Philip J. Caudrey
(Boydell & Brewer, 2019) 227 pp. $99.00/£60.00
As far back as 1832 the indefatigable antiquarian Sir Harris Nicholas identified the potential historical importance of the testimonies given to the Court of Chivalry in disputes over the right to bear a specific coat of arms. Despite that, detailed analysis of the three cases for which substantial numbers of depositions survive (Scrope v Grosvenor, Lovel v Morley, both heard in the later 1380’s, and Grey v Hastings, taken some twenty years later) only began in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Since then the depositions have been quarried by a series of historians, in particular as an entry point into reconstructing military careers in fourteenth century England though also by those interested in chivalric mentalities.
Philip Caudrey’s study seeks to approach the material from a somewhat different angle. After summarising the cases (both Lovel v Morley and Grey v Hastings were at least partially proxy contests linked to wider inheritance issues) and their historiography, he considers the apparently well-worn issue of military service from a different angle. Working “downstream” from deponents’ appearance in the records, he seeks to show continuities of military service from the 1380’s through to Henry V’s relaunch of English claims in France. While very few witnesses even in Grey v Hastings (whose testimony focused on the activities of the defendant’s father in the 1370’s and 80’s) were of an age to take up arms in 1415 -Sir Thomas Erpington being a high profile exception- he traces family links forward to the fifteenth century wars. On the way he suggests that the categorisation of military careers sometimes applied, setting “full time” professional soldiers against men who served more intermittently as part of their social status, may not reflect the complexities and sheer happenstance of individual life cycles.
The rest of the book looks at factors determining the choice of witnesses by the various parties. Shared service in a given retinue mattered, and testimony demonstrates the long half-life of retinues which had ceased to exist many years before; the Hastings witnesses, for instance, reflect membership of John of Gaunt’s retinue up to thirty years earlier. So did lordship. Lord Scrope in particular seems to have taken a very active approach to rounding up testimony, using the networking opportunities provided by Gaunt’s retinue to identify useful witnesses spread across England and fielding a distinguished set of supporters including John of Gaunt himself and Geoffrey Chaucer. Scrope, too, was prepared to take the fight into his opponent’s territory by seeking witnesses from Cheshire and Lancashire, though with limited success. Local support, however, was key. In all three cases the witnesses for both parties had a hard regional core; Scrope’s Yorkshire supporters set against Grosvenor’s Lancashire and Cheshire ones, the East Anglian connections mobilised first by Lord Morley and then, almost a generation later, by his step-son Sir Edward Hastings and so on. Caudrey identifies a series of regional chivalric communities, each with its own strong set of traditions, oral history and linkages (which might include non-military figures such as the heads of local religious establishments), developed over generations. For these communities the possession of a given set of arms was simply an unchallenged reality which scarcely needed evidence- which might also involve a selective collective memory about previous arguments over the possession of arms. In the Hastings case, this shaded into a local conviction that Sir Edward was the rightful heir to the Earldom of Pembroke, a position held nowhere else in England. At the risk of serious anachronism, Caudrey’s model looks almost like the forerunner of the regimental traditions of the British army, which create a very strong inter-generational identity from shared experience in good times and bad, sometimes hint that the army would collapse without their unit and can occasionally prefer legend to precise historical accuracy.
Caudrey finds persuasive evidence for the existence of these regional communities. It is hard not to be impressed by the unanimity and determination of Grosvenor’s witnesses in the face of Scrope cross-examination- and the visible discomfort and evasiveness of Cheshire witnesses called by Scrope. Evidence of the Norfolk view on the descent of the Earldom of Pembroke can be found in records not produced for the Court of Chivalry. A sceptic might nevertheless wonder whether these unanimous local communities may in part be an optical illusion created by a careful choice of witnesses designed to persuade the court of the strength and depth of local support for “their” man in a context shaped by the Court of Chivalry’s own focus and priorities. Would these communities be so visible in other contexts or might regional loyalties be overridden by other ones (bonds of common service in a given campaign for instance)? It would also be interesting to know what happened in those communities which found themselves on the losing side of the Court’s verdict. Sir Robert Grosvenor was notoriously reluctant to bow to the ruling against him. Sir Edward Hastings never recovered from losing and spent much of the rest of his life in a debtor’s prison for refusing to pay costs and damages awarded against him. While hard to research, it would be fascinating to see how the cases were remembered in the “losing” communities. The concept of the local chivalric community is one which offers scope for future examination.
Caudrey’s wish to challenge interpretations which detect a decline in chivalric enthusiasm in the late fourteenth century is rather less convincing, at least on the evidence he provides. He disputes Maurice Keen’s contention that witnesses whose service lay in the 1370’s and 80’s showed less chivalric intensity than older ones, arguing that those testifying in Grey v Hastings looking back to that period did so in very similar terms to their predecessors (and, in the small number of individuals who appeared in both Grey v Hastings and the earlier cases, had become more “chivalric” with the passage of time). There is something very human about old soldiers looking back more fondly on their service as time passes- and even in the two cases heard in the 1380’s witnesses were inclined to cherry pick the episodes they remembered (the near-fiasco of the 1359-60 Reims expedition was remembered for the day the English forces drew up outside Paris, not for its sequel). The broader problem is that Court of Chivalry cases are not well designed to catch individuals who never saw service or only did so fleetingly; give or take a number of religious, few “civilians” testified (even Chaucer’s testimony related to his short period of military service). Caudrey’s argument that non-combattants still participated in the regional communities he has identified is therefore hard to demonstrate. Another point which lurks in the background and could usefully have been expanded on in what is a fairly short book is the regional dimension. Caudrey’s suggestion that (to put it more crudely than he does) being an active fighting knight in Norfolk was much more of a lifestyle choice than it was in Cheshire sounds plausible but one would have liked more detailed consideration of the evidence.
Caudrey’s work certainly demonstrates that the Court of Chivalry depositions still offer relatively untapped approaches to military society in late fourteenth century England, ones which one hopes he or others may explore in future.