Chris Upton tells the story Sir William Bagot, whose loyalty to a duke the night before a duel was ultimately repaid.
It is one of the great scenes of Shakespeare, a piece of medieval pageantry to undermine the budget of all but the largest company (unless they go for 20th-century dress and cut out the glamour).
In the second scene of Richard II the dukes of Norfolk and Hereford – Sir Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke – meet before the king to vindicate, by force of arms, their mutual accusations of treason. There is much throwing down of words and gages in the first scene; now the two men must prove their accusations at the point of a lance.
It always comes as a bit of a disappointment, even if you know the plot, that the fight doesn’t actually happen. At the moment of impact, King Richard bottles it, drops his handkerchief and calls off the duel.
For that our kingdom’s earth should not be soiled
With that dear blood which it hath fostered...
Instead he sentences Hereford to banishment from the kingdom for ten years, and Mowbray to exile for life.
It turns out to be Richard’s biggest single mistake in a play littered with them. Within a year Bolingbroke has returned and amassed forces to seize the throne.
The reign of the Plantagenets is over and the age of Lancaster begins. The duel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke marks, as it were, the end of the age of medieval chivalry – a new and darker time has arrived.
The events of this day – St Lambert’s Day in September 1398 – took place in and around the city of Coventry. The place where Mowbray and Bolingbroke met for their trial by combat was Gosford Green, now a triangle of parkland to the east of the city centre.
On the night before the battle, the Duke of Norfolk rested at his castle at Caludon, the ruins of which can still be seen today in Caludon Park at Wyken.
As for the Duke of Hereford, he spent the night before the duel at the home of his friend, Sir William Bagot, at nearby Baginton.
I spoke of Bagot’s Castle last week. Its sad remains belie the pageantry and vaunting ambition once associated with the place. For a sense of that you need to walk 200 yards or so from the castle ruins to the ancient church of St John the Baptist, past which Henry Bolingbroke must have ridden on his way to Gosford Green, “mounted on a white courser, barbed with green and blue velvet, embroidered sumptuously with swans and antelopes of goldmith’s work”, as Holinshed described it.
It’s a tiny church of sandstone, mostly Early English in style, and dating from the beginning of the 13th century. There are the remains of wall paintings inside, and a few monuments to the former owners of the manor of Baginton, including one who was Speaker of the House of Commons.
But what is truly striking is the large 15th century brass now suspended on the south wall.
A century ago it was fixed to a tomb, but moved to protect it. It’s too high up, to be honest, out of the reach of brass-rubbers and careless feet, but too high for close examination either. Nevertheless, the brass dominates the humble little church.
Here is Sir William Bagot in all his finery, together with his wife, Lady Margaret. He in pointed basinet and chain mail, a lion at his feet and dagger and sword hanging from his belt. She in a fur-lined mantle, her head resting on a cushion and two lap-dogs at her feet. It is, without doubt, one of the finest medieval brasses in Warwickshire.
The brass does justice to one of the leading figures at Richard II’s court. Bagot appears in Shakespeare’s play as one of the king’s favourites, though here misnamed John Bagot.
The Tudor playwrights were not good with the man from Baginton. He also features in the anonymous play, Thomas of Woodstock, where he is christened Edward.
A favourite of Richard’s, Bagot was, in reality, closer to Bolingroke, and no doubt entertained him as lavishly as the occasion demanded on that September evening in 1398. It was not a night for a big party, given the circumstances. Come Bolingbroke’s exile, however, royal favour deserted him. Bagot was, for a time, imprisoned in the Tower and his possessions confiscated. He narrowly, and inexplicably, escaped execution.
Come Bolingbroke’s return, and his accession as Henry IV, the star of his former friend rose once more. The manors and castle were handed back. It was not, it has to be said, an easy relationship. Mutual suspicions went deep in the troubled years of Henry’s reign, and for a time Bagot was even sent to prison by the new king.
Ultimately Henry IV must have felt that he could rely on Bagot’s loyalty, for, after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, he entrusted him with the safekeeping of the Earl of Northumberland, taken captive at the battle. Bagot secured the earl for six months in his castle at Baginton.
If the ruins of Bagot’s Castle no longer look like the kind of place to entertain earls and knights and a future king of England, the brass in the church helps to recover something of that lost world. Here is Sir William Bagot, forever frozen in aspiration, pride and military ardour, the favourite of two kings, plotter and genteel host, royal servant and warlike knight.
Just don’t call him John or Edward.