1600 The Ber Street duel

Sir Robert Mansel

In October 1600 two men met in a deadly duel outside Norwich’s Ber Street gates. The result was a severed limb, and a scrap that went down in Norfolk legend.

Just another typical Norwich night out?

They were known as the ‘Fighting Heydons’. Members of this distinguished Norfolk family were never backward when it came to a scrap. In the case of the duel between Sir John Heydon and Sir Robert Mansel, the matter reached the ears of the highest officers of state, who sought to stop the duel from happening.

Why was it so important?

The actual cause of the duel is a little hazy, but it seems likely it was pegged to the waning fortunes of the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. He had once been Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, but his ambitious nature and military failure in Ireland had lost him that status. The Heydon brothers – Christopher and John – were keen supporters of Essex. John had accompanied the Earl to Ireland, and had been knighted by him. But in the autumn of 1600 Christopher and John were careering down a path that would lead them to public disgrace, bankruptcy and – in John’s case – mutilation. The immediate cause of their troubles was Sir Robert Mansel.

Who was he?

Originally from Wales, Mansel (sometimes the name is spelt, confusingly, as Mansfield) was a seafarer. Born in about 1573, he was a courageous Elizabethan ‘sea dog’ who married the widow of a Norfolk squire who had property at Pentney, near King’s Lynn. This led him to take an interest in the county’s politics, which sowed the seeds of problems to come. Before that Mansel’s career led him to Spain and one of the most successful overseas expeditions of the Elizabethan era. England had been at war with Spain since the defeat of the Armada in 1588 – but this was far from the end of hostilities. In 1596 the Earl of Essex led an assault on Cadiz. This was the home port of the still powerful Spanish fleet. Mansel, then in his mid-twenties, was the captain of HMS Vanguard. Essex and Norfolk admiral Charles Howard of Effingham gathered a powerful force, with Sir Walter Raleigh commanding a squadron; 150 ships with 7,000 soldiers and volunteers and 6,500 sailors, sailed from Plymouth, joined by 20 ships from England’s Dutch allies. The attack was wholly successful. The Spanish fleet was burnt at anchor and the English sacked Cadiz. Mansel was knighted for his part.

A man on the rise?

Sir Robert looked to make his mark on Norfolk politics, standing for parliament as county MP (knight of the shire). But he was seen as an interloper, and clashed with the Heydons. It’s possible the Heydons’ support for the Earl of Essex may have played a part in the argument. By the autumn of 1600, Essex was plotting against Elizabeth. Mansel and others, such as Sir John Townshend, of Raynham Hall, stayed loyal to the queen. It was therefore no coincidence that October when Christopher Heydon challenged Townshend to a duel, while brother John faced Mansel.

If the boys want to fight, you gotta let them. . .

In London the privy council took a hard line. They detained Christopher in London, and prevented his duel. The Lord Chief Justice wrote to the queen’s chief minister, Sir Robert Cecil, warning him to stop the Mansel-Heydon clash, since Norfolk was “already too much wrought into faction”. Too late. On October 9 the fight took place. It was a bad-tempered affair, without the usual polite formalities, and the seconds were banished out of sight. Mansel, impatient to be at it, fought with a rapier an inch shorter than Heydon’s rather than wait for another. Both were wounded quickly, Heydon more seriously. By Mansel’s account, Heydon cried for quarter, but then attacked him. . .”when he was up, without speaking any one word, he ran me into the breast again, and my thrust missed him. Then we fell to stabs with our daggers.” Mansel claimed Heydon, having been “mauled severely” eventually laid down his weapons. Heydon’s hand was severed, probably after the fight was over, and is now in a mummified state on display in Norwich Castle Museum. Mansel was also wounded, and his career briefly suffered, but he recovered. In February, 1601 Essex raised his followers in a chaotic rising in London. The Heydon brothers led troops through Ludgate. The rebellion quickly fizzled out, and Essex was executed; the Heydons were lucky to escape with their lives, but their public careers were over and they had huge fines to pay. Both Mansel and Townshend, significantly, took an active role in rounding up Essex’s followers.

A successful career?

Mansel’s role in the Norwich duel counted against him locally, and he was defeated in the 1601 county election, but was elected as King’s Lynn MP. His naval career continued, as he became Vice Admiral of the Narrow Seas in 1603 and Treasurer of the Navy the following year. His later exploits included chasing pirates from Algiers and financing an expedition to find the North-West Passage from North America to the Pacific Ocean; there is a Mansel Island in the Hudson Strait. He revolutionised glass manufacture, importing Venetian glassmakers and setting up a glass factory in Newcastle. He pioneered the use of sea coal rather than wood in the manufacturing process, and created a monopoly. This made him new enemies (as if he needed any more!) He was accused of dishonesty as an administrator, which led to brief imprisonment in 1618. In Norwich he lived in the Committee House in Bethel Street between 1596 and 1603, and died in London in 1656.

Anything else?

Sir John Townshend’s luck ran out in 1603 when he fought a duel on Hounslow Heath against Sir Matthew Browne. Browne died at the scene, while Townshend died the following day. On a happier note, the English soldiers and sailors who sacked Cadiz in 1596 came away with barrels of vino de Jerez, known to us as sherry. The enduring English taste for this fine fortified wine had begun!

My thanks to Peter Mansel James, of Norwich, for information on his distant forebear and the picture of Sir Robert Mansel.

This is one of 50 stories contained in A Place In History, a book by Peter Sargent.