The de Braose Story: Will the Ogre and not-King Geoff

From Wikipedia:

An ogre (feminine: ogress) is a large, cruel, monstrous, and hideous humanoid monster, featured in mythologyfolklore, and fiction. Ogres are often depicted in fairy tales and folklore as feeding on human beings, and have appeared in many classic works of literature. In art, ogres are often depicted with a large head, abundant hair and beard, a voracious appetite, and a strong body. The term is often applied in a metaphorical sense to disgusting persons who exploit, brutalize, or devour their victims. Closely related is the troll figure, although these are sometimes not as malevolent.

William III de Braose, the murderer, is the same person as William III ‘the Ogre’ de Braose.  The word “ogre” is French, William III de Braose was Norman-French (and as we have seen, with an unusual lineage).

I’m claiming he’s a murderer (and I will present my case shortly), and the question of which came first:  the nickname or the deed?  is pertinent.  But first, let’s finally detail the crime.  It involves the murder of a 16 year old boy, Arthur of Brittany, a haunting precursor to the story of the deaths of the two princes in the Tower.

This is also the story of Prince Geoffrey, Plantagenet, who would have been, should have been King of England.  If you’ve watched The Lion in Winter, perhaps you started rooting for him to be selected by his wavering father, Henry II, after the unexpected and early death of the young king Hal (who had been crowned, Norman-style, at age 15, long before his father was dead).  Unfortunately, the young king died before the old king.  Tradition said that the next oldest son, Prince Richard would be the heir – and so it seemed it would be.  Unfortunately, Richard would eventually become king and then die without an heir – leaving the field open.  So, if Geoffrey had not died, he would have been king.

But, in this story, there is no brother-poisoning-brother, as in the tale of the Dukes of Normandy.  Geoffrey was not directly killed by a brother.  He died while in the court of King Philippe Augustus of France, to whom he had become a sort of soulmate and close friend.  Geoffrey died plotting against his father, but not in a war.  He was killed in a tournament when he was unhorsed, perhaps by someone not quite following the rules of the tourney, and then trampled to death by his own destrier.  He didn’t die right away, and no one around him seemed to suspect foul play.  He had a severe concussion and probably a subdural hematoma.  He would have been unable to remember the events right before he was knocked unconscious, so was unable to identify the arrant knight who unhorsed him – almost certainly on the English side (his father’s side).  Geoffrey was a liegeman of the King of France (as Duke of Brittany) and this was the first time he had publicly declared himself for the King of France, as against his father and brother Richard.  It’s interesting and perhaps ironic that he died in the same event, due to a mishap involving an unknown English knight.

When Geoffrey died, he left behind two young daughters and a pregnant wife.  Geoffrey had just changed the ancient laws of Celtic Brittany to male primogeniture (or at least, he thought he had) in order to simplify political life there.  He was very confident that his wife, Constance, would eventually bear him a son – and she did.  The third child was a son, who lived and was sworn in as Duke of Brittany as a tiny baby.

Now, had Geoffrey lived, when Richard the Lion Heart died, he would have been King of England.  If he had been King of England, his son Arthur would have been more than Duke of Brittany, he would have been heir apparent and eventual King of England as well.  In a system of male primogeniture, males inherit in order, first son first, last son last.  First son of a living first son is the next in line, supplanting all the younger brothers of his father.  These uncles are often discomfited or worse when this happens, but those are the breaks, that’s the way male primogeniture works and still works.

King Richard was well aware of this.  In his heart, I believe he wished his brother Geoffrey still lived, and that his brother John could be kept off the throne.  John was young, perhaps prone to acting younger than some of his age, a bit immature.  Callow.  But also quite observant and clever.  Richard did not much like clever, he liked swordplay.

The young Duke of Brittany was named heir to the throne of England when Richard continued after marriage without an heir.  It would be hard to begat an heir without actually sleeping near one’s wife occasionally.  Richard may have had one bastard son, in his youth, but the rest of his life almost seems a frantic avoidance, first of marriage itself, and then of married life.  Richard did not expect to die young, himself (I mean, if you already had two brothers who had died young, wouldn’t you think maybe God would favor the remainder?  Richard certainly put his life on the line for God, going off on Crusade for years, and surviving that against tremendous odds).

So Richard, back from the world’s most dangerous places, didn’t expect to be killed close to home.  They say most accidents happen in or near the home, and so it was with Richard.  While examining the battlements of yet another castle he was about to siege, he got, yet again, into range of an arrow from the archers on the battlements and took one through the shoulder.  This fairly minor wound festered (poison?  did they know about bacteria/poison?  I bet they did  –  there was so much dysentery, I’ll bet some soldiers put 2 and 2 together).  Anyway, Richard died of a festering wound, but not before (on his deathbed, and he knew he was dying), naming his brother John as his heir.  The idea is that he thought 1) that Arthur (aged 15) was still too young to hold the empire together  and 2) that his brother John was wolfish and a tremendous threat, one that Arthur could never withstand.  It was only practical (and Richard was practical) to name John.  That should have ended things.

But Duke Arthur of Brittany had been brought up by his mother with a crown in mind and Brittany had the money to pay for an army.  The young duke was, like Henry II, in charge of his own army, at age 14.  Bright, handsome, composed and regal, Duke Arthur fit the image that many had of a king.  Before leaving on Crusade, King Richard had named the boy his heir, in part to thwart his brother John’s schemes for the throne, in part because he truly believed the boy had a legitimate claim to the throne and would eventually make a good king, so Arthur was raised with a crown on the horizon.  He was only three when he became the heir apparent, but would remain in that key position until he was 12.  Prince Geoffrey, the boy’s late father, after all would be next in line to the throne.  If a current English heir apparent died but left issue, it is likely that child would be the heir, so Arthur’s claim – which was supported strongly by the continental components of the English empire – was very strong.  Indeed, when Richard changed his mind at the last minute (if he really did) and named his brother John as his heir, King John found himself immediately at war against Duke Arthur and nearly every other continental duchy.  Arthur was in rebellion against King John, pressing his claim to the throne, and had captured his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitane, and was holding her at Mirebeau, when King John came to her rescue and capture the boy-Duke.

The tradition in those days, upon the capture of a Royal, was to keep them in royal confinement, awaiting ransom.  This was usually quite comfortable.  Arthur was taken to the King’s castle at Rouen, in Normandy, where he was probably kept in one of its Towers, probably the one where Joan d’Arc was later held.  It no longer exists, but today, Rouen Castle maintains a similar tower:

Philippe Auguste's Tower at Rouen

Philippe Auguste's Tower at Rouen

There, King John pondered what to do with Arthur.  He had also captured the boy’s only sibling, Lady Eleanor.  He had no intentions of ever letting them out of captivity.  William, the Ogre, de Braose was put in charge of Arthur while Eleanor was sent into permanent captivity in England, at Corfe Castle.  It’s not clear that King John meant to keep her captive for the rest of her life.  She was very beautiful, with her father’s dark blonde hair and deep blue eyes, and he did considering marrying her off, as after all, her children would be maternal heirs, not the threat that Arthur was.

It is not clear who killed Arthur, as the crime was committed in a Royal Castle, possibly by King John, possibly by William the Ogre.  It was probably on Easter, and Duke Arthur may have been dining with the King, in the style of royal captivity.  The boy apparently provoked John into a rage and later, Maud de Braose would claim that the King strangled the 16 year old at dinner.  Or, alternatively, King John simply gave an order to execute Arthur without trial.  Or, in the manner of his father, King John simply made it clear that he wanted Arthur to disappear and William the Ogre obliged.  Contemporary sources say that Arthur was killed, and that William da Braose tied a stone to his body and dumped it into the Seine.  King John would never speak of what happened or explain what happened to the boy.  When the boy did not reappear for several years, it was finally assumed he was dead, and it was far too late for any further facts to be uncovered on the manner of his death.

At some point, Maud de Braose apparently grilled her husband about what had happened to the boy, and he told her that King John had killed Arthur.  Now, it may be that William the Ogre didn’t want to admit that he had himself done it, or it may be true that King John is the real murderer.  At any rate, it seems clear that King John intended for William the Ogre to take the fall for the crime, and to cover it up.  Immediately after the two left Rouen (and Arthur had disappeared, in April, 1203), King John made William the Ogre even richer, awarding him the lands of several rebel Marcher lords, within the border of Wales, knowing that de Braose would be a great ally in trying to subdue the Welch.  If Arthur had still been alive at Rouen, de Braose would surely have been left behind and in charge of the boy.  Maud knew the boy was dead, and with sons of her own, she may have truly wanted to know the depth of her husband’s complicity.

At any rate, 7 years later, Maud personally accused the King of murder.  Her husband had fallen out of the King’s favor.  William the Ogre, Lord of Bramber, was also Lord of Abergavenny and many other places in Wales, as well as Briouze in Normandy and Limerick, Ireland.  The man had a veritable mini-empire within King John’s empire (he had been rewarded with Limerick immediately upon John’s succession, always a kingly favorite).  Maud herself acted as a mini-empress, repeatedly being left with the military commands of various castles.  She defended  Llanbedr Painscastle in Wales for three weeks, resulting in the deaths of as many as 3,000 Welshmen.  The castle has gone to ruin, but its moat can still be seen and tales are still told about Maud’s defense of the castle.   The battle is said to be perhaps the bloodiest in Welsh history.  It gives some insight into the kind of man the Ogre was.

The Welsh prince Gwenwynwyn was attacking Llanbedr Painscastle in revenge for the murder of his cousin by William the Ogre.  WIlliam had ordered that the young man be dragged through the streets from a horse’s tail and then beheaded, a rather typical Norman-English tactic for subduing a town or region in those days.  This was horrifying to the Welsh, of course.  So, whether or not William the Ogre killed Arthur with his own hands, he certainly ordered the murders of many others, and did this sort of thing habitually in “defense of his lands,” most of which were given to him by King John without the consent of the current holders of the place.  Indeed, the practice of completely displacing the Welsh from their own towns and bringing in English settlers is reminiscent of what happened later on the American frontiers.

I believe that the reason the Ogre fell out of favor with his equally cruel King had to do with the disappearance of Arthur.  As the years went on, people blamed King John for the boy’s death, and King John wanted to shift the blame onto William.  William had told Maud, who was not a silent woman, that King John had strangled the boy and the story was spreading.  On the pretext of monies owed to the Crown, King John demanded to take several of William’s children and grandchildren hostage, with the ransom being so high that there was no hope of ever paying it.  When John rode into the castle where Maud and her son, William (along with other children and grandchildren) were staying in order to collect the younger William as a hostage, Maud imprudently told the King off.  “I’m not delivering my son into the hands of a man who murdered his own nephew,” she said.

John was so stunned that he did not react immediately.  Maud realized instantly that she had made a huge blunder and tried to appease John’s beautiful wife and Queen, Isabella, hoping that Isabella could intercede on her behalf, as John was gathering troops to bring against her.  She sent the Queen 400 cattle, the quality of which she had been boasting of to the Queen, whom she had met on many occasions and whom she hoped would act as a kind of friend.  That didn’t work.  Maud and her son, William, were forced to flee from place to place, managing to make it to Ireland.  Meanwhile, her husband fled the British Isles altogether, making it to France, and playing no part in trying to save his wife or children.

Maud and the younger William (who was a grown man at this time) were eventually captured after King John went so far as to send an expedition to Ireland in order to catch them.  They tried to flee to Scotland, but were captured.

King John took a novel view of Maud’s punishment.  First, he included her eldest son in the punishment, which must have been one of its most horrifying aspects to her.  Then, he had them taken to the dungeon of Corfe Castle.  

At Corfe in 1210, King John had Maud and her son walled up into the dungeon, with a piece of raw bacon and a sheaf of wheat, unmilled and uncooked, for them to eat.  Perhaps this was so he could say he had no intention of actually killing them.  There is no mention of any water, so we can only imagine how they managed not to die of thirst (perhaps they did).  The dungeon room was opened up 11 days later.  Maud and her son had tried to claw their way out, they were both dead, the young man had died first and Maud had tried to gnaw on his cheeks.

The Ogre, meanwhile, had become a beggar in the streets of France, offering no aid to the rest of his family, and dying there in France a year later.

It’s amazing, actually, that the rest of Maud and the Ogre’s 16 children, managed to continue to exist in England.  Reginald, the third oldest son, managed to regain Abergavenny and some of the other forfeited estates of his father, in 1216, just six years after his mother’s terrible death.  One can only imagine the kind of mental constitution it would take for a man to continue to curry favor with the King who had executed his brother and mother in such a terrible manner.

It is likely that King John gave Abergavenny back to Reginald in part because he hoped that the de Braose clan would deal with the Welsh sternly and he didn’t have anyone else who could play that role.  Reginald carefully managed his relations with the Welsh and instead of warring against them, he eventually managed to put aside his first wife Grace Briwere, Black Will’s mother, and marry Llewyllen Fawr’s daughter, Gladys Dru.

Upon the death of King John, King Henry III confirmed the da Braose claim to Abergavenny, paving the way for an easy transfer of the title of Lord of Abergavenny to Black Will.

The fact that Prince Geoff should have been King and had precedence over his brother John, meant that Duke Arthur of Brittany had a legitimate claim to the Throne of England.  Had Arthur become King, it is likely he could have held together the Angevin Empire, as he had the loyalty of Brittany, and had made progress in dealing with the King of France, who took Arthur’s side against John, resulting in John’s expulsion from his continental domains.  It’s interesting to think that had King Arthur reigned, England might well have maintained a substantial chunk of real estate on the continent, instead of being confined to the British Isles, which it then tried to bring firmly and entirely under England’s control.  The death of the potential King Arthur changed English and French history forever.  While King John could be brutal, he alternated between that brutality and making amends to the people he’d harmed, as when he restored the da Braose lands.  William the Ogre, however, gave no signs of anything except brutality – and then cowardice, when he left his wife and son to be locked up and fled the realm.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. price of a stamp
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 07:39:29

    i love your blog, i have it in my rss reader and always like new things coming up from it.


  2. Camille De BRAOSe
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 09:21:06

    Merci pour ce travail de qualité, j’ai travaillé depuis de longues années sur l’histoire de mes ancêtres en utilisant toutes les sources disponibles sur de très nombreux pays de par le monde, ce qui permet d’affiner et de confirmer certaines correspondances. Mais il reste un travail encore énorme, celui-ci est facilité par les historiens, archéologues, etc. qui s’intéresse à notre passé en utilisant des personnages prestigieux et mythique. Vous souhaitant une bonne continuation, Camille De BRAOSe


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