Some weeks ago I wrote about the very tragic life of Elisabeth de Ferrers who lost husband and all her children in the aftermath of Edward I’s conquest of Wales. In passing, I mentioned that Elizabeth had a rather unsavoury brother, and today’s post is about him, the brother.
Should one write a short epitaph over Robert de Ferrers it would be “He screwed up.” To be fair, things weren’t exactly a walk in the park for our Robert, who was all of fifteen when his father died in 1254. With Robert’s new title, Earl of Derby, came vast estates, so whoever was awarded Robert’s wardship stood to make a killing until he reached his majority in 1260. The king, Henry III, granted the wardship to his son, Prince Edward. Edward, in turn, sold it to his mother and her uncle, Peter of Savoy for the impressive sum of 6 000 marks. Money which the new holders of Robert’s wardship intended to recoup several times over from his estates.
Maybe this whole matter regarding Robert’s inheritance is why he developed such a dislike for Edward. Seeing as Edward was in line to be the next king, disliking him openly was not a wise thing to do. Robert does not seem to have cared overmuch as to who heard him express his opinions. Instead, he comes down to us as a bad-tempered and violent man who probably couldn’t spell the word circumspection. Okay, so he lived in a time when very many of his peers couldn’t spell it either, but at least they were familiar with the concept.
The de Ferrers family was incredibly wealthy. An annual income of well over 1 000 pounds put them up there with the créme-de-la-créme. However, the estates that Robert inherited did not come unencumbered. His father had taken a loan which gobbled up a substantial chunk of the annual profit. Robert’s mother sat on one third of the income. There was not all that much left for Robert and his wife.
Robert had been married as a ten-year-old to Mary, daughter of Hugh de Lusignan XI, who was Henry III’s half-brother making Mary a cousin to Prince Edward. The English nobles weren’t all too keen on the king’s Lusignan siblings—especially as Henry III had a tendency to be overly generous to them. Arranging a marriage for little Mary with the heir to one of the richest men in England was one example of the king’s determined efforts to help his half-siblings root themselves in English soil.
We know next to nothing about Mary, except that she was three years or so younger than Robert, never had any children, and died not yet thirty. We have no idea how her relationship was with her husband, but I imagine it wasn’t exactly a sequence of happy days. Rarely did she skip with glee, hug herself and exclaim “I am such a lucky girl to have married Robert!”
Back to the 1260s and the disgruntled young Earl of Derby. Not only was the fair English countryside overrun by Lusignans, but the English nobility also had to cope with an endless amount of Savoyards, relatives of Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence. Our Robert was not the only disgruntled noble. In actual fact, there were many, many like him, men who disliked the influence Queen Eleanor and her foreign relatives had over the king, who resented these foreigners their close proximity to the king, their positions of power.
The opposition to the king was led by Simon de Montfort. Together with the other barons, he pushed through the Provisions of Oxford in 1258 whereby the king was to be advised by a council consisting of twelve barons, men chosen by their peers to represent their interest. A first, tentative step towards representative government, one could say, albeit the barons in question had scant interest in representing others than themselves. At first, Henry seemed to go along with the suggested reforms, but once he felt in control of things—helped along by a papal bull stating the provisions were quite, quite ungodly—he overthrew the Provisions of Oxford in 1261.
For a while, Henry remained on top of things. Montfort fled the country but returned in 1263. Banners were unfurled. Swords were sharpened. Throughout England, men of property were expected to take a stand: for Montfort or for the king.
For Robert, the choice was easy: whoever was an enemy of Prince Edward, was Robert’s enemy too. Also, joining Montfort came with other benefits. Remember I told you Robert had inherited an estate encumbered by debt? That he had little left to live off? Well, Robert’s solution to this dilemma was to borrow money. In medieval England pre 1290, the obvious lenders were the Jews and Robert seems to have borrowed a lot of money from the Worcester Jews. (Post 1290 there weren’t any Jews in England. Edward threw them all out, some say influenced by his Castilian wife, Eleanor. Personally, I think anti-Semitism was as rife back then as it has been throughout the history of Christianity) Montfort detested Jews. He had thrown them out of Leicester already in the 1230s, so when Robert, accompanied by several other hot-heads, decided to ransack the Jewish quarter in Worcester, Montfort placidly looked the other way, ignoring the looting, the maiming, the violence. In one fell swoop, Robert rid himself of his debt by the simple expedient of appropriating his signed bonds and destroying them.
Robert then went on to join Montfort’s men in their campaign against Prince Edward. Now, this was a time of great brutality, but also of chivalry, and when it came to the de Montforts and Prince Edward things were further complicated by the fact that Simon de Montfort was married to Edward’s aunt, his sons the prince’s cousins. It irritated the heck out of Robert when one of these cousins, Henry de Montfort, entered into a truce with Prince Edward, allowing the prince to slip out of a precarious situation. Robert gnashed his teeth: he wanted revenge on Edward for those years as an unhappy ward. It is said that while Edward was rarely afraid of other men—he was tall and strong and a capable warrior—he did fear Robert. Maybe he realised Robert had an impressive capacity for carrying a grudge and the vicious temperament required to wield a nice sharp dagger should the opportunity present itself.
Well, we all know Edward did not die by the hand of Robert. In 1265 Montfort’s dreams of a controlled monarchy were ground to dust at the Battle of Evesham, where Montfort himself lost his life. His body was horribly desecrated—some say on Edward’s orders—and those who had followed his banners into war now had a major, major problem on their hands. In one fell swoop, they lost everything they had, effectively attainted due to their treason.
However: when like half your barons are on the losing side only a very foolish king doesn’t try for some sort of reconciliation. England was a feudal kingdom, it depended on the structure of the king granting fiefs to men who in turn owed him loyalty and service. These men in turn granted fiefs to their men and so on and so on. To suddenly yank out half of the upper layers in this pyramid would leave the rest of the structure very unstable. For this reason, Henry III (or his counsellors) came up with the so called Dictum of Kenilworth. Suddenly, all those who had lost it all were given an opportunity to reclaim their lands and titles—assuming they paid a hefty fine.
Robert’s situation was not quite as straightforward as that of other Montfort supporters. You see, already before the Battle of Evesham, Robert and de Montfort had had a serious falling out. Very briefly (and yes, with a huge pinch of simplification) Montfort wanted lands Robert had. Montfort always had an eye out for number one, besides which Robert had capitalised on the general unrest to appropriate land belonging to the crown. This land Montfort wanted to give elsewhere—in fact, Montfort was hoping to establish some sort of peace with Prince Edward by freeing him form his house arrest and returning his lands to him. Obviously, this did not go down well with Robert who viewed Edward as The Evil Enemy. The long and the short of it is that Montfort lured Robert to Parliament and had him arrested and locked up in the Tower, where he languished while the final stages of the Second Baron’s War played out.
So when Henry and his advisors hammered out the Dictum of Kenilworth it didn’t quite cover Robert. There was little love lost between de Ferrers and his king, but he held sway over a huge chunk of the Northern Midlands and the king needed stability in his realm. Robert was released, fined 1 500 marks for his participation in Montfort’s rebellion and as to those lands he had appropriated from prince Edward a mediator was appointed to sort things through (Robert claimed some of this land was actually his to begin with). A wise man would have heaved a sigh of relief, praised God for allowing him to emerge safe and sound from all this and settled down to live his life. Not Robert.
Instead, he joined some die-hard rebels such as Baldwin de Wake and once again rose in rebellion. Once again, the rebellion was quashed. Robert and his companions spent a couple of years living as outlaws in the forest but were eventually captured. This time, Robert was attainted and imprisoned at Windsor, deprived of all his lands who were instead handed over to Henry III’s younger son, Edmund.
“Hang on,” Robert said. “What about the provisions under the Dictum of Kenilworth? I’m allowed to buy back my lands, aren’t I?”
Hmm. Well, yes, theoretically he was. Problem was, by now Prince Edmund had grown rather fond of his new lands and lofty status as one of England’s biggest landowners. Still, the dictum was the dictum and to conserve peace in his kingdom Henry had no choice but to agree: Robert had the right to buy back his lands.
“No way,” said Edmund. “I’m not giving them back!”
“Now, now, son,” Henry said. “Do not worry. We have a plan.”
The plan was simple: first of all, the fine imposed on poor Robert was staggeringly high – 50 000 marks. An amount impossible to find, everyone knew that. But Edmund wasn’t taking any chances, so Robert was carried off and held under lock and key by Edmund’s uncle, Richard of Cornwall, until he signed away his lands. Not at all a nice way to go about things—not even when dealing with someone like Robert. But there you are: those in power can always abuse it, which just goes to prove Montfort was right when he tried to put in place some sort of check and balance on royal power.
Come 1269 Robert was more or less destitute and deprived of his title. By then, he had married for the second time to Alianore de Bohun. Yet another not-so-happy marriage, I suspect, in this case because Alianore had thought to marry the Earl of Derby and ended up wed to plain Sir Robert. Still, this marriage bore fruit, a son and a daughter, and after years and years of trying to reclaim what was his by right Robert de Ferrers at least had one of his most important manors returned to him.
In 1279, Robert died. A boy born into one of the richest families in England, son of the powerful Earl of Derby and destined to be the next earl, exited this life as a bitter and obscure knight. His son was left with very little. The once so proud and powerful de Ferrers family was destroyed, no matter that Robert’s son. John de Ferrers, would one day be known as Baron de Ferrers.
“Baron!” Robert would likely have snorted. “He should be an earl! It’s that damned Edmund who stole it all—all, you hear?”
Robert was right—to a point. But had he not rebelled against his king, Edmund would not have been in a position to take his lands. I bet Robert had a tendency to ignore this little fact.
In the fullness of time Edmund would bequeath his own vast landholdings—including the de Ferrers lands—to his eldest son, Thomas of Lancaster. A man about as unlikeable as Robert, was Thomas, but as he is not the subject of this post we shall have to leave this for another time.