In the previous article (which you can find here) I recounted how Prince Edward had found himself besieged in Bristol Castle by the local population. You would think therefore that when he became king after his father died in 1272, it would be pay-back time, but fortunately for the citizens of Bristol, Edward I had enough on his plate fighting the Scots and Welsh – and perhaps remembering his own experience there, he found use for the castle as a prison for a few of his enemies. Even so, his attention was mainly drawn elsewhere and he gave the castle to his wife, Eleanor of Castille, who in turn rented it out to the mayor of Bristol.
Edward I was actually a good king for Bristol because trade flourished and the city prospered, but on July 7th 1307, Edward died on his way to yet another showdown with the Scots, and his son became Edward II. Whilst Edward I (known as Longshanks thanks to his height) was a powerful man in more ways than one, his son was anything but. He may have been good looking, brave and intelligent, but he was also lazy, frivolous and arrogant with a tendency to look after his favourites before anyone or anything else.
In 1308 he married Isabella of France, but if you believe some medieval chroniclers, the real love of his life was his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Modern-day historians are divided over the question regarding his sexuality, but whatever the truth, Gaveston’s influence on the king tested the patience of the barons to such an extent that when they got hold of him, they came to the conclusion that it would be best if his head was separated from the rest of his body. Obviously, this displeased His Majesty very much, but it had the opposite effect on Queen Isabella who forgave him, or at least for long enough to produce an heir to the throne.
He may have had some charisma under the bedsheets, but elsewhere he was becoming increasingly unpopular. In Bristol for example, twenty people were killed during a riot against a levy on fish landed at the port. The merchants responsible for imposing the tax were run out of town and the king’s officers put behind bars. Edward’s response was to send in an army of 20,000 men to besiege the town, but fortunately for Bristol, they were withdrawn when the king urgently needed them north of the border – not that the extra men up there did him much good.
Edward I, who was known as the Hammer of the Scots, had brought Scotland to heel for making an alliance with France, but in 1314, Edward II’s attempt at following in his father’s footsteps by relieving Stirling Castle from the forces of Robert the Bruce, brought a humiliating defeat at Bannockburn instead, leaving Scotland back in control of its own destiny – and Edward running for his life.
The Barons, under the leadership of the Earl of Lancaster, decided to take back some form of control, but Edward was yet another king who never learnt from his mistakes. Instead of lying low and keeping his barons onside, he found two new favourites to lavish favours upon – Hugh Despenser the Elder and Hugh Despenser the Younger. They were father and son, but it was Hugh the Younger who Edward took a particular shine to.
They had their followers, but most of the barons, not to mention Queen Isabella, detested them, and so yet another feud developed between the king and his barons. The Despensers were sent packing by the Earl of Lancaster and Edward took up their fight, defeating the Earl at the Battle of Boroughbridge and then executing him.
In 1324 war broke out with France, and Edward thought it would be a good idea to send Queen Isabella over there to negotiate with her brother, King Charles IV; but if Edward thought that his wife would forgive him for making the same mistake twice, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Taking their son with her, she met up with Roger Mortimer, the 1st Earl of March, who had been forced into exile after the war against the Despensers. They joined forces (some say amorously) to plot against Edward, and in October 1326 they invaded England with the help of a mercenary army from Flanders. It is said that by now, the Queen hated her husband so much that she was known as the She-Wolf of France.
The invasion led to Isabella’s forces setting themselves up at Gloucester and Edward fleeing to Wales, but not before leaving the Elder Despenser in charge at Bristol Castle. An attack was expected, and on 18th October, under the personal supervision of Isabella, her forces besieged the castle. The siege lasted eight days, during which time the queen rescued her daughters, Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower who were imprisoned there.
This account by John Smyth of Nibley describes the surrender of Hugh the Elder and the price he had to pay for getting on the wrong side of Isabella: –
“Alonge with the Queene and prince and their Army goethe this lord Thomas to Bristoll, where Hugh Spenser the Elder Earl of Winchester was taken, and without answering for himself was drawn and hanged in his Armor, taken down alive, and bowelled, his bowells burnt, his head smote of and sent to Winchester, his body hanged up againe and after fower days cut to peeces and cast to dogs to bee eaten”.
After an unsuccessful attempt to reach Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, Edward and Hugh the Younger were finally apprehended near Llantrisant in South Wales by Isabella’s troops.
By now Isabella was based at Hereford and wasted no time in dealing with Hugh the Younger: On 24th November he was taken to Hereford where at a trial in front of the Queen and Mortimer, he was found guilty on most of the charges brought against him, and sentenced to death.
There are various accounts of his execution, none of them pleasant, but the 14th century French chronicler, Jean Froissart, conjures up graphic images of the events. He tells us that ‘Despenser was dragged through the streets naked for the crowd to mistreat him before being hanged, only to be let down again before he was completely asphyxiated. He was then tied to a ladder and his genitals sliced off and burned while he was conscious. His entrails were then pulled out along with his heart and thrown into a fire. Finally, he was beheaded and his body cut into four pieces which were sent to the four corners of England and his head mounted on the gates of London’. This translation is not verbatim, but it’s close enough to understand what he was talking about.
If these events are true, then obviously Isabella was not a woman to be trifled with, but there was still the problem of what to do with her husband, the King of England.
To begin with, Edward was imprisoned at Kenilworth Castle, and after a legal decision was made by the leading barons and clergy to remove Edward II as king, he was given the opportunity to abdicate and hand over the crown to his son. He had little choice but to agree, and on 21st January 1327 his 14-year-old son became King Edward III, with the coronation taking place on 2nd February at Westminster Abbey.
After the coronation, Isabella had her husband transferred to Berkeley Castle where, if accounts at the time can be believed, he met the most horrendous death. As this article is about events pertaining to the history of Bristol Castle, I’ll leave the sordid details about his death until I write my post on Berkeley Castle where I think it will have more relevance. His tomb is in Gloucester Cathedral.
The new king may have been young when he inherited the crown, but he didn’t follow after his father where ill-judged loyalties were concerned, in fact he didn’t even trust his own mother – and he had every right not to, after all she and her new found-friend, Roger Mortimer, were using him as a pawn for their own ends. By the time he had reached eighteen, he was already firmly in control: In October 1330 Edward seized his mother and Mortimer at Nottingham Castle, had Mortimer hung from the Tyburn Tree and his mother banished into exile.
He might have had everything under control at home but it wasn’t quite the same across the other side of the channel. When King Charles IV of France died without leaving an heir to the throne, Edward’s claim to be the next French king was overruled by the French parliament and Charles’ cousin became Philip VI. Although I don’t suppose anybody realised it at the time, this was the beginning of the Hundred Years War and kept Edward occupied for quite a while.
The English king seems to have inherited his grandfather’s fighting spirit and at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 he won a famous victory where the longbow was used to great effect and his son, Edward the Black Prince, began to make a name for himself.
In 1348 he founded the Order of the Knights of the Garter, an order of chivalry based on King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table and things were going well for him, but the second half of his reign was less successful, and by 1360 he had given up all hope of becoming King of France, although he did retain Calais, Poitou and Gascony.
Edward III died on 21st June 1377 after a reign of fifty years, during which time the Black Death had claimed the lives of at least a third of the population. Even so, Bristol was still the third largest town in England after London and York. In 1373 the town’s defences were extended and both Redcliffe and Bedminster (which were on the south side of the river) were incorporated into the town’s boundary, and it was at this time that Edward proclaimed that “the town of Bristol with its suburbs and precincts shall henceforth be separate from the counties of Gloucester and Somerset and be in all things exempt both by land and sea, and that it should be a county by itself, to be called the county of Bristol in perpetuity.”
As you drive into the city today, you will still see signs welcoming people to the City and County of Bristol. It’s not in Gloucestershire, Somerset or even Avon anymore – just Bristol.
In the next part of this series about Castle Park I shall be describing why there’s virtually nothing of the castle left to see.