Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight


On the connection between Sir John Fastolf, victor at the Battle of Herrings, and Sir John Falstaff, a large Shakespearean character


In creating the character of Falstaff (Henry IV Pts. 1 & 2, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor), Shakespeare drew on the historical figure of Sir John Fastolf, whose finest hour came during the Siege of Orleans in 1429, when he was sent to protect a wagon train of provisions (white and probably red herrings) for the besieging English army.

Fastolf’s family seat was at Caister to the north of Yarmouth, itself a herring fishing village. He built the now ruined Caister Castle.

The Battle of the Herrings took place on 12th February 1429 at Rouvray, to the north of Orleans, against combined French and Scottish forces, who were trying to intercept the convoy and deny the English troops their Lenten fare.

Holinshed’s Account of The Battle of the Herrings

In the Lent season vittels and artillerie began to waxe scant in the English campe, wherefore the earle of Suffolke appointed sir John Fastolfe, sir Thomas Rampston, and sir Philip Hall, with their retinues, to ride to Paris, to the lord regent, to informe him of their lacke, who incontinentlie vpon that information prouided vittels, artillerie, and munitions necessarie, and loded therewith manie chariots, carts, and horsses: and for the sure conueieng of the same, he appointed sir Simon Morhier, prouost of Paris, with the gard of the citie, and diuerse of his owne household seruants to accompanie sir John Fastolfe and his complices, to the armie lieng at the siege of Orleance. They were in all to the number of fifteene hundred men, of the which there were not past fiue or six hundred Englishmen.

These departing in good order of battell out of Paris, came to Genuille in Beausse, and in a morning earlie, in a great frost, they departed from thence toward the siege; and when they came to a towne called Rowraie, in the lands of Beausse, they perceiued their enimies comming towards them, being to the number of nine or ten thousand of Frenchmen and Scots, of whome were capteins Charles of Cleremont, sonne to the duke of Bourbon then being prisoner in England; sir William Steward constable of Scotland, a little before deliuered out of captiuitie, the earle of Perdriake, the lord Iohn Vandosme, the Vidame of Chartes, the lord of Toures, the lord of Lohar, the lord of Eglere, the lord of Beauiew, the bastard Tremoile, and manie other valiant capteins. 

Wherefore sir Iohn Fastolfe set all his companie in good order of battell, and pitched stakes before euerie archer, to breake the force of the horssemen.  At their backes they set all the wagons and carriages, and within them they tied all their horsses. In this maner stood they still, abiding the assault of their enimies. The Frenchmen by reason of their great number, thinking themselues sure of the victorie, egerlie set on the Englishmen, which with great force them receiued, and themselues manfullie defended. At length, after long and cruell fight, the Englishmen droue backe and vanquished the proud Frenchmen, & compelled them to flee. In this conflict were slaine the lord William Steward constable of Scotland, and his brother the lord  Dorualle, the lord Chauteaubriam, sir Iohn Basgot, and other Frenchmen and  Scots, to the number of fiue and twentie hundred, and aboue eleuen hundred taken prisoners, although the French writers affirmed the number lesse.

After this fortunate victorie, sir Iohn Fastolfe, and his companie (hauing lost no one man of anie reputation) with all their cariages, vittels, and prisoners, marched foorth and came to the English campe before Orleance, where they were ioifullie receiued, and highlie commended for the valiancie and worthie prowesse shewed in the battell; the which bicause most part of the carriage was herring and lenton stuffe, the Frenchmen called it the battell of herrings.

Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, Raphael Holinshed

For the conspicuous gallantry he showed at the Battle of the Herrings, Fastolf was made a Knight of the Garter. Denied the inspiration of herrings, however, and against a French army now rallying to the visionary call of Joan of Arc, he was more diffident.

Holinshed writes:

At a battle, neere vnto a village in Beausse called Pataie, Sir John departed without anie stroke striken and had his garter removed in disgrace (though afterward by meanes of freends, and apparant causes of good excuse, the same were to him againe deliuered against the mind of the lord Talbot).

Fastolf and Falstaff

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Sir John Falstaff

The Battle of Patay did not go well for the English – up to 300 killed and 2,000 captured. Fastolf may have fled the field only when further involvement would have been pointless, but his reputation thenceforth bore an irredeemable taint of cowardice.

The Battle of the Herrings had taken place in the reign of Henry VI, whereas Shakespeare has Falstaff an old man in Henry IV, Part I. That play does, however, contain the following exchange on virtue, cowardice and herrings (Henry IV Pt 1, Act 2, Scene 4:

Fal.  A plague of all cowards, I say, and a vengeance too! marry, and amen! Give me a cup of sack, boy. Ere I lead this life long, I’ll sew nether-stocks and mend them and foot them too. A plague of all cowards! Give me a cup of sack, rogue. — Is there no virtue extant?
Prince.  Didst thou never see Titan kiss a dish of butter — pitiful-hearted Titan, that melted at the sweet tale of the sun? If thou didst then behold that compound.
Fal.  You rogue, here’s lime in this sack too: there is nothing but roguery to be found in villanous man: yet a coward is worse than a cup of sack with lime in it, a villanous coward! Go thy ways, old Jack; die when thou wilt. If manhood, good manhood, be not forgot upon the face of the earth, then am I a shotten herring. There live not three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat and grows old: God help the while! a bad world, I say. I would I were a weaver; I could sing psalms or anything. A plague of all cowards, I say still.

A shotten herring is a spent one, lean and wasted after spawning.

An interesting link for herring enthusiasts: in France Fastolf acquired four manors in Normandy’s Pays de Caux. One of the notable herring books of the C19th, The Herring and the Herring Fishery with Chapters on Fishes and Fishing and Our Sea Fisheries in the Future (1881), is by JW de Caux of Great Yarmouth.