John Hardyng: Henry V’s secret agent

In the latest instalment of our occasional series profiling remarkable yet unheralded characters from history, Sarah Peverley introduces a royal spy and cartographer who witnessed some of the 15th century’s most extraordinary events

John Hardyng, a royal spy and cartographer who witnessed some of the 15th century's most extraordinary events. (Illustration by Sue Gent for BBC History Magazine)

The horse was tired. Its wounded rider had pushed through Scotland’s landscape for days. He couldn’t risk stopping again, not after attracting the wrong kind of attention in Ayr. The Scots were still in pursuit and he had to reach England by nightfall. Mustering all their strength, horse and rider pressed on through the Scottish Marches – a desolate place, home to bandits and reivers. But the rider was alert, scanning the hills for signs of ambush.

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It was 1421 and for three-and-a-half years John Hardyng, a 43-year-old English soldier, had been living “among the enemy”. Travelling the length and breadth of Scotland on a secret mission for Henry V of England, his assignment had been two-fold. First, he had to map the terrain and report on the best route for an invading army. The king wanted to know what kind of roads were suitable for an army to ride, what towns stood on the east sea-side, and where his fleet could meet him with his supplies and all his artillery. Hardyng was also to seek evidence proving Scotland had no right to independence. Henry V, like many English monarchs before him, believed Scotland was part of his ancestral inheritance. Once Henry’s war with France was over, the fruits of Hardyng’s reconnaissance would help him pursue the Scottish crown.

Writing about his espionage years later, John Hardyng recalled how he had “laboured busily” each day, charting distances between towns and evaluating the landscape. He noted which lands were ripe for plunder with “corn, cattle and grass” and which waters were “navigable for vessels with a 40 tonne cargo”. He also recorded the strengths and weaknesses of each castle, paying attention to how they might fare under siege. Finally, through cunning and “great cost”, he had managed to acquire several documents supporting English authority over Scotland. He would fabricate more once he was home.

Once Henry V’s war with France was over, Hardyng’s reconnaissance would help the king to pursue the Scottish crown

As he crossed the Cheviot Hills, Hardyng dreamed of being rewarded. Little did he realise that all of his efforts had been in vain. In just over a year King Henry V would be dead.

Born in 1378, John Hardyng was educated in the household of Sir Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy (1364–1403), son of the first Earl of Northumberland. Initiated into warfare on the precarious Anglo-Scottish border, he became a formidable soldier. He was fluent in English, Latin and French, skills he used in old age to write a chronicle of British history that influenced Shakespeare. Hardyng’s time with the north’s most powerful family also exposed him to the cutthroat nature of English politics.

He was present in 1399 when the Percys rallied the north in support of Henry Bolingbroke’s rebellion against Richard II. Chronicling how Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) seized the throne, Hardyng recalled the magnate swearing to “claim no more” than his lawful inheritance. “But,” he maintained, “I heard the Earl of Northumberland say that King Henry made King Richard resign his sovereignty to him under duress of prison and in fear of his life.”

When relations between the Percys and Henry IV soured, Hardyng was eyewitness to the quarrel that led to the battle of Shrewsbury (1403). Entrusted with safeguarding letters of support backing Hotspur’s rebellion against the new king, Hardyng was taken aback by the “many lords that deceived him” by fighting for the king. More devastating was the Earl of Northumberland’s failure to join his son on the battlefield. Thousands perished, including Hotspur. Hardyng survived and was pardoned by the king.

Haunted by floating corpses

Hardyng’s experience on the northern frontier quickly earned him a new patron, Sir Robert Umfraville (died 1437), whom he served as constable of Warkworth Castle. Together they put their own lives at risk defending England against Scottish incursions and executing raids of their own as far as Edinburgh. On one occasion they captured 14 ships in a fortnight, returning “with great riches”, including “cloth of gold, spices, jewels”, “flax, sweet wines, and wax”.

Later they fought with Henry V, who was pursuing the French crown. Hardyng claims to have been at Agincourt (1415) when the king’s outnumbered forces delivered a crushing blow to the French. He was present at the battle on the Seine (another resounding English victory over France) a year later and was haunted by what he saw. “Many drowned that day,” he reflected. “The bodies floated among our ships. It was so piteous and terrible to see.”

It was in 1418 that Henry V recruited Hardyng to spy in Scotland. At great financial and physical cost he obtained what his sovereign desired, returning with strategic knowledge and a permanent, but undefined, injury. The results of his espionage were delivered to the king, but Henry’s untimely death in August 1422 left Hardyng uncompensated for the lengthy mission. For the next 15 years Hardyng remained in the employ of Lord Umfraville, acting as constable of his castle at Kyme, Lincolnshire. When Umfraville died in 1437, Hardyng became a lay pensioner at the Augustinian Priory beside the castle.

From here Hardyng (now 62) forged new evidence of English hegemony over Scotland and petitioned Henry VI for the reward promised by his father 20 years earlier. So impressed was the young king with Hardyng’s former service, that in 1440 he granted him an annuity of ten pounds. Unfortunately, Hardyng’s windfall prompted one of the canons at Kyme to protest about his meagre financial contributions to the priory. Irritated by Hardyng’s presumptuous habit of taking his meals in the refectory with the brethren, Brother Thomas Durham made a complaint saying: “Hardyng pays only 20 pence a week for himself or for what he gets.” He was subsequently banned from eating with the canons, but wasn’t asked to increase his payments.

Over the next two decades Hardyng set to work writing a history of Britain that incorporated the intelligence he had gathered for Henry V and a colourful map of Scotland, the earliest surviving independent representation of that realm. Arguably his greatest achievement, the history was dedicated first to Henry VI and later to Edward IV in the hope of soothing the political tensions between the two that sparked the dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses. Recounting historical examples of the ruin caused by civil division, Hardyng hoped to unite his countrymen under the cause of conquering Scotland.

Whether he believed England’s ‘enemy’ could be subjugated, matters not. Neither Henry VI nor Edward IV was in a position to use his plans. The true value of his history lay in Hardyng’s heartfelt plea to end the uncertainty of his fractured times. His chronicle never brought about the peace he desired, but when Hardyng died in 1465 (at the great age of 87) it did preserve the story of the remarkable man who had lived through the reigns of five kings and survived the 15th century’s bloodiest battles.

Sarah Peverley is a 2013 BBC New Generation Thinker and professor of English at the University of Liverpool. You can listen to her discuss power in 15th-century England on BBC Radio 3 at bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03f8c54

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This article was first published in the July 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine