What really happened in 1385, when the Earl of Stafford’s son and heir was killed on a Yorkshire road…?
On Sunday, 16th July 1385 (maybe 18th) there was an incident at Bustardthorpe, which is south of York on the road to Bishopthorpe, where King Richard II was staying at the (arch)bishop’s palace. A large portion of his army and nobles were encamped close by because the English were en route for Scotland, intending to sort out (or try to!) those pesky folk beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The English encampments were spread across the fields south of York.
Richard II’s half-brother, Sir John Holand (aged thirty-three or so, his actual date of birth isn’t known for certain) was camped with his portion of the English forces at a place called Catton, six miles east of York across the Ouse (and across the Derwent) from Bishopthorpe. On 18th July he was responsible for the brutal death of 18-year-old Ralph Stafford, son and heir of the Earl of Stafford (whose actual birthdate isn’t known either). Many call it murder, but it’s always sounded more like manslaughter to me, something done in the heat of a violent quarrel. This notorious incident almost brought the king’s expedition against the Scots to an end before it began.
According to my research, two of Holand’s men (supposedly his favourite squires) were murdered by two of the Earl of Stafford’s men (or variations of this theme) and maybe a foreign knight was involved as well. Some say the initial murders took place at Beverley Minster, where the earl’s men promptly took sanctuary. What did or didn’t happen at Beverley is really beside the point, because Holand’s knee-jerk reaction—he had a very short fuse—culminated in the sword-thrust that put an end to the earl’s son and heir.
When Holand learned of his esquires’ murders, he fell into a red rage, and set off to seek vengeance. He took around ten of his men, probably all armed, and he himself was certainly armed, for he had the fateful sword with him. If the murder had been at Beverley, that wasn’t the direction he took. Instead of going south-east, he went west for the area of York, Bustardthorpe and Bishopthorpe on the west/opposite bank of the River Ouse.
Maybe he knew that the Earl of Stafford’s camp was close to the king? And maybe, to be fair to him, his initial purpose was to seek redress from his half-brother, King Richard II. He wanted the earl to pay dearly for his men’s misdemeanors. If this was his intention, the audience didn’t cool his fury, which was still raging afterward, when he encountered Ralph at Bustardthorpe.
Whether he went first to the king and was on his way back toward York, or was still on his way to the king from York, halfway along the road, at Bustardthorpe, he apparently didn’t at first recognise Ralph, yet he must have known the young man well. Ralph had been in Richard II’s household since childhood, and had always been around at court. Holand was older, of course, so he’d certainly have witnessed Ralph growing up alongside the king. Maybe the encounter at Bustardthorpe took place in the dark? Maybe there was a mist from the Ouse? Whatever, there was a violent set-to-which must have included an argument of some sort. Maybe Ralph even sneered that Holand’s men had deserved what they got? Whatever, it ended with Holand drawing his sword and running Stafford through.
I doubt very much if either man was in armour or even helmet, so the main illustration above gives a false impression. It’s much more likely that both were dressed a little like this photograph below, of James Purefoy as Mowbray, from the Richard II episode of The Hollow Crown, and therefore the same period as the incident in 1385.
It’s always possible, of course, that the two men didn’t like each other anyway, which would add an extra edge to the confrontation. One wrong word from Ralph would ignite Holand’s already smouldering blue touchpaper, and that would be that. Afterward, when his alarmed men told him who he’d just killed, Holand is reported to have said he’d rather have killed the earl’s firstborn son than any number of the earl’s men, because it was fitting recompense for the loss of his favourite squires. Then, like the Earl of Stafford’s men before him, he too fled for Beverley Minster’s sanctuary, thirty or so miles away to the south-east.
Ralph was buried temporarily at Blackfriars in York, and Richard II attended the funeral. Then Ralph’s remains were removed to King’s Langley Dominican Priory. His father went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem shortly afterward, but died at Rhodes before reaching his destination.
The only thing we can be sure of in this whole sorry affair is that Sir John Holand did indeed kill Ralph, and did indeed haul his guilty hide to Beverley. His actual words in the heat of the moment of killing Ralph can never be known. I have to concede though, that given what I’ve gleaned about Holand’s temperament, it wouldn’t surprise me if the sentiments reported were accurate.
Right then, now you have the bare bones of the matter. The impression is always given that Holand heard what had happened in Beverley, leapt on to his horse, dashed to seek revenge, bumped into Stafford, killed him and that was that. All virtually in the blink of an eye. But his actual route from Catton to Bustardthorpe had to be more involved.
Catton is on the east bank of the Derwent. The nearest bridge—wooden with stone piers—is a mile or so upstream at Stamford Bridge. This was once the tidal reach of the Derwent, and was originally a ford, where Roman roads converged. I understand that the name Stamford originates from “stone-paved ford”.
But now I’ve discovered that according to the Petworth House Archives “…Catton village stands along a single street roughly parallel with the Derwent. From its northern end a lane runs towards the river and the church. On the other side of the manor-house site Wath Lane formerly led to the river bank where there was once a ford…”
So Catton had a ford too! This means that if Holand’s camp was on the Catton village side of the river, he could simply have ridden across the ford and then on toward the Ouse. Or maybe his encampment was already in the meadows to the west. Whatever, we can discount the Derwent as being a hurdle. All he had to do was cross it on horseback, ride like the wind the six miles or so over the flat land to the Ouse. Now, to cross the Ouse by a bridge, he’d have to go to the old stone bridge in York, then south on to the road to Bustardthorpe and Bishopthorpe.
Well, it’s perfectly possible that this was the route Holand chose, but it involved two sides of a triangle, whereas the crow flew along only one side. Rivers can be forded (he’d already forded the Derwent) and maybe the Ouse could be too, when the conditions were right, of course. Even the mighty Severn Estuary was once forded by a man who walked chest-high in the water. Completely nuts! But it goes to show that if a large, rather wild estuary, with the second highest tidal reach in the world, can be forded at the right time by a single man, on foot, then surely the Ouse could be too? The weather of 1385 was perhaps helpful in this respect. According to my research, January and February were unusually wet, February to July was unusually warm, and June to July was unusually dry.
One source states quite specifically that the summer of that year was “one of excessive heat from May to 5th September (the Nativity of the Virgin)”. I imagine the heavens must have really opened on 5th September for a note to be made of it!
If the summer was indeed warm and dry, it would mean that the Ouse was probably lower than usual too, and perhaps it was known among the locals that the Ouse could be ridden across quite easily in various places in such conditions. I rather think this would appeal to Holand, who was impatient to seek redress. He was hot-tempered and justifiably so in this case. His men had been killed, and he wasn’t about to take it lying down! He was nothing if not loyal to his men and would want to make a beeline to complain to the Earl of Stafford, not a tiresome meander around the countryside.
But I don’t even really know if I have the right Catton, only the nearest one that I can find. Yorkshire isn’t a county I’m well acquainted with (a weekend stay at Leyburn in 1959 is my limit!) I even managed to confuse myself today by muddling this Catton with another one on the banks of the River Swale, further north. A friend has now told me there are Cattons all over the county – well, not all that liberally, of course, but certainly more than just the two I’ve mentioned. Someone else has suggested that Catton might actually be a medieval contraction of Catterton, which is some five miles or so west of Bishopthorpe. Maybe it is.
What would really make my day would be for some long-forgotten Catton to be in the close vicinity of Bishopthorpe and on the same western bank of the Ouse. After all, Bustardthorpe has now virtually disappeared. On Google Maps it’s only detectable by some allotments that bear its name. To see a realy interesting zoomable view of the allotments, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidhopley/26438359595. There used to be a cross at Bustardthorpe, paid for by Holand, saying that it was the place of Stafford’s violent death, but the cross too has gone. (BTW, does anyone know what happened to it? It was once important regarding marking the boundary of Micklegate) The cross is recorded as follows: “…In the early eighteenth century this cross, quaintly described as the ‘Staffherd’ Cross, still helped to mark the boundary of Micklegate Ward. Though the cross has disappeared, it is possible to locate its original site reasonably accurately. From Skaife, ‘Extracts from the House Books of the Corporation of York’, p. 448; Royal Commission, South-West of the Ouse, p. 118…” The Stafford Cross is mentioned in the text.
In the aftermath of Ralph’s death, Richard II promised the outraged Earl of Stafford that he’d punish Holand as if he were a common felon, but then time went on a little, Holand returned to court, did penance, paid for a memorial cross at the place of Ralph’s death, endowed a chantry for Ralph’s soul and so on. But he went on to become Earl of Huntingdon, marry John of Gaunt’s daughter, be raised to Duke of Exeter. Then he was reduced to Huntingdon again by his brother-in-law Henry IV, against whom he then took part in the Epiphany Rising of 1399, intending to restore Richard II to the throne. Holand fled when the rebellion failed, was captured on the storm-swept coast of Essex, hauled off to Pleshey Castle and summarily executed, watched by the late Earl of Arundel’s sister and son. Holand had witnessed the late Earl of Arundel’s execution, and had also been present at Pleshey when the king’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, had been arrested (to be done away with shortly afterwards in Calais). So for John Holand it was time to pay the ultimate price.
He was a passionate man who led a fiery life, and history condemns him as a violent murderer of little worth, but he was of considerable consequence, and possessed of a fatal charm. One of the top jousters of the day, he could be guaranteed to not only win but provide a theatrical display second to none, and the ladies certainly liked him. He was never boring, and he’s a major character in my wip (which threatens to go on forever, and I’m more than content to let it do so!) I certainly don’t see him in quite the same light as all the historians. Ah, but then I see Richard III in his true light as well.
We all have our favourites, and John Holand, sinner or not, is one of mine.
PS: I wish to thank the many members of the British Medieval History group for their help regarding the Yorkshire locations in this article.