Swein FitzRobert DE ESSEX
(-Aft 1085)
Roger BIGOD of Earsham
Adelise DE TOSNY
(-Aft 1136)
Robert FitzSwein DE ESSEX, Lord of Rayleigh
(-Abt 1132)
Gunnor BIGOD
(-Bef 1137)
Henry DE ESSEX, Lord of Rayleigh
(-Abt 1170)


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Henry DE ESSEX, Lord of Rayleigh

  • Married:
  • Died: Abt 1170, Reading Abbey, Berkshire, England

  Research Notes:

“Robert de Essex and Gunnora his wife, daughter of Roger Bigod” donated Fremingham church to Thetford priory, Norfolk for the souls of their ancestors and of "their son Henry on his birth-day". A charter of King Henry II confirmed donations to Thetford Priory, including the donation by “Gunnoræ matris Henrici de Exessa”.

Constable 1154. “Henricus de Essexa conestabilis regis” donated “locum in mari super Mereseiam ad faciendam piscariam...sicut...habuerunt tempore Rodberti de Essexa patris mei” to Colchester St. John, by undated charter. Lord of Rayleigh and Haughley. “Henry de Essex, the king’s constable” confirmed his parents’ donation of Fremingham church to Thetford priory, Norfolk for the souls of "Cecily his wife, Henry his son and his other children". The Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond records the trial by combat between "Henry de Essex" and "Robert de Montfort", dated to [1163]. 1


Henry de Essex was a man " held in high esteem amongst the great men of the realm, a man of much account, of noble birth, conspicuous by deeds of arms, the King's standard- bearer, and feared by all on account of his power." Such is the description given by Jocelin of Brakelond in his famous " Chronicle."....

Henry de Essex, son and heir of Robert de Essex, survived him as Baron of Rayleigh. He was a warden of the Cinque Ports and restored Saltwood Castle near Hythe, an ancient edifice stated to be of Roman origin. His mother, named Gunnor, a Bigod by birth, survived her husband. Henry de Essex is represented to-day by the Baroness Berners.

Henry de Essex appears in history as a witness of the Charter of King Stephen (c. A.D. 1140), by which Geoffrey of Mandeville was created first Earl of Essex. Subsequently he witnessed several other Charters of King Stephen, as well as some of those granted by the Empress Maud to the Earls of Oxford and of Essex.

In 1154 he was appointed to the office of Royal Constable or Constabularius Regis, a position of great dignity in the time of Henry I. and his successors ; the Constable was practically a quartermaster-general of the Court and of the army, and generally found with the garrison in the castle or with the army in the field.

Essex also held the important post of Royal Standard- Bearer to King Henry II. a post apparently associated with that of Royal Constable.

In 1156 Essex was entrusted with important judicial duties, while the King was absent on the Continent, and England was left to the management of Earl Robert of Leicester and Richard of Lucy, the judiciars. At this period a general visitation of the country by itinerant justices was introduced, and Essex heard pleas in eight of the Southern Counties, being accompanied in the case of two counties (Essex and Kent) by the Chancellor, Thomas Becket, who for the first time appeared in the character of a judge.

When King Henry undertook his expedition into North Wales in 1157, Essex accompanied the King, and it was during this expedition that took place the dramatic incident at the Battle of Coleshill, so pregnant with his future destiny....

In the following year he again accompanied his sovereign to France and rendered valuable services during the quarrels with the King of France, especially in connection with the expedition against the city of Toulouse, the capture of which would have extended Henry's dominions to the Mediterranean and the Rhone. The city was defended both by the Count of St. Gilles and by his brother-in-law King Louis VII. of France.

King Henry at first contemplated laying siege to the city and was strongly urged in this direction by his Chancellor Thomas and his officers, who pointed out what a splendid opportunity there was of at one blow capturing the city as well as King Louis, Count Raymond Berengar IV. of Barcelona and all their troops. King Henry, however, feeling that such an act would be a breach of the obligations and fealty which he owed to Louis as his suzerain, turned a deaf ear to all appeals, and, accompanied by the King of Scots and all his host, retreated towards his own dominions.

Although Toulouse was abandoned, Henry captured most of the neighbouring country, and would have retained his conquests but for his great barons, who refused to undertake the task of protecting these territories against Raymond and Louis unless the King himself remained to support them. Only two faithful ministers accepted the duty : Thomas the Chancellor and Henry de Essex, the Constable, who rendered distinguished service. Their headquarters were fixed at Cahors whence they put down every attempt at rising against Henry II.'s authority.

Unhappily the great and proud Henry of Essex had a dark side to his nature, which Carlyle has described in his inimitable style :

" Henry Earl of Essex, Standard-bearer of England, had high places and emoluments ; had a haughty high soul, yet with various flaws, or rather with one many-branched flaw and crack, running through the texture of it. For example, did he not treat Gilbert de Cereville in the most shocking manner ? He cast Gilbert into prison ; and, with chains and slow torments, wore the life out of him there. And Gilbert's crime was understood to be only that of innocent Joseph : the Lady Essex was a Potiphar's Wife, and had accused poor Gilbert ! Other cracks, and branches of that widespread flaw in the Standard-bearer's soul we could point out : but indeed the main stem and trunk of all is too visible in this, That he had no right reverence for the Heavenly in Man, that far from showing due reverence to St. Edmund, he did not even show him common justice. While others in the Eastern Counties were adorning and enlarging with rich gifts St. Edmund's resting-place, which had become a city of refuge for many things, this Earl of Essex flatly defrauded him, by violence or quirk of law, of five shillings yearly, and converted said sum to his own poor uses ! Nay, in another case of litigation, the unjust Standard-bearer, for his own profit, asserting that the cause belonged not to St. Edmund's Court, but to his in Lailand Hundred, ' involved us in travellings and innumerable expenses, vexing the servants of St. Edmund for a long tract of time.' In short, he is without reverence for the Heavenly, this Standard-bearer ; reveres only the Earthly, Gold-coined ; and has a most morbid lamentable flaw in the texture of him. It cannot come to good."

Little is known in regard to Essex's family. He appears to have left two sons, Henry and Hugh. The elder of these, Henry of Essex, Junior, was a witness to a Charter granted c. 1156 by Henry II. to Richard Talbot of some land in the Manor of Linton in Herefordshire. Both of these sons were knights.

Few biographical details are known of the second combatant, Robert de Montfort, a kinsman of Henry de Essex and his equal in birth and power. Dugdale speaks of him as "an eminent nobleman."...

In the first year of Henry II. 's reign, he took his uncle Waleran, the Earl of Mellent, at a conference held near Bernay. The next recorded event appears to be the accusation of treachery brought against Henry de Essex at the Battle of Coleshill....

The quarrel between Henry of Essex and Robert of Montfort originated in a famous incident which occurred during Henry II.'s first Welsh war, i.e. A.D. 1157. The English King had for some years been seeking an excuse for interfering in Welsh affairs and eventually found his opportunity in the domestic quarrels of the Welsh princes. Owen Gwyneth, prince of North Wales, had confiscated the estates of his brother Cadwallader and banished him from the country. Thereupon Cadwallader took refuge at the English Court and implored Henry's assistance in the recovery of his lands. Apart from such persuasion Henry was tempted into war both by a desire for glory and by the hope of recovering territories which had formerly been tributary to England....

The invasion of Wales was both by land and sea. The English forces assembled near Chester, on Saltney Marsh, and were joined by Madoc Ap Meredith, prince of Powys, while the Welsh forces under Gwyneth with his three sons were entrenched at Basingwerk. The King, with his youthful daring, set off at once by way of the sea coast, hoping to surprise the Welsh. But Owen's sons were on the watch and suddenly attacked the foe in the narrow passage of Coleshille, where they had secretly hidden a powerful ambuscade. The English, entangled in the woody, marshy ground, were easily routed by the nimble light-armed Welsh. Suddenly a cry was heard " The King is slain," as a result of which Henry of Essex, the hereditary Standard-bearer of England, dropped the Royal Standard and fled in terror. King Henry, however, soon showed himself alive, rallied his troops and cut his way through the ambush with such vigour that Owen judged it prudent to withdraw from Basingwerk, and seek a safer retreat amongst the hills round Snowdon....

Essex appears to have been acquitted by his Sovereign of dishonourable conduct, since he was intrusted with an important command in the subsequent expedition against Toulouse....

The charge of treason which Robert of Montfort brought against Henry of Essex referred to the incident during the battle of Coleshill, which has already been described. King Henry took no notice of the alleged act of treachery at the time, apparently attributing it to sudden terror and not to wilful or criminal misconduct. But so odious an accusation, involving a capital crime, proved too serious to be permanently overlooked, and as each party accused the other, King Henry decreed that the truth must be elucidated by a trial by combat.

On March 31, 1163, King Henry presided over the Curia Regis held at Windsor at which Robert of Montfort formally appealed Henry of Essex of treachery at the battle of Coleshill six years before. In the quaint phraseology of the period hoc offert probare versus eum per corpus suum, "he offers to prove the same by his own body." Essex on the other hand protested his innocence, and hoc offert defender e per corpus suum, "he offers to rebut the charge by his own body." Whereupon consideratum est quod duellum sit inter eos et Henricus del vadium defendendi se et Robertus probandi, "it was decided that there should be a duel between them, and that Henry would give a pledge that he would defend himself and that Robert would prove his charge." Veniant tali die armati, "let them come armed on such a day."

Gloves were then exchanged as a symbol of plighted faith and of the challenge and acceptance, while the parties found " wads " or pledges, i.e. neighbours became bail for their due appearance. This giving of "wads" was described as vadiare bellum, "to wage battle," whence is derived the name " wager of battel " by which the judicial combat was known to English law.

The King appointed that the trial by battle should take place on April 8th at Reading, to which town he himself proceeded, accompanied by the great nobles of the realm.

From all points of the compass flock crowds of sightseers. Some would be lodged at the Hospitium of St. John, some in the humble cottages of Radingia ; others doubtless brought tents and pitched them under the willows bordering the Thames.

Our authority for the duel is the story told by Essex himself in the Abbey of Reading to Abbot Samson of St. Edmundsbury, who doubtless rejoiced in such a tribute to the glorious King and martyr Edmund.

Carlyle retells the tale in a stirring passage and shews how the unjust Standard-Bearer becomes a lamed soul which cannot fight.

" And it came to pass, while Robert de Montfort thundered on him manfully with hard and frequent strokes, and a valiant beginning promised the fruit of victory, Henry of Essex, rather giving way, glanced round on all sides ; and lo, at the rim of the horizon, on the confines of the River and land, he discerned the glorious King and Martyr Edmund, in shining armour, and as if hovering in the air ; looking towards him with severe countenance, nodding his head with a mien and motion of austere anger. At St. Edmund's hand there stood also another Knight, Gilbert de Cereville, whose armour was not so splendid, whose stature was less gigantic ; casting vengeful looks at him. This he seeing with his eyes, remembered that old crime brings new shame. And now wholly desperate, and changing reason into violence, he took the part of one blindly attacking, not skilfully defending. Who while he struck fiercely was more fiercely struck ; and so, in short, fell down vanquished, and it was thought slain. As he lay there for dead, his kinsmen, Magnates of England, besought the King, that the Monks of Reading might have leave to bury him."

Under the care of the monks he recovered and eventually joined that famous community of brethren.

As a result of his defeat Henry of Essex was outlawed and his great fief was added to the Crown demesne....

A SLOW and mournful procession might be seen on the evening of April 8th, 1163, as the wounded and unconscious Essex was borne on his shield from the scene of battle to the famous monastery which the great Henry Beauclerc had founded about forty years ago. Doubtless the King with his nobles, Abbot Roger with his brethren and the victorious Robert of Montfort joined in the procession which wended its way through the River Gateway, past the famous Hospitium and round the North side of the splendid Abbey church which was nearly ready for its " Hallowing " in the following year by Archbishop Becket.

At last the Infirmary, the infirmatorium monachorum, was reached where the precious burden was deposited and entrusted to the Infirmarian. The grievous wounds received from the mighty blows of de Montfort would be carefully dressed with salves made from herbs grown in the adjacent herb-garden. Amid the peaceful surroundings of the Infirmary, Essex doubtless soon regained consciousness. As soon as he had sufficiently recovered from his wounds he was doubtless clothed in the habit and cowl of a monk and entrusted to the master of the novices, who would teach him the practices of the religious life.

At the end of the novitiate, a day was appointed for the taking of vows, after which solemn ceremony the candidate received the kiss of peace as a token of his reception into the full charity of brotherhood.

It was a strange fate that converted the famous Royal Constable, the hereditary Standard-Bearer of England, into one of the brethren of Reading Abbey ! The gleaming helmet, hauberk, lance and shield were exchanged for the black Cluniac robe and cowl, the military pomp and excitement of tournaments and court life for the peaceful, studious life of a monk, the blare of the trumpet for the chants of the choir, the service of the king for the service of the King of kings.... 2

  Marriage Information:

Henry married Cecily.


1 Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, Medlands: Robert FitzSwein.

2 The Trial by Combat of Henry de Essex and Robert de Montfort at Reading Abbey, by Jamieson B. Hurry, M.A., M.D., London, 1919, pp. 7-14, 18-20, 23-24.

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