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Sir William de Mowbray and Magna Carta

June 15th 2015 sees the 800th anniversary of the sealing of MAGNA CARTA, the Great Charter famously associated with King John and a select band of his tenants-in-chief, who are sometimes referred to as the Magna Carta Barons.

Sir William de Mowbray, feudal baron

King Richard I, Lionheart, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, reigned for ten years from 1189, but totally smitten by the excitement, glamour and challenge of being a crusader, spent only six months in England, a place he hated. On his way back through Europe in December 1190, he was apprehended by Leopold, Duke of Austria, whom he had previously offended in the Holy Land, and was handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor and held hostage with some of his barons, including William de Mowbray, until March 1194, while the King’s ransom of 150,000 marks (£100,000) that nearly ruined the kingdom was being raised.

The ransom was a terrible blow for a country already nearly bled dry to finance the crusaders’ expeditions, but upon his return Richard treated himself to a second lavish coronation, and then went away again, never to return. William de Mowbray, a great-grandson of the Norman baron Nigel d’Aubigny who had been so richly rewarded with lands by King Henry I for services rendered, is known to have paid at least £100 as his share of the King’s ransom money, not long after he had paid the same amount for the relief, or transfer, of his late father’s lands.

A reminder of the distant past – the Mowbray Arms Public House, Epworth, North Lincolnshire. © Marilyn Roberts 2013

Upon Richard’s death in 1199, Mowbray, with the other barons, Greater and Lesser, swore fealty to his brother John, but only on the assurance that each would have his rights, and he, like many others, fortified his strongholds in case of trouble; he was abroad in the King’s service in 1202 and again in 1203. When John lost the French possessions in 1204 William’s Montbrai (Mowbray) lands in Normandy were gone forever. He went with John on expedition to Ireland in 1210, but soon afterwards was sufficiently concerned about the way things were going to strengthen his properties yet again.

William de Mowbray sided with those barons who revolted against King John in 1215. He had a long-standing grudge against the King that went back almost to the beginning of the reign and had come about when the question of his rights to certain of the former Stuteville family lands that had awarded to his great-grandfather was brought up again by William de Stuteville, despite the conciliatory arrangements that had been made between the previous generation only twenty-five years earlier.

King John was notorious for extortion and the accepting of bribes, so Mowbray hoped a ‘gift’ to him of 2000 marks (about £1,333) would help win his case, this at a time when the income of even the most affluent baron would not exceed £800 a year. Mowbray met Stuteville, who apparently had made a similar ‘gift’ to the King, at the Bishop of Lincoln’s country house at Louth in January 1201 and, in spite of being forced into an expensive compromise that King John could possibly have overruled, William never saw the refund of so much as a penny of the bribery money.

At the pre-Magna Carta negotiations at Runnymede in June 1215, Sir William demanded his right to the custody of the forests in Yorkshire and the castle in York, the latter being granted pending an inquiry into his rights. He was later named by Chronicler Matthew Paris as having been one of the twenty-five leading barons who were to be appointed to enforce the provisions of Magna Carta, but King John reneged on his promises and civil war broke out before this could be done.  Subsequently, Mowbray  had all his lands confiscated by the furious King  John, and was one of those excommunicated at the King’s behest by Pope Innocent III, who most obligingly denounced Magna Carta as being ‘unlawful and unjust as it is base and shameful’. One of only four survivors of the original copies of Magna Carta can be found in Lincoln Castle; there are two in the British Library and the fourth is in Salisbury Cathedral.

NEWS: Epworth in North Lincolnshire will be holding Magna Carta 800 celebrations from Friday 5 to Sunday 7 June 2015. Magna Carta baron Sir William de Mowbray died at his Epworth home in 1224. Details of events to follow shortly.

Ancient Mowbray lion and shield on the Green, Haxey village near Epworth

The barons were not universally opposed to John, and some were prepared to fight for him. His opponents responded by securing the backing of the Dauphin of France, to whom they were prepared to offer the crown. When King John died in 1216 the reason for the unrest should have died with him, but William de Mowbray and like-minded barons continued to give their support to Louis of France in preference to the child Henry III, John’s nine-year-old son.

The unfortunate inhabitants of Lincoln suffered terribly as a consequence of the two sides doing battle there in May 1217, and we are indebted to a chronicler of the day, Roger of Wendover, for an account of the hardships, including the state of the French soldiers:


They therefore marched through the valley of Belvoir, and there everything fell into the hands of these robbers, because the soldiers of the French kingdom, being as it were the refuse and scum of that country, left nothing at all untouched, and their poverty and wretchedness was so great that they had not enough bodily clothing to cover their nakedness.

William de Mowbray was amongst the combined English and French soldiers who besieged the King’s forces at Lincoln Castle, but when royal reinforcements arrived they scoffed at the English scouts’ estimates of their numbers:


The barons who were in the city and the French felt such great confidence of success in their cause, that when their messengers told them of the approach of their adversaries they only laughed at them, and continued to hurl missiles from their mangonels, to destroy the walls of the castle.

They were deceived, and the relieving troops were able to enter the city fairly easily and engage those attacking the castle:

Then sparks of fire were seen to dart, and sounds of dreadful thunder were heard to burst forth from the blows of swords against helmeted heads; but at length, by means of the crossbowmen, by whose skill the horses of the barons were mown down and killed like pigs, the party of the barons was greatly weakened, for, when the horses fell to the earth slain, their riders were taken prisoners, as there was no one to rescue them. Had it not been for the effect of relationship and blood, not a single one of all of them would have escaped. …There were also made prisoners, the barons Robert Fitzwalter, Richard de Montfitchet, William de Mowbray, William de Beauchamp…

Then the horrors began for the people of Lincoln, most of whom would have had absolutely no say in what had gone on but who were to be punished by their own boy-King and his regents for harbouring the traitors:

Having then plundered the whole city to the last farthing, they (the King’s soldiers) next pillaged the churches throughout the city, and broke open the chests and storerooms with axes and hammers, seizing on the gold and silver in them, clothes of all colours, women's ornaments, gold rings, goblets, and jewels [left by pilgrims as offerings]. Nor did the cathedral church escape this destruction, but underwent the same punishment as the rest, for the legate [the Pope’s representative] had given orders to the knights to treat all the clergy as excommunicated men, inasmuch as they had been enemies to the church of Rome and to the King of England from the commencement of the war… Many of the women of the city were drowned in the river, for, to avoid insult, they took to small boats with their children, female servants, and household property, and perished on their journey; but there were afterwards found in the river by the searchers, goblets of silver, and many other articles of great benefit to the finders …

Louis and his men limped home to France realising the cause was lost. The Norman English appear to have decided it was better to patch up their differences and Mowbray’s lands were restored to him after he surrendered his manor of Banstead in Surrey by way of ransom, possibly before the winter. In 1223 the King again took away some of his lands when he defaulted in his service against the Welsh, but they were restored before the end of the year.   

St Andrew’s Church, Epworth has associations with the Mowbray family, whose mansion lay on land alongside, to the right of the picture; there is an ancient shield with a Mowbray lion in the north porch of the church. Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles, was Rector here, and is buried in the churchyard. © Marilyn Roberts 2013

William de Mowbray was a very powerful and wealthy baron able to deal in vast sums of money, whose household at Epworth in the Isle of Axholme and others elsewhere would be run along the same lines of that of the King, with officers such as stewards, constables of the stables, a chancellor, perhaps, to deal with the paperwork, butlers, and a multitude of lesser servants to tend to his every whim and need.

The Isle of Axholme lies in the north-west of the old county of Lincolnshire (the area is now the separate county of North Lincolnshire) and is an ‘island’ of Mercian Mudstone and Coversands 16 miles maximum length north to south and 6 miles maximum width. It has been erroneously described by some historians as being swampy and of little importance agriculturally, but was in reality so productive that the Mowbrays kept the clutch of manors around Epworth for their own needs and did not sub-let them. Today it is an area given-over largely to farming.

William had married a noble lady named Avice, possibly a relative from the Arundel branch of the d’Aubigny family, and died in the Isle of Axholme in March 1224 at his home in Epworth. He was succeeded by his sons Nigel (Nele), who died in 1230 leaving no heir, and Roger, still a child, who succeeded Nigel. Roger’s son, also named Roger, was called to the Model Parliament of Edward I in 1295 and became the first Lord Mowbray.

Adapted from The Mowbray Legacy

© Marilyn Roberts 2014

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