Sunday, 16 March 2008

The Battle of Boroughbridge (1322)

The Battle of Boroughbridge, one of the major turning points of Edward II’s reign, took place 686 years ago today, and to mark the anniversary, I have written a short summary of the battle and included some pictures I took on a visit to Boroughbridge three weeks ago.

A brief overview of the battle

While at Ripon on the night of 15th March, the royalist commander Sir Andrew Harclay received news from a spy in the Lancastrian ranks that the army of the Earls of Lancaster and Hereford would arrive at Boroughbridge the following day. Overnight, Harclay’s force marched to Boroughbridge.

There were two crossings of the River Ure near to the town: a bridge and a ford. These crossings were the only way Lancaster and Hereford could continue retreating north in an attempt to escape the royal army that was pursuing them. By reaching Boroughbridge before the earls, Harclay ensured that they would have to fight to get across the river.

It was only after the Lancastrian force had begun to take quarters in Boroughbridge on 16th March that they found out that Harclay had reached the river crossings before them. This illustrates two crucial facts: the weakness of the earls’ scouting, and that the subsequent battle was fought very late in the day.

Harclay deployed his pikemen in the Scottish schiltron formation, supported by archers, at both the bridge and the ford. Meanwhile, the Lancastrian forces had split, with Hereford leading an attack on foot at the bridge and Lancaster planning to mount a cavalry attack at the ford.

The battle was over very quickly. In a short action at the bridge, Hereford, his standard bearer and two other knights were killed, and many of the others were wounded. Traditionally, Hereford is said to have been killed by a pike thrust between the planks of the wooden bridge into his anus. The assault at the ford fared little better – Lancaster’s cavalry was forced back by Harclay’s archers before even reaching the water’s edge. After this, Lancaster and Harclay agreed a truce whereby the earl’s men were allowed to retreat into the town overnight, and would either surrender or resume the battle in the morning.

Harclay received reinforcements during the night, and the following morning entered the town. Lancaster had no chance of resisting, as many of his troops had fled during the night, but refused to surrender and took refuge in a chapel, where he was captured by Harclay’s men. Subsequently, he was taken to Pontefract where he was executed six days after the battle.

My pictures

The pictures that follow are based on rough estimates of the positions of the opposing forces according to this map: note the map is in PDF format).

I based my estimated positions of the bridge and ford on a very rough estimates of where the centre of the positions marked on the map were. However, it is important to note that the positions on the map are themselves estimates, and that the position of the ford is extremely uncertain. Therefore, while the pictures I took near to the bridge are probably fairly close to where the action took place, my estimated position of the ford could quite probably be nowhere near where it actually was.

A view of the modern bridge from the estimated position of Hereford’s men

The modern bridge from the Lancastrian side of the river

The modern bridge from the Royalist side of the river

View from end of royalist position furthest away from bridge

View from end of royalist position nearest bridge

My estimation of where the 14th century bridge might have been (a very rough guess according to the positions on the map)

A view of the modern bridge from the position of the previous picture

A view from the Royalist side of the river of my extremely questionable estimate of where the ford may have been

A view from the Lancastrian side of the river of my guess at where the ford may have been

Lastly, a picture of the plaque on the Lancastrian side of the modern bridge

For my information about the battle, I would suggest this website, where I found the map and much of my information. It includes a lot more detail than I have here. It includes details like where Lancaster was captured and also extracts from the contemporary sources.
I would also recommend Lady D’s much more detailed post about the battle (click on the link to “Lady Despenser’s Scribery” in the list of Blogs I Read.)

Sunday, 2 March 2008

The Countess of Gloucester's "pregnancy"

One of the weirdest episodes in English history happened in the period 1314 – 1317. After Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, died at Bannockburn on 24 June 1314, his widow, Maud, daughter of Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, claimed to be pregnant. It is unlikely many people would have doubted her claim… at first. However, as the months dragged by and there was no baby, people must have wondered what on earth was going on. Eventually, the months turned into years, and people realised there was going to be no baby… and even if Maud had produced a child, there was no way it could be Gilbert’s, not after March 1315. Finally, in 1317, Parliament lost patience and partitioned the lands between Gilbert’s three sisters Eleanor, Margaret and Elizabeth.

But what on earth was Maud thinking, claiming to be pregnant for three years? I’ve come up with several possibilities:

  1. She wasn’t pregnant, and just wanted to cause trouble for one or all of her sisters-in-law and/or Eleanor’s husband Hugh le Despenser (both Margaret and Elizabeth were widows at the time of their brother’s death).
  2. She wasn’t pregnant but deluded herself that she was.
  3. She suffered from a false pregnancy, or an illness that imitated pregnancy (it does happen, Mary I is a historical example).
  4. She was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth, and she couldn’t accept it.
  5. She was pregnant, but the baby died soon after birth and she couldn’t accept it.
  6. She was pregnant, but the baby was born deformed or had a disability caused by a difficult birth…

Most of these probably could have happened – I accept the last is unlikely, but as it crossed my mind I thought I might at as well mention it with the other ideas.

Some discussion of some of the ideas…

Number 1:

Personally, if this was the case, I think it was a result of some personal quarrel with one, two or maybe all three of her sisters-in-law, and she was trying to delay them getting their lands in revenge for some real or imagined petty wrong they had done her. I don’t think it had anything to do with Despenser – in 1314 he was a nonentity.

Number 2:

This may sound silly, but people can delude themselves into believing the most unlikely things…

Number 3:

This is probably more likely than no 2, but this too must have involved an element of Maud deluding herself, when the “pregnancy” went beyond nine months…

Numbers 4 and 5:

These, I think, are the most likely explanations. It would mean that Maud was telling the truth at first, and that her later pretence was a result of her being unable to deal with her loss. In a way, these are also the reasons which are the most understandable, and the ones which make it easiest to sympathise with Maud.

Number 6:

This is nothing but a theory that crossed my mind, and is extremely unlikely. The theory goes like this: faced with a baby who would be disabled for life, Maud couldn’t decide what was best for him. A disabled child/adolescent/man would find it very difficult to cope with an earldom, but even if she hid him from the world, his claim to the earldom would not go away. If they found out, those who inherited the lands would see him as a threat, and would almost certainly want him dead. Faced with such a difficult choice, she may have hesitated, not certain whether to tell the world about the baby, or tell everybody he had died at birth and hide him away. She may have even wanted to wait, see how his disability affected him as he grew from baby to toddler. And what if she that Hugh le Despenser had bribed the midwife to try and maim or kill the child? It would have made the decision even harder.

I am not suggesting that number 6 did happen, but as it had occurred to me, I thought I might as well mention it. But one thought that it raises is worth examining closer – the idea that Maud was pregnant and Despenser was responsible for her losing the baby. The idea of him bribing the midwife may be unlikely, but what if he bribed a retainer to slip pennyroyal into Maud’s wine? His later career shows how ruthless he could be when his own interests were at stake, and how much is the aborting of an unborn child have likely to troubled his conscience, even if the child was his wife’s unborn nephew or niece? His later career shows that he had little or no regard for the well being of Eleanor’s family.

And if Maud found out that he was responsible for her losing the baby, she may well have been determined to keep Eleanor’s share of the Gloucester lands from him as long as possible.

All of this is speculation of course – we do not even know whether Maud was pregnant at any stage, and if she was, there is no way of knowing whether nature or an agent of Hugh le Despenser was responsible for her losing the baby.

Regardless of what actually happened, it is interesting topic on which to speculate!