Medieval MP of the Month: ‘Please Sir, can I have one more?’ The marriages and murders of the Harcourt brothers of Oxfordshire 

Further tales of murder and scandal from Dr Hannes Kleineke for April’s medieval MP, or rather MPs of the Month. Today we hear of the murderous Harcourt brothers …

Among the most distinguished families in late medieval Oxfordshire, the Harcourts were able to trace their pedigree back at least to the reign of Henry I, and by the end of the 12th century had acquired an estate at Stanton Harcourt that would remain the family seat for more than 500 years. Yet, in the 15th century the family combined distinction with a degree of notoriety. Two brothers, Sir Richard and Sir Robert, both members of the Commons in the reigns of Henry VI and Edward IV, were principally to blame for this state of affairs. The elder, Sir Robert, inherited the family lands while still a minor. He spent time in France fighting in the defence of Henry VI’s continental territories, an activity towards which he may have had a natural disposition, for in keeping with his siblings (another brother, John, a servant of the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, in 1444 had managed to secure a royal pardon for his killing of a Lichfield man) he evidently possessed a violent temperament. 

This came to the fore in an altercation in the streets of Coventry in May 1448, in the course of which Sir Robert, who had been visiting his mother, encountered Sir Humphrey Stafford, a man with whom he had long been at odds. Sir Robert and Sir Humphrey managed to ignore each other, but Stafford’s youthful son, Richard, was less controlled, and he and Sir Robert came to blows. Richard emerged no more than dazed from the knock to his head that Harcourt gave him, presumably with the pommel or flat of his sword, but when he struck back at his assailant with his dagger, he was knifed in the back by one of Harcourt’s retainers. Sir Humphrey, turning back to assist his son, was similarly struck in the back and knocked off his horse, but survived, while in the general melée that followed two Harcourt retainers were killed by Stafford’s men. Attempts to bring Sir Robert to justice for the killing of Richard Stafford came to nothing, and a dramatic attempt at private revenge, in the course of which the Staffords attempted to smoke the Harcourts out of the belfry of their own parish church also had to be abandoned, before the Staffords could lay hands on their prey. Sir Robert Harcourt was to enjoy a successful career for a further 20 years, but the political turmoil of Henry VI’s readeption in 1470 finally gave the Staffords their chance: ‘wyth-in short tyme after here men kylled hym in his owyn place’.

By this time, Robert’s younger brother Richard had also displayed the ruthlessness evident in his siblings. As a younger son, Richard had few prospects of inheritance from his own family. He nevertheless managed to make his fortune by contracting two advantageous marriages. He probably owed the first of these, to Edith, youngest daughter and co-heiress of Thomas St. Clere, to the influence of a patron, William, Lord Lovell. Edith was, it seems, some years her husband’s junior, and although the marriage produced no fewer than five surviving children, by the second half of the 1460s relations between the couple had evidently deteriorated to a dramatic degree.

It was thus that in March 1467 Harcourt applied to the papal penitentiary (the official responsible among other things for issuing dispensations for marriages that were technically prohibited by the laws of the Church) in dramatic terms. He stated that he had in the recent past suspected his wife of adultery, and consequently had her and one of his household servants called William (presumably the lady’s suspected lover) killed. Since this had left him without a wife, he asked to be absolved from the crime of murder, and to be granted dispensation to marry again.

It seems that Harcourt already had a new bride in mind, for within the year he was married to Katherine de la Pole, a close relative of the duke of Suffolk, John de la Pole, who had married the King’s own sister.  Katherine was, in addition, a widow, and brought her new husband a very substantial jointure of lands from her first husband, Sir Miles Stapleton. Richard was thus able to enjoy a position of some prominence, and became an important servant in his locality to both Edward IV and Richard III. He lived to a ripe old age, and this probably saved his life in 1485, when he may simply have been too elderly to join his King at the battle of Bosworth, for he was to die of natural causes in the autumn of 1486.  

HK

Click here for the rest of the series ‘Medieval MP of the Month’ – this series is a precursor to our forthcoming medieval volumes about the House of Commons 1422-61, which will be available later this year.

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