After Agincourt: the life of Sir John Pennington

This past week we have been celebrating the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (including the History of Parliament’s ‘A Band of Brothers’ booklet on Parliament and the battle).  Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, explores what happened next for one Agincourt veteran during uncertain political times…

Sir John Pennington (c.1393-1470) of Muncaster in Cumberland, from one of the richest and most ancient of the gentry families of the north-west, lived through dramatic times. His career began in the bright optimism occasioned by Henry V’s accession, but it ended after Henry’s brief reign had long given way to political division and eventually to civil war. When Sir John died in 1470, the great victory at Agincourt, where he had fought in the company of his father, can have been for him but a distant memory. Although he participated in Henry V’s later campaigns, he was one of the many who abandoned military service in France on Henry’s death in 1422. His later career in arms consisted of a series of inglorious episodes. Indeed, the dominant theme of his career after 1422 was not honourable military service under the Crown in foreign war but a series of domestic conflicts as a leading adherent of the great northern comital house of Percy.

Pennington was one of the Agincourt veterans in the 1432 Parliament, but for him as for other prominent gentry living far from Westminster, such service was a right of passage to be undertaken but not repeated. His interests were much more directly engaged by his local attachment to Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland. In 1443 he took up arms in the earl’s dispute with John Kemp, archbishop of York, over conflicting spheres of influence in Yorkshire. More significantly, on 23 October 1448 he was one of the leaders of a raiding force into Scotland commanded by the earl’s eldest son, Henry Percy, Lord Poynings, which suffered a defeat, both unexpected and humbling, by the Scots at the river Sark. Later, as the rivalry between the Percys and their great local rivals, the Nevilles, became dangerously intense, he again took up arms. On 10 August 1453 he was singled out by the Crown as a ‘greet sturrer and moever’ of riots in the north and ordered to obey royal commissioners. Two weeks later, entirely unabashed by this royal order, he was in the Percy army which confronted the Nevilles at Heworth Moor near York. Thereafter his fortunes fluctuated with those of the two great rival families, which in turned mirrored those of York and Lancaster as the Nevilles committed themselves to the former and the Percys to the latter. Although proof is lacking, it is likely that, despite his advanced years, he was in the Percy retinue at the battles of St. Albans in May 1455, at Wakefield in December 1460 and at Towton in March 1461.

There is a curious family legend that Pennington played host to the fleeing Henry VI in the wake of the latter battle. According to a lost monumental inscription in the church of Muncaster, Henry VI came to Muncaster in 1461 and gave Sir John, ‘a brauve workyd Glasse Cuppe’, which, if the family kept it unbroken, would ensure that their affairs thrived, ‘whyche Cuppe is Kalled the lucke of Molcastre’. Unfortunately the inscription was not contemporary and contained clear errors. None the less, there is nothing intrinsically unlikely about the defeated Henry VI having come to Muncaster either after Towton or else after the later Lancastrian defeat at Hexham in 1464.

Whatever Pennington’s personal role in 1461, the change of regime brought what were for him very unwelcome changes in both national and local politics. Although he himself escaped the forfeiture imposed posthumously on the earl of Northumberland, his family escaped very far from unscathed for their support for Percy: in May 1464, the supposed protection of the cup notwithstanding, William, either Sir John’s son or grandson, was among the Lancastrians executed after capture at the battle of Hexham. Sir John himself lived long enough for the restoration of the Percy earl in March 1470 but died three months later in an England long drained of the optimism and sense of national unity occasioned by the victory at Agincourt.


You can see the History of Parliament’s ‘Band of Brothers: Parliamentarians and the Battle of Agincourt’ booklet here, and visitors to Westminster Hall this Saturday can see an accompanying exhibition.

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