It’s a glorious tale – the triumph of a small band of soldiers over vastly superior numbers in the army of their foe; driven by their passion and loyalty, skilled and determined, and commanded by a charismatic young king. Henry V’s victory at Agincourt in 1415 was one of a number of stunning victories in the Hundred Years’ War, and raised the possibility of an ultimate English triumph and conquering of France.
This sliver of history is brought compellingly to life in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and the play has immortalised this victory, at least in the English speaking world. The fact that it was a crushing defeat for the French army, wiping out much of their nobility in a single event is less considered. To the victor belong the spoils, and the manner of remembering.
When I realised that Agincourt was not far from Amiens, where I am based for the next week, I was determined to go there, see the site, recite the rousing speech given by Henry just before the battle, and play the soundtrack of the Kenneth Brannagh film of the play. If this makes me a complete history nerd I am happy to wear that title.
Finding the site of this battle required some persistence on my part as I drove around the farmland of northwest France. For starters, Agincourt is not on the map – the village closest to the battle site is Azincourt. And then it is not a big tourist site – let’s face it, medieval history lovers and Shakespeare fans don’t make up a significant demographic. But after circling the village I finally found a sign directing me to the site.
It’s on the corner of two country roads, among fields of green and brown and gold, and it seems improbable that any battle ever occurred there, until it is remembered that the event in question occurred more than 500 years ago. I parked the car, walked over to the stone memorial and gazed around me. There was no traffic, no sound at all except for occasional bird calls. I pulled from my pocket the St. Crispin’s Day speech* from Shakespeare’s play. There was no one to see me so I fully committed to my role as the English king. With the soundtrack blaring on my phone I began:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
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 Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
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 rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day 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 accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Act IV Scene iii, Henry V, William Shakespeare
If there had been a French army in the field I would have taken them on! But alas, just a farmer on a tractor, looking at me a little oddly as he trundled by.
What is sadly, or perhaps aptly ironic, is that Henry V was never to be King of France, despite winning the day on 25 October, 1415. The victory at Agincourt did lead to English control of France. In 1420, five years after the battle, the Treaty of Troyes recognised Henry V as regent and heir apparent to the French throne. He married Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France. But he died in 1422, at thirty-six, only two months before Charles VI himself died. And England’s hold on France came to a crushing end. Between 1429 and 1430 Joan of Arc helped to rally the French, and the English were driven out of France within a generation, and all was lost.
It would not be a day trip appealing to many, but I had a wonderful experience, and count myself as one of the few, the happy few for making the journey to Agincourt.
“Agincourt field”. “Agincourt memorial”, “Agincourt stone” by Margaret Warren. CC-BY-NC 4.0
Map of Agincourt Battlefield. (1914). Samuel Rawson Gardiner. School Atlas of English History. Retrieved 20 April, 2017.
Tom Hiddleston. (2013). The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare’s History Plays. Retrieved 20 April, 2017.
*If you are going to listen to recordings of Henry V speeches, I implore you not to listen to Laurence Olivier. To contemporary ears, his rendition sounds almost prissy, his voice thin and brittle. I like Kenneth Branagh as there is a strength and grit to his performance, and Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston’s performances have been widely acclaimed.