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Young Francis L’Estrange Astley was born on 27 February 1810 and since the death of his father, Sir Jacob Henry Astley, 5th Baronet Astley, in April 1817 the possessor of the Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk, England. A place that according to latest news fell into dereliction, and is according the English Heritage at Risk Register in poor condition.

In the 1820ies the hall was in good condition because the owners cared about it. It was visited by John Chambers, of Worcester. Chambers was traveling through Norfolk and collected local knowledge of history and architecture. He had published already “A General History of Malvern” (1817), “Biographical Illustrations of Worcestershire” (1820), and “A General History of Worcester” (1820). According to his own words it took him nine years to collect all the data, stories on his Norfolk Tour to fill this book. It was published in two volumes in 1829. A description of a painting, an illustration was attracting me. It hung next to a dead roebuck in the library accessible from the north staircase of Melton Constable Hall. It was a ancient representation of the two combats of the Knight Sir John Astley of Nailstone, Leicestershire, with two French knights, one in Paris the other in Smithfield. I remembered that those fights were pictured in an manuscript in the MS M.775, Pierpoint Morgan library.

Print made by Wenceslaus Hollar. 1658The combats of John Astley became popular in the 17th century by a woodcut made by Wenceslaus Hollar in ca. 1658. It is following the book “The Antiquities of Warwickshire” by William Dugdale of 1656 where it is written:

Of the Patshull branch of the Astley family was John de Astley, who, on the 29th of August, 1438, maintaining a duel on horseback, within the street called Antoine, in Paris, against one Peter de Masse, a Frenchman, in the presence of Charles the Seventh, King of France, pierc’t the said Peter through the head, and had (as by the articles betwixt them conditioned) the helmit of the said Peter, being so vanquish’d, to present unto his lady. And on the 30th January, 20 of Henry the Sixth, undertook another fight in the Smythfield, within the city of London, in the prescence of the same King Henry the Sixth, with Sir Philip Boyle, an Arragonian Knight, who having been in France, by the King his master’s command to look out some hardy person against whom he might try his skill in feats of armes, and missing there of his desires, repaired hither. After which combate ended (being gallantly perform’d on foot, with battil-axes, speares, swords, and daggers), he was knighted by the King, with an annuity of one hundred marks during his life. Nay, so famous did he grow for his valour, that he was elected Knight of the Garter.

The print of Wenceslaus Hollar is again the basement of a picture formaly found in Arbury Hall, Warwickshire, Newdegate, England made in 1773.

What is transcribed from Chamber’s book below in italic font is his literal translation of the original representation of the combats in Merton Hall. He told us that “the inscription is in very old English mixed with French”. It matches the text found in the Britisch Library Lansdowne Ms. 285, John Paston’s copy of the Grete Booke, folio 15b {4}.

The challenge of Pierre de Masse

Pierpoint Morgan m775.002vThe folios of the MS M.775 gives us a description of the challenge of Pierre de Masse and Philip Boyle. It is to remark that those pages were a separate part of that book written in a different hand than other pages. The first fight took place on the 29th August 1438 in Paris. The French King Charles VII was the judge of that fight. The combat took place in “Seyntantonne street” (St. Antoine streetnear the Place de Bastille. On folio 2v we get an miniature of that combat with Sir John Astley on the right side {3}.

In the worship and in the name of God and of our blessed lady Virgin Mary, and my lord Saint Denis, I Pierre de Massie, Esquire of he realme of France, bearing four coats of arms, without any reproach, hath required in the town of Pontoise John Astley, Esquire, born in the realme of England. bearing four coats of arms, without any reproach, for to fight on horseback half at my expense and half at his expense, and that we twain be appointed to do and accomplish the said combat on horseback, before the right high, right excellent, and right powerful prince, the king of France, my sovereign lord, of the which he of bis good grace hath appointed that he himself will be our judge the same day; these are the articles here ensuing:

  • The first article is, that twain shall be armed on horseback, in double harness without any shield or crest of advantage, and either of us to be armed as seemeth best, for either of as twain to break six spears, that is twelve spears on the whole, all of the same length and of such greatness as either of iu may bear at his pleasure.
  • The second article Is, that I Pierre de Massie, shall cause to be made the said twelve spears, all of one length, and I the said Pierre will that he have choice of the said twelve spears.
  • The third article is, that I the said Pierre de Massie, shall make the field, and the bar in the midst, to keep our horses good and safe, and keep them from harm.
  • The fourth article is, that which of ns twain that God of his high grace will that bath the better, shall have of the other his helm or helmet, the which he bears upon his head for to bear unto his lady.

This be the combat, that John Astley did accomplish in the town of Paris in St. Antoine street, and smote the said Pierre de Massie through the head with a spear in the year of our Lord M CCCC XXXXVIIJ before king Charles of France, it was done the 29th day of August, of the reign of our sovreign lord king Henry VI 16th.

The challenge of Philip Boyle

At the 30 January 1441/2 Sir John Astley was requested again to fight an Frenchman, Pierpoint Morgan m775.277vthis time from the Kingdom of Aragon. In the William “the Skinner” Gregory London Chronicle this event is noted “Ande the xxx day of Janyver was certayne poyntys of armys done in Smethefylde by twyne a knyght of Catelan and a Engelysche squyer, i-callyde Syr John Ascheley; of the whiche tyme the sone of the sayde knyght, in presens of alle the pepylle there, was made knyght opynly by the kyngys owne hondys. And the sayde John Ayschelay also was made knyght att the same tyme.” {6}

Be it so that I Philip Boyle, knight of the realme of Arragon, was encharged to fight with a knight or squire, at the special request of my sovreign lord the most excellent, most puissant prince, the king of Arragon and of Sicily, and so forth, for the which I might not be quit of my said enterprize, for default of knowledge of arms of them in France, wherefore I am come into the realme of England, and into the court and presence of the most high Majesty of the most illustrious and victorious prince, the king of England and of France, the chief of valour and prowess, and by a supplication, and by a special grace I have got leave to bear a devise In his noble court, by the means of which I may be quit of ray said charge, of the which I declare these articles here ensuing:

  • The first article is that we shall fight on horseback either of armed as please him, with weapons accustomed to bear in battle, i. e. spears, swords, daggers, such and in such advantage as either of us like, without any false engine.
  • The second article is, that he that God’s gives victory, shall have of the t’other his sword or his helme, or his other arms, which he bears upon his head.
  • The third article is, if so be the same battle comes not to an end the same day, as is above said, we shall upon the morning accomplish it a foot, with the harness and the weapons that is left unto us, without pitying each other.
  • The fourth article, is that each of us may help himself, with westling, with legs and feet, with arms and hands.
  • The fifth article, is because my horse and my harness is in Flanders, on the other side of the sea, if I shall have my horse and harness eight days after the day that shall be assigned, we shall hold the said battle, but if it so be that I may not recover them in time reasonable, that then we shall do the said battle on foot, either of us armed according to our will and power, to have axe, spear, sword, and dagger, as is above said.

That said combat was accomplished by John Astley esq the [unreadable] day of January in Smithfield, before the king Henry the Sixth, of the realme or England, on the 20th of his reign, and when the said John had done the combat, then it pleased the king of his highness for to make him knight the same day, and gave him 100 marks for the term of his life, in the year of Grace M CCCC XI. II.

John Stowe, Annals of England to 1603, page 667This combat is described in a fantastic detail by Thomas Flloyd in his “Bibliotheca biographica” {5} dating the fight to 1442. He took his account of the combat from John Stow’s Annals of England to 1603 (see image). Flloyd’s copy reads: “They fought on foot, both completely armed, and Astley first threw his spear, which was avoided by sir Philip Boyle, who put it by with his sword: after this, Astley took his battle-ax and went against the knight suddenly, on whom he struck many strokes hard and sore, says my author, on his basnet, and on his hand, and made him drop his battle-ax to the ground, and burst up the visor of his helmet three times, and caught his dagger, and would have smitten him in the face, to have slain him in the field ; and then the king cried Hoo! and so they were parted, and went to their tents. Immediately after, the king dubbed the said John Astley a knight, and granted him an annuity of 100 marks. As for sir Philip Boyle, or as Stow calls him, sir Philip de Beause, he went and offered his arms at Windsor. ”

Philip de Boyle returned to England as an ambassador. Sir John Astley lived until 1486. He officiated at the 1461 joust between Lord Scales and the Bastard of Burgundy, went 1462 on expedition to Scotland, was 1463 appointed Captain of Alnwick, was ransomed in 1466 Ransomed, after having been sent to France, was 1475 in France again with the army, carried with three others the canopy at Edward funeral in 1483. He died at the 19 August 1486.

Books used in this Article:

{1} The Antiquities of Warwickshire, William Dugdale, 1656
{2} A General History of the County of Norfolk: Intended to Convey All the Information of a Norfolk Tour, with the More Extended Details of Antiquarian, Statistical, Pictorial, Architectural, and Miscellaneous Information; Including Biographical Notices, Original and Selected, Volume 2, John Chambers, 1829
{3} Detailed descriptions of the MS M.775, Pierpoint Morgan library.
{4} Cripps-Day, F.H. The History of the Tournament, London, 1918
{5} Bibliotheca biographica: a synopsis of universal biography, ancient and modern … The whole affording a comprehensive abstract of universal history, Thomas Flloyd, J. Hinton, 1760
{6} The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the fifteenth century, James Gairdner, 1876