William Longespée: The Tyrant’s Enforcer

By James Turner

Family was of the utmost importance in shaping the identity, political affinity and horizons of twelfth century aristocrats. This was no less true for royals with the Norman and Angevin kings of England finding both their greatest supporters and ardent foes emerging from the ranks of their own family throughout the 12th century. This series looks at the lives and relationships of a category of people who due to the circumstances of their birth sat on the periphery of this vast and interconnected dynastic systems – the royal bastards.

When Richard I inherited the throne of England and mastery of the Angevin hegemony in 1189 he was faced with a problem. At the time of his father Henry II’s death, Richard had been in a state of open revolt against the king, who he had recently directly confronted in a rapid series of military engagements. Indeed, many chroniclers, probably accurately, speculated that Henry’s sudden illness and death were, in part, brought about by the stress and deprivations of campaigning.


While Richard was, as Henry’s eldest surviving son, presumptive and widely acknowledged heir, his belligerent stance towards his father presented a potential source of instability and complication. Henry had been supported in the rebellion, as in most of his wars, by a powerful clique of loyalists who now saw their former enemy become their king, placing them in a precarious situation.  With few suitable allies or candidates for promotion within his own expanded family, Richard instead embarked upon a wider program of consolidation by pursuing a conciliatory policy towards the powerbrokers of the Angevin aristocracy and those already involved in the prosecution of royal governance.

Expending considerable royal largesse to win over his late father’s allies and supporters, the message ringing out at the heart of Richard’s assumption of power was that he would reward all services to the King of England, even before he came to hold the title.  After a period of intensive negotiations, the new king sponsored his illegitimate elder half-brother and the former royal chancellor, Geoffrey, to the archbishopric of York. A compromise which provided the potentially troublesome Geoffrey with a prestigious and lucrative position which not only removed him from the heart of the royal administration but also brought the considerable resources of the archbishopric further under the umbrella of royal influence.

Richard I depicted in a 15th century manuscript – British Library MS Harley 4205 fol. 3v

Similarly, Earl William de Mandeville, one of Henry II’s principal supporters and confidants was afforded a position of prominence within the coronation ceremony and was later appointed co-Chief Justiciar of England. Richard also further utilized his royal privileges of guardianship by granting the famed William Marshal’s outstanding petition for the hand of the wealthy heiress Countess Isabel de Clare of Pembroke. An act of particular generosity and political significance given the two men’s recent clash on the field of battle. These appointments, and the period of reorganization and tacit renegotiation, signaled to the aristocracy that not only was Richard prepared to work with his father’s erstwhile allies but was willing to reward their loyalty and service to the previous king.


In the service of King Richard

In 1196 Richard had only recently re-established and steadied his rule after the factional infighting that sprung up during his long absence in the Holy Land and subsequent imprisonment in Germany. In addition to these lingering tensions, he was heavily engaged in opposing French military incursions into Normandy. Seeing an opportunity to use his depleted extended family to further cultivate support within the aristocracy, the king once more utilizing the royal prerogatives of guardianship to broker the marriage of his illegitimate half-brother, William Longespée to Countess Ela of Salisbury.  This marriage between the illegitimate but aristocratic sibling and a the countess at a time where the authority and power of royal government was facing substantial challenges, provided the king with a grateful and well-connected earl whose loyalty and sense of active investment in the regime was anchored by a substantial personal and familial affinity.

Born sometime around the mid 1170s, William Longespée was the son of King Henry II and the most aristocratic and well connected of his known mistresses, Ida de Tosny. Ida was the daughter of Roger de Tosny, a magnate with extensive holding in Normandy while her mother, who she was named for, was a member of the expansive and powerful Beaumont family. In 1181, some time after William’s birth and conclusion of their relationship, the king permitted Ida to marry Earl Roger Bigod of Norfolk. Henry provided his former mistress’ dowry in the form of the return of three manors he had previously confiscated from Roger’s father. Paying someone to raise your son for you with their own land is the sort of political and dynastic wrangling that demonstrates exactly how Henry II was able to maintain control over the fractious domains of the Angevin hegemony.  Earl Roger and Ida’s marriage appears to have been a successful one and the couple had several children; their eldest son, Hugh, going on to marry a daughter of the earl of Pembroke, William Marshal. This meant that in addition to his royal lineage and connections, William was through his mother intimately connected to a number of powerful and influential members of aristocratic familial networks.

Countess Ela was the sole heir of Earl William FitzPatrick of Salisbury who had, despite supporting Prince John in his struggles with Richard’s Chancellor and royal deputy, William Longchamp, quickly associated himself with the royalist party following the king’s return. Indeed, the earl had accompanied Richard on campaign in Normandy and participated in the king’s second coronation as part of a strategy to re-establish royal legitimacy and authority.  William’s father Patrick, the constable of Salisbury, had been granted his earldom by the Empress Matilda and her Angevin faction in exchange for his support in their long running dynastic conflict with King Stephen. This elevation in status coincided with the formation of a close and long-lasting affinity with their former rival, John FitzGilbert, whose marriage to Patrick’s sister Sibyl resulted in the birth of the couple’s eldest son, William Marshal around 1146. This meant that William Longespée was connected to the Earl of Pembroke’s family through both his half-brother and new wife. It is unsurprising then, in light of these close familial links and their similar age, shared military service and presence within the royal court that William came to be closely associated and allied with Marshal’s eldest son.


Following the establishment of authority over his relatively modest new earldom and his wife’s traditional political affinities, William Longespée seems to have adhered closely to the cause of his royal half-brother. He can be found amongst the witness lists of a number of royal charters issued from King Richard’s new fortress and base of operations within Normandy, the Chateau Gaillard. While as a member of the king’s entourage, William took an active part in a series of revanchist campaigns most notably accompanying Richard when the king defeated King Philp and the French host at Gisors in 1198. While William was a loyal subordinate to Richard, his true rise to prominence began after the king’s death in 1199 with the coronation of his remaining royal half-brother, John, with whom he appears to have shared a strong friendship and close political affinity.

In the service of King John

The earldom of Salisbury, a designation which both Ela’s father and grandfather used interchangeably with that of Wiltshire, was reasonably modest when compared to the other English earldoms, containing fifty-six Knights Fees.  Additionally, the family’s landed interests and holdings did not include any castles outside of their traditional custodianship of the royal fortress at Salisbury, a vital royal association which was likely reinforced and renewed by William’s own royal affinity. William’s marriage to Countess Ela provided him with title, status and the foundation of a powerbase while the earl’s finances and political influence were enhanced through his engagement in military and administrative service on behalf of his royal half-brother, John, and the assumption of a number of offices within royal governance. A mutually beneficial aspect of this service and William’s engagement in the preservation and advancement of royal interests was the king’s practice of occasionally placing lands in which he had some political or financial interests under his illegitimate brother’s custodianship for safe keeping.

From 1205 he administered the honor of Eye and its castle as well as being appointed supervisor of the extensive lands attached to the diocese of Ely, as a retaliatory measure against a clergy who displayed a strong adherence to the papacy during the king’s ongoing dispute with Pope Innocent III.  In 1212, with the papal interdict officially at least still in place, William was additionally granted control of the Archbishopric of Canterbury and its vast estates following a breakdown in negotiations and the king’s continued refusal to recognize the election of Stephen Langton as archbishop. That year, the king also saw fit to make him the castellan of Dover Castle, an important royal bastion and England’s first line of defense against the imminently anticipated French invasion.


While John disputed William’s claim to hold the position of sheriff of Wiltshire by hereditary right, he appointed him to the position on three separate occasions, possibly using the promise of the office or threat of its removal to encourage his brother to remain in alignment with royal interests and further engage in royal service. The illegitimate royal earl was further rewarded for his loyalty and service with the shrievalty of Cambridge and Huntingdonshire in 1212, further bolstering his own resources and supporting the continuation and financial wellbeing of the royal government during a period of political disruption.

Throughout his career William retained an abiding interest in gaining control of the town of Trowbridge and its affiliated lands which lay within his earldom. As a result of this attempt to consolidate authority over the region, William formed a rivalry with the town’s lord, the extremely well-connected Earl Henry de Bohun of Hereford. Henry who held the hereditary office of Constable of England was awarded the earldom of Hereford, which previously held by his paternal grandmother Margaret, upon John’s accession to the throne in 1199.  However John’s favoritism for his half-brother and sympathy toward his bid for hegemony within Salisbury may have threatened Henry and contributed, alongside increased tension amongst the aristocracy, to his decision to join the rebellion against the king in 1213 at which point William was able to annex the lordship of Trowbridge from his rebellious rival and integrate it into his own administrative framework.

Military service

In addition to his role as an administrator of the royal demesne William also engaged extensively in military and diplomatic service on behalf of his legitimate half-brother at a time when they were threatened from both internal aristocratic dissent and the predations of foreign princes. As a trusted confidant with a strong personal affinity with the king, William was an ideal envoy for John, representing his interests throughout the British Isles and Europe at the highest diplomatic level. In 1202, the young earl travelled to the court of King Sancho VII of Navarre, the elder brother of Richard’s widow, Queen Berengaria, successfully concluding a treating with him, theoretically securing the southern borders of the duchy of Aquitaine which Sancho had himself ravaged intermittently during Richard’s imprisonment. Alongside Earl William Marshal of Pembroke, then the most powerful and influential of the marcher lords with whose family he shared a strong affinity, William negotiated with Llywelyn of Gwynedd, the effective master of Wales, brokering a meeting with King John at Worcester in 1204. William was also a member of an embassy John dispatched to King William of Scotland in 1205 before again acting as a royal intermediator the next year where he escorted the king to treat with John in York.

Possibly one of the notable of Earl William’s diplomatic achievements on behalf of his legitimate family members came in 1209 when he travelled to Germany in order to canvas support amongst the aristocracy on behalf of his nephew and key Plantagenet ally King Otto, the son of his half-sister Duchess Matilda of Saxony, who was subsequently accepted as Holy Roman Emperor.  Faced with increasingly severe incursions from France and the possibility of an invasion of England, John dispatched William as his envoy to Count Ferrand of Flanders in order to court Flemish support.


Earl William Longespée was one of his brother’s foremost military lieutenants and supporters at a time of great difficulty for the shrunken royal dynasty, often in conjunction with other royally aligned aristocrats and members of his extended affinity. In 1202, in conjunction with his nephew Earl William de Warenne, the earl of Surrey and de Warenne’s father-in-law, the famed Earl William Marshal, Longespée led a force to hamper and harass the army of King Philip Augustus.  During this period, William was also active in attempting to protect his family’s interests on the Angevin hegemonies frontiers within the British Isles being appointed to a position of oversight and authority within the Welsh Marches in 1208 as well as accompanying the king on his expedition to Ireland. William was also heavily involved in supporting the king’s efforts combating French expansion into Normandy, most notably in his routing of the French fleet in 1213, relieving their ally Count Ferrand and curtailing a French invasion of England, leading to John appointing him to the position of Marshal of England.

William was then captured at the disastrous Battle of Bouvines in which King Philip routed the allied army, although the Histoire de Guillaume le Marchal depicts the earl as advising against seeking a decisive battle as well as stating his nephew Emperor Otto would have been killed or captured if it were not for William’s intervention.  The Histoire de Guillaume le Marchal takes care to emphasize the role and capability of Longespée and elaborates mitigating factors to his defeats, such as his capture at the Battle of Bouvines. This favoritism is to an extent unsurprising since the works which commemorates the extraordinary life and deeds of William Marshal was commissioned by its subject’s son, Earl William Marshal II who was a lifelong collaborator of the royal bastard in addition to the close familial connection between Countess Ida and the family.

Upon his ransom, William again participated in military service on behalf of his legitimate family’s royal dynastic interests, reorienting himself to combat increasing rebellion and resistance to royal authority throughout England. Despite his strong affinity with John and extensive contribution to the maintenance of the royalist cause within England and the king’s personal authority,  the earl defected following Prince Louis of France’s successful invasion of England in an attempt to safeguard his own interests and holdings by disentangling himself from what he saw as a lost cause. William subsequently changed sides again after the death of King John and the formation of a viable power bloc around his young successor, Henry III. Longespée was one of the senior royal commanders at the Battle of Lincoln in a coalition led by his associate William Marshal.

The earl was, upon the establishment of peace, able to negotiate for the granting of substantial new land in return for his support and recognition of Henry III regents. Until his death in 1226, William continued to participate in royal service and received several appointments to shrievalties during the king’s minority. However, he was no longer a member of court’s inner circle and his occasionally contentious relationship with Henry III’s regents in regard to the enforcement of his rights and their grants to him suggests that William’s role in the governance of England and commitment to royal service and the protection of family interests rested upon the existence of personal stake in their success, an alignment which was created by personal ties and a reciprocal family identity.

This is the seventh in a series of articles known as A Bastard’s Lot: The Illegitimate Royal Children of 12th Century England, by James Turner. 

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

Top Image: Arms of William Longespee, as depicted by Matthew Paris. British Library MS Royal 14 C VII fol. 148v 


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