More on William Longespee

First, I found the relevant passages from Roger of Wendover’s “Flowers of History” related to William Longespee’s shipwreck, return to England, death, and funeral.

I have some thoughts on it.

First, on the legend involving the virgin and the candles- I can see there being a kernel of truth to this because one of the recurring themes across several of my lifetimes is an affinity for the Divine Feminine and although I have no specific belief in a god or gods, I acknowledge that the thought of paying devotion to a female aspect of the divine has a powerful draw for me, just as it did in my previous life and, I’m sure, in Longespee’s.  Keep in mind that at this time in Europe, veneration of the Virgin Mary had reached its apex to the point where she was, very much, regarded as greater than God.  This was due in part to the rise in esteem of women in the 13th century, a legacy of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Eleanor was also known to have been an early proponent of the Troubadour culture, which Longespee is known to have embraced wholeheartedly.  I believe that he did see something- whether it was St. Elmo’s Fire (presumably a form of ball lightning that forms on the rigging of ships) or some sort of brief vision of the divine, or something else entirely.  

The story of how the candles at Longespee’s funeral remained lit through the wind and rain of Old Sarum (quite a feat) was probably added to give the narrative some symmetry though I’d like to believe it, as it ties in rather romantically with my affinity for fire, and the Olympic torch passing our trailer on its way to Los Angeles shortly after I was born (and the fact that it passed through Yeovil in 2012).

Wendover’s account of Longespee on Ile de Re is a bit perplexing; he claims that he was only on the island for three days and then spent three months adrift at sea.  The reason for his supposedly leaving the island was because the French lord who had been given charge of the island, Savaric de Maleon, had sent soldiers to capture Longespee, who was tipped off by two soldiers whom he handsomely paid off and set to sea, only to arrive in Cornwall three months later on Christmas day and that he lived for some months thereafter.  My memory is that he stayed on the island until the first signs of spring and left for England while he could still stand on his own two feet, was in great pain for some weeks, and died shortly thereafter.

I’m pretty sure most historians agree that Longespee was actually at Ile de Re for some months, but why would Wendover lie?

Perhaps a clue is in another subplot of this narrative, the supposed poisoning of Longespee by Hubert De Burgh over the hand of Ela.  It is known that Ela became abbess of an abbey after William died, but it has been understood by historians that this is simply because she and William were both devoutly religious and not to escape marrying Hubert’s son, so De Burgh’s motive for the poisoning is very much in doubt.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Roger of Wendover did not like Hubert de Burgh very much, but not that there is any merit to the case for his having poisoned Longespee.  The arsenic story is almost certainly a complete myth because Wendover’s account- the only source for the poisoning story- describes an acute attack and does not ascribe his death in any way to his earlier illness which had been ongoing for some time.

But perhaps there was another motive there too.  Perhaps either Longespee or Wendover wanted the story to be a literary eulogy for England’s first Renaissance Man, in the form of a story mimicking Homer’s Odyssey.  I’m pretty sure that was something Longespee may have had a hand in and that he lied about being ill in the infirmary of Notre Dame de Re, since my memories suggest a long time spent in the abbey and a spring time departure.

I’m not sure what to think of Wendover’s mythologizing account.  It’s not accurate, that much I’m sure of.  But it’s a romantic fiction of high caliber for the era, and it apparently inspired an 18th century romantic novel called “Longsword: Earl of Salisbury” that is widely regarded as England’s first historical romance.

Incidentally, the source that cited Wendover directly was the foreword to a 1952 edition of the above that my university library just happened to have.  From what I’ve read so far, the actual novel isn’t great.  The language is preposterously archaic even for 1762, and the story is very formulaic by today’s standards.   It was one of those books that was good enough in its day but has not aged well.  But because it was “good enough” way back when, it became highly influential in the development of the historic romance, and not surprisingly, it draws heavily on Roger of Wendover.  Also, the foreword incorrectly states that the elder William Longespee was not in the crusades; I’ve seen sources that state quite to the contrary, that he was involved in several battles in the Third Crusade, although I know nothing of this from memory.

I’d say that “Longsword” isn’t the first English historic romance, however; I think Roger of Wendover’s “Flowers of History,” which was written with the exact same plot while Longespee was hardly cold in his grave, takes that credit.


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