John FitzWalter, 2nd Baron FitzWalter (also Fitzwalter or Fitz Wauter, c. 1315 – 18 October 1361) was a prominent Essex landowner best known for his criminal activities, particularly around Colchester. His family was of a noble and ancient lineage, with connections to the powerful de Clare family, who had arrived in England at the time of the Norman conquest of England. The FitzWalters held estates across Essex, as well as properties in London and Norfolk. John FitzWalter played a prominent role during the early years of King Edward III’s wars in France, and at some point FitzWalter was married to Eleanor Percy, the daughter of Henry, Lord Percy.
FitzWalter built a strong affinity around him, mainly from among leading members of the county’s gentry, but also including men from elsewhere, such as a Norfolk parson. At their head, FitzWalter waged an armed campaign against the neighbouring town of Colchester, almost from the moment he reached adulthood. The townsmen seem to have exacerbated the dispute by illegally entering FitzWalter’s park in Lexden; in return, FitzWalter banned them from one of their own watermills and then, in 1342, he besieged the town, preventing anyone entering or leaving for some weeks, as well as ransacking much property and destroying the market. One historian has described him, in his activities, as the medieval equivalent of a 20th-century American racketeer. Other victims of his Essex gang were local jurors, royal officials, a man forced to abjure the realm, and the prior of Little Dunmow Abbey.
FitzWalter intermittently returned to France and the war, but notwithstanding his royal service—he also served on the royal council and attended parliament regularly—he never held office in his county. Historians explain this as being due to his repeated defiance of the king’s peace and his deliberate usurpation of the royal authority. FitzWalter was too powerful, and too aggressive in defence of his rights, for the local populace to confront him in court, and it was not until 1351 that he was finally brought to justice. The King despatched a royal commission to Chelmsford to investigate a broad range of social ills, among which was FitzWalter and his gang. Although most of his force received little or no punishment, FitzWalter himself was arrested and sent to London; he was immediately imprisoned in the Marshalsea. He then languished in the Tower of London for over a year until the King agreed to pardon him. FitzWalter was released and restored to his estates, but only on the condition that he buy the lands back from the King for the immense sum of over £800. FitzWalter died in 1361—still paying off his fine—leaving a son, Walter, as his heir. Lady FitzWalter had predeceased him; they were both buried in Dunmow Priory.
Historians have considered FitzWalter’s criminality as illustrating how the disorder that pervaded the 15th century had its origins in the 14th. Although historians have generally considered his activities to demonstrate King Edward III’s failure to maintain law and order, as FitzWalter’s downfall demonstrates, royal justice could be firm when it chose, if not always swift.