Peter Des Roches was a native of the Touraine in north-central France, Poitevin diplomat, soldier, and administrator who enjoyed a brilliant but checkered career, largely in England in the service of kings John and Henry III as a bishop and as regent (for the young Henry III). Comfortable in warfare, he wore armour, bore weapons, and used them personally in battle, rising to a height of great power in both secular and ecclesiastical hierarchies.
Contemporaries often praised Peter’s devotion to God and the king despite (or maybe because of) his willingness to partake in active fighting in battle. The chronicler Roger of Wendover wrote of Peter’s elevation in 1205 that,
“He was a man of the knightly order and skilled in the ways of war. He was chosen specifically for his knightly qualities and loyalty to King John and his willingness to advance the king’s interests.”
His election to Bishop of Winchester was eventually confirmed by Innocent III, consecrating him in person and granting him legatine authority in England. In Peter, the pope possibly saw the sort of prelate who could be useful leading papal armies or functioning effectively on crusade, two things that des Roches did successfully later in his career.
He played a key role in the campaigns against the French army of Prince Louis that invaded England in 1217. The History of William Marshal provides some of the best evidence for Peter des Roches’s military actions on behalf of John and Henry III. At the siege of Torksey, Peter led the fourth division of the royal army, earning praise,
“William Marshal then gave a rousing address, and in his wisdom, he entrusted his crossbowmen to Peter, the worthy bishop of Winchester*, who was in charge of leading them, who had sound knowledge in that sphere, and who strove hard to perform well.” During the battle, he actively led the royal troops, ‘Peter followed William Marshal shouting loudly and many times, in all directions: “This way! God is with the Marshal!”‘.
In the royalist victory at Lincoln, Peter was described as playing an even more significant and more personal role,
“The worthy bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, who was in charge that day of advising our side, was not slow or slothful, and he knew how to make use of his arms. In the company of his fine troop of men he gave chase, and in the course of that pursuit, he did very well indeed, capturing knights as he went.”
During des Roches’ years in power after John’s death, he oversaw royal affairs alongside William Marshal (until Marshal died in 1219) and bitter rival Hubert de Burgh. His political games made him many enemies, and he was in and out of favour. He took the cross in 1221 after being accused of treason, returning in 1223 he joined the anti-de Burgh faction. He continued his military activities, including leading a ‘significant contingent of the army’ against the Welsh.
Being forced from power by political opponents in 1227 resulted in him taking up a military command joining the crusade of Frederick II. Alongside Bishop William Brewer of Exeter, he led the English contingent in the army. Frederick succeeded in reoccupying Jerusalem by treaty rather than combat. In March of 1229, des Roches accompanied him into the city, where the emperor was crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While the nature of Jerusalem’s retaking caused some controversy, it largely enhanced des Roches’ reputation back in England.
Driven once again from high political office in England by 1234 he accepted an invitation from the papacy to assist in Gregory IX’s campaign against the rebellious citizens of Rome. While the pope did not offer des Roches his unqualified support, his endorsement, especially of his military abilities, demonstrate the importance and relative acceptability of this warrior-cleric. This campaign was the last of his military career and in 1236 he returned once more to England; after his death he was buried at Winchester.
*There was no indication in the text ‘The History of William Marshal’ implying anything untoward about de Roches’ role as a military leader, nor the fact that he was especially adept at commanding crossbowmen. This last aspect is fascinating since the Second Lateran Council had condemned crossbowmen in 1139, and clerics were explicitly prohibited from commanding them; according to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, a point des Roches ignored without consequence or criticism. It makes for an interesting Commander on the tabletop!
Rules for using Peter des Roches in The Barons’ War,