Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk is the male protagonist in my novel The Time of Singing - titled For The King's Favor in the United States.
I set out to write about him after being made curious by a remark in a reference work mentioning that his career path was in many ways similar to that of the great William Marshal. They were both self-made men, if for different reasons. Both had clawed their way up Fortune's ladder. Both had been born in troubled times and had cut their political teeth at the courts of the Angevin kings and their familiars, Each of them was to marry an heiress in the king's gift, and wield great power that would help to shape England's future.
William Marshal is fortunate and almost unique in having a history of his life written shortly after his death and his deeds and life story have, in a greater part, been preserved for posterity. Roger Bigod has no such history to track his days. Even so there are traces of his tale in chronicles and charters and these can be pieced together to make a larger body of knowledge. Roger's son and heir, Hugh, married Matilda, William Marshal's eldest daughter and so we get a brief glimpse of him in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, where Roger is called 'a man who was never very slow in doing what was to his advantage and honour, when it was appropriate for him to do so.'
So, what was Roger Bigod's story? What kind of man was he, and what sort of life did he live?
Roger Bigod has no known birth date or year, but was probably born some time between 1140 and 1146. He came from a family of obscure origins, although we know they were vassals of the Bishop of Bayeux prior to the Norman Conquest and haled from the Calvados region of Normandy. An ancestor called Hugh Bigod who was very likely Roger's great grandfather was described by Wace in his Roman de Rou as the 'lord of Montfiquet' and was apparently a forester and a steward to Duke William of Normandy. 'He was small in stature, but very bold and valiant.'
Roger's ancestors followed their overlord to England and settled there, although they still held onto their Norman lands. Roger's grandfather, also called Roger, was one of the mainstays of the Norman government. Although not at this stage made the Earl of Norfolk, he was sheriff of the county and was apportioned vast lands there and in Suffolk and Essex. The Bigod family (pronounced Bee-go) basically became the rulers of what had once been the kingdom of the East Angles. The first Roger Bigod founded a priory of Cluniac monks at Thetford and built the first castle at Framlingham. He married twice and had three daughters and two sons by his wives. The eldest son, William, was born of the first marriage. The younger son, Hugh, was born to his second wife, Alais. When William drowned in the White Ship disaster the second son, Hugh, inherited everything.
Hugh Bigod does not have a good reputation in history. He had an eye to the main chance and a determination to get to the top which left little room for courtesy or finesse. By changing sides to his own advantage he did very well out of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda and at this time was created Earl of Norfolk. Like his father, Hugh Bigod married twice. His first match was to Juliana de Vere, sister of the Earl of Oxford, and it was from this match that Roger Bigod II was born, probably at Framlingham.
For reasons now unknown, Hugh divorced Juliana at some point before the early 1150's and married instead Gundrada, sister of the Earl of Warwick. By Gundrada, Hugh had two more sons - Hugh and William.
Roger, the firstborn, would have been raised at the family home of Framlingham, but would have been without his natural mother from mid-childhood and instead grew up with his stepmother Gundrada and his two half brothers. Roger would have been educated in the knightly arts and those pertaining to the pen. From his later career we know that he had a sound knowledge of the law and was frequently used by the king as a judge on the bench and was familiar with the judicial workings of the country from young manhood. Around the time that young Roger was receiving his grounding in the law, William Marshal was setting out to serve his uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, as a hearth knight in Poitou.
In 1173, King Henry's sons rebelled against their father. Roger's own father, Hugh, threw in his lot with the rebels. Henry II had sought to limit Hugh's power in East Anglia and had a built a dominant castle at Orford to oppose Hugh's castles at Framlingham and Bungay. Hugh was disgruntled at this restriction and rebelled against it with his sword. Roger Bigod took a different path to his father and remained loyal to King Henry. It seems rather ironic that Hugh of Norfolk, now well into his seventies, supported Henry's heirs, whereas Roger, a young man, threw in his lot with the Henry II. We don't know when Roger and Hugh parted company, but father and son ended up on opposite sides of the divide. I suspect from what we know from the historical record that it was a case of genuine disagreement between them rather than crafty playing the odds.
Matters came to a head as the country rose in rebellion against King Henry. The Earl of Leicester and Hugh of Norfolk forged an alliance and imported Flemish mercenaries to fight for their cause. The royalists, led by the justiciar, Richard de Luci and by Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Roger's uncle, were hard pressed but contained the rebellion. Having defeated and turned back the Scots who had joined in on the rebel side, de Luci turned his troops southwards to deal with the rebels in East Anglia who were now branching out into the Midlands. Roger joined the royalist army as they prepared to meet the advancing rebel contingent at the bridge over the River Lark at Fornham St Genevieve, in October 1176. Roger was given the privilege of bearing the banner of Saint Edmund into battle. The Bigod family owed service to the Abbey of Ste Edmund, which at the time was a major place of pilgrimage with a fabulous shrine covered in beaten silver panels. To bear its banner was a great honour for the young man.
The royalist army was outnumbered four to one by the rebels. However, the latter consisted of hired men, many of them out of work Flemish weavers. They were not seasoned troops. To get to the bridge across the River Lark they had to cross marshy ground and the effort split and scattered their forces. In contrast, the core of de Luci's army were hard-bitten troops. They were joined by the locals, who were no more qualified to fight than the weavers, but their homesteads were at risk and they considered the enemy to be foreign parasites.
The battle was a disaster for the rebels and a triumph for the royalists. The Earl of Leicester was taken prisoner and so was his wife, Petronella, who is supposed to have been captured wearing a hauberk. When the royalist men closed in on her, she supposedly stripped her rings and cast them into the river, saying that she would rather thrown them away than have them taken as booty.
Following the battle, the rebel leaders were taken prisoner. Roger's father had to pay a fine of 500 marks and the defences at Framlingham, the seat of his earldom, were torn down and his castle at Bungay was seized. A broken old man, he was dead by the spring of 1177. There is a rumour that he died on crusade, but it seems to be unreliable and he likely died at home.
The moment he was dead, a dispute arose between his three sons as to who inherited what. Hugh had not divided his lands between them and the whole should have gone to Roger. However, Roger's stepmother contested his right, saying that her own eldest son was due all the land that Hugh Bigod had acquired while he was Earl of Norfolk.
The dispute came before King Henry, who played it to his advantage. Although the case was set in motion, he deferred judgement pending further investigation and kept the lands in his own administration. However, recognising in Roger, a dynamic young man who could both fight and administer, he utilised Roger's skills and Roger was often present at court, involved in legal administration and military service. Not to be outdone, his stepmother kept her cause alive by marrying Robert de Glanville, a court lawyer whose brother was the royal justiciar who ruled the country during Henry's absences.
Henry refused to grant Roger the Earldom of Norfolk that his father had held. As well as milking the revenues of the earldom for himself, Henry was also being cautious. While he valued Roger, he did not entirely trust him. Having just dealt with the rebellion of his own sons, he was cautious about ambitious young men, especially one that had defied his own father, even if it had been on Henry's side.
|Tomb of William Longespee, son of Ida de Tosney and Henry II. Salisbury Cathedral|
At this time, Henry had a new young mistress. Her name was Ida de Tosney and she was one of his wards and had probably become Henry's mistress in her mid teens. She bore Henry a son - William Longespee, future Earl of Salisbury.
From charter evidence we know that Ida married Roger Bigod around Christmas time 1181. Had Henry grown tired of his poppet and moved on? Was Ida a reward to Roger? Was there a mutual attraction between the young would-be Earl of Norfolk caught in limbo, and this young royal concubine? We cannot say, although I have speculated in my novel The Time of Singing. We do know that Henry released several of the disputed Bigod manors to Roger as part of the bride's marriage portion. It is not recorded what Gundrada and her sons thought of this, but they can hardly have been thrilled about it. What is also known is that Roger and Ida's firstborn son, Hugh, was born within a year of the marriage, which was a fruitful one. Hugh was joined by siblings Marie and Marguerite, and three more brothers, Roger, William and Ralph.
Henry still had no intention of restoring the Earldom of Norfolk to Roger, but continued to work him hard. Toward the end of Henry's reign in 1187, Roger was serving at the King's Court (Curia Regis) at Westminster and hearing pleas.
Henry died in 1189 and Richard I became King. Richard needed funds for his crusade and he also needed a firm government to rule the country during his absence. For a payment of a thousand marks he was willing to restore the Earldom of Norfolk to Roger and permit him to rebuild Framlingham Castle.
The shell of the castle still stands today with its thirteen great towers. Visitors can also view the remains of the hall where Roger and Ida lived in the early years of their marriage. The second, grander hall, where they lived in the later years of their marriage has largely gone, but small parts remain as a section of the visitor centre. Ed Sheeran's song Castle on the Hill references Framlingham.
Once Roger became Earl of Norfolk the hard work began in earnest. Not only did he have a new castle to built and a growing family to raise, but Richard sent him out travelling on the judicial circuit, hearing pleases and making judgements up and down England. The pipe roll of 1190-91 shows him busy in Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Wiltshire. During this time he was given custody of Hereford Castle. In 1194 he was in Yorkshire, Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire. In 1195 he covered nine counties with two more added in 1197. On top of this he had to support the appointed justiciars in Richard's absence and try to keep the peace. The King's brother, John, had made a play for his brother's throne and Richard's chancellor, William Longchamp who was opposing John, was hated by the barons. Roger, together with men such as William Marshal and the Archbishop of Rouen, had to find the strength, the tact and diplomacy to deal with the situation, maintain stability, and manage their own lives.
On his way home from crusade, Richard was captured crossing enemy territory in Austria and was taken prisoner by the Emperor of Germany. A great ransom was negotiated but Richard had to provide sureties for the delivery of the ransom installments. Various nobles from England came to his aid and Roger Bigod was on the shipping list. There is no concrete evidence of his actual presence in Germany, but we do know he was preparing to go and it seems likely, given his knowledge of the law.
Back in England, Richard discovered that his brother John had risen against him - and then run away to France, leaving his castellans to ride it out as best they could. Richard swiftly dealt with the pockets of rebellion, including one at Nottingham. Roger Bigod was with the King at the taking of Nottingham Castle.
When Richard died in 1199 and John came to the throne, Roger offered him his loyalty. He visited Scotland for him as an envoy to King William and was in frequent attendance at court. He helped the town of Ipswich in which he had a firm trading interest, to secure a charter of liberties from John in 1200. For his assistance, Roger was admitted as the first foreign burgess of the town. In token payment he gave one ox, one bull, two quarters of corn and two of malt. For this, he and his heirs were then exempt on paying tolls in the town on the corn and grain reaped on their demesne lands.
Roger once again went on the judicial circuit in John's reign in 1201, but this was his final time on Eyre - as the circuit was called.
Roger was a cautious, canny operator. His family had always been stewards to the royal family - also known as dapifers. One of Roger's hereditary tasks and of ceremonial prestige, was to set the first dish Before the king at official banquets and also to bear one of the ceremonial swords at the coronation. However, the Earl of Leicester thought he should have this privilege too and disputed the position. Roger had a think and decided to settle the matter amicably. He would renounce the title providing Leicester gave him ten knights' fees. Leicester agreed to do so and Roger gave up the stewardship. He did have some follow-up problems - getting Leicester to agree was the easy bit. Making him disgorge the manors was a different matter entirely. And even after Roger's death in 1221 the dispute rumbled on because Leicester had only paid seven and a half of the fees.
In 1207 Roger consolidated his family's prestige by marrying his heir, Hugh, to Mahelt, William Marshal's eldest daughter. When she became the last surviving Marshal child, the title of Marshal came down to her and was passed on to her eldest son, Roger.
Throughout the early and mid part of John's reign, Roger served the king faithfully. He answered the summons to battle campaigns, performed necessary stints at court and generally led a steady life. In 1213, the King visited him at Framlingham and all seemed well between them. However, as the political problems facing the King escalated and John's behaviour deteriorated Roger and his eldest son Hugh, has second thoughts about their support. At the time of the Magna Carta crisis in 1215, Roger renounced his support of John and joined the rebel barons. The rebels were probably delighted to have him among their number, because he was a consummate lawyer and could help oversee the wording and drafting of their demands. Why did Roger rebel against King John? Conventional history does not tell us. He didn't change sides until late in the day, but once he made up his mind, he stayed on the opposing side until after John was dead. Having turned rebel, he faced both excommunication and hostility toward his magnificent 13 towered castle at Framlingham.
|Framlingham. The ruins of the hall where Roger and Ida would have lived. Norman chimneys are still in situ.|
The Royal Army came to Framlingham in March 1216, and prepared to lay siege. Although the castle was a state-of-the-art fortress and the garrison boasted deadly crossbow men among its numbers, Roger obviously preferred not to test his defences, and after only two days, the fortress was yielded to King John by Roger's castellan. Roger himself was in London at the time, because his huntsman and dogs were apparently sent there to join him. Unfortunately, his young grandson was at Framlingham and was taken hostage by King John. This fact didn't bring Roger to heel and he continued in rebellion.
John died in October 1216 but Roger did not come to terms of peace with the royalist government until September 1217 when he was finally restored to his earldom and Framlingham was returned to the family. By yielding the castle rather than putting up a fight, Roger secured the inheritance for the next generation. His hostage grandson was also the grandchild of William Marshal and this probably helped to secure the child's safety during the ongoing hostilities, particularly after the Marshals was named regent following John's death.
Roger died somewhere between the end of April and August 1221. He was well into his 70s and his son Hugh had taken over many of the duties by then. His wife Ida had predeceased him because there is no mention of any provision being made for her widowhood. It is not known where she is buried.
Like his contemporary William Marshal, Roger Bigod has been born into an uncertain times during the regnal battle between Stephen and Matilda. He had learned statecraft at the court of Henry II and survived the often difficult reigns of Richard and John. History leaves us quiet traces of a man capable, firm and honourable. An understated man in his personality, who nevertheless, knew and appreciated the value of display. The thirteen towers at Framlingham Castle still stand today and also the remains of the stone hall he shared with Ida, a testament to both traits of Roger's personality unsung but shining. Visitors to the House of Lords will also find his statue looking down from the gallery in the company of William Marshal and his stepson William Longespee among others. His memory can also be found in less exalted places!
A short note of reference works.
The Bigod family: An Investigation into their Lands and Activities 1066 – 1306.
Ph.D. thesis by Susan A.J.Atkin University of Reading.
The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the 13th century by Marc Morris/Boydell
History of William Marshal, volume 2/Anglo Norman text Society.
The History of the Norman People: Wace's Roman de Rou