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WURTS MAGNA CHARTA provided a brief accounting of the feudal headquarters of some of the Magna Charta Barons. Some of the castles have been badly damaged. Some have disappeared entirely. Often we can learn of them through Medieval and Renaissance accounts, and some of them require the discerning eye of the archeologist. Others await the evidence brought out with a shovel and pick, by the trained archeological historian.
A portion of the information concerning Surety Baron WILLIAM dALBINI is as follows:
The seat of WILLIAM d'ALBINI, the Surety, was Belvoir Castle (pronounced "Bee-voor") founded in 1088 by Robert de Todeni, or Toni. D'Albini succeeded to the Castle in 1167/8. It needed no artificial motte, for it was built on a steep and isolated hill. Apparently there was once a fine shell wall, but the builders of the present mansion have ruined the earthworks left after King John destroyed the Castle. Apparently John left it a ruin. It has been recently the seat of the Duke of Rutland. When Thomas Murphy described it, he said: "Standing on a rising hill its many towers and battlements looking over the forests surrounding it, the vast pile more nearly fulfilled our ideas of feudal magnificence than any other we saw." He was sadly mistaken. The building he saw was a modern Gothic structure, built by Wyatt in 1808, for all that had remained of the original Norman structure was destroyed by fire in the late 18th Century.
But the scene of William d'Albini's struggle with King John was the lowering Castle of Rochester. It was situated on the great Northwest Southeast Road built by the Romans and known to later Englishmen as Watling Street. It was well guarded, on one side by the swirling waters of the Medway, and on the other three by a curtain wall. The lost Belvoir was centrally located in Leistershire, but Rochester was in the South, close to the Royal palace. Numerous coins found near Rochester Castle show that it was built on the site of a Roman ruin, but there are no Roman walls to be found.
Only the keep remains, but it can be seen from a distance of twenty miles. Some claim that the Castle was originally built by Odo of Bayeux, and used as a threat to William Rufus. Others claim that the construction was ordered by William the Conqueror. The structure we now see was commenced by Bishop Gundulf, and on the site of the Bishop's earlier tower a castle was completed before 1139, under the orders of William de Corbeuil. The keep might date to approximately 1130, and the cell under the wall of one of the towers has suffered few alterations since that time.
While William d'Albini held the Castle against King John and his army of mercenaries, the King appeared on the scene in person. The siege continued for seven weeks. The outer wall had been badly damaged and the soldiers had resorted to the keep. But when John's soldiers made a breach in the wall and attempted to enter, they were promptly repelled. The siege continued, and finally hunger and thirst forced a surrender. All d'Albini's men were killed. Their leader was spared, but he had to spend a long time in a medieval prison and was heavily fined.
In 1216 the Dauphin took Rochester Castle and all Kent submitted to him as overlord. Now the walls are standing. The masonry of the keep is firm, but the interior has long since been destroyed.
William d'Albini, the Surety, was the third Baron of his family. When his father died he was in ward to King Henry II and, in 1194, he was in the army of Richard I in Normandy. Already a wealthy man at the time of the accession of John to the throne, he received several additional grants of great value. In 1201, when the Barons refused to follow their Sovereign into France, King John demanded that their castles should be given up to him as security for their allegiance, beginning with William d'Albini; and therewith Belvoir Castle, instead of which d'Albini gave him his son, William, as a hostage.
He appears to have remained longer faithful to King John, as well as more moderate in his opposition to the King than most of the Barons, and he did not join the insurgents until he could no longer with safety remain neutral or adhere to the King for, as late as January 1214/5, he was one of King John's commissioners appointed for the safe conduct of such as were traveling to his Court at Northampton.
After he joined the Baron's party, d'Albini entered with great spirit into their cause and was excommunicated but, after having gained their point, he was looked upon with suspicion by the other Sureties, because he did not attend the grand tournament in Staine's Wood on 29 June 1215, to celebrate the victory. It was not until after other Barons had alarmed him that he fortified his Castle at Belvoir and joined them at London. But the sequel proves that their suspicions were not well grounded. He was placed as governor of Rochester Castle when, though he found it so utterly destitute of provisions as almost to induce his men to abandon it, he recruited and held it until weakness and famine obliged them to surrender to the King. The siege lasted three months and his army suffered considerable loss. King John ordered that all nobles in the Castle be hanged, but his chief counsellers resolutely opposed this sentence and William d'Albini and his son, Odonel, with several other Barons, were mereIy committed to the custody of Peter de Mauley, and sent as prisoners to Corfe and Nottingham Castles.
While d'Albini remained at Corfe, the King marched, on Christmas morning 1216, from Nottingham to Langar near Belvoir Castle, and sent a summons to surrender. Upon this, Nicholas d'Albini, one of the Baron's sons and a Clerk in Orders, delivered the keys to the King, asking only that his father should be mercifully treated. The fortress was then committed to the custody of Geoffrey and Oliver de Buteville. William's liberty was gained by paying to the King a fine of 6,000 marks (more than 4,000 pounds) and the sum was raised from his own lands by his wife. After King John's death, though he submitted himself to King Henry III, William d'Albini was forced to give his wife and son Nicholas as hostages for his allegiance, but in 1217 he was one of the King's commanders at the Battle of Lincoln. He died at Offington 1 May 1236, and his body was buried in Newstead, and "his heart under the wall opposite the high altar" at Belvoir Castle.
William d'Albini was one of the King's foremost financial officers. Before 1200 he had been custodian sheriff, a sort of tax collector and treasurer combined. After 1200 King John appointed him one of the justices or "exchequers" of the Jews. As such he kept a record of all royal debts to Jews, and of payments made to them. Possibly such an official settled disputes connected with money-lending operations. The Jews were a powerful source of revenue, which the King desired to protect to his own interest. From Michaelmas 1210 to mid-Lent of 1211, William and five other Barons were in charge of customs duties on dyes and grain. In 1213 we find him involved in a baronial investigation committee, which sought to unearth evidence of alleged embezzlements charged to certain sheriffs.
Appreciation is expressed to Reed M. W. Wurts, one of the Heralds of the Society for furnishing the Barons Shield on this page.