The Braose Lords of Bramber
by Lynda Denyer

The pretty little village of Bramber was the English headquarters of one of the most powerful and feared medieval families of England and Wales. Strange, but true! Their exploits during 300 years are summarised here, and it's not a pretty story.

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Bramber CastleGatehouse ruins, Bramber Castle

How many people have walked around Bramber Castle on a sunny afternoon and asked themselves, “Who was William de Braose?” The sign says he built the castle in about 1071. I stood in front of it in 1996 with my husband, Doug, and we decided to find out more.

A trip to St Mary de Haura church, in Shoreham, was even more intriguing. Apparently, another William de Braose extended the church, “to atone for the murder of the Welsh princes”. What was our local baron doing in Wales, committing murder?

Finding the answers to our questions wasn’t as easy as we thought. There was little reliable information on the Internet at the time and so we recorded our research on a website. Curious local visitors can now find out in ten minutes what we took ten years to discover, and our research is still ongoing.

William de Braose arrived in England with William the Conqueror. His mother’s name was Gunnor. She became a nun at the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen, Normandy, which was established by the Conqueror’s queen, Matilda. Some of the property Gunnor gave to the abbey was associated with members of the the Ivry family - Albereda, Hugh and Roger. Emma d’Ivry was the mother of William the Conqueror’s most powerful favourite, William fitz Osbern.

These are the best clues we have as to William de Braose’s parentage. He was entrusted with a key Sussex position at Bramber and land in other English counties, besides Briouze, a strategic location in Normandy. It seems likely that he came from the extended family of the Dukes of Normandy but for genealogists his ancestry is still a frustrating loose end. William probably married the widow of Anchetil de Harcourt, Eve de Boissey, but even this detail remains inconclusive.

Bramber Castle Steps Ruins of Bramber Castle

In the Steyning Museum library there is a small book: The Chartulary of the Priory of Saint Peter at Sele. It contains a series of charters relating to the Norman priory in Upper Beeding. The first William de Braose gave many of his churches in Normandy and Sussex to the Abbey of St Florent in Saumur, Anjou. Its Benedictine monks established priories in Briouze and Upper Beeding. Successive Braose lords of Bramber confirmed their ancestor’s gifts in writing, and provided us with an invaluable family record.

There are many more sources. Gerald of Wales is one of the most entertaining. He became the Archdeacon of Brecon in 1175 and wrote colourful accounts of the times until his death in 1223. Gerald knew the Braoses as neighbours and friends, and they personally endorsed his work.

By 1096, the first William de Braose had been succeeded by his son, Philip, who appears in Gerald’s book The Journey Through Wales. Philip ventured into Wales and took Radnor and Builth. He was a crusader and married the Patriarch of Jerusalem’s niece, Aanor, daughter of Judhael of Totnes. Philip was the tenth most wealthy layman in England. Gerald tells us little of this but could not resist repeating a Braose family legend.

Gerald says that some time during the reign of Henry I, the Lord of Radnor and his dogs spent a night in the church of St Afan. They had been hunting near Builth. At first light, Philip woke to find that all his dogs had gone mad and he himself was blind.

After years of "tedium and darkness", Philip grasped an opportunity to redeem his offence against the Church, "for he did not wish his spiritual light to be extinguished as his eyes had been". He armed himself and travelled to Jerusalem on a strong war horse, led by a group of friends. They took him to the front line of battle, where he charged gallantly forward. Philip was immediately struck down by a sword blow and so met an honourable death.

Bramber Castle Walls Walls at Bramber Castle

Philip actually died in 1137-9. His son, William, married Bertha, daughter of Miles of Gloucester. Miles’ heir became a monk and four more sons died in quick succession, leaving Bertha as the unexpected heiress of Brecon and Abergavenny in Wales. By 1175, William and Bertha’s son, William, had acquired vast property in England, Wales and Normandy and Welsh folklore still recalls the terror of his reputation.

William’s wife, Matilda de St Valery, held Hay-on-Wye in her own right from the King. As “Moll Walby”, the giantess and witch, folklore claims that she built Hay Castle single handed, in one night. She carried the stones in her apron but one got stuck in her slipper. She flicked it out over the River Wye, three miles away where it survives to this day as a nine foot tall standing stone at Llowes Church. William is the “Ogre of Abergavenny” who famously murdered the Welsh princes.

Gerald of Wales is the most lurid source for this true story. In 1175, William de Braose was instructed by King Henry II to forbid all Welsh men in his domains to bear arms. William invited the princes and chieftains of Gwent to a feast at Abergavenny Castle to give them the news. The guests politely left their weapons outside but the merrymaking came to abrupt halt when William made his announcement.

The unarmed Welsh guests rose to their feet in protest and William’s men swiftly murdered them all, including Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, Lord of Upper Gwent, and his son Gruffyd. Gerald gives William’s bizarre excuse, that he was tossed into the castle moat and only rescued by his men after the terrible event. Nonetheless, William’s men ravaged Seisyll’s lands, pursued Seisyll’s widow and slaughtered seven year old Prince Cadwaladr in his mother’s arms. No wonder William is credited with rebuilding churches to atone for these atrocities and there are more stories which fuelled his brutal reputation.

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6 June 2016

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