Posts Tagged ‘Shropshire’

There is no doubt that the Normans who arrived in England in 1066 with William the Conqueror, and those who followed in subsequent years, were, as Thomas Paine  so aptly put it in Common Sense in 1776, a group of “armed banditti”. The “French bastard” William was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

The Norman Conquest was a disaster for the English people

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”. For sure there was resistance but it would be many centuries before any amount of ordinary English people would  be able to make serious attempts to crawl out from under this cruel oppression – some might argue that they have yet to succeed.

Honi soit qui mal y pense

In reading popular versions of English history, and even sometimes more scholarly and learned works, it is all too easy to forget another very significant fact: These armed thugs were French and they spoke French. Of course the Normans were originally North-men, they were Vikings, but by the time of the conquest, while still retaining the brutal martial qualities of their Viking ancestors, they were thoroughly French and spoke one version of the many regional varieties of French in use at that time: Norman French. As more and more French men and women from other parts of France arrived in England throughout the late Middle Ages, the language spoken by the royal  court, by the barons, by the local knights and in the courts of law slowly evolved and morphed – away from “Anglo-Norman” and towards a more Parisian French. But let’s be quite clear: the conquerors continued to speak French as their primary language for a long time to come.

The English and their language were much despised, as indeed later on would be the Welsh, Irish and Scots as well.

At the end of the thirteenth century, Robert of Gloucester could write:

And the Normans could not then speak any speech but their own; and they spoke French as they did at home, and had their children taught the same. So that the high men of this land, that came of their blood, all retain the same speech which they brought from their home. For unless a man know French, people regard him little; but the low men hold to English, and to their own speech still. I ween there be no countries in all the world that do not hold to their own speech, except England only. But undoubtedly it is well to know both; for the more a man knows, the more worth he is.

The British Coat of Arms makes it clear who is in command

Of course there was a need for some sort of communication between the conquerors and the conquered. The native English needed to know some French if they had to serve and appease their new lords in their manors, work on the lords’ home farms or understand the lawyers and judges in the courts. Slowly but surely Old English or Anglo-Saxon evolved and morphed into Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Although French remained the principal language of the rulers, one by one, and at first very reluctantly, they started to be able to understand and then speak Middle English as well.

In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English and the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts, though this statute was still written in French! French was still the mother tongue of Henry IV (1399-1413), but he was the first to take the oath in English. That most “English” of Kings Henry V(1413–1422) was the first to write in English but he still preferred to use French.

It is interesting to note that it was not until the days of Henry VII in the late fifteenth century that an English king married a woman born in England (Elizabeth of York), as well as the fact that Law French was not banished from the common law courts until as late as 1731.

So when we read history books or watch television programmes about the exploits of “English” kings such as Henry II, his sons Richard “Coeur de Lion” and John, or later about Edward I “Hammer of the Scots” or indeed about the countless English barons and knights fighting each other as well as fighting the kings of England and France, it is advisable to remember that these people weren’t yet English in any real sense of the word and didn’t yet see themselves as such. Whether we call them “Anglo-Norman” or something else, and whether or not they were born in England, these were Norman/French “aristocratic” thugs.

I want to stress this linguistic and cultural point not because I have anything against the French, nor because there were only French thugs. Thugs in fact appear everywhere and their arrival on the historical stage is, rather sadly, one of the defining characteristics of our civilization itself. Rather knowing what type of people these really were can help clear some of the mist from popular English history as it is too often presented.

Thugs fighting thugs

Simon de Montfort – a very big French thug indeed

On the political level one could, I think with some justification, regard the whole of the thirteenth century as being a period of thugs fighting thugs. Once these Normans and French had divvied up the spoils, and when they weren’t preoccupied with trying to squeeze more and more surplus out of the enserfed native population, they were fighting each other, both in England and abroad. At home from the barons forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, through the Second Barons’ War between 1264 and 1267 and even including Edward I  seeking dominance in Britain at the turn of the century by fighting the Welsh and the Scots. Abroad the various wars fought by the “English” Plantagenet and Angevin kings and barons on French soil from the time of the Conquest right up at least to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (and arguably until the final loss of Calais in 1558), were also essentially dynastic fights between groups of “strenuous” French-speaking Frenchmen.

Regarding the Magna Carta and all that, the British human rights barrister Geoffrey Robinson once accurately commented:

The appearance of ‘rights’ as a set of popular propositions limiting the sovereign is usually traced to Magna Carta in 1215, although the document had nothing to do with the liberty of individual citizens: it was signed by a feudal king who was feuding with thuggish barons and was forced to accede to their demands.

Very true. But it needs to be added that with the help of the Pope he soon got out of even his limited commitments to the barons.

At the local level in England, the kings, barons and knights fought each other to get more land (the basis of medieval power) and to be allowed more “liberty” to extract the maximum surplus from their feudal dependants with the minimum possible truck or hindrance from either the king or from other lords. In fact “Liberty” originally and literally meant the freedom to exploit properties and people. They fought each other with swords and axes in the fields and, with inexhaustible alacrity, with words in the courts, the words of course being French; although court proceedings were usually recorded in Latin.

A Shropshire tale

My concern in this essay is just one such local event. The setting is the thirteenth century in the Welsh borderland (March) county of Shropshire. It is a story of local thugs fighting each other and fighting King John. It concerns two pretty representative thuggish French families: the FitzWarins and the Corbets, one thuggish Welsh family – that of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, Prince of Powys – as well as the King himself.

Let’s allow Winston Churchill to eloquently summarize the story:

Fulk Fitz Warin, the third of that name, was a Shropshire knight, arbitrarily deprived or ‘Disseissed’ of his land by King John (1199-1216) in the first decade of the 13th century. His exploits during the years of rebellion and ultimately successful struggle to regain his estates was recounted in a popular French Romance, probably written to sustain the morale of the family when the Fitz Warin patrimony was again in danger in the 1250’s. At that time Fulk Fitz Warin IV purchased from the Royal Chancery a writ of ‘novel disseissen’ by order of which, in January 1256, the Sheriff of Shropshire brought before a party of royal justices on circuit at Shrewsbury, a leading Shropshire baron names Thomas Corbet, together with a jury who were required to say whether Thomas had dispossessed Fulk in the recent past of 120 acres of arable land in Alberbury. The jury told the justices that the case had risen from a ‘love-day’ held on the borders of Wales to settle a minor war between Thomas Corbet and the Prince of Powys, at which Fulk, as a tenant of Thomas, had been present with the rest of the local gentry. In the heat of argument, Thomas had called Fulk ‘a traitor as his father was to king John’ and Fulk had replied that, after such an insult, he would renounce his homage to Thomas and ‘never hold land from him again’. Thomas had taken Fulk at his word and occupied his land but the jury replied to questions from the justices that Fulk had not renounced his land in due legal form: it had all been mere feudal histrionics. So damages of 40 shillings were awarded against Thomas and Fulk recovered his land.

What a great story! I’ll discuss the “French Romance” later; but first a little background on the three border families involved.

Hugh Le Corbeau. Founder of the English Corbets

The Corbets were one of the leading marcher families in Shropshire.  Hugh “Le Courbeau” (The Raven) came from Caux in Normandy, he had perhaps been with William the Conqueror at Hastings. He was rewarded with extensive lands in Shropshire that had previously belonged to King Edward ‘the Confessor’, as it says in Domesday Book. He built his castle near Westbury in Shropshire and called it Caus after his Norman home. At first he held his fees from Roger de Montgomerie, who William had created first Earl of Shrewbury in 1074. But when Roger’s grandson Robert, the third Earl, rebelled against Henry I he forfeited his title in 1102. Hugh  le Corbeau’s descendants then held directly from the Crown and much of the history of Shropshire for a long time thereafter can be characterized as various baronial and knightly families alternately fighting each other and marrying each other, trying to grab as much land for themselves as they could following Robert de Montgomerie’s removal from the scene. One of these fractious, war-like families was the Corbets, who by the mid thirteenth century had consolidated large feudal holdings in Shropshire and elsewhere. The head of the senior branch was the Thomas Corbet mentioned by Winston Churchill.

The next person we need to consider must I guess for reasons of ethnic even-handedness be called a Welsh thug: Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn.  He was a Welsh prince who was lord of part of southern Powys. Powys being that portion of central Wales adjoining Shropshire. Gruffydd was the son of Gwenwynwyn ap Owain but his mother was Thomas Corbet’s sister Margaret. Hence he was Thomas Corbet’s nephew. Under pressure from the rise of the Prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn the Great, Gruffydd, although originally a Welsh “nationalist”, increasingly allied himself with the English kings. He eventually even adopted the Norman family name of De la Pole – after the family’s main English manor of Pool (present day Welshpool in Shropshire).

Whittington Castle as it probably was. The cause of Fulk’s dispute with King John

Finally, there is the FitzWarin family, who probably arrived in both England and Shropshire only in the twelfth century. Not initially as powerful as the Corbets, they nevertheless soon became involved in the usual and never-ending power battles the border barons fought among themselves. The family traced its descent from the eponymous Warin de Metz. Either Warin, or just possibly some of his ancestors, came to England from Lorraine in eastern France. Warin, so the story goes, was victorious in a tournament, and he thereby won the right to marry Mellet Peverell, the heiress to the Whittington manor near Oswestry in Shrophire.

But throughout the second half of the twelfth century Whittington was being occupied by the Welshman Roger de Powys and later by his son Meurig (Morys) FitzRoger, so the FitzWarin family weren’t able to take possession. Fulk FitzWarin III, the great grandson of Warin, continued his family’s quest for Whittington. He paid a fine of £100 for the manor to King John but John refused to reverse his support for Meurig of Powys. “Exasperated” Fulk III “waged a guerrilla rebellion against the king between 1200 and 1203. His fifty-two adherents included his brothers William, Philip, and John, some Fitzwarine family tenants, and many younger sons of prominent Shropshire families. The king sent Hubert de Burgh with 100 knights to respond to this threat, but finally pardoned Fulk and his followers on 11 November 1203. Fulk paid 200 marks and finally received Whittington Castle in October 1204.”

A Minor War

The arguments and “minor war” between Gruffydd and Thomas Corbet mentioned by Churchill started in 1241 and initially concerned the question of the entitlement to Margaret Corbet’s dowry, which included a “tenement” at Caus, but eventually escalated to other matters in several different parts of the country.

Janet Meisel, the historian of these border barons tells us:

The longest and most complex of all Thomas’s legal battles began in 1241 with a suit between him and his sister, Margaret, who by then was the widow of Gwenwynwyn, prince of Powis, and mother of Griffin (sic) ap Gwenwynwyn. At first the only issue was Margaret’s dower, but by 1247 Griffin became involved in the dispute and the quarrel quickly grew to include such matters as alleged breaches of the peace by both men in several counties and a variety of land disputes ranging from Derbyshire in the east to Wales in the West. By 1255 the dispute had grown so large that the king appointed a special commission to investigate the various contentions of Thomas and Griffin, but this commission… appears to have met with little success.

In The Antiquities of Shropshire Robert W Eyton tells us:

On May 9, 1255, Justices are appointed to try an action of novel disseizin preferred by Thomas Corbet against Griffin Wenunwin (sic) for a tenement in Caus.

Novel disseizin just means someone has recently seized the land. Evidently Gruffydd had seized the tenement in Caus from Thomas, no doubt claiming it was part of his mother’s dowry. Further we read:

On July 5th, 1255, another Patent appoints three Justices to set to rights the wrongs and strifes which subsisted between these same persons…

Love-days

But obviously at least once Thomas Corbet and Gruffydd had tried to settle their disagreements without resort to violence or the courts of law. They had called a Jour d’Amour – a Love-Day – as Churchill rightly said. Finding their origins in Anglo-Saxon times, these days weren’t always, or even mostly, meetings of reconciliation freely decided upon by the antagonists, they usually had a certain form or process and were generally agreed upon in a court. It is quite possible that the Justices mentioned above had agreed to this love-day.

It worked as follows (I take this from John of Oxford’s La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron of 1265): The defendant (in this case that would be Gruffydd) would ask the court steward or justice for a jour d’amour with the plaintiff (Thomas Corbet). “We grant it you”, replies steward, “so that you be at one between now and the next court”. As Michael Clanchy writes:

A ‘loveday’ … is therefore a day of reconciliation between disputants. The court does not adjudicate this reconciliation, nor does it inquire what its terms are; the court’s only function is to fix a time limit within which agreement is reached.

The court’s lack of responsibility is explained by the principle that ‘pactum legem vincit et amor judicium’ . The request of the steward for a day of reconciliation superceeds the law and the subsequent ‘bond of love’ between (the disputants) eliminates further action by the court.

When the court reconvenes the steward would ask the parties: “How then has business gone between you? Are you at one?” Which Michael Clanchy explains can be “ literally translated as ‘Are you one people or kindred? (une gent or une genz)’” If the plaintiff answers “Yes, sir” then that’s an end to it, except for the court’s fee.

The loveday makes the contending parties into une genz just as the marriage ceremony does. Like marriage, a loveday should be sealed with a kiss (the kiss of peace), blessed by a priest, and witnessed by mutual friends and kinsmen.

If there is no agreement, as apparently there wasn’t between Thomas and Gruffydd, the parties could go back to the courts. We know that this particular petty, though representative, dispute dragged on till Thomas’s death. But what is of importance to our little story here is that such love-days had to be witnessed “by mutual friends and kinsmen”. Fulk FitzWarin was one of these and following the love-day Thomas Corbet had seized Alberbury manor from him. Why?

Corbet’s insult and Fulk’s day in court

The Assize-Roll of the January 1256 Shrewbury Eyre Court tells us what had happened and why, I’ll quote this at some length:

An Assize comes on, to make recognition whether Thomas corbet hath disseized Fulk Fitz Warin, junior, of his free tenement in Alberbyr, viz. of about 120 acres.

Thomas says that the land is of his Fief, and that the Plaintiff, before many Magnates and Lieges of the King, rendered back his homage and the said land to the Defendant, and positively declared that he never would have either that land or any other land of the Defendant. For this reason the Defendant put himself in seizing of the said land, as it was lawful for him to do, the moment that Fulk abandoned it to him

Fulk says (in reply) that he never rendered back land nor homage, and asks judgement on the special point, – whether, even if it were true that under anger and excitement he had verbally rendered back his homage, yet had not subsequently changed his state, but had continuously remained in seizing, – whether it was competent to the Defendant to disseize him on the ground of a mere word. As to his never having, spontaneously, and of goodwill, surrendered the land, he put himself on the Assize. (ie appeals to the Jury).

The Jury declares that a certain day of reconciliation ( a love-day or dies amoris) was fixed upon between Thomas Corbet and Griffin ap Wennonwyn, touching several matters of contention; – that many Magnates met together on the occasion, and that Fulk, the present plaintiff, was of their number; – that Fulk and Thomas Corbet quarrelled together; – that Corbet called Fulk, Fulk’s father, a Traitor; – that Fulk announced to Corbet, that, seeing he charged his father with such a crime, he (Fulk Junior) would render back his homage to Corbet and would never hold land of him again.

The Jury, being asked (by the Court) whether Fulk, in his own person, made the said surrender, say that he did not; indeed that he made the surrender through Hamo le Strange.

The Jurors, being further asked whether Fulk, after he sent the message, returned to his seizin, say ‘Yes’, – and that Fulk is still in seizin of the Castle of Alberbyr, which is the capital Manor pertaining to the said land; and that Fulk caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land, in the interval before Corbet ejected him.

The court decides that Fulk do recover his seizin.

Similar to all such martial societies who viewed themselves as heroic, going back at least to Homer’s Myceneans, these Norman Frenchmen were extremely concerned, touchy and tetchy about their honour and that of their family – however fictive this honour might had been in reality. Hence, in Churchill’s words, Fulk’s “feudal histrionics” following the insult to his father..

A view of Alberbury Church and Castle in the eighteenth century

But Fulk wasn’t stupid, he knew that he held his fee at Alberbury (I will use the modern spelling) not direct from the king but from Thomas Corbet. He had its use only so long as he did homage to Thomas and if he withdrew his homage Thomas could repossess or seize the property. And this he had done. Fulk claimed that it was all done in “anger and excitement” and was at pains to stress that after the love-day he had gone back to Alberbury and “caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land”.

Such feudal fees were slowly but surely changing into hereditary possessions (what we now call cases of freehold or legally more accurately  “fee simple absolute in possession”). Fulk won the case. This was a pivotal period in the evolution of the law of property in England as it moved away from purely feudal holdings to a more modern form of absolute and inheritable private property.  As the historian of the thirteenth century Alan Harding noted:

The real meaning of the case is that even in the marches, where military feudalism lasted longer than elsewhere, the common law had deprived lords of the freedom to decide, in the company of their vassals in their honour courts and love-days, who should and should not hold lands from them.

Even though the 1256 court found in Fulk’s favour, Thomas Corbet refused to accept the verdict and continued to try to hold on to Alberbury. The case continued for years. It was probably to strengthen his case that Fulk commissioned a Norman French Trouvère at Ludlow to write the “French Romance” of his family and its long connections with Alberbury to which Winston Churchill referred. It is usually simply called Fouke le Fitzwarin  or The History of Fulk FitzWarine. The Fulk of the tale is our Fulk’s father generally referred to as Fulk FitzWarin III while his son of the 1256 Assizes is known as Fulk FitzWarin  IV. I will simply call them from now on senior and junior respectively.

The History of Fulk FitzWarine starts with a long history of the FitzWarin family,  its deeds and exemplary exploits from the time of the eponymous Warin de Metz up to the times of Fulk FitzWarin senior and then it tells us why King John had such an enmity towards him and the background to Thomas Corbet’s insulting Fulk junior during his love-day with Gruffydd by suggesting that he was a “traitor”. While obviously somewhat self-serving this part of the romance story is worthy of retelling.

Honour and feuds

As a boy Fulk senior was brought up in Henry the second’s Royal household at Windsor Castle, where he and the future King John were playmates. The two supposedly had a falling out at a young age while playing chess. Let me let the romance speak for itself. First I will quote it in the original Norman French; once again just to illustrate the point about the French culture and language of all England’s ruling class at the time:

Fouke le jeouene fust norry ou les iiij. fitz Henré le roy, e mout amé de tous, estre de Johan; quar yl soleit sovent medler ou Johan. Avint qe Johan e Fouke tut souls sistrent en une chambre, juauntz a eschekes. Johan prist le eschelker, si fery Fouke grant coupe. Fouke se senti blescé, leva le piée, si fery Johan en my le pys, qe sa teste vola contre la pareye, qu’il devynt tut mat e se palmea. Fouke fust esbay ; mès lée fust qe nul fust en la chambre, si eux deus noun, si frota les oryles Johan, e revynt de palmesoun, e s’en ala al roy, son piere, e fist une grant pleynte. ” Tès-tey, maveys,” fet le roy ; ” tous jours estes conteckaunt. Si Fouke nulle chose si bien noun vus fist, ce fust par vostre desert demeyne.” E apela son mestre, e ly fist batre fynement e bien pur sa pleynte. Johan fust molt corocée à Fouke; quarunqe pus ne le poeitamer de cuer.

In modern English:

Young Fulk was brought up with the four sons of King Henry, and much beloved was he of them all save John, for oft did he quarrel with John. And it chanced on a day that John and Fulk were alone in a chamber playing at the chess. And John seized the chessboard, and gave Fulk a heavy blow. And Fulk felt himself hurt, and he raised his foot, and kicked John in the chest, so that his head struck against the wall, and he became all powerless, and fell down senseless. And Fulk was sore afraid, but glad was he that no one was in the chamber save themselves alone, and he rubbed the ears of John, and he recovered from his faintness, and went to the King, his father, and made sore plaint. And the King said, “Silence, fellow, you are ever quarrelling. If Fulk has done by you aught but what is good, it must needs have been by your own desert.” And he called his master, and caused him to beat him soundly and well, because of his plaint. And John was sore angered against Fulk, so that never after could he bear good will toward him.

Henry 2 and Eleanor of Aquitaine – Fulk was brought up in Henry’s court with Henry’s four sons, including the future King John

The veracity or otherwise of this retrospectively amusing vignette is probably beyond recovery; the romance is after all an “official” family hagiography. But as it was probably written sometime between 1256 and 1264 and its content most likely derived from the telling of Fulk senior’s son Fulk FitzWarin junior himself, and was thus just still within living memory, I don’t see any reason to discount it. It’s also possible that Fulk senior was still alive at the time of writing, though we are told he was by now blind. Regardless of its truth, the episode does I think illustrate the very personal and vindictive preoccupations of these people, from the king on down. Insults or damage to honour were not forgotten and quite often led to long and bloody feuds.

According to the History of Fulk FitzWarine this slight denting of his honour is the reason why King John, when he became King in 1199 on the death of his brother Richard “Coeur de Lion”, reconfirmed the grant of the manor of Whittington to the FitzWarin family’s old enemy Meurig FitzRoger of Powys and thus provoked Fulk senior to renounce his feudal homage. We are told that Fulk senior said this to King John:

Sir King, you are my liege lord, and I am bound by fealty to you the whiles I am in your service, and as long as I hold lands of you, and you ought to maintain my rights, but you fail me in my rights and the common law. Never was he a good king who, in his courts, denied the law unto his free tenants. Wherefore I relinquish my homage to you.

An outlaw but no Robin Hood 

Fulk became an outlaw, killed Meurig (Morys) and spent the next three years on the run, trying to evade, and periodically killing, all the forces the furious and vengeful John sent to capture and kill him. He went to Brittany, France, Scandinavia, Spain and the Saracen Barbary coast; just like Odysseus he slew a dragon, fought enemies and won renown and ladies’ hearts. On one of his visits back to England he captured John and, under duress, extorted pardons and restitutions from him, only to see John renege on his promises. He even held a love-day with the king. I can only recommend you read the whole ripping yarn.

As I have mentioned, in 1203 Fulk was finally reconciled with John and able to take possession of Whittington. He remained in the king’s peace for some years. In fact he “accompanied the king to Ireland in 1210 and was frequently with him during the next few years, including the king’s interlude in France during the summer of 1214. However, in 1215 Fulk joined the barons who were rebelling against the king, and although by February 1216 he was reconciled to the crown, mistrust of him lingered”.

The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine

There have been attempts to present Fulk senior as a type of Robin Hood; taking from the rich and giving to the poor, while fighting the tyranny of an evil king.

At the literary level they are many similarities between the early stories of Robin Hood and the romance of Fulk, they seem to have arisen in the same cultural milieu. But Fulk was no Robin Hood. He was just another Norman French thug fighting for local dominance and more land, not only with his local adversaries but also with the arch-thug- in-chief – in the person of the (French-speaking) King John. Even in the romance itself, which does of course try to cast its hero in the best possible light, there is nothing that implies that Fulk had any benevolent aspirations towards the poor and oppressed, or wanted to change an inequitable and repressive system nor indeed had any other motive than to get back his estates. What else should we expect? It would be completely anachronistic to suggest any of this for a Norman marcher baron such as Fulk.

Kisses of Peace and Monty Python

That was and is in some partial way the real history of England, and not just the history of the thirteenth century! The rulers of England might occasionally meet for a love-day in a field in England’s green and pleasant land and exchange a thuggish kiss of peace, but they never have been concerned with the bulk of the English people except insofar as they can squeeze them just a little more.

I leave the last words to the inimitable Monty Python. A scene from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Arthur: I am your king.

Woman: I didn’t know we had a king. I didn’t vote for you.

Arthur: People don’t vote for king.

Woman: How did you become king?

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake. Her arms clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by divine authority that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.

Man: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from a farcial aquatic ceremony.

Arthur: Be quiet.

Man: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

Arthur: Shut up.

The English didn’t shut up, but it didn’t seem to make much difference for many hundreds of years. A E Housman concluded one of his poems in The Shropshire Lad as follows:

And God will save the Queen.

Indeed.

Sources and References

Alan Harding, England in the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge, 1993; Robert William Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire, J.R. Smith, 1858; Janet Meisel,  Barons of the Welsh Frontier: the Corbet, Pantulf and FitzWarin Families, 1066–1272, 1980; Winston Churchill, A History Of The English Speaking PeoplesVolume I, 1956;  John of Oxford, La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron, 1265; Michael Clanchy, Law and Love in the Middle Ages, in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West edited John Bossy,Cambridge UP, 1983; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Translation by Alice Kemp-Welch, Cambridge, Ontario, 2001; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Thomas Wright, London, 1855;

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Following the ‘advent’ of the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century, it took the invaders (if that is what they really were) over two centuries of battles, victories, squabbles and setbacks to finally conquer much, though not all, of what is now England. The ‘English’ subjugated most of the native Britons, slaughtered thousands and pushed back British rule to the remoter, hilly regions of the island: Wales, Cumbria, Cornwall and Scotland. Yet resistance continued for centuries more.

Britain circa 600

Britain circa 600

In what is now the ‘borderland’ between England and Wales, and particularly in Shropshire, the English didn’t start to make any real impression until the seventh century. One native prince (or king) of Powys was called Cynddylan son of Cyndrwyn. His rule probably extended over most of present Shropshire, southern Cheshire and Powys. It was sometimes called the land of Pengwern. There is a whole series of poems in Old Welsh telling of Cynddylan’s deeds. We know from these as well as from Anglo-Saxon sources that Cynddylan was at first able to keep the English at bay.

The ‘English’ Mercians had already pushed into Staffordshire, while their Northumbrian cousins were trying to extend their rule south. On the 5th August 641/2, the Mercian king Penda, together with many allies, including, it is generally believed, Cynddylan, the Prince of Powys, faced the Northumbrian king Oswald at a place called Maserfield in English or Maes Cogwy in Welsh. Oswald was defeated, killed, dismembered and his head and hands ‘hung’ on a tree, an incident giving rise to the name of the Shropshire town of Oswestry (‘Oswald’s Tree’). Penda for a time became the most powerful English warlord. But it wasn’t to last. After Penda had raided deep in Northumbria and even besieged Bamburgh, in 653/4 Oswald’s brother Oswy, who had become king of the northern part of Northumbria called Bernicia, pursued Penda south to exact his revenge. Penda, once again probably  accompanied by Cynddylan, met Oswy’s army at ‘Winwaed’, a place not yet identified with certainty.

Death of King Penda at Winwaed

Death of King Penda at Winwaed

The Northumbrian monk the Venerable Bede gives the most detailed description of the Battle of Winwaed. Under the year 655 he wrote:

At this time King Oswy was exposed to the fierce and intolerable irruptions of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom we have so often mentioned, and who had slain his brother; at length, necessity compelling him, he promised to give him greater gifts than can be imagined, to purchase peace; provided that the king would return home, and cease to destroy the provinces of his kingdom. That perfidious king refused to grant his request, and resolved to extirpate all his nation, from the highest to the lowest; whereupon he had recourse to the protection of the Divine goodness for deliverance from his barbarous and impious foes, and binding himself by a vow, said, ‘If the pagan will not accept of our gifts, let us offer them to Him that will, the Lord our God.’ He then vowed, that if he should come off victorious, he would dedicate his daughter to our Lord in holy virginity, and give twelve farms to build monasteries. After this he gave battle with a very small army against superior forces: indeed, it is reported that the pagans had three times the number of men; for they had thirty legions, led on by most noted commanders. King Oswy and his son Alfrid met them with a very small army, as has been said, but confiding in the conduct of Christ; his other son, Egfrid, was then kept a hostage at the court of Queen Cynwise, in the province of the Mercians. King Oswald’s son Ethelwald, who ought to have assisted them, was on the enemy’s side, and led them on to fight against his country and uncle; though, during the battle, he withdrew, and awaited the event in a place of safety. The engagement beginning, the pagans were defeated, the thirty commanders, and those who had come to his assistance were put to flight, and almost all of them slain; among whom was Ethelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles, who had been the occasion of the war, and who was now killed, with all his soldiers. The battle was fought near the river Winwed, which then, with the great rains, had not only filled its channel, but overflowed its banks, so that many more were drowned in the flight than destroyed by the sword.

The Song of Heledd

The Song of Heledd

As you will have seen Bede tells us nothing about Penda’s Welsh allies, for him this was purely an English thing. Who was to be top dog among the English? Penda had been killed but so had Cynddylan, together with most of his kinsmen and followers. The eighth-century historian Nennius does however mention Penda’a British allies at Winwaed: ‘He (Oswy) slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.’ The Welsh poets rightly saw this as a disaster for the British. One cycle of poems they sang is called Canu Heledd – the Song of Heledd. Heledd was Cynddylan’s sister, she laments his death and the court, her brother’s hall that was attacked and destroyed, and also mourns the death of her sister Ffreuer. Here is the part dealing with the destruction of Cynddylan’s Hall, I find it very beautiful, it must be more so in Old Welsh.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without a bed.
I will weep for a while; then I will be silent.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without candle.
Save God, who will give me sanity?

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without light.
Grief for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its roof is dark,
After the blest assembly.
Woe the good that does not come to it.

The hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless,
Your shield is in the grave.
While he was alive, there were no breached gates.

The hall of Cynddylan is forlorn tonight,
After the one who owned it.
Alas death, why does it spare me?

The hall of Cynddylan is not comfortable tonight,
On the top of the enduring rock,
Without lord, without host, without protection.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without songs.
My cheeks are worn away by tears.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without a warband.
Abundant my tears where it falls.

The hall of Cynddylan, it wounds me to see it,
Without roof, without fire.
My lord is dead, but I am alive.

The hall of Cynddylan lies waste tonight,
After steadfast warriors,
Elfan, and gold-wearing Cynddylan.

The hall of Cynddylan is desolate tonight,
After the respect which was mine,
Without men, without women who cared for it.

The hall of Cynddylan is quiet tonight,
After losing its lord.
Great merciful God, what shall I do?

The hall of Cynddylan, its roof is dark,
After the English destroyed
Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
After the race of the Cyndrwyn,
Cynon and Gwion and Gwyn.

The hall of Cynddylan, it is a wound to me each hour,
After the great company
That I saw on your hearth.

A depiction of the Battle of Winwaed

A depiction of the Battle of Winwaed

In telling this brief history I have skipped vast amounts of Welsh and English scholarship, as well as avoided many on-going historical debates. One such debate is whether Cynddylan was killed alongside Penda in 655 at Winwaed or whether he and his family perished the next year when Oswy destroyed his ‘court’ at Pengwern. Whatever the truth, the point here is simply to show that the defeat and death of Cynddylan in 655/6 was just the beginning of the process whereby the Welsh of ‘Shropshire’ started to lose their land and their identity. For now Shropshire remained Welsh, but it was not too long before a resurgent Mercia would annex this part of Powys to the English lands, to England. That is for another time.

Blue Remembered Hills

Not so long ago I had the pleasure to attend a gathering where ‘storytelling’ became important. Over the course of several days, each of us listened to stories and told our own. The point, I guess, was to find our own ‘voice’. When it was my turn, I was at a loss as to what story I should tell. Then, as if from nowhere, a favourite poem came into my head. One of the few poems I have ever memorized by heart. This poem was by the English poet A. E. Housman, and is usually called The Land of Lost Content, but I prefer to call it Blue Remembered Hills. So I started to recite the poem:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

At first, I recited the poem quietly, gently and with a sort of wistful nostalgia. Surely the poem speaks to those of us who are a little older – as we look back on our seemingly innocent, but certainly lost, youth? Next, I tried a voice that was more pessimistic, that recognized the fleetingness of life and our own mortality. Maybe the poem is about how we will all die and, perhaps, that we should treasure each moment of our lives? I then tried a tone that sought to evoke the physicality of the place; the sense of the peaceful and never changing landscape of the Shropshire Hills. Several more renditions followed. Eventually I hit upon a ‘voice’ that really expressed what this poem meant to me: I told it with anger.

The poem was part of a cycle of sixty-three that Housman published in 1896, under the title A Shropshire Lad. At least in part, I think that Housman meant the whole cycle to be a cry against the wanton and needless loss of young men’s lives – as Queen Victoria expanded ‘her’ Empire. This, I believe, can be seen clearly in another poem from The Shropshire Lad, entitled 1887:

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

“God save the Queen” we living sing,
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

The Nile “spills his overflow besides the Severn’s dead.” We are implored to “get you the sons your fathers got” and, with a large hint of irony, “God will save the Queen.” Now Housman wasn’t an overtly anti-war poet in the manner of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. Yet I think his social and political stance is clear.

A. E. Housman

But it doesn’t really matter if my interpretation of the poem corresponds with Housman’s intention or not. It’s not often I have a kind word to say about the post-modernist school of literary criticism, particularly when it is imported into the writing and reading of history. But regarding my reading of Blue Remembered Hills, and what it means to me, it is surely right. My own ‘angry’ reading of the poem is my ‘discourse’; one amongst many.

For generation after generation, young men in England, and in every country in the world, have been cajoled and pressured to go and fight in distant wars. Wars about which they have not the slightest conception. They go to fight an enemy whom they don’t know. And, if they did, they would probably find them to be very much like themselves. Whether English, German or French they will die, often screaming for their mothers, in the trenches of Flanders. These young men have been betrayed by their rulers; who saw them as just so much ‘cannon fodder’ – to be used in their quests for greater power and glory.  This is why an angry reading of Blue Remembered Hills resonates so much with me.

It’s not surprising to learn that, after an initially lukewarm reception, Housman’s poems received much more attention during the Boer War and the Great War.

As a last thought, I feel the ‘sense of place’ in these poems is important. Housman wasn’t from Shropshire, yet he evokes this small region of England perfectly:

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

In this day and age, when many of us seem to have lost a sense of belonging to the land, and to any specific locality, I love Housman’s sense of rootedness. Perhaps it’s because my own family lived in Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills for centuries; but I do hope his wonderful poetry will continue to find a wider audience, wherever they may be.

There is no doubt that the Normans who arrived in England in 1066 with William the Conqueror, and those who followed in subsequent years, were, as Thomas Paine  so aptly put it in Common Sense in 1776, a group of “armed banditti”. The “French bastard” William was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

The Norman Conquest was a disaster for the English people

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”. For sure there was resistance but it would be many centuries before any amount of ordinary English people would  be able to make serious attempts to crawl out from under this cruel oppression – some might argue that they have yet to succeed.

Honi soit qui mal y pense

In reading popular versions of English history, and even sometimes more scholarly and learned works, it is all too easy to forget another very significant fact: These armed thugs were French and they spoke French. Of course the Normans were originally North-men, they were Vikings, but by the time of the conquest, while still retaining the brutal martial qualities of their Viking ancestors, they were thoroughly French and spoke one version of the many regional varieties of French in use at that time: Norman French. As more and more French men and women from other parts of France arrived in England throughout the late Middle Ages, the language spoken by the royal  court, by the barons, by the local knights and in the courts of law slowly evolved and morphed – away from Norman French and towards a more Parisian French. But let’s be quite clear: the conquerors continued to speak French as their primary language for a long time to come.

The English and their language were much despised, as indeed later on would be the Welsh, Irish and Scots as well.

At the end of the thirteenth century, Robert of Gloucester could write:

And the Normans could not then speak any speech but their own; and they spoke French as they did at home, and had their children taught the same. So that the high men of this land, that came of their blood, all retain the same speech which they brought from their home. For unless a man know French, people regard him little; but the low men hold to English, and to their own speech still. I ween there be no countries in all the world that do not hold to their own speech, except England only. But undoubtedly it is well to know both; for the more a man knows, the more worth he is.

The British Coat of Arms makes it clear who is in command

Of course there was a need for some sort of communication between the conquerors and the conquered. The native English needed to know some French if they had to serve and appease their new lords in their manors, work on the lords’ home farms or understand the lawyers and judges in the courts. Slowly but surely Old English or Anglo-Saxon evolved and morphed into Middle English, the language of Chaucer. Although French remained the principal language of the rulers, one by one, and at first very reluctantly, they started to be able to understand and then speak Middle English as well.

In 1362, Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English and the Statute of Pleading was adopted, which made English the language of the courts, though this statute was still written in French! French was still the mother tongue of Henry IV (1399-1413), but he was the first to take the oath in English. That most “English” of Kings Henry V(1413–1422) was the first to write in English but he still preferred to use French.

It is interesting to note that it was not until the days of Henry VII in the late fifteenth century that an English king married a woman born in England (Elizabeth of York), as well as the fact that Law French was not banished from the common law courts until as late as 1731.

So when we read history books or watch television programmes about the exploits of “English” kings such as Henry II, his sons Richard “Coeur de Lion” and John, or later about Edward I “Hammer of the Scots” or indeed about the countless English barons and knights fighting each other as well as fighting the kings of England and France, it is advisable to remember that these people weren’t yet English in any real sense of the word and didn’t yet see themselves as such. Whether we call them “Anglo-Norman” or something else, and whether or not they were born in England, these were Norman/French “aristocratic” thugs.

I want to stress this linguistic and cultural point not because I have anything against the French, nor because there were only French thugs. Thugs in fact appear everywhere and their arrival on the historical stage is, rather sadly, one of the defining characteristics of our civilization itself. Rather knowing what type of people these really were can help clear some of the mist from popular English history as it is too often presented.

Thugs fighting thugs

Simon de Montfort – a very big French thug indeed

On the political level one could, I think with some justification, regard the whole of the thirteenth century as being a period of thugs fighting thugs. Once these Normans and French had divvied up the spoils, and when they weren’t preoccupied with trying to squeeze more and more surplus out of the enserfed native population, they were fighting each other, both in England and abroad. At home from the barons forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, through the Second Barons’ War between 1264 and 1267 and even including Edward I  seeking dominance in Britain at the turn of the century by fighting the Welsh and the Scots. Abroad the various wars fought by the “English” Plantagenet and Angevin kings and barons on French soil from the time of the Conquest right up at least to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (and arguably until the final loss of Calais in 1558), were also essentially dynastic fights between groups of “strenuous” French-speaking Frenchmen.

Regarding the Magna Carta and all that, the British human rights barrister Geoffrey Robinson once accurately commented:

The appearance of ‘rights’ as a set of popular propositions limiting the sovereign is usually traced to Magna Carta in 1215, although the document had nothing to do with the liberty of individual citizens: it was signed by a feudal king who was feuding with thuggish barons and was forced to accede to their demands.

Very true. But it needs to be added that with the help of the Pope he soon got out of even his limited commitments to the barons.

At the local level in England, the kings, barons and knights fought each other to get more land (the basis of medieval power) and to be allowed more “liberty” to extract the maximum surplus from their feudal dependants with the minimum possible truck or hindrance from either the king or from other lords. In fact “Liberty” originally and literally meant the freedom to exploit properties and people. They fought each other with swords and axes in the fields and, with inexhaustible alacrity, with words in the courts, the words of course being French; although court proceedings were usually recorded in Latin.

A Shropshire tale

My concern in this essay is just one such local event. The setting is the thirteenth century in the Welsh borderland (March) county of Shropshire. It is a story of local thugs fighting each other and fighting King John. It concerns two pretty representative thuggish French families: the FitzWarins and the Corbets, one thuggish Welsh family – that of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, Prince of Powys – as well as the King himself.

Let’s allow Winston Churchill to eloquently summarize the story:

Fulk Fitz Warin, the third of that name, was a Shropshire knight, arbitrarily deprived or ‘Disseissed’ of his land by King John (1199-1216) in the first decade of the 13th century. His exploits during the years of rebellion and ultimately successful struggle to regain his estates was recounted in a popular French Romance, probably written to sustain the morale of the family when the Fitz Warin patrimony was again in danger in the 1250’s. At that time Fulk Fitz Warin IV purchased from the Royal Chancery a writ of ‘novel disseissen’ by order of which, in January 1256, the Sheriff of Shropshire brought before a party of royal justices on circuit at Shrewsbury, a leading Shropshire baron names Thomas Corbet, together with a jury who were required to say whether Thomas had dispossessed Fulk in the recent past of 120 acres of arable land in Alberbury. The jury told the justices that the case had risen from a ‘love-day’ held on the borders of Wales to settle a minor war between Thomas Corbet and the Prince of Powys, at which Fulk, as a tenant of Thomas, had been present with the rest of the local gentry. In the heat of argument, Thomas had called Fulk ‘a traitor as his father was to king John’ and Fulk had replied that, after such an insult, he would renounce his homage to Thomas and ‘never hold land from him again’. Thomas had taken Fulk at his word and occupied his land but the jury replied to questions from the justices that Fulk had not renounced his land in due legal form: it had all been mere feudal histrionics. So damages of 40 shillings were awarded against Thomas and Fulk recovered his land.

What a great story! I’ll discuss the “French Romance” later; but first a little background on the three border families involved.

Hugh Le Corbeau. Founder of the English Corbets

The Corbets were one of the leading marcher families in Shropshire.  Hugh “Le Courbeau” (The Raven) came from Caux in Normandy, he had perhaps been with William the Conqueror at Hastings. He was rewarded with extensive lands in Shropshire that had previously belonged to King Edward ‘the Confessor’, as it says in Domesday Book. He built his castle near Westbury in Shropshire and called it Caus after his Norman home. At first he held his fees from Roger de Montgomerie, who William had created first Earl of Shrewbury in 1074. But when Roger’s grandson Robert, the third Earl, rebelled against Henry I he forfeited his title in 1102. Hugh  le Corbeau’s descendants then held directly from the Crown and much of the history of Shropshire for a long time thereafter can be characterized as various baronial and knightly families alternately fighting each other and marrying each other, trying to grab as much land for themselves as they could following Robert de Montgomerie’s removal from the scene. One of these fractious, war-like families was the Corbets, who by the mid thirteenth century had consolidated large feudal holdings in Shropshire and elsewhere. The head of the senior branch was the Thomas Corbet mentioned by Winston Churchill.

The next person we need to consider must I guess for reasons of ethnic even-handedness be called a Welsh thug: Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn.  He was a Welsh prince who was lord of part of southern Powys. Powys being that portion of central Wales adjoining Shropshire. Gruffydd was the son of Gwenwynwyn ap Owain but his mother was Thomas Corbet’s sister Margaret. Hence he was Thomas Corbet’s nephew. Under pressure from the rise of the Prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn the Great, Gruffydd, although originally a Welsh “nationalist”, increasingly allied himself with the English kings. He eventually even adopted the Norman family name of De la Pole – after the family’s main English manor of Pool (present day Welshpool in Shropshire).

Whittington Castle as it probably was. The cause of Fulk’s dispute with King John

Finally, there is the FitzWarin family, who probably arrived in both England and Shropshire only in the twelfth century. Not initially as powerful as the Corbets, they nevertheless soon became involved in the usual and never-ending power battles the border barons fought among themselves. The family traced its descent from the eponymous Warin de Metz. Either Warin, or just possibly some of his ancestors, came to England from Lorraine in eastern France. Warin, so the story goes, was victorious in a tournament, and he thereby won the right to marry Mellet Peverell, the heiress to the Whittington manor near Oswestry in Shrophire.

But throughout the second half of the twelfth century Whittington was being occupied by the Welshman Roger de Powys and later by his son Meurig (Morys) FitzRoger, so the FitzWarin family weren’t able to take possession. Fulk FitzWarin III, the great grandson of Warin, continued his family’s quest for Whittington. He paid a fine of £100 for the manor to King John but John refused to reverse his support for Meurig of Powys. “Exasperated” Fulk III “waged a guerrilla rebellion against the king between 1200 and 1203. His fifty-two adherents included his brothers William, Philip, and John, some Fitzwarine family tenants, and many younger sons of prominent Shropshire families. The king sent Hubert de Burgh with 100 knights to respond to this threat, but finally pardoned Fulk and his followers on 11 November 1203. Fulk paid 200 marks and finally received Whittington Castle in October 1204.”

A Minor War

The arguments and “minor war” between Gruffydd and Thomas Corbet mentioned by Churchill started in 1241 and initially concerned the question of the entitlement to Margaret Corbet’s dowry, which included a “tenement” at Caus, but eventually escalated to other matters in several different parts of the country.

Janet Meisel, the historian of these border barons tells us:

The longest and most complex of all Thomas’s legal battles began in 1241 with a suit between him and his sister, Margaret, who by then was the widow of Gwenwynwyn, prince of Powis, and mother of Griffin (sic) ap Gwenwynwyn. At first the only issue was Margaret’s dower, but by 1247 Griffin became involved in the dispute and the quarrel quickly grew to include such matters as alleged breaches of the peace by both men in several counties and a variety of land disputes ranging from Derbyshire in the east to Wales in the West. By 1255 the dispute had grown so large that the king appointed a special commission to investigate the various contentions of Thomas and Griffin, but this commission… appears to have met with little success.

In The Antiquities of Shropshire Robert W Eyton tells us:

On May 9, 1255, Justices are appointed to try an action of novel disseizin preferred by Thomas Corbet against Griffin Wenunwin (sic) for a tenement in Caus.

Novel disseizin just means someone has recently seized the land. Evidently Gruffydd had seized the tenement in Caus from Thomas, no doubt claiming it was part of his mother’s dowry. Further we read:

On July 5th, 1255, another Patent appoints three Justices to set to rights the wrongs and strifes which subsisted between these same persons…

Love-days

But obviously at least once Thomas Corbet and Gruffydd had tried to settle their disagreements without resort to violence or the courts of law. They had called a Jour d’Amour – a Love-Day – as Churchill rightly said. Finding their origins in Anglo-Saxon times, these days weren’t always, or even mostly, meetings of reconciliation freely decided upon by the antagonists, they usually had a certain form or process and were generally agreed upon in a court. It is quite possible that the Justices mentioned above had agreed to this love-day.

It worked as follows (I take this from John of Oxford’s La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron of 1265): The defendant (in this case that would be Gruffydd) would ask the court steward or justice for a jour d’amour with the plaintiff (Thomas Corbet). “We grant it you”, replies steward, “so that you be at one between now and the next court”. As Michael Clanchy writes:

A ‘loveday’ … is therefore a day of reconciliation between disputants. The court does not adjudicate this reconciliation, nor does it inquire what its terms are; the court’s only function is to fix a time limit within which agreement is reached.

The court’s lack of responsibility is explained by the principle that ‘pactum legem vincit et amor judicium’ . The request of the steward for a day of reconciliation superceeds the law and the subsequent ‘bond of love’ between (the disputants) eliminates further action by the court.

When the court reconvenes the steward would ask the parties: “How then has business gone between you? Are you at one?” Which Michael Clanchy explains can be “ literally translated as ‘Are you one people or kindred? (une gent or une genz)’” If the plaintiff answers “Yes, sir” then that’s an end to it, except for the court’s fee.

The loveday makes the contending parties into une genz just as the marriage ceremony does. Like marriage, a loveday should be sealed with a kiss (the kiss of peace), blessed by a priest, and witnessed by mutual friends and kinsmen.

If there is no agreement, as apparently there wasn’t between Thomas and Gruffydd, the parties could go back to the courts. We know that this particular petty, though representative, dispute dragged on till Thomas’s death. But what is of importance to our little story here is that such love-days had to be witnessed “by mutual friends and kinsmen”. Fulk FitzWarin was one of these and following the love-day Thomas Corbet had seized Alberbury manor from him. Why?

Corbet’s insult and Fulk’s day in court

The Assize-Roll of the January 1256 Shrewbury Eyre Court tells us what had happened and why, I’ll quote this at some length:

An Assize comes on, to make recognition whether Thomas corbet hath disseized Fulk Fitz Warin, junior, of his free tenement in Alberbyr, viz. of about 120 acres.

Thomas says that the land is of his Fief, and that the Plaintiff, before many Magnates and Lieges of the King, rendered back his homage and the said land to the Defendant, and positively declared that he never would have either that land or any other land of the Defendant. For this reason the Defendant put himself in seizing of the said land, as it was lawful for him to do, the moment that Fulk abandoned it to him

Fulk says (in reply) that he never rendered back land nor homage, and asks judgement on the special point, – whether, even if it were true that under anger and excitement he had verbally rendered back his homage, yet had not subsequently changed his state, but had continuously remained in seizing, – whether it was competent to the Defendant to disseize him on the ground of a mere word. As to his never having, spontaneously, and of goodwill, surrendered the land, he put himself on the Assize. (ie appeals to the Jury).

The Jury declares that a certain day of reconciliation ( a love-day or dies amoris) was fixed upon between Thomas Corbet and Griffin ap Wennonwyn, touching several matters of contention; – that many Magnates met together on the occasion, and that Fulk, the present plaintiff, was of their number; – that Fulk and Thomas Corbet quarrelled together; – that Corbet called Fulk, Fulk’s father, a Traitor; – that Fulk announced to Corbet, that, seeing he charged his father with such a crime, he (Fulk Junior) would render back his homage to Corbet and would never hold land of him again.

The Jury, being asked (by the Court) whether Fulk, in his own person, made the said surrender, say that he did not; indeed that he made the surrender through Hamo le Strange.

The Jurors, being further asked whether Fulk, after he sent the message, returned to his seizin, say ‘Yes’, – and that Fulk is still in seizin of the Castle of Alberbyr, which is the capital Manor pertaining to the said land; and that Fulk caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land, in the interval before Corbet ejected him.

The court decides that Fulk do recover his seizin.

Similar to all such martial societies who viewed themselves as heroic, going back at least to Homer’s Myceneans, these Norman Frenchmen were extremely concerned, touchy and tetchy about their honour and that of their family – however fictive this honour might had been in reality. Hence, in Churchill’s words, Fulk’s “feudal histrionics” following the insult to his father..

A view of Alberbury Church and Castle in the eighteenth century

But Fulk wasn’t stupid, he knew that he held his fee at Alberbury (I will use the modern spelling) not direct from the king but from Thomas Corbet. He had its use only so long as he did homage to Thomas and if he withdrew his homage Thomas could repossess or seize the property. And this he had done. Fulk claimed that it was all done in “anger and excitement” and was at pains to stress that after the love-day he had gone back to Alberbury and “caused eight days’ of ploughing to be done on the land”.

Such feudal fees were slowly but surely changing into hereditary possessions (what we now call cases of freehold or legally more accurately  “fee simple absolute in possession”). Fulk won the case. This was a pivotal period in the evolution of the law of property in England as it moved away from purely feudal holdings to a more modern form of absolute and inheritable private property.  As the historian of the thirteenth century Alan Harding noted:

The real meaning of the case is that even in the marches, where military feudalism lasted longer than elsewhere, the common law had deprived lords of the freedom to decide, in the company of their vassals in their honour courts and love-days, who should and should not hold lands from them.

Even though the 1256 court found in Fulk’s favour, Thomas Corbet refused to accept the verdict and continued to try to hold on to Alberbury. The case continued for years. It was probably to strengthen his case that Fulk commissioned a Norman French Trouvère at Ludlow to write the “French Romance” of his family and its long connections with Alberbury to which Winston Churchill referred. It is usually simply called Fouke le Fitzwarin  or The History of Fulk FitzWarine. The Fulk of the tale is our Fulk’s father generally referred to as Fulk FitzWarin III while his son of the 1256 Assizes is known as Fulk FitzWarin  IV. I will simply call them from now on senior and junior respectively.

The History of Fulk FitzWarine starts with a long history of the FitzWarin family,  its deeds and exemplary exploits from the time of the eponymous Warin de Metz up to the times of Fulk FitzWarin senior and then it tells us why King John had such an enmity towards him and the background to Thomas Corbet’s insulting Fulk junior during his love-day with Gruffydd by suggesting that he was a “traitor”. While obviously somewhat self-serving this part of the romance story is worthy of retelling.

Honour and feuds

As a boy Fulk senior was brought up in Henry the second’s Royal household at Windsor Castle, where he and the future King John were playmates. The two supposedly had a falling out at a young age while playing chess. Let me let the romance speak for itself. First I will quote it in the original Norman French; once again just to illustrate the point about the French culture and language of all England’s ruling class at the time:

Fouke le jeouene fust norry ou les iiij. fitz Henré le roy, e mout amé de tous, estre de Johan; quar yl soleit sovent medler ou Johan. Avint qe Johan e Fouke tut souls sistrent en une chambre, juauntz a eschekes. Johan prist le eschelker, si fery Fouke grant coupe. Fouke se senti blescé, leva le piée, si fery Johan en my le pys, qe sa teste vola contre la pareye, qu’il devynt tut mat e se palmea. Fouke fust esbay ; mès lée fust qe nul fust en la chambre, si eux deus noun, si frota les oryles Johan, e revynt de palmesoun, e s’en ala al roy, son piere, e fist une grant pleynte. ” Tès-tey, maveys,” fet le roy ; ” tous jours estes conteckaunt. Si Fouke nulle chose si bien noun vus fist, ce fust par vostre desert demeyne.” E apela son mestre, e ly fist batre fynement e bien pur sa pleynte. Johan fust molt corocée à Fouke; quarunqe pus ne le poeitamer de cuer.

In modern English:

Young Fulk was brought up with the four sons of King Henry, and much beloved was he of them all save John, for oft did he quarrel with John. And it chanced on a day that John and Fulk were alone in a chamber playing at the chess. And John seized the chessboard, and gave Fulk a heavy blow. And Fulk felt himself hurt, and he raised his foot, and kicked John in the chest, so that his head struck against the wall, and he became all powerless, and fell down senseless. And Fulk was sore afraid, but glad was he that no one was in the chamber save themselves alone, and he rubbed the ears of John, and he recovered from his faintness, and went to the King, his father, and made sore plaint. And the King said, “Silence, fellow, you are ever quarrelling. If Fulk has done by you aught but what is good, it must needs have been by your own desert.” And he called his master, and caused him to beat him soundly and well, because of his plaint. And John was sore angered against Fulk, so that never after could he bear good will toward him.

Henry 2 and Eleanor of Aquitaine – Fulk was brought up in Henry’s court with Henry’s four sons, including the future King John

The veracity or otherwise of this retrospectively amusing vignette is probably beyond recovery; the romance is after all an “official” family hagiography. But as it was probably written sometime between 1256 and 1264 and its content most likely derived from the telling of Fulk senior’s son Fulk FitzWarin junior himself, and was thus just still within living memory, I don’t see any reason to discount it. It’s also possible that Fulk senior was still alive at the time of writing, though we are told he was by now blind. Regardless of its truth, the episode does I think illustrate the very personal and vindictive preoccupations of these people, from the king on down. Insults or damage to honour were not forgotten and quite often led to long and bloody feuds.

According to the History of Fulk FitzWarine this slight denting of his honour is the reason why King John, when he became King in 1199 on the death of his brother Richard “Coeur de Lion”, reconfirmed the grant of the manor of Whittington to the FitzWarin family’s old enemy Meurig FitzRoger of Powys and thus provoked Fulk senior to renounce his feudal homage. We are told that Fulk senior said this to King John:

Sir King, you are my liege lord, and I am bound by fealty to you the whiles I am in your service, and as long as I hold lands of you, and you ought to maintain my rights, but you fail me in my rights and the common law. Never was he a good king who, in his courts, denied the law unto his free tenants. Wherefore I relinquish my homage to you.

An outlaw but no Robin Hood 

Fulk became an outlaw, killed Meurig (Morys) and spent the next three years on the run, trying to evade, and periodically killing, all the forces the furious and vengeful John sent to capture and kill him. He went to Brittany, France, Scandinavia, Spain and the Saracen Barbary coast; just like Odysseus he slew a dragon, fought enemies and won renown and ladies’ hearts. On one of his visits back to England he captured John and, under duress, extorted pardons and restitutions from him, only to see John renege on his promises. He even held a love-day with the king. I can only recommend you read the whole ripping yarn.

As I have mentioned, in 1203 Fulk was finally reconciled with John and able to take possession of Whittington. He remained in the king’s peace for some years. In fact he “accompanied the king to Ireland in 1210 and was frequently with him during the next few years, including the king’s interlude in France during the summer of 1214. However, in 1215 Fulk joined the barons who were rebelling against the king, and although by February 1216 he was reconciled to the crown, mistrust of him lingered”.

The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine

There have been attempts to present Fulk senior as a type of Robin Hood; taking from the rich and giving to the poor, while fighting the tyranny of an evil king.

At the literary level they are many similarities between the early stories of Robin Hood and the romance of Fulk, they seem to have arisen in the same cultural milieu. But Fulk was no Robin Hood. He was just another Norman French thug fighting for local dominance and more land, not only with his local adversaries but also with the arch-thug- in-chief – in the person of the (French-speaking) King John. Even in the romance itself, which does of course try to cast its hero in the best possible light, there is nothing that implies that Fulk had any benevolent aspirations towards the poor and oppressed, or wanted to change an inequitable and repressive system nor indeed had any other motive than to get back his estates. What else should we expect? It would be completely anachronistic to suggest any of this for a Norman marcher baron such as Fulk.

Kisses of Peace and Monty Python

That was and is in some partial way the real history of England, and not just the history of the thirteenth century! The rulers of England might occasionally meet for a love-day in a field in England’s green and pleasant land and exchange a thuggish kiss of peace, but they never have been concerned with the bulk of the English people except insofar as they can squeeze them just a little more.

I leave the last words to the inimitable Monty Python. A scene from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Arthur: I am your king.

Woman: I didn’t know we had a king. I didn’t vote for you.

Arthur: People don’t vote for king.

Woman: How did you become king?

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake. Her arms clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by divine authority that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.

Man: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from a farcial aquatic ceremony.

Arthur: Be quiet.

Man: You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

Arthur: Shut up.

The English didn’t shut up, but it didn’t seem to make much difference for many hundreds of years. A E Housman concluded one of his poems in The Shropshire Lad as follows:

And God will save the Queen.

Indeed.

Sources and References

Alan Harding, England in the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge, 1993; Robert William Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire, J.R. Smith, 1858; Janet Meisel,  Barons of the Welsh Frontier: the Corbet, Pantulf and FitzWarin Families, 1066–1272, 1980; Winston Churchill, A History Of The English Speaking PeoplesVolume I, 1956;  John of Oxford, La Court Baron; Les Encoupemenz en Court de Baron, 1265; Michael Clanchy, Law and Love in the Middle Ages, in Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West edited John Bossy,Cambridge UP, 1983; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Translation by Alice Kemp-Welch, Cambridge, Ontario, 2001; The History of Fulk Fitz-Warine, Thomas Wright, London, 1855;

It’s funny how very often pondering one thing will lead on to quite another. Recently I was thinking about how much great English literature has been written by women – novels in particular. I don’t mean the oh-so-sensitive Jane Austin or the bodice-rippers of the Bronte sisters, but rather women who wrote wonderful books but didn’t avoid the harsh social and political realities of the times in which they lived  or about which they wrote. Women such as Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot and Mary Shelley, there are many more.  One of my own favourites was Mary Webb.

Mary Webb's Precious Bane

Mary Webb was a Shropshire writer and she beautifully evokes a sense of place. In her last novel, Precious Bane (1924), set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, that place is Sarn Mere. It is a fictitious village on a small lake (‘mere’) in the flatlands of northern Shropshire:

There’s a discouragement about the place. It may be the water lapping, year in and year out–everywhere you look and listen, water; or the big trees waiting and considering on your right hand and on your left; or the unbreathing quiet of the place, as if it was created but an hour gone, and not created for us.

Prudence Sarn and her brother Gideon are burying their father and the coffin is standing by the grave. The mourners had all ‘drank good health’ to their father from the ‘big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine’, which was all their mother had been able to afford. But ‘at the coffin foot was our little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them.’

One of the mourners, a certain Sexton, then stepped forward and asked:

 ‘Be there a Sin Eater?’

And Mother cried out —

‘Alas, no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sarn. Gideon gainsayed it.’

Mary Webb’s narrator Prudence then tells us what a sin-eater was:

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying —

I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the by-ways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.

And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place. Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days.

So Gideon said: ‘We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?’ But their mother ‘would not be comforted’ because her husband ‘had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him’. ‘He had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good.’ So when Sexton calls out once again, ‘Be there a Sin Eater?’:

Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass. Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said –

‘There is a Sin Eater.’

‘Who then? I see none,’ said Sexton.

‘I ool be the Sin Eater.’

He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.

‘Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?’ he said.

‘No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!’

‘What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.’

With grave misgivings the mother eventually relents; to save her husband’s soul from Satan: ‘If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.’ Gideon wants to make sure that his mother will give him the family farm if he acts as his father’s sin-eater. ‘Yes, yes, my dear!’, she says, ‘What be the farm to me? You can take all, and welcome.’

Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up.

Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tall in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said —

‘I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.’

There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud.

But when Gideon said, ‘Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,’ I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser.

Of course Gideon had made a type of Faustian pact to get the farm, his bane is gold, which he sets of to acquire quite regardless of the harm he will do to others. He is, of course, cursed and doomed.

Precious Bane is a wonderful book but what concerns me here is the idea of sin-eaters. Although sin-eating was particularly prevalent in Wales and the English border counties (including Shropshire) it was also found around other parts of Britain and Europe. It even found its way to America.

In a 1926 book entitled Funeral Customs we read:

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.

In the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica we are told:

A symbolic survival of it (sin eating) was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire.  After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer and handed it to him across the coffin with a ‘funeral biscuit.’ In Upper Bavaria  sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsular a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family. The Dutch doed-koecks or ‘dead-cakes’, marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York.

Richard Munslow's Grave in Ratlinghope -'The Last of the Sin-Eaters'

So in fact sin-eaters hadn’t quite died out at the end of the Napoleonic wars when Mary Webb’s novel is set. Prudence even tells us that ‘they had to be sent for to the mountains’. In England it seems the last sin-eater only died in 1906 in the village of Ratlinghope, this is indeed in the South Shropshire ‘mountains’ – in A E Housman’s ‘Blue Remembered Hills’. His name was Richard Munslow. Mr. Munslow, it seems, wasn’t a poor person or a beggar but a well-to-do farmer who ‘appears to have taken on the job after losing 3 of his children in a Whooping Cough outbreak.’ One can only imagine the tragedy of this.

Recently his grave had fallen into a bad state and the locals of Ratlinghope raised £1,000 for its restoration. Even the BBC reported in 2010 on the special service held in Ratlinghope Church in honour of this ‘the last of the sin-eaters’:

Frowned upon by the church, the custom mainly died out in the 19th Century.

The Reverend Norman Morris, the vicar of Ratlinghope, a village of about 100 residents on the Long Mynd near Church Stretton, led the “God’s Acre” service at St Margaret’s Church.

Mr. Morris said: “It was a very odd practice and would not have been approved of by the church but I suspect the vicar often turned a blind eye to the practice… This grave at Ratlinghope is now in an excellent state of repair but I have no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it”

Aren’t Anglican vicars such lovely understanding people today! Maybe previous vicars had turned a blind eye, though as sin-eating was seen as akin to pagan witchcraft maybe quite a few were burned as heretics as well. Isn’t it rather ironic that our nice vicar has ‘no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it’ although the whole of Christianity is based on the belief that Jesus Christ ‘died for our sins’ – just as the sin-eaters took the sins of the dying or dead upon themselves. Every week Catholics can confess their sins and be absolved and during every Mass Christians literally drink the blood of Christ and eat his body. So not much difference there.

But what is this concept of sin? Christianity tells us that because of the ‘original sin’ we are all ‘fallen’ and every one of us is born sinful, even little children. Even kindly Anglican vicars will still come into your house and tell you that your small daughter is a sinner and that you must acknowledge this before baptism. What bunkum. A good boot up the behind is I think in order.

For me the word ‘Sin’ has become so contaminated by religious dogma that we might as well abandon it. I prefer the equally graphic word ‘Evil’. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of evil is that it is the total absence of empathy. Only people or institutions who lack empathy can commit the individual and group atrocities we witness throughout the world every day.

We don’t need sin-eaters any more, whether of the Gideon Sarn kind or the Christian kind. Whether we call things sins or evil, people and institutions need to be held responsible for the acts they commit in this life, not absolved from them every Sunday or on their death bed so they can go to heaven.

Blue Remembered Hills

Not so long ago I had the pleasure to attend a gathering where storytelling became important. Over the course of several days each of us listened to stories and told our own. The point, I guess, was to find our own ‘voice’. When it was my turn, I was at a loss as to what story I should tell. Then as if from nowhere a favourite poem came into my head. One of the few poems I have ever memorized by heart. This poem was by the English poet A. E. Housman and is usually called The Land of Lost Content, but I prefer to call it Blue Remembered Hills. So I started to recite the poem:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

At first I recited the poem quietly, gently and with a sort of wistful nostalgia. Surely the poem speaks to those of us who are a little older – as we look back on our seemingly innocent, but certainly lost, youth? Next I tried a voice that was more pessimistic, that recognized the fleetingness of life and our own mortality. Maybe the poem is about how we will all die and, perhaps, that we should treasure each moment of our lives? I then tried a tone that sought to evoke the physicality of the place; the sense of the peaceful and never changing landscape of the Shropshire Hills. Several more renditions followed. Eventually I hit upon a voice that really expressed what this poem meant to me: I told it with anger.

The poem was part of a cycle of sixty-three that Housman published in 1896, under the title A Shropshire Lad. At least in part, I think that Housman meant the whole cycle to be a cry against the wanton and needless loss of young men’s lives – as Queen Victoria expanded ‘her’ Empire. This, I believe, can be seen clearly in another poem from The Shropshire Lad, entitled 1887:

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

“God save the Queen” we living sing,
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

The Nile ‘spills his overflow besides the Severn’s dead’. We are implored to ‘get you the sons your fathers got’ and, with a large hint of irony, “God will save the Queen.” Now Housman wasn’t an overtly anti-war poet in the manner of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, yet I think his social and political stance is clear.

A. E. Housman

But it doesn’t really matter if my interpretation of the poem corresponds with Housman’s intention or not. It’s not often I have a kind word to say about the post-modernist school of literary criticism, particularly when it is imported into the writing and reading of history. But regarding my reading of Blue Remembered Hills, and what it means to me, it is surely right. My own‘angry reading of the poem is my ‘discourse’; one amongst many.

For generation after generation, young men in England, and in every country in the world, have been cajoled and pressured to go and fight in distant wars. Wars about which they have not the slightest conception. They go to fight an enemy whom they don’t know. And, if they did, they would probably find them to be very much like themselves. Whether English, German or French they will die, often screaming for their mothers, in the trenches of Flanders. These young men have been betrayed by their rulers, who saw them as just so much‘cannon fodder – to be used in their quests for greater power and glory.  This is why an angry reading of Blue Remembered Hills resonates so much with me.

It’s not surprising to learn that after an initially lukewarm reception Housman’s poems received much more attention during the Boer War and the Great War.

As a last thought, I feel the ‘sense of place’ in these poems is important. Housman wasn’t from Shropshire, yet he evokes this small region of England perfectly:

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

In this day and age, when many of us seem to have lost a sense of belonging to the land, and to any specific locality, I love Housman’s sense of rootedness. Perhaps it’s because my own family lived in Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills for centuries; but I do hope his wonderful poetry will continue to find a wider audience, wherever they may be.