Sir John Brocas (d. 1365)
Born: circa 1298 in Gascony, Aquitaine
Master of the King's Horse
Died: 15th January 1365 at Clewer, Berkshire
John was the eldest son of Arnold Brocas, a Gascon officer in the English army who was killed – almost certainly at the Battle of Bannockburn – in 1314. With his two brothers, Bernard and Arnold, he was brought to England, probably to Windsor, where he grew up under the protection of King Edward II. Even before he had reached full-age, he had entered the King’s service where he acted as a valet (or squire).
About 1317, while still a teenager, John married an English girl named Margaret. Not long afterwards, he was making land investments in Windsor and, probably by 1326, he had acquired the nearby manor of Clewer Brocas. The two settled down to domestic life and at least three sons and two daughters were born to them.
John seems to have been early associated with his fellow Gascon and firm favourite of King Edward, Oliver de Bordeaux, the Constable of Guildford Castle (and for a short time, Windsor Castle too). Both seem to have managed to skilfully steer their way through the troubled times of this monarch’s imprisonment, his assassination and the government of Queen Isabella and her lover, Mortimer. During this period, both John and Oliver kept their heads down. However, very soon after the young Edward III took personal control of his kingdom in 1330, both returned to favour and John was quickly made Master of the King’s Horse. It is believed that Gascons were famed for their horse-breeding and John’s younger brother, Arnold, was also Master of the Horse to Prince John of Eltham at the same time. Dressed in his official blue tunic and white cape, the elder Brocas brother was in charge of all the Royal studs across the country. This included Stratfield Mortimer and Swallowfield, though the chief stud was in the Great Park at Windsor. Vast sums of money passed through his hands as he equipped the English army with every type of steed, from palfreys to great war horses. For the next thirty years, he was to be at the centre of the organisation of the King’s wars with both France and Scotland. He probably began his military career in the campaign to place Edward Balliol on the Scots Throne, perhaps winning his spurs at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. It was during this period that John's daughter, Matilda, became enamoured of John Foxley, the son of his friend, Thomas Foxley, the Constable of Windsor Castle. The two caused their parents quite some anxiety by apparently running away together at the age of only fourteen and persuading the Vicar of Bray to marry them!
As John’s importance grew, so did his estates. He purchased lands in the parishes adjoining Windsor and Clewer, including the famous ‘Brocas Field’ in Eton, and also invested in business ventures, such as a wine merchants and cellar which he acquired in Windsor. He became the natural choice for the appointment as Chief Forester (or Ranger) of Windsor Forest in 1334. Bizarrely, two years later, he was given the Wardenship of Nottingham Gaol, a period during which the real Robin Hood may have been active there. He managed to throw off this responsibility by 1344.
In an attempt to claim his mother’s inheritance, as heiress of the French Throne, King Edward had declared all out war on France in 1337. In order to pay his troops, the monarch banned the sale of English wool abroad, except for the profit of the Crown. John was one of those appointed to organise the trade, as well, of course, as continuing to equip the Royal cavalry. He appears to have remained in England at this period though, being given the prestigious job of securing the Scottish Marches the following year. Around the same time, he succeeded De Bordeaux as Constable of Guildford Castle, the town where his brother, Bernard, was the Rector of St. Nicholas’ Church. He, no doubt, undertook many of his elder brother’s duties, for John was "one of the busiest men in a stirring age".
By 1340, John was with the English army in France and seems to have given distinguished service at the Naval Battle of Sluys. He was certainly knighted shortly afterwards, for he was subsequently given a pension of 50 marks "for better maintenance of [that] estate". During the ensuing Flemish campaign, Sir John is recorded as having captured, at St. Arnaud near Tournay, an important prisoner, Peter Arnold de Fytor, the Lord of Unissa. He was released upon the promise of a ransom of £40 that was paid some time later.
In 1344, Sir John was, once again, called upon to fight for his King, this time in Brittany, under the Earl of Arundel. However, plans changed and he, instead, spent the year as an English Ambassador in Spain. He first brought congratulations for the capture of Algesiraz to King Alfonso XI of Castile, but later, on a number of trips, entered into negotiations for the marriage of Prince Pedro to Edward’s daughter. He even returned to England with a pair of Spanish jennets for the King.
By 1346, Oliver de Bordeaux’s future step-son, William Trussell took over the embassy, as Sir John was on campaign, with the King again, in France. This time, he was accompanied by his two sons, Bernard and Oliver (named after his godfather, Oliver de Bordeaux). He commanded a large company, recorded at the Siege of Calais to have consisted of one knight, fourteen squires and twenty-four archers. They were almost certainly at the preceding Battle of Crecy too. With the conclusion of a truce the next year, Sir John returned home and, as Warden of Windsor Hospital (which stood somewhere near the present King Edward VII Hospital), made provision for the establishment to receive a permanent chaplain, as well as for divine service to be heard in private chapel at Clewer Brocas Manor. It seems quite probable that this was the fulfillment of some vow made during the Battle.
Around the same time, Sir John became involved in King Edward’s plans to refound King Arthur’s Round Table, which eventually emerged as the Order of the Garter. The King had blue robes made for him both for the great tournament at Eltham and that at Lichfield. However, Sir John, nor his sons, were never made knights of the order. There may have been some prejudice against Gascons rising too high, although he probably couldn’t have afforded the expense in any case. Sir John was still in high favour though and, in 1348, joined the King’s forces in their adventure to foil the plot by Geoffrey de Chargny to retake Calais.
With the institution of the Garter, foreign knights thronged to King Edward's court at Windsor. So he set forth on a path to largely rebuild his castle there and make it a suitable home for the flower European chivalry. It is said this was at the suggestion of King David II of Scots who, by this time, was his captive and finding the accommodation at Windsor somewhat lacking. The expanding responsibilities of the Constable, Thomas Foxley, therefore called for additional help and, in 1351, the King commissioned Sir John and his old friend, Oliver de Bordeaux, to "survey the workmen and their work, to encourage such as did their duty, but to compel those who were slothful". Four years later, however, the War had restarted and Sir John was called abroad once more. The second commission to complete the rebuilding of Windsor Castle was given to William of Wykeham, a clerk recommended to the King by Bishop Edington of Winchester, who had worked under Sir John during the first commission. he, of course, eventually became Bishop of Winchester himself, but always remained a firm friend of Brocas and his family. It may have been during this period that Sir John's wife, Margaret, died and he remarried a lady named Isabella. They had two sons together.
Sir John's son, Bernard, was already in France, with the Black Prince, plundering Narbonne, when, in October 1355, the father was sent with fresh troops, probably to review the situation and make plans for the ensuing campaign. This led to the great English victory at Battle of Poitiers, where King John II of France was captured. Two thirds of the English force there were Gascon and, no doubt, levied by the Brocases. Soon afterwards, Sir John was awarded a pension, by the Prince, of one penny in the pound of all silver coinage collected in Aquitaine, for his 'good service', presumably during the Battle. With the power of the French having been crushed, Sir John was given a commission, along with Edmund Rose and his friend, William of Wykeham, to sell off the horses from the Windsor Stud and, later, from all the studs north of the Trent. He appears again in France, in 1359, commanding a company, which included his sons, Oliver and Bernard; and, after the French signed the Treaty of Bretigny, he was given another pension of forty marks (£26 13s 4d) per annum, followed by the commission for the sale of the Royal horses in studs south of the Trent. The money was to be handed over to Wykeham for the building work at Windsor.
The last time Sir John appears in extant records, he is given cloth and furs from the Royal wardrobe in order to have a robe of the King's livery made in 1364, along with thirty-two belly skins of pure miniver for a hood. He could not have worn it often, for he died at his Clewer Manor on 15th January the following year.
Image of Sir John Brocas reproduced by kind permission of © Ugo Pozzati
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