DAVID MORGAN explores how Henry V’s Archbishop came to lend his name to a street in Croydon
Residents of Chichele Gardens, part of the Park Hill estate in Croydon, might be in for a surprise when they discover the story behind their street name.
Some might know that Henry Chichele was an Archbishop of Canterbury. A few might know that he was a generous benefactor to the medieval Parish Church at Croydon, where today’s Croydon Minster stands. I suspect only a handful will know that he was the man to welcome Henry V and his victorious troops back from the Battle of Agincourt.
Chichele was Archbishop from 1414 until his death, at the age of 80 in 1443. Agincourt occurred in the very first year of his appointment. Chichele was an obvious successor as Archbishop after Thomas Arundel, as he had already worked on legal and diplomatic matters with the young Prince of Wales before he reached the throne.
In the 15th century, the Archbishop of Canterbury was a key figure in the Royal Court and the government. With the king away fighting in France, it was the Archbishop who was virtually running the country. The king and his knights would do the fighting, while the church and its clerics would run the administration.
One view of the political intrigue of the time is fictionalised in Shakespeare’s Henry V. In Act 1 Scene 2 of that play there is a long dialogue between Chichele and the king, with the Archbishop having to defend an accusation that he wanted the king to further his cause in France in order to deflect attention away from the troubles in the church. This was a rather scurrilous argument that the Bard probably discovered from Redman’s history of Henry, published in 1540.
Chichele enjoyed this early period of his Primacy immensely. He was an enthusiastic supporter as King Henry gathered his ships and his soldiers together. Chichele loaned money to the Crown to help fund the war against the French; he was there to bless the fleet as it sailed off across the Channel. All the churches in England were asked to pray for a victorious campaign, at Chichele’s request.
Chichele was so concerned about the French threat to England that he organised the clergy of the Diocese of Canterbury to be the first “Home Guard”, to keep watch for a threatened French invasion. Maybe there’s a new sitcom waiting to be written about that time in history? Chichele might not have been the Captain Mainwaring of his time, but the threat of invasion from a foreign power when the monarch and his key military personnel were abroad was a very real one.
As well as the French, there could be incursions from both the Welsh and the Scots. Nobody in government could rest easy until Henry returned.
Positive messages were received from Harfleur to say that the town had surrendered to the English army. So far so good. Chichele, though, remained concerned. He knew that Henry’s brother, the Duke of Bedford, was untried in his role in supporting the king. He also knew that the French king, Charles VI, although not a fighting leader, possessed a far superior number of troops than Henry.
In the end his worries were unfounded. Feelings of relief were soon to flood the country.
At an early hour on Tuesday October 29, 1415, Chichele received word that the Battle of Agincourt had been fought and won. He subsequently rode out to Canterbury to meet with Henry on his victorious return. Unfortunately, the voyage home for the kking and his army had been none too straightforward. Some ships foundered and were lost in a storm with both English troops and French prisoners drowning. Many of the soldiers arrived back in dribs and drabs, being given money to pay for the cost of a Channel crossing on any craft they could find as there were no more official vessels available.
As the general population discovered that a great victory had been achieved against all the odds, the celebrations of the people started. It took a full month for Henry to reach London, with the excitement mounting during his progress. On the king’s arrival, Chichele led a celebratory Te Deum in both Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, as well as presiding over a solemn mass, attended by the king, to remember all those who had died during his expedition.
Just seven years later, the country was thrown into turmoil.
The hero king Henry V died on August 31, 1422, while on a further military quest in France. On September 25, Chichele ordered that prayers be said in churches throughout the land for the soul of the late king and for the well-being of his successor, the six-month-old Henry VI.
Chichele felt a deep loss and grief at this time. He was a truly favoured confidante of Henry V. He had crowned Henry’s wife Catherine of Valois at Westminster in February 1421 and had baptised their young heir in the December of that year. When Henry’s body was returned to this country, it was Chichele who led the funeral service in Westminster Abbey where the king was laid to rest.
Over the next 20 years, Chichele continued to be an important figure for the church, as well as a lawyer and a diplomat.
Living into his 80th year, Chichele eventually wrote to the Pope asking to be relieved of his duties due to his declining health. Before any response was received from the Pope, the old Archbishop died. He was buried in a cadaver tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. Even today it is one of the most striking there. On the top of it the Archbishop is robed in his finery; underneath lays a stone corpse, its boney form reflecting the inscription: “I was to pauper born, then to primate raised. Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave.”
What is important to Croydon is that he enjoyed the times when he stayed at the Archbishop’s Palace here. Throughout his life, Chichele was a generous benefactor of many places and institutions. Croydon Parish Church was one such recipient and it was through the Archbishop’s financial support that the church became such a splendid building. After the terrible fire of 1867 that destroyed so much of the original building, the coat of arms of Archbishop Chichele was carved by the main west door to remember his generosity to the town.
Next time you see the road sign for Chichele Gardens, it should remind you of Henry V’s Archbishop of Canterbury and the Battle of Agincourt, and a man at the centre of the action. His founding of All Souls College, Oxford, his work as an ambassador for the Pope, his time as Bishop of St David’s haven’t been explored here, but these only add to his impressive profile.
- The London Street Guide, www.londonstreetguide.com, have asked communities throughout the capital to help them explain and expand on the origins of street names across the city, recognising that local knowledge will aid this project enormously
- To read previous David Morgan articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
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