1196: William FitzOsbert, medieval rebel

Add comment April 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1196, William FitzOsbert was torn from church sanctuary and hanged for one of medieval London’s most famous rebellions.

The setting is an England of King Richard I, meaning an England with an absentee king levying heavy taxes on his putative home realm to bankroll his foreign adventures. In reviewing the period’s Pipe Rolls, Doris Stenton remarked that they “give the impression of a country taxed to the limit.” Certainly the laboring classes believed themselves squeezed past dry, for “more frequently than usual,” in the words of the contemporary chronicler Roger of Hoveden, “aids to no small amount were imposed upon them, and the rich men, sparing their own purses, wanted the poor to pay everything.”

Our man FitzOsbert (or Fitz Osbert) was an educated lawyer who had been on Crusade with the occulted king, a fellow distinguished in appearance by his facial hair — “Longbeard” was his nickname — and in his manner by an evident grant of charisma. A later historian judges him “sharp of wit and some deal lettered; a bold man of speech, and sad of his countenance, and took upon him greater deeds than he could wield.”

As this interesting article on FitzOsbert notes, tax collection was a communal endeavor organized in local neighborhoods and wards, where neighbors assessed one another’s means: they naturally invited class friction. Longbeard apparently had a talent for catalyzing it; according to William of Newburgh — another contemporary, and a far more hostile witness than Roger of Hoveden —

At length, by his secret labors and poisoned whispers, he revealed, in its blackest colors to the common people, the insolence of the rich men and nobles by whom they were unworthily treated; for he inflamed the needy and moderately wealthy with a desire for unbounded liberty and happiness, and allured the many, and held them fascinated, as it were, by certain delusions, so closely bound to his cause, that they depended in all things upon his will, and were prepared unhesitatingly to obey him as their director in all things whatsoever he should command.

A powerful conspiracy was therefore organized in London, by the envy of the poor against the insolence of the powerful, The number of citizens engaged in this plot is reported to have been fifty-two thousand — the names of each being, as it afterwards appeared, written down and in the possession of the originator of this nefarious scheme. A large number of iron tools, for the purpose of breaking the more strongly defended houses, lay stored up in his possession, which being afterwards discovered, furnished proofs of a most malignant conspiracy. Relying on the large number who were implicated by zeal for the poorer classes of the people, while he still kept up the plea of studying the king’s profit, he began to beard the nobles in every public assembly, alleging with powerful eloquence that much loss was occasioned to the revenue through their dishonest practices …

this man, bent upon his object, and surrounded by his rabble, pompously held on his way, convoking public meetings by his own authority, in which he arrogantly proclaimed himself the king or savior of the poor, and in lofty phrase thundered out his intention of speedily curbing the perfidy of the traitors.

The pride of his discourses is plainly shown by what I have learned of a trustworthy man, who asserted that he himself had some days before been present at a meeting convened by him, and had heard him address the people. Having taken his text or theme from the Holy Scriptures, he thus began: “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” [Isaiah 12:3] — and applying this to himself, he continued, “I am the savior of the poor. Do ye, oh, poor! who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and ye may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble from the haughty and treacherous. I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.”

As FitzOsbert gained a wide following among commoners, the authorities — in this case led by the Archbishop of Canterbury/Crown Justiciar (same guy) Hubert Walter, since the vagabond king had returned to the continent and his beloved wars — feared an outbreak of civil war and moved to suppress the emerging rebel. When Hubert’s men attempted to arrest FitzOsbert, he escaped with his closest followers to St. Mary-le-Bow church. Fearing the consequences of a prolonged standoff that would permit this tribune of the people to rally an insurrectionary defense, the Archbishop gave no regard to sanctuary and “attacked with fire and smoke” this house of god until FitzOsbert was forced from its precincts. (And the steeple destroyed by fire.)

Yet even his death at Smithfield on April 6th — dragged “through the centre of the city to the elms, his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the elms with his associates and died” — was not his end, for the popular militant immediately ascended to the ranks of folk sainthood. William of Newburgh, again:

The extent to which this man had by his daring and mighty projects attached the minds of the wicked to himself, and how straitly he had bound the people to his interests as the pious and watchful champion of their cause, appeared even after his demise. For whereas they should have wiped out the disgrace of the conspiracy by the legal punishment of the conspirator, whom they stigmatized as impious and approved of his condemners, they sought by art to obtain for him the name and glory of a martyr. It is reported that a certain priest, his relative, had laid the chain by which be had been bound upon the person of one sick of a fever, and feigned with impudent vanity that a cure was the immediate result. This being spread abroad, the witless multitude believed that the man who had deservedly suffered had in reality died for the cause of justice and piety, and began to reverence him as a martyr: the gibbet upon which he had been hung was furtively removed by night from the place of punishment, in order that it might be honored in secret while the earth beneath it, as if consecrated by the blood of the executed man, was scraped away in handfuls by these infatuated creatures, as something consecrated to healing purposes, to the extent of a tolerably large ditch. And now the fame of this being circulated far and wide, large bands of fools, “whose number,” says Solomon, “is infinite,” and curious persons flocked to the place, to whom, doubtless, were added those who had come up out of the various provinces of England on their own proper business to London.

The idiot rabble, therefore, kept constant watch and ward over the spot; and the more honor they paid to the dead man, so much the greater crime did they impute to him by whom he had been put to death.

Hubert Walter was eventually obliged to set guards at this shrine to chase away its pilgrims and forcibly suppress the emerging cult.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Heresy,History,Politicians,Public Executions,Treason

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