Thursday 8 July 2021

William and John: Part 3) William at Court

After looking at Sir John Clanvowe’s military career we turn today to the court career of his partner, Sir William Neville.

First of all, let’s look at Sir William’s marriage. It wasn’t what you could call a “marriage of convenience” as it might have been described in the 20th century, in which a marriage was arranged to hide the sexuality of one of the partners. Men we would regard as gay today would often marry and have children in pre-modern times. They didn’t think there was anything was wrong with that.

Sir William’s marriage was more of a political and financial marriage. As I mentioned in Part 1 when I described the childhoods of Sir William Neville and his male partner, William had little chance of inheriting substantial property or an income from his father, being the youngest of five sons. After plans for William to inherit the estates of his step-brother, Lord Greystoke, fell through, Lord Neville arranged for him to marry the heiress of manors spread across Yorkshire.

In 1366 William married Elizabeth le Waleys, the younger of the two daughters and coheirs of Stephen le Waleys, 2nd Baron Waleys. The elder daughter, Anora, died childless within two years and Elizabeth became sole heir to the family estates and "de facto" Baroness Waleys. This meant that William Neville now had an independent income and property through his wife (all property of a married woman usually belonged to the husband in those days). Elizabeth le Waleys was as well connected as her husband. Her father’s step-brother was the famous Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots.

As mentioned in part 2, Sir William Neville spent some time in France serving with the army during the Hundred Years War. When he returned to England he began a distinguished career at court. By this time his eldest brother Lord Neville, who had inherited their father’s title, had obtained the position of Lord Steward of the King's Household in late 1371. Probably through his brother's influence, Sir William succeeded his brother as Admiral of the North in 1372. This was one of the top naval commands in England. As Admiral of the North Sir William was responsible for all the fleet and ports north of the River Thames and naval activities in the North Sea.

In 1373 Sir William temporarily commanded the southern fleet that was appointed to patrol the Norman and Breton coasts and protect the English possessions there. Sir William anchored his fleet at St. Malo for several months and then he was called upon to go to the aid of his brother, Lord Neville. Lord Neville had been appointed ambassador to Brittany in June 1372 in order to negotiate an Anglo-Breton alliance. Brittany was subject to the French crown even though it was English support that had put the Duke of Brittany in power, as explained last time. The resulting alliance, not welcomed by the Breton lords, led to renewed rivalry between England and France. Lord Neville was appointed Captain of Brest and was given command of an English force. The French, under Bertrand du Guesclin, invaded Brittany and laid siege to Brest Castle. Lord Neville was accused of not providing sufficient military defence which led to the siege. This would taint Lord Neville’s reputation and be used against him three years later.

Lord Neville hoped that the army being assembled by Prince John of Gaunt, destined to form the "Grand Chevauchée" (see Part 2), would come to his aid. The army helped to keep the French at bay only temporarily. Sir William Neville's fleet carried an army which reinforced and restocked the Brest garrison. The Grand Chevauchée distracted some French forces away from Brest, but several other garrisons were still taken from the English.

By 1376 the war with France was not going well and people were putting some blame onto Lord Neville. As Lord Steward of the King’s Household he was also accused of helping the Lord Chamberlain to embezzle public funds. Later that year both the Lord Chamberlain and Lord Neville were impeached by parliament, even though the actual evidence of embezzlement against Neville was flimsy to say the least. This “Good” Parliament, as is it known, was called to address the many growing suspicions of corruption among the chief ministers of the old and frail King Edward III. The "Good" Parliament only deepened divisions, both at court and in the country. Sir William Neville seems to have escaped any suggestion that he profited from his brother's alleged actions. However, he was removed from his appointment of Admiral of the North in the same month as the impeachment. It wasn't long, however, before Lord Neville was reappointed Lord Steward by Prince John of Gaunt, who had by now become the chief minister of the country.

King Edward III died on 21st June 1377. His grandson Richard, Prince of Wales, succeeded as King Richard II at the age of 10. Sir William Neville had been appointed to the household of Richard just six months earlier. The succession of a 10-year-old boy as king led to politicians and royal relatives vying to ensure that the king's voice was theirs. Richard's own voice on matters was hardly ever heard, but he was personally responsible for the decision to keep Sir William Neville in his service after his accession, perhaps even making him a Gentleman of the Chamber at that time also.

By 1378 both Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe were favoured members of King Richard's court. Both were King's Knights and in regular attendance on Richard. They had become members of an inner circle of friends which the young king gathered around himself. Their positions of trust was recognised by their additional appointments as Knights of the Chamber by 1381. This brought them even closer to the king than the Privy Council and indicates how much King Richard must have trusted in their confidence.

A few historians believe that by this time Sir William and Sir John had formed a close personal bond. On John's return from the French wars they would have had ample opportunity to meet at court. As the years passed their names appear together in court records more and more often, and chroniclers of their time even begin to acknowledge an unusually close bond between them. They continued to have their separate lives and appointments; Sir William and his wife Elizabeth with their estates in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, and Sir John with his appointments in Herefordshire and the Welsh borders. But they always managed to be together at court sessions and as the King’s Knights of the Chamber, which would be for six weeks at a time on a regular basis.

During their time at King Richard’s court they would have mingled with the other courtiers, and that included the famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer. He became a close friend of both Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe. It was through this friendship that Chaucer and Sir John came up with the idea of St. Valentine’s Day as a day of romance, something that had not happened in history before. The story of how they created it is told here.

It was also at about this time that Sir William Neville acquired his connection to Nottingham Castle and Sherwood Forest. In Part 4 I’ll delve further into their time in Nottingham and how I believe Sir John Clanvowe came up with the oldest surviving ballad featuring a hero well-known across England at the time – Robin Hood.

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