Sunday marked the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt in which a badly outnumbered English army overcame and routed French forces, ensuring their place in history, thanks in no small part to later generations of (English-speaking) writers and actors.
Shakespeare’s Henry V, with the namesake’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, which includes the famous line “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” alone guaranteed collective immortality for those English and Welsh who, outnumbered by an estimated six-to-one, cut down the flower of French nobility in one of the great battles of the Hundred Years’ War.
But, as famed author Bernard Cornwell, who has himself written a thing or two about late medieval warfare, opined in The Telegraph, there was little glorious about what happened on the battlefield in northwestern France on Oct. 25, 1415:
Legend says Agincourt was won by arrows. It was not. 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. Olivier’s famous film shows French knights charging on horseback, but very few men were mounted.
The French came on foot, and the battle was reduced to men battering other armoured men with hammers, maces and axes. A sword would not penetrate armour and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, but a poleaxe would fell him fast and then it was a simple enough job 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 is not a tale of chivalry, but rather of armoured men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls. At the battle’s height, when Henry V expected an attack on his rear that never materialised, he ordered the newly captured prisoners killed. They were murdered. Agincourt was filthy, horrible and merciless, and it is still celebrated as a golden moment in England’s history.
For all its fame, Agincourt’s effect was short-lived. Seven years after the battle, Henry V was dead. Seven years after his death, the French, inspired in part by Joan of Arc, broke the siege of Orleans, which began to turn the tide against the English.
The final battle of the war, a French victory, took place in 1453, and left the English with little in the way of Continental possessions beyond the port city of Calais.
When it was all said and done, France was in the process of being transformed from a feudal monarchy to a centralized state, while England found its coffers depleted, the war having forced the crown to tax its citizens obscenely to fund the conflict, begun in the 1330s, and thousands of Englishmen were dead.
Yet, Agincourt has remained a rallying cry for English leaders, soldiers and citizens for six centuries and will likely remain so for at least as long, if not much longer.
Such are the whims of history.
(HT: To the Sound of the Guns.)
11 thoughts on “Agincourt’s intangible impact continues to make itself felt”
Cornwell’s Agincourt essay is right on the mark. But he (and others) owe a bit to the late British military historian John Keegan, whose classic work The Face of Battle did much to strip away the romantic notions of what happened in that cold, muddy field in France.
Keegan’s book is indeed a classic. It’s a real eye-opener for anyone who romanticizes what good old-fashioned warfare was like.
A very nasty affair, as you make clear: but it resonates still. Is it down the Shakespear, do you think, or the long prejudice against the French in English mainstream culture.
Shakespeare certainly helped; anyone who has studied Richard III understands the Bard’s impact on history. But I would imagine the fact that it was the French who were on the losing end of the battle also played a role in the battle’s significance in English lore, as well.
Nothing like beating the French….war, rugby…you name it…
Yup, I think that’s something the rest of the world can agree on.
Ironically a majority of the English nobles at the battle still maintained a semblance of their Norman-French and French heritage, including a dialect of the French language which most spoke with fluency. The real victor from this era was the English language which recieved official recognition for the first time since the Norman-French conquest of 1066 and the displacement of the native English aristocracy. In some ways the battle was one between the French the slightly less French. The “real” English were the foot-soldiers and the aspirant middle-classes turned nobility.
I was just reading that very item about how French as the language of the English court began to wane following the battle. I found that interesting in that Henry V became the heir to the French throne following the battle, and his son was the disputed king of France up until 1453.
There are still language hangovers.
The royal assent to legislation passed by Parliament is expressed thus .’La Reyne le veult’.
If it’s a finance bill then it is ‘La Reyne remercie ces bons sujets, accepte leur benevolence et ainsi le veult’
Or if the monarch were daft enough to use the constitutional right not to approve legislation then the formula would be ‘La Reyne s’avisera.’
Not much chance of the latter….the family enjoy their sinecure too much…
I always try to observe a 600th anniversary and thanks for reminding me. But seriously, ladies and germs: very interesting history lesson.
Much obliged, Reverend. Anything more than a tricentennial is worth noting, I figure.