Sussex Fitzalans were proper chips off the old block

The Fitzalan family loomed large in English history from 1244 until Tudor times. As Earl of Arundel, one of them fought with King Edward III at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. But the family was not always in royal favour with two Earls being beheaded.
The Fitzalan family loomed large in English history from 1244 until Tudor times. As Earl of Arundel, one of them fought with King Edward III at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. But the family was not always in royal favour with two Earls being beheaded.

Roger de Montgomery commanded the centre of Duke William’s army at Hastings in October 1066 where he fought with great distinction.

To the victors went the spoils and de Montgomery was created Earl of Arundel.

Nearby Stansted and the surrounding forest became a second home for the Earl, a place where he could hunt and hawk as only aristocrats could in those days. It must have been an attractive retreat for medieval monarchs were frequent visitors. These included England’s three Plantagenet Kings: Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and his younger brother, the infamous King John.

Feasting was a favourite occupation for John and his descent on Stansted would undoubtedly be costly for the household. We know that at Christmas at Winchester in 1206 the sheriff was ordered to supply 1,500 chickens, 5,000 eggs, 20 oxen, 100 pigs and 100 sheep. A heck of a beano!

John’s last visit to Stansted took place half a year before he was compelled to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede in June 1215.

Three decades later in1244 the Arundel mantle passed to the Fitzalan family (often spelt “FitzAlan”). In 1264 Simon de Montfort led a rebellion of discontented Barons against Henry III. John Fitzalan joined the King. That spring saw the Royalist army quartered in St Pancras Priory in Lewes. De Montfort was eager for battle. Early on the morning of 14th May the rebels appeared on the top of the Downs north of the town.

Taken by surprise, the King’s men rushed to battle. Out in front Prince Edward’s cavalry crashed into the left flank of de Montfort’s army and put a force of Londoners to flight. Impetuous Edward followed in hot pursuit.

Back on the battlefield the King fared badly. Struggling uphill, his infantry failed to breach the rebel lines. De Montfort charged and his soldiers sent the royalists reeling back into the town. Soon much of Lewes was ablaze.

By the time Prince Edward returned his father had already surrendered. Among de Montfort’s prisoners was John Fitzalan. De Montfort was magnanimous in victory and spared the King and his nobles. Instead he had the Mise of Lewes drawn up. Like the earlier Magna Carta it sought to limit a monarch’s power.

Simon de Montfort’s generous treatment of Henry was not returned. In August 1265 a resurgent Prince Edward defeated the rebels at Evesham where de Montfort was killed.

Edmund Fitzalan became 9th Earl of Arundel in 1306. He led a politically complicated life coming in and out of Royal favour depending on where his wavering allegiances took him. Eventually his enemies - who included Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, and his mistress, Queen Isabella, the “She-Wolf of France” - gained their revenge when they had Fitzalan beheaded in 1326. The executioner took 22 strokes with a blunt sword to complete his gory task.

Though the nobility were ruthless in dealing with enemies, they could be remarkably forgiving to a bloodline. It was a case of the aristocracy looking after their own. Thus Richard “Copped Hat” Fitzalan became 11th Earl of Arundel in 1331. The Hundred Years War was rumbling on. Richard fought at Crecy in 1346 where the English archers slaughtered the French.

Where does that name “Copped Hat” come from? We don’t know for certain but it could be that he sported a high-crowned, brimless hat that was fashionable at the time.

Richard had a son also called Richard who succeeded him. He was important enough to be the carrier of the crown at Richard II’s coronation in 1377. This FitzAlan proved a masterly sailor, becoming Admiral of England in 1386. The next year he roundly defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet off Margate and accompanied John of Gaunt in a raid on St Malo.

Unfortunately, Richard became inveigled in intrigues against the very King he had helped crown. In 1397 he was arrested, tried as a traitor and promptly beheaded on Tower Hill. Perhaps mindful of his ancestor’s agonizing demise on the block 75 years earlier, Richard implored the axeman: “Torment me not long, strike off my head in one blow.”

The sins of the father were evidently not visited on the son, Thomas, who became Earl of Arundel in 1400. He went into battle alongside Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy and later became a favourite of Henry V who made him Warden of the Cinque Ports and Governor of the Tower of London.

The last Fitzalan to become Earl of Arundel was Henry who was appointed “Marshal of the Field”. He helped capture Boulogne.

Henry was well connected - his godfather was Henry VIII. He served as Lord Chamberlain from 1546 to 1550 but was not without enemies; life in the Tudor court saw endless power struggles that likely provided perverse entertainment for successive monarchs. Think “Blackadder”! In any event in 1551 the Duke of Northumberland conspired to have Henry FitzAlan imprisoned in the Tower for reasons unclear.

Upon his release he exacted revenge by drawing the Duke into a plot to install Lady Jane Grey as Queen for which Northumberland was executed.

At one time, Henry Fitzalan was a suitor for the hand of Good Queen Bess - Elizabeth I. Upon being rejected he resigned all his offices and went to live at Stansted in quietude until he died in 1580.