For William de Braose December was the cruellest month, the time when his children are supposed to haunt Bramber Castle, writes Robert Stevens.
But for anyone who thinks the past was a chivalrous golden age, think again.
Bramber Castle is now a ruin, most of it was ruined by subsidence in the 16th century, but it was when built in 1073 the centre of one of the six Rapes of Sussex – Pevensey had Pevensey Castle, Hastings had Hasting Castle and Bramber its own Norman Castle built by William De Braose.
It was later William de Braose who became the black sheep of the family, by all accounts a cruel and vengeful man. He inherited Bramber in Sussex from his father and large parts of the Welsh Marches from his mother.
He committed his first December atrocity when he invited three Welsh princes and leaders to a Christmas feast at Abergavenny Castle.
It was to be a welcome of peace, a new start for the new year.
Having arrived in high spirits, he had them murdered as they sat in the castle’s Great Hall.
He was so vengeful that he even hunted down Cadwaladr, one of the sons, and slaughtered him – he was seven years old.
Although nicknamed the ‘Ogre of Abergavenny’, he had Royal favour and fought alongside Richard I, but when the King died there was a tricky question of who should take the throne - was it Arthur of Brittany, Son of Henry II or his younger brother John?
De Braose favoured John who allowed Arthur of Brittany to be taken into the care of De Braose in Rouen Castle.
What happened to Arthur? No one knows – he simply vanished or as one account accuses William ‘after dinner on the Thursday before Easter, when he was drunk and possessed by the devil [‘ebrius et daemonio plenus’], he slew him with his own hand, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine’.
But these were dangerous times and favour could flow and ebb and in the first years of the 13th century King John had enough of William de Braose. Why? It’s not really clear, he was accused of owing the Crown money from his estates. But the result was the King seized his lands, whilst William escaped to France dressed as a beggar.
King John particularly wanted to take hostage William’s wife, Maud St Valery and her children, which was hardly surprising as she outspokenly accused the King of murdering his own relative Arthur (and she maybe would know the truth of her husband’s involvement).
Having her and the children in custody, they were confined at Windsor and Corfe and simply left to starve to death.
As the cold month of December draws near, the nights shorten and the frosts crunch underfoot.
Four weeks to Christmas, but it never arrives for the De Braose children who return to Bramber.
Thin diminutive waifs, displaced in time, spectral skin and bones.
They cry and sob amongst the ruins and hold out their bony arms begging passers-by for bread... innocent ghosts from a cruel father and a murderous King.
Robert Stevens gives ghost walk tours in Sussex. For more details visit www.sussexguidedwalks.co.uk
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