Fitzosbert, William (DNB00)

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FITZOSBERT, WILLIAM (d. 1196), demagogue, is first mentioned as one of the leaders of the London crusaders in 1190, who fought the Moors in Portugal (Hoveden, iii. 42; Bened. ii. 116). He was a member of an eminent civic family, which was said to have been conspicuous for wearing the beard ‘as a mark of their hatred for the Normans’ (Matt. Paris, ii. 418). William himself was known as ‘Longbeard,’ from the excess to which he carried this distinction. Of commanding stature and of great strength, an effective popular speaker, and with some knowledge of law (Hoveden, iv. 5), he threw himself into the social struggles of his day with an energy and a success of which the measure is preserved in that spirit of bitter partisanship in which the chroniclers narrate his career. William of Newburgh, who, according to Dr. Stubbs, ‘treats him judicially,’ but who clearly takes the very worst view of him, has devoted to him a long chapter (lib. v. cap. 20), in which he traces William's conduct to his extravagance and lack of means, which led him, when his elder brother, Richard, refused to supply him with money, first to threaten him, and then to go to the king, whom he knew personally, and accuse him of treason. That he did bring this charge (cf. R. de Diceto, vol. ii.) is certain from the ‘Rotuli Curiæ Regis’ (p. 69), which record that (21 Nov. 1194) he accused his brother, before the justices, of speaking treason against the king and primate and denouncing their exactions. Meanwhile he appears, on the one hand, to have posed as zealous for the interest of the king, who was defrauded, he urged, by financial corruption, of the treasure that should be his; while, on the other, he accused the city magnates, who had to apportion the heavy ‘aids’ laid upon London for the king's ransom (1194), of saving their own pockets at the expense of the poorer payers. He made himself, on both these grounds, hateful to the ruling class, but succeeded in obtaining a seat on the civic council and pursued his advantage. He had clearly found a genuine grievance in the system of assessment, and ‘fired,’ says Hoveden, ‘with zeal for justice and equity, he made himself the champion of the poor’ (iv. 5). Addressing the people on every occasion, especially at their folkmoot in St. Paul's churchyard, he roused them by stinging invective against the mayor and aldermen. An abstract of one of his speeches, or rather sermons, is given by William of Newburgh (ii. 469), who tells us that ‘he conceived sorrow and brought forth iniquity.’ The craftsmen and the populace flocked to hear him, and he was said to have had a following of more than fifty thousand men. The primate, alarmed at the prospect, sided with the magnates against him, but William, crossing to France, appealed successfully to the king (Hoveden, iv. 5; Will. Newburgh, ii. 468). The primate now determined to crush him, took hostages from his supporters for their good behaviour, and then ordered his arrest. Guarded by his followers, William defied him, and the panic-stricken magnates were in hourly expectation of a general rising and of the sacking of the city. Soon, however, surprised by a party of armed men, the demagogue slew one of his assailants and fled for refuge to Bow Church, together with a few friends, and, his enemies said, with his mistress. He trusted that the sanctuary would shelter him till his followers assembled; but the primate, dreading the delay, ordered him to be dragged out by force. On his taking refuge in the church tower, his assailants set fire to the fabric and smoked him out. Badly wounded by a citizen as he emerged, he was seized and fastened to a horse's tail, and so dragged to the Tower. Being there sentenced to death, he was dragged in like manner through the city to the Elms (at Smithfield) and there hanged in chains (6 April 1196), ‘dying,’ says Matthew Paris, ‘a shameful death for upholding the cause of truth and of the poor.’ William of Newburgh writes that he ‘perished, according to justice, as the instigator and contriver of troubles.’ His nine faithful friends were hanged with him (R. de Diceto, ii. 143; Gervase, i. 533, 534). It is admitted by William of Newburgh that his followers bewailed him bitterly as a martyr. Miracles were wrought with the chain that hanged him. The gibbet was carried off as a relic, and the very earth where it stood scooped away. Crowds were attracted to the scene of his death, and the primate had to station on the spot an armed guard to disperse them. Dr. Stubbs pronounces him ‘a disreputable man, who, having failed to obtain the king's consent to a piece of private spite, made political capital out of a real grievance of the people’ (Const. Hist. i. 508). This is probably the right view.

[William of Newburgh (Rolls Ser.); Benedictus Abbas (ib.); Matthew Paris, Chronica Major (ib.); Ralph de Diceto (ib.); Gervase of Canterbury (ib.); Palgrave's Rotuli Curiæ (Record Commission); Stubbs's Roger de Hoveden (Rolls Ser.), and Const. Hist. vol. i.]

J. H. R.