Norwich's medieval past has thrown up its fair share of characters, but few can have witnessed so much in their lifetime as Sir Thomas Erpingham. He played an active role in some of the key events of his age including one of the most traumatic experiences in the history of the monarchy, as well as one of this country's most famous military victories. In local politics he was an influential figure, and left a lasting impression on the city of Norwich.
Sir Thomas's dual involvement in affairs at a national and regional level represented a continuation of those of his family, albeit in a heightened form. Although there is some confusion about his ancestry, it is clear that Erpingham's immediate family were landholders, with a tradition of royal service and an involvement in local government. In 1380, in his early twenties, Sir Thomas entered service in the Lancastrian household as a retainer for John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, the third surviving son of Edward III and uncle of the ruling monarch, Richard II. The turbulent last decades of the fourteenth century were to provide Erpingham with ample opportunity to gather experience in domestic politics and international warfare. Having completed several sorties to France in his formative years, he quickly found himself appointed to a number of important positions in Norfolk, including the commission to preserve local order after the Peasants Revolt in 1381, and responsibilities for arranging defensive measures against the threat of invasion from across the channel.
Through his military service for John of Gaunt, Erpingham fought for the king against the Scots, and the duke in his personal quest to claim the crown of Castile and Leon. These events however do little to mask the rift that opened up between uncle and nephew. Gaunt had sworn an oath to Richard's father, Prince Edward - the Black Prince, that he would protect his heir, but the king tested his resolve. Question marks arose over Richard's fitness to rule, gravitating around accusations of favouritism, mismanagement of the royal household, and the group of intimate companions upon whose advice Richard tended to act, at the expense of that of his council, and senior royal uncles. As opposition mounted, Sir Thomas became ever more closely associated with the Lancastrian cause. This commitment demonstrated itself definitively when his services were passed down a generation by John to his son, Henry of Bolingbroke.
Bolingbroke and Richard were of a similar age but markedly different in personality. Although at stages the royal cousins had a shared upbringing, the death of the Black Prince, followed quickly by that of Edward III, meant Richard was crowned at the age of just ten. Henry meanwhile completed his education free from the trials of kingship, and this gave Erpingham the opportunity to become as well travelled as anyone during the medieval period; joining him on crusade in the Baltic, and later on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Their journey to the holy land took in some of the great cities of the age: Prague, Vienna and Venice. During the course of these events, Sir Thomas formed a close bond with Henry, being amongst the group of intimates with whom he shared presents at New Year in 1394. Bolingbroke meanwhile had became an accomplished, well rounded individual; charming, intelligent, a champion jouster, and a soldier of prowess, casting into sharp relief the differences between himself and his cousin Richard, who was failing to live up to his predecessor's chivalric and martial reputation. Instead the king was demonstrating his pubescent immaturity on the throne of England, alienating those upon whom the long term security of his reign depended.
Henry's fortunes deteriorated rapidly over the course of the coming years as Richard became increasingly paranoid and sought to further impose his authority. Ironically it was a dispute from which Erpingham was later to profit, which took him to his bleakest point. Amid accusations of treachery and murder, Bolingbroke was challenged to a duel against Thomas Mowbray, the newly made duke of Norfolk. On the day of the event however Richard intervened, and both men were banished from the kingdom, Bolingbroke for ten years, Mowbray for life. Both men were forfeited their lands and inheritance. Henry was forced into exile, willingly accompanied by Sir Thomas.
With nothing to lose, Henry resolved to return to England and claim the throne. Once more he could rely on Erpingham's support. The expedition carried with it mortal danger, the one and only man to remove a king since the reign of William the Conqueror, Roger Mortimer in 1327, had paid for it with his life. For those who went with him, the risks were arguably still greater. Henry commanded considerable popular appeal in England, thousands lined the streets as he left the country, and many influential people shared his sense of injustice. To kill him would be potentially dangerous, but men such as Erpingham were expendable. Ultimately though, through his relationship with Bolingbroke, Sir Thomas was elevated from the cusp of historical obscurity to playing a significant part in two monumental chapters in the history of England. After landing at Ravenspur, at the mouth of the Humber on July 4 1399, Henry and his loyal followers proceeded to tour Lancastrian strongholds, gathering support. Erpingham featured prominently in the eventual capture of Richard, commanding the ambush and guarding him at the Tower of London.
On Tuesday 30 September 1399, Erpingham carried a sword before a new King. Sir Thomas became chamberlain, and was richly rewarded for his services, given custody of Thomas Mowbray's inheritance (temporary but lucrative), and was appointed constable of Dover Castle and warden of the Cinque Ports, as well as gaining lands in Norfolk and Suffolk. Sir Thomas took full advantage of his relationship with the king, to the benefit of Norwich. The city was granted its charter by Henry in 1404, at Erpingham's instigation, thus removing the office of the bailiffs (a role once performed in the city by one of Erpingham's ancestors), and enabling the citizens to elect a mayor and sheriffs. Sir Thomas continued to prosper personally too under Henry, being appointed steward of the royal household and marshal of England at different stages in the early part of his reign. Distinguishing between the gifts bestowed by Henry upon his loyal subjects, and the preferential treatment given by Richard II to his inner circle may be difficult now, and is something that did not go unnoticed by Henry's own critics. Whilst Henry's relations with his loyal Lancastrians were scrutinised, and many forced out of their official posts, Erpingham was personally commended.
The king's unswerving allegiance towards those who had stood by him through thick and thin was reciprocated and this was crucial in providing his reign with much needed stability. Erpingham's governance was also noted in Norwich, during his life he served on every commission of the peace in Norfolk, including as justice of the peace under Richard, Henry IV and Henry V.
Of the two Henrys that Erpingham served it was the second monarch that has been more widely celebrated. However, it was Henry IV's troubled reign that laid the groundwork for Henry V to build his reputation. Sir Thomas represented a vital strain of continuity between the two reigns. After Henry IV succumbed to an illness associated with an acute disfiguring skin disease, his son dismissed almost all the senior officers in the royal household; Erpingham however was reappointed as steward in 1413. By now Sir Thomas was an esteemed figure nationally and an influential local benefactor. Around 1414 a great fire swept through Norwich, and subsequently Erpingham funded the rebuilding of Blackfriars church (now St Andrews Hall), his arms can be found between every window of the clerestory of the nave on the south outside. He had already become a great patron of Norwich Cathedral and the surrounding regions' churches; evidence of Sir Thomas's munificence could be found all over the county.
In 1415, at the age of fifty-eight, Erpingham was among the six thousand men who took to the field of battle against the French at Agincourt. Sir Thomas played a prominent role, as a force outnumbered by at least four (perhaps six) to one, defeated the French army in just four hours. Through Shakespeare's Henry V, and its spirit evoked during the Second World War in Laurence Olivier's film adaptation commissioned by Winston Churchill, the battle has maintained a hold on the imagination through the ages, ranking alongside the Armada and the Battle of Britain in this country's great victories in war. For Erpingham it was perhaps the pinnacle of his military career, a vindication for the leap of faith he took with Bolingbroke in 1399.
For Sir Thomas, the campaign had not begun promisingly, as he was replaced in his role of steward. He nevertheless maintained a prominent position as the most senior officer of the royal household. French chroniclers cite Erpingham as commander of the archers who were so fundamental to the English victory, the paucity of evidence makes his exact role difficult to determine, although there seems little doubt that he exercised decisive leadership as events unfolded. Sir Thomas also brought his own company of men to the battle; nineteen men-at-arms and sixty archers, just one of his contingent died at Agincourt, however a number were killed or invalided home during the course of the campaign.
Agincourt proved something of a fitting swansong for Erpingham's career in royal service. Towards the end of his life he lived almost wholly in Norfolk where he continued to play a central role in the county's affairs, and in the city where he was to leave his lasting architectural legacy, the Erpingham Gate, in Norwich. It is believed that Sir Thomas commissioned the entrance to Cathedral Close in the early 1420s as a conscious personal monument to himself, Agincourt, and the Lancastrian house to which he had devoted his life. He died at the end of the decade and was buried in what was probably a grand tomb in the cathedral. Its location is unknown, the Reformation saw to that, but it is likely that his effigy which now adorns the gate once formed part of the structure, the construction of which was almost certainly begun before he died. Erpingham's preparations for death were by no means entirely self-serving; dying without an heir he bequeathed donations for the benefit of many people in the city among which included the prisoners at the Guildhall and Castle, the patients of St Paul's Hospital and the Great Hospital, and a group of poor scholars at the Cathedral school. He also left money to a host of religious houses.
Shakespeare described Sir Thomas in Henry V as a "good old knight" and in many ways he was the embodiment of the chivalric spirit of the age. The list of achievements Sir Thomas stacked up over the course of his very full life can read like something resembling a medieval hagiography, so perhaps it is as well to point to a few potential obstacles standing in Erpingham's path to sainthood. In 1400 he petitioned Henry IV for Richard to be executed and around the same time a (admittedly French, and pro-Ricardian) chronicler claimed that he used excessive force suppressing an uprising against the new king. Add to that an early documentary account of an assault on a monk, and the evidence points to an altogether more complex individual. Such accusations, true or otherwise, were by no means out of keeping with the context of the period however, and should not tarnish his other accomplishments. Erpingham's contribution to English history is considerable, and to that end he deserves to take his place alongside Robert Walpole, Thomas Paine, Horatio Nelson, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell, as a true Norfolk hero.