Margaret of Anjou - Jacob Abbott

Manners And Customs Of The Time

In the days when Margaret of Anjou lived, the kings, princes, nobles, and knights who flourished in the realms of England and France, though they were, relatively to the mass of the people, far more wealthy, proud, and powerful than their successors are at the present day, still lived in many respects in a very rude and barbarous manner. They enjoyed very few of the benefits and privileges which all classes enjoy in the age in which we live. They had very few books, and very little advantage of instruction to enable them to read those that they had. There were no good roads by which they could travel comfortably from place to place, and no wheeled carriages. They lived in castles, very strongly built indeed, and very grand and picturesque sometimes in external appearance, but very illy furnished and comfortless within. The artisans were skillful in fabricating splendid caparisons for the horses, and costly suits of glittering armor for the men, and the architects could construct grand cathedrals, and ornament them with sculptures and columns which are the wonder of the present age. But in respect to all the ordinary means and appliances of daily life, even the most wealthy and powerful nobles lived in a very barbarous way.

The mass of the common people were held in a state of abject submission to the will of the chieftains, very much in the condition of slaves, being compelled to toil in the cultivation of their masters' lands, or to go out as soldiers to fight in their quarrels, without receiving any compensation. The great ambition of every noble and knight was to have as many of these retainers as possible under his command. The only limit to the number which each chieftain could assemble was his power of feeding them. For in those days men could be more easily found to fight than to engage in any other employment, and there were great numbers always ready to follow any commander who was able to maintain them.

Each great noble lived in state in his castle, like a prince or a petty king. Those of the highest class had their privy councilors, treasurers, marshals, constables, stewards, secretaries, heralds, pursuivants, pages, guards, trumpeters—in short, all the various officers that were to be found in the court of the sovereign. To these were added whole bands of minstrels, mimics, jugglers, tumblers, rope-dancers, and buffoons. Besides these, there was always attached to great each castle a large company of priests and monks, who performed divine service according to the usages of those times, in a gorgeously-decorated chapel built for this purpose within the castle walls.

Thus the whole country was divided, as it were, into a vast number of separate jurisdictions, each with an earl, or a baron, or a duke at the head of it, who ruled with an almost absolute sway in every thing that related to the internal management of his province, while however, he recognized a certain general dominion over all on the part of the king. Such being the state of the case, it is not surprising that the nobles were often powerful enough, as will course of this narrative, to band together and set up and put down kings at their pleasure.

Perhaps the most powerful of all the great nobles who flourished during the time of Margaret of Anjou was the Earl of Warwick. So great was his influence in deciding between the rival claims of different pretenders to the crown, that he is known in history by the title of the King-maker. His wealth was so enormous that it was said that the body of retainers that he maintained amounted sometimes in number to thirty thousand men.

The employments, and even the amusements of these great barons and nobles, were all military. They looked down with great disdain upon all the useful pursuits of art and industry, regarding them as only fit occupations for serfs and slaves. Their business was going to war, either independently against each other, or, under the command of the king, against some common enemy. When they were not engaged in any of these wars they amused themselves and the people of their courts with tournaments, and mock combats and encounters of all kinds, which they arranged in open grounds contiguous to their castles with great pomp and parade.

It could not be expected that such powerful and warlike chieftains as these could be kept much under the control of law by the ordinary machinery of courts of justice. There were, of course, laws and courts of justice in those days, but they were administered chiefly upon the common people, for the repression of common crimes. The nobles, in their quarrels and contentions with each other, were accustomed to settle the questions that arose in other ways. Sometimes they did this by marshaling their troops and fighting each other in regular campaigns, during which they laid siege to castles, and ravaged villages and fields, as in times of public war. Sometimes, when the power of the king was sufficient to prevent such out-breaks as these, the parties to the quarrel were summoned to settle the dispute by single combat in the presence of the king and his court, as well as of a vast multitude of assembled spectators. These single combats were the origin of the modern custom of dueling.

At the present day, the settlement of disputes by a private combat between the parties to it is made a crime by the laws of the land. It is justly considered a barbarous and sense-less practice. The man who provokes another to a duel and then kills him in the fight, instead of acquiring any glory by the deed, has to bear, for the rest of his life, both in his own conscience and in the opinion of mankind, the mark and stain of murder. And when, in defiance of law, and of the opinions and wishes of all good men, any two disputants who have become involved in a quarrel are rendered so desperate by their angry passions as to desire to satisfy them by this mode, they are obliged to resort to all sorts of manúuvres and stratagems to conceal the crime which they are about to commit, and to avoid the interference of their friends or of the officers of the law.

[Illustration] from Margaret of Anjou by Jacob Abbott


In the days, however, of the semi-savage knights and barons who flourished so luxuriantly in the times of which we are writing, the settlement of a dispute by single combat between the two parties to it was an openly recognized and perfectly legitimate mode of arbitration, and the trial of the question was conducted with forms and ceremonies even more strict and more solemn than those which governed the proceedings in regular courts of justice.

The engraving on the preceding page is a sort of rude emblematic representation of such a trial, copied from a drawing in an ancient manuscript. We see the combatants in the foreground, with the judges and spectators behind.

It was to a public and solemn combat of this kind that Richard the Second summoned his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, and his enemy, as related in the last chapter. In that instance the combat was not fought, the king having taken the case into his own hands, and condemned both the parties before the contest was begun. But in multitudes of other cases the trial was carried through to its consummation in the death of one party, and the triumph and acquittal of the other.

Very many detailed and full accounts of these combats have come down to us in the writings of the ancient chroniclers. I will here give a description of one of them, as an example of this mode of trial, which was fought in the public square in front of King Richard the Second's palace, the king himself, all the principal nobles of the court, and a great crowd of other persons being provided with seats around the area as spectators of the fight. The nobles and knights were all dressed in complete armor; and heralds, and squires, and guards were stationed in great numbers to regulate the proceedings. It was on a bright morning in June when the combat was fought, and the whole aspect of the scene was that of a grand and joyful spectacle on a gala day.

It was estimated that more people from the surrounding country came to London on the occasion of this duel than at the time of the coronation of the king. It took place about three years after the coronation.

The parties to the combat were John Anneslie, a knight, and Thomas Katrington, a squire. Anneslie, the knight, was the complainant and the challenger. Katrington, the squire, was the defendant. The circumstances of the case were as follows.

Katrington, the squire, was governor of a castle in Normandy. The castle belonged to a certain English knight who afterward died, and his estate descended to Anneslie, the complainant in this quarrel. If the squire had successfully defended the castle from the French who attacked it, then it would have descended with the other property to Anneslie. But he did not. When the French came and laid siege to the castle, Katrington surrendered it, and so it was lost. He maintained that he had not a sufficient force to defend it, and that he had no alternative but to surrender. Anneslie, on the other hand, alleged that he might have defended it, and that be would have done so if he had been faithful to his trust; but that he had been bribed by the French to give it up. This Katrington denied; so Anneslie, who was very angry at the loss of the castle, challenged him to single combat to try the question.

It is plain that this was a very absurd way of attempting to ascertain whether Katrington had or had not been bribed; but, as the affair had occurred some years before, and in another country, and as, moreover, the giving and receiving of bribes are facts always very difficult to be proved by ordinary evidence, it was decided by the government of the king that this was a proper case for the trial by combat, and both parties were ordered to prepare for the fight. The day, too, was fixed, and the place—the public square opposite the king's palace—was appointed. As the time drew nigh, the whole country for many miles around was excited to the highest pitch of interest and expectation.

At the place where the combat was to be fought a large space was railed in by a very substantial barricade. The barricade was made very strong, so as to resist the utmost possible pressure of the crowd. Elevated seats, commanding a full view of the lists, as the area railed in was called, were erected for the use of the king and the nobles of the court, and all other necessary preparations were made. When the hour arrived on the appointed day, the king and the nobles came in great state and took their places. The whole square, with the exception of the lists and proper avenues of approach, which were kept open by the men-at-arms, had long since, been filled with an immense crowd of people from the surrounding country. At length, after a brief period of expectation, the challenger, Anneslie, was seen coming along one of the approaches, mounted on a horse splendidly caparisoned, and attended by several knights and squires, his friends, all completely armed.

He stopped when he reached the railing and dismounted from his horse. It was against the laws of the combat for either party to enter the lists mounted. If a horse went within the inclosure he was forfeited by that act to a certain public officer called the high constable of England, who was responsible for the regularity and order of the proceedings.

Anneslie, having thus dismounted from his horse with the assistance of his attendants, walked into the lists all armed and equipped for the fight. His squires attended him. He walked there to and fro a few minutes, and then a herald, blowing a trumpet, summoned the accused to appear.

"Thomas Katrington! Thomas Katrington!" he cried out in a loud voice, "come and appear, to save the action for which Sir John Anneslie, knight, hath publicly and by writing appealed thee!"

Three times the herald proclaimed this summons, At the third time Katrington appeared.

He came, as Anneslie had come, mounted upon a war-horse splendidly caparisoned, and with his arms embroidered on the trappings. He was attended by his friends, the representatives of the seconds of the modern duel. The two stopped at the entrance of the lists, and dismounting, passed into the lists on foot. Every body being now intent on the combatants, the horse for the moment was let go, and, being eager to follow his master, he ran up and down along the railing, reaching his head and neck over as far as he could, and trying to get over. At length he was taken and led away; but the lord high constable said at once that he should claim him for having entered the lists.

"At least," said he, "I shall claim his head and neck, and as much of him as was over the railing."

The combatants now stood confronting each other within the lists. A written document was produced, which had been prepared, as was said, by consent of both parties, containing a statement of the charge made against Katrington, namely, that of treason, in having betrayed to the enemy for money a castle intrusted to his charge, and his reply. The herald read this document with a loud voice, in order that all the assembly, or as many as possible, might hear it. As soon as it was read, Katrington began to take exceptions to some passages in it. The Duke of Lancaster, who seemed to preside on the occasion, put an end to his criticisms at once, saying that he had already agreed to the paper, and that now, if he made any difficulty about it, and refused to fight, he should be adjudged guilty of the treason, and should at once be led out to execution.

Katrington then said that he was ready to fight his antagonist, not only on the points raised in the document which had been read, but on any and all other points whatever that might be laid to his charge. He had entire confidence, he said, that the justice of his cause would secure him the victory.

The next proceeding in this strange ceremony was singular enough. It was the solemn administering of an oath to each of the combatants, by which oath they severally swore that the cause in which they were to fight was true, and that they did not deal in any witchcraft or magic art, by which they expected to gain the victory over their adversary; and also, that they had not about their persons any herb or stone, or charm of any kind, by which they hoped to obtain any advantage.

After this oath had been administered, time was allowed for the combatants to say their prayers. This ceremony they performed apparently in a very devout manner, and then the battle began.

The combatants fought first with spears, then with swords, and finally, coming to very close quarters, with daggers. Anneslie seemed to gain the advantage. He succeeded in disarming Katrington of one after another of his weapons, and finally threw him down. When Katrington was down, Anneslie attempted to throw himself upon him, in order to crush him with the weight of his heavy iron armor. But he was exhausted by the heat and by the exertion which he had made, and the perspiration running down from his forehead under his helmet blinded his eyes, so that he could not see exactly where Katrington was, and, instead of falling upon him, he came down upon the ground at a little distance away. Katrington then contrived to make his way to Anneslie and to get upon him, thus pressing him down to the ground with his weight. The combatants lay thus a few minutes locked together on the ground, and struggling with each other as well as their heavy and cumbrous armor would permit, Katrington being all the time uppermost, when the king at length gave orders that the contest should cease and that the men should be separated.

In obedience to these orders, some men came to rescue Anneslie by taking Katrington off from him. But Anneslie begged them not to interfere. And when the men had taken Katrington off, he urged them to place him back upon him again as he was before, for he said he himself was not hurt at all, and he had no doubt that he should gain the victory if they would leave him alone. The men, however, having the king's order for what they were doing, paid no heed to Anneslie's requests, but proceeded to lead Katrington away.

They found that he was so weak and exhausted that he could not stand. They led him to a chair, and then; taking off his helmet, they tried to revive him by bathing his face and giving him some wine.

In the mean time, Anneslie, finding that Katrington was taken away, allowed himself to be lifted up. When set upon his feet, he walked along toward the part of the inclosure which was near the king's seat, and begged the king to allow the combat to proceed. He said he was sure that he should obtain the victory if they would but permit him to continue the combat to the end. Finally the king and nobles gave their consent, and ordered that Anneslie should be placed upon the ground again, and Katrington upon him, in the same position, as nearly as possible, as before.

But on going again to Katrington with a view of executing this decree, they found that he was in such a condition as to preclude the possibility of it. He had fainted and fallen down out of his chair in a deadly swoon. He seemed not to be wounded, but to be utterly exhausted by the heat, the weight of his armor, and the extreme violence of the exertion which he had made. His friends raised him up again, and proceeded to unbuckle and take off his armor. Relieved from this burden, he began to come to himself. He opened his eyes and looked around, staring with a wild, bewildered, and ghastly look, which moved the pity of all the beholders, that is, of all but Anneslie. He, on leaving the king, came to where poor Katrington was sitting, and, full of rage and hate, began to taunt and revile him, calling him traitor, and false, perjured villain, and daring him to come out again into the area and finish the fight.

To this Katrington made no answer, but stared wildly about with a crazed look, as if he did not know where he was or what they were doing to him.

So the farther prosecution of the combat was relinquished. Anneslie was declared the victor, and poor Katrington was deemed to be proved, by his defeat, guilty of the treason which had been charged against him. He was borne away by his friends, and put into his bed. He continued delirious all that night, and the next morning at nine o'clock he died.

Thus was this combat fought, as the ancient historian says, to the great rejoicing of the common people and the discouragement of traitors!