Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Saint Crispian's dinner time

Ken and Em's divorce was a heated affair

Today is the feast of Crispian, i.e. the 25th of October, the day that all good men are supposed to teach their sons about the Battle of Agincourt. Lacking any handy sons, I've decided to preach about it on here instead. 

Agincourt was fought on the 25th of October 1415, and was one of the highlights of the epic slugging match of the Hundred Years War, fought to determine whether a Frenchman or a man of French descent should sit on the French throne. A couple of centuries later Shakespeare turned it into the main event of his play, Henry V, a glorious hymn to English patriotism. The speeches he puts into the mouth of the heroic King Hal at Harfleur and on the eve of Agincourt are pretty much familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of English literature. When expressed by a great actor, they still have the power to electrify, as dear old Kenneth Branagh demonstrated in his 1989 film version:


Modern-day scholarship, that most joyful of enterprises, has asserted over and over again that the historical battle was anything but a glorious event, and in fact consisted of loads of men bludgeoning each other into gory oblivion on a freezing winter's day in the middle of a muddy field. So much mud, in fact, that thousands of the heavily-armed French knights and men-at-arms drowned in the stuff, while the lighter-armed British archers - English, Welsh and Irish - danced rings around them. 

Doubt has been cast over the traditional view of the battle, in which the French cavalry charged forward to be mown down by a storm of arrows. The longbow, some critics point out, lacked the power to send an arrow through heavy plate armour. Most of the French dismounted before the battle and trudged forward on foot, wishing to avoid a repeat of earlier disasters like Crécy and Poitiers, where they did indeed charge on horseback and came thoroughly unstuck. Mud and rain, it seems, won the day for King Harry and Saint George, who can count themselves lucky the weather was on their side.

The other fondly-held view of the battle, that Henry's 'poor and starved band' was hideously outnumbered by up to sixty thousand chortling, garlic-spewing Froggies, has also come under the microscope. In her 2005 book 'Agincourt: A New History' Anne Curry argues that the French army numbered about 12,000, and the British about 9,000, which vastly evens up the odds. However, in the same year Juliet Barker flatly contradicted Curry's claim and stated that the British were outnumbered by four, possibly even six to one. Contemporary accounts, given as they were to ridiculous hyperbole, are of little help, and the surviving records are too patchy to build up a clear figure. 

A more interesting question might be - is Agincourt still a valid reason for celebration? It made for brilliant propaganda in World War Two, when Laurence Olivier's 1944 film of Henry V was used as a brassy, tub-thumpingly patriotic morale-booster for a British public exhausted by years of war. These days, however, it is possible to view Henry V's invasion of France as a largely futile exercise. 

Henry's bid to win the French throne was scuppered by his own early death and the rebound of French nationalism, spearheaded by Joan of Arc, that followed a few years later. The English position in France was steadily eroded until the last English field armies were blasted to pieces by new-fangled artillery at Castillon and Formigny, and the English nobility slumped into the murderous round of infighting remembered as The Wars of the Roses. 

Thus the Hundred Years War ended in defeat and civil war for England, and the eventual result was the Tudor dynasty. Which in turn led to those dreadful Cate Blanchett movies, and the even worse CBC/Showtime TV series with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers embarrassing himself as Henry VIII.

If only Henry V had taken up gardening instead. 


  1. "Be he ne'er so vile" is such a cringe-making remark. On first reading and hearing that at age 14 I felt for those poor "vile" creatures about to be slaughtered.

  2. Hi Vonnie! Yes, 'vile' does sound odd, though I think Shakespeare meant it in the sense that most of Henry's men were commoners rather than actually 'vile' i.e. unpleasant, nasty.