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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story


Andrew Hoyle

In 1390 an armed expedition sailed out of Boston in two ships under the leadership of Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby. The destination was Danzig, where they were to join in a Holy War in defence of Christian lands in northern Europe led by the Teutonic Knights. The Knights were an Order of warrior-monks based in Prussia and the hanseatic centres of Danzig and Konigsberg. Before that, Henry was at the great Inglevert jousting tournament in France and was inspired by the talk amongst the competing knights to join the brotherhood of knights heading for the crusade in Tunisia. But when he was denied safe conduct across France, he readily agreed to join another crusade about to start in Lithuania.

Image of Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby

Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, was crowned Henry IV in 1399.

Henry was born in Bolingbroke Castle just north of Boston and was son of the famous John of Gaunt. He was one of the greatest princes in Europe and later to become King Henry IV. His home in the town was Gysors Hall, opposite today’s Fydell House.

“Above the knights of all nations in Prussia He campaigned in Lithuania and Prussia” from the prologue, Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer

The expedition left the Haven on 20th July 1390, the feast day of St Margaret. On board the two ships were 16 knights, among whom was Sir Ralph Rochford, of Rochford Tower in Boston. He was one of Gaunt’s knights and was paid 8d a day to be part of Henry’s retinue. Geoffrey Chaucer, a close friend of John of Gaunt, by reason that they were married to sisters, was a confidant of Henry and probably based the Knight in his Canterbury Tales on Sir Ralph.

Iamge of misericord caving in St Botolph’s

Misericord caving in St Botolph’s showing the likeness of Henry IV and double headed eagle.

After spending some time in Danzig (Gdansk), the English force of about 300 accompanied by 13 carts carrying their stores and armour left to capture Vilnius, in the Duchy of Lithuania. Onthe way, in their first battle, they captured three Lithuanian Dukes, 11 high ranking nobles and 200 horses.

Iamge of Rochford Manor

Rochford Manor was formerly Sir Ralph Rochford’s home. It was remodelled around 1460. (Pishey Thompson, 1856)

When they reached Vilnius they found it heavily defended with outer wooden defences and an inner hill-top stone castle. The city was stormed on 4th September, 1390. Records written at the time say that Henry’s English bowmen played a crucial part in the battle and that it was an English yeoman retainer of the Lord Bouchier who planted a banner on the wall of the city. Vilnius was looted and burned and many prisoners taken but the hill-top castle was not captured.

Henry returned to Bolingbroke Castle in October via Hull, sending his baggage back to Boston by boat. In 1392, Henry returned to the Baltic region with a second army, this time sailing from Kings Lynn. He subsequently went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Iamge of Vilnius Castle

Vilnius Castle in the 13th-century (used by kind permission of the National Museum of Lithuania)