A bad day’s hunting: one of Essex’s ‘ancientist’ families and the death of a king

In August 918 years ago, the king of England died in suspicious circumstances. Here, our medieval specialist Katharine Schofield discusses what may or may not have happened that day, and the Essex connections of the man rumoured to have killed the king.

On 2 August 1100 William II was killed while hunting in the New Forest. William (also known as William Rufus) was the son of William the Conqueror, and had inherited the kingdom of England on the death of his father in 1087.

William II of England.jpg

William II drawn by Matthew Paris

The earliest account of his death in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that he was shot by an arrow by one of his men. Later chroniclers named Walter Tirel as the man who fired the fatal shot. Opinions vary as to whether Rufus met his death by accident or design.

Tirel was a renowned bowman; one account of William’s death records that at the start of the day’s hunting the king was presented with six arrows, two of which he gave to Tirel with the words Bon archer, bonnes fleches [To the good archer, the good arrows].

Other chroniclers record that Tirel let off a wild shot at a stag which he missed, hitting the king instead. Tirel took no chances and fled to France, according to legend having the horseshoes of his horse reversed to throw off any pursuit. In France he always maintained his innocence. Abbot Suger of St. Denis who knew Tirel in France recorded ‘I have often heard him, when he had nothing to fear nor to hope, solemnly swear that on the day in question he was not in the part of the forest where the king was hunting, nor ever saw him in the forest at all.’

What is not in doubt is that Rufus’ younger brother Henry (Henry I) was the main beneficiary. Henry was part of the hunting party on that day and he was able to secure the Treasury (then held at Winchester) the same day and had himself crowned king at Westminster Abbey on 5 August, just three days after his brother’s death.

Illustration of Henry I by Matthew Paris

Walter Tirel (or Tyrell) is thought to have originated from Poix in Picardy and may have been the same Walter Tirel named as holding the manor of Langham, in north east Essex, (Laingeham) in Domesday Book. The Revd. Philip Morant in The History and Antiquities of the County of Essex (1768) was rather dubious as to whether there was a connection, while another historian with Essex connections, J.H. Round writing in 1895 was more certain that they were the same.

The Domesday Book recorded in 1086 that the manor of Langham was 2½ hides in extent (roughly 300 acres), with 17 villeins and 27 bordars. There was wood for 1,000 pigs, 40 acres of meadow, two mills, 22 cattle, 80 pigs, 200 sheep and 80 goats. The resources of the manor were mostly larger than they had been before the Norman Conquest, and its value had increased from £12 to £15, making it quite valuable; by comparison, the manor of Chelmsford was valued at £8 and Maldon at £12.

Tirel held the manor from Richard son of Count Gilbert, also known in Domesday Book as Richard fitzGilbert or Richard of Tonbridge, and is later more familiarly known as Richard de Clare. It is likely that Tirel acquired the manor through his wife Adeliza, Richard’s daughter and this explains why he had such a valuable holding.

The Pipe Roll of 1130 records that Adeliza, by then a widow, was still in possession of Langham and in 1147 their son Hugh Tirel sold it to Gervase de Cornhill, before embarking on the Second Crusade. In 1189 Richard I granted Gervase’s son Henry permission to enclose woods there to create a park. The manor remained part of the Honour of Clare, while passing through the hands of different owners. In the late 14th century it passed to the de la Pole family and remained in their possession until the early 16th century. The oldest surviving court roll from the manor, 1391-1557 (D/DEl M1) begins during their ownership.

Henry VIII’s first wife Katharine of Aragon held the manor, later Langham Hall, until her death, when it passed to his third wife Jane Seymour. In 1540 it passed briefly to Thomas Cromwell and after his execution formed part of the lands granted to Anne of Cleves (Henry VIII’s fourth wife) on her divorce. In the early 17th century it was granted by Charles I to trustees of the City of London in repayment for a loan. In 1662 it was purchased by Humphrey Thayer, who Morant described as a druggist to the King and was inherited by his niece, the wife of Jacob Hinde.

While Morant was doubtful as to the connection of Walter Tirel in Langham with the Tirel who may have killed William Rufus, he was in no doubt that he was the ancestor of the Tyrell family in Essex who he described as ‘early persons of great consequence in this County; and one of the ancientist families’.

While the Tyrells did not keep Langham for more than one generation, they acquired extensive lands in Essex, as well as lands in Hampshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Their lands centred on the manor of Heron in East Horndon, but Tyrells also held land in Broomfield, Springfield, Beeches at Rawreth, Hockley and Ramsden Crays.

The most distinguished of the Essex Tyrells was probably Sir John Tyrell. He served as sheriff of Essex in 1413-1414 and 1437 and was elected to Parliament on a number of occasions between 1411 and 1437, serving as Speaker in 1421, 1429 and 1437. He held many posts in Essex, including acting as steward to the Stafford family and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, as well as for Clare and Thaxted during the minority of Richard, Duke of York. He was appointed a royal commissioner in the county on a number of occasions and was Chief Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster north of the Trent. Morant recorded that he served Henry V in France and in 1431 was appointed treasurer to the household of Henry VI and to his Council in France.

In a curious coincidence his grandson Sir James Tyrell was alleged to have confessed before his execution in 1502 to murdering the Princes in the Tower for Richard III.

The lives and times of the High Sheriffs of Essex

Today at ERO, we welcomed a number of High Sheriffs of Essex, past and present, to a reception hosted by Cllr Kay Twitchen, Chairman of Essex County Council, to mark the deposit of a unique set of records.


One of the High Sheriff’s journals which has been deposited at ERO

Would you like to know where to find a trumpeter, or how much it costs to put on a good garden party, or how to deal with a really cold judge?  These and other more serious questions will soon have better answers thanks to the High Sheriffs of Essex.

When asked to think of a sheriff, our mental picture library might supply a greedy, grasping figure (possibly played by Alan Rickman), predictably defeated by the rather less interesting forces of goodness and virtue.  Beyond that, usually, nothing.  Considering that with the exception of the Crown itself the shrievalty is the oldest public office in England, this is a pity, but it is about to become less true.

High Sheriffs past and present gathered at ERO, hosted by Cllr Kay Twitchen (in red jacket)

High Sheriffs past and present gathered at ERO, hosted by Cllr Kay Twitchen (second from right)


Former High Sheriffs looking at documents relating to the history of the role which are held at ERO


The High Sheriff of Essex for 2014, Mr Nicholas Charrington (centre)


Looking in one of our storerooms to see the conditions in which the journals will be kept

The post of High Sheriff dates back to before the Norman Conquest. The origins of the post are in Saxon times – the title of ‘reeve’ was used for senior officers with local responsibility to the king within the shire, and over time ‘shire reeve’ became ‘sheriff’.

In Anglo-Saxon England the sheriff was responsible for the maintenance of law and order through the system of tithings, groups of approximately 10 men who were bound together in mutual assurance. All able-bodied men aged 12-60 had to belong to a tithing, and each man in the group was responsible for the good behaviour of each of the others. They were bound to observe and uphold the law; if a member of tithing broke the law then the others were obliged to report the culprit and deliver him to the constable, failure to do this would result in everybody in the tithing being fined. The sheriff was responsible for inspecting the tithings (although after the Norman Conquest many lords of the manor acquired the right to do this for themselves).

Under the Norman regime the sheriff was the means of enforcing (literally) the King’s writ in the localities, with the authority to summon the posse comitatus (county force or power) to help maintain law and order. The sheriff discovered criminals and delivered them to the royal courts for judgement and executed writs issued by the Crown. In addition the sheriff supervised Crown lands in the county and handed over the revenue to the Exchequer and he could also compulsorily requisition food and supplies for the King (e.g. to fight war). With no oversight from central government, these powers could give the sheriff opportunities for extortion and corruption (hence the Sheriff of Nottingham).

The sheriff also presided over the shire court (the shire courts along with the hundred courts are thought to be one of the means by which Domesday Book was compiled in 1086). From the mid-13th century knights of the shire were elected in the shire court to sit in Parliament and coroners were also elected there. The last duties of the shire court only passed to county courts in 1886 with the County Courts Act.

The medieval sheriffs were also over-burdened with routine business (they have been described as ‘workhorses’ of medieval local government) which meant that law enforcement could be patchy and on occasions arbitrary. As early as 1327 ‘good and lawful men’ were appointed in every county to ‘guard the peace’, called conservators or wardens of the peace and in 1361 justices of the peace were created. In the 1540s lord lieutenants were appointed to take over the military duties of the sheriff.

By 1881 when the High Sheriffs of Essex started to keep the record books which are being deposited with ERO, they had long given up persecuting peasants.  Their real powers and duties were, in fact, quite limited.  This makes their later history a fascinating parallel to that of the monarchy itself: an exercise in finding new roles, while still keeping up appearances.  This was not always easy.

Essex County Council, 1892. Andrew Johnston, the Council's first Chairman and the High Sheriff who began the journals, is in the top centre of the photograph, sitting aside the cannon which used to be outside Chelmsford's Shire Hall

Essex County Council, 1892. Andrew Johnston, the Council’s first Chairman and the High Sheriff who began the journals, is in the top centre of the photograph, sitting aside the cannon which used to be outside Chelmsford’s Shire Hall

At first they were concerned especially with the expenses of an un-salaried office set about by all sorts of costly ceremonies (hence the trumpeters, part of the formal escort provided by the sheriffs for the assize judges when they visited Chelmsford).  From about 1890, however, sheriffs started to write more general reflections on their year of office.  In 1916 one sheriff’s car broke down on the way to the assizes, leaving him and his chaplain to complete their journey to Chelmsford ‘in an open hawker’s cart’.  In 1959, when the hot water system at the judges’ lodgings failed during the Winter Assizes, the High Sheriff ‘nearly had [his] neck wrung’, the judges threatened to leave for London forthwith, and the sheriff ended up having to stoke the boiler himself.

Even so, during the 20th century the sheriffs were able to simplify many of their office’s remaining ceremonial duties and to develop a new social role.  Today’s High Sheriffs continue to attend on visiting High Court judges, and, together with the Lords Lieutenant, to act more generally as the Crown’s local representatives, especially, in their case, in areas of crime and punishment.  They also work to promote the voluntary sector.  A mainly symbolic role, maybe, but who says that symbols are not important?