Pageants Exhibition at Moyse’s Hall 4 May to 28 August 2015 FREE
William de Braose is a name I’ve mentioned at least twice now so I think I should probably explain the significance of him, his family and the events surrounding them.
He inherited land in Sussex from his father and land on the Welsh border from his mother. In around 1166 he married Maud de St Valery, with whom he is reputed to have had 16 children.
In 1175 William de Braose carried out the Abergavenny massacre. His principle antagonist was Seisyll ap Dyfnwal of Castell Arnallt who he blamed for the death of his uncle Henry FitzMiles, Baron Abergavenny. Over Christmas in 1175 William de Braose lured Seisyll, his son Geoffrey and other Welsh leaders from Gwent to the castle, supposedly in an act of reconciliation. He then had them killed in the castle’s great hall. This resulted in great hostility against him among the Welsh. He also reputedly hunted down and killed Seisyll’s younger son Cadwaldar, a boy of seven.
William first starts to gain royal favour during King Richard’s reign when he is made sheriff of Herefordshire in 1192, a post he held until 1199, and Justice Itinerant for Staffordshire in 1196. He accompanied King Richard to Normandy in 1195 and was fighting alongside Richard in 1199 at Chalus when the king was mortally wounded. William de Braose went on to support John’s claim to the English throne.
During the early years of John’s reign William was high in the new king’s favour. John granted him all the land that he might conquer from the Welsh in Radnorshire, lordship over Limerick in Ireland (except the city itself), possession of Glamorgan castle and the Lordship of Gower with its several castles.
In 1203 William was put in charge of Prince Arthur, who had been captured during his rebellion against John the previous year. William was suspected of involvement in Arthur’s disappearance and death, that they suffered the same fate as the Welsh princes at William’s hand, although no concrete evidence every came to light. There is better evidence to suggest that he at least knew the truth of the matter. Arthur’s death remains a mystery. After Arthur’s disappearance, de Braose served in the war of 1204 against King Philip II of France.
In 1206, after his service in France, King John gave William de Braose the three great neighbouring castles of Gwent; Skenfrith Castle, Grosmont Castle and the White Castle. This has been interpreted as a bride to keep William silent on the demise of Arthur. By this point only an earldom separated him from the greatest men in England.
Soon after this, William de Braose fell out of favour with King John of England. The precise reasons remain obscure. King John cited overdue monies that de Braose owed the Crown from his estates, but the King's actions went far beyond what would be necessary to recover the debt. He seized de Braose's English estates in Sussex and Devon and sent a force to invade Wales to seize the de Braose domains there. Beyond that, he sought de Braose's wife, Maud de St. Valery, who, the story goes, had made no secret of her belief that King John had murdered Arthur of Brittany.
De Braose fled to Ireland, and then returned to Wales as King John had him hunted in Ireland. In Wales, William allied himself to the Welsh Prince Llywelyn the Great and helped him in his rebellion against King John.
In 1210, William de Braose fled Wales disguised as a beggar, to France. His wife and eldest son were captured. William died the following year in August 1211 at Corbeil, France. He was buried in the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris by a fellow exile and vociferous opponent of King John, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. His hopes to return alive to Wales and a burial in Brecon were to be unfulfilled. William's wife, Maud, and eldest son, William, once captured, were allegedly murdered by King John, possibly starved to death while incarcerated at Windsor Castle and Corfe Castle in 1210.
William de Braose’s rise to favour and sudden fall under King John furthered the distrust and dislike of John by his barons. While William had aroused the jealousy of the other barons during his rise, the arbitrary and violent manner of his fall very probably discomfited them and played a role in the Baronial uprisings of the next decade. The historian Sidney Painter, in his biography of King John, called it "the greatest mistake John made during his reign, as the King revealed to his Barons once and for all his capacity for cruelty."
In a time when sons were often sent from home for their knightly training and also used as hostages to ensure loyalty, the disappearance and supposed murder of Prince Arthur and the death of William de Braose’s wife and heir whilst imprisoned by John would have seriously damaged the baron’s trust in John. This is demonstrated in the work of historical fiction by Elizabeth Chadwick about William Marshal when Isabel Marshal is reluctant to give up her son to John’s keeping as she fears for his safety. We know that William Marshal the younger was sent to the royal court as a hostage for his father’s good behaviour in 1205 and he remained at court until 1212, everyone would have heard the rumours about Prince Arthur, so Isabel may well have feared the worst for her son.
Clauses 39 and 40 of Magna Carta can be seen to directly relate to what happened to the de Braose family and demonstrate the impact of John’s actions on the mindset of the barons.
(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
The story of the de Braose family demonstrates clearly one of the reasons that the Magna Carta came into being during the reign of King John. His capricious nature meant no one could ever feel secure in his favour or in their positions at court and land holdings.