The Oldest Tomb

By far the oldest of the three big tombs in Holy Cross (the stone coffin lids in the St Nicholas Chapel are older by perhaps two hundred years) is that of Sir John de Sully and his wife Isobel. It was moved from its original location in the North Transept to its present home at the far end of the South Choir Aisle (where the magazine distributors collect their copies) about a hundred and fifty years ago.

106 Years Old

Sully2Sir John died in 1387 at the remarkable age of 106. We don’t know when Lady Isobel died, but it seems likely that it was at least twenty years earlier. One authority says that they had a single child, a daughter. There is a mass of evidence in the National Archives, in the registers of the Bishops of Exeter, in diocesan records, in sundry other written sources and in many works printed after 1500 which taken together make a persuasive case that he was, indeed, well over a hundred years old when he died.

Knights Called to Testify

What proof is there that he might have lived to be over 100 years old? The single most important source of information survives in the National Archives in Kew. It is the detailed record of a case which came before the Court of Chivalry between 1385 and 1390 which concerned a dispute between the very wealthy Sir Richard le Scrope (of Bolton Abbey, in the Dales of North Yorkshire) and the slightly less rich Sir Robert Grosvenor (who came from near Chester) over the right to bear a particular design of arms – azure, a bend or (blue with a gold diagonal stripe).

Each knight called dozens of witnesses who each testified to the fact that they had seen either Sir Richard (207 testifiers) or Sir Robert (149 testifiers) wearing the arms at battles in which they had fought. A further 58 witnesses didn’t testify for either knight (presumably just declaring that they had seen the arms on a particular battlefield). Sir John de Sully was asked to “depose” for Sir Richard le Scrope, which he did at his manor in Iddesleigh (as he was “unable to travel because of his great age”) on 2nd July, 1386 before the specially appointed commissioner, John Kentwode. Other very old knights testified for one side or the other (a number were in their eighties and a few in their nineties, but of those called only Sir John de Sully and Sir John Chydioke were centenarians). Sir John’s testimony, or deposition, survives with 355 others in the National Archives.

In the early C19th all the papers of the case were transcribed and translated by an academic who also wrote a long commentary on them. A translation of Sir John’s deposition (which was in Old French) is given below. Adrian Ailes at the National Archives in Kew assures me that this was done very accurately in the C19th.

The deposition, together with many other well-researched sources, gives us an idea of just how involved Sir John was in the big battles of the early part of the Hundred Years War with France, with Edward II’s Scottish Campaign of 1313-17 and Edward III’s Scottish victories of 1332-33. The deposition only mentions English victories. There were, however, severe defeats in both Scottish campaigns and in the opening skirmishes of the Hundred Years War – but aged ego dictated that they shouldn’t get a mention!

The Deposition of Sir John Sully, Iddesleigh 1386

“SIR JOHN SULLY, at the age of one hundred and five years and armed eighty years, deposed that he had seen and known the arms of Sir Richard Scrope, borne by Sir Henry Scrope (Sir Richard’s father) at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333), the field azure, a bend or, with a label argent“.

PB_Scrope_CoAHe afterwards saw the said Sir Henry armed in the same arms at the siege of Berwick (1333); Sir William Scrope (Sir Richard’s older brother who later died in Spain) at the battle of Cressy (Crecy, 1346), so armed with a difference; the said Sir Richard armed in the same arms at the battle of Espagnols-sur-la-mer (the sea battle of Winchelsea, 1350); and afterwards saw the said Sir William Scrope armed in the same arms with the Prince (the Black Prince) at the battle of Poictiers (Poitiers 1356), and the said Sir Richard so armed at the battle of Spain (Najara, 1367).

Pictured above: the Scrope Arms © Halibutt

Sully said he had also seen and known others of the name and lineage armed in the same arms in journeys and expeditions, with differences; and in his time he had always heard that the said arms belonged to Sir Richard Scrope by descent, who, with others of his lineage, had peaceably enjoyed them from beyond the time of memory.

As to Sir Robert Grosvenor, he never saw or heard of him or his ancestors, until the time of his examination”

Sir John’s esquire (page), Richard Baker, added to his master’s testimony by stating briefly that he had served Sir John for forty of his sixty years and that he had seen Sir Richard Scrope and others of his lineage – Sir Henry and Sir William Scrope – bearing azure, a bend or in various “battles, journeys and expeditions”

Military Career

The Deposition is an outline history of Sir John de Sully’s military career from 1305 until 1367, omitting only mention of his involvement in Edward II’s Scottish campaign. The probable reason for this is given below.

We know of one record (now lost, but which existed until the late 19th) of Sir John’s life before he first wore armour. This was a lease – unfortunately undated, but certainly from around 1300 – in which he is described as “lord of the manor of Ash Reigny (Ashreigny)” – by which a man called Gilbert atte Hole took over a small area of land in Ashreigny from Sully for his lifetime. This lease was kept in the muniment room at Killerton long before the Aclands handed the estate over to the National Trust. I have asked the NT Administrator at Killerton to see if she can trace it (it is quite likely that it was handed over to the Devon Record Office for safe keeping).

If we can accept that Sir John had been armed (worn armour) for 80 years in 1386, ie since around 1305, surviving national records, the Rotuli Scotiae, the Patent Rolls and sundry letters of protection, indicate that the first use of that armour in action was in Edward II’s war against the Scots of 1313-1317.

On 23rd December, 1313 John de Sulley is listed as “having been summoned for service in the Scotch war; on 8th June, 1315, he was included in a summons issued by the king at Berwick on Tweed “for service with horse and arms in repelling the Scotch”; John de Sulle was among those “intending to serve in Scotland” in the autumn of 1316 and the same name was among those included in a summons for service in repelling the Scots at Berwick-on-Tweed also in 1316. (I have prepared a list of the known sources of information for Sir John’s life which is available to anyone who is interested).


An involvement in the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 wasn’t something that any knight would want to include in a inventory of battle honours for the Court of Chivalry – in fact this wasn’t a list where any defeat should figure – and the whole of Edward II’s Scottish campaign has probably been airbrushed from Sir John’s CV for that reason. Bannockburn truly was the nadir of English military history for the 500 years from Hastings to the loss of Calais in 1558. The fact that Sir John started the Scottish campaign in 1313, and is mentioned again as involved in it in 1316 makes it is very unlikely that he wasn’t at Bannockburn in 1314.

Sir_Richard_de_Boselyngthorpe_-_geograph.org_.uk_-_240138The armour which Sir John put on in around 1305 and in which he fought that first Scottish war was completely different to that in which his effigy is Holy Cross is clad. That armour was very similar to that worn by the crusaders. There is a stone effigy in Iddesleigh church – probably that of Sir John’s grandfather, Sir Henry de Sully – which is wearing this form. It comprised a suit of chain mail called a hawberk which covered the body and upper legs and arms, and gloves of mail to protect the hands. A coif de mailes was worn over the head and a linen surcoat covered the mail of the body. Armour fashion changed down the centuries as ways of waging war changed.

A John de Sullee appears on a feudal proffer roll (a list of those offering service) on behalf of John Fitz Nicholas in 1322.

Image above: Sir Richard de Boselyngthorpe wearing the type of armour Sir John wore when he first became a knight © Richard Croft CC Licence

The Patent Rolls for 24th April, 1330 (the Rolls are State Records) tell us that John de Suly and his wife Isabellla who is described as the widow of John de Chaucombe, received a pardon for marrying without a licence. I’m afraid that Isabel hardly gets a footnote in the rest of the documents which I mention in this article! That the couple had an only child, a daughter (name unknown) is suggested in one C16th history of Devon (by Polwhele).

Scottish Campaign

In March 1332 Sully was ordered to attend Edward III at Newcastle “with horse and harness” at the start of his Scottish campaign. He was then just over 50 years old, a “good age” in medieval terms. He fought in the Siege of Berwick and the Battle of Halidon Hill, both very rough battles and fine English victories in which no prisoners were taken.

In 1335, Sir John was again serving in Scotland, in Sir John de Moeles’s company.

100 Years War

On 10th July, 1338, Sir John received another “call up” – he was ordered to be ready to set sail in the company of William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. This was the start of the first campaign in the Hundred Years War against France (which was to last, on and off, until 1453).

The first big land battle of the war and one in which Sir John took part, was Crecy. He was 65 years old when it took place in 1346 and fought in the retinue of the Earl of Arundel. It was, of course, a crushing English victory in which many thousands of French and Genoese knights and foot soldiers died. No prisoners were taken in this conflict.

Apart from the Battle of Poitiers, very few prisoners were taken in the battles of the C14th or for that matter at Agincourt in 1415. As one essayist has put it: “The predictable fate of a soldier, noble or otherwise, who, finding himself on the loosing side of a fourteenth-century battle, failed to make good his escape, was not to be taken prisoner. It was to die.”

In the taking of Caen (in Normandy) on the way to Crecy, the “mooning” incident occurred. Several hundred Norman soldiers, in an act of defiance, exposed their rear ends to the English archers (the Scots, the traditional allies of the French, have exposed other areas of their anatomy during battle in a similar way by lifting their kilts). Many paid a high price for doing so. We can’t know, of course, whether Sir John witnessed the exhibition!

Signet-ring_Black_Prince_Louvre_OA9597In 1350 Sir John was present at the sea battle of Winchelsea, another victory. In this engagement English ships forced a fleet of Spanish ships loaded with treasure from the French port of Sluys across thechannel into Rye Bay (off Dungeness), where they were captured. The battle got its name from the fact that it was watched by Edward III’s wife, Queen Phillipa, from what is now called the “Look-Out”, on the sea cliffs at Fairleigh, near Winchelsea (Sussex).

Picture: the signet ring of the Black Prince, kissed by Sir John when entering his indenture © Jastrow 2006

In 1352 Sir John entered into an indenture with the Black Prince by which he received a stipend of £40 a year for life (which was paid by the estates the prince held in Cornwall as Duke and is recorded in the “Council Book of the Duchy of Cornwall” – now held in the National Archive). This regular income alone made him a very wealthy man in medieval terms.


Booty was an important element of a knight’s wealth. He was paid a retainer by his lord (in Sir John’s case, the Black Prince), but a victorious campaign such as that against France of the 1340’s and 50’s, meant that a great deal of pooled booty was shared out between everyone involved with, as ever, the upper ranks benefiting most. Overall, ransom was far less important than booty, because so few prisoners were taken.

Prisoners were taken, however, and on a large scale, in the next big battle in which we know Sir John was involved – Poitiers in 1356. In this conflict fewer than 7,000 Englishmen faced more than 20,000 Frenchmen and they completely overwhelmed them The French King Jean II and a host of other well-born prisoners, all worth great ransoms (King Jean’s was fixed at 3,000,000 crowns), were carried with the vast spoils of the expedition to Bordeaux. Massive rewards were given all round – both to the big players and to the slightly lesser mortals such as Sir John de Sully.

Sir John was 75 years old when he fought at Poitiers. A fortnight after the action the Black Prince increased the pension-for-life he had given him in 1352 by a further 40 marks (around £27) per annum in recognition of the service he had rendered at the battle.

In 1359, still serving with the Black Prince, Sully took part in the Rheims campaign.

At the age of nearly eighty (on 24th April, 1361), Sir John was granted a very special privilege by the king. The document by which this was done is still in state records, the Patent Rolls. By the scroll Sully was allowed: Once in every year during his life, in any of the royal forests, parks or chases in the realm, to have one shot with his bow, one course with his hounds, and one chase for his dog called “Bercellette”.

On 23rd August, 1361, the first St George’s day after the death of Reginald, Lord Cobham, one of the twenty-five “First Founders” of the Order of the Garter, Sir John was admitted in his place, becoming (by date of appointment) the thirty-ninth knight.

This choice by Edward III, although he may have been heavily “leant-on” by his son the Black Prince, is evidence that, given that he wasn’t of noble lineage – and very few other members of the order were not of noble descent – Sir John must have both possessed some really outstanding military skills and have performed valuable service in other fields.

There are records of the Robes of the Order being sent to him on several occasions between 1362 and 1387 and the plate of his arms was still in place in St George’s Chapel, Windsor in Charles the Second’s day (in the ninth stall on the Prince’s side).

Last Battle – in Spain

The last full-scale battle mentioned in the deposition – and as far as we know, the last conflict in which Sir John was involved – was that of Najera (sometimes spelt Najara and called la bataille de Spaigne in the deposition) on 3rd April, 1367. Sully was about 86 years old when he pulled his armour on for the last time!

On 8th June, 1376, the Black Price died, almost certainly attended at his death bed by Sir John. On 19th August, 1384, when Sir John’s mind had obviously turned to higher things when he arranged for the prior and convent of Frithelstock (N Devon) to hold daily chantry services for the souls of himself (when appropriate!), his wife Isobel, his father William, his mother Margery and Sir Henry and Lady Joan de Sully, his grandfather and grandmother.

On 2nd July, 1386, John Kermode, one of the commissioners in the le Scrope and Grosvenor controversy, went from Plymouth to Iddesleigh Manor where he took the depositions of Sir John de Sully, then 106 years old, and his page, Richard Baker.

Other deposers for le Scrope included John of Gaunt, his son Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV), Henry Percy (a.k.a. Harry Hotspur), Geoffrey Chaucer and Owen Glendower. With this impressive array of people testifying for him and many others, le Scrope eventually won the case (although it took a full five years for it to go through the courts – obviously there were “fat cat” lawyers around in the C14th !)

In his deposition Sir John only mentions those battles where he had a clear recollection of seeing the le Scrope arms (in some form), in fact, in his deposition he only mentions English victories! There were certainly other battles and skirmishes in which he fought but could not remember seeing azure, a bend or during the conflict.

Sully3The armour type in which he is shown on his tomb effigy is camail or aventail armour, named after the big mail neck protection which was attached to the steel cap, or bascinet. A sleeveless mail shirt was worn which was covered by a leather jupon. Steel armour was worn on the legs and arms, with steel and leather gauntlets and sharp-toed sollerets on the feet. The next style of armour, introduced about 15 years after Sir John’s death, was full Lancastrian plate armour.

Lady Isobel (pictured left) is wearing a dress of the late fourteenth-century, a sideless cote-hardi. Her hair is in an elaborate net.

A tomb in Holy Cross

Why should Sir John de Sully of Iddesleigh/Ashreigney have his tomb in Holy Cross, Crediton.? He died in 1387, probably in a manor he owned in Sandford (which was called Rookford). This was certainly fairly easily accessible to both Iddesleigh and Ashreigney (where there are many mentions of Sir John in the parish records – he was patron of both benefices). Why wasn’t his body taken to one of his own churches? The reason for this must surely be that, in medieval eyes, the status of a collegiate church, such as Crediton as a final resting place was greatly superior to that of a fairly modest country church such as Iddesleigh or Ashreigney. Crediton was anyway chosen (though possibly not by him), as his burial place and what was once an impressive monument to him and his wife was erected in the north transept, probably sometime in the 1390’s.

sully2-250x400The earliest note which we have of his tomb being in the north transept is in the will of Thomas Barton, a Canon of Exeter Cathedral, in 1415, in which he (Barton) leaves £20 in gold to Holy Cross “towards the construction of a new window, the raising of the walls, and for timber for the roof of the north transept of Crediton Church “in quo Johannes Sully miles jacet” (in which John de Sully, Knight, lies). This is the first of many mentions of the tomb in succeeding centuries. The battering and the moving round to which the tomb has been subjected down the centuries has left it far from perfect. Facial features of both effigies have been rendered more or less unrecognisable and the hands of each effigy have disappeared (together with Sir John’s feet and Lady Isobel’s arms).

Because it was sited in the collegiate part of pre-Reformation Holy Cross the tomb was probably roughly handled during the Reformation (from about 1530 – 1550), but it is likely that most damage occurred in the mid-seventeenth century and during the move from the north transept to its present home.


In preparing this note I have made extensive use of Sir N.H. Nicholas’s “Controversy between Sir Richard le Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor”, a Devonshire Association article on Sir John de Sully of 1892 by Winslow Jones (and checking his sources indicates that this was very carefully put together); help was also given by Dr Andrew Ayton of Hull University, Adrian Ailes of the National Archives and staff of the Devon Record Office and the West Country Studies Library.