Post-classical history


Iron Wars

In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d,

And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars.

Henry IV Part One, Act II, Scene 3

Battles, plots and parliamentary storms are all exciting and undoubtedly important but they tend to overshadow less dramatic events of equal political significance. While Henry had been arguing with Richard, and tentatively searching for a middle way between the senior Appellants and the king, his father had been seeking his fortune in Spain. After landing in Galicia in the autumn of 1386, John had brought the region under control, albeit with heavy losses. He had then concluded an agreement with João I of Portugal, reinforcing the alliance of 1373 between Portugal and England (which, incidentally, is still in force today: the longest lasting peace treaty in the world). As part of this agreement, his daughter Philippa had married João, and the combined Anglo-Portuguese army had invaded Castile. John, having taken a leaf out of his father’s book and adopted the title of ‘king’ of the kingdom he claimed, seized on the offer of a favourable peace settlement. As part of the deal he gave his daughter Catalina in marriage to the grandson and heir of Enrique de Trastámara, the usurper who had murdered her grandfather. By this John prevented his wife from avenging her father’s death but brought peace to Castile and the guarantee that her family would once again rule. It also brought him a lot of money: one hundred thousand pounds in cash and a valuable pension of ten thousand marks (£6,666) per year. He had been by far the richest man in England before this; now his income had almost doubled. Money, he must have felt, would never again be a worry for the dukes of Lancaster.

John landed at Plymouth on 19 November 1389, and straightaway travelled towards London. Henry had been intermittently at court that autumn, attending council meetings, and probably rode westwards to join his father as soon as he heard the news.1 As John approached Reading the king went to meet him, a mark of exceptional honour. Richard embraced his uncle, and kissed him, and took the livery collar from John’s neck and put it around his own, saying that he wanted to show ‘the good love felt heartfully between them’.2 Many of those present must have wondered at this; it was quite a turnaround from the days when Richard plotted to have his uncle murdered. But Richard had clearly made up his mind to honour John, just as he had made up his mind that – whatever he thought of Henry personally – it was better to have him on his side rather than against him. As Richard knew, with Lancastrian support he could rule England without worrying that the duke of Gloucester would try to depose him.

After this show of reconciliation, Henry and his father withdrew to Hertford Castle for Christmas and the New Year.3 They returned to Westminster in January 1390 to attend parliament. The main business on the agenda was the second Statute of Provisors, which sought to strengthen the legislation stopping the pope providing clerics to English benefices. The labour legislation of the Cambridge parliament was confirmed and reinforced, and the anti-livery petition of 1388 was enacted, although much watered down from the commons’ original demands. On 16 February Richard confirmed the palatinate duchy of Lancaster as an inheritable possession of the Lancastrian house, probably in response to John’s request, with an assumed long-term benefit to Henry. Nine days later, Henry’s cousin, Edward of York, was created earl of Rutland. Henry witnessed the confirmation of this grant on the last day of the parliament, 3 March, perhaps a little suspicious of Richard’s motives.

A few days later, Henry left the country, to take part in a tournament in France. It was perhaps the easiest way to remove himself from the court intrigues. When his father had been threatened by Richard in 1385, he had responded by planning an overseas trip. He had returned to a royal embrace. Maybe the magic of an overseas trip would work for Henry too? Even before the end of the parliament, Henry was packing his bags.4


The jousts at St Inglevert are among the most famous of the entire middle ages. The renowned French knight Sir Jean le Maingre, or ‘Boucicaut’ as he was better known, had challenged all comers to joust in March 1389.5 He and two other famous French knights – Renaud de Roye and Jean de Saimpy – proposed that the three of them would encamp at St Inglevert and would ride five strokes, or courses, against anyone who cared to challenge them in the space of thirty days. And if one of them was badly injured or killed, the remaining two would take on the responsibility of fighting all challengers, down to the last survivor.

John of Gaunt – who had seen Boucicaut joust in Gascony – was impressed and ordered his own herald to carry news of the challenge throughout England. Of course John exhorted his chivalric son and heir to take part. Henry and a large number of English lords and esquires departed some time after 13 March.6 Thomas Mowbray, Henry’s fellow Appellant, went with him. So too did his violent brother-in-law, John Holland, a number of very experienced knights, including Lord Beaumont, Thomas Clifford and Sir Peter Courtenay, and a vast crowd of patriotic noncombatants.

It is not difficult to see the reason for the excitement. The three French protagonists had offered all their opponents the opportunity to fight with uncapped steel lances. These ‘jousts of war’, as they were called, were exceptionally dangerous. As a result, they were very rare events. So all attention at St Inglevert was fixed on a fine spruce tree which stood beside the jousting field. Two shields hung from its lowest bows. Each challenger was expected to strike one of the two shields with a wand, in true Arthurian fashion. One shield meant a joust of peace, with lances capped. The other meant a joust of war, with sharpened steel lances, which often resulted in severe injury and death. A herald sat in the tree from sunrise to sunset each day, and recorded the name, title and nationality of each challenger.7

The most accurate details of the jousts are preserved in the monastic chronicle of Saint-Denis. The lists of contenders recorded therein seem to be based on the lists composed by the heralds sitting in the spruce tree. The monk of Saint-Denis, however, was not particularly interested in which knight did what; he only made special note of the deeds of the three Frenchmen and one group of Englishmen. It is Froissart’s chronicle which provides the most detail with regard to the actual strokes. Froissart was not an eyewitness of events himself, and unfortunately his source only stayed for the first week, so we do not have an eyewitness account of Henry’s feats of arms; but nevertheless from other accounts we can see that Henry acquitted himself very well indeed.8

The great event began with three days’ feasting, from Friday 18 March to Sunday the 20th. The next day, the first day of combat, John Holland, earl of Huntingdon, rode up to the shields, determined to prove himself. He took the wand and struck the shield demanding a joust of war. As Boucicaut strode out of his pavilion, he was sporting a new motto emblazoned on his arms: ‘whatever you want’. Holland mounted his horse. With his minstrels playing behind him, he rode to the end of the lists. Crowds gathered around, and he stood there, said the chronicler, ‘in a very exalted manner’ and waited while his esquires fastened his helmet. Boucicaut and the earl then faced each other, with the crowd chanting their names. They began to gallop. Froissart and the biographer of Boucicaut differ as to which lance strike it was exactly when Holland’s shield was broken in half by Boucicaut’s lance, and which strokes he rode against Boucicaut and which against de Saimpy; but clearly the earl sustained a series of blows. Sparks flew from their helmets as the steel lance tips struck them. At one point Holland’s helmet came off. At another, their war horses collided. But at the end of the five strokes, Boucicaut was still unbeaten.

The next knight to try his luck was Thomas Mowbray, who also struck the shield for the joust of war. His opponent was Renaud de Roye. At the first stroke their horses shied away from each other. At the second, de Roye’s lance broke, and Mowbray caught his opponent, but not hard enough to unseat him. At the third, de Roye struck Mowbray so hard on the helmet that he broke the straps and left Mowbray stunned, reeling. Mowbray had done well, but he could not complete his five strokes of war against the Frenchman.

So it continued. That day, eight more men jousted against the French: Thomas Clifford, Lord Beaumont, Sir Peter Courtenay, John Golafre, John Russell and Thomas Swinburn.9 The three Frenchmen outlasted all of them. The next day, after hearing Mass and sharing a cup of wine, they survived ten or eleven more challengers, all of whom demanded jousts of war.10 By this time, no one could ask for a joust of peace, with capped lance tips. To do so would seem cowardly. On the Wednesday, the three Frenchmen rode against thirteen challengers, and apparently wounded all of them.11 On the Thursday they fought against at least seven more.12 By the evening of that fourth day, they were exhausted. There followed four days of feasting and pleasant pastimes, and honourable receptions for those who were just arriving from England, Hainault, Lorraine and further afield: Germany and Bohemia.

Henry was in his element. His new friend, Boucicaut, was just seven months older than him. The Frenchman was charming, affable and hugely talented. He had good stories to tell of his father and his own deeds of valour. Henry might have been jousting in public from the age of fourteen, but Boucicaut had been fighting since he was a page, taken on his first campaign at the age of twelve. He had been knighted on the eve of his first battle, at the age of sixteen. He had twice fought with the Teutonic Knights in the crusades against the Lithuanians. In addition he had fought in Spain, the Balkans and the Middle East. But as they feasted together, Henry would have realised that there was more to the man than that. As Boucicaut’s chronicler noted, he was abstemious, and did not revel in food and drink, but rather concentrated on what was good for his fighting skills. Moreover, he was as pious as he was single-minded in his pursuit of martial glory. He had even been to the Holy Land. To Henry he was a kindred spirit, and Henry lavished gifts on him and his companions. Only one shadow crossed his mind: he would yet have to ride against him, and with uncapped steel lances. Henry could not be seen to be the first one to strike the shield for the joust of peace.

The fifth day of jousting saw John Holland return to the lists, and Thomas Mowbray too. Boucicaut and Renaud de Roye dealt with them and nine more men, but they were both so badly injured by the end of the afternoon that they had to be taken to their beds for medical help. Their challenge now rested entirely on the one remaining knight, Jean de Saimpy. Fortunately for him, he did not have to joust all nine days; Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter weekend and Easter Monday intervened, and as these were religious feasts, no jousting took place. Jean de Saimpy had to hold his own for just two days, but even that meant facing a further fifteen men single-handed. He did so, and remained undefeated, to the ecstatic applause of the Frenchmen in the crowd. The challenge was still on. Thursday 7 April saw Boucicaut and de Roye back to full strength. Eight men from Germany and Bohemia clashed with them that day. The next day was a Friday, so was spent feasting and dancing. Then came the weekend, with religious observances on the Sunday. The next strokes would take place on Monday 11 April. It was Henry’s turn.13

John of Gaunt had written in advance to Boucicaut asking him to show his son a lesson or two; would he therefore do Henry the honour of riding not five strokes with him but ten? This may have been meant literally, but Henry was the same age as Boucicaut and an experienced jouster; he did not need tuition. John was probably teasing his son.14 Boucicaut could not refuse such a request from the duke of Lancaster, whether in jest or not. With Henry were his second cousin, Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, John Beaufort (Henry’s half-brother), John Courtenay, Thomas Swynford, and five other men. With all of them in armour, and the flags flying around the lists, and the crowds chanting his name, Henry closed the visor on his war helm and spurred his war horse forward, hooves thudding into the turf. He rode all ten strokes with Boucicaut, to great cheers.

At the end of the day the three Frenchmen were still alive, and so was their challenge, and great was their honour indeed. But they had very nearly come to grief. Jean de Saimpy could not take a further part in the competition; Henry afterwards gave him a new saddle, presumably having destroyed the old one with his lance.15 Not even John Holland had given the Frenchmen such a hard time. At the end of the tournament, on or about 13 April, after two more days’ jousting, the Frenchmen judged Henry and his companions the most praiseworthy of all those who had challenged them.16 How much of an impact Henry made may be seen in that one French chronicle names him alone out of all the knights – more than a hundred – who attended.17 Boucicaut was profoundly impressed. Would Henry care to join him on the duke of Bourbon’s forthcoming crusade to Tunis? Then they could travel together to the crusade in Prussia. Henry must have felt the golden path to glory had suddenly been revealed.

Henry returned to England and probably went directly to Windsor to attend the Order of the Garter ceremony on St George’s Day. Two weeks later, on 6 May, using his full string of honorific titles ‘Henry of Lancaster, earl of Derby, Hereford and Northampton, lord of Brecon’, he appointed Richard Kingston his treasurer for war.18 Kingston set about purchasing horses and stores with which to join the crusade assembling at Marseilles on 1 July. Henry crossed to Calais, where he and his knights awaited their letters of safe-conduct. Their wait was in vain. It is normally presumed that Richard wrote to the French king asking him not to allow Henry to go on the crusade. Whether this is correct or not, Henry’s representatives were unable to obtain permission for him to travel through France.19 His half-brother John Beaufort had to go on to Marseilles without him. Henry knew that if he wanted to prove himself in arms, there was only one option left: Lithuania.


The fourteenth-century crusades in Lithuania are not as well known as those of the twelfth century in the Holy Land or the Reconquista in Spain. The days of long campaigns in the Middle East were practically over, and although there were two or three military expeditions against Mediterranean Turks and Arabs at the end of the fourteenth century, these were relatively rare. Those who took part sought not to gain great territorial empires but rather strategic victories on behalf of Christendom. Lithuania remained practically the sole arena for crusades of conquest, for one region, Samogitia, was still pagan, and it was there that the Teutonic Knights held the frontier.20

The Teutonic Knights had been founded in 1128. Like other military orders, such as the Hospitallers and the Templars, they undertook to protect the Christian pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, they refounded themselves as a monastic brotherhood at Acre. After forty years of protecting pilgrims, they set out to fight pagans in Prussia, and merged in 1237 with the Brothers of the Sword, an order which held various Prussian lands, including Livonia. The fall of Acre in 1290 again left them homeless; another period of uncertainty followed, and it was not until 1309 that they established themselves at Marienberg. From then on, their expansion was at the cost of the pagan Lithuanians. In 1386, the conversion of Lithuania began, with the baptism of the king, Jagiello. By 1390 the Teutonic Knights were hardly crusaders at all; they were more like a militant Christian state in their own right, making alliances with their neighbours and fighting enemies of various faiths, including fellow Christians.

It might seem a little extreme to us that a young man such as Henry, eager to prove himself in arms, should venture to the far edge of Europe. It would not have appeared that strange in 1390. From London, Lithuania is only about half as far as Jerusalem and although geographical features inhibited travel by land or water in a straight line, the most substantial detour was the need to sail around Denmark, which meant the onus fell on the sailors. Besides, it is probable that the real reason for our surprise is our comparative ignorance about medieval Lithuania and our presumption that our medieval ancestors knew very little about the world. Because of its crusades, Lithuania probably figured more prominently in the medieval English conscience that it does in the modern English mind. A number of English knights had made the journey there to fight with the Teutonic Knights. Sir Robert Morley had died there, Sir John Breux had served there with Lord Lovell, Sir Hugh Hastings had been there, as had Sir William Scrope of Bolton and three of his cousins, one of whom died there in 1362. And this is just to quote a handful of examples known from evidence given in heraldic lawsuits; it is probable that most knights and lords in England knew someone who had served in Prussia on the reyse (as the annual expeditions were called). Henry would have known more than most. In addition to his new friend, Boucicaut, there was his own grandfather the great duke of Lancaster, who had travelled to Germany with the intention of fighting on a reyse in 1352. His deceased father-in-law, the earl of Hereford, had campaigned in Prussia, as had the sons of the earl of Devon, and Thomas Holland, earl of Kent. The Ufford family had been campaigning in Lithuania since at least 1331, with one son, Thomas, taking part in three crusades, in 1348, 1361 and 1365. Another veteran of the Prussian crusades was Henry’s fellow Appellant, Thomas Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, who had set out for Lithuania with his younger brothers, William and Roger, in 1367. The earl’s late father had left a particularly inspiring story, as he had returned from Lithuania in 1364 with a pagan prince, whom he had had baptised in London. Last and most importantly there was Henry’s own jousting companion and cousin, Hotspur, who had been to Lithuania in 1383. It was by no means an easy way of winning glory – memorial panes of heraldic glass to dead English knights were to be seen in many churches in Eastern Europe – but it was a well-established route to the combined heights of spiritual salvation and fame in arms.21

Henry returned from Calais by 28 May.22 He did not try to persuade the French king to change his mind about the safe-conduct but instead set about organising everything he would need for the forthcoming expedition. The intense excitement is vividly preserved in the enrolled accounts, which testify to his men rushing here and there, buying necessities or having them made, arranging for carriage of some items and the repair of others. Money was clearly no worry to the young man who intended to travel in the highest luxury. A sum of about 24,000 Aragonese florins – about £2,700 – was given to him by his father from his Spanish treasure, and this was followed in early June with a further thousand marks. John was enormously generous and clearly supportive of his son’s venture.

The list of items which Henry obtained is an excellent source for the lifestyle of the very richest men of the English court. The range of foodstuffs is particularly striking. At one point in the account the reader is left with the distinct impression that Henry must have raided a sweetshop. Just one bill to a London confectioner, amounting to £4 16s 8d, paid on 4 July 1390, included:

  7 lb. of ginger

11 lb. of quince jam

  4 lb. of a conserve of pine nuts

  2 lb. of caraway seeds

  2 lb. of ginger sweets

  2 lb. of preserved cloves

  3 lb. of citronade [a lemon marmalade?]

  2 lb. of ‘royal sweets’

  4 lb. of red and white ‘flat sugars’ [sugar loaves]

  6 lb. of ‘sugar candy’

  3 lb. of ‘royal paste’ [made of flour and sugar]

  2 lb. of aniseed sweets

  2 lb. of sunflower seeds

  2 lb. of mapled ginger

  2 lb. of barley sugar

  2 lb. of digestive sweetmeats

  1 lb. of nutmeg

  2 lb. of red wax

and two quires of paper.23

And this was just one bill. On another occasion the clerk of the spicery had to pay out £10 6s 7d for four-and-a-half hundredweight (506 lb., or 230kg) of almonds, a hundredweight (112 lb.) of rice, 14 lb. ginger, 14 lb. pepper, 14 lb. cinnamon, 10 lb. of sugar syrup, 7 lb. 12 oz. ‘sugar caffetin’ (loaves of sugar), six gallons of honey, 1 lb. of saffron, ½ lb. of mace, ½ lb. of cloves, ½ lb. of cubebs, 1 lb. of sandalwood (a food colouring), forty gallons of strained verjuice (a sour liquor for cooking), 1 lb. of cumin and 6 lb. of ground rice.24 Beyond this, the same clerk had to account for other quantities of the same foodstuffs, and many other exotica, including quantities of dates, currants, liquorice, figs, raisins, saffron, caraway seeds, aniseed, alkanet (a red food colouring), galingale (warm spice powder), and pistachios.

In addition to the spicery there were purchases for the kitchen, the saucery, the poultry, the scullery, the chaundry (cleaning), the buttery and the pantry. The clerk of the saucery entered one bill ‘for thirty-six gallons of vinegar’. Similarly large orders were noted for the buttery. Very large quantities of ale were obtained, normally at a cost of 1½ or 2d per gallon (so for £1 he could buy 960 pints of the best ale). It arrived in barrels of twenty-four gallons. Large quantities of Gascon wine were also purchased, and huge quantities of meat. No individual provider was able to supply the amounts which Henry desired, and so the accounts are peppered with payments, for example, for ten flitches of bacon bought at Bolingbroke (12s 6d), or forty sheep bought at Boston (72s). Henry seems to have been just as keen on fish as his maternal grandfather, whose favourite food was salmon.25 At most places where Henry stopped, we read of payments for fish. He ate many more varieties than the average modern consumer, the range of fish eaten on Fridays (a non-meat day in the Catholic Church) being a sign of high status. His accounts record payments for a vast array including salt fish, whale (oil?), herring, cod, conger eels, many sticks of freshwater eels (twenty-five eels per stick), flat fish, sturgeon (by the barrel), pike, whelks and porpoise (which was considered a fish in medieval times). In Prussia he was to pay for bream, lampreys, roach, tench, ray, crabs, lobsters, thornbacks, plaice, flounder and trout. Later, when he visited the Mediterranean, he regularly ate many more kinds. Eating fish remained a lifelong passion: in later years, when he was king, magnates gave him presents of fresh fish.26

As Henry made his way north with Mary (five months’ pregnant with their fourth child), he assembled the other necessities for his journey. Ten cauldrons, six spits and two pairs of racks for hanging cauldrons. A frying pan. A new tapestry, and cords to hang it in his dining hall. His armour. Repairs to his favourite sword. Even canvas aprons for the cooks. His horses had to be taken to Boston, if they were going on the crusade, or back to Bolingbroke if they were remaining in England.

Henry also sent a clock to Bolingbroke. This is a detail which seems not to have sparked much attention, but it deserves particular notice if only for the fact that it was portable. The entry reads ‘to John the Clockmaker for a pannier bought from him for the transportation of one clock from London to Bolingbroke 8d’.27 This was presumably a clock which Henry already owned, for there is no payment for the making of the said clock to John or anyone else. The extraordinary thing is that clocks at this period were all turret clocks, and not remotely portable: they were constructedin situ. No portable clocks are known to have existed for another half-century, when the spring mechanism was developed which permitted table-top clocks to be designed and built. But here we have a reference to a clock small enough that it could be carried. Moreover, Henry was not prepared to leave it in his London house while he was away. Given what has previously been said about Henry’s logical mind, with all the implications for his attitude to timekeeping and the structure of the day, it is not surprising to know that he was one of the very few fourteenth-century individuals who personally owned a clock. But if he owned a portable timepiece in 1390 – the earliest recorded such item – that would be extraordinary.

At Boston, eleven days were spent fitting out the ship. Although we have no record of what sort of ship this was, the largest vessels of the day are estimated to have been little more than 100 feet (30m.) in length; and given Henry’s purpose, status and retinue, it is unlikely that he had requisitioned a much smaller vessel. Carpenters were sent aboard with timber and wainscot to provide Henry and his knights with cabins in the vessel, each neatly done with wood panelling and fitted with a hammock. In Henry’s cabin there was also a lamp. Extensive repairs were carried out to the boat, both carpentry and tarring, to ensure its seaworthiness. Cages were built on deck for the large numbers of live chickens they were taking. A stall was built for the cow they were taking to provide them with fresh milk. Cases were carried on board with the 3,400 eggs required for the voyage. Henry’s armour, flags, tents, horses, chests of clothes and all the cooking equipment and supplies were carried aboard. Finally, on 19 or 20 July, everything was ready. Henry said goodbye to Mary and his three sons at Lincoln, and returned to Boston.28 A flotilla of smaller vessels towed the great ship and three hundred men, dozens of horses, three hundred and sixty chickens and one cow away from the dock and out into the open waters of the North Sea.29

Now it becomes clear where all those sweets and sweetmeats went, and all that ale and wine. There was little to do on board for the next three weeks except eat, drink, pray and tell stories. It was summer, so we may suppose that the weather was fine, but even so, cramped on board for three weeks, the voyage cannot have been pleasant for Henry and his men. Perhaps they practised their swordsmanship on deck as the boat rocked its way across the North Sea and then the Baltic. There were about two dozen knights and esquires with him, including Thomas Erpingham, Thomas Swynford, Peter Bucton, Thomas Rempston (his standard-bearer), John Clifton, Richard Goldsborough, John Loveyn, Sir John Dalyngrigge, John Norbury, John and Robert Waterton, Ralph Rochford, Richard Dancaster and Hugh Waterton (his long-serving chamberlain). At least five of these men had taken part in the jousts of war at St Inglevert (Swynford, Bucton, Rochford, Dalyngrigge and Dancaster).30 No doubt they also joined with Henry in gambling on throws of the dice (to which he was addicted, like most of the medieval royal family) and board games, such as chess and draughts, and ball games, such as fives (jeu de paume).31 Henry also had an altar set up in his cabin, and his chaplain Hugh Herle was on board, so prayer would have occupied more of his time. Finally, he had also brought his falconer with him, so no doubt he and his men had fun sending up their birds of prey to pursue the smaller sea birds.

On 8 August Henry landed at Rixhöft, in Poland, and disembarked with a few of his men. He spent the night in a mill near Putzig before riding to the port of Danzig (modern Gdansk), where the ship docked. From there he sent his heralds out to announce his arrival and to offer his assistance to the marshal of the Teutonic Knights, Engelhard Rabe. While he waited for his messenger, he whiled away a few hours jousting, and managed to injure himself, so that a doctor was urgently required to staunch the bleeding.32 On hearing that Marshal Rabe was already in arms, and that the reysewas underway, Henry gathered his fighting men and chased after him, through Elbing and Braniewo, Brandenburg and Königsberg. He arrived at Insterberg Castle. – a fortress of the Teutonic Knights – on the 21st. The following day he finally met Marshal Rabe, on the banks of the River Memel, near Ragnit.

Henry probably did not fully understand the nature of the war in which he now found himself. It had changed since the days of his grandfather and the earl of Warwick. The key change was the baptism of King Jagiello, in 1386. In theory this meant that all of Lithuania was now Christian, which would have left the Teutonic Knights with no pagans to fight. However, although the conversion of Lithuania was almost complete, there were still substantial elements of paganism left to stamp out in ‘the Wilderness’, as the north of medieval Lithuania was called (roughly the same area as modern Lithuania). That was where the knights were about to campaign now. It was a vast tract of marshy land, the paths slippery with mud and blocked by fallen trees.

That was not the whole story. A fuller picture has to take account of the political machinations of Vitold, or Vytautas, cousin of Jagiello. Vitold was an ambitious man who, in the 1380s, had converted to Christianity and allied with the Teutonic Knights against Jagiello. He had betrayed them, and made peace with Jagiello, but in 1389 he had decided to grasp another opportunity to make himself king of Lithuania and had renewed his alliance with the Teutonic Knights. His vision of a united Lithuania under his rule was very different from Jagiello’s Polish–Lithuanian empire. The campaign which Vitold was now waging, and which Henry was supporting, was directed against Jagiello’s brothers, Skirgiello and Karigal. These men had also been baptised. Thus it could be said that Henry was taking part in a crusade against fellow Christians as well as pagans. Although he believed he was fighting for the glory of God and the Teutonic Knights, it would be more accurate to say he was fighting in the name of Vitold, a man of questionable loyalty to the Christian cause, against the subjects and allies of a Christian king.

A week later, coming to the River Wilia, the Anglo-Teutonic army and their allies (the Livonians and Vitold’s Lithuanians) saw Skirgiello’s Russo-Lithuanian army on the other side. A battle ensued, in which the archers with Henry played a key part.33 The cover of arrow fire permitted the knights to advance and engage the enemy on the far bank. One of Henry’s knights, Sir John Loudham, was killed here. Enemy losses amounted to three hundred dead. Three Russian leaders (‘dukes’) and eleven other lords (boyars) were captured. After a night’s rest on the battlefield, Henry sent Loudham’s body back to Königsberg for burial. The rest of the army pushed on through the mud towards Vilnius.

Vilnius was a wooden city, protected by a strong castle, filled with archers. Henry led the first attack on the walls on 4 September, using English gunners as well as his knights. According to both German and English sources, it was the valiant attacks of the English which allowed a flag bearing the cross of St George – the patron saint of the Teutonic Knights as well as the English – to be raised above the town parapet.34 Contemporary English reports put the number of dead after this onslaught at around four thousand, although this is surely an exaggeration.35 But the castle protecting the town held out. Three weeks later, Henry was still ensconced in a waterlogged camp of cold, disease-ridden, despondent men. All the edible luxuries he had obtained in England had been consumed. He was now dependent on Vitold for supplies. After a month, he and his fellow soldiers had had enough. The gunpowder had been used up. Men were dying of the inevitable diseases to be found in temporary army camps. Two of Henry’s men (Thomas Rempston and John Clifton) had been captured by the enemy. Henry made an attempt to secure their release – we do not know whether he was immediately successful – and then marched back towards Insterberg.36 From there he took his men to Königsberg, where he set up his winter quarters.


There were several reasons why Henry did not return to England directly after his return from the reyse. It was so late in the year that storms could be expected on the long voyage, which meant it would be both miserable and dangerous at sea. Two of his men were probably still held captive, and to leave them behind would be dishonourable. Henry himself was ill, and needed the attentions of a physician from Marienberg.37 And he had no wish to return and have to put up with the bitterness of the English court. Although Henry learned on 1 November 1390 that he now had a fourth son, Humphrey (named after Mary’s father), that in itself was insufficient to tempt him to return. He was independent on his travels, and that independence suited him.38 Besides, he liked these German knights with whom he had been fighting and bonding. Like Boucicaut, they had both spiritual virtue and martial skill. They had pride in themselves, as men and as fighters. They thought of themselves as soldiers of Christ. They were dedicated. They knew how to enjoy themselves too, with their hunting and jousting.39 They espoused all the virtues in which Henry also believed.

At Königsberg Henry listened to music, feasted, prayed and attended the funeral of one of his esquires. He had captured some pagan boys on the reyse, and now had them baptised and installed them in his own household for their education. His accounts note payments for carrying his hunting gear – two cartloads of it – to go hunting with Marshal Rabe. He wrote letters home, and sent them via his esquires, paying each time twenty marks (£13 6s 8d) for their delivery.40 The noblemen sent their entertainers and musicians to each other, and in this way Henry and his six minstrels – his trumpeters, pipers and a percussionist – would have been exposed to different tunes and rhythms.41 One Hans the Hornpiper seems to have gone down very well, for Henry gave him several large payments.42 Although foreign beers had been imported into England before this time, now Henry was able to sup continental beverages in quantity.43 He also saw the horses of Eastern Europe, and came face to face with Russian troops. Presents given to him, for his amusement, sport or curiosity, include three bears, hawks, a wild bull and an elk.44 It is not clear what he did with all these animals, least of all the elk.

Henry remained at Königsberg from November until 9 February, when he removed his household to Danzig. Arriving there on 15 February, he lodged at the house of one Klaus Gottesknight, while his retinue lodged at a bishop’s house in the town. A group of clerics gathered to sing to him.45Three fiddlers came to play to him in Lent, receiving a whole mark (13s 4d) as a reward.46 On 5 January he doled out many gifts to his minstrels, knights, esquires, grooms, valets and servants, giving most of them a warm fur gown against the bitter cold of the winter. Another of his servants died, and he paid for a tomb to be built for him at Königsberg. A series of pilgrimages occupied him in Holy Week: he visited at least four churches each day, and gave alms to the poor wherever he went. On Maundy Thursday (23 March) he gave alms, clothes and shoes to twenty-four paupers (that being the day he entered his twenty-fourth year).47 Finally, at the end of the month, after a deluge of gifts, alms and goodbyes, he stepped on board his ship again and set sail for England. With him went John Ralph and Ingelard of Prussia, two of the several boys he had converted to Christianity.48 It took his pilot four weeks to guide the ship across the twelve hundred miles home.49


Henry’s first voyage overseas magnified his reputation in England in every possible way. Not even his glorious grandfather, Edward III, had actually taken part in a crusade. His other grandfather had reached Stettin (eighty miles north-east of Berlin) on his 1352 expedition, but if he actually joined the reyse that year, his exploits were neither notable nor memorable. As far as anyone in England was aware, Henry was the first member of the English royal family to take part in a holy war since Prince Edward (later Edward I), more than a hundred years earlier.

A more subtle aspect, of which everyone would have been keenly aware at the time, was that Henry had been representing England. Some writers in the past have called Henry’s expedition ‘semi-diplomatic’, even though there was no specific foreign-relations purpose to Henry’s voyage.50 But there was one sense in which Henry’s journey did have a diplomatic dimension: he was a walking advertisement for England, with regard to his appearance and largesse, and his men were an advertisement for the supremacy of the English longbow over all other weapons of war. This is an important fact to bear in mind, for when Englishmen heard that Henry had won a river battle against the pagan Russians, and when they heard that it was an Englishman in Henry’s entourage who first placed the flag of St George on the walls of Vilnius, they understood these as Englishvictories. They knew also that these acts had been witnessed by men from many other countries: from Germany, Hungary, Poland, France and Italy. Henry had been exporting the idea that the English royal family still bred warriors of the stature of Edward III and Duke Henry.

We get a real sense of this inspiration and national pride from reading the chronicle of the monk of Westminster. In a very telling passage, the monk wrote that Henry landed on 8 August 1390 at Danzig. This is actually wrong – Henry landed, as we have seen, at Rixhöft – but in that very error we have good evidence that the chronicler received his information from one of the men who sailed with Henry, for most of them did disembark at Danzig. It is not hard to picture an esquire from Henry’s retinue sitting down with a cup of wine in the hearing of a number of clerics at Westminster, and telling them the story of how Henry had marched to join the marshal of Prussia against the king of Lithuania at the head of fifty lances and sixty bowmen, and how, on the banks of the River Memel, Marshal Rabe had ridden forth to greet Henry with ‘his face wreathed in a smile of pleasure’. The esquire went on to say that at the battle to cross the river three Russian ‘dukes’ were captured by the ‘Christians’ and three others killed, and three hundred men were left for dead, with Skirgiello fleeing for his life. Of course there was no reference to the fact that Skirgiello himself was a Christian. In his version of this story, ‘the king of Lithuania’ fled from Henry and holed himself up in the citadel of Vilnius. Although the siege was ultimately unsuccessful, in the conquest of the town the Prussian marshal seized 8,000 prisoners for conversion, and the master of the Livonians took a further 3,500. And, of course, the man who first planted the flag of St George on the walls of Vilnius became not one of Henry’s men but Henry himself.51 Such is the nature of story telling, especially stories about deeds of valour.

Henry did everything he could to live up to this reputation. The news of his crusading success followed on from that of his prowess against Boucicaut at St Inglevert, and Henry was keen to demonstrate his fighting skills on English soil. He set about amassing new armour: jousting helmets and visors, bascinets for war, bascinets with aventails (hanging mail collars), vambraces, rerebraces, manifers (gauntlets), breastplates, lances of steel and wood, mail coverings and swords. On 24 June, Henry was supplied with new armour and eighteen lances for a tournament.52 Shortly afterwards, he went up to London, from which he travelled by barge to Lambeth, and then on to Kennington, where another joust was to take place.53 For this he bought another eighteen lances, and dressed in spangles, as he had done at his earliest recorded tournament.54 In September, at Hertford, Henry started planning for the next tournament, this one to be at Waltham on 6 October.55 These were all supposedly jousts of peace, but even so Henry obtained new steel lances, just in case he would be challenged to the ultimate test.

In this way Henry can be seen to have returned from his expedition much more confident and self-assured than before. So inspiring were the tales of adventure from the east that a number of lords set off to take part in the 1391 reyse, including Lords Despenser, Beaumont, Clifford and Bourchier (who set off in May). Henry’s uncle, the duke of Gloucester, also set off for Lithuania, but was caught in a storm, lost his ship and was washed ashore at Bamburgh.56 Henry’s time abroad had also taught him how to live and behave like a prince. The enormous wealth bestowed on him by his father, combined with his own independence, gave him the chance to buy what he wanted and give lavishly. The serious student of piety and the lance had blossomed into a champion with depth of character: an affable, knowledgeable and likeable young man.

Despite all this glory and affability, the fact remained that he was now back in England, and that was where his real problems lay. He did not attend court. He probably saw Richard at the Kennington tournament in July, at which time the king gave him a couple of pieces of plate armour, but the Lancastrians kept themselves to themselves, just as Richard kept his court tightly around him. Not surprisingly, Henry preferred to be with his family than with the king. Mary was pregnant again, with their fifth child. They indulged themselves in their love of music together: at Peterborough they were entertained by two minstrels accompanying each other on the lute and fiddle.57 When Henry went to London for the parliament on 3 November, he sent Mary a present of a hundred apples (‘costardes’), and a hundred and fifty pears (‘wardens’).58 All this homely fireside love and music is of an altogether different character from Henry’s position at court. In public he and Richard wore thin-lipped smiles for the sake of politeness and exchanged formal presents; privately they kept apart, and only came together when Richard needed the support of the Lancastrians.

A third faction was developing around the young earl of March, whom Richard had once rashly declared to be his heir. Although he had no intention now of ratifying this, the announcement had given Hotspur – who was married to the earl’s sister – good reason to hope that March would succeed Richard. There was no getting away from the fact that Richard had now been married for nearly ten years and Anne had not once become pregnant, let alone given birth. Thus, when the earl of March’s wife gave birth to a son, Edmund Mortimer, in early November 1391, no one could have ignored the implications for the succession. The earl of March had a responsibility to try to preserve the inheritance for his son, just as John had ambitions for Henry.

The parliament of November 1391 itself raised further questions. The chancellor declared in his opening speech that one of the purposes of the meeting was again to discuss the issue of maintenance, with connotations for those wearing livery collars. The repeal of the Statute of Provisors was discussed, with a firm anti-papal statement coming from the commons. The wool trade was debated, especially the problems arising from a collapse in wool prices, which in turn were perhaps a consequence of the plague that ravaged the north that summer.59 Further reforms were enacted relating to the administration of admirals, the duties of Justices of the Peace to prevent forced entry on to another man’s property, the removal of the tin staple (official trading post) from Cornwall to Calais, and the alienation of land to religious institutions. But most importantly, on the last day of the parliament the commons presented a petition to the committee appointed for the purpose (which, for the first time, included Henry), demanding that Richard should be ‘as free in his regality, liberty and royal dignity as any of his predecessors’, and that he should not be restrained by any statute or ordinance, including those passed in the reign of Edward II. Richard had been clever. If the Appellants could use parliament to limit the power of the king, then he could use it to bolster his authority. Henry and the rest of the committee had no choice but to assent to such a petition, even though it clearly originated with the king himself. So they passed it on for the king to ratify, which he did, declaring himself ‘well-pleased’ with the commons’ request.60

The very next day, Henry removed himself from court.61

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!