On the north side of the chancel in St. Mary’s Church, West Horsley, is a 14th century stained glass window showing Sir James de Berners beneath the figure of a monkey, the family emblem. Visitors to the church often recognise this window, as it was chosen for ‘The Age of Chivalry’ exhibition at the Royal Academy, in 1987/1988. Sir James was executed in 1388 by the Lords Appellant – a group of nobles who had seized control – for having a malign influence on the young king, Richard II. What was this influence, and how did this happen? Historical curiosity is aroused, but first, an introduction to the de Berners family and their West Horsley Manor – now West Horsley Place – tenure.

Beorhtsige, the Saxon Thane at West Horsley, lost the Manor after the Battle of Hastings, when Duke William of Normandy awarded it to Walter FitzOther, along with the Governorship of Windsor Castle. This appointment passed down several generations of the family, who subsequently became known as ‘de Windsor.’ In 1279, the fourth Hugh de Windsor was made a ward of court due to his insanity, but the Manor remained in his family: his daughter Christiana had married Ralph de Berners of Berners Roding, in Essex. The de Berners were an ancient, distinguished family who traced their descent from Hugh de Bernariis, a follower of the Conqueror.  Christiana survived both her husband and her son, and the Manor eventually passed to her grandson, John, with the conveyance of the lands finally settling them on the de Berners family.  John died in 1361, leaving two infant sons, John and James. James had been born in the ancestral Manor house of West Horsley, on the 8th March, 1361.  The children became wards of Humphrey, Earl of Hereford.  Both the Earl and the child, John died: James and the inheritance fell under the powerful sway of Edward, the Black Prince, (father of the future Richard II,) and a fierce legal battle for control of James and his possessions ensued between the Prince and the Dowager Duchess of Hereford.

On the death of the Black Prince, in 1376, James became a ward of Court and his close friendship began with the boy Richard, who became king in 1377.  James came of age in 1382, and finally gained his inheritance, which assured him an annual income of £153.  He was already a figure of consequence at Court, serving in expeditions abroad: he was a Royal Commissioner, and importantly, became a youthful Surrey Justice of the Peace.  He added to his estates and rents; enjoyed the generosity of the king; became a Knight of the Chamber and one of Richard’s favourite courtiers: this was no doubt bitterly resented by the dour barons.

In the early summer of 1383, James joined the king and queen in a pilgrimage to Walsingham. There was a violent thunderstorm when they reached Ely, and James was struck and left ‘half blind and crazed,’ by lightning.  Richard immediately ordered the pilgrimage and clergy to gather at the shrine of St. Ethelreda the Virgin to pray for James’s recovery.  At the altar, after experiencing a harrowing vision of his soul in purgatory, James’s sight returned, to the joy of his royal friend. James apparently suffered no ill effects from blindness or revelation, as he spent the next few months in Scotland serving John of Gaunt.

Later that year, in October, James became a Member of Parliament for Surrey, but received royal letters of exemption on the grounds that he was part of the king’s retinue. Contemporary documents comment upon the personal attachment between the two men: it was also noted that friends and relatives benefited from James’s influence at Court.

In 1386, James was again elected to Parliament for Surrey, and this time Richard did not intervene.  There was growing hostility towards the king and his extravagant Court, and he needed the loyal support of those such as James de Berners in the Lower House. The tide turned against James and other favourites during 1387.  Powerful figures such as Michael de La Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Richard de Vere, Earl of Ireland, along with others, were charged with treason by the Lords Appellant, and James and other household knights and Crown employees were impeached. He was arrested and sent to Bristol Castle on 4th January, 1388, and then moved to the Tower of London.  The charges against him were neither personal nor specific: he was never singled out by name, but only in association with others: some allegations were dropped for lack of proof. The charge against him was that he had influenced the king (a mere six years his junior,) against his ‘proper’ councillors. Yet there is no evidence of James playing any part in the actual function of government.  The same tenuous accusations were levelled against another favourite, Sir Simon Burley, by the Lords Appellant. There was much sympathy for James – it is hard to see why he was singled out for the death penalty – but he was eventually executed for ‘exploiting the king,’ on the 12th May, 1388.  He is buried in the Chapel of St. John at Westminster.

Almost all James’s estates were confiscated, and of all the women widowed by the Lords Appellant only Anne de Berners was left with no means of support. Richard II, whose power had been severely curtailed, nevertheless intervened, showing great concern and giving her permission to remain in West Horsley Manor while she was a widow: Anne was allowed to retain possession after her remarriage to John Bryan.  The king continued to support Anne and her children, and made provision for the anniversary of James’s death to be observed at the Abbey of St. Mary Graces, London.

The earliest parts of present-day West Horsley Place date from 1425, when the de Berners family were in residence, so it is possible that they were responsible for the rebuilding of the house in the style of a fine Medieval Hall House, with its high ceilings and  crown posts.


Aston, Shirley, B. A History of West Horsley, Dorking: Crusader Press, 1973

Bowley, Pam, West Horsley Place: The Story of an old house and the people who once lived in it,

Alton: Horse & Tree Publications, 2007

Given-Wilson, Chris, ed. Chronicles of the Revolution: The Reign of Richard II, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2002

Given-Wilson, Chris,  Fourteenth Century England, Vol. 2. Woodridge: Boydell Press, 2002

Malden, H. E.  A  History of the County of Surrey, Vol 3. London: Victoria County History, 1911

Ibid,  West Horsley Place and the Literary Associations of West Horsley, London: Gomme, 1908

(Source: ADS, University of York Archive)

Manning, Rev. Owen & William Bray, The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey,

London: John Nichols & Son, 1804-1814

McKisack, M. The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993