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When We Discover Unsavory Ancestors

Henry Bolingbroke

For this issue of “Genealogy Pointers,” we are continuing to share excerpts from J. Michael Cleverley’s  new book, Family Stories . . . and How I Found Mine.  One of the Cleverley ancestors was Sir Henry Greene, who served in the court of England’s 14th-century king, Richard II.  In the first part of the excerpt, taken from the chapter “Two Knights and a Swordsman,” we learn of Sir Henry’s dilemma as Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, is amassing an army to challenge King Richard. Mr. Cleverley then explains the sources he used and the process he underwent in arriving at this account of a rather unsavory forebear. 

from “Two Knights and a Swordsman”

Henry Bolingbroke, vowing not to accept the seizure of his and his father’s properties, gathered men and prepared a return to England to regain lands and inheritance, one way or another.  After sailing from France, Bolingbroke stepped off the ship in Ravenspurn, on the east coast of England, at the head of about 60 men.  He knelt and kissed the soil, then mounted and led his men toward London, gathering more followers as they went.  Richard II was so unpopular that people flocked to Bolingbroke, and he soon had a formidable army marching south behind him.  Along the way, noblemen and clergy rallied to his support.  And to further Bolingbroke’s swelling popularity, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that anyone giving him allegiance would be remitted of their sins and achieve “a sure place in Paradise.”

Family Stores...and how I found mine

With the King still in Ireland, his caretaker, the Duke of York, was paralyzed and panic-stricken when Henry Bolingbroke’s invasion drew closer.  York called Sir Henry Greene, Bussy, Bagot and others of the King’s Council together to consider what to do.  They discussed the obvious solution of getting a force together to oppose Bolingbroke’s advance.  Except for Greene, Bussy, Bagot, and a couple others, however, it was clear there was no resolve in the council nor in Parliament to resist Bolingbroke’s army.  

Unlike just about everyone else, Greene and the other advisors were not in a position to extend a welcome to Bolingbroke’s crusade to end Richard’s tyranny.  They had been at the center of the King’s machinations, most recently trying to seize Bolingbroke’s own inheritance.  Panicking, they realized their best option was to get out of London.  Their hope was to travel west to meet Richard’s return from Ireland.  Greene, Bussy, and Lord Scroope rode quickly toward Bristol; Bagot went to Chester and then to Ireland.  Greene and his two companions arrived in Bristol safely.  

In Ireland, King Richard had heard of Bolingbroke’s arrival and was rushing to get back to England.  Sir Henry and his two colleagues took control of Bristol Castle in the name of the King and hoped they could hold out there long enough for his return.  Unfortunately, by now almost everyone, including the Duke of York, was joining Bolingbroke’s ranks.  The mass of followers continued west toward where Sir Henry’s party was holed up in the fortress. When it reached Bristol, Bolingbroke’s army was overpowering. His men massed around the castle in a siege.

Inside, Sir Henry and his colleagues started planning their defenses, but as they looked from the castle towers at the masses of armed men before them, they knew that their situation was hopeless. There was no way they would resist the siege. The three decided to surrender and lay themselves at Henry Bolingbroke’s mercy. Sadly for them, their role in seizing Bolingbroke’s inheritance did not endear them much. Worse, still, their unpopularity among the people made clemency a long shot.

They ordered the doors to the castle swung open and the two knights and lord presented their surrender to Bolingbroke’s captains. The next morning, they were arraigned before the constable and marshal. Greene, Bussy, and Lord Scroope were accused of misgoverning the King and realm, and of treason. There was not much of a trial. Few were willing to testify on their behalf when they faced the charges. Nor was Henry Bolingbroke sympathetic. The three men, in his view, were among the King’s key conspirators and had achieved gain at his and many others’ expense.

Their fate was sealed when news arrived that King Richard at the head of an army had just landed in nearby Wales. The matter needed to be done and over. Sir Henry Greene, Sir John Bussy, and Lord William Scroope were found guilty. They were taken out and, on July 29, 1399, beheaded. Before his execution, Sir Henry, in his distress, admitted that for ten years he had kept a man in Wiltshire from his property and gave the wronged man his best ox-team. Few mourned their loss. In fact, a Bristol poet even wrote a long poem that lamented Richard II’s sorry reign. So strongly were the King’s counselors hated, that the poet mentioned all of them, including Sir Henry, by name.

Shortly thereafter, Henry Bolingbroke defeated Richard II and imprisoned him in the Tower of London. Bolingbroke was eventually crowned Henry IV. Although Bolingbroke had sequestered all of Sir Henry Greene’s property at the time of his execution, the new king later relented. Henry IV returned Sir Henry’s original family properties (i.e., those not “ill-gained” during his service to Richard II) to support his widow and children. Among the properties returned was the Drayton House estate which stayed for generations in the family. Henry IV even appointed Sir Henry’s son, Ralph, as Sheriff of Northamptonshire. Ralph, too, became a knight of the realm and served faithfully both Henry IV and his son, Henry V.

The Fog Banks of History

I started my journey into Greene family history by reading several books about the early Greenes and their descendants. The George Sears Greene volume (The Greenes of Rhode Island, with Historical Records of English Ancestry, 1534-1902) gave me an incredibly ambitious introduction to the family. Lora Sarah Nichols La Mance wrote another important volume, The Greene Family and its Branches from A.D. 861 to A.D. 1904.

She deserves much credit as a woman researcher and author at a time when there were so few of them.  I also found important information on the family from Horatio Somersby’s book (The Greene Family in England and America: With Pedigrees), that, although apparently somewhat controversial, tracked well with much of the later research I did.  I also discovered a 19th century historian, George Baker, who is an often-quoted source of information on the early Greene family (George Baker, The History of Antiquities of the County of Northampton, vol I).

However, as I reached back into the history of the 1300s, I found that the Greene family’s stories appeared and then disappeared along the foggy medieval landscapes.  Here and there were references to Sir Henry Greene or his son, Henry, Jr., but initially I found only fragments that hinted of larger, bolder events in their lives.

Traveling through this spotty terrain reminded me of experiences we had when living in Milan, Italy.  During those years, we often drove back and forth on the autostrada that sped along the pre-Alpine hills toward Venice.  The area was well-known for its patches of dense fog that would unexpectedly roll off the pre-Alps and across the Lombardy plain to suddenly envelope the fast and bustling motorway with an impenetrable mist.  Chain accidents were common, and we had to be ready to brake quickly whenever visibility abruptly dropped to only a few yards.  We might be enjoying picturesque roadside scenery one moment, and an instant later find ourselves in a bewildering fog unable to see anything for the next ten minutes.  Then, light quickly reappeared, and the old-world countryside was crisp and clear again.  

That is what so often occurred in my attempts to pull together a picture of the Greenes’ lives in medieval England.  Everything at one moment was as clear as day.  Suddenly, another dense fog would obscure the picture, and as I traveled along, it rotated back and forth between light and thick mist.

Despite often longing to spy more clearly through the fog of the past, the outlines of Sir Henry Greene, Sr. and Jr. began to take form.  On Google Books, I located medieval chronicles (such as Raphaell Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, vol II; Sir Thomas More, History of King Richard III, and of course, Shakespeare’s Richard II) that offered general contemporary accounts of their times and sometimes even provided an anecdote or two about these Greenes.  On I discovered histories written by some of the Greenes’ modern descendants.  A few of these went on for pages and were well written, but inevitably while venturing through the Middle Ages, the fog often obscured these writers’ best efforts, too.  Scouring through them, I found inconsistencies and often mistakes…

When visiting a medieval Greene home in England, its curator told me that the granddaddy of source material on the Greene family was a volume called Halstead’s Genealogies.  The book was written in 1685 and today only 24 copies exist in the world.  The name of its author, “Robert Halstead,” was a pen name for its real writer, the 2nd Earl of Peterborough, who, himself, had Greenes among his illustrious ancestors.  I made note of the work as well as of other often quoted antique sources that might be useful.

The British Library

I had this source list in my pocket one day when I entered the British Library in London.  It was one of many libraries I visited in search of my ancestors’ past.  The information I found in these places not only produced some of the stories I wanted, but they often offered insights that allowed me to follow up at home.  This was especially true following this visit.

The British Library is the world’s second largest, and I hoped I might find some of these rare sources in its stacks.  I crossed the library’s large entrance hall to the receptionist desk.  When I asked her how to get started, she peered down her nose with a look that told she knew I did not know what I was doing.  She referred me to a registration desk downstairs, where I explained to a clerk that I was on a project and wanted to access some materials in the library.  He told me that I needed to register, something I had already been told once.  Then, pointing to a computer terminal, he said I first had to get reference numbers for books I wanted to read.  After that he would decide whether I would be registered.  

Fortunately, I had my list with Halstead’s Genealogies at the top of it.  Ten minutes later, I came back to the registration desk with reference numbers for all the books I was seeking.  Satisfied that I had performed that task properly, and without even looking at my list and its reference numbers, he next sent me to a cubicle to fill out an application.  I was back again a few minutes later with the completed papers in my hand.  He took it with my Virginia driver’s license and told me to take a seat.  “An interviewer will be with you soon,” he muttered, and went on with his work.  

I sat in a chair against the wall waiting for the interview and remembered how in high school I joked that one evening I had to “check” my date out after her father gave me a good grilling when I arrived.  I felt this was that kind of moment.  I would have to go through a grilling before I could get a library card to access the materials I wanted.  Eventually my turn came, and an interviewer, much more congenial than I expected, went through everything with me from my project to my background.  When assured I was a legitimate researcher, she signed the application and sent me to get a picture ID badge.  Afterwards, I found the proper desk to order the volumes I wanted and was told to return another day to get them.

Finally, two days later, I was sitting in one of the immense reading halls of this magnificent library when a librarian rolled his cart to my table.  On top was a copy of the rare book that the Earl of Peterborough penned 330 years earlier, Halstead’s Genealogies.   It was worn but truly beautiful, about 2 ft x 1 ft in size and 4 inches thick.  The volume was filled with detailed prints of Greene family knights and tombs, copies of wills, deeds, and so on, in their original English, French, and Latin languages.  Many of the families extended back to William the Conqueror’s time, and beyond to Normandy.  The Earl also summarized some of the stories of the Greenes and their affiliated families.  

I took out my phone, opened its optical reader app, and started taking pictures of the Genealogies’ pages, glad that taking photos was allowed.  Soon, however, a fellow patron came over to complain that my camera was making too much noise when it clicked.  I fumbled to find the setting that turned off the sound, and we seemed to get along better after that, silently of course.  As the pages turned, and my camera took quiet photos, some of the fog banks I had encountered earlier began to thin…

Expect a Horse Thief or a Bank Robber Along the Way

When Sir Henry Greene (Sr.) traveled from Drayton House to become one of the important men in Edward III’s court, he set a high mark for his son.  Henry the younger may have expected or thought he deserved to rise at least to the level his father had.  Ingratiating himself with whoever held power, first John of Gaunt and then John’s brother, Richard II, may have seemed the natural path toward his destination.  For some, perhaps, the pursuit of wealth and power never lessens, no matter how much they accumulate.  Short cuts became easier to rationalize.  

In the past’s “foreign country,” I realized the importance of not judging too harshly the characters I met there, at least not by the standards of our times.  Even among his contemporaries, however, Henry’s methods were questionable.  His role in John Lattimer’s gruesome torture and death might have been acceptable in Richard II’s and his brother John of Gaunt’s courts, but contemporary and later chroniclers seem appalled.  Sir Henry and his colleagues grew even more wealthy by supporting Richard’s devious rule but remained despised and remembered for evil all over England, even in Shakespeare’s Richard II written nearly two hundred years later.  

As I dug into Henry Jr.’s stories, I remembered how in a genealogy class I took as a college freshman, the professor gave us a list of things NOT to do.  One of the first was not to research ancestors just to find the kings, queens, and nobles among them.  Expect to find a horse rustler or bank robber along the way, he said, and do not regret it when you do.