Reginald, Lord Cobham of Sterborough in Lingfield (Surrey), d. 1361
Reginald Cobham was one of Edward III’s leading commanders in the heyday of the king’s greatest success between the 1330s and 1360. His career is of interest for two reasons. First, it is indicative of the ways in which military success contributed to the formation of the peerage in the fourteenth century; and, second, it highlights the vulnerability of a family like Reginald’s once the opportunities for military glory had gone in the later years of the century. Reginald’s career is of additional interest in that it is memorialised in the splendid armorial on his tomb in Lingfield church.
The tomb of Reginald, Lord Cobham at Lingfield (authors collection)
Reginald Cobham was a member of a junior branch of the Cobham family based at Sterborough, in Lingfield (Surrey). He first appears in the records in 1328, when he was sent by Edward III’s ministers on a diplomatic mission to the duke of Brabant.
In 1334 he appears for the first time in the royal wardrobe books as a knight of the king’s household, a position he was to retain for the rest of his active career.
In the light of his rapid rise in royal favour in the 1330s, it is likely that he was involved in some capacity in the king’s coup against his mother Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, which inaugurated Edward’s personal rule.
Reginald began his soldiering in the 1330s in Edward’s wars in Scotland against David Bruce and his supporters. The wardrobe books show him active in almost every season. In the winter of 1334-5 he served with one knight, Sir Stephen de Cossington, and five esquires.
On the opening of hostilities on the continent in 1338, he went into action first in the inconclusive campaigns in the Low Countries and subsequently in Brittany. The retinues which he led varied in size, at their maximum strength numbering over two dozen men, but in most cases rather smaller. Reginald’s most important contribution to Edward’s fortunes in the Low Countries came on 23 June 1340, when he and two others put ashore at Blankenburg to spy out the anchorage at the Flemish port of Sluys.
It was as a result of the intelligence they gained that on the next day Edward attacked the French fleet, winning one of his greatest victories (24 June 1340).
In 1342 Reginald was to take to the field in Edward’s three-pronged intervention in Brittany on behalf of his ally, Duke John de Montfort. Reginald crossed to Brittany in September 1342 with a force of six knights, 42 esquires and 47 mounted archers.
Although, in the event, he saw little action, he somehow managed to lose his best warhorse, worth 100 marks (for the loss of which he was reimbursed).
In 1346 Reginald was to see action again in Edward’s great expedition to France which culminated in his victory at Crécy. According to Knighton, he played a major role in the fording of the Somme at Blanchetaque. Knighton says that he and the earls of Warwick and Northampton led the English advance guard across, routing the French force on the other side.
At Crécy itself Cobham fought on the right flank, nominally under the command of the king’s son, alongside the earl of Warwick and Sir John Chandos. In the year following the triumph at Crécy he was involved in the siege of Calais, taking part in the negotiations for the town’s surrender, which came on 3 August 1347.
In 1350, after the lull in activities caused by the Black Death, Cobham was involved in the naval engagement off Winchelsea which resulted in the defeat of a fleet of Castilian galleys (the so-called ‘les Espanols sur Mer’). In 1355 when, after the breakdown of negotiations with the French, hostilities were resumed, he enlisted with the Black Prince for service in Aquitaine. In the summer of that year he took part in the prince’s devastating chevauchée to the Mediterranean and, in the following year, in his march to the Loire which ended in September in the victory at Poitiers.
Reginald’s last campaign, on which he embarked in 1359, when he was nearly sixty, was the expedition which took the English to Reims.
Edward and his army laid siege to the city in the winter of 1359-60 but failed to take it. The campaign came to a close in the following May when the king negotiated a treaty of settlement with the French at Brétigny, subsequently ratified at Calais. In October 1361 Reginald died, almost certainly a victim of the plague which exacted a heavy toll of the upper classes that year.
Unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence to allow an estimate to be made of the scale of Reginald’s profits from war. He is known to have taken one very valuable prisoner at Poitiers – the count of Longueville - whom the king was to buy from him for the sum of 6,500 florins.
Longueville, however, may have been his only prisoner of distinction. It is unlikely that he took any prisoners at Crécy because both kings, fearing the possible distraction to their men of a quest for ransoms, gave the order to ‘give no quarter’: i.e. ‘take no prisoners’. Reginald is not known to have taken any prisoners in any of the lesser engagements. One major French knight who eluded his grasp was Sir Geoffrey de Charny, author of the chivalric tract the Livre de Chevalerie and first recorded owner of the Turin Shroud, who, Froissart says, was killed by Cobham at Poitiers.
Being a paragon of chivalry, Charny presumably preferred death to capture.
Reginald appears to have died a reasonably prosperous man. According to the inquisition post mortem taken on his death, he held property in five counties: the manors of Oxted and Sterborough in Surrey; Hever, East Shelve, Bowzell, Aldington, Hiltesbury, and Austin in Eynsford, all in Kent; Northey in Sussex; Leigh Delamare and Langley Burrell in Wiltshire, and various tenements in those counties.
The manor of Langley Burrell came to him by his marriage in 1343 to Joan, daughter of Thomas, Lord Berkeley, of Berkeley Castle (Gloucs.), another of Edward’s leading commanders. Some of the other manors were acquisitions which he had made by purchase over the years.
Reginald’s career in arms is recorded visually in the armorial on his tomb in Lingfield church.
The arms may be summarised as follows.
At the head of the tomb, facing west
Gules on a chevron or, 3 estoiles sable: Reginald, Lord Cobham
Gules, a chevron between 10 crosses formy, 6 in chief, 4 in base, argent: Thomas, Lord Berkeley
On the north, from the west:
Gules on a chevron or, 3 estoiles sable impaling Gules, a chevron between 10 crosses formy, 6 in chief, 4 in base, argent: Cobham of Sterborough impaling Berkeley
Or, a fesse between 4 gemelles, gules: Giles, Lord Badlesmere
Azure, 3 water bougets, argent: William, Lord Ros of Hamlake
Azure, a cross fleury with a martlet in the first quarter: Sir Walter Pavely
On the south, from the west:
Azure, 3 bars or in chief, between 2 esquires based, 2 pales of the second: Roger Mortimer, earl of March
Azure, a bend cotised and six lions rampant, or: Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford (but, since Humphrey was inactive, probably an error in modernrestoration for his brother William de Bohun, earl of Northampton, whose arms were the same but with a difference)
Quarterly gules and or, in the first quarter a mullet, argent: John de Vere, earl of Oxford
Gules, a lion rampant tail-forked, or: Bartholomew, Lord Burghersh
On the east:
Azure, three roses or: Sir Stephen de Cossington
Paly wavy,or and gules, in a bordure ermine: Sir Waresius de Valognes
In most cases the armorials on the monuments of medieval knights celebrated lineage and marriage connections: the story they told was one of blood. The armorial on Reginald’s tomb, however, is different. It weaves together a number of strands. Marriage is certainly one: it is celebrated in the arms at the head of the tomb; but there are two others, those of military companionship and the bonds of feudal tenure.
The arms at the head, the honorific position, are those of Reginald Cobham himself and his father-in-law, Thomas, Lord Berkeley. The two arms are then shown again, this time impaled in the first position round the corner on the north side.
The military theme gets into its stride in the arms on the south side of the tomb. All four coats are of knights who were companions of Cobham’s on the campaign trail. The two knights with whom his relations were closest were probably Bartholomew Burghersh and the earl of Oxford. Burghersh was the distinguished scion of a court-based family whose lands, like Cobham’s, lay mainly in the south of England, while John de Vere, a veteran of the campaign trail, was the holder of one of England’s oldest (if least well endowed) comital titles. William de Bohun, younger brother of the earl of Hereford, who received an earldom in his own right in 1337, was one of Edward’s leading commanders, and an associate of Cobham’s on the Crécy campaign. Roger Mortimer, son of Queen Isabella’s lover, was a younger lord who, like the others, had fought at Crécy and Reims. On the north side of the tomb, facing the Lady Chapel, are the arms of two more lords with whom Cobham had served: William, Lord Roos, and Sir Walter Pavely. William, Lord Roos, another younger magnate, was included partly because of his military service and partly because of his close tenurial connection with Cobham, who held lands from him in west Kent. Sir Walter Pavely, a neighbour of Cobham’s at Chiddingstone (Kent) and another veteran of the campaign trail, had fought at Crécy, Calais and Poitiers and in most of the main engagements of the day. On the eastern end of the tomb are the arms of two more soldiers: Sir Stephen de Cossington and Sir Waresius de Valognes. Like Pavely, these were bachelor knights whose lands lay mainly in Kent. The placing of their arms together in another distinctive position - the eastern end panel - is accounted for by their role in Cobham’s retinue organisation. Cossington and Valognes were Cobham’s principal recruiting sergeants, the lynchpins around whom he built his larger war retinue. Valognes died in 1346; Cossington was to enjoy a longer career, dying in the 1370s.
The armorial on Reginald Cobham’s tomb provides remarkable testimony to the chivalric pride felt by the English knightly class in the wake of the triumphs in arms of the 1340s and 1350s. It forms an heraldic counterpart to the famous knightly weepers in the canopy buttresses of Sir Hugh Hastings’s brass of 1347 at Elsing (Norfolk). It is possible to detect a further layer of chivalric reference in the presence of the arms of some of Cobham’s fellow Knights of the Garter. Cobham had been elected to the Garter in 1352, as one of the first successor Knights. Three other Garter Knights are represented in the armorial – Bartholomew, Lord Burghersh, Sir Walter Pavely and the young earl of March. The richness of chivalric reference is the more remarkable for being on a tomb almost certainly commissioned by a woman – Cobham’s widow Joan. The tomb bears a striking similarity to that at Berkeley of Cobham’s kinsman, Thomas, Lord Berkeley, who died at almost exactly the same time. Joan probably commissioned them both. To judge from the armorial on her husband’s tomb, she was fully absorbed in the values of chivalric society.
By his achievements in arms and by the rewards which these achievements brought, Reginald Cobham had raised the Sterborough Cobhams high in fame and distinction. From 1347 to his death he was summoned to parliament as a lord. The Sterborough Cobhams were by the 1350s the equals of the parent branch of the family at Cobham in status and rank.
Yet in the years to come the Sterborough Cobhams were to run into difficulties in maintaining their standing. Reginald’s son, Reginald II, was summoned to parliament only a couple of times at the beginning of his career, between 1370 and 1372.
His son in turn, Reginald III, was to receive no summonses at all. In the fifteenth century the family were to sink back into the ranks of the gentry. In these later years they were no less wealthy than they had been in Reginald’s time – indeed, they were probably wealthier. Despite this, however, they lost their position in the peerage. What had gone wrong?
A number of circumstances peculiar to the family help to account for their decline. One problem was the lengthy minority which followed the elder Reginald’s death in 1361. Reginald junior was only thirteen when his father died and did not attain his majority until 1370. Minorities were always disastrous to family fortunes, and the Cobhams’ case proved no exception. A second factor was Reginald’s close association with his local patron, Richard, earl of Arundel, who fell into disfavour under Richard II, dragging those in his following down with him. Reginald lacked effective sponsorship at Richard’s court, a pre-requisite for membership of the peerage in the late Middle Ages.
The main reason for the family’s failure, however, was something quite different. It was the diminishing significance of military service as a factor in social promotion. Reginald Cobham had made his way up almost entirely through such service. He was not an administrator, nor a regional power-broker; he was a soldier. In military ranking he counted as a banneret – a superior knight. The ebbing of English military fortunes in the years after 1360 posed particular problems to knights of banneret rank. Hovering on the borderline between nobility and gentility, without military service as a claim to distinction they risked loss of dignity. A number of banneret lineages weathered the storm and made it successfully into the peerage. The Sterborough Cobhams were not to be numbered among this lucky bunch: eventually they went down. The reason for their failure was quite simply the lack of suitable qualification once the tide of military success failed to sustain them in the higher rank.
The brass of Eleanor (d. 1420), first wife of Sir Reginald Cobham III, also at Lingfield (authors collection)
The later Sterborough Cobhams, therefore, had to be content with being respectable, well endowed country gentry – but just country gentry. Interestingly, however, they harked after their past glories; they remembered the distinction they had once enjoyed. So much is evident in the design and iconography of the family’s later monuments at Lingfield. The tombs became ever more splendid as the family’s material fortunes declined. Reginald III’s grandiose tomb in the centre of the chancel is more appropriate to someone of comital or baronial rank than a country knight: it is enormous. Reginald founded a college in Lingfield church and claimed founder’s position before the high altar. It is possible that he saw foundation of the college as a way of affirming the status which his family was in danger of losing. Of particular interest, however, among the later memorials is the brass of Reginald’s first wife, Eleanor, who died in 1420. This has a banner which rises high out of the canopy which frames and encloses her figure. A banner is a very unusual feature on medieval memorial brasses. Its presence here is an allusion to Reginald I’s status as a knight banneret. Evidently the family still attached importance to this mark of status some sixty years after Reginald’s death. The memory of the great soldier lived on.