Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian.
This article is the text of an address delivered by Lord Lexden at a lunch held in the Carlton Club, of which he is the historian, to mark the 600 the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415 – 600 years ago tomorrow.
The Best Books on the Battle
A vast amount of information about Agincourt is now available. All surviving records in both Britain and France have been studied in detail by medieval historians. In Britain, four books lead the scholarly field where amity rather than the noise of academic conflict and argument prevails.
Two women historians published full, authoritative and clearly written accounts in 2005 in readiness for the great anniversary this year. Ann Curry’s Agincourt: A New History and Juliet Barker’s The King ,the Campaign, the Battle describe in fascinating detail how the English and French armies were raised and how the campaigns on both sides then unfolded, as they prepared for, and then fought, the battle itself.
Ann Curry returned to the scholarly field this year with a new, short book, Agincourt in a series on great battles published by the Oxford University Press. It provides an extremely useful summary of the battle itself, and goes on to discuss the impact it has had on English literature and culture in the succeeding centuries with particular reference to Shakespeare. As she says, Agincourt has had ‘a greater cultural legacy than any other medieval engagement’ and ‘for many, the battle is Shakespeare’s Agincourt rather than the Agincourt of 1415’. The book juxtaposes the actual battle and Shakespeare’s version of it in a most interesting way.
The fourth book to elucidate the battle authoritatively for the general reader is in a class of its own. Jonathan Sumption’s beautifully written work, Cursed Kings, published in the summer, is the fourth volume in a magnificent sequence on the Hundred Years War between England and France which Henry V’s great-grandfather, Edward III, who had a strong claim to the French throne, began in 1340.
The latest volume sets Agincourt brilliantly in the context of medieval European history in the fullest sense. It brings the period dramatically to life. The book begins –
‘In the early fifteenth century France, the strongest and most populous nation state in medieval Europe, suffered a complete internal collapse and a partial conquest by a foreign power, something for which there was no precedent in its earlier history, or indeed later until 1940…These extraordinary events are overlaid both in France and England by the enduring power of myth. In France they marked the birth of a new patriotism… In England later generations would look back on an age of brief but spectacular achievement as a measure of their own rulers’ failure…[ assisted] by the arresting imagery of Shakespeare, who transmitted his own idealised account of the period two centuries later to a country still uncertain of its place in the world.’
– a theme that the second of Ann Curry’s books has now explored.
How the Battle Came to be Fought
Long before the current generation of outstanding Agincourt scholars got to work, Winston Churchill declared in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples that ‘Agincourt ranks as the most heroic of all the land battles that England has ever fought’. As a result, he added, ‘a gleam of splendour falls across the dark, troubled story of medieval England’. Of that there is no doubt – and yet ironically it was not a battle that its remarkable and heroic victor, the 28-year-old King Henry V, crowned two years earlier, set out to fight, as all the four leading books on Agincourt make clear. He would have preferred to have avoided fighting at Agincourt.
This does not mean, however, that there was some streak of timidity in the hero’s character. All accounts of the battle – those by French, as well as those by British, historians – accept that he was an outstanding and imaginative military leader with nerves of iron. He was brilliant not just in war, but in peace too. He spoke several languages and read widely. He was noted for the speed, skill and decisiveness with which he settled the issues on which success turned. On his overall character as a ruler, Sumption writes: ‘he was an intelligent and unscrupulous politician in the full force of his age, endowed with an iron determination [and] a remarkable capacity for work’. He was a Renaissance Prince before the coming of the Renaissance.
Henry V was a dashing and fearless military commander, but not a reckless or foolhardy one. The circumstances in which he and his army found themselves in the autumn of 1415 made battle inadvisable. By that point, they had won sufficient glory for the time being in their campaign to assert the right of the English king to wear the crown of France and govern its territory as part of a dual monarchy, reviving the claims made by the King’s great-grandfather, Edward III, which had lain dormant for some 40 years. It was a grand, high-sounding claim of right. In all probability, however, it was actually no more than a convenient pretext for the seizure of some prime French territory and the strengthening of Henry’s hold on his own country.
The campaign began in August 1415 when, at the head of the second largest army ever dispatched across the Channel – some 12,000 strong – Henry V laid siege to Harfleur, then a large, well-fortified port commanding the Seine estuary and providing a base for attacks on English shipping. The defenders resisted stoutly, repelling for some six weeks the attacks that Shakespeare would immortalise in those famous lines beginning ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’.
Harfleur finally capitulated on 22 September 1415. It was a stunning victory, hailed by friend and foe alike, but it had been hard-won. The English army had been severely depleted by casualties in battle and by a silent foe that frequently wreaked havoc in medieval armies: dysentery. Sensibly, the formidable English monarch decided to postpone further conquest; it could wait until the following spring. Caution, so often one of the hallmarks of a great military commander, prevailed.
Leaving a substantial force at Harfleur to garrison the glittering prize of this first season of warfare in France, Henry and his army – now about half its original size – departed on October 8 to begin a 150-mile march through upper Normandy and Picardy to Calais, the one remaining bastion that England had retained when all the rest of the Duchy of Normandy was lost by the ill-starred King John early in the thirteenth century. In Calais, the victor of Harfleur planned to rebuild his army’s strength. He had no intention of confronting the French army if he could avoid it, though at the same time he was wholly prepared to do battle if that became inescapable.
Agincourt was fought because the French commanders were determined to bring Henry to battle. Their ability to do this was almost miraculous. For years, France had been torn apart by a civil war of extraordinary viciousness. Its chief protagonists make it sound like a struggle for the control of the wine and spirit trade. The House of Burgundy was pitted uncompromisingly against the House of Armagnac. The bitterness and savagery to which their mutual hatred gave rise is vividly described in all its terrifying blood and gore by Jonathan Sumption. The unfortunate French King, Charles VI, passed back and forth between them like a parcel and did so with some frequency, since neither side was able to deliver a knock-out blow. Though he had periods of lucidity, the unfortunate French monarch spent much time in the grip of a delusion that he was made of glass and would break if anyone touched him.
Henry V’s successful invasion produced just enough unity among the warring French factions to enable them to amass an army against the conquering intruder in their midst. It was perhaps twice the size of the depleted English army (the scholars differ on this point), but it was hastily assembled and had no one to instill the order and discipline necessary to put a battle plan confidently into effect. The overall commander was the King’s inexperienced 19-year old heir, the Dauphin of the time. All accounts of the battle stress that poor organisation and leadership cost the French dear. What united the various elements, drawn largely from the Armagnacs, was a desire to come to grips with the invader as soon as possible while their fragile unity lasted.
On 20 October, Henry’s army set out on the last stretch of its march through Picardy (where 500 years later other English soldiers would also fight bravely, though in rather larger numbers and against a different enemy). Three French heralds arrived in the English camp with a challenge to battle, in accordance with the conventions of medieval warfare. Henry’s reply was in effect: ‘catch us if you can as my army continues on its way to Calais’. The French did just that, intercepting their enemy as it passed between the villages of Agincourt and Tramecourt, some 30 miles south of Calais, on October 24, the eve of St Crispin’s Day.
The Course of the Battle
Though the French had chosen the ground, it did not serve them well on 25 October, 600 years ago tomorrow. The battlefield was a quite narrow area between two forests. The confined space prevented the French from making effective use of their superior numbers. The two armies were strikingly different in composition. The vast majority on the English side were archers of fearsome reputation whose deadly arrows were to prove the decisive factor in the battle( perhaps the best-remembered feature of the battle over the centuries). Famously, Henry had some days earlier ordered every archer to equip himself with a six-foot sharpened stake both for protection and to impale the French cavalry. Whether fighting on foot or horse, the French troops were composed overwhelmingly of soldiers, known as men-at-arms, well-trained in the traditional methods of medieval warfare. Encased in armour, their skill lay in hand-to-hand fighting with swords and lances. There was not much scope for their particular talents at Agincourt.
At about 10am Henry ordered the attack with the surprisingly modern words ‘Felas, let’s go’, according to one contemporary manuscript. As soon as the French came within range, the archers planted their stakes in front of them and began to shoot dense volleys of arrows, taking the opposing cavalry completely by surprise. The horses panicked and threw their riders or turned away. Those that reached the English lines shied away from the stakes or impaled themselves on their sharp points.
The French had no hope of recovering from their disastrous start, as Curry’s detailed account of the battle, published ten years ago, emphasises:
‘Once the French cavalry attack failed because of the effectiveness of arrows against horses, the archers remained immune to any counter-measures, hidden behind their stakes and by the lie of the land. Their incessant bombardment was exceptionally frightening. The French men-at-arms had no training for the situation and no means of retaliation…Knocked to the ground, they were easy targets…Most were killed when already helpless, and not through hand-to-hand combat. Others were wounded, but pinned to the ground by those who had fallen on top of them’.
As one contemporary writer recorded, ‘the French stood immobilised whilst our men wrenched axes from their hands and felled them as if they were cattle’. The wounded piled on top of each other and many died from suffocation on ground sodden from heavy rain.
Soon after mid-day, however, the outnumbered English suddenly sensed that their victory was in peril. The arrival of fresh French troops was reported. ‘ Now occurred a terrible episode’, wrote Winston Churchill. Fearful that his force was about to be overwhelmed, Henry ordered all French soldiers who had been taken prisoner to be killed, apart from the most important of them who could be ransomed for substantial sums. When it became clear that there was no effective French reinforcement, the slaughter stopped.
Today’s leading historians estimate that about 700 prisoners perished. Sumption writes, ‘in modern eyes the slaughter has always seemed an act of unchivalrous barbarism. But no one held it against the English at the time, even among their enemies’. Curry’s view of the ‘terrible episode’ is that ‘by the standards of the time Henry did not follow chivalric conventions, but his act was militarily necessary. This explains why he was not criticised in the chronicles of the period’. But in later centuries the ‘terrible episode’ became infamous and today casts a deep, dark shadow over the glory of the victory on St Crispin’s Day.
The French army was utterly destroyed at Agincourt. After the battle some 5,800 French corpses lay rotting on the ground until at last three great trenches were dug to receive them. Estimates of English casualties vary from nine to 33. Returning to London on 23 November 1415, Henry V was greeted on the steps of St Paul’s by 16 mitred bishops and abbots. His subsequent victory parade took five hours to pass through the city and on along the Strand to Westminster.
The French commanders never did battle against Henry V again. He conquered the whole of Normandy during the next four years. In 1420 he was declared heir to the throne of France. But two years later, at the age of 34, dysentery claimed him, and his extraordinary achievements were swiftly overturned. During the next 30 years everything was lost except for the old bastion, Calais, where the English clung on until 1558.
It was, as Churchill said, just ‘a gleam of splendour’. Over the centuries, that gleam continued to shine with intense brightness in prose, poetry and painting. Via Shakespeare’s play first performed in 1599, it gained a prominent place in that pervasive, romantic view of English history which Churchill expounded and loved – and which inspired him in time of war. The most famous version of Shakespeare’s Henry V is the film starring Lawrence Olivier which was released in November 1944 when Englishmen were fighting in France once again – another ‘band of brothers’ valiant in another noble cause. Churchill saw the film at Chequers; he ‘went into ecstasies’ about it, his private secretary, John Colville, recorded in his diary. At a deep, emotional level Agincourt will for Englishmen – especially Tory Englishmen – remain Shakespeare’s Agincourt until ‘ the ending of the world’.
‘ This story shall the good man teach his son;/ And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by/From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be remembered;/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/ For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile/ This day shall gentle his condition:/ And gentlemen in England, now a-bed/ Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/ That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day’.