Update /The Three Castles I Visited in Wales Pt 1

First of all, apologies for my absence in blogland– both in writing my own and reading others’. I have largely been distracted by both the novel, and setting up the online gift business to be able to research much in the way of posts. So, I feel a quick update on both projects is probably in order. The writing is going well, although I do have to keep stopping to research an event more closely to get background – even if I won’t use it in the novel. Nevertheless, I am happy with the progress and the direction it is taking.

The online business has been more problematical. I have got to the point now where I have a name, header, and the basics of the website set up – but the contents have been changing over the months from a varied assortment of ‘gifty’ things to mainly Pre-Raphaelite inspired goods (cards, prints, mugs, bags etc). I have been going round and round in circles looking at how to source the products: one place, many places, dropship, self-produced etc – all of which has taken much time and hair pulling. However now I think I’ve come to the right conclusion and can get down to completing the gift shop Version One (Version Two will happen once I’ve seen how Version One does, then I can expand).

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve been up to, along with all the usual family and friends stuff. BUT, now there’s a sniff of summer (apologies to all those with hayfever!), it means that it is ‘Open Castle Season’ again. In other words, time for me to get out with my camera and visit some of the local (and not so local) castles – and abbeys, cathedrals, old buildings in general – you get the idea!!
Tretower Court – west frontage
Yesterday, I took up an invitation by my friend Adrian McCurdy to join him at Tretower Castle and Court (see maps below) where a huge renovation project by CADW is taking place. As well as necessary repairs to the fabric of the old court itself, the ground floor is being decked out as it would have been in the 14th/15th century, with furniture, wall hangings, pottery and kitchen equipment. Adrian was there because he had made two arks for the kitchen. These would have been used to store flour/grain for use in baking.They also doubled as a work surface, as the lid can be taken off and turned over so that it becomes a trough. The arks are held together by a system of wooden pegs, making it possible for them to be taken apart – sort of like a medieval flat-pack – for cleaning or transporting. I first saw one of these at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Stratford on Avon (see this post), but it seems that the design has remained almost unchanged for centuries.

The biggest of Adrian’s two arks – this is how one would have looked in the Middle Ages
I can’t say too much about the new-look Tretower Court, or put up any other pics as CADW understandably want to keep it under wraps as a surprise until its official opening, hopefully on the 27th May. But from what I have seen I can definitely recommend a visit if you are anywhere near after that time.
General Location of the castles

Map below: The location of the castles in more detail. Red stars = ones I visited. Blue star = the one I didn’t quite make it to. and Red + Turquoise star = where I live!
As well as Tretower Court, I visited the Castle – a few minute’s walk away over the fields, and then drove to the similarly ruined – and small – castles of Crickhowell and Abergavenny. Sadly I didn’t get time to visit Monmouth as I had planned thanks to my evil SatNav which sent me off on a long diversion, after which it was time to head for home! I’ll write about the three castles, with their history (and pictures too, of course) in subsequent blog posts, but for now, just to whet your appetite, here is a preview of what they look like.
Tretower Castle
Crickhowell Castle
Two views of Abergavenny Castle
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Review: Edward II (play) at Berkeley Castle, 10th April.

When much of your waking life is centred around researching and writing about Edward II’s reign and, especially, his last favourite, Hugh Despenser, it becomes one of those ‘things to do’ to go and see a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (written a little before 1592). I had managed to watch some of Jarman’s film adaptation but, to be honest, it didn’t do much for me. Anyway, if a play’s worth seeing, it’s worth seeing live.

So, when I heard that a local theatre group, the Rococo Players (who I last saw in A Winter’s Tale) were not only putting on the production – but also at the decidedly apt and poignant venues of Berkeley Castle, Gloucester Cathedral and Oriel College Oxford, it was going to be an occasion that I wouldn’t miss for the world. Feeling that somehow Berkeley Castle was perhaps the most atmospheric location for me to see it, I booked tickets for myself and my family (including a rather unwilling teenager).

Not having seen a Marlowe play before, and having an inkling that it was, in all likelihood, going to have a few (!) historical inaccuracies, I must admit to being a little worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it. Indeed, for the first half hour I found it hard to switch off my ‘history brain’ from comparing the play with the documented accounts as we know them – especially when Margaret (de Clare) was introduced as Gloucester’s only heir. At that point I must admit that I did find it hard not to jump up and shout: ‘But what about Eleanor and Elizabeth!?’

Eventually though, my ‘history brain’ did switch off – mainly because of the fantastic performances by the actors – and the beautiful costumes and real swords helped too (you know how I love swords!). Barry Page conveyed an anguished and completely lovelorn Edward (despite not having the physical appearance of the man himself). His pain, fury and bewildered last hours were a masterpiece. Rachel Darcy as Isabella could have been pulled from the pages of Alison Weir’s book about her* – inducing crowd sympathy at first then, once under the thrall of Mortimer, changing into a desperate woman, as much in love with him as Edward was with Gaveston. Dan Johnson, who played Mortimer was completely convincing as the ruthless baron and later tyrant: every characteristic of the man was there: machismo, force, righteousness, ambition… well, I was scared. For me, in an embarrassment of good performances, it was my performance of the night (and I never thought I’d say that about a Mortimer!).

Also deserving of mention were Hector Molloy who was a delightfully smirking and scheming Spencer Junior, and Keith Franklin who played an almost seductively evil Lightbourne.** Actually, I was surprised that the Spencers (father and son) did not come out of the play looking as evil as I thought they might. Spencer Junior even became the earl of Gloucester (a title which, of course, the real Despenser junior never received, but would have loved to have had). I wonder how much he would have paid Marlowe to write that in, given a chance!

It was good to see a production follow the line that Marlowe probably intended it to take, even if Edward didn’t come out as such a sympathetic character as he did in Jarman’s film. There again, Jarman had an agenda to use the film to promote gay rights and so it was not in his interest to do it any other way. This is not to say that this production ignored Jarman’s style, and Edward’s homosexuality was pretty overt throughout the production, including a rather passionate full on kiss with Gaveston (shocked silence from the older members of the audience!).

So, was it as historically inaccurate as I’d feared? Well, in many ways, yes. The actual characters were mostly right, although due to the strange chronology (missing out crucial events for example), sometimes the wrong people were alive at the wrong points. For example, Gaveston is still alive after Gloucester’s death at Bannockburn, when historicaly Gaveston was murdered two years’ previously. Some events were also a bit confused. But that was never down to the performance, just down to Marlowe – and anyone without much knowledge of the 14th century probably wouldn’t know any different.

And would I go and see it all over again, if I got another chance? Most definitely. And, I think for someone who hates historical inaccuracies (in this period anyway), that says a huge deal about the passion and professionalism of the Rococo Players that they could make me forget my ‘history brain’ and transport me into their world. It’s a shame that many who read this blog will not be able to go and see it – but if you are local to Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire, I highly recommend that you grab a ticket and go and see one of the remaining performances.

Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England

** And not forgetting Reuben Stone who, although it was his first performance with these players, was an extremely confident and convincing young Edward III.

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Sir Ralph Basset ( c 1279- 1343) – a Despenser Man?

Sir Ralph Basset, later to become 2nd Lord Basset of Drayton was born in about 1279 to Ralph Basset (1st Lord Basset) and Hawise de Grey, daughter of John de Grey of Water Eaton. His father died on 31st December 1299, leaving Ralph to inherit the numerous family manors, including that of Drayton.

As a side note here, quite a few historians assume Ralph to have been fairly closely related to Hugh le Despenser. This is because, in letters from the Saint Sardos War in 1324, Hugh calls Ralph ‘treascher cousin’, or dear cousin, and also due to the fact that a Phillip Basset was Hugh’s grandfather. However, on closer inspection of the genealogy, there is no close connection through the Basset name at all. Philip and Ralph Basset did share a common ancestor in Sir Ralph Basset of Colston, the Justiciar of England under Norman rule, but afterwards, their branches separated and thrived separately. The coats of arms are also different:


Ralph Basset of Drayton ********** Phillip Basset of Wooton Basset

Ralph was married to Joan de Grey, daughter of John de Grey of Wilton in 1304. They had 2 sons – Ralph and John and, according to the Ancestral File of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, two daughters also: Maud and Joan. Joan de Grey’s grandmother was a Despenser – the daughter of Hugh the Justiciar and Hugh the elder’s half sister. However this still seems a tenuous link for Despenser to be able to call Basset cousin.

Compared to his later career, there are very few mentions of him in the records during his earlier years. However, we know that he was knighted along with nearly 300 others at the grand knighting ceremony in Westminster in June 1306 and then went on Edward I’s Scottish campaign immediately afterwards. He was one of the knights that absconded, along with Piers Gaveston and Roger Mortimer on the way home, incurring the king’s wrath at their desertion. We also know that he was present at the Dunstable Tournament of 1309, and probably went along with John de Somery, a relative. In 1310, he was once again in military service in Scotland, but this time under Edward II.

During these early years he appears sporadically, for example, acting for Edward I in 1300 in the county of Salop (Shropshire), engaged in a boundary dispute in 1306 with his neighbour and named as the ward of Margaret, widow of Edmund Stafford (who then married without either his or the King’s permission). He then disappears until he witnesses a grant at Westminster in 1316.

The beginning of his greater influence seems to coincide with the rising star of Hugh Despenser the younger. For example, in 1318 he was acquitted of all fines for acquiring the manors of Radeclive-on-Sore and Greetwell without licence. In his defence it is declared that he was pardoned because of his good service in Scotland. In 1318, he also was sent as part of a delegation to negotiate with the earl of Lancaster and was a witness to the Treaty of Leek. In 1319 he was appointed as a justice of oyer and terminer in a very grisly case that involved the kidnapping and mutilation of a woman by a large group of people and in 1320 he was appointed as a conservator of the peace for the county of Stafford along with John de Somery and Ralph le Botiller (both loyal Edward II men: Ralph was associated with the Dunheved plot to rescue Edward II in 1327 and John also had links with the Dunheveds before his death in 1322).

The following years saw Ralph’s name appearing more frequently on charters and as a justice working for the king, so much so that he seems to have been considered an integral part of the Despenser regime. In 1321, during the indictment against the Despensers by the Contrariants, Ralph was one of the men named as their ally and adherent, as well as being one of the men accused of being appointed as ‘judges who were ignorant of the law of the land to hear and determine matters touching the magnates and the people…’ During Edward II’ subsequent fight back against his rebellious barons, Ralph was one of those the king could trust, and was given the tasks of rallying a fighting force and arresting Contrariants in Warwick, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Stafford, along with his old friend John de Somery. For his loyalty and his services he was awarded the manors of Hameldon and Market Overden in the county of Rutland – manors that had previously belonged to the recently executed Bartholomew Badlesmere.

In 1322 Ralph took part in the spectacularly unsuccessful military incursion into Scotland, named as being in the retinue of Hugh the elder, and in the following year was part of the delegation ordered to arrest Andrew de Harclay and degrade him of his earldom after he made a treaty with the Scots behind Edward’s back. 1323 saw perhaps, his greatest promotion – to the post of Seneschal of the Duchy of Aquitaine, although in other ways it could be said that it was lousy timing, as a little local difficulty was about to blow up in the region: the War of Saint Sardos.

In a nutshell, the French decided to push their luck and build a bastide on Gascon soil, enraging the local lords. One of them, with Bassett’s apparent approval decided to remedy the situation by burning the bastide to the ground and hanging the French sergeant in charge of it. Naturally the French king took umbrage and, after negotiations failed, thought it a good enough excuse to invade Aquitaine. In the expected fashion for the reign of Edward II, the fighting went badly for the English (under the control of the earl of Kent and Bassett and directed from England by Hugh Despenser the younger). It ended in a shameful truce and – in the long term – Queen Isabella being sent over to negotiate terms (and not coming back again until she invaded the country!).

Anyway, by December 1325, Ralph Bassett was back in England again and was named as the Constable of Dover and Warden of the Cinque Ports – a very important position. He was also pardoned for any wrongdoings that he may have done in Gascony therefore making him immune to any further prosecutions from the French. What happened to him during Isabella and Mortimer’s invasion and the subsequent downfall of Edward and the Despensers is not recorded, but he does not seem to have suffered unduly in the aftermath so it seems possible that he was one of those who, seeing which way the wind was blowing, decided to change allegiance in order to save his life and lands.

After the regime change it seems as if it was business as usual for Bassett. His name appears as a witness on a charter, he goes to Scotland on military service with the king and is named as ‘keeper as the king’s lands’. This careful playing of the people in power seems to have paid off as, even after Mortimer was removed from his position as queen’s consort, Ralph still seems to have been in favour and called upon to witness documents after 1330

A list of his properties after his death still shows an impressive portfolio. It seems that Bassett, although formerly regarded as a Despenser adherent, was really only loyal to his own interests. This should not necessarily be looked upon as something terrible: it was a time of great political turmoil when, through being on the wrong side, many great lords either lost their lands or their lives. Somehow, Ralph managed to steer a steady course through the chaos of Edward II’s reign and after and emerge relatively unscathed. Many did the same. It should be noted though that Ralph’s wealth was not always garnered through choosing the right alliances: I have found many instances of him acknowledging (and claiming in court) recognizances of both large and small sums of money – a device used successfully by the Despensers to force people to hand over lands and/or money or else be imprisoned. Whether Ralph’s recognizances were just or not is not known, but it should be noted that he continued this practice well after the Despensers’ deaths.

Ralph died in 1343. His grandson – another Ralph – inherited his estates.


Calendar of the Close Rolls: 1302-1307; 1307-1313; 1313-1318; 1318-1323; 1323-1327; 1327-1330
Calendar of the Patent Rolls: 1301-1307; 1307-1313; 1317-1321; 1321-1324; 1324-1327
Calendar of Chancery Warrants: 1244-1326
Calendar of Inquisitions Miscellaneous Vol II
Calendar of the Fine Rolls
Chaplais, Pierre, The War of Saint Sardos (1323-1325) Gascon Correspondence and Diplomatic Documents, Royal Historical Society, 1954
Davies, J.C., The Baronial Opposition to Edward II: Its Character and Policy, Frank Cass & Co Ltd, 1967
Haines, R.M., King Edward II: His Life, His Reign and its Aftermath, 1284-1330, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003
Waugh, Scott L., ‘For King, Country and Patron: The Despensers and Local Administration, 1321-1322’, The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2. (Spring 1983), pp. 23-58
Tomkinson, A. ‘Retinues at the Tournament of Dunstable, 1309’, The English Historical Review, LXXIV:70-87, 1959

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