So You Think You Have Marital Strife and In-law Problems?

Here’s an illustrative tale about marriage and family life in the fractious Middle Ages during the Age of Chivalry.   Marcher Baron William deBraose, lord of Abergavenny, was born around 1204.   He was the qunitessential A-lister.  Wealthy, well-connected, well born–what could go wrong?  The Welsh called him “Black William”.   Now before he came along the Welsh already hated his family, the deBraoses, who were, collectively, a powerful marcher lord family (of Norman origin of course) with a history of abuses of the Welsh. His grandfather, William deBraose, 4th Lord of Bramber, was known as the “Ogre of Abergavenny” (“the Ogre”) because in 1175 he invited several Welsh princes to Christmas Day festivities to settle their differences and had all of them and their entire retinues murdered.  Ho, ho, ho and Merry Christmas indeed!

The aforementioned Ogre had also been suspected of being complicit in the disappearance of Arthur of Brittany, at one time  heir-designate to the English throne, chosen by Richard Lionheart instead of his brother, John.   Arthur’s father  Geoffrey was a son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and a middle brother between Richard Lionheart and youngest son (eventually king) John.

Arthur of Brittany was no peach.  He had revolted against his uncle King John in 1202 and besieged his grandmother Eleanor of Aquitaine, who John had to rescue.  It was for these acts that John captured and imprisoned him the same year, leaving the aforementioned Ogre in charge of the captive.  In 1203 Arthur disappeared, never to be heard of or from again.  It was widely assumed that his uncle, King John was responsible and it was said that he and/or the Ogre had bumped off Arthur, whose body was found by a fisherman.  It had supposedly been weighted down and dumped in the Seine but became entangled in the fisherman’s net.

Subsequently the Ogre/4th Lord of Bramber, alas, had a falling out with King John and had to flee for his life, escaping England disguised as a beggar and leaving behind his wife, Maud de St. Valery de Braose and his eldest son William, both of whom John threw into prison, where they were eventually believed to have been starved to death after being walled up somewhere within Corfe castle.

Compared to that, Black William could be considered only mildly delinquent.  Reginald, Black William’s far less notorious dad, was a son of  the Ogre but William was the one who took after his grandfather.

Against this backdrop of familial dysfunction, Llywelyn the Great (Prince of Gwynedd who eventually ruled most of Wales) was married to Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John, (The Pope later legitimized her. I think money was involved.)  During a visit to Llywelyn’s castle Black William was caught in Llywelyn’s bedchamber with Joan.  Llywelyn had him hung publicly (by one account naked) on 2/5/1230.  William was only 26 and he’s still infamous, so I guess you could say he carried on the family tradition.

Yesterday though, I came across an interesting bit of trivia about that event. After hanging his wife’s frisky lover Llywelyn graciously sent a letter of apology to the wife, Eva Marshall (one of the five daughters of Sir William Marshall “the best knight who ever lived”) for having hung her husband.  His excuse was that his fellow Welsh nobles hated her husband and his family so much and  were so outraged at this public disgrace that he, Llywelyn–basically to keep up appearances–had to avenge/revenge the scandal/offense of  banging the queen and getting caught.  Amusingly (sort of) Llywelyn and the Marshall family had already arranged a marriage of one of Eva Marshall’s daughters to his only legitimate son.  He made some reference in the letter to that contractual arrangement, which went forward despite one of the in-laws having hung the father of half of the bridal couple.  The wedding feast must have been awkward.

Lywelyn seems like a polite guy.  As we all know, you should send your hostess a note after a social engagement gone awry.  Does his letter to Eva  count as socially progressive? Maybe pragmatic?  I guess that’s what passed for being sensitive back in the days of chivalry.

Eva? She inherited all of her husband’s lands, titles and wealth, and became the direct ancestor of all the English monarchs after Henry VIII and several before him.  One suspects she wasn’t all that heartbroken at Black William’s demise.

In view of all this, perhaps the Clintons aren’t really all that high on the family dysfunction scale.  How’d you like to argue with some of these folks at Thanksgiving dinner?



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