The family name of de Braose isn’t exactly a household word these days, but in the times of the early kings of England, the de Braoses were movers and shakers. As a player in the Norman Conquest, William I de Braose was given lands in Sussex according to the Domesday Book. They became Marcher Lords, clashing frequently with the Welsh, and they married into the Marshal, Mortimer, and de Clare families–all power players in the high-stakes game of medieval politics. The de Braose family alone is worth a year’s set of entries, but the most interesting to me is Maud de Braose, a Frenchwoman born Matilda de Saint-Valery.
Records claim she was tall and beautiful–do the records ever say otherwise?–and she married William III de Braose, author of the Abergavenny Massacre, earning him the soubriquet, the Ogre of Abergavenny. William was with Richard I when he was slain at Chalus, but he soon clashed with the new king, John. John was not, according to strict application of male-preferential primogeniture, the obvious successor to his eldest brother. John was the youngest of the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany was an elder son and he had left an heir, Arthur, and after raising a rebellion against his uncle, Arthur was imprisoned and later disappeared. (Interesting to note that Edward V and his brother were not the first adolescent heirs to go missing…)
Arthur had been under the care of William de Braose at the time of his disappearance. There’s a juicy story about King John getting lavishly drunk and stalking down to the dungeons to kill the boy with his own hands before dumping his weighted body in the Seine–a body that was recovered by a fisherman and secretly buried for fear of reprisals by the king. Was it true? Possibly. John certainly didn’t hesitate to use brutality when it served his purposes, as it did against Maud de Braose.
Having fallen out with the king over money, the de Braoses had their estates seized and received demands from the king to hand over their sons as hostages for their good behavior. Maud would have none of it. She declared that she would never surrender her sons to a man who had murdered his own nephew–not the most tactful of words under the circumstances, and the de Braoses were forced to flee. They divided up, with William scarpering to France disguised as a beggar. Maud was not so fortunate. She was captured, along with their eldest son–another William–in Ireland and hauled back to England in chains where popular tradition has it that they were flung into prison and starved to death. The grisly end was supposed to have taken place at Corfe Castle, and legend says that when the dungeon was thrown open, the marks of Maud’s teeth were visible on her son’s cheeks.
Somewhat more kindly, legend also says that she built Hay Castle–the de Braose stronghold–in a single night and without aid by carrying the stones in her skirts.(Impossible as we know that to be, it demonstrates the regard in which she was held that such a story would be fabricated at all.) The Welsh, often on the receiving end of de Braose brutality, claimed that she wore armor and sometimes led her husband’s troops against them. It’s also a tribute to her legacy that in the Magna Carta, signed after Maud’s unjust imprisonment and death without trial, there is a clause that states explicitly that it is unlawful for any man to be imprisoned or executed without the judgment of his peers. I like to think that John was thinking at least a little of Maud when he signed it. (Note: King John was also my 23rd-great-grandfather. Interesting that his blood mixed with hers just three generations after he had her hounded to death.)