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Matilda De St. Valery, Lady Bergavenny

Born: circa 1153
Lady Bergavenny
Died: 1210 at Windsor Castle, Windsor, Berkshire

Despite claims that she was his sister, Matilda de St. Valery appears to have been the daughter of Bernard de St. Valery and his wife, Eleanor. The chief of their many family seats was the manor of Hinton Waldrist in Berkshire and the lady may have spent some time there in her childhood. It was probably in the late 1170s that her marriage was arranged with William de Braose, eldest son of William de Braose Senior of Bramber Castle in Sussex, eventual Lord Bergavenny. The couple subsequently inherited both the title and the vast Welsh dominion of the latter’s great grandfather, Bernard de Neufmarché, and set themselves up in style at Abergavenny Castle.

William soon became unpopular with his Welsh neighbours though, especially when, in 1176, they were invited as guests to his castle and subsequently massacred in revenge the death of his uncle, Henry de Hereford! Matilda was little better than this ‘Ogre of Abergavenny’ and the Welsh saw her as something of a supernatural character. They called her ‘Moll Walbee’ or the ‘Lady of Hay’ for she was said to have single-handedly carried, in her apron, all the stones to build Hay Castle in a single night. She was no meek little wife, but a significant warrior in her own right. In 1198, her long defence of Pains Castle, when under siege from the Welsh, earned it the name of ‘Matilda's Castle’. 

William was in high favour with King Richard I and, at first, with King John; often accompanying them to Normandy, while Matilda managed their estates in Wales. He was in close attendance on John at the time of his nephew Prince Arthur's mysterious death, in 1203 but, foreseeing, trouble had publicly refused to retain charge of him. As William apparently knew exactly what had happened to the young prince, it may have been in order to buy him off that he received a grant of the Gower Peninsula and the city of Limerick, in Ireland. The De Braoses had already been granted the rights to all lands that they might conquer from the Welsh, as well as a number of marcher castles. In January 1201, however, they had made the mistake of purchasing the honour of Limerick for 5,000 marks, which was to be paid in installments of 500 a year. The couple soon found they were unable – or unwilling – to keep up with the payments and within six years, the King used this as an excuse to seize some of their estates. This was a rather unsubtle attempt to silence the damaging gossip concerning his nephew's demise, which was emanating from the uncontrollable Matilda. Then, when England fell under the Papal interdict of 1208, William and Matilda’s son, Giles, Bishop of Hereford, became one of the five bishops who withdrew to France. King John became even more worried about the conduct of the family and sent messengers to demand hostages to ensure their loyalty. Matilda flatly refused to comply, despite William advising conciliation. She told the King abruptly that, as the man who had murdered the nephew under his protection, she was loathed to trust him. Realising later that such lack of tact was not a smart move, expensive gifts were sent to placate King John. Matilda is said to have sent Queen Isabella a herd of cows including a fine white bull with red ears. The monarch was not to be so easily bought, however, and William felt committed to resistance by his wife’s arrogance. He thus strove to regain a number of his castles by surprise but, failing this, stormed and sacked the town of Leominster instead. Upon the subsequent approach of the Royal forces, however, the whole family fled to Ireland and all their lands were seized by the Crown.

Across the Irish Sea, Matilda and William were harboured by William Marshal and the Lucys, who promised to surrender the latter within a certain time, but failed to do so till an invasion by King John’s forces became imminent. William then began his journey, under safe-conduct, back to court, while Matilda remained behind. However, he ended up merely harrying the Welsh countryside until the King arrived to stop him. A fine was negotiated for the restoration of the De Braose lands, but King John declared he must also treat with Matilda, as the principal in Ireland. William refused to accompany him and the lady was besieged in Meath, before fleeing to Scotland. She was captured in Galloway, with her eldest son, William, by Duncan of Carrick, and brought back to King John in Ireland - at Carrick Fergus - by the end of July. John extorted, from Matilda, a confirmation of her husband's offer of 40,000 marks and took her with him to England. When, however, neither Matilda nor her husband would pay anything, they were outlawed by default. William fled,  in disguise, to France, where he died the following year. Matilda was imprisoned, with her son, in the dungeons of Windsor Castle, where the vindictive King John left them both to starve to death. Tradition says that, when the bodies were eventually recovered, it was found that poor Matilda had gnawed at her sons cheeks in a desperate bid to survive.

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2003. All Rights Reserved.