One of the most infamous incidents from the Hundred Years’ War occurred at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, when some captured French prisoners were massacred by the English on the orders of King Henry V, as the French rear guard were preparing to make a last assault.
Medieval historian Rémy Ambühl, from the University of Southampton, has been studying this subject – and was recently interviewed for the HistoryExtra podcast on how the capturing (and ransoming) of prisoners of war was a feature of the 116-year-long conflict. During the episode, he explains how a ransom culture developed with laws and practices that were designed to protect the economic interests of the captor, rather than the wellbeing of the captive. There were also some rules around how you would take, or allow yourself to be taken, captive during a battle.
“Touching the right hand and asking for ransom was a sign that would be understood in the heat of the action as the soldier giving up and handing himself over to the to his enemy,” explains Ambühl. “But that’s not the end of the story, because the prisoner would then effectively be in the possession of the person he has surrendered to.
“You have his life in your hands and you are supposed to protect the prisoner at that point. So, you need to take him out of the battle. This is problematic if you are in the melee right in the combat. How does that happen? We can read that valets are there to help the knights; they take the prisoners and keep them outside the heat of the action.
“There were also other rules, too; these were made to avoid the neutralisation of the knights on the battlefield. Once you have taken your prisoner, you take their word and a token which proved that you had captured these prisoners, like a gauntlet or their sword,” continues Ambühl. “This would be evidence in the debate after the battle that he’s your prisoner; and then you can go on fighting if the prisoners you’ve taken are put aside and their lives are not in danger.”
Listen to Clare Makepeace explore the experiences of British soldiers who spent time in PoW camps in World War Two:
Battlefields were confusing places of course, and sometimes prisoners could end up being claimed by more than one captor, as Ambühl explains: “The place where prisoners are taken once the victory is secured on the battlefield… there starts the hunt, the chase of the prisoners, the chase of the defeated. And it is at that point that it becomes very dangerous in terms of casualties. If more than one person claims a captive, there are rules which share the ransom between the new captor and the former captor. There are plenty of disputes after battles because people are claiming that they took the same man.”
A brief guide to the Hundred Years’ War – by Rémy Ambühl
“The Hundred Years’ War is one of the longest conflicts in history. It actually lasted 116 years, starting in 1337 and ending in 1453. It was caused by two overlapping problems. The first is the feudal issue, which was a problem involving land that the English kings held in France since the Norman conquest of England in 1066. These lands – the Duchy of Aquitaine – were held as fiefs [a piece of land usually entrusted to someone for their use that often generated income]. So, the English king was a vassal of the French king for the land he holds in France.
“This became a problem between the two kings because [it meant that] the French king had a power of justice over the Duchy of Aquitaine. (Basically, he could interfere in the business of the English king ruling Aquitaine in France). This had been an issue in the 50 years before the Hundred Years’ War.
“There was also the overlapping problem of the dynastic issue. The English king Edward III claimed the throne of France on the basis of a claim he had from his mother, Isabella. This elevated his status from rebellious vassal of the French king to someone on an equal footing: claiming that he was the rightful king of France.
“This was the origin of the war and the reason why it lasted 100 years: once Edward had claimed to be the king of France, he could not possibly settle on anything less.
“The Hundred Years’ War is usually divided in two phases. The first is the 14th-century phase, which saw big English expeditions. In France they are called the chevauchee (horse-riding raids). This gave way in the 15th century to more of a war of conquest and settlement. After the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 (following the English victory at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, which makes the English King Henry V heir of the French kingdom) it was more a war of conquest and pacification of the kingdom of France, which belonged to the English king.
“It all ended in the mid-15th century, after Charles VII (of France) resumed war in 1449. The French reconquest lasted about five years, and the English were eventually expelled from the Duchy of Aquitaine and the Duchy of Normandy, which they had conquered 30 years before.”
What happened after a prisoner of war had been captured depended somewhat on their status and likely ransom value. The higher-ranking prisoners might end up in quite well-appointed quarters in castles and be reasonably well-treated. However, notes Ambühl, “you also read about prisoners being thrown into dungeons, pits, being fettered, shackled, tortured. But you don’t hear much about them – the voices of lower-ranking people in general do not really emerge in the primary sources we have, and also because the prisoners who died had no voice at all. So it’s actually quite tricky to see and fully grasp the bleak situation in which they found themselves.”
To find out more about prisoners of war in the Hundred Years’ War and the ransom culture of the period, listen to the podcast here.
David Musgrove is content director of HistoryExtra, plus its sister print magazines BBC History Magazine, BBC World Histories and BBC History Revealed