“Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
William Shakespeare – ‘Henry V’
Our version of the battle of Agincourt is almost entirely informed by William Shakespeare in the play Henry V but as with most of his histories this was a highly dubious account of what really happened and modern historians have reached the view that far from being gallant and chivalrous and still celebrated as a golden moment in England’s history the battle was filthy, horrible and merciless.
Weapons were crude and brutal. Arrows from the longbows of the Welsh archers rained down and where the sword of a knight would not penetrate the armour of a noble foe and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, a poleaxe (a long-handled axe or hammer, topped with a fearsome spike) would fell him fast and then it was easy to raise the victim’s visor and slide a knife through an eye. That was how hundreds of men died – their last sight on earth a dagger’s point.
It turns out that Agincourt is not a tale of chivalry at all, but rather of desperate men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls. Of hundreds of French soldiers weighed down by heavy armour submerged and drowning in mud. Hand to hand combat by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval fighting.
At the height of the battle, when Henry V fearful of an attack on his rear he ordered the captured French prisoners to be slaughtered, an action today that would almost certainly be denounced as a war crime. He is alleged to have once said that ‘War without fire is like sausages without mustard’. Even Shakespeare makes no attempt to omit this part of the story which would suggest that even in Tudor times such action was considered acceptable. There was no United Nations Rules of Engagement or Geneva Convention in 1415.
In the cold, wet dawn of October 25th 1415, no one could have realistically expected Henry’s army to survive the day. This was about as unlikely as Leicester City winning the Premier League. He had about six thousand men, more than five thousand of them archers, while the French numbered at least thirty-thousand and were so confident of victory that, before the battle was joined, they sent away some newly arrived reinforcements – it didn’t occur to them that they might need to make some half-time substitutions! By dusk on that Saint Crispin’s Day, Henry’s small army had entered military legend.
I visited the battle field in August 2013 and after a short drive from our hotel we arrived at the site of the battle that doesn’t seem anything special now after all this time and we may well have missed what is now a rather unremarkable field in northern France if it wasn’t for the roadside decoration where English archers and French cavalry faced each other once again in row after row of wooden statues.
A few neighbouring wind farms apart, the terrain has barely changed in the six hundred intervening years and today the battlefield is exactly that – a field, with ploughed ridges a foot deep, flanked by trees on either side. Sixty miles west of Lille, the flat country is broken up by poplars dotted with mistletoe, red-roofed bungalows and small Gothic churches with broach spires.
We stopped for a while and surveyed the field which gave no clues to the battle and then we continued to the Agincourt Museum.
I am not really sure what I was expecting but I was certainly surprised by the place. I had always imagined that France would have no real enthusiasm for financing and building a museum to commemorate a humiliating defeat but inside there was an unexpectedly balanced account of the battle and the history of the Hundred Years War (which I suppose the French did win at the end of the day so they can afford to be magnanimous about it) and in some of the displays and the explanations I had to remind myself that Henry was the English King and it was the French who were defeated here.
Anyway, six hundred years is a very long time and I don’t suppose it really matters that much anymore and after all the French have been Republicans, on and off, for over two hundred years now so why should it matter to them a great deal whether the Plantagenets or the Valois won that day?
I remember studying Shakespeare’s Henry V for English ‘o’ level and the school production of the play in 1969.
I auditioned but was not successful in securing a speaking part but was compensated with not one, but two roles as an extra. My first part was rather important as I was the servant who carried on the casket of tennis balls that is presented to King Henry by the French Ambassador in Act 1 Scene 2 and then I had to make a hasty costume change to become one of the English army, first at the siege of Harfleur in Act 3 scene 1 and then at the battle of Agincourt in Act 4 scene 1.
Rather like the French King, Charles VI, the failure to get a part in the play was a bit of a personal setback for me and I never auditioned for a part in the school play or any other sort of play ever again but I have to admit that this was no great loss to the theatrical profession.
By an interesting chronological coincidence the British fought another heroic battle on St Crispin’s Day but this time without such a glorious result – The Charge of the Light Brigade on October 25th 1854.
“This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
William Shakespeare – ‘Henry V’