The war and bloodshed of our historic Baronial families

View from Ha' Hill.
View from Ha' Hill.

BARONIAL families often claimed to have been in place ‘since the Conquest’. But it depends what you mean by the Conquest.

It didn’t all happen in 1066. Until 1080 there were no Norman castles in Northumberland. In that year William the Conqueror’s son, Robert Curthose, built one at Monkchester. It later became Newcastle.

The Normans did not mix in local society, but kept to their castles. The fates of previous non-native earls made this unavoidable.

Tostig, a West Saxon, kept 200 housecarls at York. In 1065, rebels from Northumberland and Durham came and slaughtered them. Tostig himself was on a visit to Rome and consequently survived.

In 1068 the first Norman earl, Robert Comyn, was not so lucky. The Northumbrians, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, ‘surrounded him in the town at Durham and slew him and nine hundred men with him’.

Walcher became Bishop of Durham in 1071 and earl three years later. In 1080 his archdeacon contrived the murder of a thegn called Ligulf.

On May 14, in an attempt to make peace, Walcher left Durham Castle and went to Gateshead with a bodyguard of 100 knights.

The Chronicle again: “In this year the Bishop Walcher was slain in Durham at a council, and a hundred men — French and Flemish — with him.”

This resulted in Northumberland being ravaged by the King’s halfbrother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux.

After that, the Government was shared between a new bishop, William de St Calais, and a new earl, one Aubrey, who was replaced soon after by Robert de Mowbray. All three were Normans and were inevitably seen as an occupying power. They lived in their castles and went out only with a strong bodyguard.

Mowbray was appointed c.1086, but he was abroad then, so his uncle, the powerful Geoffrey de Montbrai, Bishop of Coutances, may have held the earldom for him.

Orderic Vitalis describes him thus: “Powerful, rich, bold, fierce in war, haughty, he despised his equals, and, swollen with vanity, disdained to obey his superiors. He was of great stature, strong, swarthy, and hairy. Daring and crafty, stern and grim of mien, he was more given to meditation than to speech, and in conversation scarce ever smiled.”

His territory was Northumberland and Durham. He quarrelled with St Calais over their respective rights and helped the Abbot of St Alban’s to take over the church of Tynemouth from the monks of Durham, probably to spite his rival, the bishop. But most of his activities, when he wasn’t busy elsewhere, were in Northumberland.

Both men rebelled against William Rufus in 1088, but while Mowbray made his peace with Rufus, St Calais was exiled for three years.

Mowbray’s most famous exploit was the defeat of the Scottish king, Malcolm Canmore, at Alnwick, in 1093. He must have passed through Morpeth with his army, but whether he exercised day-to-day control is doubtful. He held Newcastle and Bamburgh, but his authority reached no further than the Wansbeck, and perhaps only to the River Blyth.

He rebelled again in 1094-5. This was when, according to the poet Gaimar, Rufus besieged Morpeth castle. However, better sources do not say where the castle in question was so Gaimar may be guilty of journalistic licence.

Rufus took Newcastle. Mowbray retreated to Bamburgh so Rufus built a temporary castle there, called Malveisin — ‘evil neighbour’. Mowbray unwisely left Bamburgh for Tynemouth, where he was captured. They took him back to Bamburgh, which his wife still held, and paraded him in front of the castle. She surrendered at once.

Mowbray’s attachment to William Rufus was never strong, and he had recently inherited his uncle’s huge estates. Rufus set a higher value on his lands than his loyalty. He locked Mowbray away and confiscated his estates, and the Pope allowed his wife to remarry. He died about 30 years later.

It was Mowbray who began the settlement of Northumberland, but the only baronies of his for which there is even tentative evidence are those of Hubert de la Val at Callerton, Guy de Balliol at Bywell, and William de Merlay at Morpeth.

W.P. Hedley neatly summarises the evidence for Callerton: “Henry I … confirmed to the Abbot of St Alban’s the tithes of Seaton Delaval, Callerton and Dissington given to them by Hubert de la Val. From this it is presumed that Hubert de la Val held the barony of Callerton under Robert de Montbrai, who was Earl of Northumberland 1082-1095 and a considerable benefactor to the church of Tynemouth.” (Hedley, Northumberland Families).

He quotes a source saying that William Rufus created the Balliol barony of Bywell on the Tyne in 1093-4. He questions this on the grounds that Mowbray was in rebellion then (though actually he wasn’t), but thinks that Rufus may have founded it later.

Either way, definite evidence comes later again: “In the early days of his reign,” says Hedley, “Henry I, probably before 1110, issued a prohibition forbidding ‘Guido de Baleol’ to hunt in the forests of Rannulf, Bishop of Durham.”

Hedley is much more positive about William de Merlay. De Merlay was a knight in the service of Mowbray’s uncle, Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances: “In 1088 … William, Bishop of Durham, was dispossessed. The bishop’s retainers, however, continued to hold Durham Castle. Symeon of Durham records how William de Merlay claimed that these retainers had carried off 200 head of cattle belonging to his master, the bishop of Coutance.”

St Calais was tried at Old Sarum in November or December of 1088. This was probably when de Merlay gave his testimony before the king. John Hodgson, in his History of Morpeth, gives the following translation:

“The Bishop of Durham’s men, who were in the castle, took from my lord the Bishop of Constance 200 animals, which were under your safe conduct before this bishop (i.e. St Calais) now came up before your majesty’s court; and my lord requested them to restore the cattle back to him, but they would not.

Afterwards Walter de Haiencorn, in your majesty’s name, commanded him to deliver up the cattle, which they persisted in refusing to do; and now, sire, we implore you to command them to be restored to my lord.”

De Merlay was perhaps not actually in Mowbray’s service, but Hedley notes that one of his sons bore the unusual name ‘Morel’. Earl Robert had a nephew called Morel, who was Sheriff of Northumberland and was the man who actually killed Malcolm Canmore.

This suggests, either that Morel de Merlay was named after someone in the Mowbray family, or that he and the earl’s nephew were one and the same. If so, the barony of Morpeth may well have been created by Mowbray between 1086 and 1095.

It begs the question of how William de Merlay managed to survive unscathed after the suppression of the rebellion in 1095. Perhaps, after all, there is something in Gaimar’s story that William Rufus besieged Morpeth Castle.

If William surrendered his little castle easily, he might well have made his peace with the King and saved his estate.