Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Knight with two swords...and should we just leave him alone?

Earlier this month a team of hobby archeologists - or archeological hobbyists - unearthed an amazing find in a field in Janakkala in Southern Finland. They were using metal-detector equipment on a site thought to contain prehistoric remains. After turning up a few minor bits and bobs, the detector located a piece of a spear and an axe blade. The group started digging and found the remnant of a sword.

Leave me alone, you ghoulish bastards

At this point they broke off work and contacted The National Board of Antiquities. A 'proper' dig was conducted, and a grave uncovered containing the remarkably well-preserved cadaver of a Crusader knight dating back almost a thousand years to the time of the First or Second Crusade. Most unusually, Sir Anonymous had been buried with two swords. One was a 12th century longsword, of the sort you might expect a knight to carry, the other a Viking-era blade. The knight himself was a fine figure of a man, 180cm tall, and clearly well-prepared to tackle anything the afterlife could throw at him: besides the two swords, he was also buried with an array of tools, including a spear and axe. Perhaps he died with a guilty conscience?

The excitement over this find reminded me of a moral issue I occasionally have problems with. Is it right for us to grub up the remains of the dead from their last resting place, so we can pick over their bones and attempt to recreate their physical appearance using complex facial reconstruction techniques etc? Archeologists have always sought to locate and uncover the dead - it's their job - but this is threatening to become a trend, especially in England, where the rediscovery of Richard III's bones has led to calls for other dead monarchs to be exhumed. Next up is Alfred the Great, a long-suffering, serenely dignified man in life, whose dignity is about to be raped in death.

Richard III's skull

I exaggerate, of course. 'Rape' is a deliberately emotive word, used to ensure that some of you are still listening at the back. The obvious counter-argument is that unearthing the dead and examining human remains adds to our store of knowledge, and that archeology is the only certain way of discovering what really happened 'on the ground' in the distant past. Otherwise we have to rely on informed speculation and contemporary writings, both of which can lead to seriously flawed conclusions.

It's a point worth discussing, though. Certainly our dead Finnish crusader would be outraged at the notion that his grave might be disturbed a thousand years after his death, and must be roundly cursing us from Heaven or Valhalla or wherever his warlike soul found its rest. Is the sanctity of a grave worth more than the accumulation of knowledge?


Monday, 18 November 2013

The Withermen

In my last post I made reference to Sir Robert Thweng, one of the ringleaders of the anti-papal riots in England in the early 13th century. I thought it was worth writing a more complete piece about the Thwengs, one of the many extinct and largely forgotten baronial Norman families. They caused quite a stir in their time, though they never progressed to the upper ranks of the nobility, and several members of the family achieved a fame out of proportion to their worldly status.



The arms of the Thwengs of Kilton

The earliest surviving references to the Thwengs date from the late 12th century, where they are recorded holding a knight's fee from the Percies in Lincolnshire. They appear to have taken their odd surname - also spelled as de Tweng, Thwing, Tuenge etc - from the manor of Thweng in Holderness in East Yorkshire, a few miles south of Scarborough. A Sir Marmaduke Thweng was part of the baronial opposition to King John and acted as a coroner in Yorkshire in 1230.

So far, so unremarkable, but the family history took a turn for the dramatic with Marmaduke's son, Robert. Evidently a hot-tempered Norman with the usual acute Norman awareness of property rights, Robert de Thweng achieved national fame by his revolt against the imposition of foreign clergymen upon the English church. The granting of so many English church revenues to foreigners saw a constant flow of wealth streaming out of the country, while the imposition of a heavy tax on ecclesiastical incomes by the Pope further rubbed salt into the wound. Desperate to win favour with Pope Gregory, the young King Henry III had turned the English church into a gigantic milch cow, ripe to have her udders squeezed by grasping hands.   


Kilton Castle in North-East Yorkshire, family seat of the Thwengs

Enraged by all this lovely money slipping through his mailed fingers, and by the appointment of an Italian to a church he claimed to own, Thweng decided to perform a sort of medieval Batman routine. In 1232 he assumed the nickname William Wither, possibly meaning William the Avenger, and put himself at the head of the various gangs of rioters and protesters infesting Yorkshire. William Wither and his 'Withermen' descended on barns and grainstores owned by the 'aliens', pilfered the grain and burned the property. They gave the stolen grain to the poor, or sold it off cheap. Were it for the fact he already had a nickname, one might be tempted to identify Robert de Thweng as the historical genesis figure for the legend of Robin Hood.

Violence had already broken out in other parts of the country. In the autumn of 1231 a group of northern barons sent out letters to English bishops and monasteries, declaring that they would rather die than submit to the tyranny of the Pope and Roman clergy. Violent incidents followed. A group of foreign clerics were attacked at Saint Albans as they left a council meeting. One, a man named Cincius, was taken prisoner and only released upon payment of a hefty ransom. Another was forced to take sanctuary in York minster, in fear for his life after the protestors threatened to cut his head off.

The Great Charter

King Henry could do little to suppress the Withermen. By the winter of 1232 the protests had spread from Yorkshire down as far as Hampshire and Kent. The Justiciar himself, Hubert de Burgh, was no friend to the aliens and issued letters declaring that the rioters were immune from the authority of local Sheriffs. Hamstrung by de Burgh's effective desertion, Henry could do little except complain to the Pope and watch as England burned.

Meanwhile, Thweng had been busy. He appealed for support among the northern barons, and these hard-faced, brutish, politically volatile men were not slow in responding. The Percies, Nevills, Fitz Randolph, de Mauley, de Menyll, de Ros, and de Brus, plus some twenty other knights, all converged on Thweng's castle at Kilton in Yorkshire to plan the campaign ahead. It is easy to imagine them gathered in the smokey vault of the great hall, faces enflamed with drink and righteous indignation, fingers bloody with tearing meat from the carcase of a deer slow-roasting over a great fire. Their fathers had rebelled against old King John and wrung concessions out of him in the form of the Great Charter. Now it was time to remind John's son that royal tyranny would not be tolerated in England, so long as privileged men with swords existed to oppose it.

Hubert de Burgh at prayer

Pope Gregory supported the hapless monarch, and in February 1232 every one of the protesters was formally excommunicated. This did little to halt the attacks on the aliens. The Pope sent a further letter to Henry, threatening him with serious consequences if the violence was not stopped. Still, Henry could do nothing. His agents reported that so many high-ranking men, clerics, nobles, knights and barons, were involved in the uprising that it would be impossible to punish anyone.

Left high and dry, and with nothing to turn to save his own wits, Henry resorted to mediation. William Wither/Robert de Thweng was induced to lay down his arms and received no punishment for his crimes beyond a heavy fine. He was later reconciled to the king, and travelled to Rome with letters of safe conduct so he could voice his complaints before the Pope in person. The immediate results of this stormy meeting are unknown, but in 1240 the Pope wrote to Richard Earl of Cornwall, the King's brother, recognising the rights of English lay patrons over the claims of foreigners.

The onset of middle age did nothing to calm Robert's temper. In 1245 he again incurred the displeasure of the king, and his lands were briefly seized as punishment for a violent assault on Richard de Sarr, a clerk employed by the Archbishop of York. During the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, when Robert was an old man, King Henry did much to keep his family on the side of the royalists, granting them a number of fees and manors. Henry needed all the swords he could muster against de Montfort, even that of the one-time rebel who had caused him so much distress in his youth. Having the Thwengs onside gave the King a useful ally in the northeast, and a counter-balance to all the turbulent northerners, such as John Deyville, who had thrown in their lot with de Montfort.

Robert's date of death is unknown, but he probably died sometime in the late 1260s. Both his sons proved to be loyal servants of the crown, and his grandson Marmaduke earned fresh fame for the family by his exploits during the Scottish wars. That is for Part Two...

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Wrath of God

The second in my series of novellas about Robin Hood, titled "The Wrath of God", is now available on Amazon. Those who have read Part One will know that this version of the legend is rather different. It is set in the mid-1220s, as opposed to the usual Richard I/King John timeframe, and incorporates real events and people from the time, such as Fulk Fitzwarin (a ballad hero in his own right), Henry III and Hubert de Burgh. 

If Part One was only slightly merry, then Part Two has no merry at all. That's not because I wanted to take the fun out of Robin Hood, but because any honest depiction of the times demanded it. The thirteenth century was a grim epoch, in England and elsewhere, and the early years of Henry III's reign were no exception.

Pope Gregory IX. Not as cuddly as he looks

Two fascinating events during this period were the foundation of the papal inquisition (the direct forerunner of the Holy Inquisition that later gained such notoriety in Spain and her colonies in the Americas) by Pope Gregory IX, and the anti-papal riots in the north of England. I wanted to include both in my story. Robin Hood takes it upon himself to lead raids on church property in Nottinghamshire, and in response the Pope sends a ruthless inquisitor to hunt down The Hooded Man, as Robin has become known, and consign his body to the flames.


The arms of Thweng of Kilton

Robin's activities are inspired by a real-life Yorkshire knight named Sir Robert Thweng, of Kilton Castle in Holderness. In 1232, a few years after my story is set, Thweng assumed the nickname 'William Wither' and led gangs of men in raids upon grain-stores owned by the church, giving the stolen grain away free to the poor or selling it off cheap. The raids were a protest against the wholesale farming out of English church benefices and land to Italian clergymen, part of Henry III's attempt to curry favour with the Pope, and proved wildly popular. Instead of being arrested or executed, Thweng eventually gained a pardon and was restored to favour. There were rumours that the Justiciar, Hubert de Burgh, was in secret correspondence with the rioters, which might explain the leniency shown to Thweng. One of his descendants, the splendidly-named Sir Marmaduke Thweng, was to earn distinction as just about the only English knight to perform with credit at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Papal justice

The story of the founding of the inquisition is a darker one. As opposed to the earlier episcopal inquisition, whereby local church authorities dealt with heresy, Pope Gregory wanted to create a more efficient centralised organisation that could send out 'trouble-shooters' to stamp out opposition to papal authority wherever it arose. One of his most ruthless servants was Konrad Von Marburg, a German priest and nobleman who was despatched to suppress heresies in Germany and Southern France during the Albigensian Crusade.

Von Marburg's methods were pitiless and savage, and he was an expert at whipping up popular outrage against so-called heretics. His fictional protégé, Odo de Sablé, is sent by Pope Gregory to destroy the Hooded Man and restore some respect for the papacy in England...

Robin Hood (II): The Wrath of God


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Henry the Prudent

We've had Richard the Brilliant, so here's Henry the Prudent. In case I get accused of favouritism, this post is a lot longer simply because Henry reigned for 24 years as opposed to Richard's 2, and there is a lot more to say. 

Personal, as some clever person once said, is not the same as important. That maxim can be applied to Henry VII, who since the mid-20th century has been a favourite target for romantic novellists and Ricardians. Jean Plaidy got the ball rolling by describing Henry as a 'Welsh monkey', and in recent times Facebook has not been Henry's friend: 'slug face', 'slant-eyed sex offender', 'dead dork', and 'cowardly treacherous murdering usurper' have been some of the milder insults thrown his way in 2013. One historian has even proposed that poor old Henry wasn't a 'Tudor' at all, but a bastard on both sides of his family.  

I won. Get over it

The level of hatred, directed at a man who died over five hundred years ago, is startling in its intensity. Ricardians might argue that Henry had it coming, considering his part in the blackening of his predecessor's reputation. I would argue that Henry's character defects are less important than what he did as king, even if at times inseparable (more of that later). So, leaving aside his personality and his share in the blame for Richard's deconstruction, let's have a look at his actions as a ruler. 

Henry's chief aims were to survive and hand his crown onto his son (the thought of handing it on a daughter probably brought him out in a cold sweat at nights). Even if he achieved nothing else, this would represent a triumph for a man with no real claim to the throne, won via force of arms and a hefty slice of luck. As it turned out, for Henry the wielding of power was not just some fortunate accident, but his 'vocation and destiny', as S.B. Chrimes had it.  

When he came to the throne, Henry was very much an unknown quantity, in hock to his eyeballs to the King of France and little more than a lucky adventurer. Apart from stamping on frequent rebellions at home, he had to gain a bit of respect abroad and convince foreign powers to take him seriously. This he did with a vengeance, throwing aside the old Plantagenet daydreams of conquering France, while at the same time diddling the French out of vast sums of money, marrying his children into the Spanish and Scottish royal families and concluding beneficial treaties with Europe's major powers. Mediation and diplomacy, backed up by limited military force if necessary, were Henry's weapons, and he handled them adroitly. By the end of his reign, the lucky usurper was on equal terms with Aragon and Castile, the Valois and the Hapsburgs - 'all of them learnt to forgo attempts to subvert him; all learnt to respect his strength; all preferred his goodwill to his hostility'.

At home, Henry was something of a conservative, chiefly concerned with security - unsurprising, considering the number of plots and rebellions he had to cope with. Like Richard, Henry was concerned with the maintenance of law and order, and did what he could to curb the corruption and incompetence of justices. He proclaimed that his laws and ordinances were made 'for the politic well peace, and good rule and for the profit, surety and restful living of his subjects...nothing is more joyous than to know his subjects live peaceably under his laws and increase in wealth and prosperity.' 

To back up these fine words, Henry decreed that every justice of the peace should be proclaimed four times a year, with a threat of fines and dismissal for every omission. Anyone who felt aggrieved at the behaviour of a justice might seek redress from the king - again, this sounds remarkably similar to the actions of Henry's predecessor. 

Francis Bacon heaped praise on Henry as a law-maker, and stated that he was the greatest royal legislator since Edward I. This was perhaps excessive, and there is no space here to recite all of Henry's 192 statutes, but a couple are worth mentioning. One cracked down hard on the abuse of women, stating that the abduction, defiling and marrying against their will of 'maids, widows and wives' was a felony. Another provided that poor people who could not afford the expense of going to law could - at the discretion of the chancellor - be represented by counsel free of charge. 

Now we come to the elephant in the chamber: Henry's avarice. The clichéd image of him as a grim sobersides who divided his time between persecuting Yorkists and triple-checking accounts is a difficult one to shake, and there is a bit of truth to it. Following the death of his wife and eldest son, Henry took a turn for the worse (impossible to avoid discussion of his character here) and indulged in increasingly dodgy and extortionate ways of keeping his subjects in line. After Henry's death, his chief financial whiz Edmund Dudley was arrested and coughed up a document listing no less eighty-four examples of individuals whom Henry had persecuted for their money. Below are a few examples, again taken from Chrimes:

'Item Peter Centurion a Genenois was evil intreated and paid much money and upon malicious ground in my consience.

Item one Haslewood was kept long in prison and paid a great sum of money upon a light ground.

Item a poor gentleman of Kent called Roger Appleton paid 100 marks upon an untrue matter.

Item Sir Nicholas Vaux and Sir Thomas Parr paid 9,000 marks upon a very light ground...'

What seems clear is that the ageing Henry was prepared to twist the law in order to get at his subjects' purse-strings, suggesting that his understandable desire for solvency and security was degenerating into base greed and paranoia. The increasing use of bonds and recognizances against his nobles, and his petty and spiteful treatment of Catherine of Aragon, also give the impression of a man degenerating mentally as well as physically. 

Unpleasant and oppressive as some of his measures were, Henry was not a tyrant. His financial chicanery pales next to the savagery of his son and the Catholic fanaticism of his grand-daughter Mary. He was remarkably merciful to his enemies, indulging in no wholesale executions and doing what he could to reconcile the surviving Yorkists: the exception being the ruthless elimination of Edward, Earl of Warwick, done to ensure that Henry could secure his son Arthur's marriage to Catherine of Aragon.   

To conclude my little essay, Henry VII came to England on a wing and a prayer and left it solvent, secure, free of internal warfare and a respected, if not major, power in Europe. Not bad for a dork.