Longsword by David Pilling

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Missing eyes and broken cheekbones

Today is the second part of my series of posts on the fate of soldiers in the medieval period - not the kings, knights and nobles, but the faceless grunts whose corpses littered the fields of Hastings, Bannockburn, Agincourt and many others. To my mind, these men have just as much right to be remembered and admired - or pitied, as the case may be - as any inbred, sword-wielding clown on a horse.


Last time I wrote about Stephen Franckton, the Shropshire man-at-arms thought to have slain Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, last native prince of Wales. Now I'll fast-forward from the 13th to the 15th century, and the reign of Henry V (1413-22).

Most people who know anything about the medieval era will have heard of the Battle of Agincourt, later glorified by Shakespeare, where Henry's little army ('four or five most vile and ragged foils/right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous) put to flight the much larger French host.

The names of many of Henry's soldiers are preserved on the surviving muster rolls, which are now available to browse online. I've picked out one soldier in particular, an esquire or man-at-arms named Thomas Hostell.

An extremely rare petition survives, in which Thomas begs for financial aid from the government of Henry VI (1422-1471). Here is part of the text:

'To the king our sovereign lord,

Beseeches meekly your poor liegeman and humble petitioner Thomas Hostell that in consideration of the service which he performed to your noble progenitors of full blessed memory King Henry the Fourth and King Henry the Fifth, on whose soul God have mercy, being at the siege of Harfleur, there smitten with a crossbow bolt through the head, losing one eye and having his cheekbone broken, and also at the Battle of Agincourt, and later at the taking of the carracks on the sea, there with an iron bolt having his coat of plates broken asunder, and being sorely hurt, maimed and wounded...'

This one paragraph gives us an account of Hostell's extraordinary military career: first he served Henry IV (1399-1413) and then Henry V, fighting at the siege of Harfleur where he suffered a horrific wound, losing an eyeball and having his cheekbone broken by a crossbow bolt. Somehow he not only survived, but was fit enough to march on and fight at Agincourt. Later he fought at a sea-battle where he was again struck by a missile (it seems Hostell was something of a walking target) and had his shirt of iron plates burst to pieces.

The injuries he suffered at sea more than likely put an end to his military career. Like many another old soldier, Hostell had no means to support himself, and sometime during the reign of Henry V's successor was forced to live off alms. He describes himself in pitiful terms:

'...as a result of which (injuries) he is much enfeebled and weakened, and now being of great age has fallen into poverty, being much in debt and unable to help himself, having not the means whereby he can be sustained or relieved save only by the gracious almsgiving of other persons...' 
Henry V

In other words, he was forced to beg. Here is the grim reality of the lives of medieval soldiers, as opposed to the fictional likes of Thomas of Hookton, the archer in Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series. Thomas of Hookton ends his distinguished career as a lord, with lots of money and thousands of acres of land. Thomas Hostell, whose real-life services to the English crown were no less brave, ended with nothing.

What seems to have happened is that Hostell 'fell through the cracks' of the system. His petition goes on to claim that he was 'never yet recompensed or rewarded' for his services, meaning that he never actually got paid while he was in the army. This sounds incredible, but was by no means unusual: the army commissariat of the time was not very efficient, which was why many soldiers took to looting and plundering the countryside. Henry V, however, forbade this practice, which was good for his reputation but extremely bad for the financial security of his rankers. One English archer on the Agincourt campaign who broke the rules, and stole a pyx from a French church, was hanged for it.

Thomas Hostell ends his petition by begging for alms from Henry VI, offering in exchange to pray for the king and the souls of his ancestors. There is no record of whether the petition was successful or not, but I like to think so: for all his faults, Henry was a kind and pious man, and would surely have taken pity on the battered, penniless, one-eyed veteran who had done his father and grandfather such good service.

As the wars in France wore on, there must have been many other weary veterans, turned loose to fend for themselves once the fighting was done. Large numbers of them found employment as retainers in the households of English nobles, and the existence of so many private armies was one of the causes of The Wars of the Roses. This leads me on to my next post, and the grave-pits of Towton...




2 comments:

  1. Thomas must have been extremely healthy speciman of a man. To survive the wound he received at Harfleur and later proceed to fight at Agincourt, incredible. Makes me think of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who not only survived ten childbirths but was strong enough to reach an unusual by the then standards age of eighty :-)

    I'm looking forward to your Towton post - I wonder how many of those who perished at one of the bloodiest battles of MA are known by name. Some time ago I read about a Lancastrian soldier, whose remains were discovered and face reconstructed. He remained anonymous, of course. Am I right to guess that your man is going to be a Lancastrain as well? :-)

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    1. I can't recall if he was a Lancastrian or a Yorkist - I think you mean the one with the cleft jawline. Though there were plenty of others as well!

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