Like Father, Like Illegitimate Son: Henry II and William Longespée on Monastic Patronage

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.

Henry II now enjoys a reputation as a committed and reasonably prolific founder and serial patroniser of monasteries.  Henry’s interest in the support of monastic institutions stemmed not only from a deeply held personal piety but inherited from a pre-existing tradition of extensive resources, financial and otherwise, their transformative and mutually transmissive international links and the manner in which their presence contoured the topography of the church in England, the foundation or even patronage of a monastery was an inherently political as well as spiritual act.  A king’s ability to exert influence upon a monastery and capitalise upon its financial resources was predicated upon this status as patron and protector which formed key components in the transmission and exercise of royal authority.


Henry II also engaged in another widespread, not to mention potentially politically advantageous aristocratic activity – the siring of illegitimate children. Although here he fell far short in sheer fecundity to Henry I, who acknowledged at least nineteen bastards, he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, fostering the careers of his illegitimate children, as well as a broad sense of familial affinity. Both kings inducted their illegitimate children as junior partners in a shared dynastic enterprise in which their talents and position could be utilised for the projection of royal authority deep into the networks of power and affinity that bound the members of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy together. One such royal bastard, William Longespée born in 1167, came to be closely connected with one of his father’s ecclesiastical foundations and commitment to acetic orders.

Henry II founded the first Carthusian Charterhouse in England at Witham in 1180. Despite a rather inauspicious start, the Carthusians flourished in England, despite attracting moderate criticism, such as being satirised at the hands of Richard Devizes. Their strict asceticism and their modification of conventional models of monastic cloister living saw them attract a broad base of support and admiration.  It is curious then that the Carthusians who remained a reasonably influential but small order for the next several decades only establishing a second charterhouse in England under the patronage of the then Earl William Longespée at Hatherop in 1222. So why then, more than thirty years after Henry II’s death, did this Angevin royal bastard step into his father’s role as the Order’s principal lay patron in England?


Both Henry II and William Longespée, demonstrated, by their enthusiasm for and patronage of the Carthusians, the Anglo-Norman dynasty’s long running fascination with and support of the monastic tradition – especially the eremitical version, which was characterized by ascetic solitude. This can been seen in William the Conqueror’s appointment of two Benedictines from the notably strict and reformed house at Bec, Lanfranc and Anselm, successively to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, as well as Queen Matilda’s strong links with her distant relative turned hermit Count Simon de Crepy.

Parish church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John Baptist and All Saints, Witham Friary, formerly the church of the Carthusian Charterhouse. Photo by John Armagh / Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, the Conqueror’s half-brother Count Robert of Mortain maintained a significant association with his former chaplain Vitalis of Savigny who in 1105 came to embrace an ascetic lifestyle, founding a colony of hermits in the forest of Savingy. The settlement’s rapid growth soon necessitated that it be formally reorganised as a monastery, adopting the Benedictine rule. Henry I further strengthened this affinity and heavily patronised both Vitalis and his successor Geoffrey whose numerous daughter houses quickly spread across Henry’s Anglo-Norman holdings, entwining to a certain extent their fortunes and political aspirations with the King’s own.

Gilbertines, Grandmontines and Carthusians

Given this strong family tradition and the spread of eremitically influenced monasticism beyond the Alps during his reign, it should be of no surprise that Henry II was actively engaged in the promotion of the developing ascetic orders. During the early portions of his reign, Henry, alongside his mother, the Empress Matilda, was deeply engaged in the support and patronage of the Cistercian order. Together mother and son re-founded the Abbey at Redmore in 1155, moving it to the more suitable site of Stoneleigh in Warwickshire where it became the recipient of considerable royal and aristocratic patronage. Similarly and again in conjunction with his mother, Henry granted the Abbey at Quarr, a site in Loxwell, for the establishment of a daughter-house, followed by further gifts of land in Lambourne, Worth and Thame in 1148, as well as a pension. Henry II also came to regard himself as the primary lay patron of both the Gilbertine and Grandmontine Orders, not only providing them with material support and patronage but even assuming the role of adjudicator in their internal disputes.

The Gilbertines were an English order founded in 1130 and primarily centred in Lincolnshire. Henry II founded a Gilbertine Priory at Newstead in 1173 and granted Haverholme considerable endowments, yet the main contribution to the Order’s continued success was his willingness to intervene on behalf of their interests and grant them a number of lucrative financial privileges such as the right to hold fairs and exemptions to tolls and customs.


The Grandmontines, a rigorously ascetic Order originating from Limoges, likewise received their most valuable patronage in the form of judicial and financial privileges and pensions. The Grandmontines were Henry’s favoured ascetic Order, at one time he even planned to be buried in one of the Order’s sites. Here then, can be seen another example of the continuity of familial affiliation and of patronage of monastic orders across the divide of legitimacy. When Henry II’s eldest and most favoured illegitimate child, Archbishop Geoffrey of York, fled to France following a vicious and long running dispute with his half-brother, King John, he took shelter at Grandmont where he lived until his death in 1212.

Detail of a miniature of Henry II of England. British Library MS Royal 14 C VII fol. 9

Henry II’s strategy of monastic patronage sought to capitalise upon resources and prerogatives unique to his royal position in order to disseminate his influence and authority further into the monastic sphere, gaining access to the numerous financial and political interests with which it was latticed. This manifested not only in the granting of various financial and judicial privileges but, due to the prohibitive cost of establishing a monastic foundation from scratch, the exploitation of the malleability of the definition of ‘founder’ allowed Henry to insinuate himself as a monastery’s primary patron. This included the re-founding of already existing Houses often taken in conjunction to renew the House, such as transplanting a new Order into the site or increasing its endowment and infrastructure such as in the case of Waltham and Amesbury. Such methods drew upon traditional models of monastic patronage and royal administration which Henry II employed in a far ranging and systematic manner.

Henry II’s patronage of the Carthusians broadly adhered to a similar strategy. He had first come into contact with the Order when they had attempted to intervene in the Becket affair, strongly admonishing the King. The Carthusians own tradition, as well as the accounts of contemporary chroniclers such as Gerald of Wales and Ralph Niger, suggest that Witham was one of the three monasteries that Henry was ordered to found by the Pope in penance for the Becket affair. The Charter House got off to an inauspicious start, despite granting them the use of the royal forest of Selwood, Henry was initially extremely reluctant to expend resources in the support of the Carthusians.  Their leader Narbert was unequal to the challenges presented by the foundation of a new monastic community and was swiftly recalled only for his replacement, Hamon, to die shortly after his arrival.


The faltering Charter House was only saved by the brilliance of its third Abbot, Hugh of Avalon, later raised to the bishopric of Lincoln, who succeeded in winning the King’s support; an official charter of foundation being issued in 1180 as well an substantial income derived from Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Berkshire. However, despite Henry’s strong proprietary interests in the Charter House and his close relationship with Hugh, there were considerable delays in construction due to lack of funds and the influx of capital into the site was gradually reduced, including the eventual cancellation of pensions in 1188, leaving the Carthusians an influential and generally highly regarded but ultimately minor order.

William Longespée and the Carthusians

Enter Longespée. Born sometime around 1167, William’s mother, the aristocratic Ida de Tosny, was for the mother of a royal illegitimate child almost uniquely well born. Following the conclusion of her relationship with Henry, Ida went on to marry the second Earl of Norfolk, Roger Bigod, providing her son with an influential auxiliary family association which William would retain deep into his political career.

Upon the death of his father, the young bastard successfully made the transition to his half-brother Richard’s reign. In 1198, Richard raised him to the Earldom of Salisbury through the brokering of a prestigious marriage to the earldom’s heiress, Isabel. William further flourished under King John with whom he shared a close personal and political affinity, serving as one of his half-brother’s principal supporters and effective military proxy through the tumultuous reign. Eventually abandoning John, at the nadir of his power, for Prince Louis of France but when French support began to dissipate following John’s death, William quickly defected to the forces rallying around his young nephew, Henry III. Following an English and royalist victory, William successfully reasserted himself as a member of the top strata of the aristocracy.

William, in conjunction with his wife, through whom he held his Earldom, supported several monastic establishments including the foundation of an Augustinian nunnery at Lacock and extensive endowment of the house at Bradenstoke to which Isabel’s family had long-standing ties. In 1222, drawing members from his father’s foundation at Witham, he founded a second English Carthusian Charter House in Hatherop in Gloucestershire, granting them land in Chelwart and the forest at Bradene.  Upon William’s death in 1226, Hatherop was richly endowed and provided with the means to begin an extensive construction program, gifting them with the income generated from the wardship of his daughter-in-law, a large reserve of livestock for the support for the monks, including 1000 ewes, 40 rams, 58 oxen and 20 bulls. He further lavished upon them several more personal gifts and luxuries including his collection of relics, the finest set of vestments from his private chapel, a jewel adorned golden chalice, a golden pyx set with pearls and two silver phials.


The monks, however, deemed the site unsuitable to their needs, appealing to the Earl’s widow that they be allowed to settle in a more remote site better in keeping with their eremitical tradition which, she duly granted, allowing the foundation to move to Hinton in Somerset but otherwise leaving her husband’s endowments unaltered. The fact that the Charter House’s richest endowments were gifted only after the Earl’s death suggest that perhaps prominent amongst his motivations for the foundation was a sense of genuine piety and a desire for monastic intercession in the afterlife.

Pertinent to the consideration of William Longspee’s role in the continuity of monastic patronage with that of his father, is one of timing. If William sought to emulate and build upon his father’s legacy as a patron of the Carthusians, why did he wait until 1222 to shoulder this mantle? At the time of Henry’s death in 1189, William was still a relative youth and although the lord of Appleby, certainly could not be counted as a member of the upper echelons of the aristocracy, lacking the financial capacity and prestige to step in as the primary lay patron of a monastic order like the Carthusians.

Indeed, William’s political career only began to come into its own during the reign of his half-brother, John, who employed him throughout his fractious reign in a number of military, administrative and diplomatic posts, frequently shifting his trusted family member to the position in which he was most needed. William’s power waxed and generated a good deal less controversy, during the reign of his young nephew Henry III, ruling his estates with a degree of autonomy from the royal centre. In 1222, then William was at the height of his wealth and power, and had to a certain extent transcended the role of royal facilitator which his political career had been founded on, making him more than capable of undertaking even the financially strenuous task of founding and supporting a  monastic settlement.

It then seems a reasonable supposition that William’s decision to found a Carthusian priory was a direct emulation of his father’s patronage of the initial English Carthusians settlement at Witham. The foundation and even patronage of monastic sites strongly intertwined genuine piety with political utility in a way that would have seemed perfectly natural to the cross channel aristocracy of the twelfth and early thirteenth century and played a vital role in both dynastic strategy and solidarity.

Hinton Priory Chapel drawn by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm in 1790

Both William and Henry II had a clear model of monastic patronage to follow, both in general aristocratic trends and in particular their family’s support and reverence of monks engaged in the eremitical tradition. While their mutual support for the Carthusians can be seen as a potent example of William’s ongoing familial affinity with the Angevin royal family and his father, the differences in the manner in which they pursued this patronage can be equally illuminating.  Henry II’s position as king granted him both a much greater remit in the exercise of monastic patronage, while the many demands and pressures of kingship made the existence of such a side network of monastic support and affiliation necessary.

While William founded Hatherop, near the zenith of his own temporal power, he perhaps viewed the monastery and the strong connotation of cohesion with his father as a lasting legacy; content to endow his new foundation with its richest gifts in his will. Relegated from any significant inheritance by his illegitimate status but permitted to participate within royal familial identity, William Longespée utilised the wealth and influence he had accumulated through service to his royal family members to position himself as his father’s successor as patron of the Carthusians within England.

This is the ninth 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: Image of three monks: an Augustinian in a black habit, a Franciscan in a grey habit, and a Carthusian in a white habit. British Library MS Additional 18850 fol. 150v