FASTOLF, Sir JOHN (13801459, soldier and landowner)
Only three other documents relating to Sir John Fastolf have been sold at auction in the last thirty-five years.
Sir John Fastolf served under the Duke of Clarence in Aquitaine in 14121413 as deputy constable of Bordeaux and remained there as captain of Soubise and Veyres in 141314. He joined Henry V's expedition in 1415 and fought at Agincourt, and returned to Harfleur early in 1416 as a knight under the Duke of Exeter; he participated in the battle of Valmont and the siege of the town by the French. It was with Clarence and Exeter that he served from 1417 to 1421, being present at the sieges of Caen and Rouen. During Henry V's absence in England, he formed a group under the command of the Regent, John, Duke of Bedford, which carried forward the momentum of the conquest. Appointed Lieutenant in Normandy for a year in 1422, Fastolf was employed in clearing the region to the south-west of Paris, and held captaincies at Fresnay-le-Vicomte and Alençon. He was made a knight of the Garter in 1426. From the ransoms of his prisoners at this battle, who included the Duke of Alençon, he claimed to have gained 20,000 marks. In February 1429 he won the 'battle of the herrings' at Rouvray by using barrels of the fish as a stockade. Four months later, retreating with Lord Talbot from Beaugency, the rearguard was overwhelmed and only the van, under Fastolf, evaded death or capture by a rapid withdrawal. Talbot later charged Fastolf with cowardice and demanded his removal from the Order of the Garter. The case against him was still being heard in the 1440s and, although he was vindicated, his reputation was thoroughly tainted and his enemies taunted him as 'chevalier fuytif' ('a cowardly knight').
When he returned to England in 1439 he acquired the Boar's Head tavern in Southwark (a property 'owned' by Shakespeare's Falstaff). At Caister in Norfolk he built a moated castle and furnished his houses to baronial standards. Despite his success and worldly wealth, he experienced twenty years of hostility and persecution that almost brought his ruin. His fortunes were caught up in the contentions of domestic politics not because he was actively involved in them, but because his background linked him to the opponents of the government and his lack of an heir attracted the covetous and unscrupulous.
Although Shakespeare adapted Fastolf's name for his character Sir John Falstaff, the personality he gave him was wholly imaginary. In the original draft of Henry IV (1597) the companion of Prince Hal was the historically-correct Sir John Oldcastle who had also figured in the Famous Victories of Henry V (1594). Apparently to meet the objection of Oldcastle's descendant, Lord Cobham, Shakespeare changed the name to Falstaff, doubtless suggested by the fact that Fastolf had owned the Boar's Head tavern in Southwark. Shakespeare introduced the character of OldcastleFalstaff to emphasize Henry V's conversion on his accession from a life of riot and dissipation. 'The corpulent, cowardly, and mendacious Falstaff was the opposite of the austere and dedicated king who historically had repudiated his former companion Oldcastle on account of his Lollard beliefs. Fastolf himself was neither self-indulgent nor heterodox and was never among Henry's close friends. Falstaff's rumbustious and endearing character quickly took on a life of its own, becoming not merely the inspiration for The Merry Wives of Windsor but the subject of numerous musical adaptations, culminating in Verdi's Falstaff (1893) and Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love (1935), and in the film Chimes at Midnight (1966), in which the director, Orson Welles, himself played Falstaff' (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).