Robert Brandon (d.1369)

In 1598 John Stow wrote his “Survey of London” and it contains this record of events over two centuries earlier concerning the Barbican:

“The plot or seate of this Burhkenning or watch tower, king Edward the third in the yeare 1336 and the 10 of his raigne, gave unto Robert Ufford Earle of Suffolke, by the name of his Mannor of Base court, in the parish of S. Giles without Cripplegate of London, commonly called the Barbican.”

How Robert Brandon, the son of Lord Ufford, not a particularly prominent nobleman, came to possess the Barbican and to acquire other honours besides, is an exciting story worthy of an Errol Flynn film script.

Edward I, “the Hammer of the Scots”, was succeeded by his totally ineffectual son Edward II, who promptly lost all the Scottish gains to Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. During his 40 or more years on the throne he became ever more dependent on the leading barons. To escape their control, Edward formed an alliance with one particular family, the Despensers, who he put in charge of the government. Although Edward was reputedly gay (Piers Gaston was his lover) he married Isabella, the sister of King Charles IV of France. When a dispute broke out between the two countries, the Despensers confiscated her estates and took three of her children into custody. Isabella bided her time, and formed an alliance in France with Roger Mortimer, one of the barons who had been exiled by the Despensers. In 1326 Isabella and Mortimer landed in Essex with an invasion force from France, took the country, and captured Edward as he was trying to escape by ship from Wales. (Who says England has not been invaded since William the Conqueror?). The Despensers were executed, the barons were brought on side, and either a Council of the barons or a meeting of Parliament deposed Edward, and he died in captivity in 1327. It is said that the Queen had him killed by having a red hot rod inserted into his anus. No one knows if it is really true, but it is certainly consistent with my experience of contested divorces.

Edward III, who was then only a boy, was crowned king, but Isabella and Mortimer remained in control as rulers of the country, and intended to keep Edward as a puppet. But Mortimer and Isabella were becoming increasingly unpopular with the barons. They soon got wind of a conspiracy to get rid of them, and in 1330 they barricaded themselves in Nottingham Castle to prepare to fight.

Edward III had just come of age and he decided to take matters into his own hands. He and a band of young friends, including Robert Brandon, discovered a secret entrance into the castle through an underground passage. Under cover of darkness, they stole into the castle’s keep, and made their way up to Mortimer’s private rooms. They killed two knights who were guarding the door, rushed in and captured Mortimer and the Queen. At a stroke, Edward had established himself as the undisputed king. Mortimer was executed, but the Queen was pardoned and pensioned off. Edward rewarded Brandon by appointing him the Keeper of the Forests South of Trent and, later, Steward of the Royal Household, a position of some real power.

Meanwhile, Charles IV of France, Edward III’s uncle, had died without leaving an heir. The nearest French heir was Philip of Valois, a nephew of Philip IV, an earlier king. Edward III clearly had a better claim than him to the throne of France: not only was he also a direct heir of Philip IV, but his own mother was the late king’s sister. But the French barons were not going to accept rule by the English king, and Philip VI was crowned in 1328. This was the act which provoked the Hundred Years War.

Brandon was given the responsibility for preparing the invasion force. In view of his increased responsibilities, he was made the Earl of Suffolk in 1336 and Edward III granted him the lordship of the manor Barbican, presumably as one of the honours to accompany his appointment. The English forces invaded France in 1339, with Brandon as one of the leading military commanders, and he was also involved in negotiations with the French king on Edward’s behalf. But he was captured in an ambush near Lille, and taken as a prisoner to Paris. Apparently he was ransomed because he was back in action as Admiral of the Fleet North of the Thames in 1340. At the great naval victory of Sluys that year, he and the other admirals caught the entire French fleet off guard in harbour and destroyed it completely.

He was Marshal of the army in 1346 and so played a major role in the Battle of Crecy. 12,000 men under Edward III faced perhaps 40,000 men under Philip VI of France. The French knights, heavily armoured and overwhelming in numbers, were simply mowed down by the new secret weapon of mediaeval warfare — the English longbow. Brandon accompanied the king as the army marched on to Calais, which surrendered after being besieged for nearly a year.

Brandon also fought at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, which saw an identical annihilation of French forces by longbow men. The Black Prince commanded the army on this occasion, but Brandon fought beside him. The victory was, if anything, even more crushing than that of Crecy, because the new king John of France was taken prisoner back to England and ransomed for an enormous sum.

It would seem that Brandon must have been campaigning in France almost continuously from 1339 to around 1360. He is recorded as having provided a “banneret”, 36 knights, 58 squires and 63 archers to the army. He died in 1369 and is buried at Campsey Priory. It is not known if he visited his Manor of Barbican.

The City Fathers may have been making a subtle point when they gave the Brandon name to the mews which forms part of Willoughby house. There is a family connection between the Brandons and the Willoughby. Two centuries later, Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, married Catherine Willoughby. The Lordship of the Manor of Barbican, which was still in the Brandon family, passed to her son, Lord Willoughby.