Over nearly twelve years of studying the time of the Scottish Wars of Independence, the story of the attack on the bishops has long been familiar to me. It is mentioned in passing in one of the volumes of The Blue Bells Chronicles. (Westering Home, if I remember correctly.) The short story is that churchmen were attacked in their travels and their money stolen. Two of the Pope’s legates were with them.
For instance, the date: September 1, 1317. To a high school student, this would be boring, unimportant information. (I know this because I was once a high school student.) To a historical novelist, this is utterly fascinating and imperative to how it fits in with what Niall or the Laird or Hugh is doing from August to September of 1317. (I know this because I am a historical novelist, and history is so much more fascinating from this angle–although I wish that all history teachers made it as fascinating as it is!)
Where: On the road between Darlington and Durham, at one of three places–Rushyford, Ferryhill, or Ache–depending which report you read.
My secret source gives details on who was attacked: Lewis de Beaumont, second cousin to King Edward II and almost certainly some relation to the evil Simon Beaumont. Lewis was on his way to be consecrated as Bishop of Durham. (A bad place to be in those days, given the ongoing Scottish raids, but hey, I’m sure he knew what he was getting into.) Riding with him were his brother, Henry, and two Italian cardinals they were escorting.
The cardinals were Luca Fieschi, Italian nobleman and distant relative of Edward II. (Now is that any big surprise to any student of medieval history? Who was not related to Who in those days?) and Gaecline D’Eauze (or Deuse). They had arrived in England in June of 1317 to try to establish peace between Bruce and Edward II.
It seems, on reading various accounts, that the real crime was attacking cardinals, moreso than attacking bishops. The cardinals were quickly released, but the Beaumont Brothers remained as unwilling guests at Mitford Castle (which, side note, was razed not much later by James Douglas) until mid-October or December depending which source we believe.
And finally, the big question: Whodunnit? All I read had hinted it was the Bruce’s doing, to acquire money and any papers they might have that might be of interest to him. (Remembering, I have had little cause to dig deep into the incident.) Pope John XXII blamed it on those pesky Scots, informing Ed 2.0 that Robert the Bruce had committed outrages on the cardinals (so far, I have not found the nature of those outrages) and seized and carried off the bishop. He told the cardinals themselves that Bruce had torn up the Pope’s letters to ‘him,’ the him presumably being the bishop and also ‘laid violent hands on’ the bishop of Carlisle (which is across the country from Durham.
We now know (or should I say, I now know…) it was one Sir Gilbert Middleton who did the dastardly deed. This was news to me! (Please…remember I’ve never really looked into this particular incident. Cause like…I’m totally sure all of you knew it was totally Sir Gilbert Middleton! Like, who didn’t know that!)
Anyway, like the old mantra, the devil made me do it, for Pope John XXII, at least when it came to attacks on bishops and cardinals, the mantra was, the Scots made him do it! But in fact, Sir Gilbert was a knight of Edward II’s own household–and who was, to all appearances, on reasonably good terms with Edward at least until January of 1317, at which point one Adam Shirlock, Messenger, was carrying messages between them.
Furthermore, it seems that Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, cousin and enemy of King Edward, was an ally of Sir Gilbert. In addition, he had promoted a different candidate for bishop–and his candidate lost to Beaumont. An axe to grind, perhaps? Of course, in the days we’re talking about, grinding axes was much more literal than it is today. So I need to be careful of my idioms.
It is possible Middleton himself was simply fed up with Edward. There was growing discontent by this point over Edward’s favoritism toward Hugh Audley and Roger Damory–who had taken the place in his affections of the deceased and reviled Piers Gaveston.
Scalacronica tells us Sir Gilbert was angry with Edward for the arrest of his cousin Adam Swinburn–and that arrest ties into the other growing grievance among Edward’s nobles and knights. He completely failed to protect his subjects in the north from the ongoing raids of the Scots. Adam Swinburn, it seems, had been a little bit too blunt in his words to Edward. (Another interesting post–just what did Adam say?)
In June of 1317–two to three months before the September 1 attack–several knights had staged a protest, at Westminster, of Edward’s shows of favoritism.
In short, there were many grievances against Edward, personal and political, from many people. It’s like one of those stories where everyone wishes they’d committed the murder, the victim is so thoroughly hated by all! It may have been Lancaster, it may have been Bruce, it may have been Middleton’s own idea.
And in fact, we don’t stop there. Also accused were Sir John Eure and others who were likely Lancaster’s retainers (thus slanting the blame back toward him), John Middleton (Gilbert’s brother), and Marmaduke Basset along with a full 61 other men all of whom were “going to the Court of Rome [which was actually in Avignon at the time] on account of acts perpetrated in the Marches of Scotland, whereby they feel their consciences wounded.”
[Marmaduke came back without Proof of Absolution and had to go a second time. And in another interesting historical morsel, it seems Marmaduke continued to have issues with the Bishop(s) of Durham. In a record at the National Archives, dated between 1328 and 1340 we learn:
“Marmaduke Basset requests remedy because Wessington gave the manor of Offerton to his grandfather and the heirs of his body, but after his death William Basset entered as son and heir and alienated the estate, depriving him of his inheritance. The petitioner has often sued to the bishop of Durham for a writ of formedon.”
Given that Lewis Beaumont died in 1333–on the same day Dr. Seuss would die many centuries later, which ought to be of vast interest to all and highly suggests a conspiracy–we don’t know if the grievance was with the same Bishop of Durham who was abducted, or his successor. But I find it an interesting connection that a man who appears to have played a role continued to be at odds with the man or the office.]
Regardless of who put him up to it, it was Gilbert who paid the price, when he was condemned on January 26, 1318, (January 24 according to another site) to be ‘hanged and drawn on the site on the site of the cardinals which he robbed.’ My secret source says the execution was likely carried out immediately. Alas, poor Sir Gilbert (who we hardly knew)–it is you who will be drawn and hanged, not the Scots, not Lancaster, not Marmaduke or any of the 61 others.
This, to me, is the interesting question: with so many people involved in this attack, why was it only Gilbert who was executed?
- June 18, 10 am: Books and Brews with Scott, owner of Eat My Words Bookstore
- June 24, 2017, 3 to 5 pm: Reading at Eat My Words Books with Michael Agnew
- October 2017: Author Talk and Book Festival in Appleton, Wisconsin
- January 9, 2018: Talk with the Osseo Book Club
If you liked this post you might also like:
The Vampire of Melrose Abbey
The Green Lady of Stirling Castle
or other posts filed under
HISTORICAL RESEARCH or GHOSTS