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Trial by combat attended by the King of England….

Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, and James Purefoy as Mowbray. From The Hollow Crown.

On 16th September 1398, at Gosford Green near Coventry, there was a tournament involving a trial by combat between Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Almost the entire nobility of England attended this event, including the king, Richard II, who had ordered the trial to settle a dispute (concerning treason) between the two magnates. It was to be a glittering occasion, everything our modern minds think of when it comes to medieval pageantry and jousting.

Medieval tournament

The two lords would appear in their most dazzling armour and colours. Mowbray’s armour was German, and his horse was “barded with crimson velvet embroidered richly with silver lions and mulberry trees”. His shield was the white lion of Mowbray on red ground. Bolingbroke’s armour was from Milan, and he was “mounted on a white courser, barded with green and blue velvet embroidered sumptuously with golden swan and antelopes. But all this glamour was beside the point, because danger was the order of the day, and death was to be the arbiter.

From the Tournament Book of King Rene of Anjou

But first, some background. Thomas Mowbray, 1st Duke of Norfolk, died in Venice in 1399. His full clutch of titles was 1st Duke of Norfolk, 1st Earl of Nottingham, 3rd Earl of Norfolk, 6th Baron Mowbray, 7th Baron Segrave, Knight of the Garter and Earl Marshal (I know of no more) and he was born on 22 March 1366, making him 32 in 1398. His activities during the later years of the reign of RII contributed to the eventual downfall of that unfortunate king.

Thomas Mowbray’s arms as Earl Marshal, 1395

Mowbray had once been close to Richard, a favourite, but became estranged, even going over to mix with the king’s enemies, known as the Lords Appellant. It is thought that his defection was born of jealousy over Richard’s clear preference for another favourite, Robert de Vere, Duke of IrelandMarquess of Dublin, and 9th Earl of Oxford, also a Knight of the Garter. De Vere raised an army for Richard against the Appellants, and was trounced at the Battle of Radcot Bridge. He fled into exile, and died on 22nd November 1392, in Leuven in what is now Belgium. Richard was distraught.

Battle of Radcot Bridge, by the Thames in Oxfordshire,
19th December 1387

Mowbray had found himself on thinner and thinner ice, and then a quarrel arose between him and the king’s first cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, son and heir of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the greatest magnate in the realm.

The Arms of Bolingbroke

Bolingbroke (once a Lord Appellant himself) was 31, and would, of course, eventually see to Richard II’s downfall (and probably his demise as well). He would usurp Richard’s throne for himself, as Henry IV.

The gauntlet is thrown down in front of the King

The two men accused each other in the King’s presence, and Richard ordered a trial by combat. Bolingbroke was generally reckoned to be the innocent party, and received more support than Mowbray. The protagonists were to meet in single combat on Monday, 16th  September, 1398, at Gosford Green, near Caludon Castle, which was Mowbray’s Coventry residence.

Artist’s impression of Caludon Castle in the 16th century.
By English Heritage artist, Pete Urmston
.

Richard II was generally frowned upon for allowing the matter to reach such a point, and his closest advisers felt that great ill could result if it went ahead. But, it seemed, the king was determined to let the two lords slug it out in the lists.

The following is paraphrased from the Chronique De La Traison Et Mort De Richart Deux, Roy Dengleterre, 1846 translation by Benjamin Williams:-

At daybreak on the 16th September, Mowbray took leave of the king and after hearing three masses at the Carthusian monastery of St Anne’s, near Coventry, rode to his tent, near the lists at Gosford Green.,

Part of the original St Anne’s Monastery, Coventry

The world and his wife would be present, for it was an amazing occasion, news of which had been proclaimed far and wide.

Proclamation of a Tournament 1843
antique engraved hand-coloured medieval print

At the tent, his esquire, Jacques Felm of Bohemia, began dress him in his armour.

by Jan Provoost, 1515
Gosford Green still exists. Picture taken from Stoke Property Guide

The Constable and Marshal, with 20 followers, all armed and wearing livery of short doublets of red Kendal cloth, with silver girdles bearing the motto: “Honniz soit celluy qui mal pense”. They entered the lists at eight o’clock, together with many who can come from overseas to witness the duel.

Mediaeval Marshal – origin of image not known

At nine o’clock, Bolingbroke arrived, with followers on six chargers. He presented himself at the barrier of the lists, and the Constable and Marshal went to meet him, to formally request that he identify himself. He replied that he was the Duke of Hereford, come to prosecute his appeal in combatting the Duke of Norfolk, who ‘is a traitor, false and recreant to God, the King, his realm, and me’.

Jousting at Calais in the 1390s

The Constable and Marshal required him to swear an oath, and asked if he would enter the lists at that point. He said he would and ‘placed forward’ his shield, silver with a red cross, like that of St George. Then he closed his visor, crossed himself, called for his lance, and rode through the opened barrier to his pavilion, which was covered with red roses. Then, as was the custom, he alighted and went inside to await his opponent’s appearance.

Next, Richard II arrived, accompanied by all the nobles of England, Archbishop Walden of Canterbury, and the Count of St Pol. The king had with him full 20,000 archers and men-at-arms in great number.

Henry VIII arriving at the Field of Cloth of Gold, 1520

The king ascended to the royal stand, which was very handsomely adorned in royal array, and once he was seated, the king of the heralds cried out, ‘Oyez, oyez, oyez! Behold here Henry of Lancaster, Duke of Hereford, appellant, who is come to the lists to do his duty against Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, defendant; let him come to the lists to do his duty, upon pain of being declared false.’ This proclamation was called out three times.

Herald, from the Tournament Book of King Rene of Anjou

When this was done, the Constable and Marshal went to Mowbray, who had made his appearance before the barrier of the lists. He was sworn to his oath, they opened the barrier and he entered the list, saying ‘God speed the right!’

A very unlikely long-haired, thick-bearded Richard II presiding at a tournament. From the St Albans Chronicle

It was ordered that the contestants’ lances be brought and checked, to be sure they were the same length. When the lances had been returned, it was announced that the men’s chargers should be loosed, and that each man should perform his duty. Bolingbroke advanced seven or eight paces, but Mowbray remained motionless.

from Froissart

At that breathless, heart-stopping moment, the King rose and cried a halt. This amazing snapshot-in-time is a favourite subject for artists.

The crowds cried out in astonishment as he ordered the bemused contestants to their seats. There they remained for two hours, until it was decreed that although both men had appeared valiantly, prepared to defend their honour, the King had decided that Bolingbroke should quit the realm for ten years. There was uproar, but eventually it was also announced that Mowbray was to be banished from England for the rest of his life.

Mowbray and Bolingbroke before Richard II
from The Hollow Crown

Unlike the above illustration, the two men were not permitted to meet, but had to come separately into the King’s presence, where they swore to obey his command. And obey they did, which is how Mowbray came to die in Venice. Bolingbroke hadn’t long left the country when his father, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster died, and Richard seized all Lancastrian property lands. Thus he gave Bolingbroke a cast-iron reason to come back to England and demand the return of his heritage. Then he, Bolingbroke, took all Richard’s lands…and his crown, throne and life as well.

Richard II is forced to abdicate

So, those far-off events on 16th September 1398 had far-reaching consequences, and led to the usurpation of the House of Lancaster.

Coronation of Henry IV, from BL Royal 18 E II, f. 404
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Agnes Lancecrona and Robert de Vere

Robert de Vere (1362-1392) Earl of Oxford, found great favour with Richard II and was elevated first to the title of Marquess of Dublin and then in October 1386 to the dukedom of Ireland. This was the very first dukedom awarded outside the immediate royal family, and was, in effect, a “fingers up” to Richard’s many critics and opponents, the great majority of whom resented what they saw as the excessive influence de Vere had over the King.

Richard was often criticised at this time for the youth and low birth of his closest advisers, but really this was a canard. As will be seen from the bare facts of the matter, de Vere was neither young (by medieval standards) nor low born; indeed his was one of the oldest earldoms in the kingdom, albeit one of the least well endowed.

In addition, de Vere was married to the King’s first cousin, Philippa de Coucy, who was the daughter of the King’s late aunt, Isabel of England. Unfortunately, de Vere, for whatever reason, was not happy with Philippa, possibly because her inheritance had never been properly secured or perhaps for more personal reasons. At any rate, he decided to annul their marriage. This was seen as a great affront by the lady’s uncles, the dukes of York and Gloucester, who quite probably had concerns for the futures of their own daughters. The Duke of Lancaster would probably have been equally offended had he been in the country.

To make matters worse, de Vere proposed to replace Philippa with the Queen’s Czech (or possibly German) waiting-woman, Agnes Lancecrona. This was clearly a love match (at least on de Vere’s side) as Agnes had no money or land and no prospect of getting any. Agnes’ social status is obscure. One chronicler described her as the daughter of a saddler, another as a washerwoman, but she appears to have been a Lady of the Bedchamber, with the responsibility for caring for Queen Anne’s jewels. It is highly unlikely that the daughter of a saddler could have risen to such eminence, while the very idea of a washerwoman doubling up as a lady-in-waiting is too absurd to contemplate. Having said that, we really do not know who her parents were. To the English of the time, even more xenophobic than their descendants, it was probably bad enough that she was a foreigner and an immigrant.

It appears that de Vere, by giving false evidence to the Pope secured a dissolution of his marriage. He certainly gained possession of Agnes, but whether with her consent is less clear. Two of his retainers were later accused of abducting her and taking her to Chester, where de Vere was residing in the summer of 1387. They may or may not have undergone a form of marriage.

De Vere was defeated by his King’s enemies at the Battle of Radcot Bridge (20 December 1387) he fled abroad and was never able to return during his life. It is not clear whether Agnes followed him, or what happened to her. She simply disappears from the record. De Vere died in a hunting accident in 1392 before Richard could recall him.

In 1389 the dissolution of the marriage was revoked. Duchess Philippa seems never to have lost her status in practice, though for a time she was sheltered by de Vere’s rather formidable mother, who took Philippa’s side against her son. She had an annuity of 300 marks a year after her husband’s death, and was granted dower in 1398. She lived on until 1411, but chose to remain single.

 

 

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