprising that the king found him useful.
The problem was, the new king was basically stupid. Just before the battle of Bannockburn Gilbert told the king that his men needed rest. The Scots were comfortable and well dug in. The English however were desperately tired from days of heavy marching. The king would have none of it. He accused his old friend of cowardice, and the furious Gilbert led his men into a suicidal charge that ended in his death. Probably the two men were as stupid as each other.
It took three years for the king to work out what to do with the Gloucester estates. They were divided out between Gilbert’s three sisters. Eleanor, who was married to the king’s favourite, Hugh Despenser, was given Glamorgan. Margaret, married to Hugh de Audley received Lower Gwent together with Newport, whilst Elizabeth and her husband Roger Damory gained the Lordship of Usk.
The king may have been stupid but Hugh Despenser was consumed by greed and used his power over a sexually ambiguous king. As friends go he was the most dangerous of all, persuading Edward to take the Newport lands from his brother-in-law and give them to him. Then he started ‘stealing’ other baronial estates so causing a major rebellion.
Hugh Despenser, who looks kind of sweet rather than powerful or sexy; but note how he's filched the de Clare coat of arms bottom right corner.
A huge force of over 11,000 men attacked Newport on the 4th of May 1321. They took the castle in 4 days causing immense damage in the area. The repair bill for the damaged castle was £600, a considerable sum in 1326. The corn crop was again destroyed, and the fact that 300 oak trees from Caerleon forest were needed for local repairs suggests that Newport bridge had also to be repaired.
Under pressure, the king banished Hugh Despenser but the following year, the love-sick king reinstated him, defeating the rebellious Barons in North Yorkshire at the battle of Boroughbridge.
Roger Damory, lord of Usk was sentenced to death but was spared because he was married to the King's niece. Another leading rebel, Roger Mortimer, was imprisoned whilst the king decided what to do with him. Such a mistake.
Isabella coming back from France
Roger Mortimer was the queen’s lover. (If Braveheart is to be believed, William Wallace preceded him.) Isabella, passionate, strong, and known as the ‘She-Wolf of France’ with good reason, loathed her husband along with the men he preferred to her. Escaping from prison Roger joined Isabella in France, along with her son, the future Edward III. Returning to England with 700 men they sparked off an even more serious rebellion. The king, along with the Despenser family fled west into Wales.
Hugh Despenser’s 90 year old father was ordered to defend his castle in Bristol but his soldiers rebelled against him. They handed him over to the rebels and the aged man was executed, whilst standing in full armour.
Knowing the game was up, Hugh Despenser and the king crossed the river Wye in an attempt to reach Chepstow where they hoped to sail for Ireland or France. Unfortunately strong winds blew them back and they landed at Neath where they were captured. Despenser was hung drawn and quartered on a fifty foot high gibbet – one of the highest ever built for an execution.
There's a wonderfully quiet quality to this picture, almost as though a small crowd is gathering to watch a wall painting rather than a man being disembowelled.
Edward suffered a more painful but less public fate. In Berkeley Castle he was pushed face down on to a table and his breeches ripped off. A hollowed bone was rammed up his back-side followed by a red hot poker. The guide at Berkeley recounts how his screams could be heard from over five miles away, which I believe because she looks old enough to have witnessed it.
Edward learnt the painful way the necessity of choosing your friends carefully, but I’m sure the ghost of Gilbert de Clare laughed merrily that night.