Henry of Essex

Henry of Essex or Henry de Essex (died c. 1170) was an Anglo-Norman nobleman who held the honours of Rayleigh (by inheritance) and Haughley (by right of his second wife). He was also one of the royal constables during the reigns of Kings Stephen and Henry II by right of his second wife. That office included the duty of bearing the royal standard to indicate the location of the king when on campaign or in battle. He was convicted as a traitor and took the habit in 1163, spending his last years at Reading Abbey.


Henry was the son and heir of Robert fitz Swein of Essex, a descendant of the pre-conquest landowner Robert fitz Wimarch who was favored by King Edward the Confessor.

Henry is mentioned in several chronicles, including that of Jocelin of Brakelond. His influence at the royal court was greatest during the reign of Stephen, but it continued into the early years of Henry II's. He served Henry as Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire from 1156 to 1159, and as a justiciar, as well as being his constable.[1] Henry participated in the king's Toulouse campaign in the spring and summer of 1159.[2]

After he dropped the royal standard in a Welsh ambush during Henry II's campaign into Wales of 1157, however, his political importance waned. As royal constable, his office required that he hold the standard to indicate the king's position during any military engagement. Dropping the standard seemed to signal the king's death. At the royal court held at Easter, 1163, Henry was accused of treason for that act by a claimant to the Montfort estate of Haughley. The two men fought a judicial duel a few months later. Jocelin details Henry's judicial duel with Robert de Montfort (a rival for Henry's wife's inheritance) on Fry's Island in the River Thames at Reading. Henry's body was carried senseless from the site of the duel by monks of the nearby Reading Abbey, but he survived and took the Benedictine cowl. As he was a convicted traitor, however, his estates and offices were forfeit, and his family was disgraced.[3] Henry was allowed to remain as a monk at Reading Abbey, where he remained for the rest of his life.[4]

Henry of Essex is thought to have died at Reading Abbey in the same year that Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered, 1170.


Henry married firstly Cecily; they had least at two sons, Henry and Hugh.[5] His second wife was Alice, probably the daughter and heiress of Robert de Vere, the royal constable (d. circa 1151).[6] It is unknown which wife was the mother of Henry's daughter, Agnes, who married Aubrey de Vere, first Earl of Oxford, as his third wife, but Alice seems most likely.[7]


Argent, an orle gules

Henry's arms were blazoned Argent, an Orle Gules.[8]


  1. ^ Richardson and Sayles, Governance of Medieval England (Edinburgh: 1963), p. 196
  2. ^ Frank Barlow, Thomas Becket, p. 57.
  3. ^ T. Keefe, Feudal Assessments and the Political Community under Henry II and His Sons (Berkeley, 1983), p. 259.
  4. ^ David Nash Ford, Trial by Combat at Reading in Royal Berkshire History at berkshirehistory.com, accessed 2004-12-01
  5. ^ G. E. Cokayne, The Complete Peerage, vol. 10, pp. 199-207
  6. ^ Amt, Emilie, "Essex, Henry of (d. after 1163)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 10 June 2017
  7. ^ DeAragon, R., "Agnes of Essex, Countess of Oxford", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 6, p. 467.
  8. ^ John de Bidun, Eodem anno, as in Madox's Exch., p. 685

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Honorary titles
Preceded by
Lord High Constable of England
Succeeded by