Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page

THE HERO OF BRIDGENORTH

Under the date 1165, Stow in his Annals of England tells this tale. ‘In a certain assiege at Bridgenorth against Hugh de Mortimere, when the king was shotte at by one of the enimies, a valiant man, Hubert de Saint Clere, constable of Colchester, did thrust himselfe betwixt the king and the danger of the stroke, and so received death for him, whose onlie daughter the king taking into his custodie, hee gave her in marriage to William de Languale with her father's inheritance, who begote on her a sonne bearing the name and surname of his grandfather’. Lord Lyttleton's History of Henry II has also an appreciative account of this the only son of Hamo Sinclair of Colchester. Henry II was not of the temper to forget such a deed. He had had great contest with his nobles, especially the western ones, who in their powerful castles thought to defy his sovereignty, as the French nobility did so long with their kings. They must reduce their military establishments, was the last word to them of the gallant Harry, and bitter refusals, and sieges of “the most arrogant men alive”, as Speed has said of this very Mortimer, ended in the sovereign compelling them to the obedience and duty of subjects. Hubert St.Clere, knighthood being the high ton of the time, had got his; and as Sir Hubert, as well as lord of Colchester and governor of the castle, he had followed his king and relative to the western wars. His career ended in glory that is unique in the history of families; and, a young man, no one of his countrymen can regret so fine an example of English heroism, at the expense of even so distinguished and valiant a life as his was, with no doubt many possible pages to fill by similar action of honour and loyalty.

But accounts vary in different writers. Camden, the antiquary, when describing Shropshire, speaks of Bridgenorth Castle on the Severn, and tells the incident ‘At the siege of this castle (as our chronicles tell us), King Henry II had like to have lost his life by an arrow, which being shot at him was intercepted by a truly gallant man and lover of his prince, Hubert de Saint-Clere, who saved the king's life by the loss of his own’.

The Rev. Richard Polwhele in 1797, antiquary and historian of Devonshire, or perhaps better described as commentator upon Sir William Pole's valuable history of the county before 1623, and often not the improver of his predecessor's facts, has the Bridgenorth hero as belonging to the Devonshire and Cornwall family of Sinclairs. He is wrong in this as in others of his reckonings. In the wide sense only Hubert belongs to this branch of the Norman or Norse house. Polwhele's shaping of the tale has its interest, if for nothing else at least as a clerical example of how to improve incident.
When Harry the 2d was besieging the castle of Bridgenorth in the possession of Hugh de Mortimer, Hubert de S. Clere, we are told, a descendant of this family, [the Sinclairs of Tidwell, Devonshire], perceiving the king aimed at from the castle-walls, stepped in before his sovereign, and received the arrow into his own body and expired, ‘an act worthy to be recorded in tables of gold with letters of diamond’. In thankful commemoration of this meritorious service, the king not only interred the deceased with all the pomp of funeral honours, but took the young and only daughter of Hubert under his own protection, and when she was marriageable gave her to William de Longville, a man of noble birth and in high favour with the king. With her the inheritance descended from her father, with largo additions, but on these terms, ‘that to perpetuate the memory of the faithful Hubert, Longville should bear both the name and surname of her father, and be called Hubert de St.Clere’.

This would seem to be a paraphrase of Camden, and it is certainly wrong if it tends to proving the Sinclairs of Tidwell or Toodvil, Devon, to have been Longvilles in lineage. Nothing but the name must have caused the Rev. Richard to give currency to so haphazard a relationship. Sir Hubert is of Essex by record after record, and he had not an inch of land in the beautiful county. The Cornwall and Devon branch needs no adventitious or supposititious aids to distinction; they have a sufficient history of their own. Another author rightly dogmatises that he was of Essex, but, to mix matters, he keeps wrongly repeating that he was a Sir Robert and not Hubert. Powel, one of the oldest authorities, in the Welsh Chronicle gives an additional fact, that it was a Welshman and not one of the English who drew bow on the king and killed Hubert. The recent History of England by Knight pictures a very dramatic scene. The king's “faithful vassal Hubert”, after the arrow has struck him and saved the king, “threw himself into Henry's arms, imploring him to remember his daughter”.

Lord Lyttleton's account in his Life of Henry Second has aided most of the more modern recitals. ‘Mortimer, though abandoned by his friends, would not lay down his arms. Henry, incensed at his obstinacy, led a great army against him, with which, having divided it into three bodies, he at once assaulted the three castles of Clebury, Wigmore, and Bridgenorth; and though it was expected that each of them would stand a long siege, they were all surrendered to him in a short time. Before that of Bridgenorth, which was defended by Mortimer, he commanded in person, and exposed himself to so much danger, that he would there have been slain, if a faithful vassal had not preferred his life to his own. For while he was busied in giving orders too near the wall, Hubert de St.Clare, constable, or governor, of Colchester Castle, who stood by his side, seeing an arrow aimed at him by one of Mortimer's archers, stepped before him, and received it in his own breast. The wound was mortal: he expired in the arms of his master, recommending his daughter, an only child, and an infant, to the care of that prince. It is hard to say which most deserves admiration, a subject who died to save his king, or a king whose personal virtues could render his safety so dear to a subject, whom he had not obliged by any extraordinary favours ! The daughter of Hubert was educated by Henry, with all the affection that he owed to the memory of her father, and when she had attained to maturity, was honourably married to William de Longueville, a nobleman of great distinction, on condition of his taking the name of St.Clare, which the gratitude of Henry desired to perpetuate.’

The oddest, and in some respects by no means the worst description, is that of John Speed in his huge History of Great Britain, published in London, 1611. His ambitious historic wings would willingly raise him to classical heights. Clio has not many such incidents, even among our brave English gesta, where valour is no rare quality. ‘But Hugh de Mortimer, wanton with greatness, and the most arrogant man alive, stuffed his castles of Gloucester, Wigmor, and Bridgenorth with rebellious garrisons, which Henry notwithstanding reduced to subjection; though in the siege of the last named [he would have been slain] had not Hubert de St.Clere cast himself between death and the king, taking the arrow into his own bosom to preserve his sovereign's life. It bound Tiberius most of all to Sejanus, when a part of the banqueting cave in which they were, suddenly falling, Sejanus was found to have borne the ruins from the emperor, with the peril of his life; but Sejanus survived that adventure, which our Senclere did not, save only in the better renown thereof, which deserves to be immortal, being an act of piety worthy of a statue with Codrus, Curtius, Manlius, or whosoever else have willingly sacrificed themselves’.

The flavour of the heroic literary time of Elizabeth is to be felt through the long sentences of Speed, and it might be pity that his contemporary Shakespeare was not by his English dramas led to the embodiment of “our Senclere”. He could put the true fire into such an incident, and he would not miss the fine effect of the Welsh background to the picture. “The most arrogant man alive” could be as artistic a character as his Manlius Coriolanus, and even with fiercer and dramatically finer points in him. But on the earth there are “greaters than Shakespeare here”. Life and its admirations are never exhausted till the Deucalion of the future stands without his Pyrrha, and the great world-play is in the last scene of its last act. The two ways of printing the surname in Elizabeth's time are remarkable, and, better than that, remarkably useful.

The knightly way of France has its counterpart in substantial English “Senclere”; and it is curious that taking away the final letter it is the spelling of the names of Richard and Britel, the former in The Domesday Book, “the big and the little Domesday”, and the latter in the Exon Domesday. So steadily has this surname subsisted under the foam of various and interesting fashions. John Speed deserves a share of his hero's fame, not only for the sympathy with him that on opportunity would make himself go and do likewise, but because of this antiquarian variation of the name, which has its valuable suggestions for inquiries into the strange and often self-made suicidal names and surnames of Norman-English and even English periods.

What with the Danish soubriquet system; the pride of first name, and depreciation of the less noble surname innovation; patronymics by first names, those endless troublesome Fitzes; local surnaming, the chief element in present English names; and what with the usual obscurity of antiquity, it takes the wariest of stepping to find sure footing. By the strangest and certainly unforeseen accidents this name has curiously clear indications by which the lineage to which it is attached can be grappled with and held. Nothing liker to the doings in this matter of the eleventh and subsequent centuries is there than the mechanical, foolish, and destructive attempts of modern quacks (who cannot understand that difficulty is the very benefit of education), to destroy all knowledge of the early English literature by manufacturing a hidebound union of sounds and letters, because, forsooth, of ease of spelling and reading. Men outwit themselves by all dishonesties, be they those of laziness, pride, or whatever is not growing soundness in life and effort.

There is more yet about Sir Hubert Senclere, governor of Colchester. None of those accounts can possibly be of equal pleasure and value with that by Ralph Niger, the chronicler, who was contemporary with the event. The reference to those who like originals is, Radulphi Nigri Chronicon MS. Bibl: Cotton., under the division Vespas. D. x. 1 f 33, the year 1165. Raphe the Black was a monk, with the most skilful handicraft in black-letter writing, and his MS. is bound and gilt, with all the care it so well deserves, in the Cottonian collection of MSS. at the British Museum. The contents of the little but most careful work, are history from the beginning of the world to 1178; and the room he gives Hubert, considering his limited space, is out of proportion, short as it may appear, with the plan of his concise abstract of the leading events. Possibly a genuinely unselfish or supremely loyal act is worth a great deal of vulgar battles and intrigues. It is given faithfully as it exists. ‘In this siege at Bridgenorth in the earldom of Hugo Mortimer, when the same king was sought by a certain arrow, a particular one of his peers, namely, Hubert Sinclair, constable of Colchester, put himself in his place with great judgment, and received death for his lord. Taking his only daughter into his own ward for him afterwards, her father dying in that place, and herself asking the king, he gave her in marriage to William Longville with her paternal heirship. He had by her a son, calling him also by his own name and surname.’

The contemporary chronicle is probably the source whence some of these historians have drawn; and, if so, they cannot be complimented all round as to their knowledge of Latin. The romantic fever seems to have caught them, when they make William Longville be bound to Hubert's daughter, on the Jewish condition of raising an heir to him of the Sinclair and even Hubert name. There is no ground for this in the monk's MS. It says, what will be supported by charters existing still in the Harleian collection, that the young lady Sinclair bore William Longville a son, whom he called by his own name and surname, William Longville. Polwhele's tale is moonshine. The Normans were not of the mawkish order of human beings, and would neither wish others nor themselves to give up their individualities on sing-song principles. The value of the individual is perhaps the best moral of their vigorous and successful history.

Says Tindal, ‘The Normans made themselves masters of Apulia, Calabria, Sicily, Normandy, and England in less than two hundred years; ’ and when Rollo left his principality of the Orkneys, to prove strength of the individual head and hand, it is not likely his surroundings were very formidable except to seeing eyes. Charlemagne's tears at the sight of the long, low, dragonlike Norse boats show that he recognised the secret. Henry II, only half a Norman, had formulated the aphorism that the world has room for one great man at once, and there is deep meaning in his finding. No race aided the panoply of crusading chivalry more; but they never lost their heads, as the Celt, time out of mind, so easily does on romantic provocation.

Neither Hubert Sinclair nor his king could put such a condition on any Longville, and the lady's wishes, it may be guessed easily, were those of her sex in this respect, who have at least one subject on which they are the opposite of conservative. Her son was not named and surnamed after her heroic father, and the shortest proof lies in two charters of the Harleian collection in Bloomsbury. The one is ‘Charter of Hubert Sinclair to the church of Holy Trinity of Norwich, about the church of Chalke, and land and an annual return in the same manor’. The other is, ‘Charter of William Longville confirming the donation of Hubert Sinclair his grandfather as above; particularly various matters between the prior of Bermondsey and the prior of the church of Holy Trinity, Norwich, concerning the advowson of the church of Chalke.’. This is the William whom William Longvale, the husband of Hubert's daughter, called by his own name and surname; and the relationship of grandfather in the charter leaves nothing further to be desired as to the truth of the subject.

Here it is also seen that Hubert was not soldier et praeterea nihil. Besides his duties of constable or governor of Colchester Castle, and the management of the large patrimony left him by his father, Hamo de St.Clair, the sheriff of Essex and Hertford, he did not forget what was necessary to religious advance. It is rare that so much as the above has survived to memory of many a great man's numerous gifts; but there is another remnant of special interest, because referring to his own home county of Essex. In the reign of Henry II he gave a charter to one of England's most famed religious houses.

Mythology has embalmed the strangest tales of Osyth Priory, Chiche, Essex. Its abbess, who had her head cut off by the Danes, and walked with it in her hands for miles to the site of the future nunnery, is a jewel of the early popular reverent imagination. ‘From the gift of Hubert Sinclair the tenpenny lands in Bromley ’, is the gist of his grant; and it has, besides the religious interest, a genealogical one of a double character. Before his time somewhat, his relation William Sinclair of Corbeil was prior of the monastery of St.Osyth at Chiche, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, and the first Englishman who was pope's legate, he who aided Stephen so effectually to the throne. He died in 1136, twenty years nearly before Hubert, but as a youth he was perhaps well known to the archbishop. Such a tie caused Hubert's gifts to flow in that direction. St.Osyth's is of interest afterwards by being the property of subsequent Sinclairs whose doings await notice.

It would leave a wrong impression of the hero of Bridgenorth to forget his position as a peer or baron of the land fulfilling well the civil and religious duties belonging to him as such, in the glory of doing one of the world's deeds which will not be let die while human nature has admiration for honour, loyalty, and devotion.

Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page


e-mail to:fnsnclr@btinternet.com