John Fort esquire of Llanstephan
John Fort esquire was in many ways a humdrum figure representative of the aspiring tenant class of post-Conquest Wales. His career in arms was not dignified by any particular achievements, nor was his role in the local affairs of south west Wales in the closing decades of the fourteenth century an especially dramatic one. His life was not without its moments of minor drama and these no doubt show something of an inconstant character. His career shows some of the benefits of royal favour in furthering his and his family’s pretensions in Carmarthenshire and its neighbouring lordships.
John Fort was the son of Thomas Fort (d. 1383), and like his father and brother (also named Thomas), he was a resident of the small lordship of Llanstephan on the north-west corner of Carmarthen bay, the borough of Llanstephan being five miles or so to the south of Carmarthen. This lordship was situated between the estuary of the river Tywi and the river Tâf between the much larger lordship of Cydweli (Kidwelly) to the east and the similarly minute lordship of Laugharne – best known today as the one-time abode of Dylan Thomas – to the west. It is one of the more obscure liberties in later medieval Wales, dependant upon the county of Carmarthen during vacancies and minorities it reverted not directly to the crown but to the lord of the county, be that the Prince of Wales or the king. Until his execution at the instigation of the Appellants in 1388, its lord was an associate of the Black Prince and chamberlain of Richard II, Sir Simon Burley, who had held it for a brief period following the forfeiture of Robert de Penres.
The Fort family’s interests were not confined to Llanstephan; they not only held lands in neighbouring Laugharne but at Roche and Haverford in Pembrokeshire but across the bay in Gower gathering together an estate of some 300 acres. Such a wide geographical spread does not necessarily indicate great wealth or influence; it highlights the significance of maritime trade and connections in south-west Wales.
The story of this family had much in common with that of any number of those of the Welsh squirearchy. In a Welsh context, the label ‘esquire’ is not without baggage of its own but it was a label found in both contemporary Welsh and English which applied equally to those of ‘English’ or of ‘Welsh; descent.
The Fort’s were a minor family of modest means and English descent, but completely immersed in the local society, a society which from the limited available evidence all but defies division. Our subject, John Fort, for the better part of two decades could be called a professional soldier. In this he was following something of a family tradition; his father had served in Ireland with Ralph, earl of Stafford and lord of Gower between 1361 and 1362 together with his uncle William.
William Fort though also of Llanstephan, had connections in the lordship of Pembroke. In 1353 he was granted the office of porter of the castle of Pembroke during the minority of the heir of Laurence de Hastings. Beyond his time in Ireland he had a more significant military career than his brother serving in the retinue of Guy, Lord Brian, lord of Laugharne and Walwayns Castle (Pembrokeshire) in the naval expedition of 1378 and was granted protection to serve overseas with Sir Thomas Symond three years later.
Though John was granted protection for service in February 1387 for service with Sir Richard Craddok on the earl of Arundel’s naval expedition of that year he does not appear among those recorded in Craddok’s retinue.
The first definite reference to John’s military career occurs a year later when he is recorded serving as a man-at-arms in the retinue of the Pembrokeshire knight Sir John Wogan in Arundel’s second naval expedition in 1388. It seems probable however that this was not his first taste of the military life. There are good indications that John, and in all likelihood, his elder brother Thomas served in John of Gaunt’s ill-fated expedition to Spain in 1386 and it is even possible that they had served in Scotland a year earlier.
John and his brother Thomas were accused of harbouring and having in their personal service an enemy of the crown; a Castilian, one John de Ispaine, between Easter 1387 and August 1388. Between them, the brothers had afforded John access to most of the castles of south-west Wales: Pembroke, Haverford, Tenby, Narberth (all in Pembrokeshire), Cardigan, Carmarthen, Dryslwyn and Dinefwr (in the principality of west Wales) and the caputs of their home lordships; Laugharne and Llanstephan. Not content with this, the brothers allowed their guest a visit of the palace of the bishop of St Davids at Llawhaden (Pembrokeshire). For much of the time, these castles were little more than administrative centres, garrisoned only during periodic fears of invasion as in 1377 and during the summer of 1386. Few, if any of these – even Cardigan and Carmarthen – appear to have boasted a permanent garrison before 1400. The importance of the actual offence would have been limited, though the perceived threat was significant enough such places were, in the scheme of things exactly those that the Forts’ might have visited in the course of their everyday affairs.
While the presence of a Spaniard in a west Wales household might be said to be suggestive there is other, admittedly circumstantial evidence. It was only in February 1389 that the brothers obtained pardon for their actions at the instigation of the Buckinghamshire knight Sir John Wiltshire.
It is from his testimony in the Scrope-Grosvenor case in the court of chivalry that we can deduce something of the brothers’ earlier careers.
Though Wiltshire served on the naval expeditions in 1387 and 1388 it would be optimistic to suggest that his acquaintance with John Fort came from contact made during the latter campaign. Since Thomas served on neither occasion this possibility can be safely discounted. Wiltshire’s deposition in the Scrope-Grosvenor trial that attested service with John of Gaunt in Spain in 1386 provides an alternative possibility; that all had served on this campaign.
While Wiltshire also served in Scotland in 1385 and it is possible that the Fort brothers had also done so, a Spanish connection seems more plausible. Such service could readily account for both his knowledge of the Forts’ case and the presence of a Castilian servant in the household of a family of minor south Wales gentry.
Seal of John Fort, TNA 210/464, Crown Copyright
Returning to 1388 on 26 October John Fort was granted a years protection to serve in the Calais garrison with Sir William de Beauchamp.
Clearly if he ever left Wales he returned within the year. Far from discouraged by this brush with controversy on or around 17 March 1389 he scaled the walls of Laugharne castle in the company of Sir William de Brian and made off with £25 of gold and silver belonging to the lord of Laugharne and Sir William’s father, Sir Guy de Brian. The quarrel was not his own but appears to have been concerned with a family dispute over arrangements for Sir William Brian’s inheritance.
For this indiscretion he was condemned to forfeit possessions worth 10 marks per annum and his estates (worth £4 4s. 11d.) were confiscated.
By the time of his outlawry however John was in the service of Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland in garrisoning Calais, service attested by his supplication for pardon. The pardon was granted 12 September 1390.
Possibly, he continued in Calais beyond his initial term for John Fort (noted as ‘of South Wales), was granted a second protection for one year to serve there, this time in the company of Thomas Mowbray, earl of Norfolk. Possibly, his intention was to work his way into some sort of favour and in this, he was successful as the remainder of the decade however shows a marked change in his fortunes. His hand can be seen in more legitimate affairs while seemingly continuing in his military activities.
In January 1393 he was granted the custody of Llangennydd’s alien priory (in Gower) as a king’s esquire at a farm of 40s. This, while rather more than the usual farm afforded John with an opportunity for profit: on 6 November 1394 he leased the priory to John de la Maer, chaplain for an annual sum of 55 marks.
As a king’s esquire, it is unsurprising that when Richard mounted his first expedition to Ireland in 1394 John Fort accompanied him; a protection was granted at St Davids for six months on 24 April.
Between November 1395 and November 1397, John achieved his highest administrative office, as escheator of the county of Carmarthenshire. This does not appear to have prevented him from pursuing other interests: on 8 August 1396 he was granted protection for one year to serve with John Holland, earl of Huntingdon in the garrison of the castle and town of Brest. This was not the only familial connection with John Holland. John’s brother Thomas Fort received protection to serve in his retinue on Richard’s second and ill-fated campaign in 1399.
Holland had several links with south-west Wales having been granted wardship of the estates of Sir Rhys ap Gruffudd II in 1381 and the lordship and castle of Haverford in January 1392. It is possible that these merely strengthen earlier, military connections: Holland had served as constable of Gaunt’s army in 1386. John Fort himself received a further protection to go with the king in 1399 and after Richards deposition he elected to serve at Berwick with his old patron, the earl of Northumberland, a suitable protection being granted on 18 February 1400. His indiscipline showed once more however as five months later the sheriffs in London reported that he had remained there instead of commencing his journey north.
After this date, no more is heard of him with certainty. Whether his estates were ever returned to him is a moot point; it is tempting to believe that they were not, for in 1405 a John Fort can be found serving as an archer in the expeditionary army led by Sir Richard Arundell. This army was dominated by men from the squirearchy of the southern principality and the march. Perhaps the most interesting of these was Thomas Bannow, merchant and burgess of Carmarthen who had in 1403 been captured at sea and subsequently ransomed by the Scots, only to be robbed and imprisoned by the townsmen of Walsall on his way home. Other notable figures include Sir John Scudamore, William Sourdeval of Brecon, John Pichard of Blaenllyfni, Brecon, John Somerys of Dinas Powys, Glamorgan; such examples could easily be multiplied.
John Fort could well have been listed among such men, the gentiles homines of their communities, descended from English and Welsh roots. Though remaining loyal in a time of rebellion, his circumstances appear greatly reduced. John’s eventual fate is not known, but it appears that he died without heirs, a fate he shared with his brother Thomas for their estates passed to their bastard uncle, Thomas Fort of Robertston West, Pembrokeshire (d. 1432).
These are detailed in a surviving cartulary compiled in the fifteenth century edited by Ralph Griffiths, ‘The Cartulary and Muniments of the Fort Family of Llanstephan’ B.B.C.S (1971), pp. 311- 384. Much of the detail of the domestic affairs of the Fort family that follows is drawn from this work. Further details of his administrative career can be found in R. A. Griffiths, The Principality of Wales in the Later Middle Ages: The Structure of Personnel and Government: I South Wales 1277-1536 (Cardiff, 1972), pp. 320-1.
Burley had been granted Llanstephan following the forfeiture of its lord Robert de Penres 26 June 1378 (C.P.R. 1377-81, p. 256). Following three years in royal custody after 1388 it was re-granted to Robert de Penres’s heir, (also Robert) for 500 marks 27 July 1391 (C.P.R. 1389-92, p. 473).
R.A. Griffiths, ‘Medieval Severnside: the Welsh connection’, in R.R. Davies
et al. (eds.), Welsh Society and Nationhood: Historical Essays Presented to Glanmor Williams
(Cardiff, 1984), pp. 70–89.
For a fuller discussion of the difficulties surrounding such terminology, R. R. Davies ‘Owain Glyn Dwr and the Welsh Squirearchy’ Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1968), pp. 150-69, and more generally, R. R. Davies, ‘Colonial Wales’ Past & Present, 65 (1974), pp. 3-23.
Thomas Fort in Ireland TNA E 101/28/15 m. 1.
For William Fort in Ireland TNA E 101/28/15 m. 5; with Sir Guy Brian, TNA E 101/36/32 m. 6 and with Sir Thomas Symond TNA C 76/65. Information on soldiers has been taken from from the AHRC-funded 'The Soldier in Later Medieval England Online Database', www.medievalsoldier.org, accessed 12/01/09.
The ‘John Fort’ serving as an archer in the retinue of Sir Hugh le Despencer of Colly Weston (Northants.) in both 1387 and 1388 is clearly an unrelated individual. He may plausibly be identified with the archer of that name who was among the standing force in Ireland between 1395 and 1397 under Stephen le Scrope, TNA E 101/41/39. For Craddok’s retinue, in 1387, TNA E 101/40/33 m. 14.
C.P.R. 1389-92, pp. 9, 43, 47-8.
Wiltshire served in Arundel’s retinue in 1388, TNA E 101/41/5 m. 1. A. R. Bell, War and the Soldier in the Fourteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2004), pp. 146-7.
William Rees (ed.) Calendar of Ancient petitions relating to Wales (Cardiff, 1975), pp. 147-8.
The king at John Fort’s supplication was later to grant the issues and profits of the lands forfeited by this outlawry to an associate of John’s father, John Gely of Haverfordwest 17 September 1392. C.P.R. 1391-96, p. 169. For Gely, see Griffiths, ‘The Muniments and Cartulary of the Fort family’ pp. 330-1 n.
C.P.R. 1388-92, p. 303.
The grant can be found in C.F.R. 1391-99, pp. 68-9. A vicar had to be maintained there at 8 marks per annum; TNA 210/464 – see photo for a fragment of his seal
C.P.R. 1391-96 p. 472
For John Fort’s appointment as escheator, Griffiths, The Principality of Wales, pp. 320-1, his protection in 1396 TNA C 76/81m. 11, and for Thomas Fort in Ireland in 1399, C.P.R. 1396-99 p. 538.
His protection C 71/76 m. 13, the revocation was issued 17 July; C.P.R. 1399-1401, p. 373.
For Bannow’s predicament, Rees (ed.) Calendar of Ancient Petitions, p. 457. The muster roll is TNA E 101/44/7. For further details of the interests of these families and others, see R. R. Davies, Lordship and Society in the March of Wales 1282-1400, (Oxford, 1978), pp. 413-424. It should be noted that this could of course be the ‘other’ John Fort, archer, identified above in n.8.
Thomas Fort (of Robertson West, Pembs. d. 1432) – bastard half brother of John’s father Thomas Fort had only a limited military career; he was granted protection for one year 25 October 1388 for service in the garrison of Guines. TNA C 76/73 m. 18. He was joined there by Thomas Fort ‘junior’ of Llanstephan whose protection was granted 24 November 1388, TNA C76/73. This was undoubtedly John’s brother Thomas; the pair were distinguished in this manner in grants of November 1391. Griffiths, ‘The Cartulary and Muniments of the Fort Family’ nos. 46, 47, 50, pp. 368-371.