Death of Thomas Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel

The English noble and a major figure during the reign of Henry IV died on October 13th 1415.

Mighty subject: effigies of Thomas Fitzalan and his wife Beatrice in the family chapel at Arundel Castle.
Mighty subject: effigies of Thomas Fitzalan and his wife Beatrice in the family chapel at Arundel Castle.

The Fitzalan family were active in the reigns of Richard II and his successor Henry IV. Richard was only 10 when he succeeded to the throne in 1377 on the death of his grandfather, Edward III. His father, the Black Prince, had died the year before and the new king was not in the same league. He proved to be a spendthrift incompetent, whose only lasting contribution to England’s story was the handkerchief.

A council of regency was set up, with Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and Surrey, as a member. The most influential figure in the realm was the king’s uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, who tried to see the country through difficult times. The economy was still suffering as a result of the Black Death, there were persistent threats from the French and some of England’s aristocrats developed misgivings about the boy king. Arundel was so determined an opponent that in 1397 the king had him convicted of treason and beheaded on Tower Hill. He had been known for his piety and a story spread that his headless corpse stood up for just long enough to say the Lord’s Prayer. The family’s titles and estates were confiscated and Arundel’s personal wealth (the equivalent of at least £70 milllion today) was forfeited to the king. 

Arundel’s son and heir, Thomas Fitzalan, was 15 when his father was executed. He was made a ward of the king’s half-brother, the Duke of Exeter, who treated him as a servant with bullying contempt. He particularly remembered having constantly to take Exeter’s dirty boots off for him and clean them. He was a resourceful character, however, and he managed to escape to the Continent and join his uncle, the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury, in Utrecht.

The archbishop, another Thomas Fitzalan, had fallen out with Richard II and been banished from the country. He took young Thomas to Paris to join another of the king’s enemies, John of Gaunt’s son and heir Henry of Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke and Richard were cousins, but he had turned against the king, who banished him from England in 1398. When John of Gaunt died in 1399 Richard seized his estates and disinherited Bolingbroke. 

It proved to be the worst decision of Richard’s life. If Gaunt’s estates could be confiscated, who was safe? He compounded it by going to Ireland to tackle a rebellion there, leaving another of his uncles, Edmund, Duke of York, in charge.  Bolingbroke seized the opportunity to lead a small force to England. The archbishop and young Thomas Fitzalan went with him. They landed on the Yorkshire coast and marched to Cheshire where they were joined by the two most powerful of the country’s northern barons, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland. They were both seasoned warriors and, as other supporters gathered, the Duke of York surrendered the country to them, for which he was handsomely rewarded. 

Richard returned from Ireland to Wales, found himself hopelessly outnumbered and took refuge in Conway Castle, where he soon surrendered to Bolingbroke. A Parliament in London deposed him and Bolingbroke was proclaimed king as Henry IV. Richard was locked up in Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire and died there the following year. He apparently starved to death, whether of his own volition in despair or on Henry’s orders. 

Thomas Fitzalan’s titles and estates in England and Wales were restored to him and he was now Earl of Arundel and one of the country’s most powerful barons, a friend of the new king and an active supporter of the new regime. In 1400 he helped to defeat a rebellion against Henry IV and he reportedly took care to make sure that the Duke of Exeter, his former oppressor who was involved, was executed. He spent years fighting Owen Glendower in Wales and helping Henry IV to cope with other challenges to his authority. Henry organised his 1405 marriage to Beatrice, an illegitimate daughter of the king of Portugal.   

Arundel established a close relationship with Henry’s son, later Henry V, and in 1410 led a force of his own and the prince’s men to join the Burgundian army in the civil war in France. Henry IV died in 1413 and Arundel was appointed to Henry V’s royal council and to various high offices. He led his small army to help intervene in France again, but an attack of dysentery kept him out of the French defeat at Agincourt in 1415 and he returned to England, where he died at Arundel Castle on his birthday a few days later. He was still only 34 years old.

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