The Writs of 1417

The only evidence of any restrictions on the right to bear arms prior to the 16th c. in England comes from writs sent by Henry V to the sheriffs of (Southamptonshire, Sussex, Dorsetshire and Wiltshire) on June 2, 1417. This text is usually quoted only partially, and an important part is (voluntarily?) left out by British writers on the subject.

Here is the full text (Close Rolls, 5 Henry V, m. 15 in dorso):

To the sheriff of Suthampton. Order to cause proclamation to be made in singular the places within his bailiwick where the king has commanded proclamation of musters to be made, that no man of whatsoever estate, degree or condition shall assume arms or coats (tunicas) of arms called 'cotearmures' unless he possess or ought to possess the same in right of an ancestor or by gift of one having sufficient power, and that on the day of his muster he shall shew clearly to persons now or hereafter appointed by the king by whose gift he has the same under pain of not being admitted to sail upon the present expedition under the number of him by whom he is retained, of losing his wages, and of the defacing and breaking of such arms and 'cotearmures' at the time of the muster if displayed or found upon him, except the men who with the king bore arms at the battle of Agincourt; as the king has information that divers men who heretofore in his expeditions have assumed arms and 'cotearmures,' when neither they nor their ancestors used them in times past, and are purposing to wear the same upon this expedition; and although the Almighty dispenses his grace as he will upon rich and poor, nevertheless the king's will is that of his lieges every man shall be entreated as his estate demands. By K.
Like writs to the sheriffs in the following counties:
Wiltesir. Dorset.

The circumstances of the writ are as follows: in late 1416 Henry V prepared for another expedition to France, to conquer the duchy of Normandy. Since 1369, the English army was essentially a mercenary army: the king passed contract with captains, who promised to provide a certain number of men-at-arms, or "lances", and archers (3 archers for every man-at-arms for land expeditions, 2 for 1 on sea expeditions). The terms of the indenture specified the wages to be received. A quarter of the wages were paid upon signing the indenture, and another quarter before embarking. At this point, Exchequer officials conducted musters to verify that the captains had in their retenue the promised number of men (after 1418, musters were also held in the field).

There had been prior expeditions, which are mentioned in the writ. The first one had left England in June 1415, with 10,000 men of which over 2500 men-at-arms. The army besieged and took the port of Harfleur, after which a number of wounded were sent home, and a garrison of 300 men and 900 archers were left in Harfleur. The rest (about 900 men-at-arms and 5000 archers) went on to the battle of Agincourt in October 1415, and returned home. A second expedition left England in 1416 with 900 men-at-arms and 1800 archers, to reinforce the garrison at Harfleur. A third expedition left in late July 1416, but it was a sea expedition, with 7000 men of which 2/3 were archers; they broke the blockade laid by the French around Harfleur and returned to England.

In January 1417, the king sent orders to the leading lords and knights asking them how many men they could bring to the new expedition. In February, they were ordered to report to London to sign the indentures. In March, the muster was announced for May 10. But later, on May 28, the king called on all those who held fiefs and annuities from him to appear by June 22. The muster began on June 8 in Southampton, and a total of 83 captains, 2221 men-at-arms and 7794 archers were counted. The expedition left for France in August 1417; reinforcements were sent in May 1418 and May 1420.

It is clear from the text of the writ that the proclamation was to be made only in those places where a muster would take place, and concerned only those men who would embark as soldiers on the expedition, since it is stated that no man shall assume arms without right and shall show proof at the time of the muster.

Thus the writs concern only a matter of military regulation, (in Squibb's own words, "the writ was not, however, legislation, its object being to regulate the army on a particular expedition"). In my opinion, it is in no way meant to apply to all of civil society. If they were, it would be surprising that John Upton, canon of Salisbury, would be writing in 1440 that assumption of arms was perfectly acceptable.

The writ provides for an exception for "the men who with the king bore arms at the battle of Agincourt". Squibb interprets this exception "not as conferring a sort of 'battle honour' upon all who had fought there, but as showing that they had for the purposes of that occasion proven their right to their arms, and relieving those of them proceeding on the later expedition from the necessity of repeating the proof." It is hard to imagine, however, that the men who fought at Agincourt had with them the documentation necessary to establish their claims to their arms, or that the king would have worried about it in the midst of a difficult campaign. And the exception applies only to those who fought at Agincourt, not all those who participated in the 1415 expedition; we cannot assume, therefore, that the proofs had been provided before embarkement. The writ, furthermore, clearly states that "the king has information that divers men who heretofore in his expeditions have assumed arms and 'cotearmures,' when neither they nor their ancestors used them in times past, and are purposing to wear the same upon this expedition." This sentence mentions prior expeditions without distinction, and there is no reason to believe that the 1415 expedition was any different, and that verification of arms had taken place in 1415.

Squibb, who is defending the proposition that even in the Middle Ages, the right to bear arms could only come from usage proven from time immemorial, is loathe to accept the idea that men assumed arms and received any kind of blanket exemption or amnesty after doing so, and he would rather imagine that the fighters of Agincourt had somehow proven their right (presumably "time immemorial", however implausible that seems). But this requires to construct elaborate and implausible assumptions that are plainly contradicted by the writ. The idea that an exemption was granted after the battle if more plausible. We know that a list of those present at the battle was drawn by Roger Babthorpe, who was Controller of the Household, and delivered to the Exchequer on November 19, 1416, to settle claims for wages arising from the quarter of service from October 6 to November 24, 1415. That list has been lost, and the list published in 1832 by Nicolas comes from a 1604 document written by Ralph Brook, York Herald, of uncertain origin, which abounds in inaccuracies.

After these writs, and until the commissions for Visitations of 1530, there is no other document indicating restrictions on the right to bear arms.


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François Velde

Last modified: May 09, 1999