Sir Thomas Erpingham: THE RETURN TO ENGLAND


        John of Gaunt died in February 1399 and King Richard seized his estates, which increased the people’s hatred of him and incensed Henry Duke of Lancaster, his son, so that he immediately opposed him. He was openly solicited to expel Richard, with many of the principal towns including Norwich declaring for the Duke.

Erpingham had witnessed on 17 June 1399 a secret treaty of mutual support and defence between Henry and Louis the Duke of Orleans. He returned to England with Henry, landing at Ravenspur with just a few hundred men in July 1399.   They did, however, have the decisive support of the Percys, and the archbishop of Canterbury.   Richard was in Ireland.; Edmund, Duke of York, was Governor of England in his absence. Edmund tried to assemble an army, but no-one wanted to serve against Lancaster. Edmund, with Bishop Despencer of Norwich, Lord Berkeley and others went to meet Richard at Berkeley castle. They were besieged by Henry, and being unable to resist him, came out and were arrested and taken into custody.[1]

Richard, lacking support and betrayed by his friends, was ambushed by a party of the Earl of Northumberland’s men led by Sir Thomas Erpingham, while on his way from Conway to Fife to meet Henry. Richard was consigned to the Tower, in the charge at first of Erpingham, and was persuaded to renounce his claim to the throne. Erpingham was one of the commissioners appointed by the parliament on 29th September to whom Richard II surrendered his crown.   Parliament confirmed the deposition on 1 October, the commissioners taking the news to Richard.

Bolingbroke became Henry IV and had himself crowned; Erpingham carried the king’s sword before him on his procession to Westminster[2]. Erpingham was made Chamberlain and soon after, Warden of the Cinque Ports, in addition to his immediate appointment of Constable of Dover castle, a vital task for the safety of the realm, as France was hostile to Henry.[3]

A minor rebellion by the “duketti” in January 1400 was nipped in the bud by Henry with Erpingham in the forefront of the army. Two of the rebels, Sir Thomas Blount and Sir Benedict Cely, were executed, with Erpingham in charge of what was reported to be a grim and violent affair. He was one of eleven who petitioned the king that Richard should be executed. Richard died after a failed rescue attempt, probably of starvation after hearing of the beheading of the Earls of Salisbury, Gloucester and Huntingdon, in Pontefract Castle the next February (though some reports said that Sir Peter Exton was sent with seven men by Henry to murder him there; and that his body was exhibited at St. Paul’s Cathedral for two days to convince the populace of his death[4]).

Bishop Henry Despencer of Norwich was firmly on Richard’s side; he sent for four or five knights and others when he heard of the attempted rebellion. He claimed later that it was merely to exhort them to be loyal to Henry, but with his past loyalty to Richard that was a bit too much to swallow. Erpingham laid the facts before parliament in 1401, supported by the city of Norwich and many of its important citizens. The bishop backed down and declared his acceptance of God’s will in the new rule. Erpingham is said to have procured the bishop’s release from prison.[5] The king commended Erpingham before parliament for his actions, rebuked the bishop, and then made them shake hands in friendship.   In fact, it seems as though true friendship did develop.

Perhaps Despenser slyly got his own back by making Erpingham build the Erpingham Gate to the cathedral, completed in 1420, “in penance” for his support of Lollardy. Joan Erpingham, his first wife, had been a strong supporter of Wycliffe, and Sir Thomas seems to have been inclined that way himself, and was a friend of Sir John Oldcastle (a noted supporter); though in 1400 he had advocated decisive action against them to the king[6]. Rye says that Erpingham was arrested and committed to prison for his activity in supporting Wycliffe, and that the he was forced to build the gate as atonement and as public recognition of the power and predominance of the church, but this statement seems unsupported by references.[7]

However, the whole story of “penance” seems to have been made up by Blomefield to account for the word “pena” said to be inscribed in many places on the gate; and the kneeling figure of Sir Thomas which was said to be asking for forgiveness.. If this word is indeed Erpingham’s motto “YENK”, the story becomes suspect; more so, because the figure was a later addition, possibly replacing a Trinity[8]. Furthermore, Despencer died in 1406. We do not know when the gateway was begun; but the arms of both Erpingham’s wives appear on the gate, so the decoration at least must have been after 1409, the date of his second marriage.

In 1400 Erpingham was made a Knight of the most noble Order of the Garter (on the death of the Earl of Warwick), and was present with the Duke of Bedford and Humfrey Duke of Gloucester, lieutenants to Henry V at Windsor, at the feast of St George. He was recorded as having attended Garter ceremonials in 1419-21.


In November, 1401 he was selected to accompany Henry’s second son Thomas duke of Clarence to Ireland, as one of his two “wardens” or guardians. They landed in Dublin on 13 November and he remained there until Thomas’s return in Sept. 1403. He appears as a member of the Privy Council in 1403-4, and also remained chamberlain until February 1404, when he became steward of the king’s household; and in October he was appointed as acting Marshall of England – his seal is still extant.

Erpingham’s had his friends Sir Andrew Botiller and Sir Robert Berney as his lieutenant as Constable of Dover castle and Warden of the Cinque Ports; on about six occasions the constable was required to cause the election of two barons to represent the ports in parliaments. Ships which were arrested on suspicion of carrying out illegal trade with the king’s enemies came under his jurisdiction; as were other malefactors[9], and he was instructed to survey the defects in castle and its contents, including the arms and armour[10], and to improve the neglected fortifications of Sandwich when war threatened “as by divers plagues and other losses…the said town is become so empty and weak that the inhabitants are not able to defend it against attacks…[11].” He had to summon the barons to sail with 57 ships, seamen and provisions to Newcastle upon Tyne to support the king’s expedition to Scotland in 1400[12], and the same numbers to Southampton in 1402 “for the safe conduct of his consort Joan daughter of the king of Navarre and duchess of Brittany to his presence for solemnisation of matrimony between them…” Later in June 1402, he had to call “all lieges and allies of the king who feel aggrieved concerning attempts made by land and sea in Picardy and Normandy contrary to the truce made between the late king and the king’s cousin of France…[to] make deposition of their complaints before the king’s commissaries there…”[13] All ships were called to the Isle of Wight for survey by the king’s admiral’s “for the safe guard of the sea and safe passage of the navy of the realm to foreign parts for the vintage…”.[14] He was also concerned with illegal immigration.[15] Erpingham stayed as constable of Dover castle and Warden until February 1409, when Prince Henry replaced him.

On 11 July 1407 he was selected as one of commissioners to treat with France. Negotiations lasted from 25 July to 28th, when an armistice was agreed to last until 8 Sept. A further truce was negotiated with French envoys to England in December, to last three months.

When Henry took war to France, Erpingham crossed to Harfleur with 20 men-at-arms and 60 mounted archers in his retinue, and after assisting with the siege and capture of Harfleur, marched with Henry towards Calais. He was, as other articles herein describe, in command of the English archers at Agincourt on 25 October 1415. and gave the signal for the start of the battle. His nephew and later his heir, Sir William Phelip, then aged about 32 years, was also there; he too was later made a KG, and subsequently Lord Bardolf.

In July 1416, went with John Wakering, bishop of Norwich, and welcomed the Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless, to English territory and thence to Calais and Beauvais to treat with the king of France; this was his last important engagement abroad, although in 1420 there was a “Commission to the king’s brother Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, constable of the Castle of Dover and Warden of the Cinque Ports, and his lieutenant there, to take two ships in the liberty of the Cinque Ports for the passage of the king’s knight Thomas Erpingham and others in his company to the king’s presence in Normandy and deliver them to the Sir Thomas or his deputy before the octaves of Midsummer[16] “. There is no evidence that Sir Thomas undertook this journey.

John Wodehouse, the Bishop of Norwich, and Sir Thomas Erpingham were the three commissioners whom the Lords of the Council sent In 1418 to persuade the gentlemen of the county to go to serve the King with arms and equipment into France, but who returned without success, because “the stoutest men were already in the army, and those that remained claimed poverty or infirmities.”[17]

In 1419 there was a “Commission of array for defence against the king of Castile and Leon, who has prepared a great armada of ships and vessels of Spain with no small number of the king’s enemies and proposes shortly to send it to do harm to the king and his and burn and destroy the ships and shipping of the realm (and especially the king’s ships at Suthampton and Portesmuth (sic)) and invade the realm.” This was repeated in another time of alarm in 1421.[18]


[1] Blomefield.   III, p. 523.

[2] John, T. Sir Thomas Erpingham , pp. 96-108.

[3] C.C.R. 1386-1399 p. 521, 19 August 1398.

[4] Chronique de la traison et mort de Richard Deux, roy Dengleterre, ed. B. Williams, 1846, in English Historical Documents, Vol. IV, 1327-1485, Ed. A.R. Myers, London, 1969.

[5]DNB Suppl. II, 190.

[6]DNB, op. cit., p. 189.

[7] Rye, W. ( 1), p. 1053.

[8] Sims, T.

[9] C.C.R. 1399-1402 pp. 341, 546; C.C.R. 1402-5, pp. 69, 407, 455;   C.C.R. 1405-9 , pp. 6, 27.

[10] C.C.R. 1399-1402, p. 335.

[11] C.C.R. 1402-5, p. 412, (17 Feb. 1405).

[12] C.C.R. 1399-1402, p. 170, (24 July, 1400).

[13] C.C.R. 1399-1402 (March 1402)   pp. 468,   571.

[14] C.C.R. 1402-5 (1403) II, p. 186.

[15] C.C.R. 1402-5 (1402) II p. 33.

[16] C.P.R. 1416-22 11 June,  1420.

[17] Blomefield. II, 547. 1418.  C.P.R. 1416-22, p. 199.

[18] C.P.R. 1416-22, p. 210. (1419).

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