Monday, 5 November 2012

Robert de Beaumont - 1st Earl of leicester

There are times when we’d all like to get hold of the person who first introduced the idea of council tax. Alas, we've missed our chance to throttle him by nearly nine centuries. Strangely enough, the same man who most of us would like to meet down a dark alley was once praised as having the greatest mind of his age. He was also the same man who led the Norman armies into England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and who owned vast swathes of land in France and England. He was revered as the wisest man from England to Jerusalem, and he built what was considered one of the most beautiful churches in England – St Mary de Castro, in the heart of Leicester. A mighty warrior, a great thinker, an advocate of peace who resided at the city’s castle. He was the first Earl of Leicester. He was Robert de Beaumont.

Town in disrepair
In 1067, the very next year after the Battle of Hastings, the Normans reached Leicester, and sacked it for having aided the English chiefs, Edwin and Morear, to resist the Norman conquest of England. The Normans were not Barbarians, but were trained and disciplined in the art of warfare. After Leicester was taken, the town was in desperate need of repair. The land was split between the King, Hugh de Grentesmaisnell, the Bishop of Lincoln and the Archbishop of York, as seen in the Domesday Book. To make Leicester a Norman stronghold, a castle was erected on the site of an older one, originally built by the Mercian Queen Ethelfleda. De Grentesmaisnell died in the year 1094 and the castle of Leicester was in the king’s hands until 1107, when the earldom of Leicester was conferred by royal favour on Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, son of Roger de Beaumont.

Bearded Roger de Beaumont sat at the table holding a bowl on the Bayeax Tapestry
A trusted knight
In his youth, Robert de Beaumont was a valiant knight. He had broken through the Saxon hordes at Hastings by “boldly charging and breaking in upon the enemy with the troops he commanded in the right wing of the army”. Through his actions at Hastings, he earned himself 90 manors in Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Wiltshire and Northamptonshire and became the wisest and most trusted counsellor to the new King William. Robert’s wealth, power and influence surpassed those of any other peer of the realm. Being a direct descendant of Frankish king, Charlemegne, his ancestors were responsible for some of Europe’s most historic events, as well as some of the grandest buildings and palaces. In 1107, Robert became the first Norman Earl of Leicester.

Leicester Castle in Norman times, built by Robert de Beaumont
Building a future
Robert rebuilt Leicester Castle so that it was stronger than it had ever been before. He added a stone perimeter wall and a stone tower on a mount for its defence. He also added a beautifully-crafted timber-built stately hall, which was the precursor to the stone version built by his son that still remains to this day. Robert also built an important bridge – West Bridge – that remained in-situ until the 19th century. However, his grandest architectural achievement was a church, built within the castle enclosure. The church is still there today with many of the original Norman features still in place – it is, of course, St Mary de Castro. It was renowned above all the churches of England for splendour and beauty, and he enriched it with many luxurious and priceless artefacts. The castle overawed the town, which Robert referred to as “my town of Leicester” and its inhabitants “my burgesses of Leicester”. He lived in its grounds for the remainder of his life.

West Bridge, Leicester, in the 12th century
Liberty reigns
Traditionally, Norman lords make us think of greed, oppression and tyranny. But thanks to Earl Robert, Norman Leicester received the first charter of liberty in its history and ancient records show how it came about. The story starts with two brothers who were fighting over a piece of land. They fought “from the first hour even unto the ninth, and even longer.” Eventually one of them fell into a pit and the other mocked him, saying “preserve thyself from the pit, lest thou fall into it”! There was such a commotion from the on-looking crowd that de Beaumont heard them from Leicester Castle. On wanting to know what the clamour was, the situation was explained to the powerful Earl. The row led to the first court to be introduced in Leicester, as well as the first form of council tax, known as Gable-Pence. Before the introduction of Gable-Pence, the Earl would have decided all cases himself. Most landowners did not want to bother or potentially upset “Mr Leicester” so would determine their disputes by “wager of battle”. The Lord Earl’s new tax meant that anyone who owned a property with a gable facing towards the High Street (at the time Highcross Street), would have to pay three pence per annum. This would pay for a committee of 24 jurors (town councillors) who would decide all future land, property and public disputes. This was the beginning of liberty and democracy in Leicester, an act that would be continued by his direct descendant and future Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort. For the people of Leicester, the charter was a victory against the Earl as the people won the right to govern themselves through their 24 jurors. But Robert didn't lose out, as he collected a tax for the privilege he had given which more than paid for the new court he had established. In time, the tax would be abolished while the right to self-government was retained.

Taxing times
In the time of Leicester’s first Earl, Charnwood Forest was so vast and dense that no-one could go through its paths on account of the abundance of deadwood, huge logs and branches strewn by the wind. This caused a problem for Robert, but his shrewd way of thinking meant he could resolve it while helping the people – and himself. He allowed those wishing to seek deadwood for fuel for their households to go into the forest and collect six cartloads for one penny, or a horseload for a halfpenny, or as much as a man could carry for a farthing. The money was originally collected as people left the wood, then outside the town nearer towards the wood, and later still, the money was collected at the bridges of the town of Leicester. This tax was known as Bridge Silver, and would also be ended years later by Simon de Montfort for the good of the people. Robert’s astute business idea meant that the pathways would be cleared, the people would receive an abundance of wood to fuel their homes but, ultimately, he would become richer. And the taxes went into the coffers of the Norman Castle, to maintain the very fortress that originally served as an instrument to oppress the subjects.

Peace at last
With a continually evolving relationship between the Earl and the people of Leicester, the general feeling towards the conquering Normans was altered. The conquerors and the conquered had evidently come to an understanding to live together on better terms. The rigid rule of military law had finally been relaxed. The Anglo-Saxon people of Leicester had their freedom renewed and increased with the charters, and as they prospered, their Norman master profited. In return for greater security to person and property, the townsmen were content to pay their additional taxation. Instead of living in complete hostility, side by side, the two races entered a kind of truce with each other, and the necessity for a keep and a garrison at Leicester Castle gradually ceased.

Wife’s betrayal
All of Robert’s children were born in wedlock so in the eyes of the law, were legitimate. Although there was an heir to Robert’s vast wealth and although he had a successful life, it appears his only failure was as a husband. William de Warren, Earl of Warren and Surrey, son of the mysterious Gundred, had won the affections of Robert’s wife behind his back. Elizabeth deserted her husband and it is believed that her actions affected his mind, and ultimately led to his death. Whether he died of a broken heart, or he couldn't get over the humiliation of the ultimate betrayal, Robert’s mind was said to be affected from that point on and he died soon afterwards. Robert’s life is the ultimate success story but in the end it seems that one woman’s betrayal was all it took to defeat the once valiant warrior. He spent his final days as a recluse, living as a monk in the Abbey of Preaux, in Normandy. Robert de Beaumont died on June 5, 1118 and was buried near his father inside the abbey grounds. His priceless and gifted heart was sent to the monastery of Brackley, in Northamptonshire, which he had founded, and was preserved in salt and then lead. It is unknown whether his heart still remains today.

Brackley monastery, where Robert's heart was preserved
Lasting legacy
Robert was the Norman lord who introduced the cinquefoil to Leicester - the shield on the Leicester coat of arms, used as the logo as Leicester City Council and also incorporated into the Leicester City FC badge.

The cinquefoil - the symbol of Robert de Beaumont
Although he was a rich, powerful Norman Lord, Robert de Beaumont did so much for the people of Leicester. He was responsible for better housing, introducing more productive farming methods and the people learned to appreciate wiser laws and gentler manners. Robert even allowed them to retain their Anglo-Saxon customs and continue to speak their native language. He was a celebrated warrior in the Battle of Hastings, a great thinker and introduced liberty to the town of Leicester. Throughout his life, nothing could stop the Lord Earl, nothing, that is, except the ultimate betrayal from his wife.

by Matthew Sibson

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