The Fiennes Family, the Hundred Years War & Sir Roger’s Rise to Power

On 5th February 1441 King Henry VI granted Sir Roger Fiennes a licence which allowed him to ‘enclose, crenellate and furnish with towers and battlements his manor of Hurst Monceux co. Sussex’.1 Sir Roger was also given permission to ‘enclose 600 acres of his land’ adjoining the manor. This licence led directly to the castle and the grounds that we can see today. But what do we know of the castle’s owner and builder, Sir Roger Fiennes, who spent vast amounts of money constructing his splendid home in the Sussex countryside?  

The Fiennes family were descendants of the Norman counts of Boulogne and rose to prominence during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), a task which was aided greatly by the fact that Edward I’s second wife, Margaret of France, was a relative of theirs. However, the Fiennes’ French connection did cause problems during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) when the English king declared war on France, claiming the French throne for himself through his mother’s line. The main branch of the Fiennes family supported the cause of the French king while the minor branch supported Edward III’s claim.  

The Hundred Years War was fought almost entirely on French soil with some early English success on the battlefields of Crecy (1436) and Poitiers (1356).2 While the war raged on in France, several successive (and lucrative) marriages enabled the Fiennes family to build up their estates across the country. These included Ascot and Lyneham in Oxfordshire, Compton in Hampshire, Burham and Cudham in Kent and Herstmonceux in Sussex. Herstmonceux was the Fiennes’ most important manor and in 1375, even when the site was largely waterlogged, it was worth £40 a year (approximately £26,000 in today’s money).3  

‘Edward III counting the dead on the Battlefield of Crecy’ in Jean Froissart, Croniques (vol. 1) c. 1410 , available under the Creative Commons Licence).  

Roger Fiennes was born in 1384 and was just 17 when he inherited the Fiennes’ family estates following the death of his father in 1402. He became a royal ward of Sir John Pellam which meant that Pellam could claim the revenues from the Fiennes’ estates until Roger came of age. In 1404 Roger increased his landed holdings further when he received a third of the Say estate. Then in 1407 his maternal grandmother died leaving him the manor at Herstmonceux and property at Wartling next to the Fiennes manor of ‘Old Court’. It was at this point that Roger chose to make his formal proof of age so that he could claim the estates he had inherited during the previous years. However, Roger’s relationship with Sir Pellam continued and in 1408 Pellam gave Roger the £200 he needed to settle a legal dispute with the canons at nearby Michaelham Priory.4  

In 1411 Roger placed his estates into the hands of a group of feoffees led by Pelham and appears to have left the country. It is likely that Roger was in France for the Duke of Clarence’s brutal French campaigns of 1412 which saw the widespread destruction and looting of churches.5 While Roger was abroad, Pelham and his group of feoffees applied for a licence to block off the road leading through Herstmonceux Park. It is this first licence which marks the beginning of the building works which culminated in the fortification of the castle.6  

Henry V’s reign (1413-1422) saw a renewal in fighting on the continent.7 In 1415 Roger served as one of the king’s knights and provided seven men-at-arms and 24 archers for Henry V’s army; he was present at the Battle of Agincourt and took several French prisoners.8 Roger was also involved in Henry V’s second expedition to France in 1417, this time supplying nine lances and 30 archers; he served throughout the conquest of Normandy and was present at the sieges of Louviers and Rouen. When the Norman capital of Caudebec fell in 1419 it was Roger who was empowered by the king to accept its surrender.9 

The Treaty of Troyes in 1420 and its ratification by the French Estates marked one of the high points in the war for the English; with the assistance of Burgundy they held most of northern France and Henry V was accepted as heir to the French throne.10 Roger didn’t return home to England until February 1421 and in April of the same year he was granted the custody of Portchester Castle which allowed him to command the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour.  

‘Battle of Agincourt (1415)’, Biblioteque Nationale de France, available under the Creative Commons Licence.

Following Henry V’s death in 1422, Roger’s annuities and keepership of Portchester Castle were confirmed by the council of the new king, Henry VI. In 1425 Roger returned to France under the command of the Regent John, duke of Bedford. This time he supplied 30 men at arms and archers for the campaign. Roger was back on English soil after just six months but returned to France yet again in 1430 as part of the large entourage that accompanied the young Henry VI to his coronation in France.11 Once more Roger left his English estates in the hands of his friends who managed them for the next two years.12  

The Coronation of Henry VI in France from Français : Enluminure du manuscrit de Jean de Wavrin, Chroniques d’Angleterre, vers 1470-1490, BnF, Manuscrit Français 83, fol. 205, recto. Available under the Creative Commons Licence.  

In the early 1430s Roger continued to add to his landed estates and on 9th April 1439 he became Treasurer of the Royal Household, a position which earned him further wealth and power.13 In 1439-40 Roger also returned to Parliament as Knight of the Shire for Kent. At this Parliament the Commons expressed great concern over the state of the royal household’s finances and Roger received a special commission to investigate the secret export of wool and the evasion of subsidies and customs throughout the country. However, Roger’s own personal finances were in excellent shape, so much so that he spent £3,800 (nearly £2.5 million in today’s money) on creating a sumptuous residence at Herstmonceux with 600 acres of enclosed parkland.  

In June 1441 Roger was awarded the very lucrative post of chief steward of the Duchy of Lancaster in the south for the remainder of his life. He resigned from his post as Treasurer on 12th November 1446 and also from his stewardship with the Duchy of Lancaster in 1447. However, as a mark of special favour he was allowed to continue to receive his stewardship salary.  

Sir Roger’s success on the battlefields of France undoubtedly earned him the respect and recognition he needed to climb to the top of Henry VI’s court. But it wasn’t just playing to the chivalric ideals of the time that allowed the Fiennes family to improve their standing, luck also played an important role. It was the consolidation of the Fiennes’ estates in the early 1400s which gave Roger the wealth and security he needed to ‘enclose, crenellate and fortify with towers and battlements his manor of Hurst Monceux’ which have provided us with the beautiful brick castle that we enjoy today.14  

Dr Claire Kennan, History Lecturer and Research Coordinator at the BISC. 

[1] CCR, 1427-1516, pp. 13-14

[2] Daniel Waley and Peter Denley, Later Medieval Europe 1250-1520 (Pearson, 2001), pp. 134-5. 

[3] Suss. Arch. Colls. iv. 136, 143-9; lviii. 64; CIPM, xv. 108-12; VCH Suss. ix. 139; C137/30/5; CPR, 1401-5, p. 49.

[4] TNA C137/58/24, 64/88; Arch. Cant. xxviii. 228; CCR, 1405-9, pp. 176, 187.

[5] Miri Rubin, The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (2005), p. 213; FIENNES, Sir Roger (1384-1449), of Herstmonceux, Suss. | History of Parliament Online [last accessed 21/10/21]. 

[6] CPR, 1408-13, pp. 284, 454; 1413-16, p. 133; Feudal Aids, vi. 453, 470; TNA E179/189/64.

[7] For more information on how the armies were raised see ‘The English Army in 1415’, Medieval Soldier [last accessed 21/10/21]. 

[8] TNA C64/9, m. 33.

[9] TNA C76/112, m. 16. 

[10] Waley and Denley, Later Medieval Europe, p. 206. 

[11] TNA C64/9, m. 33. 

[12] CPR, 1422-9, pp. 10, 299, 302; 1429-36, p. 56; PPC, iii. 52; CCR, 1429-35, pp. 45-46, 63-64, 69; DKR, xlviii. 237; TNA E101/71/2/817; E404/46/237.

[13] HP, ed. Wedgwood 1439-1509, Reg. p. xlii.

[14] CCR, 1427-1516, p. 13-14

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