William fitz Osbert
- Derek Keene
William fitz Osbert (d. 1196), populist leader, was the son of Osbert the Clerk, and also known as William cum barba ('with the beard'). He was a controversial figure of whom one contemporary said that he cultivated his barba prolixa (hence the later name Longbeard) to make himself conspicuous. To the populace it may have signified his learning, and his roles as a pilgrim and opponent of authority. Born in London, but not of a prominent family, William was supported during school vacations by his elder brother, Richard. His father, who died in or before 1185 or 1186, left him city property, part of which he leased to his brother to raise money for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was one of the 'worthy and well-armed young men' (Chronica … Hovedene, 3.42) on the London ship which sailed for Jerusalem soon after Easter 1190 as part of the third crusade. A vision of St Thomas of Canterbury comforted several of the Londoners during a storm, but their voyage came to an end when the ship was commandeered by the townsmen for the defence of Silves, in Portugal.
Back in London by Michaelmas 1190, William, who was quick-witted, eloquent, and had knowledge of the law, became embroiled in civic strife. In part he was motivated by animosity towards his brother, who refused his threatening requests for money. In the presence of King Richard, whose favour he enjoyed, and again before the justices at Westminster in November 1194, he accused his brother and others of treasonable words, especially concerning the money levied for the king's ransom: they had proclaimed, he said, that Londoners would have no king but their mayor. He obtained a position in city government, and emerged as spokesman for the poor and middling citizens in their struggle against the rich, including the mayor and members of the commune sworn in 1191. At issue was the evasion of taxes by the wealthy and the heavy burden borne by lesser men—a cause of great loss to the royal treasury, so William claimed. During assemblies at St Paul's Cathedral he incited, with a zeal for justice and equity, what some perceived as sedition, forming a sworn association said to contain 52,000 citizens who obeyed his authority rather than that of the mayor. While the richer citizens prepared for their defence, he collected crowbars to break into their houses. He visited the king overseas, pleading his own cause and that of the Londoners.
Matters came to a head in 1196, when Hubert Walter, as regent in the absence of the king and with the support of the leading citizens, took firm action. Summoned to Walter's presence, William appeared with a mob. Later he slew one of two 'noble citizens' sent to capture him. With his mistress and some followers he fled to the church of St Mary-le-Bow, where he made a fortified refuge in the tower. Walter sent troops, and, on 6 April, the church was set on fire. Driven out by smoke William was stabbed in the stomach by the son of the citizen he had killed. He was condemned at the Tower of London and dragged to the gallows at Tyburn, where he was hanged in chains with nine accomplices. The people venerated him as a martyr: a priest reported cures wrought by the chain which had bound him, while the scaffold and the earth beneath containing his blood were taken away as relics. Hubert Walter punished the priest and sent troops to drive away the crowds which flocked to the site. By Michaelmas 1196 William's London house had been sold on behalf of the king.
Despite contradictions in the evidence, William's story is significant for revealing the complex roots of civic strife in London at a time when new social and political identities were being formed. The drama thrilled and shocked contemporaries, since William confessed to having polluted with his seed the church where he took refuge with his mistress. Moreover, his sanctuary in that church, which belonged to the monks of Canterbury, had been violated on the orders of their archbishop. Most of what is known about William fitz Osbert is derived from the writings of William of Newburgh. For the latter, as for all but one of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century historians, and as for Stubbs, William was a disreputable demagogue whose political cause nevertheless had some merit. Matthew Paris, however, rewrote the story in terms which reflect his distinctive interpretation of civic tyranny during the 1240s. For him William was a hero worthy to be counted as a martyr, and, with implicit reference to his own account of the Norman conquest, he explained the cognomen cum barba as an expression of the contempt felt by William's English ancestors for their clean-shaven conquerors.
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