In 1415, Henry V ordered the execution of French prisoners at the Battle of Agincourt. In doing so, he made the rules of war – usually rigorously upheld – entirely obsolete and brought an end to the centuries-old practice of chivalry on the battlefield.
The Hundred Years’ War
Agincourt was one of the key turning points of the Hundred Years’ War, a conflict that began in 1337 and ended in 1453. This extended period of near constant fighting between England and France began with the ascension of Edward III to the throne of England and, alongside it, his claim to the throne of France.
Popular, enigmatic and confident, Edward quartered (joined together) the coats of arms of England and France before sailing across the channel and embarking on a series of military campaigns through which he gained land. In 1346, his persistence paid off and he won a great victory at the Battle of Crécy.
These military successes cemented Edward’s popularity as king, but it was mostly due to a clever propaganda campaign that placed his French campaigns in a chivalric context.
Help from Arthur
From the 10th century, “chivalry” became recognised as an ethical code of conduct during war – a promotion of clemency between opposing sides. This idea was later taken up by the church with the emergence of patriotic religious figures such as Saint George and, later, by literature, most famously in the legend of King Arthur.
Before his victory at Crécy, Edward found himself having to persuade both the English parliament and the English public to support his ambitions across the Channel. Not only did he need parliament to okay another tax to fund his French campaigns but, with little overseas support, he would be forced to mainly draw his army from Englishmen.
To promote his cause, Edward turned to the Arthurian cult for help. Casting himself in the role of Arthur, the quintessentially English king, he was successfully able to portray warfare as a romantic ideal, akin to the glorious battles of Arthurian legend.
In 1344, Edward began building a Round Table at Windsor, his would-be Camelot, and hosted a series of tournaments and pageants. Membership of his Round Table became highly sought after, something that brought with it military and chivalric prestige.
Edward’s propaganda campaign ultimately proved successful and two years later he claimed his famous victory at Crécy, defeating a much larger army led by French King Philip VI. The battle was reenacted at a tilt before an enraptured audience and it was during these festivities that the king and 12 knights wore a garter around their left knee and on their robes – the Order of the Garter was born.
An elitist fraternity, the Order espoused the brotherhood of the Round Table, though some high-born women did become members.
Propaganda vs. reality
The traditional customs of the chivalric code were not just espoused by Edward during his propaganda campaign, but also upheld by him during battle – at least according to chroniclers such as Jean Froissart, who described the events that took place following the capture of three French knights at the siege of Limoges in France.
Ironically, although common people were massacred during the assault on Limoges, the elite French knights appealed to Edward’s son, John of Gaunt, to be treated “according to the law of arms” and subsequently became prisoners of the English.
Prisoners were largely treated kindly and well. When the French king Jean Le Bon was captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers, he spent the night dining in the royal tent, before eventually being taken to England, where he lived in relative luxury at the opulent Savoy Palace.
High net worth individuals were a lucrative commodity and many English knights made a fortune during war by capturing French nobility for extortionate ransoms. Edward’s closest comrade, Henry of Lancaster, became the wealthiest magnate in the country through the spoils of war.
The fall of chivalry
The reign of Edward III was the golden age of chivalry, a time when patriotism was high in England. After his death in 1377, the young Richard II inherited the English throne and war ceased to be a priority.
Chivalry instead became immersed in court culture, becoming more about pomp, romance and frivolity – qualities that did not lend itself to warfare.
Richard was eventually overthrown by his cousin Henry IV and the war in France became a success once again under his son Henry V. But by 1415, Henry V did not see fit to extend the traditional chivalric customs that had been demonstrated by his predecessors in France.
The Hundred Years’ War ultimately began with the rise of chivalry and closed with its fall. Chivalry may have enabled Edward III to lead his countrymen into France but, by the end of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V had proved that chivalry no longer had a place in hard war.