Knightly magnificence and marital drama: Margery de la Beche and the Aldworth effigies 

 

A talk given by Professor John Blair (Queen’s College, Oxford) on 15th October 2022

It is believed that the de la Beche’s were a family from Flanders who probably came from humble beginnings, (the name means “of the spade”) and who crossed the Channel in the wake of the victory of Duke William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings.  They were granted permission to build a castle at Aldworth.  Sir Robert de la Beche was knighted by Edward I in 1278 and the family started to rise to prominence.  Sir Robert had a son, John, who had a son, Philip, who in turn had six sons, John, Philip, Nicholas, Edmund, Robert, and Edward.  Nicholas and Edmund became very important in the reign of Edward III.  

Nicholas was extrovert and gregarious but not organised.  He became very close to the royal family, even becoming custodian of the king’s first son, Edward, Prince of Wales, and Edward III made him very wealthy.  He was given the moated manor house called Beaumys (pronounced ‘Beams’), on the River Loddon at Swallowfield and also parkland, where he could fulfil his passion for hunting.   Sometimes this wasn’t enough for him, so he used to trespass on other hunting grounds.  But as a favourite of the king he was always pardoned. 

In 1335 Nicholas became Constable of the Tower of London.  In 1339 he married Margery de Poynings.  A lady of high breeding from an old family, and who was also well in with the royal children.  In 1343 Nicholas went to be the Seneschal of Gascony.  He never returned and died there in 1345.

Margery, having previously been married to the late Sir Edmund de Bacon, was now an extremely wealthy widow and based at Beaumys in which she retained a life interest.  

In 1346-7 Edward III and his knights besieged Calais leaving their spouses waiting for them at home.  During this time Margery is believed to have become involved with Gerard de l’Isle.  He claimed she had married him, but Margery always denied this.

In the early hours of Good Friday morning 1347 there was a violent raid on Beaumys where the royal children, except for Prince Edward but including the Keeper of England, Prince Lionel, Duke of Clarence, were staying as the court was meeting in Reading where there was no palace.  Margery’s brother Michael was killed, and Margery was abducted by Sir John de la Dalton along with some goods and chattels.  Given the latter there is some question as to whether the abduction was forced or collusive.  However, Margery married Sir John de la Dalton quickly afterwards.  There was an uproar and as the royal children had been exposed to violence and were very frightened Edward III was enraged.  But everyone who survived this episode by two to three years was rehabilitated and the court reluctantly recognised the marriage.

Either Margery failed to recover from these events, or she contracted the Black Death for she died in Calais just two years later in 1349.

A very detailed inventory survived, in French, of the contents of the house, although none of the actual contents did, so we were shown examples.  There was no furniture in the inventory as it was always left behind, indicative of a household always on the move. Apparently, Margery’s bedroom was very opulent, with silk hangings on the wall.  Other items included some of opus anglicum embroidery, huge quantities of towels, napkins, fire irons, pokers, marsers (which were ceremonial cups), wooden and leather pitchers and jugs, and a large bronze pot for cooking known as ‘Brown Robin’.  But no pottery was mentioned.  The speaker jokingly suggested that this was a “medieval picnic set”!  Twelve books were listed at the end, these were mainly devotional or on The Crusades  –  maybe this was to instil values into the reader.  An example of one, a courtly romance novel, still exists in the Bodleian library in Oxford. 

Many of the family are commemorated  Aldworth Church, where there are tombs, topped with very large effigies, lying in stately splendour either under richly carved canopies, or upon tombs in the nave.  These are collectively known as the “Aldworth Giants”.   There are no names on them, but the project can probably be dated to the 1340s, by the styles of the military uniforms, because the “fashion” in armour was changing rapidly and it is probable that no work has subsequently been done.  They are unusual in that they have no brass plaques, but it is assumed that they contain the remains of Philip and his sons and wives.  Very sadly the family became extinct because latterly no more sons were born.

The Beaumys manor house no longer exists, but there is a very overgrown footpath all the way around the grounds.  A suggestion was made that an excavation there would reveal more secrets and that perhaps it could be a future project for BAS!

report by Liz Jackson

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire