Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

I learnt this nursery rhyme as a child. Maybe you did too? I had no idea what it meant, just as I had no idea of who the heck was Mother Hubbard. The funny thing is that nobody else knows either. If the rhyme has any basis in reality it’s probably connected with the Duke of York, Prince Frederick, and his defeat by the French at the Battle of Tourcoing in Flanders in 1794. Certainly it’s got nothing to do with Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who contested King Henry VI’s right to the throne in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, although this has at times been claimed.

Actually it doesn’t much matter which of the many Dukes of York, if any of them, provided the historical seeds of the rhyme. If we want to be more realistic we could write:

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And they never came down again.

This is what nobles do. The Duke of This or the Baron of That, the King of France or the Holy Roman Emperor, they called themselves warriors but actually they were just armed and heavily armoured thugs. If they weren’t leading their men up the hill to their death, they were leading them in the slaughter of the enemy. Sometimes in these battles the nobles died too. But in the middle-ages, in the so-called Age of Chivalry, while they expected the common soldiers, their ‘men’, to be slaughtered without mercy, they expected that if they themselves were facing defeat they would be able to ‘yield’, to be taken prisoner, to be treated honourably while awaiting the collection of a huge ransom paid for their release. The ransom money of course had to be ground out of their ever-suffering tenants and serfs back at home. That is what the common people were for. They only entered the nobles’ consciousness for two reasons: As a resource to be exploited and taxed to maintain their extravagant life-styles and to supply the soldiers to help them fight their never ending squabbles and wars.

Armed Banditti - 1066

Armed Banditti – 1066

Since the development and agriculture and the rise of Civilization this has been so. In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine, strangely still so loved by the Americans (who without a moment’s thought would call him a ‘Commie’ if he were around today), and less strangely by the French, aptly called the Norman conquerors of England ‘armed banditti’. The ‘French bastard’ William was ‘the principal ruffian of some restless gang’.

These thugs quickly ejected the vast bulk of English aldermen and thegns from their land and divvied up the spoils between themselves. They built castles to protect themselves from a cowed, though still resentful and seething, English population. More importantly the castles also served to ratchet up the level of fear and intimidation. In the long years and centuries that followed they systematically set about reducing the English to de facto or de jure serfdom. All this required periodic doses of repression and violence, a thing these brutal, (though when they really had to fight, not very chivalrous), armed and armoured knights, on their huge war-horses, loved to do.

England was a conquered and occupied country. To use the language of the seventeenth century Levellers, it had fallen under the “Norman Yoke”, where it would remain for centuries.

In the fifteenth century there was a lord in Cumberland called Lancelot Threlkeld who was pretty honest about what the common English people were for.

The principal residence of the Threlkeld family was at Threlkeld in Cumberland; but they had large possessions at Crosby long previous to this time, for in 1304 and 1320 Henry Threlkeld had a grant of free warren in Yanwath, Crosby, Tibbay, &c., and in 1404 occurs the name of William Threlkeld, Knight, of Crosby. Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, Knight, was the son of Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, by Margaret, daughter and heiress of Henry Bromflatt, Lord Vescy, and widow of John de Clifford. He was wont to say he had three noble houses; one at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

This Lancelot Threlkeld, who ‘stocked’ tenants ‘to go with him to the wars’, was the son of another Lancelot who had married Margaret Clifford, the widow of Sir John Clifford, known variously as ‘the Butcher’, ‘Bloody Clifford’ and ‘Black-faced Clifford’. In  Henry VI, Shakespeare has him killing Richard, the third Duke of York, and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460, during the Wars of the Roses.  John Clifford was soon killed by the Yorkists on 28 March 1461 at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, on the eve of the Battle of Towton, a brutal affair which brought Edward IV (Richard of York’s son) to the throne. He left a son called Henry who went into hiding and lived as a ‘shepherd’ for 28 years. I wrote about Henry ‘the Shepherd lord’ recently.

It is some of these fifteenth-century goings-on that will be the subject of my next article. For now I’d like to end on a lighter note. Did you ever learn the mnemonic ROYGBIV for the colours of the rainbow? I was also once taught a rhyme to help remember this: ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’. The Richard here being the one Shakespeare has killed by John Clifford ‘the Butcher’ at Wakefield.

Rainbow- - ROYGBIV

  1. This brings out one of the distinguishing characteristics of my currently favourite medieval knight, Count Alan Rufus: although a military man, he preferred diplomacy to conflict. In his Yorkshire lands, he abolished the “danegeld” (highly variable taxes set by the king to raise revenue for wartime) and replaced it with the sheriff’s fee, which was a regular annual charge to pay for civil courts.

    Evidently, he paid the local military fee out of his own ample pockets, something he was apparently wont to do, for at the long and fruitless 3-year Siege of Sainte-Suzanne, he is recorded as personally paying for the splendid clothing, equipment and entertainment of the entire army, including King William I’s household knights.

    Another distinction is how he made his fortune. While Bishop Odo of Bayeux was plundering the English, and Count Robert of Mortain undercutting the merchants at his towns for increased market share, Alan was building ports (such as Boston in Lincolnshire) and paying for trade fairs to promote other people’s wares. He saw that the way to sustained prosperity was through cooperative wealth creation.

    Before the Conqueror left for his last, fatal trip to France, Alan persuaded the King to publicly apologise to the City of York for the damage done by the Normans during the Northern rebellions. In early 1088, he arranged for the new King, William II Rufus, accompanied by the Curia Regis, to come up to York to found St Mary’s Abbey. Bishop Odo, one of the witnesses to the foundation, shortly afterwards led all but one of the greatest magnates in a nation-wide rebellion against William II Rufus, while Duke Robert Curthose prepared an invasion fleet from Normandy. Meanwhile, William de St-Calais, Bishop of Durham, one of the likely architects of the Domesday Survey and a favorite royal adviser, abandoned the King’s army. The one who stood by the King was Alan. It was a rout …

    … but not as Odo had envisaged. Alan advised the King to promise the English people better government and to lower taxes, and the English bishops threw their weight behind the King. As a result, the English people took it upon themselves to defeat several of Odo’s co-conspirators, while Alan and the Archbishop of York were mopping up the northern rebels. Roger of Montgomery changed sides, and Alan joined the King in crushing the rebels in the south. The English navy sank Curthose’s advance fleet. (Curthose blamed the “bad weather” for not following.) Odo was chased across south England and, when captured, agreed to return under guard to Rochester Castle to order its surrender, but instead its troops freed him and he rejoined its defence. All to no avail: siege engines were brought to bear, and Odo had to concede; he was sent into permanent exile.

    Alan was now indisputably the most powerful of the magnates. Having occupied much of the rebels’ territory, what did he now do? He advised the King to forgive most of the rebels, restore them to favour and return their lands.

    Once that was done, the King still had to deal with St-Calais. In September he sent Alan, his uncle Odo of Champagne, the converted rebel Roger of Poitou (one of Montgomery’s sons) and Walter d’Aincourt with an army to Durham to demand that the Bishop submit to royal justice. After two days of negotiation, the Bishop agreed and was escorted to Salisbury to face the music.

    Alan’s mindset is revealed in part in the account of the trial written by St-Calais’s supporters. When it was revealed that the Bishop had been given a signed safe conduct ensuring that no harm would befall his person before, during or after the trial, there was an uproar in court led by the enraged King and the other bishops. At this point, Alan spoke in a “clear, calm voice”, saying that if there were any fault here, it was his alone. The King subsequently threatened force, prompting Alan to say that the King must respect individual conscience, and that if he did not do so, then Alan would believe himself obliged to withdraw all service from the crown.

    The upshot was that St-Calais was sent to be kept under arrest at Wilton Abbey, while the King wrestled with his quandary. After three months, William II acquiesced. Alan escorted St-Calais to the port of Southampton whence the Bishop took ship to Normandy where he became a trusted adviser to Duke Robert. Two years later, the King fought his brother Robert in Normandy. St-Calais was brought back to England, where he was restored to favour, was made Bishop of Durham again and given back command of the castle. (It’s natural to suspect that Alan had a hand in this as well; in 1086, St-Calais had been one of Alan’s tenants.)

    • To clarify: Odo of Champagne was the King’s uncle, as the third husband of Adelaide the Conqueror’s sister. Incidentally, Adelaide’s lands in both Normandy (as Countess of Aumale) and in England were adjacent to Alan’s.

      Alan was the Conqueror’s double-second cousin (their fathers were double-cousins), so it’s fair to call them cousins.

      Trevor Foulds tentatively suggested that Walter d’Aincourt’s wife Matilda was the Conqueror’s daughter. The naming patterns of Walter’s sons (William, Ralph and Walter) lend support to this, as does young William’s epitaph which describes him as of royal descent, and the fact that he was tutored in William II Rufus’s court. It was Walter senior who was entrusted with the royal writ requring St-Calais’s men to return stolen cattle. So it looks very much as though three of the commanders of the army sent to Durham were members or in-laws of the royal family. As for Roger of Poitou, his father Roger of Montgomery was a more distant relative but had been an important supporter of Duke William’s for many years before the Conquest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s