It recently occurred to me that I must have ancestors that met unpleasant ends, and with the amount of people I’ve found in the last three years of research it goes without saying that at least a minority of them must have had quite gruesome deaths. Let’s face it, back in medieval times even the most natural of deaths were pretty horrific with no painkillers or other medications to make things better. What I am trying to write here are those deaths that were particularly nasty committed by the cruelest of means which I hope you agree with me that they were.
Now, these four examples are the ones that I could easily access, and what stood out in my memory. I have discovered many ancestors over the years who were knights and took part in well known battles in England and Wales, as well as those fought during the Crusades in the middle east. I would imagine that some of them must also have met grisly battle deaths, sometimes not as quick as they would wish, lingering in the heat for days before finally succombing, and an end to their suffering.
Sir Roger de Puleston (died 1293)
He was one of my early Puleston ancestors. Originally from Shropshire, the Puleston family were given lands in Flintshire, Wales, in the 13th century. Emeral Hall’s first Puleston occupant was Sir Roger’s son, Richard who was knighted and became the sheriff of Caernarvon at the same time as his father was created the sheriff of Anglesey, 1277. In 1293 Edward I needed more money to fund his war efforts and ordered Sir Roger to collect taxes from the Welsh. As Edward often waged war with the Welsh, Scots and the French he probably needed quite a bit.
As you can imagine this didn’t go down too well and resulted in an uprising led by Madog ap Llywelyn. Unfortunately Sir Roger was captured by the Welsh and hanged and then beheaded by the mob. It’s not certain if he was still alive after his hanging but it must have been a gruesome death to witness and certainly not quick. It’s not known whether Edward I got his funds in the end but I doubt very much if he got it that year.
Mabel de Belleme (died 2 Dec. 1079)
A daughter of William I Tavlas, she had a history of being a conivening murderess and gave birth to one of history’s monsters, Robert de Belleme, not one of my favourable of ancestors. She successfully poisoned Arnold of Echauffour (she wanted his lands) on her second attempt. The first disasterously killed her brother-in-law, who grapped the poisoned wine by mistake feeling parched after a hunt. Mabel married Roger the II Earl of Montgomery and had ten children. Her demise has been recorded as an act of revenge by Hugh Bunel, his lands having been taken from him by Mabel and her army in 1077. Two years later, Hugh, with the help of his brothers sneaked into Mabel’s castle and confronted her in her bed chamber and cut off her head with his sword. Hugh and his brothers managed to flee and succesfully escape Mabel’s pursuing soldiers.
Orderic describes her as “small, very talkative, ready enough to do evil, shrewd and jocular, extremely cruel and daring.” Yes, she sounded like a person who was in dire need of urgent therapy.
Robert Marmion (died circa 1143)
There were a succession of Robert Marmions, the first having helped William the Conqueror at Hastings and subsequentially received land in Warwickshire and Lincolnshire. Back in the days when William was only the Duke of Normandy, the Marmion family held the office of the Champions of Normandy, a hereditary honour which they continued to hold during the Norman period of England’s history.
“…and after the conquest, Robert de Marmion held the castle and manor of Tamworth in Warwickshire and Scivelsby in Lincolnshire by the tenure of performing that office at the King’s coronation; being bound ‘to ride completely armed upon a barbed horse into Westminster Hall, and there to challenge the combat with whomsoever should dare to oppose the King’s title to the crown'” [The Battle Abbey Roll, Duchess of Cleveland (1889).
A performance such as this would pep up any old boring coronation!
Robert’s son, also named Robert, apparently had not learned an important lesson from his father. The elder Robert forcibly removed the nuns from the Abbey of Polesworth and within a year experienced a visitation from Saint Edith, dressed as a nun, who struck him with a crosier and told him he would be heading to the depths of Hell if he didn’t confess to his sin. The wound was not healing and giving him such pain that he not only fessed up to what he’d done but also put the nuns back in their rightful place.
“He went in person to crave their pardon, desiring that himself, and his friend Sir Walter, might be reputed their patrons, and have burial for themselves and their heirs in the Abbey – the Marmions in the chapter-house, the Sommervilles in the cloister” [Duchess of Cleveland, 1889]
Robert the younger also seemed to enjoy chucking religious staff out of their own homes, this time the monks at a Priory near Coventry. This angered the Earl of Chester (which one I’m not sure, but another ancestor of mine nonetheless) who was in the middle of a feud with the Marmions, and besides, the Earl owned a castle in Coventry so I suppose he felt a bit threatned. No wonder he got mad with him. Sounds like Robert delibrately irked the Earl’s anger in a tit-for-tat sort of way. After capturing the Priory Robert fortified it and further protected it by having ditches dug and concealed, to trap any oncoming invaders presumably the Earl’s forces being the most likely candidates. But his downfall was sealed by his own stupidity and a lack of a map indicating the locations of his carefully hidden ditch traps. Whilst out reconnoitring the approaching Earl, Robert fell into one of his own ditches, breaking his thigh in the process. Unable to move, he was forced to wait for his own death which was handed to him by “a common soldier presently seizing him [and] cut off his head” [The Dominant and Extinct baronage of England: or An Historical and Genealogical Account of the Lives, Public Employments and most Memorable Actions of the English Nobility, who have flourished from the Norman Conquest to the year 1806, Thomas Christopher Banks, Vol. 1, 1807].
Maude de St. Valery
Of the four examples I have chosen, I think I have saved the most gruesome and certainly the most cruel of deaths for last. Maude was a daughter of Bernard de St. Valery and Matilda and was born around 1155. Sometime around 1166, Maude married William de Braose, 4th Lord of Bramber, son of William de Braose, 3rd Lord of Bramber and Bertha of Hereford de Pitres. He also held the lordships of Gower, Hay, Brecon, Radnor, Builth, Abergavenny, Kington, Painscastle, Skenfrith, Grosmont, White Castle and Briouze in Normandy. When King John of England ascended the throne in 1199, he became a court favourite and was also awarded the lordship of Limerick, Ireland. Maud had a marriage portion, Tetbury from her father’s estate. So, Maud married a pretty affluent gentleman with many estates and properties. Being a favourite of the King was just the icing on the cake.
However, we all know how psychologically disturbed King John was and it wasn’t long before things turned sour between the Braoses and the one nicknamed ‘Lackland’. The historian Ralph Turner depicted John as a man in possession of dangerous personality traits, citing spitefulness and cruelty among them http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John,_King_of_England
Maude was often called upon to help her husband to defend his properties. For three weeks in 1198 she defended Painscastle in Powys against the Welsh until English reinforcements arrived. From then on, the castle was refered to as Matilda’s Castle.
The reason why King John became her enemy is not certain but it could be that William de Braose owed him money, which led to John demanding that Maude’s son William be held as hostage. Monarchs all over Europe tended to do this in order to get what they want, and as proof of loyalty from their subjects. Maude refused this demand saying, in public, that she would not send her son to a man who had his nephew killed. There has been a suggestion that John had his nephew, Arthur, son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey, secretly killed so that he would remain the only heir to the throne of England after his other brother Richard. Of course Richard died in 1199 when a stray arrow from atop a French castle mortally struck him.
From this time on, Maude and her family were fugitives. She fled with her son William to Ireland for refuge, but eventually John’s forces captured them and imprisoned them, first at Windsor Castle, then Corfe Castle in Dorset. It was here that both Maude and her teenage son were walled in and condemned to die of starvation.
A bit of a morbid post this week but how a person dies is sometimes as fascinating as how they lived. Heroic deaths must be celebrated because they are actioned by the virtues of bravery, valor and the pursuit of a common good, a sacrifice perhaps stemming from a solid belief in freedom. But these weren’t heroic in any form. Three out of the four were cruel, slow and helpless deaths, and perhaps only Mabel de Belleme actually deserved what she got. The only one of the four that meted out a punishment that was justified for the crimes she committed during her lifetime.