Perhaps it was always going to be impossible for a Marcher lord to find happiness, trying to carve out a fortune while stuck dangerously between the Welsh and English thrones, trying to survive in a tough borderland. Such it seemed was the case for Walter Clifford, lord of the grim border castle from which he took his name.
The trials and tribulations of a Marcher lord had created an effect on his character, so that everyone in the castle from his wife down to the cat walked with a light step, so as not to risk his anger. Now, to the poor peasants toiling in the fields or the shepherds up in the hills he must have appeared a figure to envy, charging around on his mighty war horse, his chain mail clinking. Yet, in reality, it was he who envied and hated them, for they had something that he, rich and mighty as he was, did not have, a child.
He and his wife of eight years had not been blessed. Local people decided there must be a curse upon him and were not short of instances when his actions and those of his ancestors might have brought one down upon him. We would be more likely to attribute it to medical reasons; the fact that this was his second wife, the first having produced no children and that bumping about on a hard leather saddle all day cannot be good for a man.
His current wife, Margaret, was the daughter of Llewellyn, Prince of Wales, for a Marcher lord learns early not to put all his eggs in one basket. She, possibly a little nervous of her position, suggested Walter consult a cunning man about their problem. Since the reason for their lack of luck could only be a curse, anything else could not be contemplated, he reluctantly agreed.
Norman lords had never been comfortable with the cunning folk. They were not as subservient as the rest of the peasantry, especially in this border region where most of them could trace their ancestry back with complete certainty to the last king of Troy. How his wife knew the name and whereabouts of the man with the best reputation in the locality Walter did not care to enquire but, since there was no chance of the man being allowed access to the castle, a time was agreed for Walter to visit him, the time of the next full moon.
This was done, as far as Walter was concerned, not for any mystical reason, but purely, in this age before street lamps, so that he could find his way. It was Walter’s ill luck that the night of the next full moon was a wet and windy one so the journey was not easy and Walter was not in the best of tempers when he arrived at the hut.
He glowered at the man sitting placidly before the small fire.
“I suppose you know why I have come, since you are supposed to know everything.”
“I know because I have heard the gossip of the villages and of the hills.” That he was a figure of gossip did not improve Walter’s temper as he stiffly sat himself down beside the fire, almost extinguishing it with his wet cloak.
“So,” said the old man after a while, “Do you want to live happy or get your heart’s desire?”
“What kind of stupid question is that? I am a mighty lord and was not put on this earth for happiness.”
“Stupid question or not you seem to have answered it.”
Walter’s hand moved to his sword hilt while he considered whether he was being mocked or not.
“Some people are happy to accept life as it is and take what happiness they find in it. Others are of the opinion that they must fight with life in order to get what is due them. I take it that you are in the later category.”
“Of course; to do anything else is to be a slave.”
“If I tell you that you will get your heart’s desire but it will not bring you or your family any happiness you would still put your foot on the path?”
Walter Clifford left dissatisfied. He had been given no charm or potion. The fact that, a few weeks later, his wife came to him to tell him she was pregnant, well, he barely gave the old man and his warning any thought at all.
The child was born, a girl, and that in itself was a bad start. While, at his death, his lands would not now immediately be forfeit to the Crown, still the King down in London would want a say in how such a rich heiress would be married off.
And so it proved. The girl was named Matilda and, when she had reached the marriageable age of twelve, a messenger came from the King that negotiations should start over the marriage of Matilda to the King’s cousin, the heir to the Earldom of Salisbury.
On the face of it this was a good match but Walter was not happy. He saw it for what it was, an attempt by the King to bring the Clifford estate and the strategic borderlands into the control of the Crown. He was so unhappy that he made the messenger eat the message, seal and all, and sent him back to London suffering from severe indigestion and worse indignation.
No king is going to take this as a refreshing piece of independence and, although King Henry III has not gone down in history as one of our stronger kings, Walter’s actions were considered “violent and disgraceful” even by the standards of the thirteenth century, and Henry imposed a heavy fine on Walter with the warning that, if it was not paid quickly, the word would go out that the other Marcher lords could take any Clifford land they liked and the King would not do anything to stop them.
Family pride is one thing but every bully and poker player knows that there is a time to back down. Walter grovelled and the fine was reduced and the marriage went ahead.
It would be nice to say the marriage was a happy one and who is to say it might have become one. Unfortunately the young William was killed in a tournament within a year of the marriage, although not before Matilda had borne him a daughter. Everyone now had a new problem. Matilda, who stood to inherit the Salisbury as well as the Clifford lands, was a very good prize indeed.
Before Walter or the King could think what to do with her Sir John Giffard of Worcestershire abducted her. He was a knight who had been given licence by the King to kill all the wolves of England. But a man does not get rich simply by killing wolves. Abducting an heiress was a much easier way.
Now the King was furious but, on the whole he preferred a quiet life and accepted a 300 mark fine from Sir John for marrying without his permission. Sir Walter was not so easily mollified. If the King of England would not help then he would turn to Matilda’s grandfather, Llewellyn, Prince of Wales. The force was assembled but someone had warned Sir John who attacked first, killing Llewellyn and sending his head off to London where it was stuck on a pole on London Bridge.
Matilda pleaded with the Archbishop of Canterbury that her grandfather should be given a proper Christian burial but it was no good. By the end of the year she was also dead. The cunning man’s words had come true. Not only did Walter Clifford get much joy from his child but it also brought about the destruction of the last Welsh Prince of Wales.