Hubert de Burgh Part 1: King John’s Justiciar

Hubert de Burgh from Matthew Paris’s Historia Anglorum

Hubert de Burgh, King John’s justiciar, came from a gentry family rather than the higher echelons of the nobility. His origins are quite obscure. His mother’s name was Alice, as evidenced by a grant he made to the church of Oulton in about 1230, stating the gift was ‘for the soul of my mother Alice who rests in the church at Walsingham.’ Hubert de Burgh’s father may have been the Walter whose daughter Adelina owed 40 marks in the Pipe Rolls of Henry II, for recognition of a knights’ fee at Burgh in Norfolk, although this is little more than a possibility.

We do know that Hubert de Burgh was the younger brother of William de Burgh who had accompanied King Henry II’s youngest son, John, to Ireland in 1185; he eventually became lord of Connacht. Hubert de Burgh also had two younger brothers. Geoffrey became archdeacon of Norwich in 1202 and then bishop of Ely in 1225. A third brother, Thomas, was castellan of Norwich Castle in 1215–16. Little is known of Hubert de Burgh’s childhood, upbringing or education, though a letter of 1220 that William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, sent to Hubert de Burgh reminds the justiciar that they were raised together, probably fostered in the same noble household.

A self-made man, coming from a family of minor landowners in East Anglia centred on the manor of Burgh in Norfolk, Hubert de Burgh first appears in official records on 8 February 1198, when he witnessed a charter of John, as count of Mortain, at Tinchebrai in Normandy. In a charter of 12 June in the same year, he was identified as chamberlain of John’s household and in 1199, when John succeeded to the throne, he was created chamberlain of the royal household. Hubert de Burgh’s career in royal service developed rapidly. In December 1200 he was made custodian of two important royal castles, Dover and Windsor. In 1201 he was sheriff of Dorset and Somerset and when John departed for France in June 1201, along with the two senior Marcher lords, the earl of Pembroke and constable of Chester, de Burgh was created custodian of the Welsh Marches with 100 men-at-arms at his disposal. He was also given the castles of Grosmont, Skenfrith and Whitecastle ‘to sustain him in our service.’

Further grants followed, making Hubert de Burgh a significant and powerful figure in the royal administration by 1200. In that year, Hubert de Burgh was one of the ambassadors despatched to Portugal to negotiate a possible marriage between John and a daughter of Portugal’s king, but the embassy was abandoned after John married Isabelle d’Angoulême. Later, in 1202 Hubert de Burgh was sent to France and made constable of Falaise Castle in Normandy, where he was entrusted with guarding Arthur of Brittany, John’s nephew and rival for the English throne, following hiss capture at Mirebeau in August. While he was being held there, John had sent orders for Arthur’s castration and blinding. John gave the order:

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames, 1882

‘enraged by the ceaseless attacks of his enemies, hurt by their threats and misdeed, at length in a rage and fury, King John ordered three of his servants to go to Falaise and perform this detestable act.’

Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam

Two of the appointed messengers fled the king’s court, to avoid the distasteful duty, while the third carried the order to Falaise where the royal chamberlain, Hubert de Burgh, had custody of Arthur. De Burgh, however, but Hubert had refused to carry out the punishment, believing that

‘having regard for the king’s honesty and reputation and expecting his forgiveness, kept the youth unharmed. He thought that the king would immediately repent of such an order and that ever afterwards would hate anyone who presumed to obey such a cruel mandate.’

Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam

The fact Hubert de Burgh faced no repercussions on refusing the order suggests that he had read the situation perfectly. Moreover, given the persecution John later inflicted on William de Braose, following his complicity in Arthur’s murder at Rouen the following year, it is clear that Hubert de Burgh knew John well.Hubert de Burgh had been partly right and Arthur’s survival at that time helped to pacify the rebellious Bretons. With Arthur imprisoned at Falaise, the Bretons continued to cause trouble. According to Ralph of Coggeshall,

‘the counsellors of the king, realising that the Bretons were causing much destruction and sedition everywhere on behalf of their lord Arthur, and that no firm peace could be made while Arthur lived, suggested to the king that he order Arthur to be blinded and castrated, thus rendering him incapable of rule, so that the opposition would cease from their insane programme of destruction and submit themselves to the king.’

The Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam
King John

Despite balking at mutilating a 15-year-old, de Burgh announced that the sentence had been carried out, hoping to put a stop to the Breton revolt. Although it is recorded that, John ‘was not displeased for the moment that his order had not been carried out.’ The Bretons were so enraged that their revolt rose to a new level of ferocity and the rebels were only pacified when it was announced that Arthur was, in fact, alive and well. However, in 1203 Arthur was removed from de Burgh’s custody and transferred to the castle at Rouen. King Philip and the nobility of Brittany continued to press for the release of the young duke, but John had other ideas. It was in Rouen, at Easter 1203, most likely on 3rd April, that Arthur was put to death. Whether John committed the deed himself, or merely ordered it done, will probably never be proved; of the fact he was present there seems to be little doubt. Whichever way, the act itself has been a black mark against John for centuries.

In 1204 Hubert de Burgh was entrusted with the defence of Chinon, against the king of France. He held out for a year, until the summer of 1205, when the walls of the castle were practically levelled. In a last desperate engagement, de Burgh and his men rushed from the castle to confront the French. A fierce fight followed in which de Burgh was wounded and captured; he was held for two years. King John helped with his ransom, with writs to the treasurer and chamberlain, in February 1207, ordering them to pay William de Chayv 300 marks ‘for the pledge of Hubert de Burgh.’

De Burgh returned to England before the end of 1207 and again began to accumulate land and offices. In May 1208 he was given custody of the castle and town of Lafford in Huntingdon and in the following year he married Beatrice de Warenne, who had succeeded her father in the barony of Wormegay; de Burgh became guardian of William, Beatrice’s young son by her first husband, Doun Bardolf. Beatrice was the mother of at least one son by Hubert, John, who was probably born before 1212. It is possible another son, named Hubert, from whom the Burghs of Gainsborough were descended, was born in 1213 or 1214. In the same year, de Burgh returned to France in royal service, first as deputy seneschal of Poitou and then as seneschal in association with Philip d’Aubigny and Geoffrey de Neville. After the French defeated the English at Bouvines in 1214, de Burgh was one of the witnesses to the truce with King Philp II Augustus of France, which agreed that John should keep all his lands south of the River Loire.

The Warenne coat of arms, Conisbrough Castle

Beatrice de Warenne died sometime before 18 December 1214. Hubert de Burgh retained Beatrice’s lands at Wormegay throughout his lifetime and they only passed to her eldest son, William Bardolf, on de Burgh’s death in May 1243. William Bardolf’s inheritance of Portslade and Harthill, both held from the honour of Warenne, serve to demonstrate the continued connections that this junior branch of the family held with the powerful Warenne earls throughout the thirteenth century.

Beatrice and Hubert’s son, John, was knighted on 3 June 1229, but was specifically excluded from inheriting the earldom of Kent, bestowed on his father on 19 February 1226 or 1227. This earldom was created following
Hubert de Burgh’s third marriage, to Princess Margaret of Scotland, daughter of William I the Lion and therefore granddaughter of Ada de Warenne. The earldom of Kent was to descend exclusively through de Burgh’s children by the Scottish princess. In 1241 John owed relief on the manor of Portslade which had been given to him by his half-sister, Margery – the daughter of Hubert de Burgh by his third wife, Margaret of Scotland. Margery had received the manor from her father, who had held it of Earl Warenne. When John died on 7 January in 1273 or 1274, he held the manor of his older half-brother, Sir William Bardolf. John de Burgh was succeeded by his son, also John, who was married to Cecily, daughter of John Balliol and his wife Dervorguilla; she was also the sister of John Balliol, King of Scots, who was himself married to Isabella de Warenne, daughter of John de Warenne, sixth Earl Warenne.

By the time of the Magna Carta crisis in the spring and summer of 1215, Hubert de Burgh was back in England and supporting the king in his attempts to quell the rebellion. He was tasked, alongside the bishop of Coventry, with speaking to the mayor, sheriff and knights of London, who were instructed to listen to what de Burgh and the bishop had to say; despite this, the Londoners opened their gates to the rebels. In the preamble to Magna Carta, Hubert de Burgh is styled seneschal of Poitou and listed eighth among the list of lay barons. By 25 June 1215 he was being styled as justiciar in official documents. Matthew Paris later claimed he had been appointed to the post in the presence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the earls of Surrey and Derby, among other magnates.

As justiciar, in the Magna Carta, Hubert de Burgh is mentioned as being the one to hold ultimate responsibility in the realm whenever the king was abroad; this was a considerable change to the role of justiciar in former reigns, when he was primarily responsible as president of the exchequer and chief justice. He was, essentially, the most powerful man in the land after the king himself, quite an achievement for the younger son of a minor landholder from Norfolk. De Burgh was also made castellan of Dover Castle, the gateway to England from the Continent, and was besieged there from 22 July 1216 until King John’s death in October of the same year, when the Dauphin Louis abandoned the siege.

Henry III

King John was soon writing to the pope to have Magna Carta annulled, plunging England into rebellion. The barons invited the French dauphin, Louis, to join them and make a play for the throne. Louis was the son of John’s erstwhile friend Philip II Augustus, King of France, and the husband of his niece Blanche, who was the daughter of his sister Eleanor, Queen of Castile. Louis and his men had landed on the Isle of Thanet on 14 May 1216. The dauphin advanced through Kent and took Canterbury before moving onto Winchester. Louis was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216. John seems to have been undecided as to how to act; he sent his oldest son Henry to safety at Devizes Castle in Wiltshire. Dover Castle, under the command of Hubert de Burgh, held out against the French and rebel forces, as did Windsor and Lincoln.

This was the state of the kingdom when King John died on the night of 18/19 October 1216; he was succeeded by his 9-year-old son, Henry, now King Henry III. Despite John’s death, his half-brother and uncle of the new king, William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, had remained with Louis and it was he who called for Hubert de Burgh to surrender Dover to the French. The justiciar refused.

John’s death turned the tide of the war, giving the English royalists the upper hand and allowing Hubert de Burgh and his fellow loyal barons, including William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, to take the initiative and begin the recovery of the kingdom. Hubert de Burgh had done rather well from the reign of King John; he had attained high office, a good marriage and the opportunity to play a major role in the next reign. The new reign offered a new start for everyone, though the struggle was far from over and Hubert de Burgh would rise to new heights.

Look out for Part 2, Hubert de Burgh and the Minority of Henry III.



Courtesy of Wikipedia except the Warenne coat of arms which is ©Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Sources:;;; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; Danziger, Danny and John Gillingham, 1215: The Year of Magna Carta; Crouch, David, William Marshal; Matthew Paris, Robert de Reading and others, Flores Historiarum, volume III; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; Maurice Ashley The Life and Times of King John; Roy Strong The Story of BritainOxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley British Kings & Queens; David Williamson Brewer’s British Royalty; Rich Price King John’s Letters Facebook page;  Elizabeth Hallam, editor, The Plantagenet Chronicles;  Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Medieval Lands Project on the Earls of Surrey, Conisbrough Castle; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey and their Descendants to the Present Time; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta;


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7 thoughts on “Hubert de Burgh Part 1: King John’s Justiciar

  1. Elizabeth St. John 03/01/2021 / 01:32

    Fascinating, and love the insightful detail.

    Liked by 1 person

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