Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Introduction to 'Broken Reed'

As part of the run-up to my book launch of Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John on Tuesday 17th September at the Oxfam Bookshop, Castle Street, Swansea, today I'm going to post the Introduction to the book. If you like it, why not buy a copy (see right)?


Introduction

Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff,which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it.(Isaiah 36:6)

Intro final small

Most people's knowledge of history is pretty patchy, and often influenced by the odd television documentary they might have seen and some frequently inaccurate films. Many of us didn't enjoy history lessons in school, especially the ones involving boring lists of kings and laws and wars. But history is about people – their lives, their loves, their decisions – and not always the kings and famous names.

Swansea and the Gower peninsular is a tiny area on the South Wales coast, currently an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was a major world centre for coal mining and metal smelting. But the area is full of Norman castles – Swansea Castle ruins are right in the city centre. Researching what life was like when these castles were in use led me to the story of the heir to the Lordship of Gower whose little rebellion ended up toppling Edward II from the English throne. That story, about Alina de Breos, was told in my book Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth. Now here's another astounding story about another de Breos and the fallout from his life a century earlier. Since so many of the de Breoses were called William, I have numbered them to distinguish between them.

The de Breos Lords of Gower were involved in virtually every major event in English history for three hundred years after the Norman conquest, yet their name very rarely appears in historical accounts. When Richard the Lionheart was fatally wounded in 1199 while besieging a castle in France, William III de Breos, 4th Lord of Bramber, one of the foremost Norman warriors, was there among his fighting barons. At Richard's death William immediately switched his allegiance to support the claim of Richard's brother John to the throne. In fact, John's return to England was via William's port of Shoreham in Sussex.i He was richly rewarded for his support. John's gifts made William one of the richest barons in England — yet history hardly mentions him.

In medieval times power came through land, and a system of fealty where a vassal would pledge faithfulness to his lord in return for protection. The more powerful barons would often rule many estates, with the individual estates ruled by lesser lords. Some lords ruled more than one estate as a vassal of different barons. If those barons fought, their vassals found themselves in a difficult position. Which baron should they support? If the wrong baron won, they would be counted a traitor.

The Angevin kings ruled England and territories in France and were historically vassals of the king of France, though they claimed to rule in their own right. The King of France was continually trying to bring them to heel, either by direct conquest or by subverting their vassals. So there was a constant battle to keep power. Lands were given to people as rewards, for favour, or in an attempt to balance power so no one vassal held too much land.

King John gave William lands for all these reasons, and favoured him in land disputes with other barons, trusting him as one of his inner circle. He was the only one of the de Breos line to unify their lands and to hold such a vast number of estates. He profited under Henry II and Richard, but it was under John he rose to greatest prominence. Yet it was under John he fell, suddenly out of favour and hounded to death. One writer called him 'a broken reed'ii.

History depicts Richard the Lionheart as the handsome hero and his brother John as an ugly tyrant, but that's not the whole picture. Tall, handsome and heroic Richard may have been, but out of his whole ten-year reign he spent less than six months in England and never bothered to learn Englishiii. Yet he was charismatic enough to win the people's loyalty, such that they raised enormous sums of money for him to go on crusade, and to pay his ransom after he was captured on the way home. And he chose able men to look after his empire while he was away.

His brother John on the other hand was a stocky, red-haired man of medium height and no hero. He failed to win the trust and loyalty of the most powerful men in the land, which had disastrous results. His behaviour was unpredictable, and he could be childish and cruel. But he was highly intelligent and shrewd, and an able governor and administratoriv. One wonders how popular Richard would have been if he had had to stay and rule England in person, and how successful John would have been with the barons on his side and a more stable temperament.

And where might William III have been, and his descendants, if he had stayed in John's favour?

i http://freespace.virgin.net/doug.thompson/BraoseWeb/family/william3.html
ii Boulter, Matthew The Career of William III de Briouze in the Reign of King John: Land, Power and Social Ties
iii Erickson, Carolly Brief Lives of the English Monarchs p.67
iv Erickson, Carolly Brief Lives of the English Monarchs p.69

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