Thursday, 12 December 2013

By God, Hugh Bigod!

 "Were I in my Castle 
Upon the River Waveney,
 I wouldne give a button
For the king of Cockney"

History, as I always argue, is not about viewing alien beings with whom we have nothing in common. Even in the darkest, strangest times, when all their actions and opinions would seem alien to us, even cursory study reveals lives shaped, their behaviour prompted, their actions forced, by events and circumstances outside of their control. When looking at history, I rarely see heroes or villians, or even people who, to me, are unfathomable. I see strugglers, strivers, human beings with the same set of worries, hopes and fears that define us all. There is always room for empathy.

Well, almost always. Provided you don't count the times when you look at a chap's biography and say, "Oh come on."

 Let me introduce Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. Living in the reign of that poor, belaboured King Stephen (does anyone ever feel sorry for King Stephen?  No. Me neither. I was just wondering) he responded to the turbulence of the times by taking what appears to be great pleasure in making them more uncertain. He was, in short, that kind of difficult Baron that novelists and whiggish historians tend either to lampoon or lionise, depending upon their prejudices.

What did Hugh do? Well, for starters, he began a civil war.

When Empress Maude made a move towards the English throne, claiming Henry I had named her as his successor, Hugh's was a principal voice among the, "Oh no he didn't!" crowd, instead lending his support to the aforementioned Stephen. With the loyal support of Hugh and others, Stephen was soon in the ascendant. They were good and loyal subjects, after all, if slightly hazy on the 'not really getting to choose your monarch' thing.

Soon, however, Stephen fell ill and rumours of his death, (sorry, Mark Twain) were greatly exaggerated. Wondering how best to support his chosen Lord in his hour of need, Hugh rushed into action by, er... raising an army and storming Norwich, a royal City of strategic and economic importance. (No laughing that the back there.) Unfortunately for Hugh, Steven was not so dead as all that and was more than a little pissed off that someone was pinching the royal castles of his hard-stolen Kingdom. After something of a barney, Hugh surrendered and Stephen slapped his wrist and said, "Don't do it again."
"I won't!" Said Hugh, and, as good as his word he... declared for Empress Matilda.

That was 1140. In 1141, he's fighting for Stephen again before deciding,  "sod this for a game of soldiers, " and assuming armed neutrality.

Are you sure you don't want slightly more space inside the tower, Hugh?
Just let that expression sink in a little; armed neutrality. 

Before too long, though, this wasn't exciting enough for our Hugh, so, when it all kicked off with Archbishop Theobald, he clapped his hands with glee and declared against the King for a few weeks, before changing his mind and saying, "Sorry, my bad." Such minor treachery was clearly only enough to whet his appetite, so when the Duke of Normandy got fed up of waiting for Stephen to snuff it and let him take a turn as Henry #2, Hugh was among the first to join the fun and games. Keen not to waste an opportunity to stab a buddy in the back, Hugh declared for Henry, and took Ipswich. (No, I have no idea why anyone would want the place, either.) Stephen just about made him give it back, but let him off with another slapped wrist and a, "I'm disappointed in you, Hugh."

Henry, bless him, slunk off home to Normandy to wait a bit longer.
He did not have to wait that long. Never one to forget an old mate, upon ascending the throne Henry  confirmed Hugh's status as Earl of Norfolk, made him a royal steward and, perhaps sensibly, confiscated his castles of Bungay and Framlingham. Naturally, this generous but cautious governance caused Hugh to calm down and become a faithful and reliable vassal of his new liege lord.
Just kidding.

Hugh started grumbling pretty quickly, what with Henry's attempts to curb the powers of the wild Barons, but had to back down in 1157 when Henry turned up with an army. He backed down so much that by 1163, Henry had given him the castles back again and was apparently not concerned at all when Hugh started to turn Bungay castle into an impregnable fortress with walls seven metres thick. Still, despite the minor glitch of an excommunication, the years between 1157 and 1173 were quiet ones for our Hugh.

By that point, you see, Henry II was having a bit of a domestic with his eldest son, who was fed up of being 'The Young King' and fancied himself as something of the definitive model. Hugh jumped at this chance to be a thorn in the side of -well, let's be honest - anyone and teamed up with his mate Robert de Beaumont. Together they besieged Hagenet and made a try for both Norwich and eldritch Dunwich (now located in sunken Ry'leh, but also at the time also a major centre of commerce). After losing pretty badly at the battle of Fornham, Hugh was on the hoof and was soon apprehended by Henry II's forces somewhere near Diss. It was then that he uttered the words heading this excuse for a piece of history, a boast which presumably got Henry thinking about the wisdom of letting a toe-rag like Hugh have an impregnable castle.
The mine gallery at Bungay Castle

Outlawed, his armies disbanded and declared a traitor, Hugh was told that all his hard work fortifying Bungay was for nothing as it was Henry's firm intention to have the place levelled. He got so far as digging a mine gallery under it before Hugh convinced him not to, mainly by means of the 'donation' of an obscene amount of cash.

Eventually, bored, broke and without his castles, Earl Hugh decided England was no fun any more, and took himself off to Syria and the crusades, where he died. After his death, his family had their lands restored but decided that living in that "castle upon river Waveney" would be throwing good money after bad, and so they made their home in the back-up fortress at Framlingham. After being shunted back and forth through royal and aristocratic hands, Bungay Castle was presented to the town in 1987, and the impressive girth of its walls still stand testament to the particularly belligerent character of its former owner.
A button for the King of Cockney.