England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages

Louis Robessart – a Border-Crossing Knight?

The career of Louis Robessart (c.1390-1431) in many ways seems to represent the late medieval border-crossing knight for whom the promise of reward meant more than ‘national’ loyalties, but in fact his career demonstrates the degree to which medieval immigrants might seek to integrate more permanently and join an adopted nation, and might in turn be adopted by that nation. Born in Hainault to a family which possessed a long-standing tradition of English service it was perhaps inevitable that Louis would follow his grandfather, father, uncle and older brother to England. Unlike his predecessors however, Louis would go on to settle permanently in England, taking up letters of denization, an impressive array of property holdings, a lordly title via his English wife, and a place at the very peak of English political society under both Henry V and his son Henry VI.

As a result of the marriage of Edward III to Philippa of Hainault in 1328 and the English need for allies on the continent during the Hundred Years War, many knights from the Low Countries, and from Hainault in particular, sought service with the English, and many were handsomely rewarded. The men of Louis Robessart’s family can be counted in the front line of this trend: Louis, seigneur de Robessart and his brother Thierry, seigneur de d’Escaillon, were retained for annual sums by Edward III, and Thierry (our Louis’ grandfather) would later marry a cousin of John of Gaunt’s wife and serve on important English campaigns in France and Portugal. Our Louis’ father Jean was in service to Richard II from 1390, and then was retained by Henry IV after Richard’s deposition, serving the English in France from 1415 onwards. We find Louis’ older brother, another Jean, as a king’s knight in England with an annuity for life of £100 a year and the on-off custodianship of the lands of the priory of Monk’s Kirby in Warwickshire. While Jean disappears from the English record around 1413, returning to Hainault to inherit the family’s lands as the elder son, Louis himself first appears around 1403 serving the future Henry V, and was to remain resident in England for the rest of his life.

Born sometime around 1390 in his native Hainault, Louis is found serving under the future Henry V in Wales from 1403, providing at his own expense one archer for the prince’s war against Welsh rebels. When Henry V ascended the throne in 1413, Louis was made an Esquire of the Chamber, and served consistently on Henry V’s campaigns in France from the resumption of war in 1415 onwards. Although he received an annuity of £40 a year, one small manor of his own and custodianship of the lands of a child heir in 1415, it is with his letters of denization that Louis seems to have decided to settle more permanently in England. On receiving his letters of denization on 8 March 1417 he began to acquire real property in England, took on increasingly important roles around the king’s council and household, and continued to serve on the French campaigns. Louis especially distinguished himself at the siege of Cherbourg in 1418, holding against a sortie by the garrison while the bulk of the English army regrouped, and his service would be rewarded when he became Henry’s standard-bearer in 1420 and was initiated into the Order of the Garter in 1421. After Henry V’s death Louis would continue to serve the English Crown as the young Henry VI’s chamberlain, and returned again to France in 1430 where he died in battle at Conty near Amiens in 1430, an encounter which several contemporary chroniclers held up as a shining example of chivalric dedication.

Landed Nobleman
Although Louis had already received the manor of Mapelhurst in Kent and an annuity of £40 a year from the sheriffs of London, his letters of denization in 1417 allowed him to begin acquiring property in England for himself, a task he seems to have undertaken with gusto. Only seven days after issuing his denization, the Crown gave a licence for Richard Haukere to enfeoff Louis along with two others with over 140 acres of land in Norfolk and Suffolk. Although Louis continued to be granted money and lands by the Crown we can see from the confirmation of his landholdings acquired on the death of Henry V that Louis had also been purchasing lands of his own in the intervening time. The confirmation from 1422 lists not only the previous grants from the Crown and his denization, but also the acquisitions of Redenhall, Aldeburgh, Denton, Mendham, Pulham and elsewhere from Richard Haukere, the manor of Redenhall itself acquired permanently from William Tyndale (the minor whose custodianship Louis had been granted in 1415), and the manors of Banham, Marchals, Greys and Bekhale acquired by Louis and another six men. In this it seems that Louis was taking part in some kind of property-buying consortium or agreement with his six partners which included such notables as the Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Chaucer esquire. Similarly we can see from a pardon issued in 1428 that Louis and eleven others had acquired the manor of Canewdon, Essex by that time, and from the property dispute begun against Louis’ wife and stepson after his death that they had also acquired the manors of Little Maldon, Little Fordham, Aldham, Morton and Tolleshunt in Essex before his death.

While we possess no estimate of Louis’ wealth, these property acquisitions undoubtedly made him a rich man even without counting the further royal grants of 1417 onwards and any lands belonging to his wife from her dowry or first marriage. When he returned to France for Henry VI’s coronation as King of France in 1430, the expedition which would claim his life, Louis brought a personal retinue of two knights, thirty-one men-at-arms and one hundred and five archers, a far cry from the one archer the young Louis could afford to pay in 1403. The majority of Louis’ properties were concentrated in Essex and Norfolk, and Louis seems to have integrated well into the upper levels of county society, appearing on the commissions of the peace for Essex continuously from 1423 to 1430. His local standing in Essex was most likely what made him a good choice for appointment to seek loans to the Crown in both 1426 and 1428 alongside other county notables. That Louis built up such a formidable array of properties and incomes is a testament to his important place in both the courts of Henry V and Henry VI, and demonstrates the kind of incentives which led late medieval military men to seek employment across national borders.

Courtier and Councillor
In return for his long and loyal military service to Henry V, Louis was entrusted with several crucial roles, not only in a military context but also in Henry’s continental diplomacy and on his son’s royal council. Perhaps the most historically significant role Louis performed for Henry V was his part in the negotiations for the 1420 Treaty of Troyes which left Henry named as heir to the Crown of France and confirmed extensive English possessions in Normandy and Aquitaine. After first taking part in the secret negotiations from December 1419 to February 1420 on Henry’s behalf, Louis was then entrusted with taking the agreed terms of the treaty to England’s ally, the duke of Burgundy, and with escorting the French princess, Catherine of Valois, to her marriage with Henry. The degree of trust Henry placed in his Hainaulter knight was clearly considerable and is reflected in Henry’s final will, in which Louis not only receives a gold cup, £200 in cash and the king’s tenth best horse, but is also named as one of the will’s executors alongside English bishops and dukes.

Louis’ role grew in importance under the infant son of his friend, named as chamberlain of Henry VI’s household soon after the child king’s accession and serving on the royal council. His name appears in relation to various acts of the royal council and he was also appointed three times to maintain the waterway known as ‘le Leye’ (the modern River Lea) which ran through Essex and close to London. In 1423 his more military skills were called upon to bring to justice the rebellious tenants of the abbot of Waltham Holy Cross, on the border of Essex and Hertfordshire, who had attacked the local sheriff. Although he owned his own lands in Essex, Louis was assigned the town of Harrow to provide for his living while resident with the king in London or Westminster. Louis’ marriage to Elizabeth Bourgchier, the widow of fellow Garter knight Hugh Stafford, brought him an English title as Lord Bourgchier and also a place in Parliament. The fact that Louis accompanied Henry VI in 1430 itself speaks of his high esteem, as does the fateful decision of the regent Cardinal Beaufort to entrust the expedition of November 1430 to Louis and the Cardinal’s nephew, Thomas.

Chivalry and Death
When made a knight of the Garter on 3 May 1421, alongside five prominent English nobles who had also long served Henry V, Louis not only joined one of the most prestigious knightly fellowships in medieval Europe but also took an oath never to retreat or flee from battle. While this initiation was undoubtedly a sign of Henry’s trust in and affection for the Hainault-born knight, this oath may have caused Louis’ death. When leading a force of English soldiers to reinforce the duke of Burgundy on 27 November 1430, Louis and Thomas Beaufort encountered a Franco-Scottish army with around ten times their own numbers at Conty near Amiens. According to contemporary Burgundian chroniclers Louis chose not to retreat against overwhelming odds “in order to uphold the honour of his order of chivalry and himself,” sending some of his men back to the castle to save their lives but himself choosing to die on the field of battle rather than flee. It is true that these chroniclers actively sought to represent Louis as a paragon of chivalry in order to inspire their readers to similar acts of valour, but we can see from the controversy which followed Garter knight Sir John Falstolf’s decision to flee the field at Patay in 1429, which almost cost him membership of the Order of the Garter, that contemporaries took this part of their Garter oath very seriously.

After his death Louis was buried in an elaborate tomb in the Chapel of St Paul in Westminster Abbey, close to the chantry chapel built around the tomb of his friend and monarch Henry V. Louis’ tomb proudly displays various heraldic insignia, but was also one of the first to incorporate Garter imagery into funerary monuments, encircling his heraldic shields with the Garter itself. In keeping with this clear attachment to his adopted nation’s monarch and his own membership in that nation’s chivalric order, Louis had his tomb inscribed with three phrases, one in Latin, one in French and one in English. The Latin and French legends praise the glory and honour of God but it is perhaps significant, given Louis’ chosen manner of death in service to his adopted nation and in line with his chivalric oath, that the English reads “Learne to dye to live ever.”

Chris Linsley


Calendars of Patent Rolls, 1399-1436

P.J. Begent & H. Chessyre, The Most Noble Order of the Garter, 650 Years (London, 1999)
H. Collins, ‘Sir John Falstolf, John Lord Talbot and the Dispute over Patay: Ambition and Chivalry in the Fifteenth Century’, in War and Society in Medieval and Early Modern Britain, ed. D. Dunn (Liverpool, 2000), 114-140
G.L. Harriss, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford, 2005)
D. Morgan, ‘From a Death to a View: Louis Robessart, Johan Huizinga, and the Political Significance of Chivalry’, in Chivalry in the Renaissance, ed. S. Anglo (Woodbridge, 1990), 93-106
P. Strong & F. Strong, ‘The Last Will and Codicils of Henry V’, English Historical Review, 96 (1981), 79-102

Westminster Abbey website description of the tomb

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England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 9 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/louis-robessart-a-border-crossing-knight