ONE DAY in January 1227 a special meeting of the Council was called with Henry presiding. He was now fully grown. A truly kingly sword was strapped to his belt, and he looked kingly himself; straight and tall and handsome in a rather more restrained mold than the familiar Plantagenet brand of blazing good looks. His manner was determined and assured.
He announced that he was now of age, having reached his nineteenth year, and that he would assume at once the full powers and responsibilities of kingship.
It was clear enough that Hubert de Burgh had been aware in advance of what Henry planned to do and that he had acquiesced. He retained the royal favor to the full and proceeded to implement a policy which was designed to fill the pitifully bare coffers of the crown. Steps were taken to tighten the forest laws and bring full ownership back to the Crown. Owners of land by royal patent were ordered to bring their proofs to Westminster and to secure confirmation anew. They found that confirmation entailed the payment of a fee, the size of which was arbitrarily decided by the highest powers. It is estimated that as much as one hundred thousand pounds was raised in this way. Landowners, needless to state, were very unhappy about it, particularly the great barons who had not been exempt. They laid the blame on Hubert de Burgh, and the feeling against the overbearing upstart (to mention the least hostile of the things said against him) continued to mount. If he knew how much he was disliked, which is doubtful because he seems to have been somewhat insensitive on that score, he did not alter his course or make any effort to placate the baronage.
The late twenties were taken up largely with trouble in Wales. The southern portion of Wales had been overrun by the Normans, but in the North a valiant prince named Llewelyn ab Iorwerth was holding out. He had married Joanna, an illegitimate daughter of John, but this connection with the English royal family did not prevent the Welsh leader from contesting every foot of mountainous soil and striving to break the circle of Marcher castles which hedged him in.
Llewelyn, who came to be called the Great in history, had begun his fighting career when he was ten years old. Wales had been split with dissension then, but he had drawn the country together under his personal rule. The bards now called him Prince of Aberffraw and Lord of Snowdon and they sang his praises with all the fervor and exaggeration of which they were capable; which was a great deal indeed. “There fell by his hands,” sang the minstrels after one battle, “seven times the number of the stars!” He was the Devastator of England, and the sound of his coming was “like the roar of the wave as it rushes to the shore.” His helmet of battle was “crested with a fierce wolf.”
Llewelyn looked down from the peaks of Snowdon and saw Hubert de Burgh, who had already made Montgomery a threat to Welsh independence, starting to build another great castle in Arwystli. Instead of sending Henry his usual yearly gift of goshawks, sparrow hawks, and falcons, the Welsh prince came down from his high fastnesses with fire and sword. The campaign which followed was a series of humiliations for the English, and in the end they had to promise to raze the new castle to the ground. The justiciar had once jokingly referred to it as Hubert’s Folly, and his enemies now pointed out that he had indeed been a prophet.
Henry was burning with martial zeal, but not for the kind of guerrilla fighting which brought him nothing but defeat and loss in Wales. It irritated the young King to be tied down to such small-scale operations. What he wanted was to lead a great army into France and wrest back the imperial possessions his father had lost. It was a constant mortification to Henry that all Englishmen laid the blame for the loss of the French provinces on John Softsword, and he was never going to be happy until he had balanced the scales. It galled him that no one in England wanted war and that Hubert opposed every move he made to draw the sword. It was particularly galling that he found his hands tied at a time when discontent was reaching a high point in France.
In 1228 the Count of Brittany, Peter of Druex, took up arms against the French King. Rumors flew through England when a deputation arrived in the country at Christmas, made up of Norman and Poitevin knights, headed by the Archbishop of Bordeaux. On the surface it was no more than a visit for the exchange of seasonable civilities, but in the King’s green-draped chamber at Westminster conferences were held in great secrecy at which he was promised an active uprising in both North and West if he would lead an army into France.
Henry took fire. He saw an opportunity to regain all the lands which had belonged to his grandfather, Henry II, Normandy and the Angevin provinces and the vast and fair expanse of Aquitaine. He agreed to take an army of invasion into France the following year. Hubert de Burgh was still opposed to the plan, as were most of the King’s advisers (except those who had estates to regain in Normandy), but this made no difference. They were commanded to organize the full resources of the kingdom for the blow which was to be struck.
An army was recruited in due course and ships were gathered at Portsmouth to transport the troops and supplies to Brittany, where forces would be joined with Peter of Dreux. The date of sailing had been set, October 13, and Peter of Dreux came over to England to swear fealty to Henry for his duchy. It was discovered then that the army which gathered at Portsmouth was much smaller than had been anticipated. The country still lacked stomach for a resumption of the costly French wars. But meager though the army was, it was found that the vessels gathered to transport it were not numerous enough for the task. It was, in fact, a sorry fiasco. Henry was certain the miscalculation had been deliberate, particularly when it was reported to him that some of the casks which were supposed to contain funds for the campaign were filled instead with stones and sand.
“Old traitor!” cried the King, turning on his justiciar. He drew his sword and rushed at Hubert, swearing that he would have his blood.
The Earl of Chester, who was one of the few leaders with something to gain if Normandy came back to the English Crown and who therefore favored intervention, was wise enough in spite of that to interfere. He placed himself between the two men and persuaded the King that Hubert was not to blame. Henry cooled down but only after an agreement had been reached, to which all his ministers, including the justiciar, subscribed, that a more powerful thrust would be organized in the spring. Hubert’s consent was wrung from him because he now saw the danger of opposing the wishes of the King. He was convinced in his own mind, however, that a thrust at France could be nothing but a costly failure. England lacked everything for a successful war against the more powerful nation across the Channel, men, money, arms, ships, the will to fight.
The invasion took place with great pomp and circumstance. A large army had been gathered and there were adequate supplies. In May 1230 the King set sail with a fleet of 230 vessels, a truly magnificent armada. The treasury had been depleted, but there was no thought of this in the mind of the proud young monarch when he landed at St. Malo and was given a wildly enthusiastic welcome. It was a glittering and magnificent start. All the great nobles of England were with him, their banners making a brave show when elevated over the walls of St. Malo. Henry himself had come ashore like a conqueror, decked out in shining armor and looking very handsome in a mantle of white silk.
But the results fell dismally short of expectations. The rising in support of the English King did not take place except in Brittany, where Peter of Dreux was irrevocably committed to the cause. The appearance of a foreign army on French soil had cooled the resolution of the French nobility. Some of them broke their promises by rushing to arms under the banners of Louis.
Henry rode at the head of his troops through Poitou. He captured one small castle in the Gironde and made a triumphal entry into Bordeaux. The French paid him the sorry compliment of ignoring him. A thrust into French territory would have been met sharply and decisively, but as long as the dilettante soldier was content to parade through the safe reaches of the territory which still remained under English control, Blanche of Castile was content to leave him to his own devices.
Henry became ill with dysentery and decided that he had done as much as could be expected of him. Leaving the eldest son of the Good Knight, who had become marshal in his father’s stead, to command the forces which were being left behind, he sailed back to England in October. The most inglorious of campaigns had come to an absurd end.
If Henry’s pride smarted from his lack of success, he had a ready excuse to offer himself. He had received no more than halfhearted support. His knights had spent their time drinking and wenching and had shown no sign of honest martial ardor. An evil influence had been at work to account for this pusillanimous attitude. The King knew the answer to that because there were plenty to whisper it in his ear: Hubert de Burgh.
Peter des Roches returned to England late in 1231, and the King went to Winchester as his guest at Christmas. The dismissal of Hubert de Burgh was decided on during the visit.
Henry was as variable as a weathercock in his likes and dislikes, and the suave bishop had no difficulty in winning him back. The latter was full of the stimulating talk for which the young King hungered, news of the capitals of the world, what was being said in Paris and Rome and the East, the state of affairs in Poitou and Gascony, which the bishop had visited, the great movements beginning in all the arts. Henry succumbed again to the charm of the polished churchman, and it became very easy to convince him that all the difficulties under which he had been laboring, most particularly his poverty, was the fault of Hubert de Burgh. The wars in Wales, which had cost the Crown so much and had been so ineffective, had been controlled by lukewarm hands. The French campaign had been a failure for the same reason. Get rid of the incubus, urged the bishop. Make a clean sweep of the leeches and fortune hunters brought in by Hubert and now serving him as master. Henry listened eagerly and agreed.
Not sufficient has been said about Peter des Roches to give an adequate picture of this man who was plotting to rule England. He was in every respect remarkable. It was not because he had felt called to a spiritual life that he had taken holy orders, but because he was realistic enough to see that the path to preferment led through churchly portals. A fiercely combative man, he was a soldier rather than a priest, and at various stages of his career he had shown himself not only an able leader of troops but a most capable military engineer; this, in addition to his more useful gifts as a diplomat and administrator. With all his brilliant parts, however, he failed of greatness, and this was due to his lack of integrity. Back of his suavity and charm, he was venal, grasping, devious, and unscrupulous. There was not a shred of generosity or inner grace in him.
History supplies no picture of him and no hint of his outward guise. So much is known of the manner of man he was, however, that the imagination may be allowed some latitude in picturing him, this first-class villain who held the center of the stage through the first scenes of Henry’s reign. Having lived the life of a soldier and traveler and not the sedentary existence of a churchman, he would be lean and hard rather than paunchy and soft. Discipline and hardship make the soldier clean of body and habit, so it may be assumed that Peter of Winchester had acquired this addiction to a well-scrubbed austerity of body, a claim which could not be made for some high-ranking figures in the Church, even the saintly Edmund of Abingdon being somewhat careless in his ablutions if not actually averse to water. It is certain that Peter had not fallen into the ways of lavishness in dress, being both too intelligent for such display and too well versed in the ways of the world. Still, his vestments would be of the cleanest and finest of linen; the orphreys he wore (bands of velvet down the front of the priestly cope) would be of modest black and in the best condition; the ring on his thumb (common men called this a thumbstall, after the sheath of the tailors, or even a poucer) would be set with a handsome and costly stone.
The plot against Hubert de Burgh was carefully prepared before any outward moves were made. Peter des Bivaux was appointed treasurer of the royal household and was confirmed in that position for life. He was given custody of the King’s personal seal and his authority was quietly broadened. Hubert’s own right-hand man, Stephen Segrave, was drawn into the plot and was found quite willing to betray the master who had made him. Segrave began to work secretly for the enemies of the justiciar, bringing to them proofs of maladministration and the diversion of funds. They were all ready to proceed when something happened to put into their hands the kind of weapon which they could use best.
In December 1231 a band of masked men made an attack on a group of foreign churchmen as they emerged from an ecclesiastical council at St. Albans. It was completely unexpected, and there was much shouting and protestation and a hurried scramble back within the church portals. One foreign churchman, an Italian named Censius, failed to reach shelter, however, and was carried off a prisoner. He was not released until he had paid a ransom to his captors.
The reason for the raid was soon made clear. A band of men, mostly from the North and calling themselves the Brotherhood, had been organized to drive the Italian holders of benefices out of the country. They proceeded to ride about at night, masked and disguised, and won the immediate approval and support of people everywhere. The willingness of the populace to applaud was easily understood; the hatred of the interlopers who waxed fat on English livings had been growing more intense all the time and, as an additional reason, the raiders carried letters which indicated they had the sanction of the Crown.
The attacks on foreigners began to take on a nationwide character. It developed later that the original Brotherhood had consisted of no more than eighty members, most of them audacious young men under the leadership of one Robert Tweng, a bachelor knight from Yorkshire who had assumed for the purpose the name William Wither. It was soon apparent that raids were being carried out by men who did not belong to Tweng’s band, most of them men of ill will who took advantage of the situation to ride out masked and who cloaked their activities under the pretense of belonging to William Wither and his group. Italians with prebends or other profitable benefices who had been rash enough to take up residence in the country which paid them their fat yearly fees were visited at night and robbed. The grain was taken from their barns and distributed to the poor, or kept for the personal use of the raiders as the case might be. Some Italians went into hiding and some fled overseas. Papal messengers were waylaid and relieved of all papers to prevent bans of excommunication from being brought in and issued. It became certain that all the incidents reported could not have been the work of the original band.
The bishops held a council in February 1232 and excommunicated everyone connected with the depredations. This does not seem to have had any effect. At any rate, the raids went on.
Word reached Rome in June. Gentle Honorius was dead and had been succeeded by Ugolino of the counts of Segni, a relation of Innocent III, under the name of Gregory IX. The new Pontiff was a man of great firmness of character and of very great learning, although he failed to attain in the pontificate the full stature of his illustrious relative. Being embroiled with Frederick II of Germany at the time, and finding that versatile and violent monarch as much as he could handle, Gregory does not seem to have taken the situation in England with any particular seriousness. The note he sent to Henry was, at any rate, surprisingly mild. He rebuked the King for allowing such things to happen and he chided the Church in England. Naturally, of course, he commanded the excommunication of all whose part in the raids had been proven, but adding that they should be sent to Rome for his absolution. The impression is left that Gregory entertained a secret suspicion that the Brotherhood had some right to voice their dissent with conditions in this illegal but forthright way.
By this time the truth was out in England. It had been discovered how small the original Brotherhood had been and the identity of the leader had been revealed. Robert Tweng was excommunicated and then packed off to Rome. The Pope, discovering that the young knight’s actions were due to his pique over the giving of a church, to which he held the right of presentation, to an alien without his consent, treated the culprit most kindly. Tweng was not only absolved but was allowed to continue holding the right of presentation.
In England the activities of the Brotherhood had ceased and masked men no longer rode the highways by night. The investigation had been dropped, however, and the whole nation knew the reason. Preliminary inquiries had uncovered the fact that many prominent men both in Church and State had either been involved personally or had given the ringleaders the sanction of support; so many, in fact, that the crown officers shied away at once and reported the case closed.
Neither the actual participants nor the men of prominent rank who had lent support to the movement paid any form of penalty. Punishment was reserved for the one man mentioned who unquestionably was innocent. It had been known from the start that the documents of royal sanction were forged, and the whisper had gone out that Hubert de Burgh had either supplied these false credentials or had winked at their use. The whisper originated without a doubt in the fertile brain of Peter des Roches, who could not fail to see at once the splendid possibilities in what was happening. It was inconceivable that Hubert de Burgh could have been guilty of such an absurd mistake. He had earned the name of a stern and relentless upholder of the law and, if he had seemed lax in following up its prosecution of the Brotherhood, it undoubtedly was because he also knew the prominence of the men involved. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain through the activities of Tweng and the Brotherhood.
When the investigation was dropped, however, it was given out that the involvement of the justiciar in the plot had been established.
On August 8, while the King was at Shrewsbury, the blow fell. Hubert was commanded to surrender all the royal castles in his possession to Stephen Segrave, and the latter was appointed chief justiciar in his place. Henry, who tended to swing fiercely from one extreme to another, was no longer content to dismiss his minister and let matters rest; he was determined to ruin Hubert as well. On August 13 a second order was issued which took away all the personal possessions of the latter. The royal offices at Westminster were swept clean of Burgh men. Stephen Segrave and one Geoffrey of Crowcomb, the steward of the royal household, went to work on the papers which had been seized.
Hubert de Burgh was not surprised. He bad been realizing for some time that forces were working to bring about his dismissal from office. He was dismayed, however, at the unexpected ferocity of the attack. At first he did nothing, sitting disconsolate in the Tower. This inertia changed to active consternation when he found that London had turned bitterly and turbulently against him. From the narrow windows of the White Tower he looked down on streets packed with angry, jeering people, on bonfires blazing in open spaces, on torches carried exultantly to celebrate his fall.
Hubert had made the grievous mistake of offending London. Some years before there had been an occasion when a group of apprentices had set up a quintain outside the walls of the city. A quintain was a wooden target at which knights practiced tilting in preparation for the time when they would face live opponents in the lists. The apprentices were trying their skill with homemade lances when some youths of the court happened to see them. Taking umbrage at this open aping of their betters, the scions of gentility returned in a body to teach the sons of common men a lesson. In the melee which followed the young courtiers got the worst of it and were driven off with broken heads and torn clothing. The incident grew into a riot when the court elected to punish the youth of London. It was asserted that one bold citizen named Constantine Fitz-Arnulf incited the townspeople to destruction of property by raising the French battle cry of “Mont joy and St. Denis!” an indication that London sympathies had been with Louis of France and not Henry. Fitz-Arnulf was arrested and brought before Hubert de Burgh.
Hubert had always been a stern administrator of the law, quick to punish, quick to call on the services of the executioner. He ordered that Fitz-Arnulf be hanged without giving him the privilege of trial, and the sentence was carried out immediately. Not content with this, he punished a number of other ringleaders by having their feet cut off.
London had never forgotten. From that time forward the head of the state had encountered in the great city on the Thames a steady and undeviating opposition, an unceasing dislike. Hubert de Burgh was a brave man, but he was unnerved now when he saw below the tossing of angry torches and realized, for the first time fully, that any man who incurred the enmity of London would come to rue it someday. The trained bands of the citadel of wool had forgotten his heroic war record and remembered only the body of Constantine Fitz-Arnulf dangling on a gibbet. They thought no longer of the sea battle off Sandwich but recalled the arbitrary way in which he had punished Londoners for a disturbance forced upon them by the young gentry of the court.
The deposed minister decided that it would be wise to get away from London and he departed stealthily at night. He made his way to Merton Priory, a famous institution behind a high triangular wall where Thomas à Becket and many other great men had gone toschool, and settled down to the urgent task of preparing his defense. There was little time for this, a hearing having been set for September 14 and the demand made on him that he be prepared to account for all funds which had passed through his hands during his long term in office.
All England was now in a ferment. The nobility shared the jubilation of the Londoners and clamored for the punishment of the upstart. The common men of the kingdom, whose opinions in this crisis were of no weight, however, were disturbed and unhappy. They had been dazzled and alienated somewhat by the magnificence of the man during his days of power, but this had not obliterated their memories of his heroic stands at Chinon and Dover and the sweep of his sails over the Channel in pursuit of the ships of Eustace the Monk. They were stunned and apprehensive over the dislodgment from the high wall of authority of this first great Humpty Dumpty of humble origin. Did it mean a return to baronial supremacy and the sharp medicine of feudal justice? The common men waited anxiously, certain that Hubert had been their friend, fearful of the consequences of his sudden fall.
Henry was like an excited boy over his success. Directing the moves from Westminster, he drank in the ugly rumors which were circulating about Hubert and perhaps came to believe them himself, even though he had had a hand in the concocting of them. It was not only being said that the justiciar had looted the treasury and that he had mismanaged the military operations. Darker things were now being openly charged. The fallen minister had removed opponents from his path by the hand of the assassin and the cup of the poisoner. He had administered a lethal dose to stout old William Long-Espée after the return of the latter from abroad. He had encompassed the deaths of William the Marshal, son of the Good Knight, and of Archbishop Richard, who had succeeded Stephen Langton at Canterbury. He had seduced the Princess Margaret and then married her in the hope of succeeding to the throne of Scotland.
The campaign of calumny went even farther and spread tales of black magic which he had used to gain his ends. It was said that his hold over the King had been the result of evil charms. He had stolen a precious stone from the royal treasury which had the power to render anyone who wore it into battle safe from all harm and had given it to Llewelyn of Wales. The last tidbit was circulated avidly, although no attempt was made to explain why no one else had known of the existence of this magic stone or why Hubert had given it to his most active opponent instead of keeping it for his own use.
Behind the high walls of Merton, Hubert heard what was being said and knew that the scales had been weighted, that his trial would be no more than a formality. He refused to leave the priory, claiming the right of sanctuary. Henry stormed into action. He hurried off a letter to the Lord Mayor of London, asking that the citizens organize themselves and bring Hubert de Burgh back dead or alive. It was night when this missive was received, but the Lord Mayor responded at once by ringing all the bells of London. The townspeople, roused from slumber, poured out of their houses in instant response and were delighted when the word was circulated of the service the King had asked of them. The night was spent in preparation, and by dawn the march was begun. It was estimated that as many as twenty thousand men had armed themselves, and the roads into Surrey were black with unorganized but eager citizens.
It was fortunate that among the men around the King at this juncture there was one with a cool head. The old Earl of Chester, who had no love for Hubert de Burgh and no desire to shield him from punishment, was apprehensive of the results of this appeal to mob rule. He pointed out to the King that the situation was certain to get out of control. The strength of London, once allowed to assert itself, might be turned later to less agreeable objectives. Henry was brought finally to a realization of the danger. Fortunately, also, the Lord Mayor was a man of great common sense, Henry FitzAlwyn, a son of the renowned Roger FitzAlwyn who had been the first to hold the office. The FitzAlwyns were drapers and believed in the motto which the members of that powerful guild carried under the two lions, “Unto God only be honor and glory.” The Lord Mayor had enough of conscience to see the danger in the situation and he was quick to issue an order to the trained bands to break up and return home.
Reluctantly the long marching lines halted, turned, and retraced their steps to London. At the head of the line they displayed the chains which had been forged for the limbs of the now thoroughly hated ex-minister.
The excitement died down, but Hubert was not reassured thereby. It was quite clear to him that his opponents, with the young King urging them on, would be satisfied with nothing but his ruin and death. The deposed justiciar, who had laughed when the French prince threatened to hang him from the battlements of Dover, succumbed now to an emotion quite new to him, a feeling of panic. He fled from Merton Priory, intending to join his faithful princess wife at Bury St. Edmunds.
The events which followed in rapid succession were like a mirror held up for one brief moment to the beliefs, the moods, the deep faiths, the contradictions, of the Middle Ages. Hubert progressed no farther than a crossroad settlement in the forests of Surrey where Brentwood now stands and where he sought lodging at a manor owned by one of his nephews, the Bishop of Norwich. He had retired for the night when there was a sudden clamor of horses’ hoofs on the road outside and loud voices demanding entrance. Not waiting to dress, the deposed minister escaped from the house and made his way in the dark to the chapel of Boisars, which was nearby, and there his pursuers found him, kneeling before the altar with a cross in his extended hands. Dragged out by command of Geoffrey of Crowcomb, who had charge of the pursuit, he was taken to the crossroad smithy, and the blacksmith, routed out in turn, was ordered to forge fetters for his wrists and ankles. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and recognizing the prisoner, the stout smith refused.
“It is my lord Hubert de Burgh,” he said. Remembering Dover and Sandwich and forgetting everything else, he threw down his hammer. “I’ll never make chains for my lord Hubert de Burgh!”
No manner of threats could make the brave smith change his mind, so Geoffrey of Crowcomb and his men placed the prisoner on horseback, bound his feet under the animal’s belly, and took him to London and the Tower. Here he was lodged far down under the spacious apartments where formerly he had dined in state, in the lowest of the remote cells of the White Tower.
The high churchmen of the land had been as anxious as the nobility to get rid of the arrogant climber who had raised himself above them. Violation of sanctuary, however, was an offense they could not condone. The Bishop of London felt called upon to inform the King that, unless the prisoner was taken back to the chapel, he would excommunicate everyone connected with this act of violence, beginning with Henry himself and going all the way down to the groom who held the bridle of Geoffrey of Crowcomb’s horse. Reluctantly the King gave in and the deposed minister was restored to the sanctuary from which he had been torn. A large force was placed on guard and a patrol thrown about the little chapel; and then the whole nation waited and watched to see what would happen.
Henry was burning with impatience to have the obnoxious Hubert safely out of the way so that he could start on the long-anticipated gratifications and excitements of personal rule. The men about him were urging him on to arbitrary extremes. The watch about the chapel of Boisars was conducted, nevertheless, with a scrupulous regard for the traditions and ethics of sanctuary. None of the followers of the fugitive was permitted to communicate with him, but his servants carried food to the chapel each day. Hubert, never moving more than a few feet from the altar, answered the proposals which were sent in to him with resolute negatives. Would he agree to go into exile? No. Would he give himself up on the royal promise to spare his life and make his punishment life imprisonment? No.
The Earl of Chester, one of the most determined of his opponents but also the fairest of them, died while the siege was in progress. Hubert, informed of this and realizing, perhaps, that one of his few props had been taken away, read a service for the soul of the departed, crying earnestly, “May the Lord be merciful to him!” Nothing could express more vividly the curious addictions to form, the inhibitions, the deep devotions of the age, than this picture of a fugitive, faced with debasement and perhaps death but scrupulously supplied with food to maintain his solitary vigil (a little reminiscent of the custom of offering wine to a condemned man after his stomach has been cut away in the gory business of drawing and quartering), bowing reverently before the altar in the darkness of the encircled chapel and saying prayers for the soul of one of the stiff-necked men who had brought him to this pass.
Finally it occurred to the tradition-bound group about the King that a little logic might be applied to the solution of this strange situation. Why go on supplying the stubborn man with food? The daily rations were discontinued. Hubert de Burgh held out as long as he could. Then, a pale and weakened version of himself, he came to the door of the chapel and gave himself up.
Another ride to the Tower followed, the legs of the prisoner tied again under the belly of the horse and all London turning out to watch the ignominious finale of Hubert de Burgh’s defiance of the law.
Placed on trial early in November, the prisoner refused to plead or submit to the judgment of the court of earls sitting to hear his case. Instead he threw himself on the King’s will. This was probably the wisest course for him to pursue, but it carried with it his willingness to surrender all his possessions.
It has been explained earlier that the Knights Templars had established themselves in elaborate quarters on the banks of the river outside the city and that they had become the nation’s bankers. They were ideally situated to act in that capacity, being subject to no laws other than their own and having military strength to defend themselves and their stores against any form of aggression. It is likely that, for security, they had located the countinghouse somewhere in the center of the group of buildings which made up the New Temple, approached no doubt through winding passages and many strong doors. The vaults were located as a matter of necessity immediately beneath the countinghouse, for the men of that day were not yet accustomed to banking practices and had the habit of dropping in at odd moments to demand that their particular possessions be produced for visual inspection.
When the officers of the King visited the New Temple with the demand that everything held there for Hubert de Burgh be surrendered, they were told that nothing could be yielded up, even to the King, except with the consent of the depositor. This negative answer, delivered by the white-cloaked knight who presided over the banking operations, was respectful but quite firm, and it was clear that it would be backed by force if necessary. The corridors were filled with knights wearing the red cross of the Templars on the shoulder, silent men who observed the rule of the order, “I have set a watch on my mouth,” and whose first duty was vigilance, which they followed even to the extent of sleeping in secure and peaceful London in shirt and breeches and with a lamp burning by the bedside. They were prepared, it was apparent, to fight and die, if need be, rather than permit any violation of the rules of the order.
The messengers of the King carried back the answer, and Hubert was brought out from his dark cell and ordered to agree to the seizure of all his wealth. Realizing the futility of refusal, he made a gesture of despair and did what was demanded of him. The paper was returned to the New Temple, and the silent custodians of the nation’s wealth repaired to the vaults below where the treasure of the once great justiciar was kept.
It proved to be a tremendous haul. Hubert de Burgh had been feathering his nest in real earnest. The eyes of the King must have gleamed with excitement when he saw what the chests yielded up—gold, plate, rings sparkling with precious stones, imposingly high standing-cups (there were 158 cups of gold or silver, all elaborately decorated), uncut gems. There was so much, in fact, that the servants of the King advised against taking it all at once. A large part was left in the Temple in boxes with the royal seal.
Feeling ran higher than ever against the prisoner when this proof of his rapacity was uncovered. The new men about the King, covetous of a chance to accumulate wealth for themselves, insisted that his guilt had been proven and that he should be put to death. It soon became apparent, however, that the evidence available would not justify the verdict for which they clamored. It was not difficult to prove venality, but the charges of murder and of dabbling in black magic were found to be based wholly on idle rumor. The verdict finally arrived at, after much searching of all possibilities of suiting the royal will, was mild enough on the surface. He was deprived of all offices and honors save his earldom. The savings turned over by the Templars were confiscated to the Crown, but he was permitted to keep his private landholdings. He was to be held in close captivity in Devizes Castle until such time as he took the vows of the Knights Templars and left England for service in the Crusades.
His captivity was close indeed. He was held in solitary confinement in the main tower of Devizes, shackled to the wall. When he heard that Peter des Roches was demanding the custody of his person, which meant only one thing to the prisoner, an intent to do away with him, he contrived with inside help to make his escape and got as far as Devizes Church, where he sought sanctuary. Now the familiar pattern was re-enacted, but with a few differences in method and result. He was dragged from the church and taken to the lowest vault in the castle, where he was chained to the dungeon wall with three pairs of iron rings instead of the usual one. The bishops of Salisbury and London repaired at once to the kingly presence and demanded that the prisoner be restored to sanctuary. Hubert was, accordingly, taken back to the church and a patrol was established around it. One divergence was made from the previous formula, however; no food was allowed the harried fugitive sitting on the frithstool beside the altar.
The ending was different and more to the taste of the people of England, who were beginning to think the persecution had been carried far enough. Two of Hubert’s friends, Richard Siward and Gilbert Basset, who had already fallen out with Peter des Roches and were ready for any act of defiance, rode to the church, scattered the patrol, and carried him off with them. They reached the Wye and found a boat to take them across the river to Chepstow. Hubert de Burgh had reached a sanctuary at last which could, not be violated. He was in territory where the King’s writ did not run.
There he remained for two years.