Wednesday, 29 July 2009

William de Breos - early history

The name De Breos (De Braose, or various other spellings) is one of the significant ones in the history of Swansea, and in the family line were several Williams. Some of these inherited the estates and some died young, making the counting of them somewhat controversial. The one we are interested in was born in 1261, referred to as either William III or William VII. Let us just call him William.

William took over many of the duties of running the estates before his father (another William) died, but he didn't inherit until 1291. Along with the estate, he inherited large debts, several law suits, and a profligate lifestyle. Consequently he was always looking for money, and not always particular about how he got it. The inheritance was large, and over the centuries the number of lands varied widely, depending on honours given and received, and sales made in an attempt to balance the books. In some cases land was forfeit due to the displeasure of the king, and in others land was given in recognition of service, particularly in war.

At the time of his inheritance, the main estates were Bramber (West Sussex) and Gower (South Wales), but William seems to have spent a lot of time in Gower, and rebuilt Oystermouth Castle in stone, which he preferred to live in, although Swansea Castle was the main seat of Gower. However, it is possible that Swansea Castle was in some disrepair, as the whole town was sacked and burned just over 50 years before, by Rhys ap Maredudd in a Welsh uprising.

By the time William inherited, his father had already sold off the north and south gates of the castle, and William himself sold some of the towers. He was able to do this because the castle became less important for military purposes by 1300, with the end of the Welsh wars. It was however, still the administrative centre and principal seat of the lordship. When he eventually worked on it, he built the 'new castle' in the south west corner of the original, and left the rest as part of the town.

William was married to Agnes and had one son (another William), and two daughters, Joan and Alina (named after his mother). Sadly, William (the son) and Joan died before him, and Alina was left as his heir. He did, in fact, make arrangements for her to inherit, but his “great unthrift”, as one writer put it, meant that her inheritance was far from certain.

To be fair, all barons had to raise men to fight for the king, at their own expense, and both William and his father had done so several times, and to great success. He served in Scotland many times, including the defeat of William Wallace, and at Bannockburn. He served in Flanders and elsewhere on the Continent. And also in West Wales against the Welsh, for the Marcher lands like Gower were part of England. William even had a huge siege engine, with all the men necessary to maintain, move and operate it, which was a key factor in winning the siege of Emlyn Castle, in the campaign against Rhys ap Maredudd in West Wales in 1288.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Swansea Castle

Let us begin where I began - with Swansea Castle. There only remains one corner in the centre of town, of what was known as the 'New Castle'. The very earliest castle was a motte and bailey, timber construction, of which nothing remains. It overlooked the lowest crossing of the Tawe, a good harbour, and the main east-west route in South Wales. It was also needed to guard against the Welsh, for South Wales was not part of the principality, but English, or rather Norman.

Not only was there a distinction between the lords and the serfs, but between the Englishry and the Welshry. The lordship of Gower was loyal to the king, and covered a large amount of land inland, as well as the peninsular of Gower we know today.

The stone castle which replaced the wooden one covered most of what is now the town centre. In it's heyday in the late 13th century it stretched from Welcome Lane (at the side of Argos) in the north to Caer Street (south of Castle Square) in the south, and from the clifftop in the east almost to Princess Way in the west. It adjoined St Mary's Church.

In the late 13th century it had fallen into disrepair, possibly following several attacks by the Welsh, and parts of it had been sold to raise money. It was no longer important militarily, following the pacification of the Welsh by Edward I. The New Castle was built into the south-west corner, with a new wall erected along Castle Bailey Street, which used to run across the castle bailey, and from there to the rear wall overlooking the cliff. The river used to run below the cliff, but was diverted much later to straighten the river and create land on the town side.

Although the de Breoses preferred to live at Oystermouth Castle, which they greatly improved, it would be nice to think of Alina living, at least some of the time, in Swansea Castle. I envision her wanting her own place when she married, at least when she grew up, and maybe she moved there, leaving Oystermouth to her father.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The White Lady of Oystermouth

Alina de Breos (also spelled de Braose) was born about 1291 and her father William de Breos was Lord of Gower. The administrative centre for Gower was at Swansea Castle, but they preferred to live at Oystermouth Castle. Alina was married to John de Mowbray when she was only seven, and led an eventful life. She is regarded as being responsible for the building of the chapel at Oystermouth Castle, and is said to haunt it, being known as the White Lady of Oystermouth.

I first discovered Alina when researching Swansea Castle for a fantasy story idea about travelling back in time to the castle in its heyday. Its heyday turned out to be the late 13th and early 14th century. All that remains of the castle is one corner at the top of a steep bank above The Strand, which used to run along the River Tawe. Apart from being a major port, I always assumed that Swansea was an insignificant town, but as I researched I found that it was part of a rebellion which toppled a king.

The fantasy story receded further into the background as I got more and more interested in this period in history. In this blog I aim to share my research and my thoughts as I plan to write a historical novel about Alina. In a novel, certain things have to be made up - the details of daily life, conversations etc. - but the historical facts must be accurate. I need to find out as much as I can, and make decisions about how to portray the rest. I hope you'll join me for the journey, and maybe learn a few things along the way.