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Hero or villain? Robert de Herle of Donington le Heath

<![CDATA[This tale begins with a murder. The unfortunate victim, John Paynel, lay slain in his wife’s manor of Walsall, Staffordshire, on the 22 June 1298.  Margery (his wife) had fled, taking refuge in her manor of Caldecote in Warwickshire. Into this delicate situation rode a man of rising power and local influence. Robert de Herle was an attorney who, for a fee, was prepared to represent the great and the wealthy of the midland counties. Robert had clout - in 1296-8 he pursued several people through the court in Nottingham to recover debts amounting to £15 13s. Despite his youth, Robert was a man to be reckoned with, but how could he assist Margery Paynel in her hour of need, and how would she repay such a gesture? Margery had led a complicated life: she was one of two daughters of William le Rous, and had been married in about 1255 by the Bishop of Chester to Richard son of Richard de Alanson, but they had subsequently separated.  As part of the separation, she had recovered her manor of Caldecote from Richard, and from William de Morteyn, who was married to her sister, Enycina.  This recovery was disputed by various family members, and rumbled on through the courts from one generation to the next.  Despite the lack of a formal divorce, Margery proceeded to marry John Paynel.  In 1289 Richard de Alanson and two of his sons came to Caldecote and took away goods from the house claiming their right to do so, leading to a further lawsuit and an enquiry.  However, in 1298, John Paynel was dead, and although others stood to gain from his death, Margery was the most likely person to be accused of the crime.  The scandal looked intractable. Robert de Herle’s connection with Margery preceded the murder - according to the Coram Rege Roll he had previously attempted to purchase the manor of Caldecote, but Margery had refused to sell. Now she found herself suspected of murder, and lay in hiding in the very manor which Robert longed to possess. How could Robert solve this dilemma?  Instead of offering to act as a legal defence, he applied to the courts to have Margery arrested and detained in Warwick gaol. Once there he visited her in prison, where he appears to have made a pact with her. If she would grant him the manor of Caldecote, he promised to gain her acquittal, and ensure that she would remain in charge of all her other property. This was a remarkable offer, but how could Robert make such a claim and hope to succeed? Who was this young attorney who so confidently anticipated the release of a suspected murderess? Robert de Herle began life in Northumberland, where his father John de Whalton, and his mother Agnes, belonged to the baronial family of Bolbec, whose principal holding was at Styford, near Corbridge in Northumberland, one of two baronies in the North whose function was to protect the border country for the king of England. Robert was probably born on their manor of Kirkharle, also the birthplace of his more famous brother, William.  Robert de Herle was in Northumberland in 1292, where he appeared in the king’s court at Berwick on Tweed, pursuing a debt.   By 1293 he was in Leicestershire, negotiating the lease on a house in Donington le Heath.  As an attorney, Robert would have acquired the skills of his profession through a type of apprenticeship, observing the procedures of local courts.  Thus in 1298 he found himself embroiled in the defence of a woman suspected of murder, and he appears intent on profiting from her dilemma.  Robert persuaded the sheriff of Warwick to release Margery into his custody, and he took her to Nottingham, where she made a pledge to pay Robert £200 if she did not grant him the manor of Caldecote as soon as she was free.  Robert then returned Margery to Warwick gaol, obtained a writ for the appointment of justices of gaol delivery, procured a false inquisition, and brought about her release. He had obtained the promised result for Margery, and she handed over the coveted manor of Caldecote.  Having effectively perverted the course of justice, Robert was then pursued by the crown for conspiracy and trespass. A curious turn of events in the following year offered Robert a reprieve.  Instead of pursuing the case, the king decided instead to furnish Robert with a letter of protection, which referred to him as an ‘alleged conspirator’, and the case was dropped.  In 1300 Robert was sent on the king’s service to Scotland, although his role would probably have been administrative rather than military.  This move placed him outside the reach of the English legal system, and within a short space of time Robert de Herle had accomplished a complete recovery from disgrace.  In 1302 he received a commission (along with Robert de Heyle) to act as attorney in the absence of William de Brom who was going to Gascony with John de Hastings.  Further evidence of Robert’s continuing good favour came in 1305, when he acted as attorney (along with Robert de Barton) for John Comyn, earl of Buchan, who was going to Scotland.  Robert acted as attorney for Comyn again in 1308 (in conjunction with Robert de Coleshulle), when Comyn left for Scotland shortly before his death. This was to be Robert de Herle’s last recorded professional action. Why did Robert disappear from public life?  The records give no clue.  Perhaps he was struck down by a debilitating disease, or injured on one of his many journeys.  By 1320 Robert de Herle was dead, his body interred near the altar of St Benedict at Garendon, a Cistercian abbey in Charnwood Forest, close to Robert’s home manor of Donington le Heath.  His name appeared in a list of indulgences in an episcopal register of Bishop Dalderby. In the years which followed, William de Herle created a family chantry chapel at Garendon, paying for a priest to sing the customary dirges for the dead to remember various family members including John de Whalton and Agnes, parents of Robert and William.  Towards the end of his life, William entered the monastery followed later by his son Sir Robert de Herle, and they too were buried in the chapel of St Benedict. Was there any lasting legacy of the disreputable event of Robert de Herle’s early career?  Much to the dismay of the Margery Paynel’s family, the manor of Caldecote remained with the de Herles and was inherited by Robert’s brother William in 1320.  After William’s death the manor passed to his son, Sir Robert de Herle, and thence to William’s grandson, Sir Ralph Hastings.  By 1369 Sir Ralph had sold the manor to the warden of the Chapel of St Mary, Noseley, Leicestershire, for £400, where it remained until the Dissolution. Was Robert de Herle a hero or a villain?  As an attorney he was tenacious in his pursuit of debtors, and ruthless in his ability to bend others to his will.  He manipulated court process and avoided prosecution because the king needed his administrative skills in the Scottish campaign.  Robert was indeed talented; he achieved the acquittal of a woman accused of murder.  However, he used his skills for his own personal gain - had he used such talent for the benefit of others he could, perhaps, have been truly great.]]>

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