If you suppose that the battle of Nibley Green was just a slight contretemps between Windy Miller and Farmer Bell then be disabused, for in 1470 at Nibley Green blood was shed and dastardly deeds were done in what has become billed as the last private battle on English soil. At the May meeting of the Thornbury History and Archaeological Society, Peter Fleming from UWE was there to tell us the somewhat complicated and perhaps slightly tall tale.
The ‘battle’ was the culmination of a longstanding feud between the Berkeleys and the Talbots, who were Earls of Shrewsbury, and we need to go further back in time to find the source. In 1417 the rich and powerful Thomas Berkeley died with no male heir and, since the Berkeley estate had previously been entailed to the male line, his nephew James inherited, succeeded by James’s son William. However, a daughter of the direct line had married a Talbot, so the Talbots came to think that they had a good claim to the Berkeley estate, thus beginning the longest running soap opera in English legal history (it wasn’t settled until 1609).
Meanwhile, some events had occurred which have a significant bearing on the case. In 1453, at the end of the 100 years war, the English lost virtually all their land in France, which meant that a lot of wealthy landowning families now owned a bit less than they had, and they were looking to increase their holdings in England. Then in 1455 began the Wars of the Roses, a power struggle between the supporters of the weak, bankrupt and slightly dotty Henry 6 and the supporters of his loving cousin Edward 4. Now, as Cicero said, ‘laws are silent in times of war’, meaning that if you want to carry on a feud then all you have to do is nail your colours to a ‘legitimate’ cause and off you go. William Berkeley supported the Lancastrian Henry. The Talbots supported Yorkist Edward.
Fast forward to 1469. It so happens that one of the Talbot manors is at Wotton under Edge, and in 1469 a hot-headed 18 year old Thomas Talbot comes of age. Fond of his Wotton manor, he thinks it would be rather lovely to extend it by adding the Berkeley estate. He fires off a series of challenges to William Berkeley. In 1470 William, being a chivalrous knight, finally accepts Thomas’s challenge to combat. They agree to meet on land between Berkeley Castle and Wotton.
There are many reports of the battle of Nibley Green but not many verifiable facts. One fact is that Thomas Talbot was killed. His widow petitioned the King’s Bench for the murder of her husband. Strangely for a so-called ‘battle’, only one other such petition was made. Also rather strangely, William had all of Thomas’s challenges and his responses fully documented before the battle, relating Thomas’s challenge to combat as well as a plot to take the castle, which was conveniently ‘exposed’ by William’s steward. One account of the battle reports that William had 1000 men, but only a handful are documented, one being the Sherriff of Gloucester, a useful ‘witness’ to have on your side.
Peter considers that rather than a battle the event was more likely a skirmish, and perhaps more likely still an assassination. Writers close to the Berkeley family seem to have beefed-up the event into a battle according to the chivalric code in order to legitimise William’s actions. This has helped the battle live long in memory. Camden certainly reported the battle in his Britannia of 1695. However, the only way to find out the truth is to talk to Thomas Talbot’s ghost, so if you’re in Nibley Green sometime after dark...
Our thanks to Peter for this intriguing glimpse into the lives (and deaths) of the medieval elite in South Gloucestershire.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.