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.)