Friday 24 November 2017

STEPPING FROM THE SHADOWS: Robert FitzHarding: minor character, major player by Elizabeth Chadwick.

19th century window depicting
Robert FitzHarding. Bristol
Writing works of fiction set in the medieval period across a broad canvas, I often have to research characters who might only have a few lines in my novel, but whose influence and impact on their world while they were alive, was considerably greater.  They might dwell in the shadows now, but they were big players on the stage of their own lives.

One such person is Robert FitzHarding of Bristol, a twelfth century merchant, landholder, broker and baron, who appears in my current work in progress The  Irish Princess, as the man responsible for introducing interested parties and assisting them in their negotiations to obtain the right deal and support for their enterprises.  

When the Irish king of Leinster, Diarmait Macmurchada was exiled from his land, it was to Robert FitzHarding in Bristol that he brought his plight.  The latter advised him to seek the aid of King Henry II and gave him letters of introduction. On Diarmait's return from Henry's court in Aquitaine, Robert housed him in comfort in Bristol at Henry's request  and  brokered an introduction to Richard de Clare, lord of Chepstow who would provide the military might that would eventually restore Diarmait to his position in Leinster and sweep the Cambro-Normans into Southern Ireland with history-changing consequences.

Born around 1095, Robert FitzHarding's family background was aristocratic, but of the Anglo Saxon persuasion rather than Norman, although intermarriage had occurred in the years since 1066. English high status survivors are a rare breed, but Fitzharding was one of their number.  He was the son of a royal official, Harding of Baldwin Street and his grandfather was an English thegn from Somerset called Eadnoth the Staller.  The family, following the Norman Conquest held their land of the Earl of Gloucester for a single knight's fee (the amount of land thought to be sufficient to sustain a knight and his military requirements).  Robert's brother Nicholas was the holder of this knight's fee.  Robert himself was a tenant of housing and lands in Bristol, probably a family inheritance, but held, like the Somerset lands, of various top ranking lords of the land.  Robert held land on the High Street in Bristol, in Broad Street, Wine Street, St Nicholas Street, by the river Frome, and between Small and Broad Street.  Added to this were two suburban estates held directly of the Earl of Gloucester. 

Throughout the mid 12th century, Robert FitzHarding continued to acquire land and knights' fees from various barons until he had his own lordship of scattered estates surrounding Bristol. Indeed, Richard de Clare, needing funds for his Irish expedition, sold FitzHarding one of his manors at Tickenham in Somerset. During the years of the Anarchy as King Stephen and the Empress Matilda fought for the throne, he supported the latter's cause - Bristol being the caput of Robert of Gloucester, half-brother to the Empress and her chief supporter.  FitzHarding with his trading contacts and wealth was in a position to loan money, provide ships and wheel and deal to help further the Angevin cause. 

Berkeley Castle today (Wikipedia)
Certainly Henry II was so grateful to FitzHarding that when he came to the throne in 1154, he granted him the lands and estate of one Roger of Berkeley who was less wedded to the Angevin cause and had refused to pay dues from his lands. FitzHarding was given permission to build a castle on the land.  The only stipulation was that his eldest son Maurice was to marry Roger of Berkeley's daughter and Roger of Berkeley's son also called Roger, was to marry Robert's daughter Helena. 

So, from wealthy burgess, Robert FitzHarding was now true landed gentry with a castle and dignity of his own.  He had also founded the abbey of St Augustine's in Bristol between 1140 and 1148 (now Bristol Cathedral)  and retired there shortly before his death in 1170. The family, while never rising to the highest ranks of baronial power, were nevertheless important at a regional level and formed the vertebrae in the backbone on which both the higher and lower echelons of society depended. 

Descendents of Robert FitzHarding still occupy Berkeley Castle today in unbroken tenure stretching for 900 years.

A fascinating personality and I enjoyed discovering a little more about him, even if he only has a handful of pages in my novel. 

1 comment:

Rosie55 said...

This is most interesting! I live in Wotton-under-Edge a small market town which was a Berkeley holding for centuries. The Manor House here was their Dower House so Berkeley women have had great beneficial effects on the town. Joan, Lady Berkeley was said to be responsible for the layout of the Main Street in burgage plots which are largely unchanged to this day, after a disastrous fire destroyed the old town (there is still a road called Old Town, though). She also obtained market rights and Borough status for the town. Katherine Lafy Berkeley endowed a grammar school for 12 boys in 1384 which still exists today, Katharine Lady Berkeley's school, the second oldest school in the country, now has more than 1500 pupils and is held in high regard still. My children had a superb education there and it is perhaps a reflection of the sense of history which imbues the school and the town that my daughter decided in her early teens that she wanted to become an archivist - she now works at The National Archives at Kew and is currently managing their WWI Centenary programme. The Berkeleys also paid, I believe, for our Town (market) Hall and presented a magnificent silver gilt Mace, still in the custodianship of the Town Council. I was Town Clerk here for more than twenty years so got to heft it about from time to time!
John Berkeley, the latest incumbent of Berkeley Castle, died a couple of weeks ago and there was a brief modest notice in our local paper, the only clue to alert people that this was a Berkeley of Berkeley Castle being one of his Christian names of Grantley, also a surname associated with the Berkeley family. His son Charles now becomes the castellan. To give them credit, the local paper did twig who this was by the following week and published a short obit for him but he was very modest and kept a low profile.
Whilst I was TC, we celebrated the 750th anniversary of the granting of borough status and Mr Berkeley came to the celebrations, he still took an interest in the town. Berkeley Castle still has a substantial private archive within the castle, managed by David Smith, the former County Archivist so in good hands.
When we were researching the market rights, I happened to be approached by the family which had traditionally held the annual fairs in the town. The traditional site is now too small for the modern fairs and they were seeking (unsuccessfully, alas) a new site so that they could add us back into their calendar. Through them, I became more conscious of the importance to them of their traditional routes and visits. Our annual fair was the Feast of the elevation of the Holy Cross which is in September which fascinated me as that is the dedication of our small Roman Catholic Church here in Old Town. We would have slotted in between visits to other local fairs, such as Chipping Sodbury mop, still held today and this pattern, repeated each year, dictated the route of the fair families' peregrinations through the year, they retain those routes to this day and hate to change it. And back in medieval times, local people would have known exactly when the fair would be coming and when they would be able to stock up from the traders which would follow it. Market days also remained unchanged over the centuries, it seems, the day granted to Wotton all those centuries ago was Friday (thus not clashing with nearby towns) and the small remnants of a market continued to be held on Friday until very recently, within the last twenty years. I love how these distant events continue to shape our lives today!
Sorry if I have rambled on too much!