Soldiers in Medieval England

In this blog one of our Associate Lecturers Dr Tom Wex gives us an insight into some of his doctoral research on the English Soldier in the Fifteenth Century.

Around 1452, Agnes Nevyll of London petitioned in the Court of Chancery against her imprisonment. The exact duration of her imprisonment is unknown, but she had been incarcerated as a result of an action of detinue brought against her by Thomas Walker, a soldier who had returned to England by early 1450, following the loss of English Normandy. Thomas claimed that Agnes had misappropriated a quantity of silver dishes and cloth that he had left with her for safekeeping. Agnes’s plea, however, implies that Thomas was himself a thief who had taken advantage of the unrest in London caused by the rebellion of Jack Cade in (May/June) 1450. She claimed that Thomas had stolen the goods from the house of Philip Malpas – an unpopular London alderman – when it had been targeted by the rebels. Moreover, she had only accepted said items as he had forced them on her, and she had feared for her life. Rather than having misappropriated them, they had then subsequently been taken from her by further ‘misruled people’. The truth of the matter remains a mystery for no other relating records survive.

It was not unusual for soldiers to leave valuable possessions with others while they were deployed overseas. A sizable community of soldiers and their families had developed in London and its hinterlands through the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Indeed, Agnes’s own husband was a soldier, still in the king’s service – perhaps in Calais or Gascony – and it certainly possible that he and Thomas knew each other. Yet, despite the inherent risks in bringing legal proceedings against Agnes, that Thomas was a thief should not simply be dismissed – familiarity and trust might well have been reasons he sought her out if he was actively involved in the rebellion. That he is not found listed among those who took advantage of a free pardon offering immunity from future royal action in the wake of the rebellion casts some doubt on the extent of his involvement. In fact, most of the surviving administrative and chronicle sources suggest that most of the soldiery within the city stood against the rebels, this despite the crown’s long-standing inability to fully finance their wages which had left a great many of them impoverished.

This loyalty to Henry VI was not rewarded – there was no medieval welfare system – and numerous demobilised soldiers were certainly reliant on criminality to sustain themselves. Yet these men were not simply violent thugs who could not abandon the more illicit commonalties of war once home. Analysis of all the records generated by the Court of King’s Bench on a nationwide scale between 1442 and 1456, demonstrates that men identified in the records as ‘soldiers’ figure less prominently than the majority of other occupational groups – even churchmen – as the perpetrators of crime, and that the preponderance of the offences of which they were accused were non-violent thefts and robberies. Over this fifteen-year period, men described as soldiers were implicated in only eight murders, ten violent assaults, and ten violent thefts/robberies. Further violent crimes undoubtedly went unrecorded, but this is true across all sections of society and occupational groups. Such violent crimes were viewed with abhorrence in medieval society. However, a sense of necessity in many of the non-violent crimes perpetrated by soldiers is a sentiment not lost in the sympathetic attitudes found in contemporary chronicles, newsletters, ballads, military tracts and other literature regarding the circumstances in which these men were forced to return at the end of the Hundred Years War, and subsequently abandoned by the government for which they had fought.

Dr Tom Wex

Top Image – Court of Chancery c. 1460

Second Image – British Library, Royal 20, C VII (c. 1380-1420).

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