William Longespee, 3rd Earl of Salisbury

William Longespee was born about 1176, his father was King Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings, but his mother was not Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's queen. In the past there has been much conjecture about just who was William Longespee's mother. For a long time she was thought to be Rosamund Clifford, but more recently it has been proven without a doubt that his mother was Ida de Tosny, royal ward and mistress of King Henry II and later wife to Roger Bigod 2nd Earl of Norfolk.

So William, the epithet 'Longespee' or 'Longsword' is a reference to his great size and the huge weapons he wielded, was not quite a royal, but he was almost treated as one. King Henry acknowledged William as his son and in 1188 granted him the honour of Appleby in Lincolnshire. After King Henry's death in 1189 William's half-brother Richard succeeded to the throne. King Richard betrothed William to the young orphan heiress Ela of Salisbury in 1196, and William asssumed the title Earl of Salisbury, and inherited the lands that went with the title, in her right.

William Longespee was a brave and talented warrior and fought alongside King Richard in Normandy and served his other half-brother King John as a diplomat and commander. Under John, Longespee was Sheriff of Wiltshire, lieutenant of Gascony, constable of Dover, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and later warden of the Welsh Marches and sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. As a commander William was in charge of 500 ships when the first great naval victory in English history was won in May 1213 at Zwyn, a tidal inlet on the Flemish coast. Here I quote from Dan Jones' great book: 'The Plantagenets':

The ships bristled with arms and men, English knights and foreign mercenaries paid for with the vast stores of English coin John had amassed since 1204. As they sailed up the Zwyn towards Damme they met with an extraordinary sight: a vast array of French ships, some beached, some bobbing in the harbour and all waiting to be filled with a force to invade England. There were reckoned to be 1,700 ships, fully kitted out and ready for war. The harbour creaked with menace.

The English commander (Longespee) wasted no time. English units piled up at once into the harbour, attacking the poorly defended French fleet, cutting adrift hundreds of ships loaded with corn, wine, flour, meat and vital parts of the French military arsenal. Other English soldiers ran ashore and raided beached ships for their valuable supplies, before setting fire to the timber frames. Black smoke shot up into the air as pitch blazed in the water.

It was a brave and vital victory in John's name , and it not only staved off deposition in the short term, but destroyed the French threat to the English coast for several years to come.

William was the commander of a division on the losing side at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, where he was taken prisoner. He was released after payment of a ransom the following year and rushed to London to claim the city for the royalists during the Barons' Rebellion. But he was too late, Robert Fitzwalter, the leader of the rebel barons, had already seized control of the city. The Barons' Rebellion resulted in the Magna Carta. William was at King John's side at Runnymede for the sealing of the Magna Carta in June 1215. He was also named in the preamble of the charter as one of the 27 men who had advised the king on its composition.

The following year, 1216, William was among a group of previously loyal barons who abandoned the king when Prince Louis of France landed in England and was welcomed in London. This defection did not last long. After the defeat of Louis, Longespee joined the cause of John's young son Henry and played an important military role in the minority government of his nephew, now King Henry III. William supported Henry's younger brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall, on an expedition to relieve Gascony in 1225. Their quest was successful but on the return journey Longespee's ship was nearly lost in a storm and he spent some months recovering at a monastery on the Isle de Re.

Old Sarum - the ruins of Salisbury Castle are on the summit

So much for the warrior/commander Longespee, what of Longespee the man? Two tales of his exploits back in England point to a slightly different side of his character. In both of the cases he fought unsuccessfully to wrest castles from their current occupants. But first to fill in the background of these tales we must remember that Longespee's own castle was at what is now called Old Sarum, the original city of Salisbury. It was built by William the Conqueror about 1070 inside the fortifications of an old iron age hillfort. The drawbacks of living at Old Sarum, such as the lack of a readily available water supply, were beginning to be pressing at this time and a new site for the city was being sought. Whether these circumstances bear any relation to what follows we shall never know.

Trowbridge Castle as it may have looked in the 12th Century

In 1212 William Longespee disputed with Henry de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, over the manor of Trowbridge, which at one time had been held by Edward of Salisbury, his wife's ancestor. But Edward had given the manor as dower with his daughter Matilda when she married Humphrey de Bohun in c1119. So why did Longespee want Trowbridge back? Perhaps because Trowbridge looked a wealthier place under the Bohuns? They had raised its status from village to town, by building the castle in about 1139 and securing the grant of a market in 1200. Whatever the reason, Henry de Bohun held on and the dispute was not settled until 1229, after Longespee's death, when Edward of Salisbury's estates were divided equally between the claimants. The castle and manor of Trowbridge went to Longespee's widow, Ela of Salisbury.

Longespee's second dispute was with Lady Nicholaa de la Haye, castellan of Lincoln Castle (pictured right), whom he had assisted during the battle of the rebel barons in 1217, and whose granddaughter Idonea was married to his eldest son William. After years of loyal service to the crown Lady Nicholaa was removed as sheriff of Lincolnshire by King Henry III and replaced by Longespee just four days after the battle he had helped her to win. Time and time again Longespee tried unsucessfully to wrest Lincoln castle from her, first by force and later by offering hostages. She finally gave up control of the castle in June 1226, and retired to live at the Lincolnshire manor of Swaton. Longespee died in 1226 and Lady Nicholaa in 1230, outliving him by 4 years.

William Longespee died in 1226 at Salisbury Castle soon after his return to England from the Gascon campaign of 1225, the subsequent shipwreck and his stay on the Isle de Re. He was buried in the new Salisbury Cathedral, the first person to have that honour (see picture above). His son William succeeded to his title and his widow Ela lived on until 1261, dying at Lacock Abbey. William's tomb was opened in 1791 and inside his skull was discovered the remains of a rat, which carried traces of arsenic. The rat is now on display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.

The Longespee coat of arms, kindly sent to me by Emmanuelle Longuepee a descendant of the family.


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