BOURGCHIER, Sir William (c.1374-1420), of Little Easton, Essex.
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Family and Education
b.c.1374, s. of Sir William Bourgchier (d.1375), yr. s. of Robert, 1st Lord Bourgchier, by Eleanor (1345-97), yr. da. and event. sole h. of Sir John Lovayne (d.1347) of Little Easton and Bildeston, Suff. m. between July 1403 and Feb. 1405, Anne (c.1382-16 Oct. 1438) o. surv. da. and h. of Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, by Eleanor, er. da. and coh. of Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford, Essex and Northampton, wid. of Thomas, 3rd earl of Stafford (d.1392) and of Edmund, 5th earl of Stafford (d.1403), 4s. 1da. Kntd. by Sept. 1396; cr. count of Eu (arr. Dieppe) 10 June 1419.
Commr. to treat for the payment of a fine of £2,000, Essex, Herts. Dec. 1397; of array, Essex Nov. 1403; inquiry, Glos. Jan. 1411 (Kingswood abbey estates), Essex Sept. 1413 (estates late of William Stourton*), Jan. 1414 (lollards); arrest July 1413.
Ambassador to negotiate marriage alliances with Eric IX of Denmark, Sweden and Norway 29 June 1402-15 Jan. 1403, to France 10 Dec. 1414-13 Mar. 1415.
J.p. Essex 13 Feb. 1407-June 1410, 16 Nov. 1413-Dec. 1417.
Constable, Tower of London 26 Nov. 1415-d.
Capt. of Dieppe, 12 Feb. 1419-d.
Serjeant of Mantes and Meulan 15 Apr. 1419-d.
Master of hart hounds to Henry V.
William came of a family with a tradition of public service: his great-grandfather Sir John Bourgchier had been a judge under Edward II, his grandfather Robert, Lord Bourgchier, had been the first layman ever to be appointed chancellor of England (1340-1) and his uncle John, 2nd Lord Bourgchier, had been made a Knight of the Garter for his outstanding achievements in the wars with France. The main line of the family, seated at Halstead in Essex, enjoyed an annual income of some £750, but William’s inheritance, though substantial, was worth much less than that. It was comprised entirely of his mother’s Lovayne estates: the manors of Bildeston, Hopton, Shelland and ‘Lovaynes’ in Drinkstone, Suffolk, together with Little Easton, Broxted and Aythorpe Roding in Essex. Most important was Little Easton which became the seat of this branch of the family. When Bourgchier inherited these properties after his mother’s death in 1397 they were worth about £150 a year, and after his own death they provided his widow with an annual income ranging over the years 1426-38 from £127 to £167.1
Bourgchier and his parents before him were chief lords of the Essex manor of Wix, and as such he had as his feudal tenants Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and (later) Gloucester’s daughter Anne, countess of Stafford. Both persons played roles of major importance in his life. As a young man he entered the duke’s service, and on 6 May 1392 contracted to join the contingent going to Ireland where Gloucester was lieutenant. His wages were paid for three months, but in the event the duke was dismissed from his post and the company never left England. Two years later, however, Bourgchier did visit the province, joining the army for Richard II’s first expedition there, probably as one of Gloucester’s immediate retinue. Not long afterwards he was knighted, and the duke formally retained him for life with an annuity of 50 marks. After his lord’s arrest and murder in 1397 Bourgchier was required to serve on a royal commission to levy £2,000 from the commonalities of Essex and Hertfordshire — in effect a fine for local disaffection shown towards Richard and attachment shown to Gloucester. There can be little doubt where Bourgchier’s own sympathies lay. He was on good terms with the late duke’s adherent, Walter, 4th Lord Fitzwalter, and in 1398 he not only acted as a feoffee of that nobleman’s estates but also accompanied him to Ireland. His whereabouts in the following year are not recorded.2
Henry IV confirmed Bourgchier’s life annuity from the duke of Gloucester in March 1400, undertaking that it should henceforth be paid by the royal Exchequer. Sir William then entered the service of the prince of Wales, Henry of Monmouth, who on 15 Oct. 1401 granted him as his bachelor a yearly rent of 50 marks charged on the lordship of Kirton, Lincolnshire. As a knight of the prince’s chamber Bourgchier evidently soon won his confidence: in May following the young Henry named him among those who were to negotiate for his proposed marriage to Katherine, sister of King Eric of Denmark, and at the same time he was empowered to treat for the marriage of Henry’s own sister Philippa to King Eric himself. Bourgchier was absent in Scandinavia from 29 June until January 1403, having returned home briefly in October for further instructions. Re-joining the prince’s household, from April to July 1403 he received wages of war as serving in the Welsh marches, and it is very likely that he fought at the battle of Shrewsbury. He was to return to that same theatre of war against the Welsh rebels in the following summer.3
In the meantime, in October 1403, Bourgchier had assisted Anne, countess of Stafford (recently made a widow for the second time when Earl Edmund fell at Shrewsbury), to prepare the defences of her castle at Huntington on the Welsh border, and it may well have been then that their clandestine marriage took place. Whether the men of Essex knew about it when they elected him to Parliament later that winter is unclear, but if they did it can only have increased his popularity in the county, for Anne’s father had been well-loved there. The match was a stroke of great good fortune for Bourgchier, and suggests that he was a man of considerable personal charm. The countess Anne was of the highest lineage, being the only surviving child of her husband’s former patron, Thomas of Woodstock, a grand daughter of Edward III and of Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford, the widow of two earls of Stafford, and a cousin of both Henry IV and the prince of Wales. When the marriage was revealed to the King the couple were fined ‘great sums’ payable to him personally in his Chamber (which penalties they were eventually to be pardoned in November 1405). In addition, they had to pay £135 as relief for the moiety of the earldoms of Hereford and Essex which Anne had inherited from her mother, although they were pardoned a further £100 owing for the earldom of Buckingham, which came to her from her father.4 Yet Anne brought with her far more than connexions with royalty; she was the wealthiest heiress of Bourgchier’s day. Through her mother she could lay claim to a moiety of the de Bohun estates (including Pleshey castle in Essex), while two dower portions gave her control over as much as five-ninths of the widespread Stafford inheritance. She held property in 11 English counties, London and Ireland, as well as the important Welsh border lordships of Caldicot, Huntington, Newport and Caus. Between 1405 and 1409 the net receipts from only some of her territorial holdings amounted to not less than £1,306 and to as much as £1,700 a year, while later valuations suggest that, from all her estates, she could expect a gross annual income of about £4,500.5
After his marriage Bourgchier remained in the company of his wife’s cousin Henry of Monmouth, and he was present at the surrender of the Welsh rebels at Aberystwith in September 1407. His wife’s estates on the borders of the principality made this area a matter of personal concern, and not only for fear of incursions from the west; Englishmen like Sir Robert Whitney II* were also capable of fomenting ‘heynouses et horribles riotes et congregacions’ liable to jeopardize the collection of revenues. Bourgchier now took on the trusteeship of manors belonging to other marcher landowners such as Joan, Lady Fitzwalter and Burnell (d.1409); but his interests in Essex were not neglected, and in 1408 he assisted his wife’s grandmother Joan, countess of Hereford, to make a grant to St. Mary’s abbey, Coggeshall. Among the feoffees of his own estates at this time was Nicholas Bubwith, bishop of Bath and Wells. Bourgchier was well placed to secure at the Exchequer, in 1409, a lease of the landed holdings of the alien priories of Panfield, Essex, and Well Hall, Norfolk.6
Henry of Monmouth’s accession to the throne in March 1413 offered an opportunity to Bourgchier to improve his situation still further. In July following he obtained the keeping of the manor and rectory of Felstead, Essex, belonging to Caen abbey, and he was subsequently permitted to deduct his Exchequer annuity of 50 marks from the farm due, at source. In August that year he sent a party of wrestlers to entertain the King at Windsor. He and the countess were now granted royal licence to receive profits from her dower lands in Ireland, notwithstanding the statutes against absentee landlords, and in December 1414 the King gave a favourable hearing to their claim to the lordship of Oakham, Rutland, as being part of Anne’s inheritance from Thomas of Woodstock. They agreed that Edward, duke of York, might continue to hold Oakham for life (as granted to him by the Crown after Woodstock’s murder) and save for the dower portion of Anne’s grandmother it duly fell to them at York’s death in 1415. Among their feoffees in these transactions were Anne’s kinsmen Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, and Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.7 Still retaining Henry V’s confidence, Bourgchier was appointed a member of the embassy which in the winter of 1414-15 was sent to Paris to discuss ‘secretes matires’ with the councillors of Charles VI. He was away for three months, for which he received payment of £100. It is doubtful whether the mission was intended to succeed in its declared intent of finding terms for permanent peace with France, for Henry was determined to launch an invasion of Normandy and preparations for this were well under way when the envoys returned.8 Bourgchier immediately contracted to join the expedition with a large contingent of 30 men-at-arms and 90 archers. On 24 July, the eve of embarkation, the King bequeathed to him in his will one of his best horses. Sir William distinguished himself on campaign, and found mention in contemporary chronicles for his prowess on the field of Agincourt. On the return of the victorious army to England he was promptly appointed for life constable of the Tower of London in the place of the late duke of York, and given charge of the more important prisoners taken in France. In the following year he was able to secure at the Exchequer custody of certain estates in Northamptonshire of the inheritance of his young stepson, Earl Humphrey of Stafford, and also of a wardship in Essex; while yet another mark of royal favour came in the form of nomination as master of the royal hart hounds. When the Emperor Sigismund visited England in the spring of 1416, Bourgchier was a member of the splendidly caparisoned party assigned to greet him at Rochester.9
In 1417 Bourgchier joined Henry V’s second expedition to France as a member of the King’s immediate retinue, and when mustered at Southampton he had a personal following of 39 lances and 125 ‘valets’ in his company. He played an important part in the subsequent conquest of Normandy and in September following, as a reward, he was granted the wardship of the French estates of the Hermanville family (up to the annual value of 420 crowns), together with the Gold Lion Inn in Caen. Through the summer of 1418 and the following winter he helped enforce the sieges of Louviers and Rouen, earning royal thanks early in 1419 when he was not only appointed captain of Dieppe but also received powers to accept the submission of the town and comte of Eu and to appoint officials there. The French count of Eu had been a prisoner in England since Agincourt and in June, faced with this nobleman’s continued refusal to pay homage, the King granted the comte in tail-male to Bourgchier. Eu was one of six comtes allotted by Henry V in this way to his most important supporters. Bourgchier’s stake in the conquered territories was further increased in January 1420 when the Hermanville estates were given to him and his male heirs outright.10
The new count did not long enjoy his success. Aged about 46, he died at Troyes on 28 May 1420. His body was eventually brought back to England for burial in Llanthony priory near Gloucester, a house much favoured by his widow. In 1433 she arranged with her friend the prior for two masses to be said there every day in Bourgchier’s memory, and she also employed two chaplains at Little Easton to pray for his soul.11 The countess never remarried. She faced alone the long and difficult negotiations regarding a new partition of the de Bohun estates between herself and Henry V, her coheir, and then she devoted her energies to the promotion of the interests of her Bourgchier offspring. It was she who arranged the marriages of the eldest, Henry, to Isabel, sister of Richard, duke of York, of her daughter Eleanor to the duke of Norfolk’s heir, and of her son William to the heiress of the Fitzwaryn estates. Furthermore, she was instrumental in fostering the rapid rise of her son Thomas in the Church; before her death and despite his youth he was made bishop of Worcester (1435-43) and he later became bishop of Ely (1443-54), archbishop of Canterbury (1454-86) and a cardinal. Indeed, all four of Bourgchier’s sons were to be prominent figures in national affairs: Henry, count of Eu from his father’s death, acquired the title Lord Bourgchier in 1433 on the death of his kinswoman Elizabeth, Lady Bourgchier, and was created Viscount Bourgchier in 1446 and earl of Essex in 1461 on the accession of his wife’s nephew as Edward IV; William was summoned to Parliament as Lord Fitzwaryn, and John as Lord Berners. Henry and Thomas, in particular, were to play major roles in government under Henry VI and Edward IV, the former as treasurer of the Exchequer and the latter as chancellor. The countess Anne made her will on 16 Oct. 1438 and died the same day.12
Ref Volumes: 1386-1421
Author: L. S. Woodger
- 1. L.S. Woodger, ‘Hen. Bourgchier’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil. thesis, 1974), passim; CP, ii. 248; v. 176-8 (where Sir William’s father is incorrec