The Enigmatic Brian Fitzcount
‘There was a certain Brien fitz Count, a man of distinguished birth and splendid position’
– Gesta Stephani
‘He seems to have been without personal ambition’ – Marjorie Chibnall: The Empress Matilda.
‘But she (the Empress Matilda) and Brian gained…a title to boundless fame, since as their affection for each other had before been unbroken, so even in adversity, great though the obstacle that danger might be, they were in no wise divided.’ – Gesta Stephani
‘She (the Empress) gave the monks (of Reading) the royal abbey of Blewbury for the souls of her ancestors and the love and loyal service of Brien FitzCount.’ – Marjorie Chibnall: The Empress Matilda
‘I wish to have a great love of truth, and to obey in all things when I can. And I know to the best of my power and knowledge I do not deserve henceforth to be ranked among the unfaithful. I am sorry for the poor and their plight, when the church provides scarcely any refuge for them, for they will die if peace be longer delayed.’ – Brian FitzCount in a letter to Henry Bishop of Winchester. Haskins Society Journal.
He’s dark haired and his hair is slightly wavy. He’s got very dark eyes with a twinkle. More than the twinkle is the passion. He’s got very passionate eyes. When he speaks, when he’s fired up by an idea, he’s passionate.It’s not just ideas that fire him up either. It’s a good song, a good story. He loves the artistic side of life, the culture. And is somewhat of a performer himself. He has a rich voice when he sings. ~ The Akashic Records, accessed by consultant Alison King
Brien FitzCount, lord of Wallingford and Abergavenny was one of the Empress Matilda’s staunchest supporters during her bid for the English crown, The third quote at the beginning of this article comes from the Gesta Stephani and concerns the Empress’s flight from Winchester in 1141. It has sometimes been hinted at by modern writers, that her relationship with Brian went deeper than just the bonds between vassal and overlord; however her chief biographer, historian Marjorie Chibnall dismisses this as a false modern interpretation and misunderstanding of medieval attitude and meaning. She argues that if Matilda had taken Brian as a lover, the opposition would have milked the sin of their adultery for all it was worth, but there was not a single hint of disapproval, or of scandal concerning the relationship between them, even from hostile chroniclers.
Brian’s father was Alain IV, Duke of Brittany, who had married in succession Constance the daughter of William the Conqueror, and then Ermengarde, daughter of Fulke, Count of Anjou. Brian himself was illegitimate, both his mother and his birth date are unknown,although he was born before 1112 when his father entered a monastery. He witnessed his first charter in 1114, so it seems likely that he was born some time in the 1090’s but this has to be guesswork as youths and children were often witnesses to charters and it’s not purely an adult preserve.
We do know that Henry I took him under his wing and raised him at the English and Norman royal court, seeing to his education and advancement. Brian says in a letter to Gilbert Foliot, bishop ofHereford. “I, Brian FitzCount, whom good King Henry brought up and to whom he gave arms and honour,”
Henry would have seen in Brian a suitable companion for his own son, William the Atheling, and someone he could mould. Brian was being groomed for a life in royal service. Other companions at that time would have included Stephen of Blois, future king of England, David, who was Henry’s young brother in law and future King of Scotland, Robert and Richard, Henry’s favourite bastard sons, the Beaumont twins, Robert and Waleran and Richard Earl of Chester. Professor Crouch in his biography of King Stephen calls them ‘A brat pack of able youths of lineage and ambition.’
Brian was highly intelligent and received the best education that 12th
century society could provide. Later in his career, Brian displayed the thoroughness of this education.Gilbert Foliot, Abbot of Gloucester and bishop of Hereford was a personal friend and correspondent. Brian was also not afraid to argue points of law with Henry Bishop of Winchester, the papal legate.
As a youth at court, Brian would also for a time have known the king’s daughter, Matilda. She would have been a child while he was an adolescent growing to manhood. At the age of 8, Matilda leftEngland to go to Germany to be betrothed and married to the Emperor Henry, so Brian’s awareness of her would have been of a little girl, not long out of the nursery, and as a princess going to fulfil her role in making a marriage to suit her father’s political needs.
To elevate Brian to a status suitable for the companion of a prince, King Henry sought a rich marriage for him, but in his usual parsimonious fashion, one that was likely to revert to the crown after Brian’s lifetime. Historical sources are contradictory and scanty, but we do know that Brian married heiress Matilda of Wallingford, widow of the baron Miles Crispin. We don’t know when, other than it was between 1107 and 1119. Brian would have been a young man or adolescent at the time. His wife’s age is just as unknown, but she would have been considerably older than him. The main question concerning the age gap, is whether she was old enough to be his mother, or his grandmother?
Various theories have been coined about Matilda of Wallingford.One school believes that her father was Robert D’oilley, one of the Conqueror’s companions, who married the daughter of Wigod of Wallingford, a survivor of the Norman Conquest.Robert and his wife produced Matilda, who married Norman lord Miles Crispin in 1184. Since 12 was the age of consent for marriage, a birth date for Matilda can be postulated from 1172 backwards to 1066. When Miles died in 1107, Matilda married Brian FitzCount.That would make her at the youngest, 35 when her husband died, and Brien would have been 17 at the oldest when this happened, but probably considerably younger. Another theory is that Miles Crispin and Matilda D’oilley had a daughter themselves, also named Matilda. If she was born in 1185, she would have been older than Brian, but only by about 10 -15 years. The evidence at the moment still comes down more on the side of the original, older Matilda being the right one. At their marriage she might just have had a twilight window of fertility remaining. In the event she did not conceive and Wallingford eventually reverted to the crown. There is a legend that they had two children who both suffered from leprosy, but again, there is no evidence for the statement, and it is highly unlikely to be true. The bottom line is that as a young man about town, Brian FitzCount married Matilda of Wallingford, a widow much older than himself. What they thought of such an arrangement is not recorded, but one assumes they rubbed along in some sort of amity as business partners because the chronicles make no mention of ructions between them. Brian seems to have spent very little time at Wallingfordthough, and the defence was left in the hands of one of his relatives, William Boterel. Even though she was older than her husband, Matilda of Wallingford outlived him, although probably by only a couple of years. She entered Oakburn Priory (which she founded) at the end of her life, circa 1151.
In 1126, the Empress Matilda returned to her father’s court as a young widow and her father’s sole heir, her brother having drowned at sea in the notorious sinking of the White Ship when it hit a rock on Barfleur harbour while returning from Normandy toEngland on a cold November evening. Henry wanted his barons and clergy to recognise the Empress as his successor and made them swear an oath of allegiance to her at the Christmas court of 1126. Early in 1127, Henry began marriage negotiations for Matilda, with Fulke Count of Anjou regarding his adolescent son Geoffrey. At this stage, only three of Henry’s advisors were involved – his eldest illegitimate son Robert of Gloucester, the Bishop of Lisieux, and Brian FitzCount. There is no hint that any of these men objected to the proposed marriage. Brian, who was later known to be very close to the Empress, made no protest. His first loyalty was to Henry, and his own marriage was that of a young man to an older woman. To him, such matches were the norm of political necessity.
Once the marriage alliance was agreed, the Empress was escorted to Rouen for formal betrothal by Robert and Brian. This was Brian in the role of courtier, emissary, escort and messenger. He seems to have been thoroughly at home in court circles – an urbane intellectual with strong political skills. Perhaps today he would have worked behind the scenes in government as a policy maker and think tank. Brian, together with Robert of Gloucester, was appointed an auditor at the exchequeur for the fiscal year 1128/29 and it is thought they uncovered some underhand dealings by Roger Bishop of Salisbury, Henry’s chielf minister and justiciar. Certainly Henry reined in Salisbury’s powers following that audit. The audit shows too the trust Henry had in Brian and his ability to deal with complex fiscal matters.
When Henry I died, Stephen Count of Bloisstole a march on his cousin the Empress and grabbedEngland andNormandy for himself. Most of the barons who had sworn to uphold Matilda, abandoned their oaths and accepted Stephen instead.He was there on the spot and he was a man. The Empress on the other hand, was in Anjou and pregnant with her third child. Men probably felt much more comfortable accepting Stephen as their king and perhaps hoped that Matilda would just take it as a fait accompli. At this point, Brian FitzCount abandoned his own oath to the Empress and swore for Stephen, preferring to go with the tide rather than swim against it. Of all the English barons, only Baldwin de Redvers, lord of Exeter, refused to give his oath to Stephen. Everyone else at that point bent the knee.
However, when Matilda made it plain that she intended fighting for her inheritance and that of her son, the future Henry II, letters began to fly between Anjou and England. We know that the former queen Adeliza was writing to the Empress, telling her that she could have safe landing at Arundel, and when Matilda did so, we know that Brian FitzCount renounced his allegiance to Stephen and became Matilda’s man, thus giving her the support and strength of the great castle of Wallingford, and all of Brian’s considerable acumen, experience and ability. Due to Wallingford’s exposed position on the margins of the territory held for the Empress, Brian came to be known as The Marquis by his allies, the meaning being that he was on a March or border area.
[/frame_right]Brian has often been portrayed as a warrior par excellence, but I have a suspicion that he wasactually rather conservative in battle and that his strengths were more in the area of political negotiations and aspects of law and policy. Wallingfordcastle held on throughout the long years of civil war in England, often besieged, but never taken, but Brian was usually not in residence and much of the credit for the spirited defence has to go to its constable, William Boterel. When Stephen besieged Brian in1139 at Wallingford, it was the daring of Miles, lord of Herefordthat broke the siege when he burned down the watchtowers that had been erected by Stephen to harass Wallingford. Brian is known to have taken part in the Battle of Lincoln. At the rout ofWinchester, he was entrusted with seeing the Empress safely out of the city and getting her away from the fighting. Brian was utterly trustworthy and would have given his life for the Empress,but it was down to others to fight the rearguard, including Robert of Gloucester, who was captured, Miles of Hereford and David of Scotland – and also John FitzGilbert at Wherwell. Perhaps all of these men were more readily frontline warriors than Brian himself.
Brian is known to have written a tract putting forward the argument for the Empress’s right to inherit the throne. The workhas since been lost, but was highly thought of by Gilbert Foliot, abbot of Gloucester. Brian is also known to have had disputes with Henry, bishop of Winchester. Some time after the flight fromWinchester, Brian raided a merchant train on its way to Bishop Henry’s fair at Winchester. When the bishop complained in no uncertain terms, Brian was ready for him and replied that he only conducted the raids in order to sustain himself and his men, and in actual fact, he was doing as the bishop ordered. He pointed out that at one stage in his turncoat career, Bishop Henry had ordered everyone to stand by their oaths to the Empress. If everyone had held to the oath as they should, the Bishop included, then he (Brian) would not have to go out raiding merchant trains in order to survive. He was not intimidated by Henry of Winchester and prepared to give as good as he got in their exchanges by letter.
Wallingford, being a great fortress, was often used as a secure prison, and Brian was an adept gaoler. During the reign of Henry I, he had had custody of Waleran de Meulan, a dangerous and powerful rebel baron. Later, during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, he imprisoned King Stephen’s steward and spymaster general, William Martel in a dungeon he had especially made atWallingford. It was known jestingly as ‘Brian’s Cloere’. A cloere was a bag to contain a hammer, and was a pun on the fact that Martel meant hammer. Stephen was so concerned for Martel that he paid his ransom by agreeing to hand over Sherborne castle in exchange for his release.
In 1147, the Empress finally left England. She had held on for as long as she could, and her son Henry was now fourteen and ready to begin making his bid to become King. It is also in 1147 that Brian FitzCount vanishes from the historical record. The Abergavenny Chronicle says that he went in crusade and died inJerusalem, but it is not a reliable source. Professor Crouch speaks of Brian’s retirement and death ‘probably in 1150’ but does not give a source. It is widely believed that he entered a monastery – most likely Reading Abbey around 1147, and that he died before 1151. His wife entered holy orders too, founding Oakburn Priory, and dying in 1151. Wallingford continued to be held by Brian’s constable William Boterel, and reverted eventually to the Crown when Henry II became king.
Why did Brian give up the fight in 1147? Was he ill? Did he believe that now the Empress had gone the situation was hopeless? (although other men such as his vassal John Fitzgilbert the Marshal fought on and ultimately won through). Was his loyalty solely to the Empress and not her line?No one can say. In A Place Beyond Courage, I had Brian retire to a monastery with a terminal illness, but further research means that I may tweak this in Lady of the English. My alternative studies via the Akashic Records certainly point towards him taking monastic vows, and I definitely think that 1147 was a crisis point, if not a breaking point for him and something I hope to address in fiction.
It has been a frustrating but ultimately rewarding experience, piecing together Brian FitzCount the man from the tiny mosaic fragments presented by the historical record where evidence is scanty and often contradictory and even made up. From what I have gleaned, Brian FitzCount served Henry I and the Empress as part of their policy making machine- a role that might translate today to that of high ranking civil service mandarin. He was highly educated and intelligent, easily able to hold his own in intellectual circles and at home with the fiscal dealings of the exchequeur. He was a courtier and a soldier when he had to be, although not anatural fighter like some of his contemporaries. He was devoted to Henry I, and also to the Empress. Was there ever a romance between them? I suspect (but this is only my opinion), that there was strong mutual affection, perhaps even desire, but honour, duty, position and moral fibre prevented the relationship from crossing the boundaries. Awareness was known but unspoken, and never acted upon.
As a novelist, my vision of Brian begins in my mind’s eye as a handsome, vibrant young courtier, preparing to ride out in the dawn mist with one of England’s greatest kings, and a host of laughing companions. It ends with a monk looking out to sea on a distant shoreline, the sunset reflected in the glossy sand of a receding tide. And in between those images, is a shattering war and the deep ache of an unrequited, love for a woman he could never have.
Select Bibliography – a few of the books consulted:
- King Stephen – David Crouch published by Longman
- Empress Matilda – Marjorie Chibnall published by Blackwell
- The government of England under Henry I – Judith Green published by Cambridge University Press
- History of William Marshal vol 1 published by the Anglo Norman Text Society
- Stephen and Matilda, the Civil War of 1139-53 – Jim Bradbury published by Sutton
- The Memory of Brian FitzCount – Edmund King: Haskins Society Journal published by Boydell.
- Who’s Who in Early Medieval England – Christopher Tyerman published by Shepheard Walwyn.