This article is from "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford" by Norman Hidden, 2009.
An armed affray at Hungerford The Act Book of the Privy Council provides details of a proceeding held before the Council on 21 November 1441 to investigate the responsibility for an encounter between rival bands of armed men which had taken place at Hungerford in Berkshire earlier that year.
The account consists of the sworn evidence of Sir Philip Chetwynd, leader of one group in this encounter . The encounter seems to have taken place as a result of a long-standing quarrel between Sir William Bonville and Thomas Courtenay, the earl of Devon . The Bonville and Courtenay families were carrying out a series of minor ‘wars’ with each other in their west country domains, principally Somerset and Devon. Although the clash of forces at Hungerford was a result of their personal quarrel, the roaming of armed bands throughout the countryside, wearing the livery of great nobles, in this instance well outside their own local domain, is a vivid illustration of the breakdown of law and order which foreshadows the Wars of the Roses. Behind the families of Bonville and Courtenay, of Devon and Somerset were the even greater grandees of York and Lancaster, whose support the lesser groupings sought assiduously, so that ‘if Courtenay was for Lancaster, then Bonville was for York ’.
What may have made the Hungerford incident so significant and brought it to the attention of the Privy Council was that their ‘war’ was no longer localised in Somerset and Devon, but had been carried half way to London. Chetwynd had set out for London from Bristol with a small armed force; they turned from the Bristol road at the entrance to Hungerford, splashing their way over a ford across the river that is now known as the Dun, and so into the town’s High Street, presumably with the intention of turning eastwards at the road junction of the old market place to take the ancient market road over the open country of Port Down to Newbury via Kintbury. About this point, it would seem, as they moved out of the built-up area of the town, a pursuit force of armed men caught up with them.
The incident is described in Chetwynd’s own words at his appearance before the Privy Council: ‘he late coming from Bristowe at the which tyme cam in his compaigne from Bristowe, William Rogger and Nicholas Hunt merchantz of Bristowe for their more safetee by cause as it was supposed that they brought monie with them. And thei all coming thorough the towne of Hungerford and ryding thorough the water there, come after hem and upon hem an xv persones or mo arrived with jakkes, salades and swerdes demaundyng fearsly from whennes that thei come. and the merchantz answered ‘from Bristowe’. And so answered some of the said Sir Philip’s men, among the which parte was on[e] of Sir Philip’s men demaunded, and he answered ‘from Bristowe’- and the demander seyde ‘nay’ and with that wolde have berefte the said servant of Sir Phillipps of his sword, the which he wolde not suffer him to do. And then the said demander drewe his owne sword and smote at the said servant and cut his jacke and at another stroke glawncing on his hand cutt his glove the which was furred. And then forthwith came in a grete paas out of the said Hungerford a xxx personnes moo of the said demaunders fellowship, so that thei were in all to the number of L persones and questioned hem also from whennes that they cam. and thei said ‘from Bristowe’. So hou be it that some of hem knewe the said Sir Philip suffered hem to goo. But as some seyde thei supposed that the said Sir Philip and hs men had be tovard Boneville. Hit was forthermor demanded by my Lord Chancellor yf that he knewe whoes men and what they were. And the said Sir Philip answered that he knew not whose men thei were
nor what thei were. He said he saw some in the Erle of Somerset’s lyveree. Also he said that some of Hungerford said to oon of the fellowes of the said Sir Philip that thei were towards the Earle of Devon ’.
It would seem that Chetwynd is at pains to give an innocent explanation of the presence of his own band of men at arms by reason that they were escorting some wealthy Bristol merchants, laden with money for London. Highway robbery was a risk of road travel in such times and to provide an armed escort could be presented as a contribution, rather than a threat, to law and order.
Savernake Forest, for instance, stretching on both sides of virtually the whole route of the Bristol road from Marlborough to Hungerford, wasa notorious haunt of highwaymen. It is clear that Chetwynd’s party is armed, but its size is not stated; it seems to have been sufficiently numerous to feel confident of parleying and if necessary engaging with the initial group of fifteen armed men, but not so numerous as to be able to ignore them. The arrival of a third force of some thirty men ‘out of Hungerford’ was too numerous for either party to wish to make a further move.
In his version of events Chetwynd, as one might expect, claims that the first (and it is implied the only) act of physical violence came from the armed pursuit party; and that resulted in negligible injury, a cut glove (but not apparently a cut hand). One feels that Chetwynd may be playing down both the event itself and the responsibility for the attack when he states ‘he knew not whose men thei were nor what thei were’. Pressed by the Lord Chancellor, who was dissatisfied with the vagueness of his answer, Chetwynd hedged: yes, some were thought to be wearing the Earl of Somerset’s livery; but on the other hand some of the Hungerford men had told one of Chetwynd’s servants that the attackers were the Earl of Devonshire’s men (i.e. Courtenay”s).
Chetwynd’s account leaves many questions unanswered. Who were the ‘thirty personnes moo [=more] of the said demaunder’s fellowship’ who came at ‘a great pace’ out of Hungerford and began the questioning of Chetwynd’s party anew? This second group do not seem either so warlike or so united as the first group. Whereas the hostility of the first group is indicated by Chetwynd’s account of their having been equipped with jacks [body armour] and salades [helmets] and armed with swords, he does not present the second group as being armed. Moreover, the second group are not described as having ridden through the town or ‘come after them’ in pursuit.
Instead they are said simply to have come ‘out of Hungerford’. Whereas the armed men had refused to accept that Chetwynd and the merchants had come from Bristol, some in the second group declared that they knew Sir Philip and allowed his party to proceed, though others among them argued that they were Bonville supporters. This division of opinion contrasts vividly with the retainer-like dogmatism of the armed men.
An alternative explanation might be that those ‘out of Hungerford’ were a group of local inhabitants, hastily got together to investigate and possibly mediate between the two parties who had come into conflict within the bounds of the town or its manor. If these late - comers were indeed townsmen, they would be led by the town and manor officials, that is, the town ‘prepositus’, reeve or Constable, and his elected subordinates. As the manor was held of the Duke of Lancaster by Sir Walter Hungerford, these officials would be Hungerford men in a double sense, and they would carry some clout as the local representatives of one of the most powerful men at the court of Henry VI. Sir Walter Hungerford, first baron Hungerford, was a warrior statesman who had a dazzling career: successively, Speaker in the House of Commons, soldier at Agincourt, besieger of Rouen, admiral of the fleet, an executor of Henry V‘s will, steward of the royal household, and treasurer of England. The Hungerford family were notably loyal to the throne as represented by the house of Lancaster. Men from the town of Hungerford would undoubtedly be aware that Sir Walter would not have wished that the power of either Courtenay or Bonville should extend beyond their own regions or that political divisions within the kingdom threatening the royal house of Lancaster should deepen. The local representatives of Sir Walter would be neither particularly for Courtenay nor particularly for Bonville, but would see it as their duty to defuse any such incident which took place within their town or manor.
The continued existence of the armed livery of nobles under a weak monarch provided the basis for the approaching struggle between York and Lancaster. Sir Walter died before it came to the worst, in 1449. The date is coincidental, but significant. ‘For a decade the country had slowly been getting out of hand’, says the editor of the Cambridge Medieval History, ‘by the autumn of 1449 it was ripe for revolution and civil war’.
1 Acts of the Privy Council Vol.5 p.144
2 Ralph A. Griffiths ‘The Reign of King Henry VI‘, London, 1981 p.575
3 Cambridge Medieval History Vol.VIII p.411.
4 Proceedings & Ordinances of the Privy Council 21 Nov. 20 Henry VI