Post-classical history

Tales of Fair Ladies

ANUMBER OF WOMEN, all of them fair by repute, were to play parts in the drama which now unfolded. First there was Queen Eleanor, who was still in France and moving heaven and earth to find support for the royal cause and to get her husband out of captivity. She had pawned all her jewels and personal possessions and had contracted debts of such size that their redemption later swallowed up all of the fine of twenty thousand marks paid by the city of London. Nothing could discourage the firm-minded Queen, not even the letters of warning which Henry (under pressure, without a doubt) addressed to her.

Then there was Eleanor de Montfort. The sister of the King was to demonstrate in these violent and eventful months that although she took her looks from her beautiful mother she was all Plantagenet in character. She had the decision and resolution which Henry so conspicuously lacked, and these qualities she was now to have an opportunity of displaying. The princess wife of the popular leader appears to rare advantage in the climactic stages.

Alice of Angoulême was also to have a part, a not particularly creditable one, it must be confessed. In the few glimpses of her which the records supply she appears in the role of troublemaker, flirting with Prince Edward while he waited for his young wife in France to grow up, even casting an eye on the aging Henry, who responded in kind for perhaps the first time in his long married life. In support of the latter assertion there is only one bit of evidence, a letter from Queen Marguerite of France warning her sister that Henry was too fond of the company of his capricious niece. Marguerite seems to have developed into a prim and proper woman, the result, perhaps, of being married so long to a perfect man. The part Alice played in the drama indicates that she placed royal allegiance ahead of wifely obligations. She does not appear, however, until after the main issue had been decided.

Of less exalted rank was the fourth fair lady to take a prominent part in events. She was the wife of Roger de Mortimer, the quarrelsome, avaricious, and generally disagreeable lord of Wigmore who had been the most active enemy of Simon de Montfort in the West. Born Maud de Braose, she had been a great catch, for the Braose holdings to which she succeeded comprised a large part of Breconshire and a share as well in the immense Marshal inheritance. Her father was the gallant but unfortunate William de Braose who had been detected in an illicit relationship with Joanna, the wife of Llewelyn (and illegitimate daughter of John of England) and had been publicly hanged by the Welsh leader. This would make her a granddaughter of the unhappy Maud de Braose who was starved to death by John in a cell at Corfe Castle.

She was beautiful and nimble-witted, and the one glimpse that history gives of her is an advantageous one.

Finally there was Margot the Spy. She could not have been of noble birth or the fact would have been recorded, but she was as courageous as the others and, from the nature of the part she played, as pleasing to the eye, undoubtedly, as any of them.

2

With the calling of the Great Parliament the sun had seemed to reach its zenith for Simon de Montfort, but immediately after the ceremony with which the meetings concluded things began to go wrong.

First there was the death of Urban IV. Eighteen of the twenty-one cardinals being available, they were shut up in conclave at Perugia to elect a successor. For months they disputed and balloted, in perfect good humor, it was reported, but without result. To break the deadlock it was decided to make a compromise selection, and the choice fell on one of the three absentees, Guy Fulcodi, the legate to England. Unaware of the great honor which had been done him, Guy did not reach Perugia until two more months had passed. He accepted the election doubtfully and took the name of Clement IV.

Although Clement was to prove himself an able pontiff, the choice was not a fortunate one for England. He had not changed his mind with reference to the struggle between the King and his subjects. One of his first acts, in fact, was to appoint Ottobuoni Fiesco as legate in his place and in the course of his instructions to write bitterly of “that pestilent man and all his offspring.” Simon realized, of course, that now he could expect nothing but the most aggressive hostility from the Vatican.

The barons, moreover, were in a disgruntled mood. They were angry because the pledge made at Lewes for the restoration of prisoners on both sides was being carried out. They were hungry for ransom money from the band of wealthy nobles who had fallen into the baronial net in that battle. The situation came to a head when John Giffard of Brimpsfield claimed two prisoners who had been taken in the priory and was angrily insistent on making them pay through the nose for their liberty. When Simon refused to give in, Giffard retired to his estates in a towering rage.

Disturbing information came to Simon’s ears almost immediately thereafter. The Earl of Gloucester was in the Forest of Dean and had collected about him a considerable force of armed men. John Giffard had joined him there. It was rumored, moreover, that the pair had opened communications with Mortimer and Leyburn, the ringleaders of the Seven Knights. Determined to bring matters to a head, Simon went to Gloucester, taking the King with him.

The Earl of Gloucester attended the meeting but in his own manner. He came with a band of armed horsemen and camped on a wooded hillside just outside the walls of the town. The first night his campfires lighted up the sky, convincing evidence of the strength in which he had arrived. Counting the fires from his window in the royal castle, Simon realized that Gilbert the Red had come in war and not in peace.

A temporary arrangement was made between them, nevertheless, through negotiations conducted by the Bishop of Worcester. It was not very satisfactory to either side. Gilbert was still incensed over the preponderance of power which Simon held and what he believed was an unfair division of the spoils of victory, despite the fact that his own share had been quite enormous.

At this juncture word reached the court at Gloucester that William of Valence and the Earl of Surrey, who had been among the refugees from Lewes to reach France in safety, had landed at Pembroke with a handful of men. This could mean one thing only, that the royalist supporters were preparing to renew the struggle. Simon knew full well that William of Valence would not thrust his effeminately handsome head into the lion’s mouth in this way unless certain of adequate support. Before moving against the new arrivals Simon had a final talk with Earl Gilbert, finding him evasive and unfriendly and willing enough to let it be seen that he could no longer be depended upon in the impending clash.

3

Maud de Mortimer is given credit for finding a way to get Prince Edward free. She is said, in fact, to have planned each step of the ingenious stratagem employed.

Edward was technically in the custody of his father, but a close watch was being kept over him. He had sworn not to leave the realm for three years, and it had been ruled that this barred him from entering the Marcher country, which was not at peace; an interpretation to which, apparently, he did not subscribe. Edward was a different man from the impetuous youth who had failed so signally in his first great test. Since the bitter lesson of Lewes he had been living in constant mortification, compelled to agree to conditions which chafed his spirit and to give public assent to them. He was now filled with such a consuming fire to take up arms again that he was prepared to adopt any means of getting free. Staying at Hereford Castle, the heir to the throne knew that a few miles away his friends were gathering in force and were waiting for him to place himself at their head. The details of Lady Maud’s plan were conveyed to him and he assented eagerly.

On May 28, in accordance with the plan, the day was spent in the open. Edward and his usual companions, which included Henry de Montfort, who went along to keep an eye on things, rode out some distance from Hereford and proceeded to race their horses. Edward was in a gay mood, taking a share in the sport and riding several horses at different stages. Finally he mounted one which was capable of outdistancing all the others and which, through clever manipulation, had not yet been used in any of the racing. Cantering casually and easily on his fresh mount, the prince managed to get himself free from all his companions on one flank without rousing any suspicion as yet in the mind of his guileless cousin and guardian.

At this point a horseman appeared some distance away and raised an arm in the air. This was the signal the prince had been expecting. Touching the flank of his horse with his silver prick spur, he made off at top speed. The rest of the party, on their partly winded mounts, had no chance whatever of overtaking him. They fell back hopelessly and saw their charge join a party of horsemen who emerged from the woods ahead to act as his escort. The fugitives set off in the direction of Wigmore Castle, which was twenty miles away.

The fair Maud, anxiously scanning the road from the southeast, which wound up the rocky ledge on which the castle stood, was dismayed at first when she saw a solitary rider approaching. Had her plans gone wrong? Alarm changed to satisfaction, however, when she realized from the length of leg doubled up above the stirrups that it was the prince. In his impatience he had outridden his party. Galloping into the courtyard, he leaped to the ground; dusty and a little weary but in a jubilant mood and as eager for action as a lion loosed from its cage.

He remained at Wigmore just long enough for refreshments. The chatelaine, who of course had attired herself to the best advantage, kept busy in the background to be sure that everything was being done properly for the royal guest, that the wine had been sufficiently cooled and the mutton properly browned over the fire. While doing so she must have cast many appraising glances at the heir to the throne, about whom she had heard such conflicting reports: his wildness, his occasional cruelties, his much-discussed interest in the foreign lady, his cousin, and on the other hand his determination to continue the fight which his father seemed willing to consider ended. She must have been impressed by the appearance of the fugitive as he bent over his hurried meal, the gravity of his manners, the look of preoccupation in his eyes. It must have seemed to her that at last there was a real leader for the royal cause.

He would not be too preoccupied to wave his hand in parting to the fair chatelaine of the castle, but at this point the pages of history close over Maud de Mortimer.

From Wigmore, Edward rode to the rather squat Norman castle of Ludlow on the banks of the Jug, a distance slightly under ten miles. Here he found waiting for him the man he wanted to see above all others, Earl Gilbert of Gloucester. Roger de Mortimer was there also, and the three men sat down together and discussed the future. Edward appreciated the importance of detaching Gilbert the Red from Simon de Montfort’s side and he agreed readily enough when the stipulation was made that the country must be governed in accordance with the Provisions of Oxford. On receiving this promise the young earl agreed to transfer his allegiance to the King’s side.

When the word spread that the prince had escaped and that Gloucester had joined him, the whole West blazed up into martial activity.

4

The Countess Eleanor received the disturbing news while at Odiham Castle, to which she had removed from Kenilworth. She knew that it meant war again and she proceeded to demonstrate how much she had been in her husband’s confidence by acting with great decision. Waiting until night had fallen, she had a horse saddled and rode from Odiham to Porchester Castle to join her son Simon, taking one companion only. She had selected old Dobbe, the shepherd, to accompany her because he knew the roads over the hills and could guide her in the dark. They arrived at Porchester in the morning and, without waiting to rest, the countess began preparations for the test which lay ahead of the Montfort family.

It was clear to her that the Cinque Ports must be kept in line so that no aid for the King could be brought over from France. As her husband would have his hands full for some time in the West, she decided to make it her concern to keep the door to France closed. She started immediately for Dover, traveling by way of Bramber Castle, Chichester, Wilmington, Winchelsea, and Sandwich. To her intense relief, she found the South solidly for Simon. Her following grew every day until she had eighty horses in her train and many vehicles, including a chariot drawn by five horses which the Countess of Arundel sent for her personal convenience.

Eleanor knew how easily loyalties may be shifted in civil war, however, and she went to the greatest efforts to win adherents in all the towns through which she rode. At Winchelsea she gave a dinner for the people of the town and had two oxen and fourteen sheep roasted for their entertainment. Three days later she dined the people of Sandwich on a similarly lavish scale. Reaching Dover, she found that her oldest son Henry, who was castellan of the great stone entry gate of the kingdom, was in the West with his father. The garrison, however, was loyal to the baronial cause.

The gallant and energetic lady breathed easily for the first time since the news had reached her that the prince was loose. The barons had control of the Channel. The sails of the men of the Cinque Ports swept the straits and no help could reach her brother, the King, from his wife and sympathizing brother-in-law in France. London, solidly against the King, was filled with martial ardor.

The situation in the East, in fact, was well in hand.

5

Before proceeding with the story of the last phase of the struggle it will be advisable to pause and take a look at Simon de Montfort, the man about whom the storm was raging. There can be no doubt that the suddenness with which the tide had turned against him had been a shock. It becomes clear that he had expected peace would follow the assembling of the Great Parliament. In believing this he had been far from realistic; he had allowed faith in his own capacity and his popularity to dictate his thinking. The defection of Gilbert of Gloucester had been a blow, but Simon had been half persuaded it would happen. What had shaken him was not the fact that the undependable young earl had turned his coat finally but the fury with which royalist sentiment had swept the West. This he had not expected, being convinced that to the people of England the royalist cause was a bankrupt one.

He was old and he was tired; fifty-seven years old, a great age for that day and particularly for a man of his temperament. There was neither philosophy nor calmness in him. He believed deeply, he loved and hated passionately, he worked hard. And the length of the struggle had been taking its toll. His face was thin and his eyes were deep pools of conflicting emotion. He longed for peace.

He acted, however, with his usual sagacity. His oldest son Henry was with him, a loyal son but one not likely to be of any great help, cast down already by his blindness in letting Edward escape. It was to Simon, the second son, that the earl, therefore, sent his instructions. Simon was to collect what strength he could In the South and East and march at once to join the forces under the earl himself. Speed in following out these orders was most emphatically enjoined. The army of the baronial state must be ready not later than the forces Edward was gathering in the West.

Before learning of Edward’s escape Earl Simon had crossed the Severn River with a double purpose, to strike at the base of the Marchers’ strength in Glamorganshire and the valley of the Usk and to establish contact with his ally, Llewelyn. Edward, at liberty and entering the fight with the fury which had been growing in him each day of his captivity, took advantage of his opponent’s position by sweeping up the interior side of the Severn as far as Gloucester, which he succeeded in capturing. Only one part of Simon’s mission could, therefore, be accomplished. He made a treaty with Llewelyn which bore on its surface the desperation of his mood. Concessions were made to the Welsh leader which would never have been considered if the need for help had not been so great. The independence of the portions of Wales over which Llewelyn ruled was recognized as well as his right to retain all the conquests he had made in the Marches. In return he was to pay thirty thousand marks in ten annual payments and to supply military aid. None of the money, which Simon needed badly, was paid over at once, and the military assistance consisted of a paltry force of several hundred Welsh archers.

Realizing that time pressed badly, Earl Simon now made a move which did not turn out well. Instead of marching north for Hereford at once and turning the flank of the royal forces, a movement which could easily have been carried out and which would have made it possible to join forces with the troops from the East under young Simon, he marched down the Usk with the purpose of crossing the Severn at a point where he could strike a blow at the prince and the Seven Knights. For this he has been severely blamed. It has been easy for armchair strategists, writing centuries after the event, to contend that Simon de Montfort should have taken the easy, the safe, way. It has been assumed that his age was dictating his plans, that he fumbled and lost time, and did not resort to the proper plan until juncture with his son was impossible.

The exact opposite seems to have been the truth. In planning to cross where the Usk and the Wye flow down into the Severn, with Bristol straight ahead, Simon was endeavoring to repeat his success at Lewes, where he had led his men up the heights to face an enemy superior in numbers and strength. He hoped, no doubt, to reap again the reward of audacity, to get across the river at the point where it seemed most unlikely that he would strike. The enemy had the whole river to watch. He might catch some portion of them unprepared on the other side; or, at worst, he might succeed in driving through them with a clear path to the East ahead of him. If his son had acted promptly on his instructions he might already be moving up behind the royalists, who would then be caught between the baronial pincers.

Unfortunately for him his son at this point was a very great distance away and moving with a sad indecisiveness. More important still, the leader on the opposite bank of the Severn was not the overconfident prince who had been content to place one sentry on the heights of Lewes. The Edward who faced him now had learned much from misfortune. He was wary and cool and, above all else, he was watchful. Simon found that the forces facing him were strong. The boats he had counted upon for the crossing, moreover, had been captured already or destroyed.

Realizing now the impossibility of getting across, Simon followed the course which, it is contended, he should have adopted in the first place. He turned and marched up the west bank of the river toward Hereford in the north. As he led his army, briskly enough for a man weighed down with anxiety and already gripped in the cooling process of the years, his mind was filled with one speculation. Where was his son Simon with the reinforcements from the East? He realized that no good would come of this campaign unless a juncture could be effected, and that in the shortest possible time.

6

Margot the Spy, disguised as a man, brought news of the greatest importance to Edward, who was making his headquarters at Worcester. Nothing is known about this woman; who she was, how she came to be playing a role in the struggle, what became of her later. She may have been a camp follower who had been hired to keep her eyes open. More likely she was the wife, daughter, or mistress (very probably the latter) of someone in a position to know what Simon the younger was about, and that she was acting as a go-between.

The news she brought was of the most welcome kind. The dilatory Simon, a full month after receiving his instructions, had arrived with his forces at Kenilworth, more than thirty miles to the north. With Simon the elder still at Hereford on the wrong side of the Severn, there was no danger of an immediate union of the baronial forces. Edward at Worcester lay squarely between them, enjoying in that way the greatest possible military adantage, the opportunity to fight on interior lines. His army was at least equal to the whole of the baronial strength: employed against either of his opponents, it would have enough weight of steel to make victory comfortably certain and, because of his position, he could strike first at one and then at the other.

It was an easy decision to attack the younger Simon first Simon the elder’s men were weary from much marching and weak from lack of food, but they were under the command of an inspired soldier, a daring and unpredictable general whose whole career had been one of victory. Margot the Spy had brought news, moreover, which was enough in itself to settle the issue. Simon the younger, feeling himself at home and certain that the enemy was a long way off, had not thought it necessary to shelter his men behind the impregnable walls of Kenilworth. He had left them in the open, some billeted in the town, some in tents around and about the castle. An immediate attack would catch him even less prepared than the royalists had been at Lewes.

Edward acted with all the decision and vigor his great opponent would have employed under the circumstances. He took his whole army out of Worcester, even calling in the mounted patrols along the river, and struck north for Kenilworth. A march of thirty-four miles lay ahead of him. He covered this distance in a matter of twelve or thirteen hours, arriving at Kenilworth just before dawn on the following day, July 31. Such a march seems commonplace by the military standards of succeeding ages when the need for rapidity of action had been realized. In the age of chivalry, the most stupid stage of warfare, men refused to learn and went on fighting as they always had done, encumbered with armor, armies moving and creaking along like a circus on wheels. In this lumbering, lute-twanging, looby age of warfare, Edward’s march was nothing short of astonishing.

To digress for a moment: the knights of Europe, after more than a century of warfare against light-armed and fast-moving opponents, had learned exactly nothing from their general lack of success in the Crusades. They still put their faith in heavy body armor, they still conceived of battles as clashes between cavalry. The importance of the foot soldier and the archer was so little understood that the puffed-up lords of privilege in their mail shirts preferred in reality not to have them about. The role of men on foot was to handle the baggage train and the horse lines and to be cut to pieces unmercifully if the horsemen on the other side got the better of the chivalrous encounter on the field of battle. Edward, however, proceeded in the most thorough way to break with tradition. He took with him every man he could find—knight on horseback, humble foot soldier with bill on shoulder, archer with longbow, greasy knave from the wagons—and shoved them along at an unprecedented pace on the road to Kenilworth.

He broke another precedent when he arrived in the darkness just before dawn. Simon de Montfort had refused to attack his opponents at Lewes during the night, holding such a course to be unfair and unchivalrous. Edward had made many discoveries during the year of his humiliation, and the most important conclusion he had reached in his thinking about war was that it was the business of a leader to kill more of his opponents than they could kill, without regard to outmoded conventions or the hampering rules which minstrels liked to glorify in song. Finding the army of Simon the Slow sleeping warmly in town beds or under canvas, as had been reported, he gave the signal for an immediate attack.

It was a foray in the dark rather than a battle, a one-sided butchery which resulted in the scattering of the baronial forces. Some very much surprised and chagrined baronial leaders, including the Earl of Oxford, where made prisoners. All the baronial horses were secured and, for good measure, thirteen banners. Some of the bewildered soldiers swam across the moat and took refuge behind the walls of the castle. Among these was Simon the Slow himself. Others, in the thousands, scattered over the countryside.

Edward did not pursue the fugitives. He had learned the folly of headlong pursuit at Lewes. Believing his victory complete enough to put this branch of the baronial army out of the reckoning, he gathered his troops together. Without a pause for rest they started back to deal with the elder Simon. The captured horses relieved some of the strain on tired legs. The captured banners, elevated proudly above the marching files, raised the spirits of the soldiers equally high with their reminder that half of the victory had been won.

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