Post-classical history

The Minority and the Rise of Hubert de Burgh

AFTER the regent died the people about the King split into two camps. On one side were the Englishmen, Stephen Langton, Hubert de Burgh, the Earl of Chester, Philip d’Aubigny, the family of the marshal, the heroes of Runnymede. The latter, sad to relate, were now beginning to follow the marshal into the shades. Saire de Quincey died in 1219, and others in quick succession thereafter, Robert de Vere, William Mowbray, the earls of Hertford, Hereford, and Norfolk. Robert Fitz-Walter, at peace with the state but not happy, went off to the Crusades.

In the other camp were those who had come into the kingdom at John’s invitation, most of them men of great ability and of a fierce ambition. They had no sense of patriotism, these Normans and Poitevins, save to their own purses and their desire for power. At the head of the foreign faction was, of course, Peter des Roches. That determined churchman had chosen to disregard the old marshal’s declaration and had kept the custody of the boy King. Behind him were the mercenary captains, Falkes de Bréauté, Peter de Maulay, Engelard de Cigogni, hard-bitten soldiers who had been awarded castles and land and had no intention whatever of giving them up. Falkes de Bréauté, in particular, had feathered his nest so successfully that he had become one of the greatest of landowners. He had married the widow of the Earl of Devon and he held castles all through the midlands, where he acted as sheriff of no fewer than six shires. He was intensely ambitious and intended to keep every castle and every hide of land in his acquisitive Norman fingers. Naturally these men drew together, the land-hungry soldiers and the creatures of Peter des Roches, realizing that their prosperity depended on being strong enough to fight for the favor of the young King.

No one was appointed regent in William the Marshal’s place, but the death of the old warrior had left one man supreme in the eyes of the people of England, Hubert de Burgh. The popularity of that brave soldier had started when the story of his refusal to allow the mutilation of Prince Arthur became generally known and believed. It grew by leaps and bounds when he stood so bravely at Dover and defied the French invaders, and it reached its height when he took out the ships which won the great naval victory off Sandwich. Here, then, was a candidate ready-made for the leadership.

In view of the great career he carved for himself, and the spectacular fall to which it led, there has been much speculation about this knight who ruled England through most of the minority. Little is known, actually, of the man himself. It is only too clear that he was intensely acquisitive and ambitious, and it has been assumed, because of the bitter antagonism he created, that he was overbearing and even, perhaps, bumptious. The passionate eagerness with which his enemies sought to unseat him indicates certainly that he was not a bluff, blundering soldier hewing blindly to the line of duty as he has sometimes been pictured.

From the facts which are known about his life an entirely different portrait appears. He is believed to have been descended from Robert de Mortain, a half brother of the Conqueror, which would mean that a small tincture of royal blood ran in his veins. If this were true, time had been unkind to the family of De Burgh, bringing it far down in the scale. Hubert’s father was a member of the lower reaches of the nobility in Norfolk, a dependent perhaps of the great William de Warenne. As a young man Hubert and his older brother William went to court, seeking chances to further their fortunes. There they came in contact with Prince John, the youngest son of the royal family. John seems to have taken a liking to the landless pair. When he went to Ireland in 1185 he took William and settled large estates on him. William remained in Ireland and established the family of Bourke, or Burke, which was destined through the centuries to play a prominent part in Irish history. Hubert went into John’s service and rose to the post of seneschal of Poitou. Later John appointed him chief justiciar. This was the most important position in the kingdom after the Archbishop of Canterbury, followed by the constable, the marshal, the steward, the chamberlain, and the chancellor.

The matrimonial record of the poor young man from East Anglia makes a truly fantastic story. He was married four times, his first three wives being rich widows, his fourth a princess of Scotland, and each marriage not only left him richer than before but marked a step upward. The first wife was Joan, daughter of William, Earl of Devon, and widow of William de Brewiere the younger. The second was Beatrice, daughter of William de Warenne, the great lord of the east, to whom no doubt the family of De Burgh submitted as their feudal head. Beatrice was the widow of Lord Bardulf. Her first husband had probably been chosen for her; her second she chose for herself, and she brought to young Hubert a very fine estate indeed. Her preference for a knight of comparatively low degree, whose sword was his fortune, is proof enough that he was a man of good address. When she died in 1214 he took as his third wife a former queen of England.

When John, the youngest of the Plantagenets, had been called Lackland because all his father’s possessions had been promised to his older brothers, it was arranged to improve his lot by a rich marriage. Avisa, the heiress of the Earl of Gloucester and granddaughter of the great Robert of Gloucester who had been Stephen’s chief opponent in the years of the anarchy, was the greatest catch in England. She was a handsome young woman with huge estates in the West, extending into Glamorgan. John had no financial worries after his marriage to Avisa, but when suddenly and unexpectedly he became King of England and saw by an unhappy mischance the radiantly lovely Isabella of Angoulême, he put pressure on the high churchmen of the kingdom and secured a divorce on the grounds of consanguinity, Robert of Gloucester having been an illegitimate son of Henry I. It is perhaps needless to state that King John kept a large part of the Gloucester estates for himself. With what was left, however, Avisa made her second husband, Geoffrey de Mandeville, the richest peer in England; a match which John arranged himself and for which he collected from the bridegroom a fee of eighteen thousand marks. Avisa was a widow again when Hubert de Burgh’s wife Beatrice died, and she was no longer young. Certainly she had reached the stage where continual childbearing had played havoc with the figure and the usual trouble with teeth had begun. All medieval ladies seemed to suffer from bad teeth and were much concerned with ways of holding handkerchiefs in front of the face to conceal the fact, being much addicted also to mulled wine as a means of improving the breath. By the most favorable reckoning Avisa was in her middle forties and older than Hubert de Burgh. It is said that she was still attractive; and certainly she was the possessor of broad acres and fine manors and large herds of cattle.

Hubert’s willingness to wed the aging Avisa was a further proof to the critical baronage of his ambitious nature. When he brought his matrimonial record to a climactic high point by wedding the Princess Margaret, sister of the King of Scotland, in 1221, four years after the one-time queen’s death, the indignation of the nobility reached a high peak of bitterness. But Princess Margaret, fourth of the great ladies to love and wed this remarkable soldier of fortune, remained devoted to him for the rest of his life. No rough, uncouth soldier, this: a man, rather, of ingratiating manner, an adept courtier, handsome perhaps, but of pleasing mien certainly, of shrewd political sense, deft, adroit, quick-witted. His rise under the ill-tempered and hard-to-please John and his matrimonial success would not have been possible to a man lacking in these qualities.

That the great baronial families never regarded him as anything but an upstart in spite of the exalted connections he made by marriage is a further indication of the character of the man. He must have been too aggressively dedicated to success, too prone to brush aside any obstacles in his path, too demanding of concessions on the part of others while making none himself. Some of the other qualities of the climber remained in him even after his great success came. He was inclined to take the defensive and seems to have been a little ill at ease in his dealings with the men of the great families. In this connection an anecdote survives which is worth telling. When it was believed that William Long-Espée, the Earl of Salisbury, had died on his way back from Gascony, Hubert decided that his nephew Raimund should marry the widow, the Countess Ela. But that high-spirited lady, who had been the central figure of a great mystery and romance in her youth,1 was very much in love with her husband and she sent the candidate for her hand packing, a much discomfited man. Shortly afterward William Long-Espée turned up safe and sound. He had made a desperate crossing of the Bay of Biscay and had been driven ashore. He complained to the King of Hubert’s plans and the improper haste with which he had acted. Hubert hurried to make his apologies to the indignant husband and seems to have been almost abject in his attitude.

Hubert was, however, a man of great ability and decision and, with the exception of Stephen Langton, there was no one else with the strength and the prestige to assume the control of affairs. The archbishop was now a very old man, and although he would continue to raise a decisive voice in all deliberations, he lacked the physical strength to assume actual leadership. Without any assumption of title or formal declaration of accession, therefore, Hubert de Burgh gathered the reins into his own hands.

He was aided in this assumption of power by the young King, who had been growing up and developing an impatience with the restrictions which hedged him about. Peter des Roches had come to represent this restraint, and Henry was eager to slip from the clerical leading strings. He was happy to turn to the masterful soldier and escape from the influence of the churchman.

In his early teens Henry was becoming tall, straight, graceful of carriage, and rather handsome in a fair-haired, high-complexioned way. The droop in the one eyelid was now a little more pronounced, and the men who saw most of him were beginning to wonder about it. Was it the outer manifestation of a certain slyness of character? For Henry, although he strove to appear ingenuous and anxious to please, was showing qualities which were more nearly an index of his real character, the qualities which would be so pronounced in the man. Although outwardly agreeable, he was actually very critical of what was done for him. Once he railed bitterly at the sons of William the Marshal because he now thought the terms exacted from the French invaders had been too easy; a fledgling hedge bird delivering judgment on an eagle. His manners were winning, but he could not always conceal the fact that he was contemptuous of those about him. The passionate rages of John had dwindled in Henry to a sarcastic turn of speech, but he was as determined as his father had been to brook no restraints on his right to rule as he saw fit. It was becoming only too clear that he had no stability in either his likes or dislikes and that the boyish traits which had so pleased his supporters in the dark days of the struggle had been, in part at least, assumed.

After his second coronation he approached Grosseteste, the Bishop of Lincoln, who was to play a remarkable part in his long reign, and asked for information as to the nature of the grace wrought in a king by the unction. The bishop replied that it conferred on kings the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit as in confirmation. The boy thanked him earnestly, and the story was passed along as an evidence of the serious turn of his mind and of his desire to acquire a true understanding. It seems more likely to have been a gesture, a deliberate effort to create that exact impression. He was already showing an inclination to win by persuasion the things his father had rudely grasped as his right. If the anointing at Westminster had conferred the sevenfold gifts on Henry, the effects, alas, soon wore off: for no king was more prone to disregard the obligations of his office, to break promises, to play fast and loose with the people whose welfare should have been his first consideration.

Already it was clear enough that the boy’s charm was superficial and that he was going to prove, although in a far different way, as hard to hold in check as his father. There was none of the savagery of John in the new King; he would not be cruel or wantonly destructive, but he would be selfish and willful, and his hand on the rudder of state would be uncertain, unskilled, unpredictable.

On the other side of the shield he was devout (all men were devout in this splendid century), he was generous, and with a real tendency to learning. He became well versed in poetry and he had a fine discrimination in matters of art, most especially in architecture, becoming known later as Henry the Builder. These qualities, admirable in themselves, were not of the kind most needed in a man called to kingship.

It was natural for a boy of this disposition to weary of the restraints of tutelage and to develop impatience with those who exercised authority over him. Peter des Roches, suave, diplomatic, and ever watchful as he was, was unable to hold the King on leash. He fell out of favor suddenly. This was an excellent thing, for otherwise the Poitevin would have taken into his venal hands the administration of the kingdom. Henry at fourteen wanted to escape from his tutor, and it was at this stage that Hubert de Burgh took up where William the Marshal had left off.

The question as to when Henry would come of age was causing much discussion. In France a king’s majority began legally when he was fourteen, that having been the age of Philip Augustus when his father gave him a share in the authority of kingship. In England the rule seems to have been to leave the decision to circumstances. For six years Hubert de Burgh was the real head of the state, and he governed with a firm hand in spite of the tides of opposition which surged about him. Peter des Roches had departed the kingdom and gone on a pilgrimage to Compostela as soon as he lost favor (he would come back when things were more propitious), but the foreign influence was still being exerted in insidious ways in the dark little offices at Westminster where the business of government was being carried out. In addition, the powerful barons of England were now openly resentful of the new head of the state and bitterly critical of the wealth he was acquiring for himself.

The next years, in spite of this opposition, saw many forward steps taken. The administration of the realm was firm and consistent in the best traditions of Henry II.


The years of the minority were made difficult by a chronic lack of funds. It had been found hard, after the expulsion of the French, to get into operation the various processes of law by which money came to the offices of the Crown. Debts had been accumulating in the meantime, the greatest being the sums owed to the Vatican.

The papacy had always taken an annual toll from England as a matter of course. Starting with the Rome penny, as it was called in Anglo-Saxon days, the yearly tribute took the form of Peter’s pence after the Conquest. One of the duties of the Archbishop of Canterbury was to supervise the collection of Peter’s pence, which he did with the assistance of the bishops. It did not amount to a very large sum in the days of the Norman kings, particularly as a habit had developed of sending to Rome only a relatively small part of what was collected. A letter from one pope of the period complained that it “was collected faithfully but paid faithlessly.” Another papal letter complained bitterly that only three hundred marks had reached Rome while the bishops had retained more than one thousand marks of the amount collected. The actual work of collection devolved on the parochial priest. His duty it was to gather in the tithes, holding suspended over any grumblers or defaulters in his flock the threat of excommunication.

Peter’s pence, of course, was collected in all Christian countries subject to Rome and served as one of the main sources of the papacy’s still inadequate revenue. England was on a different footing, however, since John had declared the kingdom a fief of Rome. He had agreed to pay an annual tribute of one thousand marks, seven hundred for England, three hundred for Ireland. During the first years of the minority it was impossible to pay this tribute. In addition to war debts, it was necessary to give ten thousand marks to Louis of France and half of that sum to make up arrears in the pension of Richard’s widow, Berengaria, who had been allowed by John to exist in poverty. Fortunately the Pope who succeeded that man of wide vision and iron will, Innocent III, was sympathetic to the difficulties of the nation and permitted the tribute to go unpaid. Cencius Savelli had been chamberlain at the Vatican under Innocent, a gentle old man, well loved by everyone. When he was selected to succeed under the title of Honorius III, he brought to the papacy one fixed idea, that the work of Innocent must be carried on, particularly his plans for continuation of the Crusades.

That Honorius was willing to let the payments lapse did not mean, however, that the return to normal conditions in England would find the Crown with a clean slate. He was a careful administrator, a believer in close attention to detail, and a shrewd financier. During his term as chamberlain he had written The Book of the Revenues of the Church, and it surprised no one when he demanded payment from England of all arrears.

The necessity of making up the unpaid tribute hung over the early years of Henry’s reign like a dark cloud. The King himself had no desire to avoid the debt, but the writs he issued for the money due Rome were often returned because there was no money in the treasury to pay them. It followed that the arrears were paid off in installments extending over a long period of years.

Honorius, and the popes who followed after his death on March 18, 1227, at the Lateran, found it necessary on occasions to send special representatives to England to supervise the collection of funds for the purpose, and this led to a very great evil, the stimulation of usury. The money for Rome was paid through Italian banking houses, and when Master Otto or Master Martin sat at Westminster to inquire into sums due their master, they generally had a keenwitted Florentine financier sitting beside them. When men were unable to meet their obligations the banker was often willing to make a loan for the purpose. The bankers did not always return to Italy, and this led to a firm establishment of the Lombardy moneylender in the country. He became a much more feared exponent of usury than the Jew because he had papal sanction and was, presumably, under the protection of the Church.

At a later stage of Henry’s reign the Vatican discovered one flaw in this arrangement. Two great Italian banking houses failed, the firms of Buonsignori and Ricciardi. The collapse swept away the sum of eighty thousand florins which had been gathered in England for transfer to the papacy.

In addition to the regular forms of tribute there were many other payments which kept draining the island of money, special subsidies for this and that, obventions and legacies for the Crusades, mandatory income taxes, benefices, penitentiary fees, compositions, fines, procurations, pecuniary penances, indulgences. Even more expensive still, and infinitely harder to swallow, was the practice of giving church appointments in England to Italians. This began as soon as John made the grievous error of declaring the country a fief of Rome. Hundreds of posts fell vacant during the years of the interdict, and no effort was made to fill them. As soon as the ban was lifted the legate began to fill them with Italians. They came swarming into the country, eager to enjoy the fat livings and causing nationwide indignation by the ostentation with which they conducted themselves. This practice continued after John’s death, although as years went on it took the form of absentee holding. The Italian appointees fell out of the habit of going to England, preferring to remain in Rome and have the revenues paid them there. This was just as well, perhaps, because the men thus favored with canonries and prebends never fitted themselves to fill their offices by learning English and they did less harm by staying out of the country. Much of this was nepotism, the posts being awarded to the relatives of popes and cardinals, but a part of it was the result of a practice which had grown up to relieve the poverty of the papacy. A huge staff was maintained at the Vatican, and the funds were not sufficient to maintain an adequate pay roll. Each nation was expected to assist by appointing a number of these clerks and officials to livings while they continued to work in Rome.

England was suffering a much heavier drain on her financial resources, however, than any other country. A survey of the situation in 1231 led to the conclusion that many hundred livings in England were in the possession of Italians while substitutes, paid starvation wages, carried on the work. The annual payments made to foreign holders of benefices amounted to seventy thousand marks, which was more than the revenue of the government. Years later one of the popes agreed to establish a limit by which no more than eight thousand marks could be paid to foreign benefice holders, and this was estimated as five per cent of the income of the Church in England. On that basis of reckoning the amount taken from the Church had been running as high as forty per cent.

The strain was felt more during the minority than at any other time. In 1221 Stephen Langton made such a strong presentation to the Pope of the spiritual stagnation in many of the parishes affected that Honorius made a sweeping concession. As the sinecures fell vacant through death, the right to appoint successors would revert to England. Had this guarantee been carried out, the evil of absenteeism would gradually have been eliminated; and so the archbishop was well content with what he had accomplished. Unfortunately the clamor in Rome for subsistence continued as great as ever. When one comfortably endowed Italian died there would be a scramble to step into his shoes. In too many cases letters were received in England making Italian appointments with the words Non obstante marked on the margin, which meant that no restriction on foreign appointments must be allowed to stand in the way. Non obstante! The phrase became odious to English eyes and one to which, unfortunately, they became well accustomed as the years and the decades rolled on.

Naturally there was plenty of nepotism and simony in England as well. Henry did not differ from other kings in having candidates of his own when desirable posts fell vacant. As he grew older he became more and more addicted to favoritism. There was a dark little room behind the Exchequer at Westminster, and here he was known to sit when questions of appointments were being threshed out. Frequently his candidates were foreigners—Poitevins, Gascons, relatives from Angoumois or Provence; and seldom were they fitted to perform the functions of the office.

It has been recorded that John Mansel was invested with livings running from three hundred to seven hundred in number during the years that he served the King in various capacities. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it may safely be assumed that the total of his appointments was large to the point of absurdity. These livings were not conferred on a humble official for his own individual profit. The revenue thus secured was either for the royal purse or for the benefit of friends and relatives of the King. In fairness to Rome, also, it should be pointed out that Westminster followed the same principle of giving livings to state officials while they continued to fill their governmental duties because the Crown was too poor to pay them.


The importance of Hubert de Burgh continued to increase during the last years of the minority. He was the first of a long succession of commoners who rose to posts of almost supreme power and lived in some, at least, of the magnificence of royalty. Lacking their stature, he was still the forerunner of such great and fascinating figures as Jacques Coeur, Cardinal Wolsey, Cardinal Richelieu, Fouquet. He had been created Earl of Kent and was firmly establishing himself in Wales, being castellan of the three fortresses of Montgomery, Carmarthen, and Cardigan. The Tower of London had come back into his hands, and he resided there a large part of the time although he had set up a palatial residence of his own on a piece of land which later became Whitehall. The royal castles of Dover, Canterbury, Rochester, and Norwich were in his hands, to mention the most important only.

He was the sheriff of seven counties. The sheriff is today a relatively unimportant local officer; in these early days he was the King’s representative and the embodiment of the law in his county, the lineal descendant of the Norman viscount. He lived in a royal castle in the county seat and, although he had to call the knights of the shire to pass judgment on cases tried in the shire courts which met for a day every four weeks, he presided at the shire moots with powers which could be made arbitrary, and the hundred-moots were called at his will. He was the manipulator of scotale and the controller of scot and lot; he conducted inquests, collected taxes, and managed the machinery of law enforcement.

Needless to state, Hubert de Burgh did not fulfill the duties of his seven shrievalties himself. He engaged deputies for that. But a large part of the revenue of each came to him and stayed in his heaping purse.

His marriage with the Scottish princess had been highly successful. They seem to have been a devoted couple, and certainly Margaret remained loyal to him through thick and thin. One daughter had been born to them who was named for her mother but was always called affectionately Meggotta. Henry had not yet acquired the interest in architecture which earned him later the name of Henry the Builder, and so the Tower lacked at this time the additions which are linked to him, the Water Gate, the Cradle Tower, the Lantern, in the latter of which the King would one day have his bedroom because of the view it allowed of the river. The resplendent justiciar, filled with a sense of his importance and so drunk with power that he paid little heed to the growing resentment of the nobility, resided with his princess wife and his dearly beloved Meggotta in the White Tower. He took his meals, undoubtedly, in the Banqueting Hall, the only apartment in this gloomy pile of masonry (where even the gray partitions were ten feet thick) which had a fireplace. The flames jumped and roared on the huge hearth, lighting up the long table where Hubert and his company sat down to meat well basted with sauces fragrant with spices from the East and washed down with wines from Gascony. At the far end the musicians played the pure and rather haunting airs of the day, blowing softly on the tibia (the grandfather of the flute) and twanging the harp, while the flames lighted up the pictures of the history of Antiochus which covered the walls.

Kings could travel about the lands they ruled in simplicity and without fear. The boy who would soon become the King of France and be known as St. Louis developed the habit of sitting under a tree by the side of the road and talking to all who passed or attending services in churches so humble that they lacked seats. Much later Louis XI of France would fall into the habit of disguising himself in menial attire and issuing out to discover for himself what people were thinking and saying. But when men of common birth ruled, they found it necessary to travel in state. Hubert de Burgh, borrowing from Thomas à Becket when the latter was chancellor and William de Longchamp, the hobgoblin who governed England when Richard went to the Crusades, rode out, accompanied by a long train: knights, men-at-arms, archers, scriveners, confessors, almoners, body servants, cooks, barbers, jugglers, acrobats. He took pains to cut an imposing figure himself in polished chain mail, a scarf dyed bright with madder knotted about his steel-encased neck, the quillons of his sword sparkling with jewels. No matter where he might ride, it was not necessary for him to seek the hospitality of other men. He owned so many castles and manors that wherever he went he could always repair by nightfall to lodgings of his own. The roll call of Hubert’s possessions has a fantastic sound, tall castles of dark stone perched above traveled roads or guarding strategic fords, crenelated houses behind spiked palisades and guarded by stagnant moats. When Meggotta attained her fifth birthday she was given three manors in widely separated parts of the country, Sussex, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire. It has been estimated that the justiciar owned estates in fifteen counties.

The possession of so many tenements or freeholds entailed the employment of great armies of men: stewards and seneschals to handle the accounts, men-at-arms, yeomen of the eweries and of this and that, larderers and pastry cooks and kitchen knaves, grooms and blacksmiths and carpenters, villeins to till the soil, all wearing the iron badge of Burgh around the neck or stamped in color on the sleeve. Conceive of the work of the armorers in covering the backs of the men-at-arms who would ride behind their master to war and in making ailettes for the shoulders and chausses of steel for the thighs and covering kneecaps with water-hardened leather! How the forges must have blazed and roared in making the shields which had changed from kite shape to flatiron, the prick spurs, the two-edged swords!

The administration was honeycombed with men of his own choosing. Ralph Nevil, Bishop of Chichester, owed his rise to the chancellorship to the influence of Hubert and worked hand and glove with him. Ranulf the Breton, treasurer of the royal household, was another appointee of the all-powerful justiciar. Stephen Segrave, who was Hubert’s chief colleague in all matters of importance and who later would play Thomas Cromwell to his benefactor’s Wolsey, was a man of his exact stamp, able, ambitious, not too scrupulous. It was the same all down through the lower reaches of officialdom, men of ability and an eye to the main chance holding posts to which they had been appointed by Hubert and considering that their prosperity depended on his good will.

The landless youth from Norfolk had come a long way up in the world.

1See pages 350–51 in the first volume, The Conquerors.

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