The Robber Baron of Bedford Castle

The Robber Baron of Bedford Castle

A. J. Foster
A. J. Foster

Author: Cuthell, Edith E., -1929
Knights and knighthood — Fiction
Inheritance and succession — Fiction
Prisoners — Fiction
Rescues — Fiction
Marriage — Fiction
Brigands and robbers — Fiction
Romance fiction
Great Britain — History — 13th century — Fiction
The Robber Baron of Bedford Castle









  1. By the Banks of Ouse

  2. Bletsoe Manor-House

  3. How Aliva received a Second Suitor

  4. In Bedford Castle

  5. In Elstow Abbey

  6. A Penitent

  7. “*Arcades Ambo*”

  8. Justice in Bonds

  9. An Unexpected Meeting

  10. Through Ouse Marshes

  11. Breathing-Time

  12. At the Castle of Eaton Socon

  13. The Bird in the Cage

  14. The Sanctuary Violated

  15. Ralph raps at the Castle Gate

  16. Within the Castle Walls

  17. The King in Council

  18. Heard Underground

  19. Fears and Hopes

  20. Love Laughs at Locksmiths

  21. The Castle Falls

  22. Ralph to the Rescue

  23. A tête-à-tête Ride to Elstow Abbey

  24. “*De Mortuis*”


“Aliva recognized on the helmet the crest of the De
Beauchamps” . . . . . . Frontispiece.

“The soldiers cast the bailiff into the midst of the fire”

The Robber Baron making his peace with the Church

“Thronging the castle-yard was a crowd of servants
and retainers”

A wild chase through Ouse marshes

The council at Northampton

A desperate plunge

“Through fire and smoke the besiegers stormed the breach”





In the first quarter of the thirteenth century, the
evil doings of King John were yet fresh in the
minds of men all over England, and the indirect
consequences of his evil deeds were still acutely felt, and
nowhere more than in Bedfordshire, where the scene
of our story is laid. The county itself has much
altered in appearance since that period. Great woods,
intersected by broad, soft green lanes, overran its
northern portion. Traces of these woods and roads
still survive in Puddington Hayes and Wymington
Hayes, and the great broad “forty-foot.” South of this
wild wooded upland, one natural feature of
Bedfordshire remains unchanged. Then, as now, the Great
Ouse took its winding, sluggish course from
southwest to north-east across the county, twisting
strangely, and in many places turning back upon
itself as though loath to leave Bedfordshire. Some
fifteen miles from point to point would have taken it
straight through the heart of the little county,
whereas its total course therein is more like fifty. One
poetic fancy likens the wandering stream to a lover
lingering with his mistress, but old Drayton compares
it to one of the softer sex:–

“Ouse, having Olney past, as she were waxed mad,
From her first staider course immediately doth gad,
And in meandering gyves doth whirl herself about,
That, this way, here and there, back, forward, in and out.
And like a wanton girl, oft doubting in her gait,
In labyrinthine turns and twinings intricate,
Through those rich fields doth flow.”

It is in the Ouse valley that the events of our story
will chiefly be laid, for here was centred the life of
the county, in those castles which once crowned with
their keeps the various mounds which still exist,–

“Chiefless castles, breathing stern farewells

From gray but leafy walls, where Ruin greenly dwells.”

It was along the banks of the Ouse, a little north
of Bedford, that a young knight was riding one bright
January morning in 1224. By his side hung his
good sword, though he was clad only in the ordinary
riding dress of the period; for these were troublous
times, and the country round by no means secure.
At Bedford Castle, Sir Fulke de Breauté, one of the
late King John’s lieutenants, sat strongly intrenched,
like the robber-barons of a later day in their castles
on the Rhine, spreading devastation far and wide.

Young Ralph de Beauchamp, who was making his
way that winter morning along the marshy banks of
the river, which were later to develop into Drayton’s
“rich meadows,” was the son of the younger brother
of the former occupant and ejected owner of Bedford
Castle. For more than a hundred years the banner
of the De Beauchamps had waved from Bedford keep.
Their ancestor, Hugo de Beauchamp, had received the
feof from the Conqueror, together with many a broad
manor in the county. His son, Pain, had reared the
strong keep on the lofty mound which to this day
overlooks the Ouse, and from which Cuthwulf the
Saxon had driven the Britons in 572, pursuing them
far south into the Thames valley. Later on, the
Danes, sailing up the Ouse, had burned the Saxon
Burh; but the Norman keep, though it had
surrendered, had never yet been taken by assault. Eight
years before the time of our story, William de
Beauchamp, the head of the family, and the uncle of young
Ralph, had sided with the barons who were standing
up for the liberties of England against King John,
and had been ousted by John’s ferocious lieutenant,
Fulke de Breauté. This latter, as has been told, now
held the castle, no longer as lieutenant for Henry,
John’s youthful successor, but as the leader of a band
of robbers, who knew no right but might.

Thus it had come to pass that the house of De
Beauchamp, once so powerful in Bedfordshire, was
rather down in the world in the early part of the
thirteenth century, and young Sir Ralph felt the
reverses of his family. Left an orphan in childhood,
he had been brought up by his uncle William, and
though a penniless knight, heir neither to the estates
of Bedford, nor to those of another branch of the
family seated at the castle of Eaton Socon, lower
down the river, he had, as it were, been rewarded by
nature with more than a compensating share of the
graces of face and form. He was, moreover, a
proficient in those exercises of the tilt-yard which formed
an important part of a knightly education, and which
were as dear to young men in the thirteenth century
as are their athletic pursuits to those of the present
day. Nor had his mental training been entirely
neglected. True, the latter would not be considered
much now-a-days; but in his boyhood, in Bedford
Castle, Ralph had sat many hours in the chaplain’s
room, when he would much rather have been bathing
or fishing in the stream below the walls, learning
from the venerable priest how to read, write, and
speak Latin, then a most necessary part of a
gentleman’s education.

But neither poverty nor the misfortunes of his
family appeared to weigh heavily on Sir Ralph’s mind,
to judge by the cheerful expression of his countenance,
as he rode along humming the refrain of an old
Provençal love-song, which some of De Beauchamp’s
retainers had brought into Bedfordshire from fair
France. Neither did he seem in any dread of Fulke
de Breauté’s myrmidons, for the valley was clear of
such as far as eye could reach, though it was then in
great measure overflowed by the waters of the Ouse.
As was not unusual then in winter-time, the broad
river had risen above its low-lying banks, and a vast
expanse of water shimmered far and wide in the
sunlight. Later on, in Fuller’s time, a not uncommon
saying gave the Ouse the name of the “Bailiff of
Bedfordshire,” from the quantity of hay and other
distrained from the low-lying lands by these
frequent and extensive floods.

As Ralph approached Milton Mill, which was half
submerged, and perforce inactive, he reined up his
steed, who was already up to her fetlocks in the
shallow flood which covered the meadows and the track,
and eagerly scanned the watery waste before him, for
his keen eye had caught sight of something dark
being whirled down the rushing torrent. For an
instant he doubted as to whether it were not some snag
or tree-branch torn from the willows in the osier-bed
further up. But the truth flashed upon him when he
perceived a slight struggle on the part of the object,
something which might be an arm raised from the
water, and clutching despairingly at nothing.

“B’ our Lady!” exclaimed the young knight,
“there goes some poor wretch who seems like to die
unshriven, unless I can give him a helping hand!
‘Tis but a chance.–But come up, my lady,” he added,
admonishing his good gray mare with a slight prick
from the heavy goads or “pryck spurs” which armed
his heels; “we can but do our best!”

So saying, Ralph hastily turned his steed to the
left, and rode quickly through the slush, down the
half-submerged bank, and into the stream. There
was not a moment to lose. Judging his distance
carefully, he forced the mare into the river a little
below the struggling figure, which seemed to be
encumbered with heavy clothing. The current, turgid
and lead-coloured, swirled violently round the stout
steed, who had enough to do to keep on her feet
against it, weighted as she was with her stalwart
rider. Further and further Ralph forced her with
voice and spur, though she backed and stumbled,
bewildered by the novel situation, and battling against
the current. Already the swiftly-eddying water had
reached her shoulders, when, by her head thrown
back, her distended nostrils and starting eye, Ralph
saw she could do no more.

So, bending low down over his saddle-bow, and
reaching out his right arm as far as he was able to
stretch, he awaited the critical moment when the
drowning man should be swept down towards him.
Then, quick as thought, he gripped with an iron
grasp at the black frock in which the figure was
clothed, and turned his horse sharply round. The
good steed fought her way bravely out of the
stream, her rider dragging the drowning man behind him.

The moment he found himself on dry land once
more, Ralph leaped off to breathe his horse, and to look
at the half-unconscious man he had rescued, and who
was clad in the lay or serving brother’s habit of the

Kneeling by his side, the knight chafed his wet
face and hands, and presently his eyes opened, and he
sat up.

“Thanks to Our Lady and St. Benedict!” he
muttered, “and to you, Sir Knight! But I thought
it was all over with me.”

“And, in good sooth, I thought so too, my good
fellow!” exclaimed Sir Ralph, stamping to shake the
water off his leathern hose and jerkin and woollen
surcoat. “But how came you to venture alone, and
without a guide, across the ford at flood time?” he
added, much relieved to see the lay-brother, who was
young and robust, rise to his feet and begin to wring
his habit.

“I was bred and born in these parts, Sir Knight,”
replied the latter, “and I could find my way across
Milton Ford blindfold. Nay, I have even crossed it
in worse seasons than this. But that was before I
took upon me this habit, and I trow our holy founder
did not contemplate that his followers should have to
swim for their lives in it. Moreover, I have travelled
far and swiftly, and I am weary.”

“And have you much further to go yet?” inquired
the knight.

“But as far as Bletsoe,” replied the lay-brother.

“Then get you up behind me on my horse,”
answered Ralph, “and together we will take our road,
for my journey also ends at Bletsoe.”

“Nay, Sir Knight,” replied the lay-brother, glancing
at Ralph’s gilt spur of knighthood; “that would be
far from seemly. This is not the first time by any
means that the Ouse has tried to knock the breath
out of my body, for I was brought up on his banks.
My father is one of the retainers of my Lord de
Pateshulle, and lives just between my lord’s house and
the river. Moreover, it will be best for me to trudge
along on foot, and maybe my clothes will be dry
before I have finished my journey. Not that I can
ever forget your kind help, sir, or my merciful
deliverance, thanks be to God,” he added, devoutly
crossing himself.

Accordingly Ralph, the mare having recovered herself
from her gallant struggle in the water, remounted,
and the lay-brother stepped out bravely by his side.

“And prithee, my good fellow,” asked the knight,
“how came you to be struggling in the Ouse this
morning in your Benedictine dress?”

“Alas, sir!” replied the lay-brother, “I am one of
the humblest servants of the holy Abbey of
St. Albans, and I am but just now escaped from greater
danger than that which you beheld befall me in the
Ouse, for at dusk yesterday came that enemy of God,
Sir Fulke de Breauté–“

“Ay!” interrupted Ralph, “that disgrace to
knighthood–the treacherous robber who hath seized my
uncle’s castle!”

The lay-brother looked up at the handsome face
turned down upon him, and then at the arms
embroidered on his surcoat. Bowing his head in
obeisance to his companion when he recognized that he
was in the presence of one of the family of De Beauchamp,
he proceeded to relate a terrible tale of murder
and outrage committed at St. Albans but the day
before by the Robber Baron of Bedford Castle.

“We had but just finished the office of nones in
our beautiful abbey church, Sir Knight,” he continued,
“when we heard a terrible noise of fighting and
confusion at the very gate of the abbey itself. The
porter’s man came rushing in to tell us that De
Breauté (whom the saints send to perdition!), with a
large band of his Bedford robbers, was in possession
of the town, ill-treating the townsfolk in every way,
binding many of them fast as prisoners, and
demanding admission into our own sacred precincts. I
and some others ran to the gate-house, and looking
forth from the upper windows, beheld a terrible sight.
In front of the gate the soldiers and men-at-arms had
formed a half-circle, and in the midst were a great
crowd of townsfolk–men, women, and children–all
with their arms bound behind their backs, buffeted,
kicked, and mocked by the villains who guarded
them. And against the gate there was a huge fire
kindled, in order that the gate itself might, if possible,
be destroyed. And by the fire stood that arch-fiend
Fulke himself, calling to our reverend father abbot
to come and speak with him. Then, as we looked,
we saw certain soldiers drag forward one of the
townsmen, and by the light of the blaze–for it was
already dark–I saw that it was no other than his
worship the bailiff of the town who was thus treated.
And then (O merciful God, show thy vengeance
upon Fulke and his crew!) they cast him, bound as he
was, into the midst of the fire! O sir, the shrieks of
this man, dying in torture, as the soldiers thrust him
down with their spears!”

“The soldiers cast the bailiff into the midst of the fire.”

He paused for breath a moment, as if overwhelmed
with the horrible memory of what he had witnessed.
The gray mare started, spurred unconsciously in his
wrath by her rider, who, with teeth clinched, muttered
imprecations upon Fulke de Breauté.

“Go on,” he said; “let me hear the whole of this
devil’s work!”

The lay-brother went on.

“Next our father abbot looked down from the
window and began to upbraid the impious Fulke for
his great wickedness. But when De Breauté heard
him, he looked up and cried, ‘Hasten, my Lord Abbot,
and send me, with all speed, from your abbey coffers
the sum of one hundred pounds, not more, not less, or,
by my soul, the whole town shall be sacked, and the
burgesses served as their bailiff!’ Then some of my
lord’s court waxed wroth, and one of them, a young
noble, and a dear friend of my lord abbot, cried,
‘Who will with me, that we drive these impious
robbers away?’ And certain of the household,
together with some of the younger serving-brothers,
and myself among them, agreed to follow the young
knight if he would lead us–“

“‘Twas bravely spoken–bravely done,” interrupted
Ralph impetuously.

“And we rushed out through the gate, and through
the fire, and across the burnt body of the bailiff. But,
alack! we had but staves in our hands, and clubs–for
Holy Church forbids us to use more carnal weapons–and
so what could we do against armed men? Our
leader was struck down dead by Fulke himself–I
saw the deed with my own eyes. We could not get
us back into the abbey, for the brethren had closed
the gate behind us. We fled, or tried to flee, in all
directions. I myself made my way by force of my
right arm and my club through the soldiers where
the line was the weakest. Whether my comrades
escaped I know not. God be with their souls! Then
I girded up my frock and ran until I had distanced
those who pursued me, clad as they were in their
heavy armour. Praise be to the saints, I am healthy
and strong, and, thanks to you, Sir Knight, have
escaped the broad Ouse’s waters as well this day!”

Ralph, who during the lay-brother’s narrative had
kept up an undercurrent of muttered curses on Fulke
de Breauté and his followers, glanced with admiration
at the sturdy young hero by his side.

“Methinks,” he said, smiting him a good-natured
slap upon the back, “that Mother Church has despoiled
us of a good soldier here! But, say, how comes it
that you make your way by Milton Ford at this flood
season, and not high and dry over Bedford Bridge?”

“I have journeyed all night, Sir Knight,” he replied,

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