Thomas Mowbray, Bolingbroke's adversary
By Mercedes Rochelle
By Mercedes Rochelle
Richard II makes
Thomas Mowbray the Earl Marshal, BL Cotton MS Nero D VI, f.85r.|
Considering that Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham (and later 1st Duke of Norfolk) participated in almost every major event of Richard II's reign, it's surprising that he's been given so little attention by historians. It is evident that Thomas had a checkered career, in favor then out of favor then back again until his final outlawry. He is often depicted as a slippery character, though it's not clear whether he was motivated by ambition, jealousy, or was he driven by circumstances? It's hard to say, considering how difficult it was to maintain one's equilibrium during Richard II's tempestuous reign.
Orphaned at age two, Thomas and his elder brother John were brought up in the royal court alongside future rival Robert de Vere (another ward). All became close friends with Prince—soon to become King—Richard. John died in 1383, passing on the title Earl of Nottingham to Thomas, who was elected knight of the Garter in the same year. Two years later he was granted the title of Earl Marshal for life. Not bad for a nineteen year-old. He even had an apartment all his own at Eltham, the royal palace—reserved, naturally, for high-ranking nobles.
Nonetheless, trouble was brewing. Robert de Vere had managed to capture Richard's affection and Thomas was increasingly left out. Rather than fight a losing battle he went over to the opposite court faction and married Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel. I would assume he couldn't have found a wife more calculated to alienate the king, though Richard did "distribute liveries of cloth to the earl's wedding guests in 1384" (1). Nonetheless, Mowbray's association with Arundel put him squarely in the Lords Appellant camp, just in time to march against Robert de Vere who was attempting to bring a force from Cheshire to protect the king against his rebellious nobles. Alas, de Vere was no general and his army made a pitiful showing at Radcot Bridge, eventually surrendering with very little loss of life. Robert fled to the Continent; that thorn in Mowbray's side was removed forever.
Robert de Vere fleeing Radcot Bridge, from Gruthuse Froissart, BN FR 2645, fol.245V
By then, Henry of Bolingbroke (future King Henry IV) had joined forces with the Lords Appellant, making their number five. After Radcot Bridge the victors confronted King Richard in the Tower, forcing their agenda down his throat and threatening to depose him. Cowed after three days' isolation in the Tower, the king agreed to call parliament. It met in January of 1388, ushering in the worst year of Richard's life.
Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the junior Appellants, mainly kept quiet during the Merciless Parliament, only asserting themselves against their elders when it came time to condemn Richard's beloved vice-chamberlain, Sir Simon Burley. By now, the Merciless Parliament had become a bloodbath and the senior Appellants knew that unless their purge was total, the survivors would demand retribution. Too bad for them that the king himself would take on the mantle of avenger ten years later.
But Richard had noted Mowbray's reticence and decided to bring him back into the fold. In 1389 he made Mowbray Warden of the East March toward Scotland; later Thomas became Captain of Calais and royal lieutenant in the north-east of France. He accompanied the king to Ireland in 1394 and was credited with many successful assignments; he even came within a hair's breadth of capturing Art MacMurchadha abed with his wife. Shortly thereafter, Mowbray went to France to negotiate a truce and Richard's marriage to Princess Isabella.
But Mowbray's uneasy favor with Richard was sorely tested in 1397 when the king launched his tardy retribution against the senior Lords Appellant. Conniving with his new affinity of noble supporters (including Mowbray), Richard initiated a new Appeal against Gloucester, Warwick, and Arundel. Capturing Warwick was easy; the king invited all three to a formal dinner and Warwick was the only one who showed up. A polite, entertaining evening ensued, at the end of which the king ordered the unwary Warwick's arrest. Immediately afterwards, Arundel was persuaded to give himself up. Richard dealt with Gloucester in person. Collecting a large retinue including Mowbray, the king rode all night to Gloucester's Pleshy residence, dragging the sick duke out of bed and arresting him as well. Gloucester was placed into Mowbray's charge and taken to Calais where he was imprisoned in the castle.
The king was adamant; he did not dare appeal Gloucester in person in front of parliament. Politically, that was too volatile. But he needed proof of the duke's guilt relating to the Merciless Parliament of 1388. A lot of suspicious activities took place in Gloucester's prison under the unwilling direction of Thomas Mowbray, Captain of Calais. Eventually a confession was extracted from the duke, and shortly thereafter a sullen Mowbray announced before parliament that Gloucester was dead. No further explanation was forthcoming and after the confession was read Gloucester was condemned as a traitor in absentia. But naturally rumors abounded and Mowbray was implicated beyond a doubt.
After the Revenge Parliament, as it came to be called, the king created a slew of dukes to reward his supporters—sneeringly called "the duketti" by contemporaries. Even Mowbray was created Duke of Norfolk. But it wasn't enough to reassure Thomas. After all, he was one of the five Appellants; now that the king was finished with the instigators he was bound to cast his vengeful eye on the remaining two. From then on, Thomas feared for his own life and stayed away from court as much as he could.
The Challenge of Mowbray and Bolingbroke from Froissart Chronicles, BnF ms. Francais 2646, fol.295
But he finally broke under the stress. In December that same year, Mowbray caught up with Bolingbroke on the road to London. He wasted no time in getting to the point. "Henry, we are about to be undone!" he is said to have declared. When Henry asked him why, he replied, "for what was done at Radcot Bridge".(2) Pretending astonishment (or was he pretending?) Bolingbroke objected: look at the honors Richard showered them with; they had all received pardons. But Mowbray believed none of it. He even told Henry there were men plotting the destruction of him and his father. He hoped Henry would help devise a plan for their mutual defense.
But poor Mowbray had badly miscalculated. Far from allying himself with his former Appellant, Bolingbroke made a report to the king (or he told his father who went to the king). Then followed a series of accusations and denials, counter-accusations and further denials. Unable to settle this argument amicably, the court of chivalry decided on a trial by combat. It was to be the event of the decade. Held at Coventry, the tournament was attended by knights from as far away as France, and the two challengers went to great lengths to acquire the very best and most expensive armor and trappings. But all was for naught. As depicted by Shakespeare, as soon as Mowbray and Bolingbroke started their charge, King Richard threw in his baton and halted the fight. After discussing the matter with his council, the king declared that Bolingbroke would be exiled for ten years and Mowbray for life.
It was a devastating decision for the Duke of Norfolk. He took his leave shortly thereafter with a small retinue, forbidden to make any contact with Bolingbroke—not that he was very likely to. One wonders if he would have been recalled to England after Henry became king, but we'll never know. He died in Venice just a year later, somewhere around the 22nd or 27th of September in 1399—just a few days before Richard was forced to abdicate. His young son, another Thomas, was not permitted to assume his father's titles and soon involved himself in political turmoil, finally joining the ill-fated revolt of Archbishop Scrope in 1405, where he was beheaded alongside the prelate.
1. "The Politics of Magnate Power" by Alastair Dunn, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2003, p. 40
2. "Chronicles of the Revolution 1397-1400" by Chris Given-Wilson, p.86
A King Under Siege:
Book One of The Plantagenet Legacy
By Mercedes Rochelle
Richard II found himself under siege not once, but twice in his minority. Crowned king at age ten, he was only fourteen when the Peasants' Revolt terrorized London. But he proved himself every bit the Plantagenet successor, facing Wat Tyler and the rebels when all seemed lost. Alas, his triumph was short-lived, and for the next ten years he struggled to assert himself against his uncles and increasingly hostile nobles. Just like in the days of his great-grandfather Edward II, vengeful magnates strove to separate him from his friends and advisors, and even threatened to depose him if he refused to do their bidding. The Lords Appellant, as they came to be known, purged the royal household with the help of the Merciless Parliament. They murdered his closest allies, leaving the King alone and defenseless. He would never forget his humiliation at the hands of his subjects. Richard's inability to protect his adherents would haunt him for the rest of his life, and he vowed that next time, retribution would be his.
Wiping the sweat from his forehead, King Richard leaned against the wall in the practice yard while his friends Thomas and Robert exchanged sword blows, weighed down in full armor despite the summer heat.
"Keep your arms in front you, Robert. Don't pull back." Michael de la Pole, Richard's resident advisor and arms instructor, moved to the side so he could see better. "Don't let him come too close," he urged.
Richard could see that Robert was getting tired. He was having trouble holding up the point of his sword, and Thomas was sure to take advantage of any opening. As soon as Richard thought it, Thomas burst upon his sparring partner with a spurt of energy, knocking his sword aside and assailing him with a succession of blows to the head. Overcome, Robert fell onto his backside and the bout was over. Thomas drew off his helmet and shook his head, sending a shower of sweat over his prone rival.
And rivals they were, in more ways than one. Richard pursed his lips, watching as their instructor strode forward and offered a hand to help Robert off the ground. Thomas dismissed Robert with a jerk of his head and walked over to the King. The three youths had spent much of their time together in Edward III's day while Thomas Mowbray and Robert de Vere were wards of the court. Now that Richard was king, they continued their training under the firm hand of Michael de la Pole, an old companion-in-arms of Richard's father the Black Prince. Windsor castle offered the best equipped and most expansive yard for jousting exercises as well as foot training. Though Richard wasn't excited about all this physical activity, he recognized the necessity of it. A king was expected to wage war and that was that.
There was no doubt that Thomas showed more aptitude for knightly skills than the other two. That was all right with Richard, though he was slightly annoyed when Thomas went to great lengths to humiliate Robert. De Vere, on the other hand, secure in his friendship with the King, shrugged off any insult as beneath his dignity. That served to aggravate Thomas even more. It was a constant cycle of competition that Richard found tiresome, though at the same time he was flattered. Being king did not remove the need for reassurance.
Richard took a sip from a water bottle and handed it to Thomas. "That was a good move. He couldn't stop you."
Thomas poured the water on his head before drinking. "It was too easy," he said. "Robert needs to pay more attention."
"I will from now on," the other interjected from behind. Thomas scowled at Robert, apparently unruffled despite his embarrassing spill. Robert was a full head shorter than him but better looking, with a thick, curly shock of brown hair and high cheekbones, whereas Mowbray was cursed with a hook nose and crooked teeth. But he was the stronger of the two, which he thought was more important. Good looks were useless in a fight.
Coughing to hide his amusement, Richard grinned at his friend. Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, came from one of the oldest but poorest aristocratic families in England. He was five years older than Richard and married to the King's cousin Philippa. Richard had taken a liking to him right away and it wasn't long before others tried to undermine their relationship, calling Robert greedy and grasping and not terribly stouthearted. But people were always jealous. They could complain all they wanted; Richard wouldn't listen.
Michael de la Pole approached, pulling on a set of gloves. "Are you ready, sire? It's your turn, though for now I'm going to attack and you can defend." Richard nodded reluctantly; he wasn't particularly anxious to start another workout, but it was too early to stop for the day. Thomas tightened the King's straps and Robert picked up his helm.
Michael waited patiently. Richard was a competent if unenthusiastic fighter; nonetheless, he was a clever lad and showed ingenuity. His skill with horses was impressive, and he could already control his mount with knees and thighs while handling a cumbersome lance and shield. He just needed some more practice with his swordplay.
Handsome and cultured, Michael came from a long line of successful merchants; his father had lent King Edward money to pay for his many French campaigns. But he was trying to rise above all that; Michael's recent appointment to Richard's council attested to his skill at diplomacy and political maneuvering. He was pleased that the young King showed more interest in the business of government than the swagger of combat. He had much to teach his young charge.
"Sire!" The single word echoed off the stone walls with such urgency that everyone turned. The King frowned as his other advisor approached. He could never overcome a dislike for Richard, Earl of Arundel, assigned to his council since the day he was crowned. The man always trying to control him and tell him what to do. Short and stocky, Arundel had a low forehead and pale blue eyes that bulged from their sockets, reminding Richard of a dead fish.
"No time for weapons training now," Arundel said, handing a message to Michael. "I've called a council meeting. We've had a serious disturbance in Essex that demands our immediate attention."
Michael glanced up from the paper. "They've assaulted a tax collector," he said. "They are up in arms."
"Worse than that," Arundel growled. "They are marching on London."
The Coffee Pot Book Club
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Born in St. Louis MO with a degree from University of Missouri, Mercedes Rochelle learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. She lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.