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Hugh Bigod

[Note: This biography originates from a blog post I wrote in April 2010, entitled: ‘Illuminating Hugh Bigod’]

Framlingham Castle, Suffolk
Like Mahelt, Hugh Bigod’s story is well hidden and little recorded. To flesh him out in contemporary history is to have to extrapolate from scraps of evidence dotted here and there through charters, and fines and the occasional chronicle. However, as in Mahelt’s case, there are sufficient scraps to build up the image of the living breathing man as he once was.

Hugh’s father was Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, an accomplished lawyer and soldier who had had to build up the family fortunes from a low point after his father, Hugh Senior, was disgraced for rebelling against King Henry II. Hugh Senior’s caput castle at Framlingham was razed to the ground on the King’s orders. When he died, King Henry took the Earldom in his own hands and it wasn’t until the reign of King Richard that Roger’s full patrimony and titles were finally restored.

Roger married a former royal mistress, Ida de Tosney, who had borne King Henry a son who was to become William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury. Ida and Roger married around Christmastime 1181. Hugh, we know from charter evidence, was born before the following Christmas. Given a 9 months gestation period, his birthdate could be anywhere between September and the year’s end. Hugh was a Bigod family name, and although Roger and his father had not been on good terms when the old man died, Roger still gave his eldest son this name. Hugh’s parents were prolific and he was soon joined by more siblings. Two sisters, Marie and Marguerite, and three brothers, William, Roger and Ralph. There were perhaps two other also – John and Ida, although their existence is a little more open to conjecture. Even without them though, Hugh would have grown up surrounded by a large family circle. Hugh was born while his parents were still living in the modest stone hall at Framlingham which had been left standing at the time of the destruction. His father didn’t gain permission to built up a fine new castle on his estate until Richard I came to the throne in 1189. From the age of seven or so, Hugh would have spent quite a bit of his time growing up on a building site!

The Bigod's home at Settrington
Framlingham was the family seat, but the Bigods also held extensive lands in Yorkshire, with a manor at Settrington near Pickering, and a home in London at Friday Street in the heart of the city’s commerical district. They had a house and a personal quay at Ipswich too. Hugh would have come to know these places as the family moved around during his childhood. As the oldest son, Hugh was the heir to Framlingham and the great Earldom of Norfolk with its 160 plus knights fees, and also to the Yorkshire lands which had come into the family through an earlier marriage. When Hugh was just 17, his father made over Settrington and the Yorkshire estates to Hugh, with a total value of 10 knights fees. He was giving his son responsibility and preparing him for the day when he would be Earl of Norfolk in his own right. Hugh also attended court from his teen years. He is found witnessing charters in September 1199 around the time he received his Yorkshire lands and when he would have just been turning 17. In 1200 he accounted for 40 marks at the exchequer for increasing a fair by two days, which suggests he was getting down to the nitty gritty of managing

Somewhere before 1207, Hugh’s family was approached by the powerful Marshal family, with a marriage offer for Hugh. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and one of the greatest men in the kingdom wanted Hugh for his eldest daughter Mahelt. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, a family history of the Marshals written near the time says ‘He (William Marshal) asked him graciously, being the wise man he was, to arrange a handsome marriage between his own daughter and his son, Hugh. The boy was worthy, mild-mannered and noble-hearted.’ The marriage itself took place in February 1207 when Hugh would have been rising 25 and his young bride would have been somewhere between 13 and 15. Twelve was the age of consent for girls at that time, and fourteen for boys. Many families wrote clauses into the marriage contract stipulating a consummation age (although not all did). Mahelt’s family were leaving to go to Ireland and the marriage was a matter of urgency to them because they wanted to see Mahelt settled before they left. Perhaps there was a such a clause written into Hugh and Mahelt’s marriage, but we’ll never know via conventional history. What we do know is that Hugh and Mahelt’s first son, Roger, was born before the end of 1209, so two years into the marriage. A second son, Hugh, followed in 1212, a daughter Isabelle in 1215, and another son, Ralph in 1218. There may also have been a fourth son, William. There are some very neat three year gaps here that make the novelist in me speculate about medieval contraceptive practises!

During the early years of his marriage, Hugh was called upon by the King to go to Ireland. This must have been a fraught time for him because at the outset he knew he might be going to war against his father in law. King John was intending to subdue Ireland and William Marshal had retired there on less than good terms with his sovereign, although not in open rebellion. Some difficult words were exchanged between the Earl Marshal and the King, but fortunately they came to a peaceful understanding and Hugh was probably very relieved that he did not have to take up a sword against his wife’s kin and the grandfather of his baby son. While in Ireland he witnessed the drafting of a new constitution for the country and was loaned money by the king against his military expenses.

When John took an expedition to Poitou in 1214, Hugh accompanied him together with a younger brother, Ralph, and their half-brother William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury. Hugh, by now, was standing in for his father in a military capacity, which makes sense as Roger would have been close to seventy by 1214. Hugh was in La Rochelle with John on the Poitou campaign but his two brothers were with the Northern half of the English army which was based in Normandy and involved in the disastrous battle of Bouvines against the French. Ralph and William Longespee were taken prisoner, but Hugh was not involved in the battle and returned to England with the King, unscathed while his family set about raising a ransom to free Ralph from a French prison.

The following year, Hugh was involved in the Magna Carta Crisis. The Bigod family rebelled against King John and it seems probable that both Roger and Hugh had a part in drafting the terms of the charter as both were well versed in the law. Hugh, it seems, had been well taught by his father and was a competent lawyer and administrator and was appointed as one of a committee of twenty five lords to see that the terms of the charter were adhered to.

As the conflict deepened, John arrived beneath the walls of Framlingham Castle with an army of mercenary soldiers. It appears that neither Hugh nor Roger were in residence, but certainly Hugh’s seven year old son was, because the boy was taken hostage by John when the castle surrendered without a fight, despite being one of the strongest fortresses in England. The story of John’s coming to Framlingham and the effect it had on all members the Bigod family forms an important part of the story line of TO DEFY A KING.

Roger and Hugh continued in rebellion and when the Dauphin Louis of France arrived in England to challenge John for the Crown, they offered him their full support. Quite what John had done to turn the formerly loyal and cautious Bigod men against him is open to conjecture. There are no solid obvious reasons. Even after John’s death, the Bigods stayed in rebellion and supported Louis, although they weren’t present at the battle of Lincoln, nor the sea battle at Sandwich which saw Louis’ attempt to take the English crown from the child Henry III defeated. They were, however, working in the background on the legal and fiscal side of matters and one receives the impression that having given their oath to Louis, they felt it binding until he should release them even while they didn’t want to get involved in hard face to face combat with former friends and relations.

Roger and Hugh finally returned to the loyalist fold when Louis quit England and returned to France. Framlingham was restored to them and they swore their fealty to Henry III. It must have been an awkward situation for Hugh, having to oppose his father in law the great William Marshal during the rebellion, and it must have been difficult too as far as relations with his wife were concerned, especially while their son was a hostage.

Norman knight on horse back
Once the Bigods did return to their loyalty, they stuck to it and strove with the regent to hold the country stable, lending their military strength and legal know-how to the process. Roger died in 1221 when he was well into his seventies, and Hugh became Earl of Norfolk. He served in the royal army again, being part of the expedition into Wales to deal with Llewelyn ab Iorwerth in 1224. This was the Bigod’s first involvement in this part of the country. Later generations were to play roles as prominent landholders in this region when they inherited Chepstow down the maternal line.

In 1225, Hugh was at Westminster in February to witness the reissue of the Magna Carta which he had been involved in drafting and overseeing ten years earlier. A week later he was dead of unknown causes and the Earldom was taken into crown custody since Hugh’s son and heir was only fifteen years old. Mahelt Marshal swiftly remarried to their neighbour, William de Warenne, although I strongly suspect it was a matter of politics and family persuasion rather than passionate desire. Her new husband was pushing sixty. In all her charters, even after her second marriage, she signed herself ‘Matilda la Bigote’.

The wall walk at Framlingham castle
Had Hugh Bigod lived beyond his 43 years, who knows what he might have gone on to do. He had proven himself efficient and balanced on all fronts. He was certainly not as flamboyant as his royal half-brother William Longesepee, earl of Salisbury, but he weilded power and presence with quiet authority and many of his descendants went on to greatness. The Stuart kings of England claim their descent from him and Mahelt as do Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, and thus the current heirs to the British throne. A Pugin statue of Hugh Bigod stands alongside his father’s Longespee’s and William Marshal’s in the gallery of the House of Lords. He was buried at Thetford Priory beside his father and grandfather, but with the dissolution of the monasteries and the vagaries of time, sadly his tomb has been lost.

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