Agincourt 600: 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 French noble man encourages 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 (see below).


A manuscript (British Library, MS Royal, 16 folio 73) of poems by Charles, Duke of Orléans (1391–1465) [1]. The original manuscript is held by the British Library. A copy of the image is available on plate 1 of Parnell, Geoffrey (1993), The Tower of London, Batsford, ISBN 978-0713468649.

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).

Charles, Duke of Orleans miniature from the Agincourt Model

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

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

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

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

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

Jean le Maingre miniature from the Agincourt Model

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.

To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ catalogue publication, please see further posts, or pick up a copy for yourself at the Royal Armouries shopThe Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London now until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.

Agincourt 600: Key items of the exhibition

This Sunday, 25 October, will mark 600 years since the battle of Agincourt, arguably one of the most famous Medieval battles in both British and French history. To commemorate the battle, the Royal Armouries museum has created a very unique exhibition of objects relating to the battle – including arms, armour, music and manuscripts create a full sensory experience of what happened that fateful day. Below we introduce you to the star objects of the exhibition, which opens this Friday 23 in the White Tower at the Tower of London.

by Unknown artist,painting,1570. C. National Portrait Gallery.

by Unknown artist,painting,1570. C. National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Henry V, late 16th century

This painting is a version of the standard portrait of Henry V that was widely reproduced in England in the late 16th century. It is believed to be based on contemporary images and reflects Henry’s known appearance and dress. © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 545)


The Agincourt carol, English, 15th century

There are several poems which celebrate the victory at Agincourt but the only one in carol form is ‘Deogracias Anglia’, popularly known from the 18th century as the ‘Agincourt Song’ or ‘Carol’. © Bodleian Libraries (MS. Arch. Selden. B. 26)



44.DI 2011-0241

The Lyle bacinet, North Italian, late 14th century

This is arguably the finest surviving late medieval bacinet. This style is commonly called a ‘pig-faced’ bacinet because of the protruding snout. Helmets like this were used between c.1380 and 1420, and worn on both sides at the battle of Agincourt.

The Lyle bacinet was a bequest to the Royal Armouries of Sir Archibald Lyle, in memory of his sons Captain I A de H Lyle, Black Watch, killed at El Alamein, October 1942 and Major R A Lyle, 79th (Scottish Horse) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, killed in Normandy, June 1944.


Credit. Daniel Faulconbridge, Wargames Illustrated.

Credit. Daniel Faulconbridge, Wargames Illustrated.

The Agincourt diorama

The Agincourt diorama, made by David Marshall of MMDioramas, is 4 meters by 2 meters in size and made up from four 2m x 1m sections. 4,400 28mm figures make up its face, supplied by Perry Miniatures. The model itself took two years to make and will form a key element of the exhibition in the White Tower. For further information on how this model was made please click this link.

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 Warwick shaffron, European, c. 1400

The Warwick shaffron is a head defence for a war-horse and is the earliest surviving piece of European medieval horse armour as well as an important example from the period of Agincourt. Formed of a main plate and two side plates in steel, it is pierced with large holes for the ears. The eyes are protected by a high embossed plate pierced with holes.


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Angel figurine, 15th century.

A wooden angel from the tomb of Alice Chaucer, duchess of
Suffolk, 1404-75, from St Mary’s Church, Ewelme. Alice Chaucer survived the loss
of three husbands during the course of the Hundred Years’ War including her first husband, Sir John Phelip, who died on the Agincourt campaign.


54.DI 2012-1569Long sword or ‘sword of war’, probably German, Passau 1350 – 1400

Swords such as these were used by men-at-arms throughout the Hundred Years War. The longer grips and heavier blades enabled them to be used with two hands to deliver a more powerful blow. Henry V had at least two swords made in Passau; this example came from the medieval arsenal at Alexandria.


10.DI 2011-0074 (1) A saddle, possibly for the Hungarian Dragon Order

Early fifteenth century, constructed of wood and veneered with bone, the saddle has a high forward curved bow; the outline of the cantle forming two semi-circles set at an angle to the tree. It is pierced on each side with slots for the girth and stirrups, and holes for the panels and harness. The bone plaques are decorated with dragons and foliage, and on either side of the pommel with a scroll held at the top by a hand and below in the mouth of a dragon, inscribed in Gothic lettering, in South German dialect, right side, ich hoff des pesten/ dir geling (I hope the best fortune may attend you); left side hilf got/ wol auf sand Jogen nam (Help God! Forward in the name of St George). Two scrolls at the back of the cantle are inscribed im ars/ is vinster (in the arse it is black)/. At the point of the bow is a cross of St George, and the whole design is emphasised by inlays of black, red and green mastic.


Tabard, worn by Richard Burton as Henry V, United Kingdom, 1951

This tabard was worn by Richard Burton in the title role of King Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1951. It was made of hessian and felt which simulated armour at the shoulders so it would appear to have been worn on the battlefield. © Victoria and Albert Museum (S.2076-1986)


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Pollaxe, North European, probably English, 1450-1500

The pollaxe was a two-handed infantry weapon designed to hack, crush and pierce armour plates as well as flesh and bone. The pollaxe head was made up of three parts, an axe-blade, rear hammer-head, and a top-spike.


Agincourt 600: Shakespeare’s Henry V

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, Ros King, University of Southampton, writes on Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Shakespeare’s play of Henry V covers the whole of Henry’s 1415 campaign in France from initial discussions as to the validity of going to war to his eventual conquest of the French Princess Catherine in marriage. En route it presents the uncovering of the plot against him by the Earl of Cambridge and others, the death of Falstaff, Henry’s former friend and drinking companion; the embarkation of the army on an enormous flotilla of ships, the siege of Harfleur, and his notable victory at Agincourt—all, as the play’s Chorus famously remarks, by exploiting the imagination of its audience. But it is also one of Shakespeare’s most contentious works, dividing readers between those that think the play glorifies Henry’s role as one of England’s most successful military leaders, and those who think it condones war-mongering brutality. Ever since it was written, it has been cut and rearranged in attempts to iron out its contradictions and make it more simply heroic, more ‘band of brothers’. Meanwhile its most famous phrase ‘Once more into the breach’ has taken on a life of its own, being pressed into myriad uses great and small by those seeking to persuade others to do something they would probably rather not do.

A print of Act III, Scene i: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!". Thomas Robinson (printmaker) - Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

A print of Act III, Scene i: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!”. Thomas Robinson (printmaker) – Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

My chapter in the Royal Armouries ‘Agincourt’ exhibition catalogue argues that the evident contradictions in the play are a deliberate part of its design and the reason why it is still so compelling 400 years on. The play presents a variety of crunch points on the road to war: Henry seeking the church’s support so that he does not have to bear the moral responsibility for war; church leaders persuading him to make war in order to distract him from the bill before parliament that would confiscate church lands; French ambassadors delivering a load of tennis balls, thus goading him into waging a war they believe he will lose. Most tellingly we see a poor ordinary soldier, Michael Williams, one of the very few commoners in the history plays to whom Shakespeare ever gives a name, as he struggles to make sense of what has brought him, cold and hungry, to a field in France. How does he know that this war is just? What will happen to the many wives and children who will be left destitute back home? And how is it that an unknown stranger (Henry in disguise) somehow manages to deflect his anxieties with platitudes about an individual’s responsibility for his own soul? He knows that the stranger has not answered his question about whether the war is just, but cannot put his finger on quite how he has sidestepped the issue. His frustration breaks out into violence.

Title page of Q1 The Chronicle History of Henry Fift (1600)

Title page of Q1 The Chronicle History of Henry Fift (1600)

In fact the play is as full of instances of treachery, deceit, exploitation and violence between the multinational, English, Scots, Welsh and Irish troops in Henry’s so-called ‘English’ army as it is of battle between English and French. Its contradictions ask us to consider both the idea of ‘right’ on the road to war, and the nature of justice in the conduct of that war: these are the same questions that currently fill the news channels with regard to the conduct of wars in Iraq and Syria.

Henry horrifies us with his attempt to force the surrender of Harfleur by threatening to rape and murder its women, children, and old people. In Shakespeare’s day this speech might have recalled the behaviour of (Catholic) Spanish troops sacking (Protestant) towns in the Netherlands. Today it evokes the actions of so-called Islamic State. But the licence to sack a town that has held out under siege, and to kill or enslave its inhabitants is justified in the bible (Deuteronomy 20.10-20). Objecting to that behaviour means being able to reject part of a revered religious text. In the end, the play’s Henry orders that the inhabitants be well treated; the historical Henry expelled them so that the town could be settled by poor Englishmen.

Shakespeare’s play also presents, one after the other, two different historical versions of Henry’s other potential violation of the law of war: his order to kill the French prisoners. In one version, this act is pragmatic, although still brutal: the French are regrouping and the English cannot afford to keep prisoners alive. In the other, it is retribution for a French war-crime—the massacre of unarmed boys. The Welsh and English captains, Fluellen and Gower, are completely satisfied by this second explanation. Audiences, though, have just been made to witness the so-called ‘fog of war’ in operation.

Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt : The King wears on this surcoat the Royal Arms of England, quartered with the Fleur de Lys of France as a symbol of his claim to the throne of France. Harry Payne -

Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt : The King wears on this surcoat the Royal Arms of England, quartered with the Fleur de Lys of France as a symbol of his claim to the throne of France. Harry Payne –

It is well known that Shakespeare borrowed extensively from other writers—for this play, his main source was Holinshed’s Chronicle history of England. But he was not someone who would make do with the obvious sources if something else could be brought in to complicate the plot.  My colleague Craig Lambert has recently demonstrated that the fleet that transported Henry’s army to France was only half the size previously thought: a mere 700 ships rather than the 1500 claimed in the St Albans Chronicle or even the 1000 in Holinshed. In reality, he says, rather than the ‘city on th’inconstant billows dancing’ that Shakespeare describes, it was more of a ‘town’.

But truth in plays, even history plays, is sometimes wider than a single set of historical facts. I demonstrate that Shakespeare was exploiting a very different maritime event in order to make his dramatic point: Cleopatra in her barge on the River Cydnus when she first beguiled Mark Antony. Shakespeare knew of this extravaganza from the description by the Romano-Greek historian Plutarch in a recently published English translation by Sir Thomas North. He would later incorporate it word for word in the play Antony and Cleopatra. As used in Henry V, a few strangely antique words betray their origin, and give the description of Henry’s fleet an exotic, mythical character. If it seems odd to liken Henry’s military expedition to the most famous seduction event in history, the idea finds ironic culmination at the end of the play when he presses his suit to Catherine: ‘in loving me you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine’; all his, even though it now lies in ruins from the effects of his war.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1884, Sotheby's New York.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1884, Sotheby’s New York.

Thus, although the confident assertions of the play’s Chorus have contributed to the lasting myth that is Agincourt, the play’s structure, taken in its entirety, with its wide-ranging comparisons, contradictions, ironies, and black humour raises questions to which we still seek answers: about appropriate punishment; the nature of loyalty, and of treachery; the responsibility of friendship; and the right to make war. If we really were to engage our imaginations, this structure might help us expand our ethical understanding of these topics. Rather than asking us to make an either/or interpretation, the play invites us to respond with ‘yes, and . . .’.

To discover more from our ‘Agincourt’ publication, please see further posts via this link, or pick up a copy for yourself via the Yale University Press website. The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition is open at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For more details please visit our website.

Southampton and Shakespeare reunited!

The armour of the 3rd Earl of Southampton took a trip last week, from its home at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds to appear in a new exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World, at the British Museum in London.

The Earl of Southampton is the only acknowledged patron of William Shakespeare, and this three-quarter armour was recorded being worn by the Earl in a portrait. From this evidence historians were able to accurately establish the provenance of the piece. This beautiful armour has intricate gilded decoration in the Mannerist style fashionable in 16th-century Europe etched onto its original blackened steel surface.

Two people packing an armour

Packing the Earl of Southampton’s armour

The meticulous packing process took around 31/2 hours as each piece had to be cushioned in custom-made foam protection to ensure they were not damaged whilst in transit.

Three members of British Museum staff check the armour after transit

British Museum staff check the Southampton armour after transit

On arrival at the British Museum the condition of the armour was thoroughly checked. Royal Armouries Keeper of Armour, Thom Richardson, who had accompanied the armour on its journey, and Chris Smith, Deputy Head of Conservation based at the Tower of London , then reassembled it ready for display.

The Southampton armour will be on display in London from 19 July to 25 November.

The final assembled suit of Southampton armour ready for display at the ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ exhibition at the British Museum