James Lloyd revives the memory of a champion of England, famous in his day but now much forgotten in the country that he saved.
Kensham is the name of a farmhouse near the village of Rolvenden, in the Weald of Kent, dangerously close to the Sussex border. The chances are that you have never heard of it. Neither, one suspects, have most of the people in Rolvenden and yet there was a time when every man in England had heard of Kensham, or rather Cassingham (the older form of the name), in the surname of William of Kensham, known to his friends as Willikin of the Weald. Except to a few historians and players of Assassin’s Creed, William is a forgotten national hero, a Kentish Robin Hood, though his fame may have been sabotaged by the fact that this hero fought for, rather than against, King John.
During the first Barons’ War, the English nobility invited the heir to the throne of France, Louis, to invade the realm and seize the throne. Even a Frenchman, according to their thinking, was preferable to King John (the fact that most of the English nobility of this period were themselves French-speaking and had lands in Normandy may go some way to explaining this apparently most unpatriotic inclination). Not everyone, however, shared their opinion. There were some loyal English subjects (most of them common, rather than noble) for whom even King John was preferable to a Frenchman and one of these was William of Kensham.
Little is known of William’s origin. It has even been argued, on circumstantial evidence, that he was not English at all but a Flemish mercenary, or at least of Flemish descent. Whatever his provenance, when he first emerges into the light of history, in 1216 during the French occupation of south-east England, he was the tenant of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s fee of Kensham and was well known and well connected in the Kent and Sussex Weald. He was a skilled archer and yet, according to the few medieval chroniclers who mention him, he was still but a young man, probably around twenty years old when the French invaded.
Prince Louis landed in Kent on the twenty-first of May 1216 and quickly captured London, Winchester, Reigate, Guildford and Farnham. John fled to Bristol and then northwards but Dover Castle, commanded by Hubert de Burgh, Justiciar of the Realm and Earl of Kent, held out against Prince Louis. Meanwhile, William of Kensham recruited a guerrilla force of archers from the Weald and harried the French army. It is in the nature of such tactics that there are no pitched battles to record but so effective was William’s force that in September John awarded him a lifelong state pension and sent an open letter of thanks to the men of the Weald.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, John gorged himself to death at Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire shortly afterwards and the accession of his nine-year-old son Henry III simplified loyalties beautifully. Englishmen who had rebelled against the despotic John were willing to give his son (and, more importantly, his regent, the widely respected William le Marshal) a chance. Prince Louis went from being a liberator to an invader overnight and his English support evaporated.
In early 1217, Louis retreated from London towards the sea. William of Kensham ambushed him at Lewes and captured the two nephews of the Count of Nevers. The French reached Winchelsea on the Sussex coast but the citizens had burnt their mills and evacuated the town, while William’s Wealden guerrillas had burnt the bridges. The French were trapped and were saved only by the timely arrival of their own fleet.
Louis was still determined to take the English throne. He gathered reinforcements in France and in April set sail for England again. The siege of Dover Castle had continued all this time but William of Kensham, along with Oliver FitzRoy, one of John’s bastard sons, surprised the French encampment outside the castle, slew the men and burnt their tents. This setback forced Louis to land at Sandwich. He marched on Dover and made yet another attempt at besieging it but this too failed and he was forced to retreat to London, where he was still supported by the citizenry. What happened next has, owing to lack of advance planning, been explained on this blog already.
The war was over but the heroism of William of Kensham was not forgotten. King Henry III gave him lands in Essex and appointed him Warden of the Seven Hundreds of the Weald, a lucrative administrative position over a parcel of lands in Kent, including his own hundred of Rolvenden. William eventually died in 1257 but his wife continued to draw his pension for another seven years. His descendants were still living in Kensham until the reign of Henry IV.
Historians have re-constructed William’s life from his appearances in official state documents. References to him in history books are few, though he does appear in foreign chronicles. It is the interest shown in him by Flemish histories that led to the theory that he was himself a Fleming. French histories called him Willekin de Wans, Willikin of the Weald, presumably his vernacular name but this was misunderstood by nineteenth-century historians, who turned him into William de Vaux and tied themselves into knots theorising how a French-speaking northern landowner had ended up leading guerrilla resistance to Prince Louis in the Weald.
These days King John is remembered as a villain, which he was, and as a failure, which he was but his loss of Normandy, however personally humiliating (and, for the many noblemen who held lands in both countries, inconvenient), was also the beginning of the long process of disentangling England from French affairs, a binary commitment that had been distracting England’s kings ever since Harold Godwinson chose the worst possible moment to check the weather. If Louis had become king, England would have been plunged body and soul into French affairs once again, perhaps permanently. What a completely horrible thought.
That this did not happen is due, in large measure, to Willikin of the Weald, an Englishman (we shall patriotically assume), a Man of Kent and a Weldsman, a combination of identities that, according to the latest scientific research, yields the perfect human being. It is high time that the farmhouse at Kensham became a shrine to national freedom and that all Englishmen, all Men of Kent and all Weldsmen remembered their forgotten hero.