Bad Decisions in History: featuring Maud de Braose

Maud de Braose was the wife of William de Braose, a powerful Marcher baron who was also one of King John’s favourites at court. Born in France, she married William around 1166 and lived with him in England. A strong-willed and intelligent woman, she seems to have enjoyed a close partnership with her husband. They allegedly had sixteen children, and he trusted her to the degree that he put her in charge of Hay Castle in Wales. Maud also proved her courage when she defended Painscastle against a Welsh attack, holding it for three weeks until English reinforcements arrived.

Her stubbornness and determination didn’t always serve her well, however. When she stood up to King John in 1208, it ultimately led to her gruesome downfall.

Bad decision: Calling King John a murderer

King John hasn’t exactly emerged from history with a shining reputation. Children know him as Robin Hood’s cowardly villain, his contemporaries often compared him to his more heroic brother, Richard the Lionheart, and he probably lost the crown jewels in a river. Plus, there’s the fact that he may have actually been involved in the suspicious and convenient disappearance of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany.

Under Angevin law, Arthur had precedence over John in regards to gaining the throne of England. He was the son of Geoffrey, John’s older brother. After Richard’s death, the throne should have next gone to Geoffrey, but since he’d died in a tournament accident at only twenty-seven years of age, his son Arthur became the next heir. Under Norman law, John took precedence, as the only surviving son of Henry II. He had the support of most of the English and Norman nobility, and took up his reign, in defiance of the contrasting laws, in 1199. His nephew Arthur, however, had the support of most of the Breton, Main, and Anjou nobles, as well as that of the French king.

Parts of modern day France were under English rule during the time

John had no desire to give up his throne, or to see his territory carved in half, if Arthur managed to take over the territories where he had the most support. This is understandable, especially for an ambitious son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Less sympathetic is his decision to murder a child, which is allegedly what John did. This has never been proven, and will probably remain one of those cloudy historical events, but Arthur was brought to Rouen Castle in 1203, and thereafter never seen again. Even at the time, it was generally believed that he was killed on John’s command.

By 1208, Arthur had been gone for five years, and William de Braose still enjoyed the patronage of King John. He owed a large sum of money to the king, however, and could not repay it. In response, John demanded that William and Maud send their son to him as a hostage, proof of their continuing loyalty. Hostages were not uncommon during the time period, and typically they would have been treated well.

Maud wasn’t so sure, however. Whispers of Arthur’s suspicious disappearance were well known. Fearing for his life, she refused to send her son into the care of a man who murdered his own nephew, and didn’t care who knew it.

John was enraged by her open accusations about what was likely his darkest deed. Leading troops, he went to the Welsh border and seized all of Maud and William’s lands. Maud and her eldest son (also called William, who was meant to be the hostage) fled to Ireland. John’s ire did not fade, though, and they were captured there in 1210. Maud and her son William were brought back to England, imprisoned in Corfe Castle, and left there to die by the slow torture of starvation.

The Marcher lords were so outraged by the horrific manner of their deaths that when John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, it included a clause that no man could be imprisoned, outlawed, banished, or destroyed except by the lawful judgement of his peers, which would prevent John having the power to subject his enemies to the punishment of his whim.

Outcome: Loss of legacy and lands, two years of living as a fugitive, eventually a slow and gruesome death.

I realize this tale of King John isn’t exactly uplifting, but I really recommend Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons. This incident is only a small part of the book, which is a really complex portrayal of John, his daughter Joanna, and the Welsh leader Llewelyn Fawr. I may have mentioned this book already in my blog, but I can’t resist a chance to recommend it again. It’s one of my favourites.

Looking for more Bad Decisions in history? Click here, or use the Category sidebar to jump there.

Stay connected:

Leave a Reply