Agincourt: The Death of Chivalry
Like many historical fiction writers, I concentrate on my own period, and my knowledge of other periods is patchy – gleaned from TV dramas, school textbooks, and the plays of Shakespeare. Of course I’d heard of the Battle of Agincourt, a major English victory against France in the Hundred Years’ War, and I knew it was when the French – mostly knights, and armed with the finest “high tech” military equipment of the day – were defeated by the English peasant archers. For generations since, Agincourt has been held up as a shining example of what a few ordinary but courageous men can do in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
The background to the battle is that on his accession to the throne of England in April 1413, Henry V decided to revive the war against France and press his claim to the French throne. Terse negotiations between the two countries ensued, during which Henry made demands of the French that they found to be unacceptable, and which they rejected with increasing vigour. All the while England was preparing for war, training archers and stocking up on arrows.
But on this, the battle’s 600th anniversary, I was keen to get a better sense of why, of all the battles in the war, this one was so important, and exactly how it changed English history. I approached Juliet Barker, a historian, to give me some context.
‘Agincourt is perhaps the most famous of all medieval battles,’ she told me. ‘It did not dramatically change the course of history, but it had an impact out of all proportion to what actually happened on the battlefield. For contemporaries, it proved that God was on the side of the English (the only possible conclusion given the fact that they were so heavily outnumbered by the French) and that Henry V was therefore the legitimate king of England despite his father having usurped the throne.’
When talking to people about the background to the battle, several mentioned In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse, translated by Lewis Kaplan. The novel tells the life-story of poet and courtier Charles d’Orleans (1394–1465), nephew to the mad French king Charles VI. It was first published in the Netherlands in 1949, but is convincing in its grasp of the politics of the day.
Looking further back, we cannot escape Shakespeare’s vision of Agincourt, in which he took the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, and welded them into a story which has imprinted itself on the English subconscious. Henry V (which has been performed continuously since 1738) gave rise to several myths. ‘Amongst them were the ideas that Agincourt was a victory for the “happy few”; that it witnessed the triumph of the longbow over the mounted knight, and of the yeoman over the aristocrat; that this was medieval England’s “finest hour”; and that it led immediately to Henry V’s recognition as heir to the King of France,’ says Stephen Cooper, author of Agincourt, Myth and Reality (Pen & Sword, 2014).
This was the battle where the legend of the superiority of English archers was born, though according to Vanora Bennett, author of Blood Royal (William Morrow, 2010), initially the English were considered ‘very infra dig, village men with village weapons, with none of the grandeur of the French style.’ However, the English longbows could shoot up to fifteen arrows per minute – a power that novelist Joanna Hickson maintains is the medieval equivalent of a phalanx of modern machine guns.
Bennett’s Blood Royal follows the life of Catherine de Valois. She tells me that on the day of the battle, St Crispin’s Day, 25th October 1415, Henry V’s English army was only 6,000 strong, against the 25,000 in the French army, and that the English were at a disadvantage as they were on unfamiliar turf. ‘I think Agincourt is one of those great story moments because it is such a David and Goliath battle. The French were grand and full of “gloire”, a bigger and older and richer and more civilised country with a very grand aristocracy turned out in full armour, with horses; their kingdom was called the “most Christian kingdom” and they rather despised the slummy English living out on their island, with their king who was the son of Henry IV, viewed as a usurper.’
Bernard Cornwell’s novel, Agincourt (Harper, 2009), tells the story through the life of one of the archers, Nicholas Hook:
‘And Hook loosed again, not thinking, only knowing that he had been told to stop this attack. He loosed shaft after shaft. He drew the cord to his right ear and was not aware of the tiny shifts his left hand made to send the white-feathered arrow on its short journey from cord to victim. He was not aware of the deaths he caused or the injuries he gave or of the arrows that glanced off armour to spin uselessly away. Most were not useless. The long bodkin heads could easily punch through armour at this close range and Hook was stronger than most archers who were stronger than most men, and his bow was heavy.’
The view that the battle was won because of English archery skills, however, has been contested by Cornwell. In a 2008 piece written for the Daily Mail, he stated: ‘Legend says the Battle of Agincourt was won by stalwart English archers. It was not. In the end it was won by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval hand-to-hand fighting. It was fought on a field knee-deep in mud and it was more of a massacre than a battle.’ 1
But what of the other side? Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride (Harper, 2013) looks at the Battle of Agincourt from a French perspective and shows that it was not so much a glorious English victory as a largely self-inflicted French defeat. ‘That part of the fifteenth century was a dire period in French history,’ she says, ‘when the King was incapable of ruling due to recurring insanity and the Queen and the Princes of the Blood fought each other for control of France, leaving much of the country blackened and bleeding from almost constant civil war. The people suffered starvation and brutality as a result and an almost total breakdown in law and order.’
In Hickson’s novel, the 14-year-old Princess Catherine is celebrating her birthday at the court in Paris when the dreadful news arrives. Her 19-year-old brother, Dauphin Louis, tells her of the appalling death toll:
“That impious libertine Henry of Monmouth came lusting over to France, desperate to possess your soft, white virgin flesh – and now ten thousand Frenchmen lie dead… dead at your feet!”
“Ten thousand – Jesu! That is a terrible number. However, you are wrong, Louis. King Henry does not lust after me but after France. I am not the territory he wants but the wretched scapegoat who is tethered to it.”
I asked Joanna what the key story moment from Agincourt was for her. ‘The image of those French horses and bodies piling up in heaps on the battlefield, felled by a combination of bad generalship, terrifying firepower and awful clinging, sucking mud. The Battle of the Somme is the Battle of Agincourt writ large and both give me the heebie-jeebies!’
According to Cornwell’s article, the reality for the French facing those English arrows is that ‘They were wading through mud made treacherous by deeply ploughed furrows and churned to quagmire by horses’ hooves. And they were being struck by arrows so that they were forced to close their helmets’ visors. They could see little through the tiny eye-slits, their breathing was stifled and still the arrows came. The conventional verdict suggests that the French were cut down by those arrow storms, but the chief effect of the arrows was to delay and, by forcing them to close their visors, half-blind the attackers.’
When the French lost, the victory became symbolic of the triumph of the peasant over the nobility; of courage and determination over chivalry and gallantry. The English love an underdog, and this was the classic tale of the moment the little guy conquered the big guy. Barker, the historian, notes, ‘There can be no more powerful example of this than the fact that, more than five centuries after Agincourt, Winston Churchill persuaded Laurence Olivier to make his film of Henry V to encourage the British people as he prepared for a new invasion of Normandy, one which would prove to be a turning point in the Second World War.’
Vanora Bennett reminds us that the sad aftermath is much less remembered. ‘Henry died young of battlefield dysentery. His son Henry VI was mad. More civil war quickly engulfed France, and England. Henry V’s descendants never ruled France after all. And Princess Catherine de Valois, who’d married Henry as the man who had conquered her country and had briefly become Queen of England, later showed a startlingly modern sensibility when she ignored considerations of rank and married a gentleman servant called Owen Tudor.’
But these sadder and more complicated stories lack the simple clarity of Shakespeare’s Agincourt – that moment when Henry inspired the English ‘band of brothers’ to heroism:
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
1. Cornwell, Bernard. “War Crime? Battle of Agincourt Was Our Finest Hour.” Daily Mail. 27 October 2008. Available from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1080764/War-crime-Battle-Agincourt-finest-hour-says-author-Bernard-Cornwell.html
About the contributor: DEBORAH SWIFT is the author of five novels set in the 17th century, including The Lady’s Slipper and the Highway Trilogy for teens, Spirit of the Highway, which is just out. She lives in the North of England close to the Lake District National Park, and also writes under the pen-name Davina Blake.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 74, November 2015