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The prisoners of Agincourt

As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London. To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, Rémy Ambuhl of the University of Southampton, writes on the contentious element of the prisoners of the battle.

A model depicting a miniature French soldier encouraging his men toward the English lines.

Pictured Jean le Meingre, Marshal Boucicaut, who is taken prisoner at the battle.

The significance of ransoming has long been recognised by students of medieval chivalry and diplomacy. The system led to a pan-European conception of a chivalric brotherhood, as ransoming a defeated member of the military elite became seen as indicative of much that was civilised about Western European aristocratic culture. By contrast, those who slaughtered, mutilated, or enslaved members of the aristocratic elite were considered inherently ‘barbarous’.

The increasing professionalisation of military activity had a considerable impact on the process of ransoming during this period. Changes in recruitment, strategy, tactics, payment, equipment, and other facets of military activity brought new pressures and possibilities. As ransoming had developed primarily as a practice between members of the aristocracy, the increasing importance of the ‘common soldier’ – of longbowmen, infantrymen, and gunners – had major implications on this elitist system.

Because of this change of nature of the battlefield, the Plantagenets established clear rules by which they could acquire prisoners of note or public standing. In despite of this, at Agincourt 25 October 1415, Henry V famously ordered the slaughter of the French prisoners towards the end of the battle, when fears arose that the French may begin a fresh wave of attack. Although this was understood strategically by his contemporaries, many captors or ‘masters’ were displeased that they had lost the opportunity for significant income raised by these prisoner’s capture.

Despite the estimations of contemporary chronicles, which vary from 700 to 2,200 prisoners, records indicate a possible total of 300 French were captured – 50 of which were very high ranking nobles.

The fate of these survivors is unusually well documented, but who were these ‘lucky ones’ and what happened to them? While French literature sheds light on the distress of prisoner’s families, narrative and administrative records give an unusual insight into their fates at the hands of the enemy.

For instance, the capture and long captivity of Charles duke of Orléans, ‘the poet prisoner’, who had become second in line of succession to the French throne at the death of the Dauphin John de Touraine in 1417, was made famous by a miniature picturing him imprisoned at the Tower of London.

Paining depicting inside the walls of the Tower of London

The miniature depiction of the imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orléans, in the Tower of London from a 15th-century manuscript. The White Tower is visible, St Thomas’ Tower (also known as Traitor’s Gate) is in front of it, and in the foreground is the River Thames.

Many other French aristocrats fell into the hands of the king in the aftermath of the battle: the duke of Bourbon, the count of Richemont, and the French marshal called ‘Boucicaut’ among them (see their miniatures below).

 miniature model of soldier in a blue and yellow tabbard, holding a pike

Charles, Duke of Orleans miniature from the Agincourt Model, currently featured in our exhibition at the Tower of London.

Miniature model of a soldier holding a sword

Louis De Bourbon, Count of Vendome miniature from the Agincourt Model

Miniature model of soldier in white and red, holding a lance

Arthur of Brittany, count of Richemont miniature from the Agincourt Model

miniature model of a soldier in red and white holding a pike

Jean le Meingre, Marshal Boucicaut, miniature from the Agincourt Model

These men were the cream of the cream, those important and wealthy prisoners from whom the king of England could possibly secure a political advantage. Their higher public and social standing secured them the attention of the chroniclers of the time. But these greater men only represented a very small fraction of the number of prisoners from whom the English Chancery and Exchequer have kept a record. The surviving contracts detailing captors’ payments to the crown on the ransom of their prisoners is simply unique, and gives an exclusive insight into the extent of the ransoming practice in the late Middle Ages – challenging widespread views on the killing of lower-ranking prisoners.

Late Medieval English armies were contractual. The opportunity to make profit out of the ransoms of prisoners must have been a powerful driver for many a man to go to war. Documents on the survival and fate of lower-ranking French prisoners at Agincourt show how deeply rooted this mercantile mentality was in late medieval warfare. Whether, from a broader perspective, combatants were right to believe that war would make them rich is another question. The wheel of fortune turned fast.

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