Linda Mitchell

title.none: Morris, The Bigod Earls of Norfolk (Linda Mitchell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0705.023 07.05.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Linda Mitchell, Alfred University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Morris, Marc. The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the Thirteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 261. $80.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 1843831643, ISBN-13: 9781843831648 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.05.23

Morris, Marc. The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the Thirteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 261. $80.00 (hb) ISBN-10: 1843831643, ISBN-13: 9781843831648 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Linda Mitchell
Alfred University


Although they were one of the most prominent families in post-Conquest Britain, and have figured in many histories of the thirteenth century political crises in the British Isles as well as in studies of lordship and administration, the Bigods have rarely been the principle subjects of historical analysis. Marc Morris, an independent scholar best known for his ITV Channel 4 series on castles, has presented a thorough (and I mean thorough) political history of the last two Bigod earls of Norfolk, Roger III and his nephew, Roger IV. This study is apparently derived from Morris's doctoral thesis, which he completed at Merton College in 2003.

Based on a meticulous exploration of both public records--a very large number of these, including the first thorough study of Roger IV's household accounts collected under the rubric SC6 (Special Collections-Minister's Accounts)--chronicles, and charters housed mostly at the British Library, and with copious reference to specialists on the political world in the thirteenth century (whom he acknowledges as well in his Preface), this work strives to have the last word on the last of the Bigods. As relentlessly detailed as it is, however, the biography is missing a few components that might have rounded out what is fundamentally a political portrait of two political actors, presented in a traditional document-driven fashion. It is engaging and tremendously informative, but I found myself craving just a little less of the Rogers and a little more of the people around them.

The biography begins with a brief introduction to the Bigod genealogy from the Conquest to Roger III's birth sometime around 1209. His parents, Maud la Marshal, daughter of William le Marshal and Isabella de Clare, and Hugh II Bigod, eldest son of Roger II and Ida de Tosny, are introduced at the beginning and make brief appearances in the early parts of the narrative. From page 3, however, it is more or less Roger all the way through until his nephew and heir, Roger IV, son of Hugh III, Roger III's younger brother, and Joanna de Stuteville, begins to enter the picture as an affine to the old earl his uncle. At Roger III's death in 1270, Roger IV both succeeds him as earl and supplants him in the narrative. Roger IV's death in 1306 effectively ends the story, with the conclusion of the joint biography operating more or less as a summation rather than as an opportunity to supply a unique analytical perspective. There are a number of very useful appendices at the back of the book, including a brief calendar of all the Bigod charters, most of which were supplied to Morris by David Crouch, according to his acknowledgements in the Preface. Although slender (fewer than 200 pages not counting the appendices), the volume is crammed with detailed information about the political, military, and diplomatic careers of the two Rogers. Morris also takes pains to identify who participated as members of the comital household and affinity, who moved in and out of both and who stayed for the long haul. While this uncovering of more personal relationships is quite valuable, its value lies in the political and public sphere rather than in the private or domestic. The relationships discussed are those that emphasize the theater of the comital court: how many knights accompanied Roger to Westminster Hall in 1258, how many formed Roger IV's muster to Scotland, and so on. The personal relationships between the earls and their affines are shrouded by their public performances in the earls' households. For example, while Morris does provide an interesting view of Roger III's public relationship with his brother- in-law, John fitzGeoffrey, which was important to his career as a dissenting voice in the political community pitted against King Henry III, he does not really attempt to tease out any analysis of their private relationship as brothers-in-law. Roger III's reputation as a tournament aficionado and huntsman, and Roger IV's obsession with building and expanding the castles he controlled in England, Wales, and Ireland are discussed in some detail, but the book is far less detailed about their private lives or those of their families.

Because of the dearth of information about the spouses of the Bigod men, about their siblings and cousins, and about family and affinal relationships that they experienced as a result of the partitioning of the great Marshal family estates after the death of Walter and Anselm Marshal in 1245, the portraits painted of the two Rogers are the stuff of very traditional historical biography, on the model of Maddicott's portrait of Simon de Montfort or even Powicke's King Henry III and the Lord Edward. Considering that he had other models of family history at his disposal--ones which he acknowledged as being influential--such as Michael Altschul's A Baronial Family in England: The Clares, 1217-1314, the choices made by Morris to focus the vast bulk of his attention on the public and political careers of these two thirteenth-century earls of Norfolk must have been deliberate. Certainly, the sources available for both men tend to steer the historian toward a political perspective. Nevertheless, it would have been refreshing to see him struggle a bit more with imagining Roger III and Roger IV as family men, as husbands and uncles and cousins. Such an exercise might have breathed a little more life into his subjects. It would have been a harder book to write, certainly, but perhaps might have appealed to a broader audience than it presently does.

Nevertheless, Morris does fulfill the promises made in his preface, although not necessarily those made on the inside flap of the dust jacket. The portraits of the two Bigod earls of Norfolk in the thirteenth century give readers a terrifically detailed view of the ways in which the political energies of the century were experienced by the elites. Roger III and IV moved in and out of the cluster of magnates who orbited around the royal court. Although often in conflict with the king, their perspectives were essentially conservative: no hot-headed freethinkers here. The two men were dedicated to the preservation of their ancient liberties, to the maintenance of their affinities and their landed interests, and to the promotion of their reputations as men of honor. Morris seems to suggest that their integrity could have worked against them at times. Indeed, the disagreements they had with their respective monarchs (Henry III for Roger III and Edward I for Roger IV) seem to have included a significant clash of personalities as well. One of the most tantalizing moments in Morris's conclusion appears when he suggests that, "had the two men come in a different order, they might have enjoyed better relations with the Crown." (187) This idea evokes more personality in one brief phrase than reams of detail about either man, and it seems to come as something of an afterthought. That glimmer, however, does much to redeem Morris of the charge of over-emphasis on the political to the detriment of the personal.