JOHN BOURCHIER, 2ND BARON BERNERS: COURTIER, SOLDIER, SCHOLAR

John Bourchier was born circa 1467 in Tharfield, Herts.  He was the son of Humphrey Bourchier and Elizabeth Tilney: she was heiress to estates in Lincolnshire.  Humphrey was killed at the Battle of Barnet, in 1471.  John Bourchier succeeded to the title of Baron Berners aged seven, when his grandfather died.  The Bourchiers were a  prominent family, descendants of Edward III, and three of John Bourchier’s great uncles were Archbishop of Canterbury; Earl of Essex and Baron Fitzwarine. The child John was under the guardianship of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.  His widowed mother Elizabeth, married Thomas Howard, Norfolk’s son by his first wife, who subsequently became Duke of Norfolk.  Later, to add to the genealogical complexity, John Bourchier married Katherine Howard, the first duke’s daughter by his second marriage.

The manor at West Horsley, during the Bourchier period (1441-1536) would have been a medieval style timbered hall house: the massive timbers and fine crown posts can still be seen in the attics today. The great hall would have been open, as the upper floor was a later addition.  As the Bourchiers were wealthy, they may have wished to leave their mark on the house, so could have been responsible for rebuilding the great hall, as it is of a later date than the west wing. There is a Tudor fireplace with its brick chimney which now lies behind the later design of Sussex marble. The hall once boasted fine linenfold panelling, also typical of this period, which was later removed and sold, in 1910, to an antiquarian, Walter Thornton Smith.

MILITARY

Historical sources differ as to whether John Bourchier – by now Baron Berners - attended Balliol College, Oxford, but his military and political career began early, as at the age of sixteen, he took part in an unsuccessful first attempt to place Henry, Duke of Richmond (later Henry VII) on the throne: Berners fled to Brittany. In 1485, Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, and became king.  Thomas Howard, Berner’s stepfather became Chief General, and in 1492, Lord Berners swore to ‘serve the king in his wars beyond see in hole yeere with two Speres.’ (1). In 1497, he helped to suppress the Cornish and Devonshire rebellion in favour of Perkin Warbeck, which increased his standing.   

COURT AND POLITICS

From this time Berners gained great favour at court.  By 1513, Henry VIII was on the throne, and Lord Thomas Howard, both  stepfather and half-brother, was now Lord Admiral.  This was a period of warfare with France, but when this ended, Princess Mary of England, sister to the king, married Louis XII of France.  Berners was appointed Mary’s chamberlain and was a member of the entourage which escorted the princess to France.  But the French rejected all her manservants, and intriguingly, in the light of the story of West Horsley Place, Henry Courtenay, then Earl of Devon, replaced Lord Berners.

In 1518, Lord Berners was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in  1524, this was confirmed as a lifetime position. In 1518, he accompanied the Archbishop of Armagh to Spain, in an attempt to negotiate an alliance with Charles of Spain, and to sue for general peace in Europe. The mission suffered acutely from lack of funds, and Lord Berners wrote to Cardinal Wolsey in July:  ‘we lye here  with most charge and expense, horse and man, and in most scarcity of all good things as well meat and drink, that may be thought.’ (2).  He was also suffering from excruciating gout: he wrote lively letters to Henry VIII describing life and the Spanish court, and bullfighting.

In 1520, Berners  and Katherine attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold: this was the magnificent summit and tournament held from the 7th to the 24th of June in that year, to increase the bonds of friendship between Henry VIII and Francis I of  France.   On 28th November, that year Berners was appointed Deputy of Calais, then an English possession,  a post which he held until 1526, when he spent some time in  England.  He returned to Calais in the late 1520s, remaining there until his death in 1533. He is buried in the Eglise Notre Dame de Calais. Lord Berners had a son and three daughters by his wife Katherine, and three sons and a daughter with his mistress, Margaret Chedworth.  Lord Berners was plagued with lawsuits connected with family property in Hertfordshire, and was in considerable debt to King Henry. After his death, Henry seized all Berners’ property, allowing his widow to live in West Horsley Place, but when she died, her daughters were obliged to leave the property and fend for themselves.  Henry gave the manor and estate to his cousin, Henry Courtenay, now Marquess of Exeter.

LORD BERNERS' LITERARY LEGACY

Berners shared with his famous predecessor Sir Thomas Malory, a passion for French literature, and like Malory, he combined a military vocation with literary gifts. Lord Berners was a translator and adapter of both French and Spanish works.  M. I. Cameron refers to Berners and Malory as the two great masters of English prose at the end of the medieval period (3). Berners’ focus was the Chivalric romances, and he is possibly best known for his translation of Froissart’s Chronicles (4). Both Malory and Berners were conscious of the passing of a world, and a way of life.  They wrote to recreate and communicate what they prized about this world: to immortalise the brave deeds of their valiant ancestors.

It is thought that Arthur of Lytell Brytayne was one of Berners’ earliest translations, written during the 1520s. It is a translation of Artus de la Petite Bretagne, a romance first printed in Lyon, in 1493.  Lord Berners’ work on Froissart’s Chronicles began around 1521, and according to his preface, it was undertaken at the request of Henry VIII (5). It is regarded as the most significant historical work to have appeared in English at that time, and greatly influenced succeeding writers.  In the prefaces to his works, Lord Berners writes of his passion for history: he was modest about his achievements, excusing his lack of ‘retoryke ‘ and apologising for being a ‘learner of the language of the Frensshe,’ but the style of his translation is vivid and straightforward (6). His translation of the Chronicles has been described as marking the highest point which English  narrative prose had reached until his time.  One scholar of English prose writing, Sir Henry Craick states: ‘it is perhaps not too much to say that there is no one who, without producing a work of original genius or research, has laid English literature under such a debt of obligation as Lord Berners by his translation of Froissart. ‘ (7).

Lord Berners’ translation of the French romance Huon de Bordeux, first published by Michel le Noir in 1513, is almost as influential as his translation of Froissart. His Boke of the Duke Huon of Burdeux introduces Oberon, the king of the fairies into English literature.  The translation was printed by Wynkyn de Worde, c.1534, and inspired Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and John Keats.  The original source was an old French epic poem from the early part of the thirteenth century.  An ambush is laid for Duke Huon by Charlot, son of the great Charlemagne.  Huon, unaware of Charlot’s true identity, kills him.  In order to avoid execution, Huon must perform a number of challenging tasks.  He is charged with journeying to Babylon, to steal hair and teeth from the powerful Emir: he must kiss the Emir’s daughter, Esclamonde three times, and slay the Emir’s bravest knight. Oberon assists Huon in all these tasks.

Lord Berners’ transformation of the original latinate verse into genuine English is a considerable achievement. He creates a flowing literary language which brings his text to life. His style is described as reminiscent of the jongleur – the minstrel storyteller – whose desire is to communicate vividly with his audience, bringing to life his story and its characters.

Berners is also credited with a work described as ‘ Ordinances for watch and ward of Calais,’ which is preserved in the Cotton manuscripts (8). There is also a lost comedy – Ite in vieneum meam, -  which has been attributed to him, and which was performed in Calais after Vespers.

Sadly, no manuscripts of Berners’ original works survive: as various members of his family fell foul of the king, goods were seized and lands sequestered. After Berners’ death in Calais, his half- brother Lord Edmund Howard, also a Crown employee there, was ordered to take possession of all the Berners’ goods and property. There was a Will, dated 3rd March, 1533 appointing Sir Francis Hastings as an Executor, and leaving him Berners’ ‘grand tenement and holding’ in Calais: he left his half-brother Edmund Howard a silver standing cup. 

Research into the history of West Horsley Place is like opening a box of treasures: as more and more colourful and intriguing gems emerge concerning the characters and events connected with the manor house.

 

June Davey. 

References:

  1. Rymer, Feodera, 2nd edition, 12/479 www.british-history.ac.uk, reymer.feodera.vol.12
  2. LP. Henry VIII 2/2 No.4342  www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
  3. Cameron, M.J. Florilegium 16 (1999) Such Joy at the Heart: Lord Berners’ Huon de Bordeux https://journals.lib.flor/article.view/19200

4-6    Syr Johan Froyssart, Yje Ancyent Chronycles of England, France, Spayne, Portytngale, Scotland, Bretagne, Flaunders and other places adjoynynge. translated from the original French at the command of Henry VIII by John Bouchier, Lord Berners.

  1. Sir Henry Craick, English Prose, 14th to 16th Century, Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners. London: Macmillan. 1916
  2. Cotton Manuscript(Sir Robert Bruce Cotton 1571-1631) British Library. https://bl.uk/collection-guides/cotton-manuscripts