Thursday, August 25, 2016

An Unexceptional Man in Exceptional Times

by Anna Belfrage

In the guide book to Framlingham Castle, today’s protagonist is described as being “an unexceptional man”. Well, I suppose that’s what you get when you jostle for space in the annals of history with such people as Edward II, Isabella of France, Hugh Despenser, Roger Mortimer and Edward III – no matter that you were born a prince. It probably didn’t help that the unexceptional man had an exceptionally handsome and flamboyant younger brother, the far more famous Edmund, Earl of Kent, father to the equally exceptionally beautiful Joan, a.k.a. The Fair Maid of Kent.

Edward I
If we start at the beginning – always a safe bet – we need to return to the year 1290.  Late in November of that year, England’s queen, Eleanor of Castile, died. She left behind a grief-struck husband. From the day they married, him a gangly fifteen, she a pretty thirteen-year-old, they’d been more or less joined at the hip, rarely apart. Over the thirty-six years of their marriage she had given him sixteen children, of which five daughters and one son were still alive when she died. And herein lay the rub: Edward I needed a spare to the heir – after having buried so many of his and Eleanor’s children, he was far too aware of how fragile a child’s life was.

I dare say he wasn’t all that inclined to marry. He was struggling with grief, and the thought of replacing his beloved wife with a newer, younger model did not exactly fire him up. But he had duties to fulfil, and one of those duties was to broker some sort of peace with France, which was why he’d betrothed his young son to Blanche, a much younger half-sister of Philip IV of France. This Blanche came with the reputation of being astoundingly beautiful, and so in 1293 Edward decided to kill two flies with one blow and take this blushing rose as his new wife. Philip agreed to the change of groom on the condition that Edward gave up the province of Gascony.

Edward acquiesced to this, dispatched his loyal brother Edmund to fetch his bride, and was soon to realise he’d been conned. Blanche was betrothed elsewhere (!) and instead Philip suggested Edward wed his even younger half-sister, Margaret, at the time all of eleven. Edward flew into a rage and declared war on France. Some years later, Philip and Edward reached an accord whereby Edward accepted Margaret as his wife and betrothed his young son to Philip’s only daughter, Isabella.

And so, in September of 1299, winter married spring, with the sixty-year-old Edward taking the not quite twenty-year-old Margaret as his wife. Not the romance of the century, one could say, but Edward proved to be a devoted husband to his much younger wife – and she returned the favour, seemingly content with her much, much older man.  In fact, it soon became evident Edward was twice lucky in love, finding in Margaret a pearl of a woman, and by all accounts they were very happy with each other.

By the beginning of 1300, all this marital bliss had resulted in a pregnancy. Margaret was an active woman who saw no reason to curtail her activities due to being with child, and legend has it she was riding to the hounds when her waters broke. Other sources are somewhat less dramatic: our pregnant lady was on her way to the place of her confinement when her labour began. Whichever version you prefer, the delivery was difficult, requiring a lot of praying to St Thomas Becket before Thomas of Brotherton finally saw the light of the day. His royal father was ecstatic: a healthy son, a spare! And one year later, Margaret repeated the feat, presenting Edward with yet another son, Edmund of Woodstock.

Edward II, very much on his lonesome at the table
In 1307, Edward I died. His young widow was prostrate with grief, his eldest son not so much. Relations between Edward I and his namesake and heir had been fraught over the last few years, principally due to one Piers Gaveston, a man the future Edward II seemed incapable of living without. Edward I had even gone so far as to exile his son’s favoured companion, but now papa was dead, and Piers was back, and Edward II was so happy he promptly elevated Piers to the Earl of Cornwall – this despite knowing that this particular earldom was intended for the eldest of his half-brothers.

The dowager queen was not happy. At all. Even less so when Edward went on to hand over some of her dower lands to up and coming Piers. What little Thomas thought of all this is unknown, but he was still too young to be overly concerned about titles and such, and besides, he had a mother fully capable of fighting on his behalf.

In 1312, Thomas of Brotherton became the Earl of Norfolk, his lands coming out of the deceased Roger Bigod’s estate. Among his new possessions was Framlingham Castle, where he apparently left so little an impression he is not remembered at all – except as being unexceptional.  I guess the Bigod family was a hard act to follow…

In 1318, Margaret of France died, and her two young sons no longer had her holding their back. Over the coming years, the young Earl of Norfolk was to experience the greed of the new royal favourite, Hugh Despenser, first hand. The latter appropriated land belonging to Thomas, but Thomas’ protests went unheard – Edward II was far fonder of Hugh than he was of his own brother. I imagine this did not foster a loving relationship between Thomas and Hugh – or Thomas and Edward – but our hero of the day chose to keep his head down and swallow the insult.

Some time before 1320, Thomas married. For a man of such wealth and lineage, his choice of bride is peculiar. Alice was the daughter of a coroner, had no wealth, no lands – at least not compared to her husband. The king, by all accounts, was less than pleased when he was informed of his brother’s choice of bride. Maybe it was a case of true love, maybe it was merely a dalliance that led to unforeseen consequences – but for the son of a king, such consequences could have been handled without marrying the girl.

Whatever the status of his marriage, by 1321 Thomas had other matters to think about – specifically the brewing discontent among the barons. Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, and Roger Mortimer rode roughshod over Despenser lands, pillaging and destroying as they went, and soon enough the king had his back to a wall, having to face not only the triumphant Roger and Humphrey, but also his cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, who joined his voice to the other rebellious barons.

The Despensers were exiled, the king was obliged to set his seal to a document pardoning the rebel barons for their rebellion – after all, it had been done with his best interests at heart. I don’t think Edward saw it quite that way, and in this time when he no longer had Despenser at his side, it makes sense that he would turn to his half-brothers. At last an opportunity for Thomas to prove his worth to the king, to ride with his brother as he turned the tables on his rebel barons, with Lancaster and de Bohun ending up dead and Mortimer locked up in the Tower. For some months there, the brothers bonded, but then Despenser came back, and it was back to fading into the tapestries while Edward fawned over his favourite royal chancellor. Not, I suppose, an enjoyable experience for the young and reputedly hot-tempered Thomas.

It didn’t help that he was forced to surrender the lordship of Chepstow to Despenser in 1323. Nor that the king verbally rebuked him for having been somewhat remiss in his duties as Earl Marshal. Or that the king preferred to seek advice from his treasurer Stapledon and Despenser than from his half-brother.

Coronation of Edward III, Chronicles, Jean Froissart
But then, in 1326, things changed. By then Mortimer had fled the Tower and was safe in France, planning his return. The king needed all allies he could find and went out of his way to grant Thomas lands and wardships, expanded his authorities and in general made an effort to ensure his brother felt appreciated. Too little, too late. Thomas had already followed his brother into the opposing camp, and when Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer landed in England at the head of an invading army, they landed on Thomas’ lands, secure of their welcome. Some months later, Edward II was imprisoned, Edward III was crowned, and Thomas looked forward to being one of the central movers and shakers in his nephew’s realm. Not about to happen. Isabella and Mortimer had other plans, and once again Thomas was marginalised.

Frustrated by his position, Thomas joined Henry of Lancaster’s rebellion against Edward III and his regents. At the last moment, his nerve failed him, and he and brother Edmund scarpered back to the royal camp, begging their nephew for forgiveness.

Understandably, relations were somewhat cool after this, but at some point Thomas was forgiven – and to properly show just how forgiven, his only son was offered a Mortimer daughter as a bride. It wasn’t as if Thomas had the option of refusing – little Edmund of Norfolk was a great marital prize, and Mortimer had many daughters to marry off.

In 1330, the wheel of fortune did another turn. First, a turn to the worse, when Thomas’ brother, the earl of Kent, was accused of treason – an elegantly masterminded plot by Mortimer which ended up with Kent very, very dead. Some months later, it was Mortimer’s turn to die, this time due to a plot masterminded by the young king himself. Isabella was exiled from court – at least for a while – and Edward III was now firmly in control of his own kingdom.

Luttrell Psalter - knights 
At last, Thomas had come into his own. Over the coming years, he was one of his nephew’s most trusted men, albeit that he was rather dismal at managing his own personal finances. But he was brave and trustworthy, an Earl Marshal to rely on, and when it came to the infected matter of fighting the Scots, Edward was more than happy to heed Thomas’ advice.

In 1336, Thomas married for the second time – his first wife had died some time before 1330. Why he waited that long, I do not know, and yet again, his choice of bride is a bit odd – no highborn lady for our Thomas. Instead he settled on a widow, and I suppose he’d hoped for more children – just like his father before him, Thomas only had the one surviving son from his first marriage. In difference to his father, Thomas was not to have his second wife present him with more sons. Even worse, in 1337, Thomas’ only son died, leaving a little widow of his own – but no issue.

In 1338, Thomas died. He left behind a widow, two daughters, and an earldom. A short life, from our perspective, a life led in the shadows of the turmoil which distinguished the reign of his brother. And yes, in many ways it was an unremarkable life. Thomas somehow managed to avoid taking centre stage in any of the internal conflicts that plagued England, hovering in the background instead. As a survival technique it worked quite well – Thomas was never imprisoned, never lived with the threat of execution hanging over his head. Maybe that’s what distinguishes an unexceptional man, a reluctance to risk it all for a cause.

Whatever the case, Thomas of Brotherton was to leave the world one very impressive legacy: his daughter Margaret, Countess of Norfolk and Earl Marshal of England. But to her we will have to return in a future post – this formidable lady deserves it!

All pictures in the public domain


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. 

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Thomas of Brotherton plays an important - not at all unexceptional - part.The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!


  1. All that and he died young anyway! At least he didn't have the horrific ending of his royal brother...

  2. No, he wasn't condemned to death nor made to wait for hours as someone was found to chop his head off. :) Always something to be grateful for


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