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Fitzwalter familylocked

(per. c. 1200–c. 1500)
  • Christopher Starr

Fitzwalter family (per. c. 1200–c. 1500), nobility, of Essex, were descended from a cadet of the Clare family. The Fitzwalters were granted the barony of Little Dunmow, Essex, and the strategic fortress of Baynard's Castle, London, by Henry I. Over the next century the family consolidated its position and augmented its estates through marriage and purchase, at least four manors being imparked. Their seat was at Woodham Walter, but Henham was preferred for the birth of their heirs. The nearby Augustinian priory of Little Dunmow, which was richly endowed by the Fitzwalters, became their mausoleum. There is no evidence for the legend that the family originated the custom of the Dunmow Flitch whereby a local married couple who could prove that they had lived together in complete harmony for a year would be able to claim a side (flitch) of bacon following a ‘trial’, which took place in the priory.

By the reign of King John the family had grown powerful, and Robert Fitzwalter (d. 1235) was one of the leading barons in opposition to the king. Fitzwalter's grandson Robert Fitzwalter first Lord Fitzwalter (1247–1326), was born at Henham. His father, Sir Walter Fitzwalter (d. 1258), had died young and Robert, like nearly all his successors, was still a minor when, in 1268, he inherited the family patrimony, consisting principally of a scatter of valuable manors in central Essex. By 1274 Robert Fitzwalter had been knighted and was married to Dervorguilla de Burgh, who died in 1284, leaving him a life interest in her Essex and Hertfordshire manors. In 1275 he sold Baynard's Castle to the archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Kilwardby, but as late as 1303 still claimed to be the standard bearer of the city of London. It was perhaps this sale which enabled Fitzwalter to equip himself for a military career beginning in 1276 and lasting until extreme old age, during which he served in Wales, Scotland, France, and Gascony. In recognition of his services he was appointed constable of two royal castles, Bere in Merioneth and Hadleigh in Essex. Fitzwalter was summoned to parliament as Lord Fitzwalter from 1295 to 1325, and to royal councils from 1309 to 1325. During his long life he made, or attempted, three pilgrimages, including journeys to Santiago de Compostela and Jerusalem. His second wife was Eleanor, daughter of Robert de Ferrers, earl of Derby (c. 1239–1279), and she, like her predecessor, was buried in Little Dunmow Priory.

Fitzwalter married for a third time c.1310 but neither his second nor his third wife, Alice, seems to have brought him much property. His son from his first marriage, Walter, predeceased him, and he was succeeded by his son from his second marriage, Sir Robert Fitzwalter (c. 1297–1328), may, like his father, have been a soldier. He was married by the age of eighteen to Joan (1304–1363), daughter of Thomas, Lord Moulton, a match which brought him the lordship of Egremont, in Cumberland. On his death, never having been summoned to parliament, he was succeeded by his son John Fitzwalter second Lord Fitzwalter (c. 1315–1361). Brought up by his widowed mother, possibly as an only child, John grew to be a difficult and dangerous adult. It was his misfortune that his mother outlived him and during his entire life enjoyed the income from her dower, which represented a significant slice of the Fitzwalter estate. During intermittent military service in France, Fitzwalter, together with some disreputable local gentry such as Lionel Bradenham and Robert Marney, committed a series of serious felonies in Essex, exemplified by a siege of Colchester after some townspeople had allegedly invaded his park at Lexden. In 1351 he was brought to justice and his entire estate confiscated by the king, who also imprisoned him in the Tower. He was only released and his estate restored in return for the colossal fine of £847 which he paid by instalments, 1 farthing being still due on the day of his death. Despite his misconduct, John Fitzwalter was summoned to parliament and to royal councils, but he did not hold office in the county.

Walter Fitzwalter third Baron Fitzwalter (1345–1386), was born at the height of his father's criminal activities in Essex and succeeded him at the age of sixteen; his mother, Eleanor Percy, died at about the same time as her husband. Walter was a notable soldier who found time to undertake county office, principally many commissions of the peace and of array. In the 1381 rising most of his Essex manors were attacked and burnt by the mob, and his income must have fallen considerably as a result. Walter participated in a number of unsuccessful military campaigns: accompanying Sir Robert Knolles on a raid into France in 1370 he was soon captured by the French and thereafter obliged to mortgage much property to raise a ransom of £1000. In 1377 he was a commander in the earl of Buckingham's naval attack on the Spanish fleet, and in 1380 was the earl's marshall on a raid into Brittany. Appointed admiral in 1382, he joined yet another futile military expedition, this time under John of Gaunt in 1386, dying in Galicia that year. Fitzwalter's first wife was Eleanor, daughter of Lord Dagworth (d. 1350), with whom he had a son, Walter [see below]. His second wife was Philippa, daughter of John Mohun, second Lord Mohun (d. 1375). Philippa's long life as a dowager was to frustrate the Fitzwalter heir. After Walter's death she married twice more, dying in 1431 as the widow of Edward, duke of York.

Walter Fitzwalter fourth Baron Fitzwalter (1368–1406), inherited at the age of eighteen. He, too, was summoned to parliament, but he took little interest in military matters. Closely associated with Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, whose castle at Pleshey was equidistant from Woodham Walter and Henham, Fitzwalter proved his loyalty and personal courage when he stood up in parliament and challenged his widowed stepmother's husband, Edward, at that time duke of Aumale, to personal combat, accusing him of Gloucester's murder. Unlike his father, Fitzwalter did not play a prominent part in county life, though he continued to associate with members of the local gentry through his membership of the affinities of Countess Joan, widow of Humphrey de Bohun (d. 1373), and of the duke of Gloucester. Fitzwalter married Joan, sister of John Devereux, Baron Devereux (d. 1393); she was about eighteen when their son Humphrey was born at Penshurst in 1398. On a voyage from Rome to Naples Walter was captured by Saracens who took him to Tunis and kept him prisoner until he was ransomed by Genoese merchants. He never recovered from his ordeal and died at Venice in 1406. His widow remarried but died in 1409.

Humphrey Fitzwalter (1398–1415) inherited his father's lands at the age of eight, but died when he was only sixteen. It was his brother, another Walter Fitzwalter fifth Baron Fitzwalter (1400–1431), on whom the family's continuity now depended, and he was aged only fifteen at Humphrey's death. With both his parents dead by the time he was nine, Walter may have been brought up by his father's stepmother, the duchess of York. Apparently he showed early promise, for the king knighted him and made him master of his hart hounds in 1420, when he was only twenty. In that same year Fitzwalter took part in the siege of Melun, but a few months later, on 22 March 1421, he suffered the fate of his father and grandfather before him, when he was taken prisoner at the battle of Baugé. It was not until 1423 that he took livery of his father's lands which, despite an enormous drain on their resources, were still extensive and profitable. Fitzwalter married Elizabeth Massy, a widow who, unlike her predecessors, was neither a peer's daughter nor rich. Having been summoned to parliament in 1429 and 1430 Fitzwalter was serving as a field commander in France in 1431 when, again like his father and grandfather, he died overseas. The circumstances of his death are not known, but he was buried in Little Dunmow Priory, according to the wishes expressed in his will, close to the bones of his mother and his two infant sons. His widow, Elizabeth, survived him and married a third time, but chose to be buried beside his body on her death in 1464. Their tomb remains, as do their sensitive sculptured portraits in alabaster. Fitzwalter also made careful financial provision for his family, including his two illegitimate daughters, Mary and Gabriella.

Walter Fitzwalter's heir was his daughter Elizabeth Fitzwalter (1430–c. 1485), who had been born at Henham a few months before his death. At about the time of her fourteenth birthday Elizabeth married John Ratcliffe (d. 1461); their son John Ratcliffe (1452–1496) was summoned to parliament as sixth Baron Fitzwalter. Elizabeth married a second time after John Ratcliffe's death, taking as her second husband John Dinham (d. 1501).

A rich, long-established Essex family, the Fitzwalters were prevented from exercising the influence appropriate to their rank and wealth by the early death of successive heads of the family, the long minority of some heirs, the long life of several dowagers, huge fines and ransoms imposed on the estate, and the absence of family heads on overseas service. These perils of late medieval aristocratic life all served to diminish their patrimony and remove the Fitzwalters from the centre of events at critical moments. Furthermore their low fertility produced few marriageable sons and daughters and culminated in a fatal lack of heirs. The family arms were or, a fess between two chevrons gules.


  • GEC, Peerage, new edn, 5.472–87
  • Dugdale, Monasticon, new edn, vol. 6/1
  • E. C. Furber, Essex sessions of the peace, 1351, 1377–1379, Essex Archaeological Society occasional publications, 3 (1953)
  • J. C. Ward, The Essex gentry and the county community in the fourteenth century (1991)
  • T. Willmott, ‘The arms of Fitzwalter on leather scabbards from London’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 32 (1981), 132–9
  • W. R. Powell, ‘Lionel de Bradenham and his siege of Colchester’, Essex Archaeology and History, 22 (1991), 68–9


  • alabaster double portraits (Walter Fitzwalter, fifth Baron Fitzwalter, and his wife, Elizabeth, in Little Dunmow Priory)
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
W. Dugdale & R. Dodsworth, eds., , 3 vols. (1655–72); 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1661–82); new edn, ed. J. Caley, J. Ellis, & B. Bandinel, 6 vols. in 8 pts (1817–30); repr. (1846) and (1970)