BERNEY, Sir Robert (bef.1365-1415), of Great Witchingham and Gunton, Norf.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Nov. 1390
Apr. 1414

Family and Education

b. bef. 1365, s. of John Berney† (d.1374), of Great Witchingham by his 2nd w. Joan, ?da. of Bartholomew Witchingham. m. (1) bet. June 1382, Margaret, da. and coh. of Sir Walter Walcot† of Gunton, 1s.; (2) aft. 1401, Margaret (d. Sept. 1416), ?da. of — Appleyard, of Norwich, wid. of Roger Welsham (d.1401), of Runhall, Norf., 1s. 1da. Kntd. bet. Mar. 1389.

Offices Held

Commr. of array, Norf. Apr. 1385, Mar. 1392, Dec. 1399, Kent Aug., Nov. 1403, July 1405; inquiry, Norf. Feb. 1395 (petition from the men of the hundred of Mitford), Apr. 1409 (assault); gaol delivery, Norwich castle Nov. 1396; to hold special assizes, Norf. Feb. 1397; supervise musters, Kent Apr., May 1405.

J.p. Norf. 10 Nov. 1389-July 1397, 28 Nov. 1399-Mar. 1401, 10 Mar. 1410-d., Kent 18 May 1400-Feb. 1406.

Steward of the duchy of Lancaster manor of Gimingham, Norf. Mich. 1398-9.1

Dep. to Sir Thomas Erpingham as constable of Dover castle and warden of the Cinque Ports c. May 1400-aft. Mar. 1406.

Escheator, Kent and Mdx. 12 Nov. 1403-1 Feb. 1404.

Sheriff, Norf. and Suff. 5 Nov. 1406-30 Nov. 1407, 29 Nov. 1410-10 Dec. 1411.


Berney’s father John founded the fortunes of his family through a successful legal practice based in Norwich and by serving the Black Prince as steward of his estates in Norfolk. John was elected knight of the shire for Norfolk four times between 1346 and 1368, and in the course of his career he acquired a number of landed holdings in the county. These, following his death in 1374, were divided between his sons by his first two wives, Sarah and Joan: it was from the elder, Sir Thomas Berney (d.1389), that the Reedham branch of the family subsequently descended; while the younger, Robert, inherited his parents’ manors in Great Witchingham and Fishley as well as the large house known as ‘Berney’s Inn’ in Norwich. In his father’s will Robert was left several bequests, including livestock, farm equipment, beds, pieces of silverware, the sum of £20 and certain family heirlooms, which last were to come into his possession only after the death of his stepmother Katherine.2 Robert increased his landed holdings in Norfolk through his first marriage, to Margaret Walcot. He and his wife apparently sold their interest in ‘Walcotes’ in Little Snoring in 1382, but after reaching an agreement with Margaret’s sister, Katherine, and her husband, John Doreward* of Bocking, they secured possession of the whole manor of Gunton, lying five miles south of Cromer. This settlement of the Walcot estates was to be confirmed in 1403 after the deaths of both women, Doreward then promising that Berney and his heirs would be compensated with an annual rent of 20 marks levied on his own lands in Essex in the event of their tenure of Gunton ever being called into question at law.3

Gunton bordered on the manor of Erpingham, the home of Sir Thomas Erpingham, whose friendship was to have a profound effect on Berney’s career. Together with Sir Thomas, he became a member of the retinue of John of Gaunt, and in June 1385 they were both discharged from the commission of array in Norfolk to which they had recently been appointed, on the ground that they were then marching to Scotland under the duke’s banner in the royal army. Berney probably won his spurs either on that campaign or in Lancaster’s service in Spain in the course of the next two years. Indeed, he may well have become (as Blomefield described him) one of the duke’s knights bachelor. Not long after Lancaster’s return to England Berney was appointed as a j.p. in Norfolk, and he soon became a prominent figure in the local community. When attending his first Parliament in 1390 he acted on behalf of the citizens of Norwich in their bid to secure the return of the wool staple to the city, and was given £2 for his assistance. Two years later he witnessed an important grant of liberties made by Bishop Despenser to the burgesses of Bishop’s Lynn; in 1397 or 1398 he was among the notables of the shire entertained to a breakfast held ‘for the honour of the city’ of Norwich, and in September 1398 he was one of the four knights who presented a petition to Richard II on behalf of the citizens.4

When returned to his first three Parliaments, Berney may have been receiving retaining fees not only from John of Gaunt but also from Richard, earl of Arundel. Some time between 1388 and 1396 the earl named him as a trustee of the reversion of the manor of Kenninghall (Norfolk) which his daughter, Elizabeth, wife of Thomas Mowbray, the Earl Marshal, then held for life; and in July 1396 he was among the feoffees of extensive Fitzalan estates to which Arundel’s niece Philippa, widow of Sir Richard Cergeaux*, formally surrendered all claim. This association with Richard II’s enemy no doubt accounts for Berney’s removal from the Norfolk bench in July 1397 at the time of Arundel’s arrest, and also for his purchase of a royal pardon in the following year. When, in October 1398, Sir Thomas Erpingham left England for exile in the company of Henry of Bolingbroke, Berney was among those whom he asked to administer his lands during his absence. Berney did not lack for influential contacts at Richard II’s court — in the spring of 1399 he agreed to act as attorney at home for his own near neighbour at Felbrigg, the King’s standard-bearer Sir Simon Felbrigg KG, then about to embark for Ireland. Yet his connexions with the Fitzalans, with the house of Lancaster and with Erpingham must all have predisposed him to welcome Richard’s deposition.5

Berney was returned to the Parliament which acclaimed Henry of Bolingbroke as King, and as a Member of the Commons he subsequently participated in the election of his wife’s brother-in-law, John Doreward, as Speaker. The two were to remain on good terms, Berney later acting as a feoffee of Doreward’s estates, and the Speaker’s rise to prominence as a member of the new King’s council may have helped to further his friend’s career. Shortly after the Parliament was dissolved, Sir Robert resumed his place on the Norfolk bench. Whether by grant of the King’s father or the King himself, within a few months of Henry’s accession Berney was in receipt of a life-annuity of £20 charged on the duchy of Lancaster manor of Aylsham (Norfolk). Sir Thomas Erpingham had been rewarded for his loyalty with the prestigious posts of constable of Dover castle and warden of the Cinque Ports, and in the spring of 1400 he called his neighbour Berney to Kent to act as his deputy. During his term of office, which lasted about six years, Berney served on a number of commissions in Kent, including that of the peace, and he also performed the duties of escheator there. Absences from Norfolk did not, however, prevent the shire court in September 1402 from returning him to Parliament once again. As deputy warden, Berney himself officiated at the elections held in the Cinque Ports for the Parliament of 1406, only to be replaced in that office by Sir Andrew Butler* (husband of Erpingham’s niece) before the end of the year.6Thereafter Berney devoted his energies to East Anglian affairs. As sheriff in the joint bailiwick of Norfolk and Suffolk he made the returns for both shires to the Parliaments of 1407 and 1411, and he was present in his personal capacity at the shire court at Norwich for the elections of 1410 and 1414 (Nov.). Meanwhile, in March 1413, shortly before the death of Henry IV, he had joined a syndicate of prominent local notables headed by Erpingham, who purchased from the Crown a number of properties in the region. On 2 Sept. following Henry V doubled Berney’s annuity, so that in the last years of his life he received £40 annually.7

Most of Berney’s friends showed a similar attachment to the house of Lancaster and, like him, benefited from close association with the influential Sir Thomas Erpingham. There were special ties between the Berneys and the Wynters of Barningham: William Wynter had acted as an executor of Sir Robert Berney’s father, and Berney himself had been chosen as an overseer of the will Wynter made in 1397. Subsequently, he served as a feoffee of the estates of Wynter’s son John*, the receiver-general of Henry of Monmouth, and on one occasion he stood surety on behalf of John and his wife at the Exchequer. John Gurney, Berney’s fellow shire knight of 1399 and his co-trustee of Erpingham’s lands, was another of that closely-knit group; and he called on Berney’s assistance in transactions regarding his manor in Saxthorpe, which after his death was to be sold to John Wynter. The frequent linking of Berney’s name with Erpingham’s suggests that they long remained on friendly terms; and, in 1407, for instance, Berney helped Sir Thomas to purchase the manor of Blickling (Norfolk).8 It was to Erpingham, too, that Berney chose to sell the family house in Norwich in 1409. He had always retained an interest in the affairs of the city: in the previous year he had offered the citizens advice in their disputes with the abbot of Bury St. Edmunds and with the constable of Norwich castle, John Reymes*, and in 1410 he was to give them active support in their bid for privileges in the trade in worsted. On occasion he adopted the role of peacemaker: in April 1411 he was present when Archbishop Arundel adjudicated in the dispute between Bishop Tottington and the prior and chapter of the cathedral church of Norwich, and three years later he played an important part as a mediator between contending factions in the city, being one of those responsible for the concord eventually drawn up in February 1415.9

Although probably aged well over 50, Berney nevertheless enlisted for military service in the retinue of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, for Henry V’s first invasion of France. On 24 June 1415, not long before embarkation, he made his will. His express desire was to be buried under the paving stones of St. Anne’s (or ‘Barney’s’) chapel in Norwich cathedral, near the graves of his parents. Bequests were made to the churches at Witchingham, Gunton and Alderford; each house of friars in Norwich was to have 20s.; and smaller sums were donated to the local hospitals of St. Paul’s and St. Giles’s as well as to the lepers at the city gates. Sufficient money was provided to keep two sick men in food and clothing for a year. Berney gave his executors (who included his wife Margaret and son John) strict instructions not to be extravagant on the day of his funeral, but instead to give what money they had to spare in alms. It seems likely that he died on campaign in Normandy, for the will was proved on 14 Nov. that year. Berney’s widow, who made her own will on 8 Sept. 1416 and died before the 25th, elected to be buried in Runhall church next to her first husband.10

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: L. S. Woodger


  • 1. S.K. Walker, ‘John of Gaunt and his retainers, 1361-99’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil. thesis, 1986), 293 (taken from DL 29/289/4744 m. 4).
  • 2. Reg. Black Prince, iv. 261, 263, 532; F. Blomefield, Norf. iv. 38; viii. 306; xi. 123-4; Norf. RO, Reg. Heydon, ff. 42-43; Reg. Harsyk, f. 114.
  • 3. Blomefield, viii. 120; Feudal Aids, iii. 616; CP25(1)168/177/82, 83; Harl. Chs. 46D 8a, 49G 45, 49I 29; CCR, 1402-5, pp. 139, 145.
  • 4. Blomefield, viii. 306; CCR, 1381-5, p. 557; 1385-9, pp. 670-1; Recs. Norwich ed. Hudson and Tingey, ii. 41, 50, 51; CPR, 1391-6, p. 148.
  • 5. CCR, 1396-9, pp. 72, 84, 399; 1422-9, p. 221; C67/30 m. 17; CPR, 1396-9, p. 554.
  • 6. DL29/738/12098; DL42/15, ff. 178, 186d; CCR, 1399-1402, pp. 170-1; 1422-9, p. 160; C219/10/3.
  • 7. C219/10/4-6, 11/4; CPR, 1408-13, p. 469; DL42/17, f. 26.
  • 8. Norf. RO, Reg. Harsyk, f. 240; HMC Lothian, 53; CFR, xiii. 101; CCR, 1399-1402, p. 392; 1405-9, pp. 279, 524; 1409-13, pp. 225, 226, 229, 234.
  • 9. Norwich Recs. ii. 56, 57, 59, 60; Blomefield, iii. 126; Norf. Arch. vi. 144; E.H. Carter, Norwich Cathedral Hist, 58.
  • 10. E101/45/13; Reg. Chichele, iii. 409-10; Norf. RO, Reg. Hyrning, f. 5.