Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, 1370-1417

AV 8 Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham.jpg
AV 8 Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham.jpg

Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, 1370-1417

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Known to the world as Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff (most particularly from Henry IV Parts I and II) it is believed Shakespeare originally named the character John Oldcastle, but that a descendant complained at the use of the name and Shakespeare changed it accordingly. The fact that a descendant might have complained is hardly surprising because Oldcastle’s reputation was not good. He was, according to John Bayle, writing in 1544: “. . .that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that grey iniquity . . .”  Whether in fact he was regarded as a baron is a matter of some doubt. Sir John was a Lollard, suspected when it was discovered that a chaplain in a church on his estate was preaching the tenets of Lollardy. Lollardy was a pre-Protestant religious movement from the mid-14th century to the English Reformation initially led by John Wycliffe, a Roman Catholic theologian dismissed from Oxford University in 1381 for criticism of the Roman Catholic Church. The Lollards' demands were primarily for reform of Western Christianity. It became clear Oldcastle was a devotee and he was arrested in 1413, tried and found guilty of heresy for which he would have been executed but for the intervention of the King who put him in the tower for forty days so that he might consider his position. He somehow managed to escape, but was found 4 years later in Wales, brought before Parliament, condemned as an outlawed traitor and a convicted heretic and on the same day 'hung and burnt hanging' at St Giles' Fields, London.

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In 1544 an octavo volume printed in black letter was published, en­ titled: A Brefe Chronycle concernynge the Examinacyon and Death of the Blessed Martyr of Christ Syr John 0ldecastell, The Lorde Cobam, by John Bale. It is not easy to equate the subject of this biography with 'that trunk of humours, that bolting hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, ... that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that fatherly ruffian, that vanity in years ...' who is the Sir John Falstaff of Shakespeare, and who was clearly originally Sir John Oldcastle.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare's character is far better known than Bales', although he is historically fictitious and in no way resembles the actual man. It is as well that Shakespeare changed the name of his character, although, as a leading figure in several of the histories, his original identity cannot but be known. Shakespeare's lampooning of a Lollard martyr certainly seems to indicate where his religious sympathies at one time lay.

The real John Oldcastle was born in about 1370, being the son of John Oldcastle of Almeley in Herefordshire. As Oldcastle is a hamlet of Almeley, the family almost certainly derived their name from the place. His only real claims to historical notice are because of one of his marriages and his religious enthu­siasm, which cost him his life.

His first marriage was to a Welsh girl, Catherine, daughter of Richard ap Jevan. His second marriage, to an unknown woman, is probably a fiction, although it is recorded by John Philipot, who was Somerset Herald from 1624 until his death in 1645, but he was an unreliable genealogist. His last marriage, in 1408, to Joan, daughter and heiress of Sir John de la Pole, by Joan, daughter and heiress of John, 3rd Lord Cobham, is the alliance that enhanced his fortunes. Old Lord Cobham died in the same year and in 1409 Sir John was summoned to Parliament and so is held to have become Lord Cobham or Lord Oldcastle. Whether in fact he was regarded as a baron is a matter of some doubt. In the writs of summons he was simply styled 'Johanni Oldcastell Chlr' (that is, 'chevalier'), but in the final proceedings against him in parliament in 1417 he is called 'Dominum Joh'em Oldcastell, Militem, Dominum de Cobham.' It is arguable that he was known as Lord of Cobham simply because he was the tenant of his wife's estates, but he may have been regarded as a Lord of Parliament.

The first hint of Sir John's heterodox religious views came when one 'Sir John the Chaplain' was found preaching the tenets of Lollardry without a licence in various churches on the Cobham estates. This resulted in these churches being placed under an interdict. It seems probable that Oldcastle was influenced by the Lollards in his native Herefordshire where they were numerous. He was certainly very involved, for although he appears to have been a friend of the king and in his household when he was Prince of Wales, he was arrested under a royal writ in 1413.

He appeared before the Archbishop's court at St Paul's and there produced a written confession of faith. This was a slightly ambiguous document but when urged to define his belief in transubstantiation and auricular confession he would add nothing. When the court reassembled two days later Oldcastle prevaricated no longer and roundly denounced the orthodox beliefs and even went so far as to define anti-Christ, the pope being the head, the prelates the limbs and the friars the tail. He was declared a heretic and handed over to the secular arm for execution. However, even after declaring himself in such an unequivocal manner, the King intervened 'having compassion on the knighthood of the said apostate' and put him in the tower for forty days so that he might consider his position.

With the help of some like-minded friends he managed to escape from the tower and planned a rising in London. The king learnt of his plans and so was able to quell the incipient rebellion, but Oldcastle escaped and was at large until 1417 when he was captured in Wales, brought before Parliament, condemned as an outlawed traitor and a convicted heretic and on the same day 'hung and burnt hanging' at St Giles' Fields. His widow, whose fourth husband Oldcastle had been, stoically married once again.

There is some uncertainty as to Sir John's arms. There is no doubt that he bore a triple-towered castle, nor that he quartered the arms of Cobham to demonstrate his marriage to Joan. The problem is whether the castle should be silver on black, or vice versa. One contemporary source gives one blazon and another, the 'Rouen' roll, gives the other. An early sixteenth century manuscript in the College of Arms gives the arms as shown here in Oldcastle's effigy, a black castle on silver with a golden chain across the port. The Cobham arms are blazoned Gules[1] on a Chevron Or Three Lions rampant Sable, meaning that the lions are black, the chevron gold and the shield red.

Several new features are incorporated in Oldcastle's armour, notably the use of the metal gorget[2] round the neck of the camail[3], with a chin piece, called a beavor[4], fixed to the bascinet[5] but leaving the head free to turn. This arrangement must have been  less comfortable than the camail but on the other hand it afforded greater protection at a particularly vulnerable spot. The purpose of the wreath round the bascinet may have been to support the great helm[6], or it may have been purely decorative, perhaps representing a tournament favour. It is not frequently found encircling the bascinet and in some cases it is so ornate, as in the brass of Sir Thomas de St Quintin at Harpham in Yorkshire, that it is hard to believe it served any useful purpose.

It is not known whether Lord Cobham ever used a crest so he has been given a panache of feathers which he could easily have used, not so much as an official hereditary device, but simply, like an elaborate fan-crest, as a decoration. Oldcastle sports a rather rare piece of armour in the shape of metal plates protecting the back of his knees. The diagonal belt helping to support the sword presages the disappearance of the hip sword belt.

 

[1] Red.

[2] A piece of armour for the throat.

[3] A piece of chain-mail armour attached to the basinet or head-piece and protecting the neck and shoulders.

[4] The lower portion of the face-guard of a helmet, when worn with a visor.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.