The Norwood line (Descendants of Harold Godwineson) – A Revisionist History PART 1


Coronation of King Harold – Wikipedia


It has long been the case that members of the Norwood family in its many manifestations, claim descent from King Harold Godwineson, otherwise known as Harold II who was killed at Hastings in 1066, through his son Alnod or Ulf. I followed the convention in my book on John Norwood VC by citing the researches of Marian Callum Norwood, the noted genealogist and family historian who did much to develop the histories of the various branches of the family. I met her in the 1990s when she was already quite old but still full of enthusiasm.  In the many years since Marion’s death however, others who have followed her work more critically have taken issue with the absence of a credible connection between Jordanus of Sheppey, the 12th century patriarch of the family from whom the Norwood clan indubitably descended and Alnod or Ulf, the son of Harold.    

Marion goes wrong early in Volume Two of the Norwood books by referring to Alnod as the eldest son of Harold and Edith; he was not. The title of eldest son belongs to Godwine who fled to the continent after various attempts post-Conquest to achieve power. That said, her formidable research into heraldry and the translation of the Domesday Book for Kent by Lambert Blackwell Larking which she used, revealed that Alnod had very significant holdings indeed around Kent which after the Conquest fell into the hands either of Odo of Bayeux, or William himself or the Canterbury Archdiocese. We verified these findings ourselves by examining the same document at the Kent Archives in Maidstone in both translations of Domesday. Larking uses “Alnod Cilt” as his translation, but the modern interpretation in a  Domesday translation edited by John Morris is “the young Alnod”.  He will therefore be identical to Ulf who was a young teenager at the Conquest but who was endowed with significant land.

Also featuring large in the Domesday record is Wulfnoth, born circa 1035, the youngest brother of Harold. He was captured after Hastings, held in Normandy, transferred to Winchester Castle by William Rufus on his release in 1087 by William on his deathbed and then allowed to join a monastery where he died around 1094 in his late fifties – early sixties. His place in the family is often confused with the children of Harold.

According to the book “Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King” by Ian Walker, the descendants of Harold and his hand fast wife Edith in terms of seniority were; Godwine, Edmund, Magnus, Gytha, Ulf and Gunnhild. He had a son Harold from his conventional second marriage to Aeditha, who was too young to play any role in the Conquest and indeed is thought to have been born after Harold’s death. However, he   may well be  the son involved years later in the abortive Norwegian attacks on Dublin and Anglesey and must be presumed to have settled in Scandinavia.

Alnod or Ulf was also seized after Hasting (where he was too young to fight) and confined in Normandy. But later, like Wulfnoth, he was released by William on his deathbed, reportedly at the urging of the church, as an act of mercy. There is evidence that William’s estranged son, Robert Curthose, the next Duke of Normandy, took a shine to Ulf and knighted him not long after.

Duke Robert Curthose with his army
Duke Robert Curthose with his army by Joseph Martin Kronheim, 1868 Source: Wikipedia

Robert Curthose has been ill served by historians who have failed to look behind tainted contemporary sources all of whom have their own reasons for a critical view. A recent book about him by William Aird, a lecturer in medieval history at Cardiff is more even handed. Aird brings out in particular that his leading role in the First Crusade (1095-99) made him one of the most famous warriors of his time, returning to Western Europe in 1100 as a chivalric hero with a reputation that extended from Palestine to Scotland.

Aird writes that in the 11th century the dubbing ceremony was the granting of weapons to a new Knight who was deemed capable of holding land and bearing arms to defend it; this honour was usually awarded to young men and had connotations of social status partly derived from personal ancestry but also by association with the Lord making the grant. It seems clear that Ulf’s privileged retention in Normandy after Hastings led to a close relationship with Robert which could only be recognised on the death of the Conqueror who evidently harboured a strong antipathy to the Godwins.

It is inconceivable that Ulf would not have remained close to his benefactor and fought with him during the many actions that troubled Normandy from the rivalry between Robert and his siblings, William Rufus and Henry. It is equally improbable that Ulf did not accompany him as a mature warrior when he went on the Crusade.  This service would have been the most evident route towards reacquiring and retaining his ancestral lands, the defence of which was an inherent element in the knight’s role.

Ulf’s aspirations to land were associated with Kent, so after his formal release in 1087, and after his belting as a knight, he is likely to have sought restoration. By this time, his Anglo-Saxon identity would have been transformed by 20 years of Norman tutelage.  It is clear that Alnod or Ulf once had major manorial holdings in Kent which overlap with the later location of the Jordanus/Norwood family, thereby consolidating the supposed connection. Alnod’s former lands are well laid out from Domesday in Marion’s third book and cover widespread manors in Alnod’s name from Rochester to Dover, embracing Canterbury, Whitstable, Sheppey, Thanet, Norwood, Chart Sutton and many more. These had been held by Alnod /Ulf from King Edward, presumably from childhood, but were subordinated to the feudal over-lordship of Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother and the Church after the Conquest. Marian asserts that Alnod recovered some of these and that they continued in the possession of Jordanus of Sheppey and the Norwoods for 300 years.

Aird states that there is no complete record of the knights who served Robert and who participated in the First Crusade which was known to be hazardous but Pope Urban had said that “by the will of God, he absolved all penitents from their sins from the moment that they took the cross of Christ”, which produced a surge of participants.  Around 60,000 soldiers took part in the Crusade of which around 6,000 were knights and a further 30,000 provided support. This is not the moment to detail the history of the Crusade but the crowning moment for Robert was in August 1099 when after victory in Jerusalem, the crusaders were confronted by an Egyptian Fatimid army at Ascalon, southwest of Jerusalem. Robert commanded the centre division of the Crusader Army and charging at the heart of the Egyptian camp, personally captured the Viziers banner and his tent. The Emir was lucky to escape leading to a great victory for which Robert’s part was much celebrated. After the battle and before beginning the return home, Robert completed his pilgrimage by immersing himself in the River Jordan. It was this act which encouraged crusaders to give themselves the soubriquet “Jordanus”.

Alnod/Ulf appears to disappear from history after 1087 but the change of name to either Jordanus and/or John of Northwoode may contribute to this apparent obscurity. If Robert was his master, the latter’s continuous attempts to challenge at first William Rufus and later Henry 1 for the throne of England, in between battling with his neighbours in France, eventually lead to ignominy.  He was bamboozled by Henry I into taking a very large pension in lieu of his claim, which was soon in arrears leading to conflict in which Robert ended as the loser. Henry invaded Normandy in 1106, defeating Robert at the battle of Tinchebray, he then imprisoned his brother in Devizes Castle for 20 years and later moved him to Cardiff where he ended his life in 1134; he is buried in St Peter’s in Gloucester. Tinchebray is in the Orne region of lower Normandy, the scene of much fighting after the D Day landings.

The obvious conclusions that one  draw from this story is that Alnod/Ulf  after his  release from nominal confinement in Normandy,  receiving his knighthood  and giving  service to Robert, was able to  claim back  at least some his lands. His 20 or so years in Normandy had “normanized“ him. He would have been required of course to offer continued service to Robert – after all, his knighthood involved obligations, but this did not mean that he had to stay in Normandy. It was timely to pursue land claims in the  late 80s in Kent because the Church under Archbishop Lanfranc had initiated proceedings, with William’s blessing to strip Odo of Bayeux of lands that he had misappropriated after the Conquest, especially from the Church but also from previous holders such as Alnod/Ulf.

The Trial of Penenden Heath may well have had a role in restoring Alnod/Ulf’s fortunes, although this occurred when he was still in Normandy, as its effects were far reaching. The Trial occurred in the decade after the Conquest  probably in 1076, and involved a dispute between Odo of Bayeux , the half-brother of William  and Lanfranc,  the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. Odo de Bayeux was previously Earl of Kent and the primary landowner of the region subsequent to his half-brother William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066. In 1070, Archbishop Lanfranc succeeded to  Canterbury and requested an inquiry into the activities of Odo (and Lanfranc’s predecessor, Stigand) who had allegedly defrauded the Church (and possibly the Crown) during his tenure as Earl of Kent.

William the Conqueror arrests Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, from John Cassell’s Illustrated History of England

It has subsequently been argued that most of the lands had been lost not to Odo, but to Earl Godwine  (Harold II’s father) and his family during Edward’s reign and perhaps even earlier and that Odo had simply succeeded to these encroachments. Therefore the conflict between Archbishop and Earl was to a large extent a reprise of that between Robert of Jumièges and Godwine in 1051-2, the suggestion being that Lanfranc, despite being the Prior of a Norman monastery was attempting to restore the pre-conquest landholdings for the Church of Canterbury.

William I determined that the matter should be settled by the nobles of Kent and ordered that an assembly be formed on the heath at Penenden (near present-day Maidstone) for the purpose. William I ordered that the findings of the inquiry or ‘trial’ of Odo de Bayeux were to be final. Various prominent figures in the country at the time were called, which included  Geoffrey de Montbray, Bishop of Coutances (who represented the King), Lanfranc (for the Church), Odo de Bayeux (defending himself), Arnost, Rochester Bishop, Athelric II (former Bishop of Selsey), Richard de Tunbridge, Hugh de Montfort, William de Arsic, Hamo Vicecomes and many others.

Athelric II in particular had been compelled by William I to attend as the authority on pre-Norman law. Described as:  “A very old man, very learned in the laws of the land “he was brought by chariot or other carriage to Penenden Heath “in order to discuss and expound these same old legal customs”.

The presence of a contingent of English (or Saxon) witnesses as experts in ancient laws and customs as well as the French-born representation is regarded as a significant indication of the basis of the Church’s claims being grounded in the ancient laws of the land. However it is unclear from the sources which of those laws were cited. Precisely when the inquiry was held is also unclear although many historians have determined it took place between 1075 and 1077. Similarly a number of varying transcripts or records of the trial exist and it is unclear which may be regarded as the definitive version of events. The trial of Odo de Bayeux lasted three days and ended in the partial recovery of properties for the church from Odo and others. Odo of Bayeux was later to be stripped of his properties entirely and imprisoned for five years following further challenges to his wealth and powers in 1082.

By all accounts the Penenden trial occurred prior to the Domesday survey and was an early attempt by the church to reclaim rights and interests from the Crown and its agents. Since the assessments of property and rights which followed the trial were of significance, Domesday Book has come to be seen as a response to a need to have a definitive record of the ownership and administration of Crown property.

The Domesday Book was commissioned in December 1085 by William the Conqueror. The first draft was completed in August 1086 and contained records for 13,418 settlements in the English counties

Alnod/Ulf would have been at least around 40 and possibly older when he challenged for the return of his land. His most likely date of birth is around  1050 and possibly later. As Harold’s older sons, starting with Godwine were of an age to contest the throne, post Conquest, it must be assumed that the hand fast marriage with Edith took place in the 1040s with children appearing at regular intervals.  This would have made Ulf a young teenager  at the Conquest, in his thirties  upon his release by William in 1087 and in his late forties during the First Crusade. What appears to be clear and is suggested by a number of references in Domesday is that Alnod/Ulf successfully reclaimed land that we know is associated with the subsequent Northwode holdings. Marion says that Alnod/Ulf had held 20 manors but at the Domesday Survey, none, as almost half had been conveyed to Odo of Bayeux. At Penenden Heath, Alnod’s name is cited as a recent subtenant of Manors which Odo had assumed. The thesis is that on his release and rehabilitation by Robert Curthose, Ulf seized back two parts of Kings Wood on Sheppey which he was allowed to keep not by feudal but by costumal tenure, which effectively recognized the earlier status of his ownership. The source for this is Henry Bracton (c.1210–c.1268) an English cleric and jurist. These properties were also held by gavelkind, which means that they were sellable and not just held in fealty to an Earl.

Notwithstanding these credible assertions, it stretches probability that Alnod/Ulf was the father of Jordanus of Sheppey, as the latter was born in 1135 making Ulf around 80 at the time of his conception. Not impossible but improbable. However, there is a possibility of a link between Ulf and Jordanus – the honorific title passing through a third person. As some commentators have suggested, Jordanus could be the grandson of Alnod/Ulf through an illegitimate or unrecognised son.

Interested in more about the ancestry of John Norwood?

Available on Amazon UK and US

Taking the War to Hitler: Britain’s Bombing Offensive in WWII, Guest Post by Helena P. Schrader

St. Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz in 1940. Photo in the Public Domain

The Second World War was a defining moment in British history, and the impact of the war on the daily lives of those who lived through it was profound. Virtually nothing was the same in 1945 as it had been in 1940. Not only had the British Empire’s place in the world been irreparably damaged, but the social fabric of Britain was starting to tear. Respect for authority had deteriorated, acceptance of the class-system undermined, and the role of women transformed. Furthermore, the material substance of Britain was battered, run-down and partially shattered.

The two most important factors contributing to these changes were: 1) the total mobilization of society necessary to continue the fight, something that entailed near universal conscription (industrial as well as military) and an economy characterized by shortages, and 2) the damage, threat and cost in lives of the air war.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to dismiss the impact of Hitler’s air war against Britain as paltry. Yet when the Germans opened their assault on London on 7 September 1940 with a raid involving nearly 1,000 aircraft, it represented a scale of aerial warfare no one had previously encountered anywhere in the world.

The all-out assault on London and other urban centers lasted unremittingly for roughly nine months, costing enormous damage, and sporadic conventional air attacks continued throughout the war. Nor was London alone the Luftwaffe’s target. Liverpool was bombed 60 times, Southampton 37, Birmingham 36, Coventry 21 times, while many other cities were bombed lesser numbers of times.  Nearly every raid left thousands of casualties and tens of thousands of homes and shops destroyed, scores of factories, dockyards and other installations damaged.

After the Allied landings in Normandy, Britain was subjected to a new terror from the skies when Hitler unleased his “vengeance weapons,” the V1 and the V2.  The V1s were essentially drones, while V2s were rockets which fell from 60 to 70 miles high at speeds of 3,600 mph — faster than the speed of sound. They came in too fast to set off air raid warnings or to be intercepted by fighters. The destruction they caused was unprecedented — an entire block or row of houses could be turned into rubble in an instant, while causing collateral damage in a quarter-mile radius.

Altogether, Hitler’s air offensive killed 60,447 people in the British Isles. Of those, 51,509 had fallen victims to conventional bombing, and nearly 9,000 (8,938) to Hitler’s “vengeance” weapons. In London alone, every sixth person had been made homeless during the Blitz which damaged nearly 1.1 million homes. After much had been repaired, the V1s and V2s damaged fully half of the housing in the British capital in 1944/1945.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the British public demanded and expected their government and armed forces to respond. One Air Marshal watching a night attack on London in 1940 was reminded of a phrase from the Old Testament (Hosea 8:7), and predicted: “They have sowed the wind,” he said, “and they will reap the whirlwind.” Truer words were rarely spoken — but the road was long and cost high.

An ariel photograph of Berlin in 1945. Public domain.

It was not until 1942 that the RAF could launch its first “thousand plane” raid against Germany. The casualty rates among bomber crews were also appalling. Although chances of survival varied over time depending on a number of factors (the type of aircraft, the targets, the timing of attacks, i.e. daylight or nighttime, the availability of fighter escorts, technological innovations in radar and counter-radar etc.), by the end of the war a total of 57,205 aircrew or 46% of all men who flew with Bomber Command had been killed in action. In addition, 8,403 had been invalided and 9,838 taken prisoner. The effective casualty rate was thus 60%. During the height of the bombing offensive, 1943 – 1944, casualty rates hovered around 5% per raid and each crew was required to fly 30 operational flights before they were eligible for a rest.

Yet all the men who flew with the RAF in whatever capacity were volunteers, and only one in ten of the men who served in the RAF during WWII actually flew. In other words, it took nine men on the ground to support (recruit, train, equip, house, feed, and maintain the equipment of) each man who flew. “Aircrew,” the men who flew in whatever capacity (i.e as pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, flight engineers or air gunners), were all viewed as an elite. They were given status and privileges above those of their non-flying comrades and enjoyed gestures of appreciation and admiration from civilians — particularly by the opposite sex.

Winning the coveted “aircrew brevet” was not easy, however. Many candidates “washed out” before qualifying. Pilot, navigator and wireless operator training took as much as two and a half years, and it was dangerous. Over 8,000 men training for Bomber Command alone were killed in training accidents and an additional 4,200 were seriously injured.

Sobering as this must have been for the participants, it had no apparent impact on the willingness of young men to volunteer.  The RAF always had more volunteers than they could absorb and to the end could afford to be choosy. (The image below shows one of the many “Wings Parade” at which cadets received the coveted cloth wings symbolizing their qualification as a pilot in the RAF. This particular picture shows the graduation at an airfield in the U.S. Throughout the war, the RAF sent tens of thousands of trainee aircrew overseas for their training — including to the U.S. until the U.S. entered the war the USAAF required all training facilities for itself.)

Photo courtesy of Adrian Stevens, whose father Sidney “Stevie” Stevens is the young man receiving
his wings in the foreground.

And yet! The realities of combat, brushes with death, the loss of friends inevitably took their toll on those on active service. “Shell-shock” and “PTSD” are familiar concepts nowadays. Yet the RAF leadership was shocked when increasing numbers of their carefully selected and meticulously trained volunteer aircrew refused to fly. The refusal to volunteer was hardly a breach of the military code, so the RAF needed another procedure for handling these cases since they otherwise threatened to undermine overall morale.

The term “Lack of Moral Fibre” (LMF) was invented, and any man who refused to fly without a valid medical reason or “lost the confidence of his commanding officer” could be immediately posted off a squadron and subjected to disciplinary measures for “LMF.” During the war itself, it was widely believed that aircrew found LMF were humiliated, demoted, court-martialled, and dishonourably discharged. There were rumours of former aircrew being transferred to the infantry, sent to work in the mines, or forced to do demeaning tasks. Although historical analysis of the records show almost no evidence of widespread humiliation, the rumours of draconian punishment served as a deterrent. Tragically, the threat of public humiliation may also have pushed some men to keep flying when they had already passed their breaking point, leading to errors, accidents, and loss of life. Yet we should not forget that behind the notion of LMF was the deeply embedded belief that courage is the ultimate manly virtue and that a man who lacks courage is inferior to the man who has it.

(Below a Lancaster crew immediately following an operation. It belongs to a collection of photographs concerning Sergeant William Frederick Burkitt (1922-1944). Burkitt flew as a flight engineer with No 9 Squadron.)

Photo courtesy of the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive.

Moral Fibre takes you into the world of the RAF in 1944.  While the themes — the many faces of courage, the cost of love, the scars left by grief — are universal and timeless, the book is firmly grounded in the period in which it was set. The hero, Kit Moran, has been posted for LMF in the past, but when the book opens, he is returning to operations. As the pilot of a Lancaster, he is responsible for the lives of six other men — and he is prepared to die for them. Yet his desire for life is kindled by his love for Georgina, a trainee teacher who has already lost her fiancé in the air war against Hitler and is afraid of giving her heart again.

Riding the icy, moonlit sky, they took the war to Hitler. Their chances of survival were less than 50%. Their average age was 21. This is the story of just one Lancaster skipper, his crew and the woman he loved. It is intended as a tribute to them all.

Flying Officer Kit Moran has earned his pilot’s wings, but the greatest challenges still lie ahead: crewing up and returning to operations. Things aren’t made easier by the fact that while still a flight engineer, he was posted LMF (Lacking in Moral Fibre) for refusing to fly after a raid on Berlin that killed his best friend and skipper. Nor does it help that he is in love with his dead friend’s fiance, who is not yet ready to become romantically involved again.

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Barnes & Noble:
Itasca Books

Meet Helena P. Schrader

Helena P. Schrader is an established aviation author and expert on the Second World War. She earned a PhD in History (cum Laude) from the University of Hamburg with a ground-breaking dissertation on a leading member of the German Resistance to Hitler, which received widespread praise on publication in Germany. Her non-fiction publications include Sisters in Arms: The Women who Flew in WWIIThe Blockade Breakers: The Berlin Airlift, and Codename Valkyrie: General Friederich Olbricht and the Plot against Hitler, an English-language adaptation of her dissertation. Helena has published nineteen historical novels and won numerous literary awards, including “Best Biography 2017” from Book Excellence Awards and “Best Historical Fiction 2020” from Feathered Quill Book Awards. For more on her publications, works-in-progress, reviews and awards visit:

Or visit me on Facebook:


BnF MS Franc 81 fol. 283R Henry IV and Thomas Percy at Shrewsbury from Jean de Wavrin- Creative commons license

Henry IV’s relationship with the Percys went sour pretty soon after his coronation. He knew that he owed his crown to his northern earl; he also knew that an overly-powerful magnate was a recipe for trouble. So it wasn’t long before the king attempted to mitigate their dominance by promoting their rival, the Earl of Westmorland, who happened to be his brother in-law.

Matters came to a head after their decisive victory at Homildon Hill, where they decimated the Scottish aristocracy. Many were killed, even more were taken hostage—among them the powerful Earl Douglas. Stung by their prowess—in contrast to the humiliating failure he had just experienced in Wales—King Henry demanded they turn over their hostages. It was his right as king, but he couldn’t have made a worse miscalculation. Although Percy senior complied, is son Hotspur adamantly opposed him. King Henry had refused to pay a ransom for Hotspur’s brother in-law Edmund Mortimer—held hostage by the Welsh—and Hotspur saw this as double treachery. He and the king nearly came to blows, and if the chroniclers can be believed, Hotspur stormed out of the room, declaring “Not here, but in the field!” This was the last time they saw each other alive.

Although Henry tried to make amends by awarding lands in Scotland to the Percys—most of which happened to belong to Douglas. It was truly an empty gesture because they had to conquer those territories first. But, as they were acquisitive souls, the Percys decided to give it a try. Hotspur soon laid siege to Cocklaw Tower in Teviotdale, deep into Douglas territory, thinking this would be an easy target. It wasn’t. He was soon frustrated and negotiated a six-week truce, coming back to England with another idea in his mind. Why not take advantage of the truce and launch an offensive against the king?

I believe Hotspur caught his father by surprise. He must have been harboring resentment against the king that wouldn’t go away. Leaving his father to guard the border, Hotspur went to Chester and started raising an army against King Henry; the men of Chester were among King Richard’s most favored subjects and they were hostile to the usurper. They responded enthusiastically, especially as Hotspur promised that Richard would return from exile in Scotland and lead them into battle. Even when Hotspur later reneged on his promise, they agreed to fight anyway. With the help of Hotspur’s uncle Thomas, who left Prince Henry’s service with all of his troops, the rebels made for Shrewsbury, where the Prince was understaffed and vulnerable. They might have gotten young Henry into their hands, too, except for the unexpected arrival of the king, who forced them to battle.

Froissart Battle
Froissart Chronicles by Virgil Master, Source: Wikimedia

The Battle of Shrewsbury was the most serious threat to King Henry’s reign, and it was a very close call. This was the first time English archers faced each other across the battlefield. Only Hotspur’s death turned the tide; up until that point no one knew who was winning. Would the presence of Earl Henry Percy have made a difference? Almost certainly. Historians debate the reason why he was absent. Some thought his presence was never planned, although he did belatedly start south to support his son. Some thought it was Hotspur’s fight. Others blame Hotspur’s impetuousness and claim he “jumped the gun” so to speak, and screwed up the timing. Shakespeare said Percy was ill and couldn’t make it. Whatever the reason, Henry Percy was devastated by his son’s death; he was never the same man afterwards, and was pretty much driven by the need for revenge.

King Henry was set on punishing Percy, but because the earl wasn’t directly involved he was obliged to wait until the next Parliament. Unfortunately for the king, the lords were on Percy’s side and their response was merely to charge him with “trespass”—in other words, distributing his badge illegally. Percy was restored most of his lands, but the king refused to reinstate his wardenship or the constableship. The earl was in disgrace.

This unfortunate state of affairs lasted another two years. The king appointed his son John as Warden of the East March toward Scotland and Westmorland became Warden of the West March. Percy licked his wounds for a while before coming up with a new plan. In conjunction with Owain Glyndwr, the wily Prince of Wales, and Edmund Mortimer, uncle of the “true” heir to the throne (the child Earl of March), he concocted a new rebellion, this time originating in the North. Most of his supporters were in Yorkshire; as far as the Northumbrians were concerned, they weren’t quite as interested in rebelling against the king and didn’t respond enthusiastically to his overtures. No matter; Percy was on a mission.

Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York added his voice to this uprising. Once again, historians are divided as to whether Scrope went along with Percy, or did he devise a disturbance on his own that happened to correspond with Percy’s rebellion? The timing certainly favored the former explanation. Working the citizens of York into a righteous frenzy, Scrope led a large assembly to Shipton Moor, a few miles from the city. They were protesting high taxes and intolerable burdens on the clergy. The rebels were not a fighting force; they were local citizens. Nor did they possess cannons or instruments of war. The archbishop insisted that their intentions were peaceful. Some historians suggest that their purpose was to add legitimacy to Percy’s rebellion, which was to swing south and supplement its numbers with Scrope’s insurgents. But unfortunately for the archbishop, the expected rebel army never materialized and he was caught holding the proverbial bag.

The lynchpin of Percy’s rebellion was capturing Westmorland in advance, thus removing the only man capable of stopping him. But someone warned the Earl in time and he got away, foiling Percy’s plot. There was no “Plan B”. Had the Earl of Northumberland lost his nerve? He told his followers he was going to Scotland for help and bolted, leaving all of his co-conspirators to their own devices. Scrope wasn’t even warned about the change of plans. So when the Earl of Westmorland mopped up after the aborted rebellion, his ruse was to convince the archbishop he would present their reasonable manifesto to the king, and that the Yorkist citizens should just go home. Naively, Scrope agreed, only to find himself arrested along with his confederate, the doomed Thomas Mowbray, son of King Henry’s old enemy.

Who would have thought that the king would execute an archbishop? Scrope and Mowbray didn’t stand a chance. Once he arrived at York, the king rushed his judges through a trial and condemned the leaders, deaf to pleas from the Archbishop of Canterbury that he should refer the case to the Pope. Henry was not to be reasoned with, especially since Percy had slipped through his fingers once again. This time, there would be no Parliament to get in his way. He brought his cannons with him and besieged Percy’s castles all the way up to Berwick, ensuring that the traitorous earl would find no further refuge in England.

For the next three years, Henry Percy wandered through Wales and France, looking for support against the usurper king. But it was to no avail. The great earl had lost all credibility. When he was finally lured back into England with a new offer of support, he snatched at the opportunity, campaigning into Northumberland in the midst of the most bitter winter in living memory. Gathering a motley crew of country folk and local knights, Percy was confronted with a local detachment led by the very man who invited him south. He had nothing to lose and chose to risk everything on a last battle, meeting his pitiful end at Branham Moor, about ten miles from York, on 19 February, 1408. His head was delivered in a basket to King Henry and his body was quartered as befitted any traitor. Eventually his parts were collected and the great earl was reunited with his son, laid to rest near the great altar at York Minster.

But the Percy line was not extinct by any means. When Henry Percy took refuge the first time in Scotland, he brought with him Hotspur’s young son Henry, who spent the next ten years a virtual hostage. Henry V decided that a Percy in the North would suit his purposes, and the king arranged Henry’s return, creating him 2nd Earl of Northumberland in 1416. Part of the deal was young Henry’s marriage to Eleanor, the daughter of Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. And so they came full circle. But never would they achieve the fame of the first earl, their doomed ancestor.


The Percys and the Lancasters

John of Gaunt by Lucas Cornelisz de Kock
John of Gaunt with his coat of arms attributed to Lucas Cornelisz de Kock source: Wikipedia

Henry Percy, father and son, were larger than life. The Percys went all the way back to the Norman Conquest, but it wasn’t until 1377 that Henry Percy became the first Earl of Northumberland—at Richard II’s coronation, no less. It took eleven generations to get there, but Henry Percy had arrived. It seems that much of his early good fortune can be attributed to John of Gaunt. He served as Gaunt’s right-hand man during the hundred years’ war. While Gaunt was regent during the end of Edward III’s reign, he was badly in need of allies and made Percy Marshal of England—one of the four great offices of state. The marshal’s job was to keep the peace within the Verge—a shifting twelve-mile radius of the king’s presence. Matters got ugly when Gaunt tried to extend the marshal’s jurisdiction into the city (replacing the mayor), even if it was outside of the Verge. The Londoners were furious at the potential loss of their liberties.

Shortly thereafter matters reached a climax when John Wycliffe—an academic theologian challenging the Church’s doctrines and authority—was summoned to answer for his anti-clerical views. This happened on 19 February, 1377 at St. Paul’s during a Convocation led by William Courtenay, Bishop of London. Matters grew ugly very quickly and Gaunt and Percy found themselves at odd with a rioting mob. They had to escape the city to save their skins, taking refuge in Kennington with Prince Richard and his mother, Joan the Fair Maid of Kent. Not an auspicious beginning!

It was five months after this fiasco that Percy was made earl. At the same time, he was created Warden of the East March of Scotland and gave up his Marshal’s baton. A few months later he was created Warden of the West March as well. This pretty much set him up as ruler of the North, for he was far away from the center of government and the rest of the country trusted him to control the borders. After all, he knew the peculiarities of this strange environment, where blood-feuds were expected, border raids were common, and local gangs called all the shots. Percy’s man antagonist was the Scottish Earl of Douglas, Warden of the Marches on the other side of the border. Their own personal feud became disruptive enough that King Richard decided to commission John of Gaunt as King’s Lieutenant in the Marches, placing the Duke in a superior role to the Warden and fatally poising his relationship with Percy.

Matters came to a head in 1381 during the Peasants’ Revolt. Gaunt was in Scotland at the moment, and when he heard of the uprising he hurried south, pausing at Alnwick Castle—only to be refused entrance. In fact, Gaunt was forbidden to enter any of Percy’s castles; the earl used the specious excuse that King Richard had sent orders forbidding entry to anyone unless under the king’s license. The implication was that Gaunt might be leading a rebel army of his own. Humiliated, the Duke had to take refuge in Scotland until it was over, and his ire precipitated such a feud between him and Percy that it almost came to civil war. Their argument was eventually patched up, but things were never the same between them.

And so, eighteen years later, when Henry Bolingbroke landed at Ravenspur with a handful of followers to reclaim his rights, it was by no means certain that he would be able to rely on Percy’s support. The returning exile continued north to Bridlington, due east of York. Once there, he was surprised by a visit from Henry Hotspur (the younger Percy), who could easily have arrested him and ended the whole rebellion on the spot. But he didn’t. The Percys were having their own little spat with King Richard, who was demonstrating uncomfortable tendencies to diminish their power. They did not accompany the king to Ireland, though historians are unsure whether they refused to go on principle, or were they merely protecting the borders?

Percy captures King Richard II
Percy captures King Richard BL Harley 1319 Histoire du Roy d’Angleterre Richard

It didn’t take long for the Percys to throw their weight behind Lancaster (John of Gaunt had died four months earlier). It seems relatively certain that they expected Bolingbroke to show his gratitude; after all, without their assistance, he probably would not have succeeded in his bid for the throne. Not only did Percy furnish the bulk of Henry’s army, he was personally responsible for persuading King Richard to give himself up to Bolingbroke’s tender mercies. As soon as the king was safely removed from Conwy Castle, Percy betrayed his trust and surrounded Richard and his handful of companions with a hidden company of men-at-arms. The end justified the means! Percy was working for Henry Bolingbroke now, who had already granted him (under his Ducal seal) the Wardenship of the West Marches. The appointment may have been somewhat irregular—this was the king’s grant—but it demonstrated Henry’s commitment. More commissions were guaranteed to follow.

And indeed they did. After the usurpation, King Henry was totally reliant upon the Percys to control the Scottish border and North Wales for him. Whether he wanted to or not, Henry was obliged to appoint them to key positions. In addition to his wardenship, Percy was made Constable of England. Hotspur was made Warden of the East March and given the lordship and castle of Bamburgh. He was also appointed Justice of North Wales and Justice of Chester and given constableship of the castles of Chester, Flint, Conwy and Caernarfon as well as the lordship of Anglesey.

Unfortunately, this was not to last. Like his predecessor, Henry IV saw the risk of entrusting too much power to the Percys. Besides, there was another, more tractable earl he could rely on: Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland. Neville had recently married Henry’s half-sister Joan Beaufort, which brought Westmorland into the royal family. His clan, too, had been in the North for generations, although they did not exert the influence that the Percys employed. Not yet, anyway.

Little by little, King Henry awarded Westmorland land and commissions. He was made Marshal—Percy’s former position—and granted the Honour of Richmond for life. The king even took the Keepership of Roxburgh away from Hotspur (who was supposed to hold it for life) and granted it to Westmorland. Then, to add insult to injury, the king promptly reimbursed Neville his expenses while owing the Percys upwards of £20,000 for their services (roughly 29 million dollars in today’s money)—and making excuses for nonpayment. Needless to say, the Percys took this slight personally.

    Battle of Homildon Hill

Nonetheless, they continued to protect the North. In September of 1402, the Scots came across the border in a furious chevauchée all the way to the Tyne. Unable to stop them, Hotspur raised a force to block their return to Scotland. Loaded with plunder, the invaders were intercepted at Homildon Hill, and a great battle was fought. It was a disaster for the Scots. A large number of captives were taken, including the Earl of Douglas, four other earls and at least thirty Scottish knights. It was a tremendous victory for the English, in contrast to the humiliating failure King Henry had just experienced in Wales.

The king’s reaction was less than gracious. Rather than award the Percys, Henry demanded that they turn over the hostages, with the understanding that they would be suitably compensated. It was his right as king, but he couldn’t have made a worse miscalculation. Although Percy senior complied, Hotspur adamantly opposed him. King Henry had refused to pay a ransom for Hotspur’s brother in-law Edmund Mortimer—held hostage by the Welsh—and Hotspur saw this as double treachery. He and the king nearly came to blows, and if the chroniclers can be believed, Hotspur stormed out of the room, declaring “Not here, but in the field!” This was the last time they saw each other alive.

Class System in Victorian England, Guest Post by Richard Marrison

The British Bee Hive by George Cruikshank – British Library Creative Commons License

The Victorian era, like any other ancient time, had a peculiar class system that divided the social setting. It was based on power, riches, working and living conditions. Society was divided into Upper Class, Middle Class, and Lower Class, also known as the Working Class.

People belonging to the royal family, aristocrats, nobles, business owners, and wealthy families working in the royal courts were classed into the Upper Class. They were in powerful positions, had the utmost authority, had lavish lifestyles and enjoyed exceptional facilities.

Whereas, the middle class included either owned or managed business empires or the merchants. They were classified by earned wealth and not inherited wealth and lived a pretty sound life as well.

Lastly, the working class resided at the lowest level of the hierarchy. They were mainly labored workers who lacked money and hence, had a poor way of living.

The class system was also classified based on the clothes they wore. The Victorian era fashion trend during the Victorian Era was the expression of the estate one belonged. The elaborate pieces were worn by the women belonging to the upper class, middle class women wore modest dresses, and the women belonging to lower class wore what they could afford.

Property, rent, and interest provided income to the very small and very rich upper class. The upper class possessed titles, riches, land, or all three; they controlled local, national, and imperial politics; and they held the majority of the land in Britain.

The upper class inherited royals. It consisted of aristocrats, and all the titled people like the ones from the royal families, Lords, and Ladies, Earls, Dukes, and Duchesses. They did not have to work for generations and could afford to live a luxurious life. There were also business owners who had large-scale mining or shipping industries. As they inherited massive wealth from their previous generations, it gave them great access and authority. They were provided with inherited seats in the House of Lords. This gave them the power to vote on political affairs as well.

The education of the upper class was uncompromised, with the best tutors provided. The finest education and their royal background were always a plus point for them wherever they went. Usually, the upper-class boys were sent to boarding school at a very young age. The girls generally stayed home and received education from a governess. The eldest son was taught to run the family business and take care of the employees and their younger siblings. The younger ones went off to the army, navy, or church. The girls were taught etiquettes and mannerisms suitable for their status. They were expected to marry a man from similar backgrounds and start a family soon.

Thrift, responsibility, and self-reliance were significant components of Victorian middle-class culture that could be used to characterize a society where individual tenacity and energy were required for success.

Although very few families belonged to the middle class, it was a pleasant life for the middle class in the Victorian era. The middle class was different from the upper class in terms of the history of their wealth. The wealth they had was earned wealth, as in they either owned or managed large businesses and collected a pretty good amount of wealth.

The industrial revolution brought a massive transition for the people of the Middle Class in terms of increased job opportunities and decent earnings. This transformed their way of living and their education as well. Their class consisted of merchants who were involved in trading goods for money. For the purpose of trade, they owned ships used to trade British goods for Indian goods like tea, coffee, and spices. They sold these products back in Britain and made huge profits out of it. They employed captains and crews and laborers and sufficed their livelihood. Similarly, the factory owners employed hundreds of laborers.

Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and bankers were some of the other professions of the middle class. They were paid very well, lived a pleasant life, and could afford properties. As the work opportunities started to increase among this class, it soon became the most populated class with abundant wealth.

Their children were also sent to boarding schools, where boys were taught to run the family business. The girls here as well were taught proper etiquette and trained to become good wives to a man of similar backgrounds and run a family.

People from the working class were sometimes forced to live in confined poor quality homes, and families were frequently crammed into a single room. The industrial revolution resulted in overcrowding, which led to poor public health.

The working class ranks in the lowest part of the social hierarchy and is sub-categorized into skilled and unskilled workers. This class summed up the majority of the Victorian-era population. They are not included in political affairs and have a very poor lifestyle. They had a low supply of food, and due to their poor background, most of their children worked for extra family income. Even women had to work despite having children.

Laborers, sailors, fishermen, mine workers, and servants were included in their job type and paid on an hourly basis. The family would be forced to live on the streets if the primary income generator died due to a lack of money. Most of them lived in rented houses, and their houses were as big as they could earn. Most of them lived in a single room for an entire family.

Education was merely an option for the working class children, and they got married to people of their own background, creating a never-ending cycle of poverty. Still, the lower-class farmers tried to provide their daughters with an education along with the boys. The boys lived in hostels as they gained their education, and schools were built specifically for farmers.

During the industrial revolution. Most of the skilled workers got an opportunity to work in their craft and uplevel their status on some levels. However, the unskilled workers could never rise to a good life as they continued working as laborers and servants for the upper and middle-class people. This resulted in a rough life for the working class, and was hit by an even worse form of poverty. They lost all their previous rights as citizens and had little to no independence. Their income was unstable, and the little money they earned was barely enough to sustain their everyday life.


Hence, it was mainly the wealth that defined a person’s class during the Victorian era in Britain. More money meant a more lavish life and more access to various opportunities. Each system had its own rules. However, these rules started to fumble as the Victorian era progressed.




The Illness of Henry IV

Lepers refused admission: Vincent_de_Beauvais_Miroir_historial, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, folio 373r

When I started writing the volume about the second half of Henry IV’s life, my inclination was to entitle it The Leper King, only to discover there really was a leper king: Baldwin  IV of Jerusalem who died in 1185. And truly, it really wasn’t fair to Henry IV. Yes, he did have some kind of terrible skin disease, though his woes didn’t stop there. But if he really did have leprosy, how did he manage to lead a relatively “normal” existence—without being shunned by his contemporaries? No, apparently something else was going on. It’s nearly impossible to diagnose historical illnesses—especially from over 600 years ago. But historians have come up with some interesting theories.

One of the reasons leprosy achieved such purchase on the medieval mind was the timing of Henry’s first attack. According to many chroniclers, it happened the very night he executed Archbishop Scrope of York for his ill-fated rebellion. No English king had ever executed an archbishop before, and this was a terrible shock to his contemporaries. As the story goes, that very night, Henry woke up shrieking, “Traitors! Traitors! You have thrown fire over me!” His face was burning and he had broken out into a terrible rash—or pustules, or worse. Everyone thought it was God’s retribution for the murder of an archbishop. According to Peter Niven*, “Leprosy was the disease par excellence associated with God’s punishment of sinners”. Did this really happen the night of the execution? So many chroniclers mentioned it, that it would be incautious to dismiss the claim out of hand. Henry was bedridden for a week before he could continue his campaign against the rebel Henry Percy. But once he was back in the saddle, he allegedly carried on with renewed vigor. Temporarily, at least, he recovered—the first argument against leprosy.

There’s always the possibility that the medieval manifestation of leprosy differed from what we currently know as Hansen’s Disease. Nonetheless, the issue seems to have been decided when Henry’s tomb was opened in 1832. Although his remains quickly disintegrated upon exposure to the air, the investigators had enough time to determine that “his skin was intact, his features were not disfigured, and even the all-important nasal cartilage was undamaged” (Peter Niven, again).

It’s the other symptoms that confuse the issue. A little more than a year after his initial illness, Henry was struck with what he referred to as une grande accesse, and at the same time he complained of une maladie in his leg. Unable to ride, he was obliged to travel by barge and missed the first week of the 1406 parliament. Known as The Long Parliament, it lasted most of the year, and it’s thought that the many recesses had to do with his frequent inability to attend. Did he have a stroke? By all indications he retained clarity until his death. Could it be a blood clot in his leg? Historians just don’t know. Although his skin disease came and went for the rest of his life, it was the progressive weakness in his legs and associated attacks that took away his strength and reduced him to an invalid.

Some historians have suggested syphilis, which could account for many of the symptoms. However, the first recorded incidence of this disease hadn’t occurred in Europe before the end of the fifteenth century. Some have suggested psoriasis—possibly psoriatic psoriasis, which included joint inflammation and swelling. Three years after his first attack, Henry was struck down with a sudden seizure so violent that he lost consciousness for quite a few hours; for a while people thought he was dead. A few months later he made his will, which was usually done from the deathbed in this period—or prior to leaving for battle. Apparently he, too, thought he had reached the end. By then, he could barely walk or ride and was mostly carried in a litter or improvised wheelchair. Ultimately, Niven concluded that Henry could well have suffered from coronary heart disease or some sort of circulatory disorder. He suggested that rheumatic heart disease could easily explain his “growing incapacitation, his occasional dramatic collapses, and his relatively early death.” So, along with this conjecture, the skin disease was an unfortunate condition that had nothing to do with the major collapses that incapacitated him.

We certainly can’t ignore the effects of stress and—let’s face it—possible guilt over the usurpation and execution of an archbishop. Henry had more than his fair share of rebellions to deal with, and unless he was a man without a conscience, he must have had a lot of dead traitors weighing on his mind. I tried to count the numbers of executed men and lost track after about eighty. That’s enough to give most of us agita.


*McNiven, Peter, THE PROBLEM OF HENRY IV’S HEALTH, 1405-1413, The English Historical Review,  Vol. 100, no. 397 (Oct. 1985), pp. 747-772


Shakespeare’s Harry Hotspur

Dispute between Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer and Worcester by Henry Fuseli – Wikiart

Harry Hotspur (aka Sir Henry Percy) was a major character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 who died at the hands of his nemesis, Prince Hal, at the battle of Shrewsbury. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that although Shakespeare was one of our greatest bards, he was not a historian and we can’t take his plays at face value. Yes, Hotspur was killed at Shrewsbury. But no, Hal was at the other end of the battlefield leading a flanking movement, still fighting with an arrow embedded in his face. I think that’s an even more dramatic story, but Shakespeare had other ideas (enter Falstaff).

But that’s not all. Hotspur was not Hal’s rival for Henry IV’s affection. In fact, Sir Henry Percy was the king’s age, not the son’s; he was actually born three years before Henry IV. He was knighted alongside Henry Bolingbroke by King Edward III in 1377. They traveled together to the great Tournament at Inglevert in 1390 (Hal would have been four years old at the time).

In reality, far from being the son Henry IV wished he had in contrast to his own wayward offspring,  Hotspur had been one of Hal’s early mentors. In the first few years after the usurpation, Hotspur had been made Constable of Chester, Flint, Conwy, and Caernarfon castles—all in addition to his other duties as Warden of the East Marches and Justice of North Wales. To say he had his hands full was an understatement! Hal was put under his tutelage at Chester, and I don’t think it would be totally out of line to suggest the prince might have experienced a bit of hero worship at this stage. He was only about sixteen, and Hotspur was the most famous knight of the age. He was indefatigable.

Even at Hal’s tender age, he was already being primed to take on his first responsibility in Wales. Unfortunately, it was unexpectedly thrust upon him at the end of 1402 when Hotspur grew annoyed at his lack of governmental support (and lack of payment) and resigned his command. Leaving young Hal in charge, he rode off, back to Northumberland. Just like that. How could the prince not feel abandoned?

The Welsh didn’t need much more incentive to rise up again, and they were soon attacking town after town, burning and pillaging. Prince Hal called up troops from nearby shires that owed the king service and went after them, holding his own. He was joined by his father a few months later and together they advanced into the heart of Wales. Unfortunately, their foray turned into a disaster and the English were forced to withdraw because of the terrible weather; the king was nearly killed when a storm blew his tent down on top of him. Henry was only saved because he wore his armor to bed. Their ignominious defeat was only made worse on discovering that the Percies had just won a tremendous battle at Homildon Hill, and came home loaded with hostages, among them the Scottish Earl of Douglas.

As depicted in Shakespeare, King Henry demanded that Hotspur turn over his prisoners and Harry angrily refused, precipitating the conflict that drove him to rebel. That much corresponds to history. In the play, there’s a scene where he conspired with Owain Glyndwr, Mortimer, and his uncle the earl of Worcester. This probably did not happen, though it’s possible some communication took place between them. The Welsh did not participate in the battle of Shrewsbury, though it’s possible they were creating a diversion by a very successful attack on Carmarthen in South Wales. Or the timing could have been a coincidence. Historians just don’t know, but since Glyndwr was occupied at Carmarthen, he couldn’t have been expected at Shrewsbury.

Death of Henry “Harry Hotspur” Percy, from a 1910 illustration by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. – Wikipedia

One can only imagine the shock and betrayal Hal must have felt to discover that his former friend and tutor had declared himself his enemy. I doubt he even knew trouble was brewing—it certainly caught his father by surprise. King Henry moved at his usual unpredictable speed and showed up with an army literally in the nick of time. Hotspur withdrew from besieging the town and prepared for battle.

Shrewsbury was a close-fought contest, and Hotspur was in the middle of the action. Shakespeare has him meeting Prince Hal seemingly alone, and they fight a duel where Hal slays his antagonist. And Falstaff takes credit for the killing after Hal walks away—apparently to get help. But of course, that’s all made up. The battle was total chaos and only the shouts of “Henry Percy dead!” turned the tide. His men panicked and fled, and later the trail of bodies stretched up to two miles away, with most of them fatally wounded in the back. No one knows precisely what happened to Hotspur, but after a search his body was found where the fighting was fiercest. Although the king supposedly shed a few tears over his corpse, he didn’t have any problem ordering that Hotspur’s naked body be propped up between two millstones so everyone knew he was truly dead.

While Hotspur fought valiantly, Prince Hal was leading a charge on the enemy flank; he wreaked havoc on the leaderless rearguard. It wasn’t until the fighting was over that Hal collapsed into the arms of his companions. In all probability he was unconscious for days—if not longer. Under almost any other circumstances his wound would have been fatal, for the arrowhead was embedded six inches into his skull next to his eye. It was only under the brilliant ministrations of John Bradmore, the most innovative surgeon in the kingdom, that Hal survived. It was probably a long time after the battle before he learned of Hotspur’s death.

You can learn more about the Battle of Shrewsbury and events leading up to it in my novel, THE USURPER KING.

Richard II’s London

The death of Wat Tyler in 1381While researching this novel I had the good fortune to stumble across the book “The Turbulent London of Richard II”—not, as it turns out, because of the content. It was way too specialized for me. But it came with the most awesome fold-out “sketch map of London in the time of the Peasant Revolt” that I photocopied and taped to my wall. It’s still there, three novels later. I spent hours scrutinizing it until I had a faithful understanding of England’s most important city, most of which was still tucked inside of the old Roman walls.

This was important, for at the time of the Peasants Revolt, the city officials relied on the wall to keep the rebels out. There were seven gates in the Roman wall: Ludgate (facing west), Newgate (where the prison was), Aldersgate (facing Smithfield), Cripplegate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate (east, facing Mile End), and the Postern Gate at the Tower of London (pedestrian only). The only other way into London was over the London Bridge, which had a drawbridge at the Southwark end. Of course, the mayor of London was dependent on the loyalty of his gatekeepers, and this ultimately failed him. Once Aldgate was opened and the insurgents came pouring into the city from the east, he had no choice but to lower the drawbridge and give passage to the Kent rebels.

Old London Bridge by Peter Jackson

London Bridge was a world all its own, populated by every conceivable business except taverns—for they had no cellars. The shops occupied the ground floor with their colorful signs nine feet above the pavement so a horse and rider could pass underneath. Every sign displayed an image representing a trade so it could be identified by anyone, literate or not. The bridge was twenty feet wide, lined on both sides by buildings cantilevered over the edge, supported by huge wooden struts. Each house only occupied four feet of the stone platform; which meant that only twelve feet was left to accommodate the road. Two and three stories high, the houses blocked out the sun like a tunnel, especially since many of the top floors were connected by an enclosed walkway. This would have been the conduit through which thousands and thousands of rebels pushed their way into the city. At this stage of the rebellion they were exhorted by their leaders to be well-behaved, though I can only imagine the trepidation felt by the hapless shopkeepers.

Interestingly, one of the rebels’ first targets was John of Gaunt’s great Savoy palace, which was the most elegant townhouse in all of London. It bordered the river, upstream on the way to Westminster along the Strand. The Strand was the London version of Millionaire’s Row: wealthy riverfront properties free of the stink and pollution of the city. To get to the Strand, you had to pass out through Ludgate then cross the Fleet, an open sewer polluted by the butchers and tanners dumping their refuse into the River Holborn—not to mention the prison sewage. The Fleet in turn poured its stinking offal into the Thames. And that’s not all: at certain docks along the river contained laystalls (think Dicken’s Puddle Dock, at Black Friars). This is where the night soil, or human excrement, was piled up, eventually to be taken away by five barges located downstream. You can just imagine the horrific stench.

Anyway, the rebels had to pass the famous Knights Hospitaller Temple along the way to the Savoy (they would be back—that’s where the lawyers lived). You also had Durham House (residence of the Bishop of Durham), York House (for the Bishop of York), the convent of the White Friars…you get the idea. I don’t think any of these palaces escaped the attention of the insurgents. Once they destroyed the Savoy—literally, for they accidentally blew it up with barrels of gunpowder, trapping many of the rebels in the cellar—they rampaged their way back into the city, spreading out in their efforts to eliminate the hated foreigners who competed for jobs and took food from their mouths. Oh, and to see how much plunder they could amass.

During the early phase of the Peasants’ Revolt, the king and his few nobles took refuge in the Tower of London, alleged to be invulnerable to attack. And it probably would be, though any fortress is only as strong as its human defenders. While Richard and party were at Mile End negotiating with the rebels on day two, the troublemakers remaining in the city forced their way in and seized the Archbishop of Canterbury and Treasurer Hales, decapitating them in the process. How? No one knows, but since the Tower defenders were commoners, one can only assume they were persuaded to join the cause.

Tower Water Gate: Wikipedia

After two days of rioting, the rebels finally agreed to meet King Richard at Smithfield, approached through Aldersgate. Just north of the city walls, Smithfield was an open space so large it would take about ten days for a yoke of oxen to plow it. Every August since the time of Henry I, the famous Bartholomew Fair was held there, bringing people from all over the country. Otherwise, Smithfield was most often used as a horse market, though sometimes it hosted sporting games, tournaments, and even executions. The Scottish rebel, William Wallace, was hanged, drawn, and quartered in this very spot, under the elms in the far northwest corner. This time it was the turn of Wat Tyler, who led his rowdy followers to Smithfield in an attempt to wrest more concessions from the king. Unfortunately for Wat, this would be the site of his untimely end, as well. And in the confusion, the rebels had nowhere to go but north toward Clerkenwell Fields, for the way out was blocked by the Roman wall to the south, the Fleet to the west, and the Priory of St. Bartholomew to the east. A brave and resilient King Richard led the way and the chastened rebels followed. Once they were brought under control, the Essex rebels scattered to the north, but the Kent contingent was led back through the city and over the London Bridge again; this time their behavior was impeccable (under pain of death).

By all accounts, a tremendous amount of damage was done to London during the Peasants’ Revolt, but of course it survived. One wonders why it didn’t go up in flames like the Great Fire of 1666, but perhaps the violence was directed more against people than structures?


Coronation of Richard II from Jean de Wavrin Chroniques d’Angleterre BL Royal 14 E IV f. 10: Wikipedia

As the old biblical saying goes, “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child”. The stresses on the country are easy to see, but no one seems to talk about how difficult it was to BE that child. Growing up without a (or at least, an active) father must have been compounded by all the expectations heaped upon that little head. In Richard’s case, he wasn’t even the first-born son. His elder brother, Edward, had died at the age of five just before his family’s return to England in 1371; Richard was not quite four. There were to be no more children, so the pressure was on.

Both Edward, the Black Prince and the ailing Edward III had real concerns about the succession. Primogeniture, as we know it, was not yet the law of the land. Young Richard had three uncles, and John of Gaunt, the next brother after Edward had already made plenty of enemies. So not only did the Black Prince on his deathbed oblige everyone to swear to support his son, King Edward is said to have put together an entail delineating the succession along male lines. He declared Richard the next heir and bypassed the descendants from his second son Lionel (already dead) through the daughter. According to historian Michael Bennett, because of Gaunt’s unpopularity the entail was kept secret from the general public. How many copies were made was unknown, for a badly burned original (from the Cotton Library fire of 1731) wasn’t even discovered until the 20th century. Surely all of Edward III’s descendants knew about it.

Richard was ten years old when he was crowned king. Apparently because so many people feared that Gaunt would seize the crown for himself, there was no regency. The business of government was conducted by a Continual Council, at least until the Peasants’ Revolt broke out in 1381. By then Richard was fourteen, and he suddenly found himself thrust into a position of leadership. Gaunt was in Scotland, the next uncle Edmund Langley was on his way to Portugal, and the youngest uncle Thomas of Woodstock was in Wales. The chancellor, Archbishop Sudbury, immediately resigned his post—not that he was fit for the job in the first place. There was no army to call on—only the soldiers manning the Tower of London. Richard had to face the marauding rebels on his own, and with a couple of false starts along the way, he ultimately manage to save London from their depredations. He had proved himself worthy of the name Plantagenet.

Froissart, Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381: Wikipedia

One would think that his courage would have impressed his elders. Not a whit. Promises had been made along the way that couldn’t be kept, and Richard was to blame for making them—not that anybody else had a better idea. The king was dragged along as the government reasserted itself, holding judgement on the rebels who felt themselves betrayed. Many ringleaders were hanged and the king was held responsible. His moment of glory was fleeting and now he was on the defensive.

Richard kept his few friends and advisors close, making them the target of jealous and unscrupulous magnates. The most unscrupulous of all was Richard’s uncle Thomas of Woodstock, made Duke of Gloucester in 1385. The new title—which he felt he deserved—did nothing to counteract his conviction that the king was badly advised. As soon as John of Gaunt left the country to pursue the crown of Castile, Gloucester went on the offensive. Gathering together a powerful faction led by himself, the Earl of Arundel, and the Earl of Warwick, Gloucester “appealed” (accused) Richard’s favorites, initiating a legal procedure to drive them from the king’s presence. (Even he couldn’t attack the king directly.) The trio became known as the Lords Appellant, and were soon joined by Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. Gaining steam, their scheme was extravagantly successful, culminating in the Merciless Parliament of 1388. By the time the dust settled, eight of Richard’s friends and favorites had been put to death, three had fled the country, and over forty others had been ejected from court. The king was all alone, and friendless. Except for his queen.

Nonetheless, Richard trusted in his special eminence. He was an anointed king, after all, and nobody could take that from him. After licking his wounds for a year, he came back stronger and wiser, declaring his majority and taking his place back at the head of the government. The Lords Appellant could do nothing against him, and they had pretty much lost interest anyway. Their job was done.

For the next seven years, England was quiet and prosperous. As professor Hutchison would say, political executioners were unemployed. But suddenly, without warning, Richard launched a brutal revenge against the Lords Appellant, throwing his government into a tailspin. What happened? Why ruin a good thing? Historians have been baffled ever since. Perhaps the death of his queen removed any restraint over his bad tendencies. Some think the king went insane; others wondered if he was planning his revenge all along and just waited for the right moment. It’s possible that the Duke of Gloucester was fomenting trouble again. He got his “just desserts”, and it’s possible that Richard would have gotten away with his private retribution except that he didn’t stop there.

Arrest of the Duke of Gloucester
Arrest of the Duke of Gloucester BL, Harley 4380, f. 181v Creative Commons License

For the last three years of his reign, King Richard exhibited an incredible paranoia, fearing retaliation at any moment and practically holding the whole populace responsible for his earlier humiliation. This period of his reign is usually called his Tyranny. He collected over 600 Cheshire archers as his personal bodyguard (who terrorized the country wherever they went). He imposed fines on whole communities and slapped them with “blank charters” to be filled in at his discretion if they caused any trouble. He initiated forced loans to pay for his upcoming campaign to Ireland (though he was not the first nor the last king to do so). Once he exiled Henry Bolingbroke and took possession of the Lancaster endowments, he went too far. For the second time in his life Richard found himself alone and abandoned—with the exception of a handful of supporters. This time there would be no coming back. The king’s experiment with absolute monarchy was a failure, not to be revived until Henry VIII applied it to “perfection”.

King Richard II’s Court

Richard II makes Thomas Mowbray Earl Marshal
Richard II makes Thomas Mowbray the Earl Marshal, BL Cotton MS Nero D VI, f.85r.

It seems that at some point in every reign, political factions grew up around the king. Sometimes they were minor annoyances and could be ignored. Often they turned toxic—especially when a baron started to throw his weight around. Occasionally the overmighty baron was a member of the royal family, as in the case of Richard II, and he was able to attract powerful friends. As the great historian Kenneth McFarlane put it*: “The nuisance of the overmighty subject was in fact a feature of the rule of weaklings and vanished with the accession of those who had the personal authority to deal with it…To Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VIII the problem did not exist; to Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, it was insoluble.” This seems harsh, but I can’t argue with it. The court was more dangerous to King Richard than it was to his subjects.

Of course, during the first ten years of Richard II’s reign the country had to deal with his minority; that didn’t help matters. There was no regent—only a continual council. How can a testy teenager gain control over his opinionated uncles? During the early part of his reign, Richard mistakenly saw John of Gaunt as his primary antagonist—actually, Gaunt had managed to rub almost everybody the wrong way until he gained some humility after his debacle in Spain. Once Gaunt had left the country to chase his crown of Castile, his younger brother the Duke of Gloucester stepped forward, and Richard found himself challenged by an even more unscrupulous opponent. This is when the real trouble began.

Up until then, King Richard was content to surround himself with a tight-knight group of friends and confidants. That in itself might not have rankled, except that he shut himself away from those who considered themselves his proper advisors. The young Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford emerged as the most obvious scapegoat; Richard was very attached to him and it was rumored there might have been some unsavory behavior, reminiscent of Edward II. Also, that commoner Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s chamberlain, kept a firm control over access to the king’s inner chambers. The overmighty barons felt excluded. Something had to be done.

So in these critical first ten years, the faction against the king gained ground, and those faithful to Richard remained a pitiful minority. The Duke of Gloucester joined forces with the irascible Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Warwick; soon they gathered their retainers together and marched on London. Although they insisted that Richard get rid of his bad advisors, the king demurred while Robert de Vere attempted to raise an army to defend him. This perceived betrayal was enough to persuade Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray to join the Lords Appellant, as they all became known.

The Lords Appellant before King Richard II
Arundel, Gloucester, Nottingham, Derby, and Warwick, Before the King Source: Wikimedia

At the time, the king had no standing army; he was totally dependent on his nobles to do his fighting for him. Who would have been on his side? Already Robert de Vere’s army had surrendered almost without a fight; the Earl of Oxford had no experience in warfare. The Duke of York, Richard’s other uncle, was notoriously ineffectual and could only offer moral support. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was in Spain. That’s it for the Dukes; there were only three—all Richard’s uncles. How about the earls? Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland was far in the north; he didn’t get involved. John Holland, Earl of Kent and Richard’s half-brother, was with Gaunt in Spain. Roger Mortimer, Earl of March was in Ireland. Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, was on the run. The last four earls were Appellants. That’s it. Richard was alone.

After making short work of de Vere, the Appellants closed in on Richard who had taken refuge in the Tower. There was no way out; the king was their prisoner. It was their moment of triumph and they didn’t hesitate to threaten his crown. What could he do? Richard was forced to bend to their will, sacrificing all his supporters. Burley was executed, along with at least eight others, including Chief Justice Tresilian and ex-mayor Nicholas Brembre. Queen Anne begged on her knees for Gloucester to spare Burley, but to no avail. Servants and knights of the chamber were imprisoned or exiled. The Ex-Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, was the lucky one. He found refuge on the Continent and was joined by Robert de Vere. By the time Richard’s government had been purged, the king had no one to turn to except his wife.

Execution of Robert Tresilian
Execution of Robert Tresilian from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques (Wikimedia)

The desolate King Richard spent a year licking his wounds before daring to step forward. But step forward he did. After all, he was twenty-two, and no one could deny it was time to declare his majority. By then, the Lords Appellant had lost interest in governing. After all, they had achieved their goal and their attention was demanded elsewhere. The transition to Richard’s full control was smooth and effortless, and the king had learned his lesson—or so it seemed. For the next seven years, England experienced a rare stretch of peace and prosperity.

But it was not destined to last. Richard had learned an even better lesson from the Lords Appellant. He determined that never again would he find himself alone and defenseless. It was time to retain some men of his own, and he started with the Cheshire Archers. Oh, dear. It was not going to end well…


*McFarlane, K.B., THE NOBILITY OF LATER MEDIEVAL ENGLAND, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1973, p.283.