A Good Death

For the male nobility in the 12th and 13th centuries there was a right way to die. I am not talking about death on the battlefield, though that was acceptable too. I am talking about what was done when you knew you were dying. The best way to explain the differences is to examine the deaths of three important medieval figures. Henry the Young King who died in 1183, Henry II who died in 1189 and William Marshal who died in 1219. henry yk charter This is a charter from Henry the Young King from page 29 Stenton, FM. Facsimiles of Early Charters from Northamptonshire Collections. London: J.W Ruddock and sons. 1930. Henry the Young King was the second son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. His elder brother William died in infancy though so the Young King was the heir to England, Anjou and Normandy. To read more about the life of the Young King see this excellent blog http://henrytheyoungking.blogspot.com.au. Suffice for now to say that he was crowned in his father’s lifetime, a common practice on the continent but a new practice for England, but was given very little real power. Henry II did not share power easily.

Henry the Young King was seen by his father as a spendthrift and was actually in rebellion against him when he died. The Young King had run out of money for the rebellion and he and his mercenaries had sacked the church of St Mary de Roche Andemar, stripped the tomb of Saint Andemar and carried away all the church’s treasures. When he became sick so soon after it was seen by some as divine retribution. The Young King however wiped all his earthly transgressions clean in his rather spectacular deathbed acts of repentance. Once it became clear that he was dying of a fever and a ‘flux of the bowels’ he repented of his sins and did it in a way that would now be seen as theatrical. Firstly he received absolution of his sins from a bishop and had his knight William Marshal agree to take his cloak, sewn with the crusader cross, to Jerusalem and fulfil his crusader’s vow. Secondly he put aside his fine garments and had himself laid on haircloth and had his men place a noose around his neck. He said “By this cord do I deliver myself, an unworthy, culpable, and guilty sinner, unto you, the ministers of God, beseeching that our Lord Jesus Christ, who remitted his sins to the thief when confessing upon the cross, will, through your prayers and His ineffable mercy, have compassion upon my most wretched soul.” Thirdly he had his men draw him from his bed by the cord and lay him on a bed strewn with ashes. Finally he commanded that two large stones were to be placed under his head and feet. With the mortification of the flesh complete to signify his repentance he died.[1] He was only 28.

The Young King’s death is one of those ‘what if’ moments in history, if he’d survived Richard the Lionheart may never have been king. This was a ‘good death’ because he had completely been freed from his sins, he had correctly repented, he’d died with his faithful men around him and he done it all in a manner befitting a king.

henry and eleanor henry close The photos are of the effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II in Fontevraud Abbey and a close up of the effigy of Henry II. Henry II’s death was very different to his son’s. Henry was one of the most interesting and important kings of this period. He was King of England, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Lord of Ireland. He also held Aquitaine by right of his wife and he held Brittany, though he had invested his son Geoffrey as its Duke. When he died his two remaining sons, Richard and John, were in rebellion against him and he did not die well.

History of William Marshal goes into detail.  “Death simply burst his heart with her own hands. Death’s discipline was a cruel one. A stream of clotted blood burst forth from his nose and mouth.”[2] It then goes on to say that “nobody had anything to cover his body, so he lay there, so poor and deprived of everything, without a stitch of linen or wool on him.[3] History continues that “all those who were standing around him and who were supposed to watch over his body, when they saw the King was dead, each and everyone appropriated for himself those possessions of the King they were meant to guard.[4] Roger of Hoveden confirms Henry’s sordid death saying “After his death, having plundered him of all his riches, all forsook him; so true it is that just as flies seek honey, wolves the carcass, and ants corn, this crew followed not the man, but his spoils.” [5] His loyal men were forced to clothe him in borrowed robes, as there was nothing else left. He was 56. King Henry died messily, without due ceremony and had his possessions stolen. This complied with none of the ideas of honour, or loyalty or generosity that were meant to be part of any noble death, especially a royal one. The next two photos are of the effigy of William Marshal which can be found in the Temple Church in London.IMG_3421IMG_3419

Our final death is that of William Marshal. Marshal was at the deathbeds of both Henry the Young King and Henry II. Marshal succeeded in life where both of them fell. He survived to die of old age. Marshal was approximately seventy-two when he died, which was very old for the medieval period, and he stage managed his final days. We have an extraordinarily detailed account of his deathbed due to the fact that his son had a biographical poem, History of William Marshal, commissioned. History of William Marshal devotes 1285 lines to Marshal’s death, from the first mention that Marshal is dying, until the end of the services after his death.[6] It is one of the most moving and detailed points of the narrative. Both the men responsible for History, the one who commissioned it, William Marshal the younger and the one who contributed his recollections, John of Earley, were at Marshal’s deathbed so there is no reason to doubt its authenticity especially when the level of detail is considered. Marshal’s death was conducted from his mansion in Caversham, where he went to wait out his final illness saying he “preferred to die at home than elsewhere.”[7] Marshal was Regent for the very young Henry III when he realised he was dying. So his first act was to very carefully handover Henry III and the realm into appropriate care.[8]
Marshal died surrounded by his family and his loyal men. The best example of the latter was John of Earley. It was Earley that Marshal sent to collect the cloths he had bought in Jerusalem over thirty years before, that he had “brought back with [him] from the Holy land, to be used for the purpose which they [would] now serve; [his] intention [had] always been that they [would] be draped over [his] body when [he was] laid in the earth.”[9]  We know his wife Isabel was there with his daughters because when he had a desire to sing, but didn’t want to for fear of being called a madman, his knights suggested that his daughters and his wife might sing for him. The daughters came and sang but Isabel was too overcome with grief. [10] He also made sure to die with humility, joining the order of the Templars just before his death. He was made a Templar and Aimery de Saint-Maur, head of the Temple declared, “Marshal, listen to me: it pleases me that you surrender to God and set aside your worldly goods so as not to be separated from Him and his faithful servant. I can tell you that in life as in death you have known higher honour in this world than ever any other knight had, both in respect of your valour, it is true, and your wisdom and loyalty.”[11]

So in becoming a Templar Marshal ended his life in humility and honour in just about the most eye-catching way possible. In dedicating himself to the Templars he was marking himself as pious, dedicated and humble. He was making sure that his image after death was the correct one of humility and piety. His wife Isabel was also present when he took the vows of a Templar. We know this because one of the vows of a Templar is chastity, so moments before he took the vow he said to Isabel  “Fair Lady kiss me now, for you will never be able to do again.’ She stepped forward and kissed him, and both of them wept.” [12]

Marshal was also overtly generous in his final days, firstly in saying to his son “give a portion of my wealth to all the poor you can see [in London] who have come to receive alms; make sure the distribution is such that it may be spoken of before God. And there is another thing I want to remind you of: give food and drink to one hundred of the poor, along with garments to clothe them and shoes.”[13] It is interesting to note though that he was overtly generous, he wanted make sure that his generosity was seen. Possibly because it was an attribute that was expected of a man in his position and it is how he wanted to be remembered. He also gave money in his will to a number of religious foundations. He provided for his knights too. One of his clerks wanted to sell off the robes that had been put aside for the knights’ Whitsuntide gift, but Marshal said “Hold your tongue, you wretch” “It will be Whitsuntide very soon, when my knights should indeed have their new robes for I shan’t be able to give them robes again.”[14] He went on to tell John of Earley to distribute the robes, “and, should any man fail to get his share, send immediately to London and see to it that you get more splendid ones, so nobody can complain.”[15]

When Marshal actually died he had done everything he was supposed to. He had taken leave of his family, he had said how he wished his possessions to be distributed, he had expressed piety and charity and God had absolved him of his sins. The Abbot of Notley performed the “ceremony of absolution”.[16] Also the papal legate had given him remission of all his sins for taking up the Regency in the first place.[17] Marshal’s death was, apart from dying in the holy land on crusade, probably the best way a medieval noble man could go. He died well: humble, pious and just a little bit theatrical. These three deaths represent very different ways of dying. Medieval dying need not be a reflection on a life. In death you could redeem yourself, but while dying badly held some shame it did not negate a good life.


[1] Roger of Hoveden, The Annals of Roger of Hoveden Volume II, pp. 26-27. [2] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, pp. 397-461. [3] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, pp. 429-431. [4] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, p. 399. [5] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, pp. 401-409. [6] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, p. 413. [7] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, p. 433 [8] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, pp. 438-439. [9] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, p. 439. [10] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, p. 423. [11] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, p. 451. [12] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, pp. 420-421. [13] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol II, p. 279. [14] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol I, p. 463. [15] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol I, p.463 [16] Holden & Crouch, (eds) History Vol I, pp. 463-464. [17] Roger of Hoveden, The Annals of Roger of Hoveden Volume II, p. 111. Roger of Hoveden. The Annals of Roger of Hoveden Comprising the History of England and Other Countries of Europe from A.D 732 to A.D 1201. (trans.) Henry T. Riley, Volumes I & II. London: H.G Bohn. 1853. Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.

Study finds how Richard III died

Just a short post.

You’ve probably seen this, it has certainly been all over my newsfeeds and other blogs, but I still thought it was worth mentioning. Largely because it is really interesting.

Studies done by Leicester University and published in The Lancet have found that Richard received nine blows to the head as well as a blow to the pelvis.  Not all of these wounds were inflicted before he died. Although the pelvic wound would have been fatal the study showed that it was inflicted from underneath, so it’s more likely that he received it after death when  contemporary accounts say his body was slung over a horse and paraded.

This video from The Lancet explains it beautifully.

For more information see The Medievalists.

Or read the study from The Lancet


Strata Florida Tiles

These are medieval tiles from Strata Florida Abbey in Wales.Tiles Strata Florida

The abbey itself is absolutely beautiful, though there isn’t much left. It was not a casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which is the reason most of the abbeys in the UK are ruins. Strata Florida was a casualty of the repeated English incursions because it always strongly supported the Welsh Princes.

Strata Florida

The abbey is also where the important Welsh Chronicle Brut y tywysogion was written. It was a year by year account of the main events in Wales from AD682 to AD1282. It finished with the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, known as the last true Prince of Wales. The full text of the chronicle can be found at https://archive.org/details/brutytywysogiono00cara.

The abbey is also the burial place for some of the Welsh Princes of Deheubarth and their families.


The tiles themselves are interesting just because they survived. Not many medieval tiles did. These particular ones date to the early 14th century. They were uncovered in excavations in the 1880s and the large section that is now in the south transept are made up of many of these fragments. Their discovery helped Strata Florida become a tourist attraction to wealthy Victorians, though it is rumoured that the occasional tile was taken as a souvenir. The tiles were made in England but laid in Wales and only important guests and choir monks were allowed to stand on them. They also have patterns and designs. See if you can see any of them.tiles strata floridaCommon symbols include the fleur de lis which is a reminder of the origins of the Abbey. It was founded by the Norman lord Robert FitzStephen. The fleur de lis is also a link back to the Abbey’s mother house in Clairvaux in Burgundy. The tiles are also decorated with images of a man gazing into a mirror, which might be trying to say something about the perils of vanity. One of the more intriguing designs is that of the coat of arms of Hugh Despenser, it can be seen in the top right hand corner of the above photo. He was reviled by the Welsh so the presence of his coat of arms is somewhat perplexing, it is possible that it just happened to be placed there when the tiles were made in England. tile ex

As you can see the tiles are now covered by a modern roof to protect them. The tiles are truly beautiful and even the relatively small collection that survives today gives a good idea as to just how spectacular the full expanse must have been when the abbey was whole.


Loch Ard Gorge

Loch Ard Gorge lies on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, not far from Port Campbell. The Twelve Apostles are the best known of the Great Ocean Road’s natural landmarks. Loch Ard Gorge, however,  is known and named for a reason other than its natural beauty.

Loch Ard Gorge is the site of one of Victoria’s worst shipwrecks. The Loch Ard sailed from England on March 2nd 1878 with 54 passengers and crew aboard. It was bound for Melbourne.loch ard sunshne
lochard1At 3am on the 1st of June 1878 Captain Gibbs was expecting to see land as they should have been approaching Victoria’s coast. He was looking for the lighthouse at Cape Otway, but the ship was sailing through a heavy fog.

At 4 am when the fog lifted Captain Gibbs realised they were far too close Victoria’s sheer cliffs. The Captain tried everything including lowering the anchor and attempting to tack back out to sea, but the ship ran into a reef jutting out from Mutton Bird Island. Waves broke over the ship and masts and rigging came down, knocking passengers and crew overboard. They managed to launch a life boat but it crashed into the side of the Loch Ard and then capsized. Tom Pearce, the crew member who had launched the lifeboat, managed to cling on underneath it and was swept out to sea. When the  flood tide came in he drifted back to shore and into what is now known as Loch Ard Gorge.  He swam to shore and dragged himself to beach. tom

Tom Pearce

loch ard close

Loch Ard Gorge

 Tom was one of only two survivors. The other was a passenger, Eva Carmichael. Eva had been making the trip to Melbourne with her family.  She ran onto the deck to find out what was happening. In all the chaos Captain Gibbs grabbed her and said “if you are saved Eva, let my dear wife know that I died like a sailor.” She was then swept over the side by a wave. She saw Tom on the rocky beach and shouted and waved until her saw her. Tom swam out and dragged the exhausted Eva to the beach. They went back to the cave and opened a case of brandy that had washed ashore and huddled together to try and keep warm.


Eva Charmichael

A while later Tom scaled a cliff, which was no small feat in itself, to try to find help.

cliff 2

The cliffs at Loch Ard Gorge

He followed hoof prints and came by chance upon some men from the nearby Glenample Station. By the time he led them back to Loch Ard it was cold and dark. Eva stayed at Glenample for six weeks recovering before returning to Ireland, this time by steamer. Tom went to Melbourne to receive a hero’s welcome. Many expected Tom and Eva to marry, as they’d spent the night unsupervised, but
they were to be disappointed when Tom and Eva went their separate ways.

It is a miracle that anyone survived. The seas on that piece of coast are known for their savagery. The video below was taken on a mildly stormy day, it is only too easy to imagine what it would have been like when the Loch Ard sank. Especially with the waves destroying the ship.

Although there were only two survivors of the Loch Ard, some of the cargo also survived, including a Minton Porcelain Peacock, one of only nine in the world, the most unlikely thing to have endured a shipwreck. It was destined for the International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1880 and must have been packed exceptionally well. It now resides in Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village in Warrnambool and was recently valued at over $4 million. It is also on the Victorian Heritage Registerr519455_2867236

The wreck of the Loch Ard remains at the base of Mutton Bird Island. It can be dived by experienced divers.

The peacock photos are from http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2010/02/23/2827955.htm

For more information on the Loch Ard see http://www.flagstaffhill.com/history-queries/wreck-loch-ard/