Sunday 15 January 2023

William and John: 7) Pirates and the Last Crusade

This is the final part of the life stories of Sir William Neville, Constable of Nottingham Castle, and his partner Sir John Clanvowe, poet. In Part 6 we looked at how I believe the lives and connections of both Sir William and Sir John created some of the most familiar plots and characters from the legend of Robin Hood. Today we conclude with their final adventuring years.

For the last eighteen months or so of their lives, Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville spent a lot of time abroad. Some of this was on official though unspecified "royal business". This was probably some diplomatic or messenger service but no actual details survive.

In March 1390 Sir John and Sir William made plans to travel to the island of Rhodes. Rhodes was the base of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, also called the Knights Hospitaller. These knights were originally monks whose aim was to found hospitals for sick pilgrims in the Holy Land. Later assuming an additional military function as protectors of pilgrims, the Hospitallers played a major part in the defence of crusader settlements. The Hospitalllers became a major sea power and guardians of Christian sea travel in the eastern Mediterranean which at the time was being ravaged by Muslim pirates based on the North African Barbary coast.

If Sir John and Sir William were intending to go to the Holy Land they would have needed the help of the Hospitallers who knew which routes and locations were currently the safest. At this time there were attacks on Christian bases by the Ottoman Turks as well as the Barbary pirates.

After their visit to Rhodes Sir John and Sir William returned to England. Apparently they were at a jousting tournament in Calais in May 1390 when they heard of a crusade against the Barbary pirates. They may even have heard about it on the journey back from Rhodes or at a spectacular Garter Tournament at Windsor held that year at which they were also present.

For years the Barbary pirates had been attacking shipping throughout the Mediterranean. The Genoese in particular were desperate to rid the trade routes of this menace because, due to their geographical location, their shipping and trade routes were at greatest risk. The Genoese appealed to the French for help which, as there was a truce with England in the Hundred Years War at the time, they freely gave.

Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville made their way down to Genoa. On or about 3rd July 1390 they joined the assembled crusaders and set sail for the North African coast. They had an experienced and capable leader in Prince Louis II de Capet, Duke of Bourbon, so it seemed somewhat foolhardy for him to decide to harbour his fleet at an off-shore island near Tunis for as long as nine days. This gave the Muslims in Tunisia and the Barbary pirates plenty of time to gather their own forces and they were waiting for the crusader fleet when it finally arrived at the port of Mahdia.

The crusaders besieged Mahdia for sixty-one days. There was at least one skirmish in which many soldiers were killed, but for the most part there was a lot of sitting around and waiting. This may seem frustrating to us, but medieval siege warfare was often a long, drawn-out affair, more a question of patience than fighting.

Just how much Sir John Clanvowe, Sir William Neville and the other crusaders knew of secret negotiations being conducted by the Genoese at the time is unknown. Genoese agents had managed to negotiate a renewal of an earlier treaty they had with the Tunisians and a new truce was called. Prince Louis was unable to do anything to prevent this. In effect, the crusade achieved little if anything. The crusaders returned to Genoa, and by October Sir John and Sir William were back in England.

The final journey of Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville began on 10th May 1391. Officially it was on "royal business", again unspecified. Their actual destination is also unknown, but it may be that on completion of their "royal business" they went to Constantinople. There were many English knights undergoing private pilgrimages throughout the decade and there was a growing fashion for combining this with crusading. Perhaps that was why Sir John and Sir William were there.

y the beginning of October 1391 Sir John and Sir William had arrived in Constantinople, the capital city of the waning Byzantine Empire and the home of the Greek Orthodox Christian faith. The Greek Orthodox Church had (and still has) different ecclesiastical liturgies, rites and practices to those of the Latin Catholic west which is subject to the authority of the Pope in Rome. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches lived side by side in Constantinople - literally. There was an uneasy relationship between them and the Pope would hardly approve of western Latin crusaders and pilgrims living among Greek worshippers, whom the Pope officially considered to be heretics.

To avoid major contact with the Greeks crusaders like Sir John and Sir William would stay in a suburb of Constantinople just across the Golden Horn where there was a Genoese trading colony called Pera. Whatever their reasons for visiting Constantinople, neither knight proceeded further. Sir John Clanvowe died in his lodgings in Pera on 6th October 1391. The cause of his death is unrecorded. Plague has been suggested, but no plague in Pera is mentioned in contemporary records for 1391. However, there was plague raging in Morea, Greece (modern-day Peloponnese) that summer. Any number of travellers could have brought the plague to Constantinople, and perhaps Sir John and Sir William had stopped off in Morea or travelled overland from Greece to Constantinople. It is known that a serious outbreak of plague did descend on Pera the following year.

Sir William Neville's death occurred four days later on 10th October. The Westminster Chronicle, written from witness reports, says William was devastated by his partner's death and refused to eat or drink, dying of malnutrition. This is a romantic, and probably true, story, though Sir William's death also from the plague cannot be discounted.

The loyal knights were buried together in Pera in the church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Sir William may have begun arrangements for his partner's burial before his own death. Their travelling companions completed the task by interring Sir William with Sir John. They also arranged for an inscribed marble slab to be placed over their graves. It is this grave slab which provides visual evidence of their relationship.

Some of the retinue and companions of Sir John and Sir William returned to England, where the partners' deaths were reported by January 1392. With them they brought what possessions the partners took with them, and they also took back with them the story of the last days of Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville and how, right at the end, they were "faithful unto death".

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