The coincidence of connections between these distant places have largely affected our national history.
Chapter 1 ‘Freedom of the Protected Boroughs and the Vikings’
Vikings from Scandinavia had begun raiding parts of the British Isles during the late eighth century. In most events they found little resistance from a relatively undefended peasantry. A mark in time would be when, in 877 on a reconnoitre, a large contingent visited Gloucester, to find a strong walled but unprotected, almost deserted, city. The Roman soldiers had moved out several centuries previously and it had not suited the living practices of the local Saxon community. The Vikings settled there, within the walls of Gloucester and remained for eight months.
Stepping back a little to 871, the Vikings led by Guthrum, had successfully beaten the English at Basing. They then advanced to Merden Castle near Winchester where King Aethelred of Wessex was mortally wounded. His younger brother Alfred was then made King.
King Alfred (the Great) was a thoughtful strategist and following a decade of war, decided on a plan of campaign. He fled with a well picked small army to the marshy Somerset Levels. Tactically, Alfred outwitted Guthrum, the Vikings leader, by breaking up their supplies and lines of communication. He engaged in battle at Edington (878) where Alfred would show no mercy to the rapacious Danes.
In resolution, Guthrum was forced by Alfred to agree to baptism as a Christian and was renamed Athelstan (of Daneland). The outcome of the surrender was a peaceful arrangement – the Treaty of Wedmore. This allowed Guthrum now Aethelstan to peacefully hold estates in East Anglia and for Alfred to peacefully retain the lands of Mercia. Throughout his early reign Alfred had been planning his forward defences. Some of which we now know as the ‘Burghal Hidage’. He developed a system of building forts called Burghs (Old English for Borough) at intervals of 20-25 miles apart. Each with walls of earthen ramparts, topped with wooden palisades. They would each be self-contained communities capable of defending themselves and their surrounding settlements. The occupants come to be known as ‘burgesses’ who, in return for specific duties could enjoy their future protection.
In the course of time, the burgesses gained free liberties and by living within such a defended community became generally known as ‘Freemen of the Boroughs’. Alfred’s son Edward (the Elder) along with his daughter Aethelflaed (Our Lady of the Mercians) continued their father’s plan by developing burghs across the midlands while fighting to regain lands occupied by the Danes.
Following a reasonable period of relative peace we come to the reign of Ethelred (the Unready) 978-1013. This is accompanied by his son Edmund (Ironside) and son-in-law Eadric (Streona) earl of Mercia, not an honest or decent character and known to be an acquisitor or opportunist. Ethelred was inclined to pay large sums of Danegeld to keep order with the Danes. Finally under an unreasoned threat of death by the Danes, King Ethelred planned a surprise massacre of all settled Danes, to take place on St Brice’s Day (13 Nov. 1002). The outcome of which was to motivate King Sweyn of Denmark to retaliate with a large-scale invasion. Eventually, Sweyn was paid off with massive sums of Danegeld. Ethelred with his son, sought refuge in Normandy while Sweyn ruled over England for a short period until he returned to Denmark where he died in February 1014. His younger son Cnut (Canute) was proclaimed King of England by the people of the Danelaw. King Ethelred, in exile in Normandy, died shortly afterwards.
In a pact formed to settle the rule over Mercian and Daneland England a meeting was arranged for both princes to meet on Alney Island, Gloucester. It is recorded that a hand-to-hand combat was to determine who of them would rule over England. Neither of them was mortally wounded but Edmund died very shortly after the occasion and Cnut was crowned King of all England. The reign of Canute was long, peaceful, and just. He even married Ethelred’s widow to prove he would be true to the English. His good reign earned him the title of Canute ‘The Great’. Eventually he was emperor, king of Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden as well as of England.
Chapter 2 The Norman Conquest the Domesday Records and the De Clares
Directly before the battle at Hastings, the territory of Mercia was very large and incorporated Wessex and East Anglia, and this has bearing on the wide scatter of lordship estates. For example, Alvera, Countess of Mercia, was in possession of four estates at Sudbury. She was the widow of Aelfgar (son of Leofric) daughter-in-law of Lady Godiva, and mother of Edwin, earl of Mercia and Morcar, earl of Northumberland. Her husband Aelfgar had been Earl of East Anglia before becoming earl of Mercia. Alvera’s Sudbury estates may have come to her through either channel.
In Gloucestershire the barony of Gloucester had been with Brictric son of Algar, son of Haylward. His refusal to marry Matilda (of Flanders) in her youth before marrying Duke William of Normandy made him an immediate target of her revenge following the Conquest. As with all such conquests, the winner takes all, and most estates throughout England were confiscated and passed out to the Norman retinue. Kinsmen and personal friends of the Conqueror were given the largest and desirable share of the lands and noble titles.
Gloucester Dynasty and its connections with Sudbury
This is a most interesting story of the early connection between these two towns and of the powerful influence on later history of the British Isles. It results from the situation created by the Norman Conquest. The main characters are Amicia, Countess of Gloucester and Richard, son of Roger de Clare.
The de Clare family quickly rose to prominence under the Norman regime. Godfrey, Count of Eu was an illegitimate son of Richard of Normandy. His son Gilbert was assassinated in 1040 and Gilbert’s sons accompanied Duke William the Conqueror (as kinsmen). Richard Lord of Tonbridge and Earl of Hertford was given control of 170 estates and 95 of these were attached to Clare Castle. Richard married Rohais Gifford and their sons were Richard , Roger, and Gilbert. NB Roger and Gilbert were present at the ‘incident’, along with their brother-in-law Walter Tyrol, that killed William II.
Amicia was the daughter of William Fitz Robert whose father was Robert de Caen, the illegitimate son of King Henry I and who was created the first Earl of Gloucester. Her mother was Mabel, daughter of Robert Fitz Hamon, Lord of Gloucester and Glamorgan (who founded Tewkesbury Abbey). Mabel is notable for negotiating the exchange of her husband with Matilda of Boulogne, queen of Stephen, when Robert of Caen was imprisoned. Amicia was born in the much-favoured manor of Tewkesbury.
Richard de Clare, Lord of Tonbridge, married Amicia in 1177 (aged 24, she aged 17) and later divorced her (by Papal command) in 1198 (aged 45) on grounds of ‘consanguinity’ (same bloodline as William’s mother). Richard had inherited much property and lands in various parts and had gained Gifford’s lands through the inheritance of his mother. He had become one of the most powerful barons in England. The de Clare’s over time gained so much land in England, Wales, and Ireland that it brought fear to the Crown.
Richard fell-out with King John (lackland) and was one if not the first signature on the Magna Carta. John appealed to the Pope and Richard and his son Gilbert were ‘excommunicated’. All their lands and property were confiscated. Two years later John sought an agreement. Richard and Gilbert gave their fealty, and in return their lands and properties were returned. Richard died a year later in 1217 and was buried in Tonbridge Abbey. You can view the de Clare’s in stained glass at the Abbey.
Following her divorce Amicia made her Court at Sudbury and was much involved in the administration and developments within the borough town. Amicia died in 1224. Subsequentially, it was Richard the son of Gilbert, 5th Earl of Hertford and 6th Earl of Gloucester (1222-1262) most known to the people of Sudbury and is buried in Tewkesbury Abbey.
Interestingly we, the Freemen of Sudbury regard Richard as our patron for his charter allowing us the freedom of ‘Portman’s Croft and Kings Marsh meadows’. For which we were required to pay something like 40 shillings per annum, a great deal of money in those days. As Mr Allan Berry has previously pointed out, Richard was known as a man of avarice. The free burgesses were almost certainly farming those meadows before Richard had arrived and Richard saw this charge as an opportunity for additional gain.
While it appears that Richard preferred living at Tewkesbury, even though it seems he was in continual conflict over minor matters with the Abbey, he would produce his charters sealed from his castle at Clare. He was known to be irascible and bad tempered. A story is written by the historian GG Coulton, that a Jew had fallen (injured) into a latrine at Tewkesbury, on a Saturday. He had requested that he should not be assisted until the following day (for religious reasons}. Richard refused assistance on Sunday saying, “this is our day of rest” and the following day the Jew was sadly found to be dead.
NOTE. The estate at Clare, before the Norman Conquest, was previously held by Earl Wisgar and Phin the Dane. It is also interesting to be aware that in most cases, a confiscated estate however it was widely distributed into several counties, would be transferred intact. In other words the English estate usually transferred to a Norman estate without many changes.