For a medieval French knight, being a courtier was just as important as being a tactician and military leader. Here, Christophe investigates the many facets of knighthood, inspired by his recent article in a special edition of Revue du Nord.
King Henry V: What prisoners of good sort are taken, uncle?
Exeter: Charles Duke of Orleans, nephew to the king, John Duke of Bourbon, and Lord Bouciqualt.
William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 4, Scene. 8
In the early fifteenth-century, one of the most prominent French knights and captains was Jean II Le Meingre, commonly known by the nickname Boucicaut. He was an accomplished jouster who took part in prestigious military campaigns: he joined the Prussian reise (see Laura’s blogpost here), took part in the infamous Nicopolis Crusade (1396), fought in Constantinople against the Turks (1399), ruled the Republic of Genoa for the king of France Charles VI (1401-1409), and of course, waged war against routiers and British troops during the Hundred Years War. It was only to be expected that he would join the French contingent sent against Henry V’s army in Normandy in 1415.
As a Marshall of France—the second most important function in the military hierarchy—, he led an impressive army to cut off the retreat of Henry V towards Calais. He even issued a battle plan, found in the 1980s, that would probably have changed the course of the battle if it had been followed, although it was unlikely to change French and English history. In the end, the French fought differently and were crushed by the English. Kept prisoner, Boucicaut remained a captive until his death in 1421.
Despite this eventful life, Boucicaut was more than a knight loyal to his king. A well-known courtier, he gathered around him several knights and squires who served him in his wars, some of them for years. One of these was Guillaume de Montrevel, who fought the Flemish rebels with Boucicaut in 1382, joined him for his adventures in Constantinople, Cyprus and the Middle East (1403) and who served him again in Italy. We can also mention Louis de Boisredont, serving in Genoa and who, in the Agincourt battle plan, was to attack the English forces from the rear.
In his role as a courtier, Boucicaut even founded his own knightly order, the Ordre de l’Ecu vert à la dame blanche (the order of the green shield with the white lady). Designed to protect oppressed ladies, it was composed of twelve knights, all Boucicaut’s companions, not least of whom was Charles d’Albret, the Constable of France and leader of the army during the Agincourt campaign.
The career of Boucicaut makes it clear that late medieval knights cannot be characterised simply as either brutal and short-sighted soldiers or lazy and fearful courtiers. Many were military leaders, able to conceive battle plans and strategy. Between campaigns, they would enjoy a more peaceful life, composing poems, jousting, and celebrating the service of ladies. These courtly interludes were not mere breaks in their main activities, but instead the perfect moment to create or strengthen political and martial relationships. It was these relationships which made them able to bring together a strong and numerous company of men-at-arms to fight the enemy, be it English, Turk or Italian.