Humphrey de Bohun, 3rd Earl of Hereford and of Essex, 1249-1298

AV 3 Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex.jpg
AV 3 Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex.jpg

Humphrey de Bohun, 3rd Earl of Hereford and of Essex, 1249-1298

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Humphrey de Bohun (1249–1298), inherited the earldoms of Hereford and Essex in 1275 together with possessions in the Welsh Marches from his mother, Eleanor de Braose. His early years were concerned with trying to recover Marcher lands captured by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. This was finally accomplished through Edward I's war in Wales in 1277. He also had a long-lasting private feud with the earl of Gloucester, first over a debt and then over a castle Gloucester started constructing on land De Bohun claimed was his. Eventually King Edward I intervened and ordered the feud to cease.  In 1294 the King of France declared the English Duchy of Aquitaine forfeit. King Edward mobilised and demanded military service from his earls at the parliament in Salisbury in 1297. Together with The Earl Marshal of England, the Earl of Norfolk he refused on the basis that he should not be obliged to serve abroad except in the company of the King. The underlying problem was the heavy taxation demanded by the King for his prosecution of simultaneous wars in Wales and France. Bohun stood with Norfolk and as more barons came to oppose the King another civil war seemed apparent when the Scots inflicted a heavy defeat at Stirling Bridge. With general support to protect the North Edward agreed to confirm Magna Carta in Confirmatio Cantorum (Confirmation of the Charters). The earls consequently consented to serve with the king in Scotland and Bohun fought with the King at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. But suspecting the King was backsliding on his Confirmation he then withdrew forcing the King to terminate the campaign.

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The history of England under the Plantagenet kings is characterized by the violence and frequency of the quarrels between the kings and their feudal lords. Yet to dub it an age of anarchy and chaos would be a superficial and incorrect judgement. The Plantagenet age was the bitter anvil on which the liberties and constitution of our country were forged. Although the barons were generally self-interested in their opposition to the crown, their interests often happened to coincide with one of the basic freedoms dear to every Englishman: freedom from the rule of a despot. The feudal system was often unjust and frequently tyrannical but it preserved the balance of power and from the struggle to achieve this balance came the customs and constitution of the realm.

One of those who played a small but noted part in the constant struggle to ensure that the crown honoured the feudal contract was Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex and Con­ stable of England. He, together with the Marshal, Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, defied King Edward I in open Parliament at Salisbury in 1297 by refusing to serve in Gascony unless Edward himself were present. They were sufficiently powerful to be able to make the proud retort to the king, who bade them go and be hanged, 'By God, Sir King, we will neither go nor hang.' Their defiance was no more than an excuse to revive the baronial opposition and give vent to various personal grudges against the king, but it had the effect of forcing Edward to confirm Magna Carta with its additional clauses and also the Charter of the Forest. The balance, which had been slowly but steadily tipping towards royal despotism, was restored.

Bohun was one of the great marcher lords whose lands lay in South Wales, between those of Clare to the South and Mortimer to the north. He was of noble Norman stock, being descended from a younger branch of the family who held Bohon in the Manche district of Normandy in the twelfth century.

He was born in about 1249 and succeeded his grandfather as Earl of Hereford and Essex and Constable of England in 1275, his father having died some ten years previously. He would seem to have been a difficult man, conscious of his wealth and power and resentful of authority. He fought a private war in the marches against his neighbour, de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and it was some while before the two were solemnly reconciled before the Archbishop of Canterbury and others at Westminster.

Bohun married a second cousin of Queen Eleanor, Maude, daughter of Enguerrande de Fiennes, Seigneur of Fiennes in Guisnes. She and the queen were both great-grandchildren of Alberic II, Count of Dammartin. She probably died before her husband, but there seems to be little truth in the story that he remarried. The earl demonstrated his loyalty to the crown by fighting with Edward at the Battle of Falkirk, where the whole English host was arrayed, and defeated Wallace, driving the Scots from the field. Bohun's arms appear in a roll of arms made on that occasion, which lists all who were present, together with a description of their arms.

The roll first details 'La vaunte garde' and the second shield described is that of 'Humfay de Bown Counte de Hereford, Constable de Engleterre' who bore 'd'azur ou ung ben de d'argent ou vi leonceaux d'or ou deux coutice d'or'. This means that he bore a blue shield on which was a silver band between six gold ramping lions and with two thin gold bands on either side of it. Humphrey died shortly after the battle in December 1298 and was buried at Walden Priory, Essex with his wife. His son and heir, also Humphrey, was present at the siege of Caerlaverock in Yorkshire in 1300 and his arms, which were the same as his father’s, are described in C.W. Scott-Giles’ translation of the armorial poem written to commemorate this event in these words:

'He displayed a silken banner,

blue and deep in tint, which bore,

'With a silver bend gold cottised,

six lioncels[1] rampant or.'

The armour worn by Earl Humphrey in his effigy demonstrates several new and interesting features. From the end of the thirteenth century a piece of body armour known as a coat of plates was worn, with increasing frequency, beneath the hauberk[2]. It was a protective garment consisting of plates fixed to a sort of vest made from leather or material and having a decorated skirt. The shorter surcoat worn by de Bohun gives a glimpse of this skirt and of a garment resembling a frilly petticoat but which in fact is a quilted coat worn beneath the hauberk and called an aketon[3].

The two little wings attached to the shoulder became fashionable at the turn of the thirteenth century. They are called aillets and their purpose would seem to be mainly decorative. Certainly they make a good vehicle for the display of arms and they are frequently used in this way.

Although de Bohun is still wearing his bascinet[4] beneath his coif[5], he rests his head, in a manner often encountered in memorial effigies, on his great helm[6]. The closed helm evolved during the thirteenth century, and the use of a fan crest on a flat-topped helm with a fixed protective face guard, such as that supporting de Bohun's head, belongs to the close of the thirteenth century.

Although King Richard I is shown wearing a fan crest decorated with a lion of England in his second great seal, this fashion does not seem to have persisted and the use of fan crests a hundred years later was a revival. De Bohun might well have had his arms painted on his crest as well as on his aillets at the close of the thirteenth century.

At his feet is the famous Bohun Swan badge. A badge, as distinct from arms, was a device used to mark a man's retainers and pieces of personal property. Badges were also used extensively in decoration.

 

[1] Is a Term in Heraldry for Lions, when there are more than two of them born in any Coat of Arms, and no Ordinary between them.

[2] A piece of defensive armour: originally intended for the defence of the neck and shoulders; but already in 12th and 13th c. developed into a long coat of mail, or military tunic, usually of ring or chain mail, which adapted itself readily to the motions of the body.

[3] A stuffed jacket or jerkin, at first of quilted cotton, worn under the mail.

[4] A small, light, steel headpiece, in shape somewhat globular, terminating in a point raised slightly above the head, and closed in front with a ventail or visor; when used in action without the ventail, as was frequently the case in England, the great ‘helm,’ resting on the shoulders, was worn over it.

[5] A close-fitting skull-cap of iron or steel, or later, of leather, worn under the helmet; the skull-cap of a helmet.

[6] The great helm or heaume, also called pot helm, bucket helm and barrel helm, is a helmet of the High Middle Ages which arose in the late twelfth century in the context of the Crusades and remained in use until the fourteenth century. The barreled style was used by knights in most European armies between about 1220 to 1350 AD and evolved into the frog-mouth helm to be primarily used during jousting contests.