William’s ‘Great Unthrift’

As I have mentioned before, the heart of the problem, which led to the toppling of Edward II, was the de Breoses’ inabiility to handle their money.

W H Jones, the historian of Swansea, summed them up like this: “The de Breoses were a licentious clan of freebooters, who appear to have been so habituated to duplicity and chicanery as to render it impossible to be straightforward and honest in their dealings with their neighbours.” What a condemnation!

The lawsuits and debts from William’s father were added to by William himself. As early as 1292, the king warned William that if he did not pay his debts, the king’s agents would enter Gower and take away his goods. Things came to a head in 1305 when his stepmother Mary de Roos took him to court over a debt of 800 marks, and won, much to William’s annoyance. He climbed over the bar and was so insulting to the judge that he was put in the Tower of London for contempt of court. He was virtually bankrupt and had to sell some of his lands to pay his debts. He also never paid the price for John de Mowbray marrying Alina.

Between 1272 & 1290 William disposed of ‘the former north gate of the outer bailey of the Castle of Swansea with two towers adjacent’ and the south gate of the same bailey. [Today this is by Argos and by Yates, for those who know Swansea]. Between 1307 & 1319 William disposed of two towers, one called ‘Donelstour’ (Donald’s tower) and one which belonged to Thomas de Singleton. Over the years he sold pieces of land, mills, coal mines, and the Swansea ferry. He also sold Loughor Castle to his steward, John Iweyn, who turned out to be an even bigger scoundrel than he was.

William’s tenants were never happy with him. In 1284 his tenants in the north-western corner of Gower asked that their lands be changed to the neighbouring Is-Cennan, which came under the king. In 1299 there was a suit from the Bishop of Llandaff, complaining that he had trespassed on the bishop’s manors, carried off some of his goods, and imprisoned some of his men. There was another suit almost the same in 1315. There were constant suits from his tenants that William had ‘oppressed’ them – fines, forced loans, imprisonment. The suit from his tenants in Gower in 1305 accused him of failing to protect them and their rights, and that he was a disgrace to the marcher lordships. He had also appointed a Sheriff, which was contrary to law. As a result, in 1306 he was forced to issue charters of rights for the burgesses of Swansea and his tenants in Gower, Welsh and English.

William’s wife Agnes died, and in 1317 he married the heiress Elizabeth de Sully, who brought him several manors, although they had no children. Having made arrangements to make Alina his heir, he nevertheless set about trying to sell the lordship of Gower, in order to raise money. At one point there were at least three lords who all claimed to have bought it. Eventually he sold it to the king’s favourite, Hugh Despenser (the younger), for the huge sum of £10,000. Alina’s husband, John de Mowbray, tried to hold on to their inheritance, and so gave rise to the barons’ rebellion – more of this to come.

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