The Bishop of Norwich’s crusade

Flanders, England and the Great Schism

On the 20 September 1378 the College of Cardinals came to the conclusion that their decision to elect Bartolomeo Prignano as Pope Urban VI taken but five months previously was in fact invalid as it had been unduly influenced by the calls of the Roman mob to elect an Italian to the post. The assembled cardinals accordingly chose the Frenchman Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII in his place.

However Urban VI refused to recognise his demotion and thus Christendom had two popes and what became known as the Great Schism. The one Clement VII supported by France and its allies Castile and Scotland the other Urban VI supported by most everybody else. In Flanders this schism highlighted the internal divisions within the region between the Francophile nobility who supported Clement VII and the Anglophile inhabitants of the major commercial towns such as Bruges and Ghent who where Urbanists by conviction.

Flanders was the subject of a power struggle between the towns and Louis of Mâle, Count of Flanders and faced with an open rebellion led by the citizens of Ghent the Count requested assistance from the French. Therefore in the autumn 1382, Charles VI of France came with an army, and defeated and killed the Gentois leader Philip Van Artevelde at the battle of Roosebecque. This French success was a source of discomfort to both Pope Urban and to the English in particular as French influence in Flanders threatened the important trade links between the two countries.

Pope Urban’s crusade

Pope Urban VI therefore conceived of the idea of launching a crusade against the French, with the goal of freeing Flanders from French control and allowing the Flemish to return to their allegiance to Rome. Hence Urban issued a series of papal bulls to promote such a crusade, and in particular to encourage England, as the natural enemy of France to participate.

By one such bull Pope Urban “granted to the king and to his uncles a plain dime to be taken and levied throughout all England, so that Sir Henry Spenser, bishop of Norwich, should be chief captain of all the men of war” with the instruction “to make war against all those that held with pope Clement.” By another he authorised the bishop to sell indulgences to raise further cash to fund the crusade. As one source noted “the bishop had wonderful indulgences … granted to him for the said crusade by Pope Urban VI” which enabled the bishop to promise absolution for “both the living and the dead on whose behalf a sufficient contribution was made”.

The choice of Henry Despenser or ‘Henry Spenser’ as he is sometimes known, was no accident as Henry, a grandson of the younger Hugh Despenser who had been the favourite of Edward II, was very much a fighting bishop. In truth he was really a soldier who had fought for the papacy in Italy and received as his reward the appointment to the see of Norwich. During the Peasants’ Revolt it is said that he had “reduced his diocese to peace … by remorseless executions” and later promised to burn as a heretic any of the followers of John Wyclif who came to preach in his diocese. Just the sort of bishop best suited to lead a military crusade against the pope’s enemies.

Both Parliament and king Richard II were enthusiastic about this crusade; not only was it being directed against the hated French but it was being entirely financed by the tax on the church and the sale of indulgences. Richard II therefore gave his blessing to the planned expedition, his only stipulation being that the crusaders should await the arrival of William Beauchamp before launching offensive operations against the French and their allies. So Henry Despenser sailed from Dover with a force of some 2,000 men and arrived at Calais on the 23rd April 1383 where they arranged lodgings pending the arrival of William Beauchamp. (Who was Captain of Calais and brother of Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick and otherwise engaged on the Scottish border at the time.)

The Bishop of Norwich’s crusade

In fourteenth-century double-speak the Bishop of Norwich’s campaign to Flanders came to be known as a crusade. With the revolt of Ghent against the Count of Flanders in 1383, and punitive action by Count Louis de Malle against the import of English wool into the Flemish cloth-making cities, England’s trade stood to suffer dramatically. Bishop Henry Despenser, who had suppressed the uprising in Norfolk in 1381, came up with another idea of violent action little fitting a bishop: an expedition to the Low Countries with papal sanction. As papal representative in England and Wales, he succeeded in obtaining papal approval and crusading status for the campaign, with all the spiritual and financial support which crusades enjoyed. The aim was to offer succour to the Flemish rebels, and thus to unseat the Count, on whom a Flemish alliance with France depended. And so over autumn and winter 1382–3, after a cross-taking ceremony in London, recruitment began for the army which Despenser was to lead in May 1383 from Sandwich. The army crossed the Channel, soon taking Gravelines and Bourbourg, and then continued further north-east up the Flemish coast. At the siege of Ypres the progress ended, as the force was ill-equipped and suffered disease. With the approach of a French relief force, the bishop called a truce, and withdrew to Calais. Although the young king had not led the expedition, this was undoubtedly a frivolous use of men and funds. If he were to impress and reassure, he would have to do better by leading a successful campaign.

Battle of Dunkirk

The Count of Flanders was naturally much annoyed at the thought of his lands being ravaged by an English army and gathered together a large force of Flemings and Frenchmen and marched on Dunkirk where the Bishop of Norwich and his men were taking a well earned rest after their most recent bout of pillaging. On the 25th May this Franco-Flemish army, numbering some 28,000 appeared near Dunkirk. But despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers they were soon put to flight by Henry Despenser and his allies who took many prisoners and killed some 3,000.

Having defeated this Franco-Flemish army the Gentois then urged Despenser to continue with his campaign of conquest by directing his forces against the town of Ypres. So the bishop now laid siege to Ypres, and made the necessary preparations to capture the town. He constructed “a great siege tower with a trebuchet” together with “a heavy gun called the Canterbury gun” which was directed “against a tower by one of the gates” in an effort to breach the defences, but without success. After eight weeks of effort Despenser suddenly decided to abandon the siege and withdraw to Dunkirk, leaving his Gentois allies to continue the siege on their own.

The reason for this sudden decision soon became apparent as the word spread that Charles VI himself was on his way with “an untold host under arms”. The Bishop of Norwich tried to persuade his men that they should harass the French king’s army by night raids, but found little enthusiasm for the idea so they all pulled back to Gravelines and awaited events.

Sir Thomas Trivet and the surrender of Bourbourg

Thomas Trivet and others were holed up in the town of Bourbourg, whose fortifications he had strengthened by the construction of a fence and ditch. The French soon appeared and set fire to the town but failed to breach the defences. The next day the French invited the defenders to surrender. The offer was haughtily declined by Thomas Trivet but nonetheless negotiations began with the Duke of Brittany (who was also the Earl of Richmond at the time) acting as intermediary. The English eventually agreed to surrender the town on the condition that would be allowed to “leave unharmed with their horses and arms, and other possessions”.

The Chronicle of Henry Knighton present this as an honourable withdrawal since the English were outnumbered by the French and “they could not reasonably expect to beat off or withstand such numbers”. Other sources however reveal that Thomas and the other English commanders were paid a sum not unadjacent to 28,000 francs by the French and were indeed “lured by bribes into surrendering the town to the king of France, taking an oath that they would not bear arms against him until after their actual arrival in England.”

This left the good bishop and his men somewhat isolated at Gravelines. Faced with the surrender of Bourbourg, they too came to an agreement with the French, by which they were given safe conduct to return to England. And return they did leaving the French as effective masters of Flanders for the time being.

After the Crusade

By the end of September 1383 all the crusaders were back in England and to put it mildly Richard II was livid. Not only had the crusade entirely failed to engage the French in battle it had degenerated into a frenzy of looting and pillaging directed against the Flemish and had resulted in the strengthening of French control of Flanders. Not all of this was the fault of the Bishop of Norwich, as once it became apparent that there was easy money to be had, his crusade had become a magnet for “countless persons with neither horses nor weapons who, on learning of the great execution recently done in those parts, had flocked to the bishop, the more eagerly because their motive was profit”

Nevertheless Henry Despenser took much of the blame and the king ordered the temporalities of the see of Norwich to be seized whilst Thomas Trivet and others were arrested and charged with treason. Arraigned before Parliament on the 26th October 1383, the Bishop Despenser blamed his captains for not following orders, they in turn threw themselves on the king’s mercy. In the end the king calmed down, the Bishop got his lands back and the likes of Thomas Trivet were let off with the payment of a 1,400 mark fine.

Meanwhile Charles VI made steady progress in Flanders. He gained control of Damme and executed its leading citizens and the remaining Flemish towns soon surrendered with the notable exception of Ghent. There the citizens appealed to England for help, and Parliament responded by raising the sum of 6,000 marks to pay for a small force of men-at-arms and archers to help them resist the French king. But the Lord Chancellor Michael de la Pole held on to the money until the Gentois were forced to surrender on terms to the French.