A Medieval Spy Story
On September 24, 1295, an English knight named Sir Thomas Turberville was arrested on a charge of spying for the French and dragged to the Tower of London. A confession was soon extracted by the grimly efficient torturers, but they were just going through the motions. They didn’t need it to confirm his guilt: Royal officials already had in their possession a fatally incriminating letter, in Turberville’s own hand, that detailed his sordid deeds for his French masters. The betrayer, it seems, had been betrayed—by someone.
On October 8, according to the contemporary chronicler Bartholomew Cotton, he was “mounted on a poor hack, in a coat of [striped cloth], and shod with white shoes, his head being covered with a hood, and his feet tied beneath the horse’s belly, and his hands tied before him: and around him were riding six torturers attired in the form of the devil, one of whom held his rein, and the hangman his halter . . . and in such manner was he led from the Tower through London to Westminster, and was condemned on the dais in the Great Hall there.”
Sir Roger Brabazon, the chief justice, pronounced Turberville guilty, declaring that “he should be drawn and hanged, and that he should hang so long as anything should be left whole of him; and [so] he was drawn … to the [Smithfield] gallows; and there [he was] hung by a chain of iron, and will hang, so long as anything of him may remain.”
Turberville holds the dubious honor of being the first Englishman to be executed for espionage. It was a cause célèbre at the time, but today he is forgotten—so I think it’s a good time to reexamine the case.
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The Crimes of Sir Thomas
The background to Turberville’s execution was the outbreak of war between England and France the year before, in 1294. King Edward I had despatched a force to Gascony under his nephew John of Brittany while he himself dealt with an inconvenient Welsh revolt. Turberville, a respected knight of the royal household with nine soldiers in his retinue, went with John.
At first, John’s expedition went well, but after he took and garrisoned Rions the French regrouped and laid siege to the town. Less than two weeks later, on April 7, 1295, Rions surrendered and Turberville was taken prisoner. For the next four months, Turberville disappears from the record, only to pop up in London that August. According to the chronicler Cotton, he “said that he had escaped from the prison of the said King of France; whereupon, he was kindly received by our lord the King of England, and much honoured.”
All well and good. Turberville came home a bit of a war hero after an ignominious defeat. But the escape story turned out to be a lie: Turberville had been released in order to undertake a mission on behalf of France.
Who first proposed the scheme we do not know, but it is clear that Sir Thomas had become a liege of the Provost of Paris and had left his two sons (serving as esquires) behind as hostages. His reward was to be a significant grant of a hundred librates of land for himself and his heirs. (A “librate” is a medieval term for land worth an income of one pound a year.)
Turberville’s motives at this distance are impossible to ascertain. Perhaps he was an out-and-out rascal (there’s some evidence that he was charged, but cleared on a technicality, of robbery and homicide fifteen years earlier), though such behavior doesn’t really square with his high status as a household knight.
It’s possible, too, that he had been forced into it by dint of his sons’ being held hostage, though that sounds slightly off. I can’t think of a single case where a captor used prisoners in this manner to extort knights into performing dirty work; it would offend every code of chivalry and set a very bad precedent. The polite thing to do with upscale prisoners was to ransom them back to their families.
But Turberville may not have had that option. A couple of lines he wrote in his intercepted letter to the Provost of Paris may help us pierce the fog of mystery:
“And for the sake of God, I pray you on behalf of my children, that they may have no want so long as they are in your keeping, in meat or in drink, or in other sustenance. And for the sake of God, I pray you that you be advised how I may be paid here; for I have nothing, as I have lost all, as well on this side as on the other; and nothing have I from you, except your great loyalty, in which I greatly trust.”
These sentiments would seem to indicate that Turberville volunteered his sons to the “keeping” of the Provost because he could not afford to maintain them in decent style while he was away. And neither could he ransom either them or himself. As he says, he had “lost all” his money and property in both England and France. How this happened we cannot know for sure, but it seems likely to be related to the expedition to Gascony being a disaster.
War being a speculative, and very expensive, enterprise at the time, there was nothing medieval barons and knights disliked more than losing their investments in some woebegone campaign with no booty to show for it. Perhaps Turberville had taken out huge loans to fund his bloated retinue to soldier alongside John of Brittany, and with the English defeat his creditors came calling.
What we have here, then, is a desperate and angry man humiliated at his irrecoverable loss of status and wealth caused, he believed, by John of Brittany’s military incompetence. John was treated by Edward I almost as a son and the king forgave any failures on the young man’s part. Well, that was all good for a posho like him, but not so much for the middling people like Turberville. The latter’s anger would explain why he took to betraying Edward with so much zeal.
Following his welcome home, his first stop was Wales, where he may once have owned land or had a family connection. Turberville had had no fewer than six Welshmen in his retinue, had fought in the Welsh war of 1282, and was acquainted with one Morgan ap Maredudd, the leader of the Welsh of Glamorgan in the rising of 1294.
Now, Edward I was not the kind of man who dispensed mercy to rebels, but Morgan still breathed because, technically speaking, he had not raised a banner against Edward but fought only an earl, the earl of Gloucester—who also happened to be the lord of Glamorgan. It seems to have been more a personal beef concerning some dispossessed land than a Heroic Crusade Against English Tyranny. (Periodically fighting aggrieved locals was just the cost of doing business for 13th-century earls, you see.)
Turberville’s intent was to give Morgan a letter from the French king, Philip the Fair, promising support if he revolted to distract Edward when the Scots rose (a concurrent Gallic black op; let’s not get into it now).
Turberville didn’t, however, hand it over, perhaps because he had no need to. Morgan, he assured his masters in his fatal letter, had promised that he was on board with rebelling when the time came. With that task done, Turberville noted other intelligence he’d picked up after returning to the royal court. The Isle of Wight was ungarrisoned and very vulnerable to sea attack; Edward was sending an embassy to the German king (Adolf, King of the Romans, I’m assuming) to negotiate an anti-French alliance; the king was despatching a fleet of twenty ships laden with provisions to Gascony, and four earls were being despatched there to kick off a new campaign.
There’s a certain scent of delight in treachery one picks up from Turberville’s letter, which contained information he wasn’t obliged to send. As far he was concerned, he’d cause Edward no end of trouble in Wales and Scotland, and perhaps hasten a French invasion of England—fair recompense for his own losses, soon to be paid in land.
Sometime in mid-August, Turberville despatched the letter containing this report to France, but on September 22 he was spooked enough to attempt an escape to Wales. He was caught two days later. He had been betrayed, but by whom?
Betraying The Betrayer
Look, the obvious candidate is Morgan the Welsh rebel, but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. It wasn’t him. Since we don’t hear of his execution—and there is no chance that the merciless Edward would have let him enjoy his dotage had he been involved—Turberville may have been, in age-old spying fashion, exaggerating his own importance to impress his French friends. As it was, most of the other intelligence he related in the letter was wrong, hearsay, or sensationalized. So it’s perfectly possible that Morgan had never said he was ready to rise up, which would explain why Turberville never gave him the letter containing Philip the Fair’s pledge to support him. Turberville may never even have talked to him. A lucky escape on Morgan’s part.
No, we have a rather more likely prospect, thanks to Bartholomew Cotton. He wrote that a “messenger carried [the letter] to our lord the King of England, and gave him a full and open account of the treachery of his employer. The traitor, suspecting this, took to flight, but was taken shortly after.”
Cotton remained resolutely mum on the identity of this messenger, but with a little detective work we can put together the pieces.
In 1317, about twenty years after Turberville’s death, Edward II issued a corrody—a lifetime allowance for food and housing—to one “Robert de Crouland” for his service “in taking Thomas Turberville, the enemy of our said father.”
This Crouland (sometimes spelt “Crowland” and “Croyland”) had long served Edwards I and II as a cokinus or cursor regis, terms used to describe a senior messenger of the King’s Wardrobe. When exactly he had begun in royal service is, owing to gaps in the accounts, a little up in the air, but the first time he’s mentioned is in March 1297—just eighteen months after the Turberville business.
In 1295, though, it’s unlikely he was in Edward I’s household, for why would Turberville have employed a royal messenger to conduct such an incriminating letter to France? No, he must have been Turberville’s servant at the time and thus entrusted with its contents.
Being a smart and ambitious fellow, Crouland smelled an opportunity to get in with a more upscale (and less dangerously traitorous) employer and so brought the letter to court. His reward was a generous one while his former master’s skeleton grinned from its iron chain at Smithfield.
A Guilty Spy?
As I mentioned earlier, Turberville’s case is interesting because he was the first man in English history to be executed for espionage. We’re accustomed to thinking of espionage as a form of treason, but in 1295 that identification was by no means clear.
At the time, a noble or knight could be, and had been, executed for committing high treason against the king, which was broadly defined as levying war against him in his own realm or compassing his murder. But Turberville had not raised a banner against his sovereign, and neither had he said anything about killing Edward. No one had been hurt, and all he had done, if you thought about it, was perhaps engage in some careless chit-chat with Morgan (who was denying that even that happened) and pass on court gossip to the Provost of Paris, who was looking after his kids.
On the other hand, these were not the actions of a man as pure as an angel. Turberville was certainly guilty of something, many felt, but if not treason then what?
It was this confusion that explains why the chief justice, Sir Roger Brabazon, went so easy on him (in the relative sense). Remember, Turberville was sentenced only to be hanged, not quartered, disembowelled, burnt, or beheaded—the fate of those counted as traitors (for example, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, the last prince of Wales in 1283, or Sir William “Braveheart” Wallace in 1305). The manner of Turberville’s execution more resembled that prescribed for a common criminal.
In Turberville’s time, the newly invented word “spy” was virtually interchangeable with “scout.” Indeed, according to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary, “spy” was first used circa 1250, not long before Turberville met his Maker, and denoted a person who scouted a land. The reason why Brabazon treated Turberville as a criminal was because spies were generally associated with robbers. They may have served as look-outs or point-men who reported back to their felonious comrades where there were easy pickings to be had.
Here are a couple of examples I found in the Calendar of the Justiciary Rolls for Ireland, a summary of trials that took place before juries evidently holding “robust” views on crime and punishment. These particular instances date from 1297-1298, so contemporary with Turberville’s sentencing:
“Nich. Toan, charged with robberies and that he was in company of thieves, and was a spy between English and Irish, puts himself on the venue. Jurors say he is guilty. Hanged.”
“Gillecolm Omoran taken as a spy and robber … now against the King’s peace, puts himself on the country. The 12 jurors of Omurthy say he is guilty. Hung.”
Nothing there about quartering, disembowelment, etc., just a quick trip to the local scaffold. Had Turberville turned his coat a little more than half a century later, though, he certainly would have received a most unpleasant departure from his mortal coil courtesy of Brabazon.
In 1352, the Statute of Treasons was passed, finally moving spying out of the criminal column and classifying as high treason the act of secretly “adhering to the king’s enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in his realm or elsewhere”—in short, what Turberville had done.
To paraphrase a line in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo—“treason is a matter of dates”—in Sir Thomas Turberville’s case, it literally was.
H.R. Luard (ed.), Bartholomaei de Cotton Monachi Norwichensis Historia Anglicana (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1859), pp. 304–6; J. Mills (ed.), Calendar of the Justiciary Rolls of Proceedings in the Court of the Justiciar of Ireland (Dublin: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1905); J.G. Edwards, “The Treason of Thomas Turberville,” in R.W. Hunt, W.A. Pantin, and R.W. Southern (eds.), Studies in Medieval History Presented to Frederick Maurice Powicke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 296-309; Appendix, “The Treason of Sir Thomas de Turberville,” in H.T. Riley (ed.), Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London 1188-1274 (London: Trübner, 1863), pp. 293-295.