Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Fine and Terrible Mystery - Episode 9: The Attack in the Coombe Abbey Woods

This is episode 9 in a series of posts researching the mystery of the dramatic life of Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur.  Episode 1 can be found here.

The winter of 1449-1450 was brutal.  It came early, in October, bringing heavy snows and killing the olive trees in France.  Three days after the new year, Sir Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Constable of England, Knight of the Garter and his retinue were riding through the Coombe Abbey woods when they were set upon and ambushed by twenty-six men armed with long bows, cross bows, spears and swords.  The attackers were “jacketed,” (presumably wearing brigandines or gambesons) and wore helmets.  Even today the woods are close and if they were the same in the snowy January of 1450, they would have been treacherous.  The attackers’ goal was to murder the Duke, the plan simply to shoot him down on the path as he rode by.  It was unlikely to fail.

Yet, by miracle the Duke and his followers escaped totally unharmed.  Perhaps, the woods had been cleared to either side at that place to prevent just such attacks, as some statutes required , although why then would the attackers have chosen that place?  Perhaps, the attackers were simply incompetent although at least one of their number, their leader,  probably was not.  He was a veteran of the French wars and a knight in his late forties, Sir Thomas Malory.

What is stranger still is what happened immediately after:  nothing.  Eighteen days later, both the Duke of Buckingham and Sir Thomas Malory, who’d attacked him, sat in Parliament.  There is no record of either speaking or acting on the attack at that time.  This is particularly surprising in the context of what had happened nineteen months before.  The same Duke of Buckingham and his son Richard, in Coventry for the Mystery Plays, had encountered Sir Robert Harcourt and his followers in the street.  They had argued and come to blows.  Buckingham’s son Richard was knifed in the back and killed by one of Harcourt’s servants, John Aleyn.  Harcourt, Aleyn and several others were indicted that same day.

Is it possible the attack by Malory and 26 others never happened?  Why would a modest middle-aged Warwickshire knight stage a surprise attack on one of the most powerful magnates in the land who, by the way, often traveled with a retinue four times his accused attacker’s numbers?  Why was Buckingham riding through the Coombe Abbey woods in dead of winter?  Whether or not the attack occurred, Malory’s indictment for the incident 15 month later is the beginning of his great legal troubles which led to his imprisonment.

Christina Hardyment in The Knight Who Became King Arthur’s Chronicler offers a third possibility.  Buckingham had a history of using brute force as well as politics to extend his power in Warwickshire.  For example, on September 23, 1449, the day elections were announced, eighty of his men assaulted Thomas Ferrers of Groby and attempted to break into his castle to get at Ferrers’ father, the Sheriff of Staffordshire and it worked:  two of his supporters were subsequently elected for Staffordshire.  Was Buckingham attempting a similar intimidation of a minor knight in Warwickshire on that January 4th when he encountered surprising, organized resistance that forced him to back down and, consequently, possibly loose face?

You can find episode 10 here.

(Details of the winter of 1449-1450 are from Des Changements dans le Climat de la France, Histoire de ses Révolutions Météorologiques, Paris, 1845 by Joseph-Jean-Nicolas Fuster)

(Orson Wells as Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight”)

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