Dionissia and the robber baron: a 13th century Northumbrian drama


“My sire is of a noble line,

And my name is Geraldine:

Five warriors seized me yestermorn,

Me, even me, a maid forlorn:

They choked my cries with force and fright,

And tied me on a palfrey white.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel, Part I

Umfraville Arms from Elsdon, Northumberland
The arms of the Umfraville lords of Redesdale


Between 20 and 26 January 1279 Dionissia Bechfeld  appeared in the royal courts at Newcastle before John de Vaux, and five other of the King’s Justices, as a plaintiff seeking damages.

The court heard that six and a half years earlier, on Monday 22 August 1272, she had been crossing Middleburn Moor in the company of her uncle Master John Pampingham, on the return leg of a journey to Newcastle where they had been pleading before Master Roger Seton, on an unknown legal matter. She was evidently a woman of some property, as the three sureties for her attendance were all men known as significant local landowners. [1]

Near “Opintel Bridge” she was set upon by Roger Inhou, William Swethop, his brother John, and Walter Swethop, and was taken to “Ilyscaghe” in Redesdale, where she was held for a night. During this time she was pressured by Walter Swethop, who was also the lord of Redesdale’s steward, to marry his son Richard, on pain of being taken into Scotland, never to be released.  Upon her refusal, Swethop made good his threat and took her to Jedburgh, where she remained for a day and a night, until rescued by her uncle John Pampingham.

To avoid a repetition of her earlier nightmare when returning from Jedburgh, Dionissia engaged a local guide, William, son of Ralph the chief forester of Redesdale, at the improbably large fee of £10 (or so she claimed in the proceedings). However, on reaching Harbottle Castle, the administrative centre of Redesdale, she was seized again by Walter Swethop, accused of trespassing “with force of arms” and was required to find two pledges for her return at a future date to answer charges, and was freed on payment of a £10 surety.

At this point she appears to have regained her liberty, albeit despoiled (or so she claimed) of horse and saddle, and a blue robe, together worth 40s.  In spite of the chivalrous culture later attributed to this locality in romantic writing such Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and in Coleridge’s Christabel, there seems a dearth of knights riding to Dionissia’s rescue.

Dionissia’s miserable experience was more than merely another story of up country medieval banditry, it was illustrative also of the peculiar context of Redesdale and its lord, Gilbert de Umfraville, earl of Angus (by right of his Scottish mother), a character well suited to the liminal zone that he dominated. The king’s writ, the common law of England, tax collectors and other agents of royal power had no authority in the 138,000 acres of the Liberty of Redesdale.

Such baronial “micro-states” were a standard feature of the Welsh marches, but those in the north were, by contrast, mostly ecclesiastical – notably the great bishopric of Durham, and the monastic towns of Hexham and Tynemouth.  In the face of repeated challenges by crown lawyers against his privileges, Umfraville claimed that his ancestor Robert had been granted Redesdale by William the Conqueror, (and therefore beyond the 1189 limit of legal memory) with the sole duty of “defending against wolf and robber.” [2]

While Umfraville’s success in lupine pest control is unrecorded, it seems that crime, as well as justice, were monopolised by himself and his fearsome retinue.  If the complaints of a neighbouring lord, Robert de Lisle of Chipchase, are to be believed, Umfraville’s stewards had an established line in livestock theft, and in 1300 he cited his immunity from royal justice to turn away the King’s commissioners who had come to investigate coinage fraud. [3]

In 1265 the young Gilbert had been in the company of The Lord Edward (future King Edward I) at the siege of Alwnick Castle, whose lord John de Vesci had been an adherent of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of King Henry III.  On the strength of an allegation by Gilbert that his tenant, William, lord of Douglas, was with the rebels, the Lord Edward granted him the manor of Fawdon, provided that the allegation was true.  Douglas later proved the opposite in the King’s courts in Westminster, and secured a writ to recover his lands, which occurred around 20 July 1267.

But Douglas’ victory was short lived, as around 1 August Umfraville sent a force of ‘a hundred of the king’s enemies’ to eject him and his wife Constance. Douglas was arrested and taken to Harbottle Casle for eight days, his son William suffered an injury “that nearly severed his head”, and 31 marks of silver were looted from the property at Fawdon, which was burned down. Restitution only came for William Douglas when he appeared before the King’s Justice, Gilbert Preston, at Newcastle on 25 June 1269, and secured damages against Umfraville of 110 marks for the fire, although we do not know whether this was paid.[4]

Detail of Jedburgh and the border lands, from C. Smith, New Map of Great Britain and Ireland (1806)

The case of William, lord of Douglas showed that, in spite of Umfraville’s expansive claims, the crown was nevertheless keen to assert its overlordship.  By the time that Dionissia made her plea in 1279, the Lord Edward had become King Edward I, and one of the defining themes of his reign was a sustained assault on private jurisdictions. Edward I might well have concurred with the verdict of the great Victorian historian of Northumberand, J. H. Hodgson, who characterised the liberty of Redesdale as “the prolific mother of all the disorders, the crimes and peculiarities for which the population here was so long notorious.” [5]

Dionissia’s faith in royal justice would, at least in part, be vindicated. Of the defendants named in her accusation, only Swethop presented himself before John de Vaux in January 1279, the others being found guilty by default of their absence. Dionissia pressed for £100 damages for her treatment – a hefty sum, given that in 1307 the entire Redesdale estate would be assessed as yielding an annual income of £238 (about £190,000 in modern purchasing power).

The justices sentenced Swethop to prison for having detained her at Harbottle, and all of the accused were fined 20 marks (c.£13) damages payable to Dionissia, and 100 shillings (£5) for the offences.  As far as is known, Dionissia lived out her life without having to marry Richard Swethop, and was assessed for taxation in 1296 as liable for £2 2s. 4d., consistent with her owning property in her own right.[6]

Life was due to become much tougher for Gilbert de Umfraviile, and lords with similar pretensions.  In January 1293 all of the barons of Northumberland were required to produce royal charters proving their privileges as part a series of inquiries called Quo Warranto. Once again Umfraville succeeded in arguing that his Liberty of Redesdale had been enjoyed time immemorial, and therefore there was no legal way to curtail it. (The twelve local jurors finding for him included John Swethop).  However they did not accept his claim that he had licence to hold a market and fair at Whelpington, as the supposed charter from Henry III granting it could not be produced, and he was fined as a result. [7]

The golden age of the Umfravilles would soon come to an end. During the years of Anglo-Scottish peace, Redesdale and its lords had profited from its location between two royal  jurisdictions. However, the Scottish succession crisis of 1290 led to devastating wars, the impact of which can be sensed from the royal inquisition into the condition of the Umfraville estates on 10 May 1325, following the death of Gilbert’s son, Robert. Family properties such as Prudhoe Castle, and estates at Inghou, Whelpington and Alwinton were found to have been burned or wasted, while the Scottish lands and titles were lost forever.[8]

Although the title lord of Redesdale remained with the Umfravilles until the extinction of the family’s main line in 1436, by then their interests had already shifted to estates that they had acquired through marriage in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and which were doubtless easier to manage.

Heiress abduction in medieval England was not unknown, and several cases survive in the records. The publication of printed transcripts of the Northumbrian court rolls considerably post-dates the writing of Coleridge’s Christabel.  The fact that the judge in Dionissia’s case shares a surname with a key character in Coleridge’s poem – Roland de Vaux – is most likely a diverting coincidence.

* * *


[1]  She is referred to elsewhere in court records as Dionissia “de Ba”. Other Bechfelds are mentioned in the crown’s judicial records for Northumberland in the late 13th century, but Dionissia’s identity remains sketchy. The case that she was pleading in all likelihood related to landed property.  The sureties are named as John Herle, Walter Tyndale and John Lithgreenes.  The Moor is possibly Middle Burn in Hexham, Northumberland.  Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, ed. J. Raine, Surtees Society, lxviii (1891), pp. xxv-xxvi; 369-273.   

[2] Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland III, 1307-1357 , 19, p. 4.

[3] Ancient Petitions Relating to Northumberland, ed. C. M. Fraser, Surtees Soc., 176 (1966), pp. 112-114, nos. 87 & 88; Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland II, 1272-1307 , 1972, p. 523.

[4] Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, p.147.

[5] J. H. Hodgson, A History of Northumberland in Three Parts, Part II, Vol, II (Newcastle, 1827) p. 28.

[6] Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, p.xxv

[7] Placita de Quo Warranto (HM Record Commisson, 1831), pp. 593-4.

[8] https://www.british-history.ac.uk/inquis-post-mortem/vol6/pp373-385#fnn1  (Inquisition post mortem, Robert de Umfraville, 10 May 1325).



Politics and presents in the age of Richard II

End of year gift-giving was a well-established practice in the middle ages, but was done at New Year rather than at Christmas. For the social and political elites, especially the higher nobility, gift-giving fulfilled several functions. It re-enforced ties of kinship and affinity; it asserted status; and cultivated and rewarded sympathetic behaviour in the invisible but nonetheless very real parallel political structure of private influence and patronage.

Some of the best records for late medieval gift-giving come from Henry of Lancaster, earl of Derby (and later King Henry IV) during two New Years, that of 1393-4 spent at Hertford Castle, and that of 1397-8, at least part of which was spent as a guest of the countess of Norfolk at Framlingham Castle. The records of Henry’s gift-giving are particularly well preserved, in part because he was able to draw upon the scribal bureaucracy of his father, the greatest nobleman of later medieval England, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (1340-1399).

Although an adult (born 1367) and a very wealth nobleman in his own right, Henry’s obligations and expenses were more than the revenues generated by the estates he enjoyed through his wife, the heiress Mary Bohun, and therefore he relied for about a third of his income on a direct grant charged from the duchy of Lancaster lands at Tutbury (Staffordshire) and Bolingbroke (Lincolnshire), his birthplace.  John of Gaunt’s concern to keep an eye on his son’s expenditure may help to account for the quality and clarity of the record-keeping in the duchy of Lancaster records.

The gifts given by Earl Henry at Hertford Castle on New Year’s Day 1394 were made into the hands of trusted servants of the ultimate recipients, who in turn were doubtless bringing gifts from their masters.  These were no mere hired couriers, but go-betweens of some social status, who would have been familiar with the etiquette of the great households of fourteenth century England, and were trusted with the full panoply of their masters’ private and public business, in peace and war. Indeed, only one of these messengers was described as a ‘valet’ rather than an ‘esquire.’ The payment of a gift, averaging £1, to each of these messengers further confirmed the earl’s munificence and doubtless helped to spread tales of his ‘good lordship’ within broader society, as well as perhaps emphasising the imperative of safe delivery, were it needed. (Given that a gentleman of some standing might expect an annual retainer of around £6 from a wealthier lord, this confirms the extent of Earl Henry’s investment in his reputation.)  As well as being extravagantly paid, the messengers were well fed on oysters, mussels and sprats brought from London, and feted by six minstrels, who had been hired ‘for Christmas’ prudently early on the preceding 26 October.

Earl Henry’s familia and social milieu can be reconstructed from his gifts. King Richard II (Earl Henry’s cousin) was gifted ‘a jewel with a crown and twelve pearls’ valued at £9 10s 10d, equal to the entire annual landed income of many an esquire. The Queen received ‘a collar of four jewels with thirty five pearls’ and Eleanor Bohun, duchess of Gloucester (the Earl’s aunt by marriage and also the sister of his own wife, Mary) received a similar collar of ‘three sapphires and twenty-six pearls’. The earl’s mother-in-law, Joan Bohun, dowager countess of Hereford and Essex, received ‘a tablet in the fashion of a tabernacle with an image of the Virgin Mary’, while England’s other most powerful widow, the countess of Norfolk, received a gold jewel.

The pieces given by Earl Henry included bespoke commissions from London’s top goldsmiths.  Thomas Mowbray, Earl Marshal (the grandson of the countess of Norfolk mentioned above) received a gold tablet by William Lannan, while Katherine, the wife of Earl Henry’s chief steward, Sir Hugh Waterton, received a gold ring by Drew Barrentine, one of the wealthiest craftsmen and citizens of London.  Donna Sancha de Ayala, the Castilian wife of Sir Walter Blount, Chamberlain of the Household of the earl’s father John of Gaunt, received a ‘gold ring with a ruby’ by Thomasin Flory.  Perhaps Earl Henry’s most tactical gift was a ‘jewel in the shape of an eagle’ (a Lancastrian family symbol) to his father’s mistress (and soon to be his step-mother) Katherine Swynford.  Sir Thomas Erpingham, another devoted Lancastrian retainer, received a ‘gold tablet in the shape of a book.’  To ensure that the earl’s children (possibly including a six-year-old future Henry V) were properly dressed for the festive season, their governess Marie Hervey had been issued grants of cloth at the beginning of December.

Four years later Henry of Lancaster’s household met again for New Year, but in very different circumstances.  In the summer of 1397 Richard II had turned against opponents of his policies, most notably two great magnates who had resisted his policies in the 1380s, his uncle Thomas, duke of Gloucester, and the earl of Arundel. Gloucester was secretly smothered to death in Calais, while Arundel was tried for treason and beheaded.  Earl Henry was rewarded for his acquiescence in the deaths (Gloucester was his uncle, and Arundel the brother of his mother-in-law Joan Bohun) with the title duke of Hereford, while Thomas Mowbray was made duke of Norfolk, even though his grandmother Countess Margaret yet lived, retaining the Norfolk estates – and now elevated to the title of duchess in her own right.  It was at her seat of Framlingham Castle that Duke Henry appears to have celebrated at least some of the New Year of 1397-8.

The shape of Duke Henry’s family was now very different from four years previously. Mary Bohun had died in childbirth in June 1394, and Henry remained a widow. Constance of Castile, duchess of Lancaster, had died three months earlier, and Henry had gained a new stepmother, Katherine Swynford, who married John of Gaunt in 1396.  Richard II had lost his first Queen, Anne of Bohemia, also in 1394, but two years later married Isabella, the daughter of Charles VI of France.

Duke Henry’s gifts of 1 January 1398 help us to chart both his changing family matrix, and other transitions in the top ranks of society.  Richard II (whose birthday was 6 January) received as a gift ‘An image of St John the Baptist’, his patron saint to whom he was utterly devoted, while the new Queen, Isabella of France, still a child, received ‘a crown with gold and pearls’. Gold tablets were a particular feature of Henry’s gift-giving that New Year, as recipients of these included his father, his new step-mother, his older sister Elizabeth, countess of Huntingdon, as well as his host, the duchess of Norfolk, and her great grand-daughter, Elizabeth Mowbray, then aged about four years old.  Duke Henry’s own son, Thomas, later duke of Clarence, then aged around eleven, received a silver cup, worth £4 7s 6d.

As well as the expected gift-giving among his wider family circle, Duke Henry also rewarded the duchess of Norfolk’s household staff at Framlingham.  Coral paternosters (prayer beads) were distributed to the keeper of the duchess’s household, John Wylmer, and to her treasurer, John Selby. Paternosters in gold boxes were also given to the duchesses’ ladies-in-waiting – Isabella Bassingbourne, Margaret Winter, Alice Milkfield, Alice Allerton, Elizabeth Greenford, Elizabeth Benyfield, Margaret Bassingbourne and Milicent. When these items are added to the cost of an image given to the duchesses’ confessor, the total spent by Duke Henry on presents to her household staff totalled £7 4s 8d.

Overall, at New Year 1398, Duke Henry spent £112 2s 10d on gifts. Given that an earl might be expected to have an income of at least £600, this level of expenditure was extraordinary, and reveals how much of a priority it was for Duke Henry.  While Henry was a man with exceptional expectations of future inheritance from his father, other great noblemen and women dug similarly deeply into their cash reserves to project their status and re-enforce their networks of kinship and relationship.

The following two years were highly turbulent for Duke Henry, and for many of those who featured among the recipients of his largesse. In the summer of 1398 he quarrelled bitterly with Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, each alleging to Richard II bad faith against the other touching the events around the murder of the duke of Gloucester in the previous year. Richard II summoned both Henry and Thomas to trial by combat at Coventry on 16 September 1398, but at the moment of battle he stayed the proceedings, sentencing the former for ten years, the latter for life.

John of Gaunt died on 3 February 1399 while his son Duke Henry was exiled in Paris. The taking into crown hands of the vast Lancastrian inheritance, worth about £11,000 annually, was the stated reason for Henry’s decision to breach the terms of his exile and return to England, capitalising on Richard II’s absence on an expedition in Ireland.  Unlike another French exile, Henry Tudor, eighty-six years later, Henry of Lancaster did not have to fight a full-scale battle to unseat King Richard II, as his support dwindled and disintegrated in August 1399.

Henry of Lancaster, notwithstanding his earlier promises just to be claiming his paternal inheritance, seized the throne, becoming King Henry IV (reigned 1399-1413). Shortly after an attempt to free Richard orchestrated by his supporters in January 1400, the former king was probably murdered on Henry’s orders. Among those to perish at this was Henry’s brother-in-law, the earl of Huntingdon, husband of his sister Elizabeth, and half-brother to Richard II, and one of the leading actors in the botched attempt at his restoration. Huntingdon was reputedly killed at Pleshey Castle in January 1400 on the orders of Henry’s mother-in-law, the formidable Joan Bohun, in delayed vengeance for his support for Richard II’s execution of her own brother, the earl of Arundel, and his murder of her son-in-law, the duke of Gloucester, both in 1397.

Thomas Mowbray would never live to see the long-anticipated inheritance that in normal circumstances would have come to him following Duchess Margaret’s death on 24 March 1399, as he himself died still an exile in Venice, possibly having succumbed to the plague, on 22 September. Beautifully watermarked letters from the Venetian Ambassador Antonio Bembo, endorsed by Doge Michele Steno himself, pursuing debts of 750 ducats incurred by the duke in his final months, sit apparently unanswered among the letters received by Henry IV in 1404.

King Henry IV, although surviving repeated revolts and attempts on his life, had bitter relations within his Parliament over his spending and struggled to live within his means, a pattern well-established by his New Year gift-giving while a younger man.

The main sources for this article were the account roles of William Loveney, clerk to the Great Wardrobe of Henry of Lancaster for 1393-4 (NA PRO DL 28/1/4) and for 1397-8  (NA PRO DL 28/1/6). Reference was also made to DL 41/10/41/1 & 10, transcribed by K. B. McFarlane in his papers, and to BL Cotton Nero B. VII, 15 & 17.

To learn more about high value gifts in late medieval England, a great starting point is the online catalogue of King Richard II’s treasure list, created by Dr Jenny Stratford, which is available on http://www.history.ac.uk/richardII/roll.html