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Authors: Michael Jecks

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BOOK: 30 - King's Gold
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In trying to write a book about the gaoling of Sir Edward of Caernarfon, lately King Edward II of England, I have been forced to study a large number of documents to make sense of the crazy politics of that era.

Scholars have argued about the poor King’s end. The general story, that he was captured, his friend and adviser Sir Hugh le Despenser executed, and the King himself forced to go under guard to Kenilworth, is not disputed. The wretched fellow must have passed a miserable Christmas in 1326, held captive by a man who sought to take the kingdom for himself – Earl Henry of Lancaster – but Edward’s problems went deeper than one aristocratic enemy.

Earl Henry was not alone in desiring power. Sir Roger Mortimer was shrewd, ruthless, and well-connected. It was he who had raised the army that captured King Edward II. Earl Henry schemed and achieved some political success, but Mortimer had the ear of the Queen. Soon he took control and forced the King to abdicate. King Edward II became Sir Edward of Caenarfon.

However, many were determined to see him released . . . which begs the question:

After all, this man had presided over a catastrophic period. There had been famine, war and disease, and through it all, King Edward II had sought to maintain and reward only those for whom he had the strongest affection. Others were treated as convenient sources of funding. Many were robbed, seeing their lands, wealth and authority stripped away by a King who sought to pass them to his favourites: first to Sir Piers Gaveston, then to Sir Hugh le Despenser. And these two were not averse to grabbing what they desired – with or without the King’s help.

Yet many did try to rescue the King and return him to his throne. There were three attempts to free him in 1327. Prominent in these plots were the Dunheved brothers and their gang.

I am sure that some who risked their lives to free Sir Edward of Caernarfon were motivated by fealty, by love, and by simple loyalty. Others were acting from a desire for reward: power or money. What is certain is that most of them lost their lives.

This was a particularly brutal time. At the turn of the fourteenth century, King Edward I had been forced to throw aside the usual system of courts, and replace them with a process designed specifically to curb the depredations of a new breed of felon, the ‘trailbastons’ or ‘club–men’. These bands of outlaws would set upon travellers or farmers, killing, raping, looting, and then moving on. The courts of trailbaston were designed to enforce the King’s Peace, as were the Keepers of the King’s Peace – men like Sir Baldwin de Furnshill.

These knights were given warrants to hunt down murderers and other felons, actually chasing them from hundred to hundred, shire to shire. Their job was to to capture criminals, unlike the coroners, who existed mostly as tax-gatherers: coroners went from body to body, noting all salient facts about each corpse on their great scrolls, so that when the Justices arrived up to ten years later, they would be able to see all the facts and impose whatever fines were relevant.

From the look of the writs I have seen, the Dunheved gang had been keeping Keepers busy in recent years. Stephen Dunheved himself had been forced to leave the country in 1321, having abjured the realm (see
It is interesting to speculate on his crime. Presumably it was murder – but the fact of it did not prevent his brother from acting as confessor to King Edward II. That may seem odd to us now, but the taint of a crime did not adhere to a family name in the 1300s. If it had, there would have been few men qualified to remain in the King’s household.

Noted criminals of the time were routinely found amongst the King’s companions. Sir Gilbert de Middleton is one example.

Irritated by the manner in which the King treated his relation, Adam de Swinburne, who was thrown into gaol when he criticised certain of Edward’s policies, Sir Gilbert took Adam’s case into his own hands. But not for him the usual method of presenting his case in court. In preference, he attacked a delegation heading to Scotland to negotiate a peace with those troublesome Scots. The fact that among the men he kidnapped were two papal envoys did not endear him to his King, and he was captured in fairly short order and taken to London in chains before being executed.

Middleton was by no means alone. There was Sir Peter de Lymesey who stole a woman’s lands, and when she tried to take the matter to court, he prevented her by threatening all her witnesses with maiming, burning or death. In 1311 it was said of Sir John de Somery that no one could win justice in Staffordshire due to his control of the area. He was a man of ‘considerable notoriety’
. And not only knights were keen to use their positions in the King’s household for their own advantage. Robert Lewer, ‘an out-and-out thug in household employment’
, was only an archer when he threatened to ‘dismember some sergeants sent to arrest him, either in the presence or the absence of the King’. His violent life came to an end two years later, when he suffered the
peine forte et dure
) because he refused to plead in court.

This was a time of powerful young men who were certain of their status and their authority. And many had cause to be grateful to the King.

Knights were made Coroners, Sherrifs, Keepers, Justices of Gaol Delivery; they were asked to go to Parliament; some few served in the King’s household among other duties. All these positions gave opportunities for the unscrupulous, and all too often the knights proved themselves perfectly content to make profit. As shown above, they could resort to extreme violence when it suited them.

And that points to another possible motivation for a number of the men involved in the schemes to spring the King from gaol: some may well have realised that the crimes they had committed were so heinous that it was likely a new administration would come down heavily on them. They had enjoyed their freedom before King Edward III took the throne from his father, and they sought to return King Edward II, his father, to the throne in order that they might gain pardons for more recent crimes they had committed. Or so that they could continue their lawless way of life.

Whatever their reasons, it is clear that many men were prepared to risk their lives in rescuing Sir Edward of Caernarfon from whichever gaol he currently inhabited.

Once again, I am hugely indebted to Ian Mortimer, who very generously gave me an early sight of his latest book,
Medieval Intrigue
, which was published in September 2010. I am also glad to acknowledge the great help I’ve received from Jules Frusher and Kathryn Warner, and from their excellent Edward II and Despenser sites on the internet.

Many other books have been of great assistance. There is a list of them on my website at – please see the
button on the left.

For now, I hope you enjoy the story as you slip back into the past and into a period in which life was more brutal and more dangerous than it is today, and when the people of England felt little compunction about rebelling against injustice.

Michael Jecks

North Dartmoor

July 2010



Third Wednesday after the Feast of St Michael,
twentieth year of the reign of King Edward II

Abchirchelane, London

Matteo di Bardi hurried up the lane. His bodyguard, Dolwyn, was beside him; two more men behind – all anxious. At times they broke into a brisk trot, for it was impossible to saunter along when the city was in flames. Matteo must get to the meeting.

The smell of charred embers was everywhere. He had heard that the houses of the Bishop of Exeter were all aflame, that the homes of other bishops were besieged or broken open, that men of prestige and authority were lying slain in the streets. It was lunacy!

The third, and youngest brother of the House of Bardi, Matteo could have had a magnificent career in Florence, but the lure of the court of King Edward II had tempted him to join Manuele and Benedetto. He was shrewd and well-informed: with these talents, he reckoned he must soon rise in the family’s bank. Instead, he was witness to the destruction of the kingdom’s greatest city.

Ahead lay Langburnestrate
, the great road that led from Garscherch Street to St Mary Woolchurch, and he knew that when he reached it, he must head west along it for a few yards before turning north.

Usually Langburnestrate was full of vendors hoping to snare some fool into buying their maggoty pies and mouldy bread, but not today. The street was deserted. This eerie silence, Matteo knew, was the brief calm before the ‘rifflers’ arrived and began to torch, rape and murder. There was nothing those barbarians would not sink to. Truly, the only cure for them was to put them to the sword or hang the bastards.

Matteo di Bardi was a small man, with thin, pallid features on which his black beard and dark, dilated eyes stood out like those on a fever patient. However, Matteo was not unwell: his was the pallor of the scriptorium. He spent his days assessing, calculating and carefully researching. And in his purse now he had the results of his labours.

There was more smoke. He could practically
it – along with the stench of death. At the end of the street he stopped, his heart pounding, as Dolwyn edged forward and peered around the corner. Nothing. He beckoned, and Matteo made haste to follow him.

Here in Langburnestrate there was no one to be seen, only an occasional movement at an unshuttered window. Farther along the road, where it widened at the door of St Mary Woolchurch, there was a large bonfire, but apart from that, the area was deserted. That was not a good sign, since the men who had constructed this bonfire would not have left it without reason.

The four hastened along the road until they reached the church, at which point they could turn along the narrow northern lane. At last Matteo saw the great stone house that was the London residence of the Bardi and pounded on the timbers with his gloved fist, his men behind him.

The house of the Bardi was old. Over the door was a stone lintel in which the arms of King Edward II had been deeply carved, a proof of the bankers’ status in the city. The house gave him a feeling of safety – at least for now, he thought as he glanced nervously about him.

The door opened and Matteo Bardi slipped inside with two of his men. However, Dolwyn remained outside; then, at a signal from his master, Dolwyn made his way back into the lane.

St Peter’s Willersey

Father Luke was kneeling at his little altar when he heard the rumble and clink of men and a cart in the lane outside. He was quick to finish his prayers and stride to the door.

This last summer had been a good one, but rumours of impending disaster had abounded. Everyone in the country knew about the Queen’s treachery, and tales were flying around about how her mercenaries would despoil the kingdom. It was enough to make Father Luke consider pulling out his father’s old sword to defend himself, but he knew he’d be more likely to incite an attack than protect his church.

Outside he found two men-at-arms on horseback, seven reluctant-looking peasants on foot, and a cart with a strongbox on it.

‘Father, I’ve heard you have a secure storeroom?’ one of the riders asked. He was a swarthy fellow with a bushy red and brown beard, and brown eyes in a square face.

‘Yes, of course,’ Father Luke said. Churches were the best places for men to store valuable items. They would trust a priest not to rob them, and even if a church were to be broken into, it was rare for thieves to get into a strongroom within. Until recently, even the King himself had stored his crown jewels and gold in the church at Westminster Abbey.

The man introduced himself as Hob of Gloucester. ‘We have a box to deposit with you, for my lord, Sir Hugh le Despenser. He cannot fetch it, and we cannot carry it with us, since it’s too heavy. Will you keep it for him?’

‘Oh, well, yes, of course,’ Father Luke said, flustered. Sir Hugh le Despenser was the King’s right-hand man. Some considered him to be more a brother than a friend, they were so close. In fact, he had become the second most powerful man in the kingdom. Sir Hugh was detested by many, including the Queen. It was due to him that she had run off to France, it was said.

BOOK: 30 - King's Gold
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