BERNERS, Sir James (1361-88), of Berners Hall, Essex and West Horsley, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer




Family and Education

b. West Horsley, 8 Mar. 1361, 2nd s. and h. of Sir John Berners (d.1361) of Berners Hall and West Horsley, by his w. Katherine St. Omer. m. Anne (d. Easter 1403), da. of John Barew, 3s. Kntd. by Oct. 1381.1

Offices Held

Commr. to enforce labour services, Surr., Wilts. Oct. 1381; of inquiry, Surr. Apr. 1385.

J.p. Surr. 14 Dec. 1381-d.


The subject of this biography belonged to an old and distinguished family which traced its descent from Hugo de Bernariis, a follower of William the Conqueror. James was born at the ancestral manor house of West Horsley and baptized in the nearby parish church of Shere, with the prior of Newark by Guildford, Sir William Croyser†, and Eleanor, countess of Omer (a kinswoman), as his godparents. He was barely five months old at the time of his father’s death in 1361, and since his elder brother, John, was also under age the two boys were taken into the wardship of Humphrey, earl of Hereford, of whom the Berners family held estates in Essex and Surrey. Both John and the earl died shortly afterwards, giving Edward, the Black Prince, an ideal opportunity to seize control of James, who was now the next heir, and his estates. The prince and his council claimed a right to wardship through the late Sir John Berners’s tenure of the manor of Iklingham in Suffolk, but after a lengthy examination of the evidence submitted by the earl’s executors they accepted the weakness of their own title and, in October 1363, they agreed to surrender the boy.2 Notwithstanding this decision, the dowager countess of Hereford was obliged to relinquish all her rights to wardship when, in November 1375, Edward III made a grant of the heir and his marriage to the Black Prince, together with the profits accruing from several concealments of revenue from the Berners estates. As a result of inquiries into the extent and value of these properties, part of James Berners’s inheritance in Essex and Middlesex was confiscated by the Crown in the following month. On the Black Prince’s death not long afterwards, James became a royal ward, and it was thus, during his years at Court, that his close friendship with the young Richard II began.3

Even before his coming of age in March 1382, Berners had established himself as a figure of consequence at Court. He served on the expedition of July 1380 which the King’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, led to Brittany, and by October 1381 he had been rewarded with a knighthood.4His appearance as a royal commissioner, and — far more notably — as a j.p. in Surrey while he was still under age is clear evidence of his growing success. Berners obtained seisin of his inheritance in May 1382, and was thus assured of an annual income of at least £153. Besides the manors of Iklingham and West Horsley mentioned above, he also became owner of the manors of Beaumont, Berners Hall (with Berwick) and Berners Roding together with extensive farmland in Newton, Dunmow, Crippings, High Easter, Mashbury, Leaden Roding and Good Easter in Essex, and the manor of Barnsbury with its appurtenances in Islington, Middlesex.5 To these Berners added land and rents worth £4 10s.8d. in King’s Walden, Hertfordshire, which he acquired from Hugh Martyn by royal licence in the autumn of 1386.6 He did not make any more purchases, perhaps because Richard II’s generosity rendered it unnecessary for him to supplement his income in this way. A grant of 18 Oct. 1382 permitting Berners to hunt in the King’s forests reveals that he had already been made a knight of the chamber by Richard. In the following February he received a grant of the estates, person and marriage of John Colney’s heir, a royal ward whose property was worth about £20 a year. The nature of Berners’s relationship with his royal patron is revealed in a curious anecdote recounted by a contemporary chronicler, who describes how, during a pilgrimage made by the King and queen to Walsingham in the early summer of 1383, a violent thunderstorm brought the party to a halt at Ely. Sir James was actually struck by lightning, ‘which left him blind and half-crazed’; and such was Richard’s concern for his friend (‘who was on terms of the greatest intimacy with him’), that he ordered all the clergy to process to the shrine of St. Ethelreda the Virgin and pray for his recovery. On being brought before the altar, Berners was miraculously cured, albeit only after he had experienced a terrifying vision of his soul in judgement. Neither his temporary blindness nor these eschatalogical revelations seem to have caused further problems, because he spent the next few months in Scotland with John of Gaunt. The King was naturally overjoyed at his return to health, and promptly issued a writ of supersedeas when Sir James requested one on behalf of the executors of John Kyngesfolde†.7 He was first returned to Parliament by the electors of Surrey in October 1383, but received royal letters of exemption from service on the ground that, as a member of the King’s retinue, his presence was required at Court. The award of such letters, which are comparatively rare during our period, again underlines the degree of personal attachment which had by then grown up between Berners and Richard II, who was clearly reluctant to be parted from his loyal servant. One year later, Sir James became a feoffee-to-uses of land in Bagby, Yorkshire, this being the only occasion on which he is now known to have acted as a trustee.8

Because of his position at Court, Berners was often approached to use his influence on behalf of relatives and other suitors. In May 1385, for example, his cousin, Emma atte Mersshe, was admitted on Richard II’s nomination to St. Mary’s convent in Winchester — a foundation evidently endowed by previous generations of the Berners family. Not long afterwards, our Member was instrumental in obtaining royal pardons for Sir Thomas Sackville II* and others implicated in the murder of one of John of Gaunt’s servants; and again, in June 1386, he intervened to help a convicted felon in this way. Ralph Berners, an official of the court of chivalry, may well have owed his appointment to the success of his nephew, since the latter was at his most active as a commissioner during this period.9 Sir James was, meanwhile, involved in Richard II’s ill-fated Scottish expedition, staged, ingloriously, during the summer of 1385. It was in October of that year that he received written confirmation of a grant of £100 p.a. from the lands of the alien priory of Wilmington in Sussex, together with all the stock held by the monks. (This he subsequently leased out to Stephen Holt* of Lewes and an associate, under sureties of £300.) The award had previously been made to him by word of mouth of the King, perhaps on the Scottish campaign. A few weeks later, Berners and Robert Fitzralph shared the keepership of the Norfolk and Suffolk estates of Sir Thomas Loudham’s young son, John, a royal ward whose marriage was likewise sold to them at this time. Fitzralph assumed complete responsibility for the farm in the following February, so Berners cannot have made much profit from it. He seems to have then been involved with one Hugh Mercy in farming certain royal estates in Surrey, either as joint tenant or, more probably, as one of Mercy’s creditors to whom the property was pledged as security.10

No royal letters of exemption followed Berners’s election to the Parliament of 1386, which suggests that, even if he did not actively intervene to secure it, Richard II was quite prepared to accept his friend’s Membership of the Commons. The growing antagonism shown at all social levels against the government and its policies, and the mounting hostility expressed by many MPs towards Richard’s small group of favourites must have made the King aware of the need for a body of support in the Lower House, where Berners took his seat as a courtier and royal placeman. It should not be forgotten, however, that he was a native of Surrey and a neighbour of many of the electors who returned him. During the course of a stormy parliamentary session which more than justified the King’s worst fears, Sir James also gave evidence on behalf of Richard, Lord Scrope, in the latter’s celebrated dispute with Sir Robert Grosvenor over the use of his heraldic arms. Our Member was again rewarded by the King in November 1387, with a grant of the marriage of Robert, son and heir of Richard, Lord Poynings, for which he was to pay no more than 500 marks.11Even so, despite Richard II’s evident generosity towards his favourite, and the latter’s undisputed influence at Court, it is hard to see why Berners was singled out by the Lords Appellant to face the death penalty. Unlike the five most powerful and unpopular figures charged by them with treason (among whom were Robert de Vere, duke of Ireland, and Michael de la Pole, earl of Suffolk), Berners was not appealed before Parliament, but impeached by the Commons (with the temporal lords as judges), together with three other household knights and certain employees of the Crown. He was arrested and sent to Bristol castle on 4 Jan. 1388 and subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London, whence the four knights facing impeachment were removed for trial on 12 Mar. — after the fate of the principal victims had been decided. None of the charges levelled against Berners was either personal to him or at all specific: indeed, of the 16 articles presented by the Lower House only six mentioned him by name, always in association with others. In effect, he stood accused of helping to exploit the King’s youthfulness and inexperience by turning him against his proper councillors and thus acting as an agent of ‘the greater traitors’. It is now impossible to tell how much influence Berners was actually able, or ready, to exert over the young King, but even though he may well have belonged to the royal council, there is no evidence of his playing any significant part in the real business of government. The allegation that he had interfered to prevent the working of the commission or ‘great and continual council’ set up by the Wonderful Parliament in 1386 with the express purpose of curbing the royal household was dropped at once for lack of proof, since although he had certainly not shared the reforming zeal of his fellow MPs, his own activities had never once been held up to censure during that session, nor had his behaviour afterwards ever provided the opposition with the ammunition they required.12 The same indiscriminate motives which led some of the Lords Appellant to press for the death of Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s particular friend, seem to have provoked their hostility towards Berners: they wished to destroy the King’s immediate circle, and were not concerned to establish the relative culpability of its individual members. A good deal of sympathy was felt towards Berners, who was finally condemned to death on 12 May after a long delay caused by Richard’s struggle to save Burley. He was convicted on one charge only (that of exploiting the King), and because of his childhood connexion with the Court the full punishment for treason was commuted to beheading. He and Sir John Salisbury were promptly executed on Tower Hill and buried in the chapel of St. John at Westminster.13

Although the severity of the sentences passed against the Appellants’ victims was somewhat lessened by the existence of a statute protecting entails, Berners had lacked the foresight to make any such provision, and almost all his estates save the property in Islington (which he held as a tenant of the bishop of London, the guardian of his eldest son) were confiscated in the name of the Crown and farmed out to others.14 Of all the women widowed by the Appellants only Anne Berners was left without either endowment or other means of support. Richard II naturally showed great concern on her behalf, however, and gave her permission to occupy her husband’s manor of West Horsley while she remained a widow. In point of fact, both she and her second husband, John Bryan, remained in possession of the property after their marriage, which took place at some date before November 1399. It was then that Henry IV confirmed Sir James’s son, Richard, in the reversion of the manor on his mother’s death, even though her own title was not sanctioned by Parliament.15 The Berners inheritance was subject to many vicissitudes during this period. In November 1389 and June 1392, Anne Berners was allowed to farm out additional parts of her husband’s estates, and in January 1398 the attainder passed against her husband was reversed by the Shrewsbury Parliament (no doubt under pressure from the King), thus enabling Sir James’s feoffees to regain control of his son’s inheritance. The attainder was, none the less, revived by Henry IV, so that when his mother died in 1403, Richard Berners succeeded to a somewhat depleted patrimony. He was, even so, able to settle most of his father’s manors upon trustees for the use of himself and his heirs.16

Richard II not only did his utmost to assist his friend’s widow and children, but also made provision for the anniversary of his death to be observed at the abbey of St. Mary Graces in London. It is significant that the victims of the Lords Appellant were remembered in this way together with Richard’s first and much-loved queen, Anne of Bohemia.17

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


  • 1. CIPM, xiv. 246, 657; Reg. Black Prince, iv. 438-9, 461; CIMisc. v. 19-22, 141-2, 312; H. Chauncy, Herts. i. 317; C137/34/18; CCR, 1381-5, p. 75; F. Chancellor, Sep. Mons. Essex, 221; S. Lewis, Hist. Islington, 73.
  • 2. Scrope v. Grosvenor, i. 173; ii. 391-5; CIPM, xiv. 246, xv. 657; Reg. Black Prince, iv. 426, 438-9, 461, 475, 482, 507-8.
  • 3. CFR, viii. 318; CPR, 1374-7, pp. 192-3; CCR, 1374-7, pp. 22-23.
  • 4. Scrope v. Grosvenor, loc. cit.; CCR, 1381-5, p. 75.
  • 5. CCR, 1381-5, p. 60. Since the survey of Berners’s estates taken after his attainder is incomplete, this assessment is also based on the rents later derived by the Crown from his property, as well as the inquisitions post mortem of his father, widow and son. It is therefore impossible to give more than a very approximate estimate of his financial position. See: C137/34/18, C145/241/88; CIMisc. v. 19-22, 141-2, 312, vi. 243; VCH Surr. iii. 354; Lewis, 73; CIPM, xiv. 246; CCR, 1374-7, pp. 22-23; 1377-81, p. 392; 1396-9, p. 372; CFR, x. 248, 283, 285-6; CPR, 1388-92, pp. 81, 91, 150, 405-6; 1391-6, p. 96.
  • 6. C145/241/88; CPR, 1385-9, p. 537; CFR, xi. 80.
  • 7. CCR, 1381-5, pp. 392, 399; CPR, 1381-5, pp. 176, 227-8; Scrope v. Grosvenor, loc. cit.; Westminster Chron. 1381-94 ed. Hector and Harvey, 42.
  • 8. CPR, 1381-5, pp. 176, 206, 227-8; CCR, 1381-5, pp. 392, 399, 605.
  • 9. CCR, 1381-5, p. 640; CPR, 1381-5, p. 580; 1385-9, p. 194.
  • 10. Scrope v. Grosvenor, loc. cit.; CPR, 1385-9, pp. 27, 70, 72, 97; CCR, 1385-9, p. 114; CFR, x. 114, 132; E401/563 (5 Feb. 1386).
  • 11. Scrope v. Grosvenor, loc. cit.; CPR, 1385-9, p. 371.
  • 12. CCR, 1385-9, pp. 382, 394-5; RP, iii. 241-5; T.F. Tout, Chapters, iii. 434. For the background to Berners’s trial see M. McKisack, 14th Cent. 454-61.
  • 13. Hist. Mirabilis Parliamenti (Cam. Misc. xiv), 20, 22; Westminster Chron. 1381-94, pp. 234n, 236; 268-79, 288, 292, 332; T. Walsingham, Hist. Ang. ed. Riley, i. 173-4 (who incorrectly states that Berners was hanged).
  • 14. EHR, lxxi. 560-75; CFR, x. 229, 232-3, 248, 283, 285-6; CIMisc. v. 19-22, 141-2; vi. 243; CPR 1385-9, pp. 548, 555-6; 1388-92, pp. 81, 91, 443; CCR, 1389-92, pp. 405-6, 560.
  • 15. CPR, 1385-9, p. 457; 1388-92, pp. 18, 229; 1391-6, p. 266; 1399-1401, pp. 81-82, 1405-8, p. 95; CCR, 1402-5, p. 326; VCH Surr. iii. 354.
  • 16. CIMisc. v. 312; CFR, xi. 293; C137/34/18; Essex Feet of Fines, iii. 246; CPR, 1388-92, p. 150; 1391-6, p. 96; 1408-13, p. 91; CCR, 1396-9, pp. 343, 372; RP, iii. 357-8, 437.
  • 17. CPR, 1396-9, p. 348. For further details of the Berners family pedigree see Lewis, 73. A fine stained-glass window depicting Sir James in full armour was executed during the 1380s at his parish church of West Horsley (Age of Chivalry, Royal Academy Exhibition Cat. 1987, ed. Alexander and Binski, 537).