Pagan Peverel: An Anglo-Norman Crusader

Crusader KnightPagan Peverel: An Anglo-Norman Crusader

Susan Edgington

Crusade and Settlement: Papers read at the First Conference of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East and presented to R.C. Smail (1985)

Thousands of men participated in the First Crusade whose names are mentioned in none of the accounts of the expedition.1 One such is an Anglo-Norman knight named Pagan Peverel.

My interest in this man began far from the Holy Land, in Huntingdonshire where he figures in the Miracles of St Ivo, a compilation made largely in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The incident is worth quoting at length: it is a fair representation of St Ivo’s partisanship for the Abbey at Ramsey.

One of King Henry of England’s nobles, Pagan in name and in deed, surnamed Peverel, was misled by blind ambition and tried by sacrilegious seizure to take possession for himself of two estates belonging to St Benedict’s abbey at Ramsey, claiming falsely that they should rightly be owned and ruled by him, as much by hereditary right as by royal grant. But the brothers on the other hand were maintaining the testimony of many truthful men, that the estates had belonged to the church at Ramsey without restriction for a good while through the reigns of very many kings and without ever any objection or attack, and it seemed unfair to all and petty to the learned that after so many centuries of peace they should have to be given up now on account of some new and unheard of legal quibble. But a mind deformed by insatiable greed once intoxicated by a drug hardly ever or never stops thirsting for others. For indeed this Pagan did not cease to suggest with bullying entreaties to the royal power that it should support his wickedness. But in fact the royal will could not be turned aside to wickedness, especially to sacrilegious robbery or the diminishing of the church’s property, on account of fear of God and reverence for his saints; but rather the king ordered the cases of both sides to be aired in a fair trial. Meanwhile of course with devout prayer; the brother; entrusted their case and affairs to divine protection and the support of Saints Benedict and Ivo.


    The appointed day arrived on which Abbot Bernard with some of the brothers and many wise men of both sides, nobles and very powerful men, arrived together at the village of Slepe in the burial place of blessed Ivo. But also men attached to the king were directed there who were experienced and eloquent in judiciary power, to decide and define the case and what it was all about.

What more? After many subterfuges of the opposition, after arguments, with also the brother;’ brilliant defence, the confirmation of suitable witnesses, also the testimony of letter: from previous kings, the truth was clearly seen by the judges, with the help of divine grace (the intercession of Saints Benedict and Ivo), and they decreed that in fair judgement the estates in question were under the authority and power of Ramsey church. The opposition who heard this departed in disorder. However the abbot went back delighted with the brothers to the monastery. And so that the injustice inflicted by the others might be more truly evident, there were divine miracles as a sign.

For on that same day, before Pagan arrived at his lodging, the horse on which he was riding had its feet slip from under it and fell three times to the ground, not without injury to the rider, and a hawk which he was holding was shaken from his hand and made for the wood in swift flight, never to return. The horse of the priest who was travelling with him slipped and fell as well, and its neck being broken – although the priest was unharmed – it breathed its last. There was also Pagan’s steward, called Robert, who came in for a more deserved punishment, because more than the rest, as it were the most faithful to his master, he had given his approval and assistance to the man’s wickedness…2

In the Ramsey Chronicle there is a copy of the writ, dated 1109, which adds the names of the two villages: Stowe and Gretton.3 Domesday Book confirms that they were held mainly by Ramsey Abbey in 1086. The story of Pagan Peverel is interesting, then, in the context of the Miracles, as being one of very few which deal with verifiably authentic characters.

It is a reference in C. W. David’s biography of Robert Curthose which places Pagan Peverel in the context of the First Crusade. An entry in the appended list of Robert’s companions reads:

PAIN PEVEREL. The distinguished Norman knight who acted as Robert’s standard-bearer on the Crusade, and who upon his return was granted a barony in England by Henry I, and became patron of Barnwell priory.4

The sole authority quoted is the Liber Memorandum Ecclesie de Barnemelle.5

The Liber was not written in its present form until 1295-6 but its editor believes that it was probably based on an earlier work and may largely be relied upon. Additional and more contemporary glimpses of Pagan and the Peverels are to be found in Henry I’s charters. However one has regrettably to turn to the antiquarians to reconstruct a coherent and sometimes plausible account of Pagan Peverel’s ancestry and life.

He was probably the third son of Ranulph Peverel who, the story goes, made his fortune by marrying a Saxon concubine of Duke William of Normandy and bringing up her son by the duke as his own.6 We may perhaps agree with Eyton 7 that this tale, which seems to have surfaced in the sixteenth century in Camden, is ‘inconsistent with the general character of Duke William’ but no other explanation of the family’s emergence is offered. J.R. Planche, indeed, devotes seventeen pages to demonstrating its verisimilitude.8 This elder half-brother and presumed son of the new king, William Peverel, was granted the castle and county of Nottingham in 1068 while still in his teens. Ranulph’s own first son, Hamo, married a Shropshire heiress and was influential in that county; his second was another William, of Dover. This William was a protégé of William Rufus: he is called William Peverel of Dover in 1095,9 which means he must have been endowed out of Kentish lands forfeited by Odo of Bayeux in 1088.

The youngest Peverel brother, Pagan, pursued a military career and served as standardbearer to Robert of Normandy in the Holy Land 1096-1100. Upon his return he evidently found favour with Henry I and he is listed for the first time witnessing a charter in January 1103.10  In 1105 he was granted the manor of Shefford in Berkshire.11 `Payn’ Peverel appears as witness to charters up to 1129,12 in which year also his daughter Matilda was granted the manor of Shefhord on her marriage.13

The land which brought Pagan Peverel into dispute with the abbey of Ramsey, the barony of Brunne, was conferred on him by Henry I who had confiscated it from Robert son of Picot for conspiring against his life. The date of the grant is not known, but it was before 1110, in which year the grant of Barnwell to the Augustinian canons was made.14

The Liber describes Pagan as `a member of the king’s household, an outstanding soldier … and praiseworthy above all the nobles of the kingdom in matters of warfare.15 He came to Cambridge and took on the Augustinian canons there, declaring it was thirty years since his baptism and thirty years till he would go to heaven, so he would have thirty canons to intercede for him.16 (Assuming some hindsight on the part of the chronicler this suggests a date in the 1070s for Pagan’s birth, and one in the 1130s for his death.) In 1112 Pagan removed the canons’ house to Barnwell and endowed it generously. He also gave the canons ‘very true, precious relics set in gold and topaz which he had acquired on the expedition to Antioch with Robert Curthose while he was performing the office of standard-bearer’.17

If there is a disparity between Pagan’s great generosity to the canons at Barnwell and his rapacity concerning the estates of Ramsey Abbey, it should be observed that both traits are reported by monkish chroniclers with vested interests. They agree at least in so far as they reflect a strong sense of property.

There is some doubt about the date of Pagan Peverel’s death. The Liber, in spite of Pagan’s own prophecy, says he died not quite ten years after the move to Barnwell, that is in 1121 or 1122.18  However he witnesses several charters until 1129 or possibly 1133.19 Another pointer to a later date is that the Liber says that after his death in London and burial at Barnwell his son William confirmed his grants and then went off to Jerusalem where he died without heir. The use of the word postea here suggests an interval shorter than twenty-five years between grant and departure – and William took part in the crusade of 1147. Pagan Peverel’s barony was then divided among his four daughters.20

So much for Pagan Peverel’s career in England. Chronicles of the First Crusade do not mention him – even Albert of Aix, who lists many lesser leaders. He, however, gives the names of two standard-bearers to Robert of Normandy: Roger de Barnevilla and Everhard de Puisat.21 Roger achieved some importance in the disposition of troops at the siege of Antioch and was killed dramatically there. It could be that Pagan Peverel took his place: the Liber’s `dum signiferi vicem gereret’ would bear this interpretation.

There is thus a divergence between Pagan Peverel’s crusading reputation in England and his unimportance in the chronicles. This may partly be explained by Robert of Normandy’s not having an account centring on him once Fulcher of Chartres had left him for Baldwin. The Chansons have no word of Pagan Peverel either.

In fact Pagan probably received his rewards in England less for his crusading prowess than as recognition of the loyalty of his family. C.W. Hollister lists his elder brother (or half-brother) William Peverel of Nottingham as one of ten leading lay curiales of William II alive in 1100,22 and he goes on to describe these as typically men of middling wealth, household officials, augmented by ‘a mixed bag of young knights of modest origin’. It would be natural for Pagan to be welcomed at court in 1100 as one of this last group, the loyalty of his father and brothers to William I and William II amply counter-balancing any suspicion which might attach to him as a companion of Robert on the First Crusade. (In the Succession War of 1101 Eustace of Boulogne and No of Grandmesnil, crusading companions, both backed Robert.23) After 1101 the honours granted to Pagan accord with Henry’s policy of closing the gap between magnates andcuriales.

In contrast with his crusader patron, Robert of Normandy, Pagan Peverel’s career was a success story. He was the landless son of a lesser lord who saw the possibilities of the expedition to the East. He had the advantage, maybe, of a step-relationship to Duke Robert and reinforced this with outstanding military prowess. An opportunity arose, perhaps when Roger de Barnevilla was killed at Antioch, for him to establish a reputation as standard-bearer to the duke. After the battle of Ascalon (where he may well have taken part in Robert’s daring raid on the Egyptian headquarters) Pagan Peverel decided to return to England rather than settle in the East.

At this point he may have thought that there were good prospects with Robert, but by the time they reached home it was clear that Henry had pre-empted his brother and secured the crown. Pagan must have decided quite soon to stand by his family tradition of loyalty and throw in his lot with the new king, because he was soon and well rewarded by him. Thereafter he settled as landlord and raised a family, and if he was jealous of his property, who can blame him after his landless and perilous youth? It is doubtful whether, to one who had survived the First Crusade, the wrath of St Ivo, as described in the Miracles, carried much weight.

End Notes

1. This communication has been revised after discussions with Dr. David Bates and Dr. Paul Hyams, to both of whom I am very grateful for suggestions and encouragement.

2. Chronicon Abbatiae Ramesiensis, ed. W.D. Macray (RS 83; 1886), Ixxvii – lxxviii.

3. Chronicon, p. 221.

4. C.W. David, Robert Curthose (Cambridge, Mass., 1920), 225.

5. Liber Memorandum EcclesiedeBarnewelle, ed. J.W. Clark (Cambridge, 1907), 54-5, 41, 46.

6. W. Dugdale, The Baronage of England (London, 1675), 436, 438.

7. R. W. Eyton, Antiquities of Shropshire (London, 1854), ii, 104-7.

8. J.R. Planche, The Conqueror and his Companions (London, 1874) 258-275.

9. Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, i (1066-1100), ed. H.W.C. Davis (Oxford, 1913), no. 362.

10. Regesta Regum AngloNormannorum, ii (1100-I 135), ed. C. Johnson and H.A. Cronne (Oxford, 1956),no. 626.

11. Regesta, ii, no. 707.

12. Regesta, ii, nos. 1585, 1587.

13. Regesta, ii, no. 1609.

14. Regesta, ii, no. 939.

15. Liber Memorandum, p.41.

16. Liber Memorandum, p.41.

17. Liber Memorandum, p. 46.

18. Liber Memorandum, p.47.

19. Regesta, ii, no. 1776. This may be spurious or wrongly dated.

20. Liber Memorandum, p. 47.

21. Albert of Aix, `Liber Christianae expeditionis’, RHC Oc., iv, 362.

22. C.W. Hollister, `Magnates and “Curiales” in Early Norman England’, Viator, viii (1977), 76.

23. Hollister, `Magnates and “Curiales”‘, p. 78.


This entry was posted in Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.