By Dr. Sophie Ambler, University of East Anglia.
Giles de Briouze (bishop of Hereford 1200-1215) was the only bishop to join the rebellion against King John. Although many of Giles’ colleagues might have been sympathetic to the grievances of the rebel barons, most worked hard between 1213 and 1216 to broker a peace settlement. It was Giles de Briouze, however, who perhaps of all the rebels – lay or clerical – had the strongest cause for taking up arms against John.
Giles was one of the eldest children of William (III) de Briouze, a lieutenant of the king. When John came to the throne he used his influence to secure the bishopric of Hereford for Giles. Little is known about Giles’ life before he became a bishop and this silence is, perhaps, telling: he does not seem to have been a royal clerk or a university graduate (the two groups – not mutually exclusive – who generally provided candidates for bishoprics). His elevation to the bishopric of Hereford was probably a result of two concerns on the part of the king: firstly, the wish to show favour to William de Briouze; secondly, the need to ensure that a powerful position in a strategically important region was held by a trusted supporter.
The diocese of Hereford covered almost all of Herefordshire and reached into Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Radnorshire and Montgomeryshire. This was an area known as the Welsh March: a frontier zone between the English kingdom and Wales. Wales was a land that English rulers in turns looked to subdue or subject to their authority and the kings of England relied upon the barons of the March both to defend the kingdom from Welsh incursions and to provide a secure base from which assaults could be launched on Wales. In order to fulfil their roles the marcher barons needed to dominate the borderlands. To this end they held powers that in England were the prerogative of the king: the right to exercise justice, to build castles and to make war. They were – and were expected to be – hard, ruthless and effective. When Giles de Briouze was raised to the bishopric of Hereford in 1200 he became one of the greatest marcher lords. That the king chose him for this role suggests something of Giles’ character and abilities.
The path to rebellion was laid before Giles by King John’s persecution of the Briouze family. Around 1207, the king set out to impose English royal government on his lands in Ireland, a policy which required him to undermine the power of the magnates who held land there. One of these magnates was William de Briouze.* With bad feeling on both sides, the dispute between the king and his former lieutenant escalated. By 1208, John had declared William a ‘mortal enemy.’
The king began a campaign of harassment against William’s entire family. In January 1208 he appointed his henchman, Gerard d’Athée, sheriff of Gloucestershire, inserting him into the Briouze heartlands. In April he ordered Gerard to seize William’s possession in Wales. Faced with John’s aggression Giles de Briouze approached the king, together with his mother, Matilda of Hay, and others of their friends and family, on 22 April. They persuaded John to meet with William and discuss terms. It is possible that Giles was present at the subsequent meeting at Hereford, at the end of April, where his father was effectively stripped of power. William was made to surrender his Welsh castles, to give his lands in England and Wales as security for his debts, and to offer several of his men as hostages. John even fined William 1,000 marks (£666) to cover the costs of the action taken against him. John continued to put pressure on the Briouze family, making Gerard d’Athée sheriff of Herefordshire and custodian of the honour of Gloucester, in May 1208.
Towards the end of May, Giles left England for France. Although John’s harassment of his family must have played a part in his decision, he was probably prompted by the interdict that was laid upon England by Pope Innocent III, on 28 March (the pope’s response to John’s rejection of Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury). Innocent’s sentence moved the bishops to leave England en masse and, as several chroniclers note, Giles went into exile together with a number of his colleagues. Despite John’s campaign, the situation had not yet become critical for the Briouze family. William continued to hold out against the king until late October 1208. At this point he, Matilda and some of their children fled to Ireland.
Giles remained in France with Langton and the other exiled bishops until the summer of 1213. It was there that news reached him of his family’s fate. Whilst the king was mustering a great army to impose his authority on Ireland, in the summer of 1210, William had come to John and proffered the enormous sum of 40,000 marks (almost £27,000) to have peace with the king. John accepted and, leaving William behind in Wales, embarked for Ireland. Faced with John’s army, Matilda and her family fled to Scotland. She was arrested and handed over to John, together with her daughter Annora, her eldest son, William (IV) de Briouze, and William’s wife and two children. Matilda was made to promise the 40,000 marks that her husband had previously offered. Meanwhile, William senior was proclaimed an outlaw. He escaped to France, where he sought out Giles.
By the end of the year, Matilda and her eldest son, William, were dead. Their pitiful end was described by a chronicler close to events, the ‘Anonymous of Béthune’:
‘On the eleventh day of their captivity the mother was found dead between her son’s legs, both sitting upright, she leaning back against his chest, a dead woman. The son, who was also dead, sat upright sagging forward against her, having gnawed in his hunger at his mother’s cheeks. William de Briouze, who was in Paris, died soon after he heard this news: many asserting that it was through grief. His son, the bishop of Hereford, buried him’
One can only imagine Giles’ feelings when he returned to England, in July 1213, with Langton and the other bishops, tasked with reconciling John with the Church. The bishops were met by the sight of the king tearfully throwing himself at their feet, begging forgiveness for his behaviour. With his colleagues, Giles accepted John’s act of penitence and received his promise to rule justly in future. The bishops were hopeful that reconciliation between Church and king would help to avert the kingdom’s slide into civil war. This was not to be.
John and his ministers continued to treat the Briouze family with suspicion. At the end of May 1214, the king’s chief minister, Peter des Roches (in charge of the kingdom whilst John was on campaign in France), was ordered to raise a scutage (a type of tax) from all lay and clerical barons. John instructed des Roches, though, not to force the bishops to pay – an acknowledgement of the vast amount the king still owed the bishops as compensation for the losses they had suffered during the interdict. But one bishop was singled out by des Roches for payment of the tax: Giles de Briouze. Clearly the bishop of Hereford still did not stand in the king’s grace. At least one concession was made to the Briouze family, however. Upon the king’s return to England, in October 1214, it was agreed that Giles’ sister, Annora, was to be released from the custody of the king’s man (Engelard de Cigoné) to the custody of the papal legate. This was an improvement in Annora’s conditions of imprisonment, if nothing else.
Since the death of William de Briouze senior, in 1211, the king had obstructed Giles’ inheritance of his father’s estates. John eventually agreed, by the beginning of March 1215, that the bishop could enter his inheritance – but only on condition that he proffer the enormous sum of 9,000 marks (£6,000). John perhaps felt justified in charging such a price, given what he considered to be the treachery of the Briouze family. But this was only one of many instances in which the king placed such exorbitant conditions on an heir’s entrance into his inheritance. One of the major grievances against John’s rule, this practice was to be addressed in clause 2 of Magna Carta 1215, which set £100 as the reasonable payment.
John’s terms pushed Giles into the camp of those magnates who, on 5 May 1215, formally announced their rebellion against the king. On 10 May, it was Giles who represented the rebels in negotiations with the king at Windsor. The bishop and his confederates extracted a promise from the king that ‘he would not arrest or disseise them or their men nor would he go against them by force of arms except by the law of the land and judgement of their peers in his court’ – a statement that foreshadowed clause 39 of Magna Carta. At the same time, John promised Giles that the bishop’s grievance over the fine he had made for his inheritance would be heard in the king’s court. Whilst John gave with one hand, though, he took away with the other. On 15 May, he ordered the sheriff of Gloucestershire (Gerard d’Athée, the nemesis of the Briouze family) to deliver all lands that Giles held from the king in Gloucestershire into the hands of John’s faithful ally, Henry fitz Count.
Throughout late May and June 1215, Giles campaigned in the Welsh March in an effort to retake his family lands, capturing the castles of Brecon, Hay, Radnor, Builth and Blaenllyfni. Meanwhile, on 15 June, the king sealed Magna Carta. John, by no means ready to submit unreservedly to baronial demands, looked to strengthen his position. Perhaps recognising Giles’ leading role in the rebellion, and the danger his operations posed to the royal recovery, John sought to woo the bishop of Hereford to his side. On 2 July, the king wrote to Giles asking him to come for talks. The letter was redrafted in several places, as John attempted to make the request as polite as possible. In an effort to appease the bishop, on 2 August, John ordered the sheriff of Worcestershire to restore to Giles certain pastures that, apparently, had been seized from the bishop during the interdict but had never been restored to him. But these overtures failed to induce Giles to return to the king’s side. On 5 September, the bishop was publicly denounced and excommunicated by Peter des Roches and others claiming papal authority to act against the rebels.
Whether it was the weight of ecclesiastical sanctions or the fear of the king’s wrath that moved Giles, by early October he had entered into negotiations with John. He offered a fine, by 11 October, to have the king’s grace, to take possession of his father’s lands and to hold all his own lands and castles. The amount the bishop offered is not recorded but it must have been significant, because the king immediately set the restoration of Giles’ lands in motion and made every effort to ensure that his orders were obeyed.
The bishop, though, did not live to enjoy his return to royal favour. He died, on 17 November, at Worcester. The king (who at this point had been encamped at Rochester for almost a month, besieging the rebel-held castle) heard the news by the following day. He hastily issued orders for the resumption of Giles’ lands, notifying his men of the bishop’s death – news, so the king said, that it grieved him to tell.
*The motivation for John’s campaign against William de Briouze has been the subject of speculation among historians for many years. The origins of the quarrel in John’s wish to assert royal authority in Ireland has been set out by Dr Colin Veach (‘King John and Royal Control in Ireland: Why William de Briouze had to be Destroyed’, English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 1051-78). The translation of the passage from the Anonymous of Béthune given here is taken from Dr Veach’s article.
Sophie Ambler is a Research Associate on the Magna Carta Project (www.magnacartaresearch.org). To find out more about the project, click here.
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