The Noble Bandit Fulk FitzWarin and His Fight for Whittington Castle
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series of books is a thrilling portrayal of the lives and intrigues of medieval lords, and it gained notoriety for its realism and complexity. But do we ever stop to think about the real historical tales that served as inspiration for these books?
Today we are visiting one such story, a gripping account of personal revenge and the power struggles of medieval England. It is a story of powerful lords and abusive sovereigns, of intrigue and a fight for influence. It is the captivating story of Fulk FitzWarin the 3rd, a defiant marcher lord whose life’s story is one of the biggest historical parallels to the enduring legend of Robin Hood.
Join us as we explore these exciting pages of history – the pages that are similar to a storyline from the Game of Thrones. Except it’s not the Dornish Marches we’re visiting. This time, it’s the Welsh Marches!
Westeros in Real Life: The Background of Fulk III FitzWarin
Historically, a marcher lord was a noble specifically appointed by the king to guard the borders of the kingdom. In England, these were known as the Welsh Marches, and consisted of a loosely defined territory that stretched through the areas around the border.
A march (also known as a mark) is the medieval term that signifies a region at the edge of a kingdom, a sort of buffer zone between lands. In fact, the word mark found its way into almost all European languages and was once used extensively. So, as examples we have Denmark (the march of the Danes), Ostmark (the east march), the term Marcomanni (borderland men), the kingdom of Mercia (the marches), and the noble titles of marquis and margrave.
In medieval England though, these marches were established all around the border of Wales. Today, these marches would lie in the modern English counties of Shropshire, Worcestershire, Cheshire, Gloucestershire, and Herefordshire, as well as the adjacent lands in Wales.
Map of Wales in the 14th century showing marcher lordships. (XrysD / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The kings of England, especially after the conquests of William, Duke of Normandy, would place their most trusted and powerful lords into these marches, to act in defense of the kingdom. And they were right to do so – throughout the Middle Ages, Wales and England had a troubled relationship, and small and sporadic acts of violence were commonplace in these borderlands.
And one such marcher lord is the hero of the story today. The noble FitzWarin family were prominent lords seated in Whittington Castle in Shropshire. All males throughout the history of the FitzWarin family were named Fulk and our protagonist was the 3rd in line.
His grandfather, Fulk I FitzWarin, had established their seat at Whittington Castle and gained prominence as a marcher lord as he supported the Empress Matilda, in the civil war against King Stephen. For this he was richly rewarded by King Henry II, and thus the noble FitzWarin lords established their wealth and power as marcher lords.
Gatehouse of Whittington Castle, Shropshire. The FitzWarin family seat was established at Whittington Castle. (steheap / Adobe Stock)
When Fulk III became the Lord FitzWarin upon his father’s death, he was immediately burdened by the land disputes that were begun by his father. The FitzWarin family held the royal manor of Alveston in Gloucestershire, and also the Whadborough manor in Leicestershire. They also had claims to the Whittington Castle, which is connected as the seat of their noble house.
This is most likely true, as the progenitor of their house – one Warin de Metz (Guarin de Meez) – inherited the castle through marriage. But during the reign of King Stephen II, Whittington was granted to the noble Peverel family of landed knights. This led to a series of disputes, as the FitzWarin’s struggled to reclaim their ancestral seat.
Fulk III FitzWarin – The Real Robin Hood
Fulk III was brought up at the court of King Henry II, most likely as a noble page. There he became friends with the young prince John – the same John Lackland who would later become king. But during their youth, the friendship went awry, and Fulk and John became enemies.
The legend says that their animosity was born from a game of chess – young John broke the chessboard over Fulk’s head and was punished and humiliated by a whipping. John would never forgive this. After they quarreled over it this fight would remain strong throughout their lives. So, when John unexpectedly became king, Fulk was placed in a bad position.
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Fulk and John quarreled over a game of chess. (Dendrofil / Public Domain)
At the time when Fulk III became Lord FitzWarin, Whittington Castle was held by Maurice de Powis. As soon as his father died, Fulk III offered a feudal relief of $124 (£100) in hopes of regaining his inheritance of Whittington. A feudal relief was a one-time payment, a sort of taxation which a lord would pay to his overlord, in order to receive his inherited fief or estate.
But the son of Maurice de Powis, Roger, offered half of that sum - $62 (£50), under pressure from King John. This was done to spite Fulk III, as John still considered him his enemy. One year later, Fulk III FitzWarin rebelled against the king. This disinherited and disrespected marcher lord took to the woods in 1201 AD.
He renounced his liege and gathered a handful of supporters – a retinue of some 50 men, and the support of several nobles. These included Eustace de Kivilly, Gilbert de Duure, Fulk’s brothers William, John, and Phillip, Sir William Marsh, and many more.
Historical accounts on this rebellion are not thorough, and much of it was summarized in the ‘ancestral romance’ of Fulk III FitzWarin – a romanticized account of his adventures. What we do know is that the rebellion must have been of some significance – King John ordered his justiciar, the powerful lord Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent, with a force of 100 knights, to descend upon Fulk and hunt him down.
Fulk III FitzWarin Reclaims Whittington Castle
The events during the rebellion itself are not known. What the legends say is fictionalized, but perhaps rooted in history. The famous medieval ‘romance’ which was titled Fouke le Fitz Waryn recounts many of his daring adventures, most of which are identical to the latter legend of Robin Hood. This leads to the possibility that the popular hero Robin Hood is in fact the fictionalized account of Fulk III FitzWarin.
One such story speaks of how Fulk and his merry band of outlaws disguised themselves as peasants and coal burners and chanced upon King John and his hunting party in a forest. Masking his appearance, Fulk claims to the king that he spotted a magnificent great-horned elk and would lead the hunting party to it. He then leads them into an ambush and his merry men capture the king and his knights.
King John goes on a hunt and is kidnapped by Fulk III FitzWarin. (Soefrm / Public Domain)
Then he reveals his identity, and asks the king: “Sire, now I have you in my power; shall I pass such a sentence upon you as you would upon me if you had taken me?”
Thus, he forces the king to vow before all the men present that he will pardon him and grant him the opportunity to regain his seat. Whether or not this account has any accuracy is not known. But we do know that Fulk III FitzWarin’s rebellion ended in November 1203, when he and his followers were all pardoned.
In the following year he was allowed to pay $247 (£200) and finally return to his ancestral home at Whittington Castle. It would remain the FitzWarin seat for roughly two centuries to follow.
King John’s pardon could have several reasons behind it. It is highly doubtful that Fulk actually kidnapped the king and thus influenced him, although it is not out of the realm of possibility. What is most likely is that the rebellion proved costly for the king, or that the political affairs shifted, or most probably – Fulk’s strength as a marcher lord was simply more important for the realm. Throughout his lordship, Fulk arbitrated several border disputes with the Welsh, and this was, in the end, much more favorable than instability in the realm and old quarrels.
But the restless nature of Fulk III FitzWarin once again came to prominence. In 1215, he was one of the few unruly lords that disputed and gave trouble to Hervey de Stafford, High Sheriff of Shropshire at the time. This resulted in the seizure of his lands at Alveston manor and all his lands in Gloucestershire. Some of these events could be related to the issuing of Magna Carta in 1215, and the subsequent First Baron’s War of 1215-1217.
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19th-century recreation of King John signing Magna Carta. (Jappalang / Public Domain)
But nonetheless, King John contracted dysentery in 1216 and soon after died. His heir, Henry III, made peace with Fulk and restored his lands. Moreover, Fulk gained favor with the new king and was allowed to further fortify his seat at Whittington in 1220.
Fulk III FitzWarin – A Marcher Lord With Courage
Fulk III FitzWarin was married to Maude de Vavasur, the daughter of Robert de Vavasur, the deputy sheriff of Lancashire. She was a rich heiress and Fulk had to pay $223 (1200 marks) in order to marry. This act needed witnesses, or the so-called surety.
Fulk’s suretors at the time were some of the prominent nobles, which tells us that he was respected and had some amount of influence. His suretors included William Longespée, 3rd Earl of Salisbury, Henry de Bohun, 1st Earl of Hereford, and William de Braose – a famous figure who would be executed by hanging a few years after, when he was caught in the bed of the Prince of Wales – with the prince’s own wife.
It is widely claimed that the story of Fulk III FitzWarin and Maude de Vavasur was the inspiration behind the tale of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
Fulk III FitzWarin marries Maude de Vavasur – as depicted in the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. (Black Morgan / Public Domain)
Fulk III died around 1258 and may have lived to be about 98 years old by some accounts. He was buried in Alberbury priory which he himself founded a few decades before. This priory was small and humble, and functioned until around 1440’s, when it was dissolved.
In the centuries that followed, the priory was turned into a farmhouse. When the renovations were carried out in 1850’s, the remnants of the priory were discovered, and beneath the high altar were buried several skeletons, one of which was undoubtedly Fulk III FitzWarin.
The romanticized account of Fulk III contains many parallels with the subsequent legend of Robin Hood. The latter took from the rich and gave to the poor - he fought for the oppressed peasants.
Fulk III fought for the nobles who were deprived of their inheritance – fought the injustice of the law. Both were fighters against tyranny and their adventures are almost entirely identical.
And moreover, the story of marcher Lord Fulk III could have served as an inspiration for another marcher lord – the fictional character, Lord Beric Dondarrion, a marcher lord from the books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Much like Fulk III, he too becomes an outlaw lord, absconding to the forest with his own band of men – the Brotherhood Without Banners. Every essential element from the story of Fulk III is also contained here – it is possible that G.R.R. Martin found his inspiration in this thrilling biography of a medieval English marcher lord.
The Legacy of Fulk III FitzWarin
By all means, Fulk III FitzWarin was an important figure of English medieval history. His exploits and his dramatic struggle to reclaim his ancestral seat, and his fight as an outlaw, all served as a bold example that tyranny and kingship can be fought. It also emphasizes the importance of the Welsh Marches. These marcher lords were an important defense of the realm, and the FitzWarin’s could not be so easily dismissed – they were too important.
Furthermore, his personal, childhood quarrel with King John, that turned into a lifelong feud, gives us a welcome change from the sometimes bland medieval historiography. And as we read the story of Fulk III FitzWarin, we are briefly immersed into a thrilling tale that is strikingly akin to a chapter of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Top image: Noble bandit of the forest. Credit: Fotokvadrat / Adobe Stock
Clay, C. and Farrer, W. 2013. Early Yorkshire Charters: Volume 11, The Percy Fee. Cambridge University Press.
De Gidio, W. 2003. Ware Family History. XLibris Corporation. [Online]
Keen, M. 2000. The Outlaws of Medieval Legend. Routledge.
Thomas, J. 2009. Alberbury Castle. [Online] Available at: http://www.castlewales.com/alberbury.html