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William appears to have been a cousin of Thomas, Lord Clifford, an important Westmorland magnate, who also held the castle of Skipton-in-Craven in Yorkshire. [1] As the Percy family also held lands in Yorkshire and in Cumberland, it is perhaps not surprising that William’s first recorded military service was with Sir Thomas Percy, in a naval expedition in 1385. [2] However, Thomas Clifford was close to Richard II’s court, [3] and it may have been this connection which drew William into Percy’s retinue, for Percy was also a well connected courtier. Nevertheless, this court connection did not prevent William from serving on the naval expedition of 1388, led by the Appellant Lord, Richard, Earl of Arundel, one of Richard II’s fiercest critics. [4] And nor did Clifford’s Percy connection stop him from serving with Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, when the latter was appointed Warden of the East March towards Scotland in the following year (an appointment which was bitterly resented by Thomas Percy’s elder brother, the earl of Northumberland). [5] His service with Arundel may have provided the opportunity for social advancement, for also serving on the same expedition was Thomas, Lord Bardolf, whose daughter Clifford would marry.[6]


Thomas Clifford died young, in October 1391, while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. [7] His heir was his two-year old son, John; and during John’s long minority, William was left as the effective head of the family. Thomas had been a knight of the king’s chamber, and William was now recruited to the king’s household in his place, serving in Richard’s household retinue for the expedition to Ireland in 1394, where he was amongst a group of household esquires knighted on 26 October. [8] He returned to Ireland with the king on the ill-fated expedition of 1399, [9] but he wasted no time in abandoning Richard during the Lancastrian coup of that year, for he was paid £18 4s. by the new regime for service in Wales, [10] presumably with the force which so intimidated Richard after he had left the safety of Conwy Castle in the company of the Earl of Northumberland. His prompt change of allegiance also brought him a greater reward in the form of a grant of the manor of Ewloe in the county of Flint in North Wales; not surprisingly, he also kept his position as a king’s knight. [11]


Nevertheless, for the next few years, his allegiance seems to have been given to the earl of Northumberland – although evidently his prime loyalty remained to himself. For the next two years, he took out letters of attorney for service on the Scottish Marches, [12] and by 1403, he was Hotspur’s lieutenant at Berwick Castle. When Hotspur rebelled against Henry in that year, his forces were raised mainly from Cheshire; and so Clifford avoided having to take the field against the king at the battle of Shrewsbury, where Hotspur was killed. After the battle, the earl of Northumberland submitted to Henry at York, and agreed to surrender all the castles under his control. Although the royal castle at Bamburgh was secured with no great difficulty (perhaps because Percy’s lieutenant there was dead, probably killed at Shrewsbury), Alnwick, Warkworth and Berwick, under Clifford’s command, refused to submit – despite Clifford having sworn an oath renouncing his Percy ties. [13]

The castle of Alnwick in Northumberland, held by Clifford in the 1400s.


As the king judged that the continuing rebellion in Wales was a more urgent problem, the task of pacifying Northumberland was left in the hands of a commission of leading Northumbrian gentry. Their efforts proved singularly ineffective, and in January 1404 it was reported that Clifford was distributing Percy livery badges. [14] At this juncture, William Serle, a former esquire of Richard II’s chamber, turned up, seeking Clifford’s help, as an erstwhile colleague in Richard’s household, in his efforts to foment rebellion against Richard’s usurper. However, the earl of Northumberland was now moving towards an accommodation with the king, and with a well-developed sense of self-preservation, Clifford saw an opportunity to regain royal favour, and had Serle locked up. When Northumberland was reconciled with Henry at Pontefract in July, Clifford accompanied him, and handed Serle over to a singularly gruesome execution. In return, he was granted a pardon and 4,000 marks (£2666) from Hotspur’s goods, along with the custody of Hotspur’s son. [15]


When Northumberland rebelled in 1405, Clifford held Alnwick castle in his name. However, he offered terms to the king, and surrendered as soon as the royal artillery train had demolished the walls of Berwick, a submission which earned him a life-grant of lands in Cumberland forfeited by the rebellious earl, who now fled to Scotland in the company of Clifford’s father-in-law, Lord Bardolf. [16] In 1408, when the earl and Lord Bardolf raised rebellion in Yorkshire once again, Clifford was accused of unspecified ‘treasons’. However, whilst both Northumberland and Bardolf were killed in battle at Bramham Moor in Yorkshire, Clifford had no trouble in shaking off the accusations; indeed, he was able to obtain his wife’s share of Bardolf’s lands in the year following. [17]


Throughout his career, Clifford was skilled at bending with the political wind; and even when he did defy the king, he proved adept at judging exactly how far to go. His acts of rebellion were fairly passive, confined to refusing to surrender castles, or handing out livery badges, and he managed to avoid being caught in arms against the king in the open field. Combined with his good record of military service to the Crown, this was enough to save his neck. Henry IV was generally anxious to conciliate rebels whenever possible, and in the Marches, where the removal of the Percies had left a vacuum of lordship, he anyway had little choice but to try to win over the leading Marcher gentry. As the acting head of the Clifford family, William was thus able to reap rich reward from acts of rebellion followed by swift submission. Doubtless, he did feel a genuine loyalty to the house of Percy, but unlike his father-in-law, Lord Bardolf, he did not take this loyalty to fatal extremes. And in the end, Henry’s policy of tolerance was vindicated, for he went on to serve Henry V faithfully.


Clifford was appointed constable of Bordeaux on 23 March 1413 (just two days after Henry’s accession), and was also appointed captain of the nearby castle at Fronsac in July. [18] Conceivably, the posting was intended to keep him out of trouble, but rather more likely, it was his service commanding the border town of Berwick which recommended him. Henry held Gascony as Duke of Guienne, rather than as the King of England, and its status as part of France was a long-standing bone of contention (indeed, perhaps the main cause of the Hundred Years War). The allegiance of the Gascon nobility was not to be taken for granted; and Clifford’s personal experience of dealing with the Scots, and with rebellious Englishmen who had sided with them, would have been an invaluable preparation for the slippery world of Gascon politics. And it was his diplomatic rather than his military skills that Henry was subsequently to call on, for he was employed in high-level negotiations with the French and with the Burgundians. [19] This service brought him more reward, in the form of a grant of the lands in Lincolnshire forfeited by the rebellious Henry Scrope of Masham. [20] Clifford died in office, in March 1418, [21] as a wealthy man, demonstrating that a record of rebelliousness was not necessarily a hindrance to a successful career as a king’s knight – always providing that the rebellion was sufficiently well judged.


Andy King

[1] Clifford’s career is outlined by Chris Given-Wilson, The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity. Service, Politics and Finance in England, 1360-1413 (London, 1986), pp. 228-9; and Adrian R. Bell, War and the Soldier in the Fourteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2004), p. 206.

[2] The details of Clifford’s military career have been taken from the AHRC-funded ‘The Soldier in Later Medieval England Online Database’,, accessed 11 Dec 2007. William Clifford, in the retinue of Sir Thomas Percy, E101/40/39, m 1. Note that the William Clifford Esq who served with Sir Phillip de Courtenay in 1372-3 (E101/31/31, m 5) was probably one of the Cliffords of Chudleigh, Devon, which would explain his connection with the Courtenays who were also a Devonshire family.

[3] Henry Summerson, ‘Clifford, Thomas, sixth Baron Clifford (1362/3–1391)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 11 Dec 2007].

[4] William Clyfford, esq.: serving in the retinue of Giles Weston; E101/41/5, m 18d.

[5] William Clifford: E101/41/17, m 2. For Northumberland’s displeasure, see J.A. Tuck, ‘Richard II and the Border Magnates’,Northern History iii (1968), pp. 44-5. Mowbray was appointed in place of Sir Henry Percy, a.k.a. ‘Hotspur’, who had been captured by the Scots at the battle of Otterburn in 1388.

[6] Thomas de Bardolf: E101/41/5, m 3; and see Henry Summerson, ‘Bardolf, Thomas, fifth Baron Bardolf (1369–1408)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 11 Dec 2007].

[7] Summerson, ‘Clifford, Thomas, sixth Baron Clifford’. [, accessed 11 Dec 2007]. Thomas became a pilgrim to expiate his killing of the Scot Sir William Douglas, while they were both on crusade in the Baltic.

[8] Sir William Clifford, 1394: Shelagh Mitchell, ‘Some Aspects of the Knightly Household of Richard II’ (Unpublished DPhil. thesis, London University, 1998), p. 308, citing E101/402/20, f 36.

[9] He took out letters for service in Ireland on 24 April; CPR 1396-1399, p. 552. The William Clifford, esq., who served in Ireland under Sir Stephen le Scrope in 1395-7 (E101/41/39, m 5) cannot be the same man, as our William had been knighted by then.

[10] Alastair Dunn, The Politics of Magnate Power. England and Wales, 1389-1413 (Oxford, 2003), p. 99.

[11] Calendar of Patent Rolls 1399-1401, p. 51.

[12] C71/76, mm 8, 14.

[13] Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1401-5, p. 294.

[14] Royal and Historical Letters during the Reign of Henry IV, ed. F.C. Hingeston, Rolls Series (2 vols., 1860), i, pp. 206-7; Andy King, ‘“They have the Hertes of the People by North”: Northumberland, the Percies and Henry IV, 1399-1408’, in Henry IV: The Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406, ed. Gwilym Dodd and Douglas Biggs (Woodbridge, 2003).

[15] The Chronica maiora of Thomas Walsingham (1376-1422), ed. David Preest and James G. Clark (Woodbridge, 2005), pp. 332-3.

[16] The Chronicle of John Hardyng, ed. H. Ellis (London, 1812), pp. 363-4; Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1405-8, p. 47.

[17] Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1408-13, pp. 23, 95-6.

[18] James Wylie and William Waugh, The Reign of Henry V (3 vols., Cambridge, 1914-29), ii, pp. 122-4; M.G.A.Vale, English Gascony, 1399-1453 (Oxford, 1970), p. 247. He took out letters of attorney for service overseas in July and October 1413, and August 1417; Forty-Fourth Annual Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records (1883), appendix, pp. 543, 548, 600.

[19] Wylie and Waugh, The Reign of Henry V, i, 94, 444; ii, 301.

[20] Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1416-22, p. 116.

[21] E101/187/1. News of Clifford’s death obviously took a while to reach England, for several letters of protection for men serving under his command at Fronsac were issued on 16 April – three weeks after he had died; Forty-Fourth Annual Report of the Deputy Keeper, appendix, p. 604.