Black Will da Braose, the Bad Guy

If you’ve read all the posts in the da Braose series (especially the first one), that’s amazing.  You already know about Black Will’s checkered family past, and that his grandpa was known was William III ‘the Ogre’ da Braose.  His uncle William IV da Braose had died of starvation and thirst walled up in a dungeon in Corfe Castle, for sins his parents committed and in order to torment the true object of that terrible punishment, Black Will’s grandmother, Maud (a woman who truly could not keep her mouth shut when it would have been very helpful to do so).

By all accounts, though, Black Will was much more charming and diplomatic than his grandparents.  His father, Reginald, had gotten the family back into royal favor, and William became, upon his father’s death, Lord of Abergavenny.  I’m sure I’m not the only American teenager who became obsessed with Abervagenny because of Marty Wilde’s song

It’s a beautiful part of the world. Anyway, it wasn’t enough for Black Will, although my conjectures on the wandering lives of men (and sometimes women) in Medieval Times include the fact that, in an effort to space children, sometimes men left and meandered about right after their wives had children, returning only briefly to impregnate them again. There were lots of reasons for this method of birth control (it has roots deep in the past when hunter-gatherers, including those of Europe, had tabus on post-partum sex, in order to space children in a more humane and healthy way). But, as nearly all marriages of the day were arranged marriages, there was often no love lost between the marital partners and, I think, often a distinct lack of true passion. Today’s statistics show that men and women are almost equally unfaithful (it might have been the same back then, except that women who got pregnant when their husbands were physically absent were obviously subject to scorn and worse; everyone could count back 9 months). So in a way, the absent husband could expect his wife to stay at home, technically faithful, and he could wander about, sexually and in terms of the way he spent his time.

At any rate, there was a lot of traveling away from home during those days.  To be fair, Black Will’s wanderings were mostly in order to try and secure his lands against the Welsh.  He was, after all, a Marcher Lord, a man whose fortunes were tied to stealing land from the people of Wales and securing it for the crown of England.  That’s about all his family could expect, after the disgrace suffered by his grandparents.  Indeed, although his grandfather had lands in Normandy, Ireland and England, as well as Wales, it seems clear that William ‘the Ogre’ de Braose was sent to Wales in part because of his cruel practices.  Will’s own grandmother had managed to lead a defense of a stolen Welsh castle that resulted in the deaths of 3,000 valiant Welshmen, fighting to get it back.  It would be only two more generations and Wales would forever lose its sovereignty (unless it gets its sovereignty back someday, which I hope it does).

Black Will’s father, Reginald, was more known for his smooth tongue and diplomacy, though, rather than cruelty.  He was still alive and would have been the person who approved and arranged the marriage between Will, aged approximated 22 and Eva Marshall, aged approximately 16.  This age was not considered particularly young for a highborn girl, the daughter of the powerful 1st Earl of Pembroke, the venerable William Marshall, the protector of England, sometimes called the Last True Knight.  William Marshall adhered to the code of chivalry, treated his daughters well, and they were raised away from the brutality and warfare of England, in the pastoral countryside of Ireland.  They were apparently beautiful and high-spirited girls, but Eve brought little in the way of dowry, as the 10th child and youngest of 5 daughters.  The de Braoses’s didn’t need land or money as much as they needed to have their honor restored, and for that, no girl could have served the purpose better than one of the daughters of William Marshall, who was a kind of Matt Dillon or Daniel Boone of his day.  Marshall certainly took part in expanding the domains of England and served under some pretty harsh kings, but he was known to be personally a man of honour, compassion and good faith.

Will and Eva’s first daughter (of four) was born in 1222.  She was only six (and her sisters, Maud, Eleanor and Eva were 4, 2 and 1, respectively – the spacing between the children being fairly close, and the last two very close together:  probably a really serious attempt to procure a male heir) when her father was captured by Llewyllen ‘the Great’ Fawr of Wales. 

As it turned out, Llewyllen, another honorable man, decided to keep Black Will in royal confinement at his castle at Aber, near contemporary Abergwyngregyn.  Llewyllen’s own arranged marriage to a much younger woman, Princess Joanna, illegitimate daughter of King John of England, had turned into a passionate relationship.  But, Llewyllen was away a lot, and Joanna was a passionate woman.  Black Will, whose name is partly a reference to his hair color, gotten from a Welsh ancestress, is still known to history as Black Will due to his seduction of Joanna.  Handsome, blue-eyed, dashing and charming, the highborn prisoner soon found his way into Joanna’s bed while his wife tried to raise ransom for him.  His father died at around the same time, and it is likely that a good part of Black Will’s inheritance went into the large (£2,000 ).  During the negotiations, Will also pledged not to attack the Welsh again and as a sign of that pledge, betrothed his six-year-old daughter to Llewyllen’s 13 year old son.  The young girl was sent to live at Aber.

Apparently, Black Will had fallen hard for Joanna, or else he just liked the fact that he’d cuckolded Llewyllen Fawr, but the risk he took in returning to Joanna, attempting to bed her in 1230, slightly less than 2 years after he’d last seen her, was considerable.  Llewyllen was of course away at the time, and Black Will knew that.  What he didn’t know was that Joanna was terribly determined to reject any further dalliances with him.  Or at least, that’s how she told the story.  There is no reason to doubt Joanna’s testimony to her husband (who eventually forgave her, after she admitted first the earlier affair but swore that it had ended in 1228, and that Black Will had acted on his own and with illicit intent in showing up in her bedchamber in 1230).  I’m not so sure.  Joanna knew what was at stake, both times.  She must have really fallen hard for Black Will (in her husband’s absence), because he did feel drawn back to see her.

Through a series of events, probably involving self-interested persons within the Welsh royal family, Joanna was caught in the bedchamber, not in flagrante but certainly in the bedchamber, alone, with Black Will.  It was actually Llewyllen’s own private bedchamber, where Joanna usually slept, to rub salt into the wound.  Given that the Welsh were already suspicious of Llewyllen’s English wife, it’s amazing that Llewyllen didn’t execute both his wife and her lover.

But it was Black Will who paid the price.  He was executed in public, near Abergwyngregyn, at the age of 33.  He probably expected to talk or bargain his way out of the situation, but Llewyllen acted quickly, while still in high temper, and Will died about a week after he’d arrived in his attempt to resume his affair with Joanna.  Joanna was exiled to a monastery, but after about a year, Llewyllen forgave her, took her back into his life and his bed, and apparently, no one ever spoke of this mistake again.  It is a rare store of a wayward wife who was loved enough that her marriage survived an affair.  So, again, the Middle Ages were not much different than the world today.  People sometimes break up when affairs are discovered, sometimes they break off the old relationship and run off, and sometimes, people patch things up.

Black Will left behind four daughters.  The eldest, Isabella, would still go on to marry David of Wales, despite the fact that her father-in-law had hung her father.  That must have made for some awkward family gatherings.  The other three remained in the care of Eva Marshall, who was now the de facto ruler of Abergavenny.  Isabella would die childless, but the other three girls would live to have children. 

Two of those daughters,

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