The 15th century in England produced baleful politics and great art. Two fractured, long-running, interconnected wars were fought: one foreign and one domestic. History has called these, respectively, the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses. Together they lasted from the beginning of the century until its final decade, and did enormous damage to England’s government, finances, civil harmony, and international reputation. But a hundred years afterward they provided the raw material for some of the greatest dramatic works in the English language: William Shakespeare’s history plays. Of these, probably the most famous is Henry V, in which a roustabout prince transforms himself into a flinty warrior king, baptized in blood at the moment of England’s glory, the battle of Agincourt, fought against the French on St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, 1415.
This autumn marks the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, and although that changes nothing of the facts of Henry’s battle, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on its importance at the time, its distortion through the ages, and its lessons for our own times.
Undoubtedly Agincourt was a battle of immense significance in its day, as was recognized explicitly by those who were there to see a tiny, tired, and diseased English army destroy a massive and apparently superior French host. Yet it has also come to mean much more, its fame outshining that of other English victories over the French from the same age, such as those at Sluys in 1341, Crecy in 1346, and Poitiers in 1356. Posterity has given Agincourt semi-legendary status, which it shares with only a few other conflict episodes in English (and British) history: the Spanish Armada in 1588, the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and the D-Day Landings of June 1944. More than that, even, Agincourt has become a shorthand to indicate the imagined difference in character between the plucky English and arrogant French.
Is any of this merited? We shall see. In doing so, the first and most necessary step is to temporarily suspend our Shakespearean impressions of Agincourt and put the battle in its proper historical context.
Henry V became king of England upon the death of his father, Henry IV, at Westminster Abbey in late March 1413. His apprenticeship had been eventful. His father had usurped the throne from a cousin, Richard II, in 1399 and had presided over a reign rotten with rebellion and violent unrest. The younger Henry had been exposed to the consequences of this tumult from a young age, fighting his first battle at 16 against Welsh rebels at Shrewsbury on July 21, 1403. He was hit in the face with an arrow shot from a Welshman’s bow, which left him with a scar and a working understanding of the potential effectiveness of light weaponry (archers) when deployed against heavy cavalry (knights). Having survived, Henry continued to work to subdue the Welsh before taking temporary command of royal government when his father fell ill. This was not a success, and he was largely estranged from Henry IV during the final months of the old king’s life. Nevertheless, when his succession was confirmed in 1413, he became England’s most experienced “new” king in more than a century.
Henry’s experience was even more important than it sounds. The most obvious objection of all to hereditary monarchy—which was the basic system of government in late-medieval England—is that, while providing an unambiguous and generally peaceful method of choosing new leaders, it also exposes government to what most modern states would consider unacceptable levels of unpredictability and volatility. The potential problems, all of which were experienced in medieval England during the rule of the Plantagenet dynasty, included: the accession of a child king; the accession of a king who demonstrated an inherent inability or unwillingness to govern well; the high prominence given by kings and their councils to marriage and procreation when deciding the direction of rule; the inevitable decline in the character and competence of kings as they aged; the tendency of some kings to choose their advisers from among their immediate family, who might be less able than outsiders; and the inherent practical and philosophical difficulties encountered in restraining or deposing men who were not up to the business of kingship. Hereditary kingship was the founding stone on which most medieval European polities were built, and there was at no point in the history of England up to that time any general wish to do away with it; yet hereditary rule was (and remains, as modern states such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia show us) a woefully unpredictable system of government.
When the 26-year-old Henry V became king, however, England’s luck was in. Unlike his predecessors, Edward III (who acceded aged 14) and Richard II (aged ten), Henry was a grown man. Unlike his father, a usurper, he had been raised as a prince and schooled for kingship from childhood. He knew how to fight. He had tasted politics and governance. He was temperamentally well suited to rule: decisive, fierce, militarily minded, unsentimental, and pious in an age that particularly admired outward displays of religious orthodoxy. Even more importantly, by inheriting the crown rather than snatching it, Henry was able to approach rule from an entirely different direction than his father. Since no one had helped him to take the throne, he was unburdened by any obligation to unduly reward his supporters, which had been a significant problem during the previous reign. Even allowing for hindsight, this was a rare mix of qualities for a medieval monarch to bring before him.
In the 15th century, England was a realm, not yet a modern nation. Sovereignty was largely personal: It was vested in, represented by, and derived from the king. To be sure, royal power was limited by convention, a working distinction was emerging between “king” and “crown”, and practical brakes to prevent royal power spilling into tyranny had been established in agreements like the Magna Carta some two centuries before. But none of these things changed the fact that England, like many of its neighbors, was still largely constituted as a political entity defined by a monarch. The Westphalian state lay two centuries off. In 15th-century England, there were no national citizens, only royal subjects.
Nevertheless, some basic aspects of nationhood were emerging. The English language had survived the competition of Norman French (brought over with the conquest of 1066) and had become the official language of legal pleading as well as a respectable tongue in which to write poetry and prose. English was deployed by writers of “high” literature like Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, and John Lydgate and in “low”, orally transmitted outlaw rhymes such as the Tale of Gamelyn and the ballads of Robin Hood. There were at least three “English” saints: St. Edmund the Martyr, St. Edward the Confessor, and St. George, as well as others, like St. Thomas Becket, whose popularity was associated loosely with concepts of popularly shared identity. Parliament was nearly 200 years old, and its members recognized in themselves a collective right to negotiate the conditions for taxation, to demand reform of grievances, and, in extremis, to impeach failing royal ministers.
What is more, the English knew who they were not. Since at least the earliest Plantagenet years in the 12th century, the English had known that they were unlike the Scots, Welsh, and Irish. (Writers like Giraldus Cambrensis, who died about 1223, made great play of describing the “otherness” of the people who inhabited Britain’s Celtic fringe.) Rather more recently the English had also begun to realize that they were also unlike the French. The principle cause of this was the Hundred Years’ War. The age of Agincourt—the high point of that conflict, for the English at least—would come to crystallize the difference not merely between the kings who went to war but between the more general character of the two realms and their peoples.
The Hundred Years’ War began as a dynastic squabble in the early 14th century. The Plantagenets originally came from Anjou, a county in central France, and in their early years (1154–1204) had risen to rule over a massive swath of territories across the continent. At their mightiest the Plantagenet kings commanded not only the kingdom of England but also the duchies of Normandy, Aquitaine, and Brittany, and the counties of Anjou, Maine, and Touraine. (In total this amounted to about a third of the landmass and the entire western seaboard of modern France, and the king’s authority stretched from the Cheviot Hills to the Pyrenees.) Over the years these territories had been seized by the French crown, until in the early 14th century only the area of southwest France known as Gascony remained loyal to the king of England, who ruled it not as outright sovereign but as hereditary duke. The king of England was in this capacity effectively also a member of the French feudal aristocracy, who might in theory be dispossessed by the French king at a moment of his choosing. The uncertainty of this position, combined with the needling sense that there was lost territory to be won back, was a source of rancor and personal dismay for successive Plantagenet kings. In the late 1330s Edward III (Henry V’s great grandfather) determined to do something about it.
Every war needs a just cause, understood by both sides and comprehensible to the men who lay down their lives in its pursuit. This just cause need not necessarily be the real, practical, dirty, or compromising reason for fighting the war, but it must be sufficiently acceptable for the key belligerents to continue to advance it as a reason for fighting. The Hundred Years’ War was no different. In 1328 Edward III had decided to fight an aggressive war of territorial conquest in France, which was in reality a reaction to French interference in his wars with Scotland. Seeking a higher excuse than simple military aggression, he alighted on his personal claim to the French crown itself, which he stated was rightfully his through his mother, Isabella of France.
This turned out to be an extremely good bargaining chip, and during the course of his long reign Edward had used it to justify repeated invasions of French territory, numerous sieges and battles, the capture and imprisonment of the French King Jean II, and consequently the ratification of the Treaty of Brétigny (1360) by which England obtained a massively expanded swath of territory in southwest France as well as sovereignty over the important trading port of Calais in the northwest. Although these wars were vastly expensive, wasteful of life, and fought against the backdrop of the Black Death that killed as much as 40 percent of the European population, Edward’s success in pursuing his noble cause had won him much fame and a good deal of booty. It had also set a standard for his successors to pursue.
By the time Henry V became king in 1413 the Treaty of Brétigny had comprehensively fallen apart, and many English gains had been lost. For Henry, this was not acceptable. Almost immediately on taking the throne he began to make plans to emulate his great grandfather in seizing lands across the Channel on the straightforward basis that they were “his”. Like his famous ancestor he understood the need for a rallying cry. Henry’s was “justice”. He adopted the position that he was due at the very least the lands that had been ceded to England in 1360. He also wished to be restored to the lands that had historically been “English”—feudally if not culturally—which principally meant Normandy. He wanted to marry the French king Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine de Valois, and he wanted a large dowry. He claimed all these with reference to his historical claim to the French crown itself. Envoys sent to France at the beginning of the reign brought the message that this represented justice.
Beneath this claim about justice lay a more pragmatic reality. France was in chaos. The power of French kings over their realm was traditionally weaker than in England; it had seldom been so weak as under Charles VI. Almost all the potential problems of hereditary monarchy had been realized in his rule. Charles was 11 when he became king in 1380, and his government became dominated by his relatives, whose interests did not overlap with the good of the realm. In 1392, during a hunting trip to Brittany, he suffered the first of a lifelong series of bouts of insanity. Medical diagnosis across the centuries is a fool’s task, but it is fun to speculate: Charles had what appears to have been a form of delusional paranoid schizophrenia. He ran about his palaces screaming, smeared in his own waste and insensible to the presence of his familiars. At times he thought he was made entirely of glass. In a political system so heavily reliant on the personal competence of a single executive authority, this was disastrous. A murderous power-struggle began between two factions of the French royal family: followers of the dukes of Burgundy, known as the Burgundians, and the dukes of Orléans, who were called the Armagnacs.
It was into this chaos that Henry V thrust himself. We need look no further than the world around us today to see why he saw France as an easy target. The sudden removal of dictatorial or absolutist power not only destabilizes political systems; it can render territorial borders meaningless, too, as people within the states seek to protect their own interests by forming unitary power blocs based on other definitions of common interest. These may be religious, sectarian, tribal, ethnic, or some ugly combination of all the above. Equally, people may just adhere to the nearest strongman and hope for the best. It rarely happens that adjoining fractured power blocs can co-exist peacefully. It’s rare, too, that some neighbor will not seek to exploit a failing state’s moment of weakness to achieve its own longstanding (or merely opportunist) territorial goals. So it was in France during the Burgundian-Armagnac dispute that began in the early 15th century.
On August 11, 1415, Henry V sailed out of the Solent on the south coast of England at the head of a gigantic armada bound for Normandy: perhaps a thousand ships carrying 40,000 men. Accounting for the size of the population at the time, this was easily as great an undertaking as the D-Day invasion of 1944, and it is testament to Henry’s abilities as a military planner and financier that he was able to raise such a massive invasion force.
Henry’s flexibility of mind allowed him to conceive of his war for justice as appealing to different groups for different reasons. There were those who simply respected his role as a warrior king. The royal seal of medieval English kings pictured them on one side as a judge and another as a soldier, and it was accepted as a basic fact of politics that kings would and should fight wars, with aggressive wars being understood as a means of forward defense.
But as the seal implied, there were two sides to kingship, such that war abroad could not be separated from the provision of justice at home. Theoretical texts on good rule, known as mirrors for princes, emphasized this very strongly. These were the management handbooks of their day, taken seriously by those in power. The writer Thomas Hoccleve had dedicated his Regiment of Princes to Henry, and the king observed Hoccleve’s succinct definition of how a king should act. “Justice defendeth possessions, and keepeth people from oppressions”, wrote Hoccleve. In other words, a king who wished to project power onto the world outside his realm had a concomitant, albeit less visible, duty to provide justice within his realm. This is a truth that every leader of every age ought to recall. Justice begins at home. Certainly Henry knew this, for the first year of his reign was occupied with a massive “law and order” drive, in which royal judges toured the country instigating and hearing a massive amount of private and public prosecutions. This had a dual effect: Henry was not only seen to be providing justice (and thus doing as he would be done by); he also created an enormous body of convicted criminals or otherwise legally compromised men. It is striking how many of those who fell afoul of his law-and-order commissions ended up travelling to France to fight in the Agincourt campaign, seeking restitution or a fortune. Not for the first time in Henry’s reign, high ideals were allied to pragmatic politics.
Henry had also accrued significant political capital prior to his departure by persecuting the followers of a heretical reformist religious sect known as the Lollards. A parliamentary act had been passed against Lollardy, and several prominent Lollards had been burnt in public, including Henry’s former friend and confidante Sir John Oldcastle, who was slaughtered on a specially made gallows that allowed him to be both hanged and burned at the same time. (A Lollard gallows would not be an unexpected thing to see in eastern Syria today, where the leaders of ISIS understand perfectly well how useful the brutal persecution of heterodoxy can be during periods of intense conflict.)
No less pragmatically, Henry also realized that war promised significant commercial advantages to the merchants in the City of London, who were the wealthiest individuals in the realm outside the high nobility and a few bishops. England’s import/export business was constantly menaced by piracy in the Channel, and Henry made it an explicit part of his aim in attacking France to bring order to the sea routes between the two realms.
This was a job that in times past merchants had been prepared to do for themselves: In the 1370s, several of London’s richest traders had chartered private fleets to patrol the coast and destroy raiding parties. During one especially dangerous period they had even discussed erecting a giant chain across the Thames to prevent pirates reaching the City proper. They were pleased to contribute to a royal war that promised to improve their business prospects, and during the course of Henry’s Agincourt campaign and thereafter the king benefitted very handsomely from loans organized within London.
Henry’s fleet disembarked on the beaches of Normandy three days after leaving England. Their first target was the walled town of Harfleur, a mile inland from the mouth of the Seine—the river that cuts through Normandy, passing through the duchy’s capital, Rouen, and eventually reaching the French capital of Paris. Harfleur would serve the English as a beachhead into the duchy.
A siege was planned, as was customary. For most of the Middle Ages, sieges were far more common than battles, which were extremely unpredictable and easily lost. It had traditionally been much safer for a defending force to avoid contact in the field and retreat behind stone-built castles and walled towns, because an advancing army’s main weapons had been limited to ballast-throwing catapults, towers, ladders, undermining, and, with enough patience, starvation. During the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, it took a very long time to bring a defending force to the point of capitulation, and very often the besieging army would give up and move on, or else be attacked by a relieving party arriving from elsewhere. However, by the 15th century the development of cannon and heavy artillery was changing the balance of warfare in favor of the besiegers. Technology fundamentally alters the terms of warfare. Henry had large guns capable of reducing Harfleur’s suburbs to rubble and breaching the walls at many points. Only three weeks into the siege it was becoming apparent that Harfleur would not hold unless immediately relieved by an army capable of taking on Henry’s enormous force. The French, kingless and divided, dithered. By the end of September, Harfleur had fallen.
Harfleur’s collapse was the cause of great misery for the townsfolk. The soldiers of the garrison were taken as prisoners of war. Thousands of useless mouths—women and children—became refugees because their home, now blasted to pieces, was destined to be rebuilt as a garrison town for a would-be foreign occupying force. They were forced to wander off into the French countryside, to be resettled in other towns.
Yet in a broader context, the advance in military technology made Henry’s invasions far more bearable to the people of Normandy than had been the case in generations past. During the invasions of Edward III and his sons, a favorite English tactic was the chevauchée, in which bands of men detached from the army to ride and roam across the land, burning homes, crops, and churches, killing and raping, and creating maximum terror as a means of breaking the will of the populace. Henry V gave strict instructions that nothing of the sort should happen. “Shock and awe” tactics can be effective in the short term but are rarely a route to endearing an invading force to a subjected people. By the same token, terrorism is a tool most suited to protest, and not to rule. We know all this from our own experience. Henry V knew it too, and he imposed the strictest discipline on his army, forbidding them to loot and demonstrating his seriousness by personally condemning to death one of his own soldiers who was found to have stolen a pyx from a church. Henry intended to occupy Normandy, not destroy it. He needed to establish himself as a credible alternative king who was able to protect his new subjects.
Following the collapse of Harfleur, the sensible thing for Henry V to have done would have been to go straight home, regroup, and prepare for the next invasion season in the spring. Many of his generals urged him to do so. His army was sick, suffering from mass outbreaks of dysentery, which heavily depleted its fighting strength. Perhaps half of his men were either dead or had been evacuated back to England. The safest option was to retreat and regroup.
Henry disagreed. He recognized the weaknesses of his own army but smelled greater weakness in the enemy. He rested his men at Harfleur for three weeks, manned the shattered walls with 1,200 defenders, and detached what remained of his men—reckoned at 900 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers—for a long march north along the coast to the English port-town of Calais, from which he would return home a few weeks later. It was a dangerous strategy that risked interception by the French. But Henry placed great value on his reputation in France. He wished to be seen as more than just a smash-and-grab raider. He wanted the people of Normandy to see him as a credible king and an alternative to the splintered regime currently in place. He also wished, in this providential age, to prove that God was on his side.
The divided French were stung into action by the news of Henry’s planned march. Finally they assembled an army, dominated by Armagnacs. As Henry set off for Calais in early October, the French tracked and then caught up with him. They forced the English to divert east along the river Somme, adding several days to the journey. By the end of October, Henry’s army was on its knees. The weather had soured, and relentless rain was turning the ground of northern France to thick mud. The men were starving. Meanwhile, the French army tracking them was swelling ever larger. Estimates of its size vary substantially, from 12,000 to (an unlikely) 36,000. Probably there were about 14,000 men, of whom the majority were men-at-arms and cavalry—heavily armored fighting men of class and status, protected by plate armor and wielding sharp or heavy weapons.
They intercepted the English near the hamlet of Agincourt on the evening of October 24. It was too dark to fight, but the French lit bonfires and blocked the roads to ensure that the English could not escape. The imbalance in numbers was plain. The French had at least eight times as many cavalry. According to later accounts, only Henry seemed unperturbed. He had the confidence of the true zealot. When it was put to him that 10,000 more archers would be helpful, he is said to have replied, “Do you not believe that the Almighty with these His humble few, is able to overcome the opposing arrogance of the French who boast of their great number and their own strength?”
Beneath Henry’s appeal to faith lay a calculation. On wet, muddy ground the French cavalry were at an unseen disadvantage against the light arms borne by the English archers, who made up the bulk of his army. The longbow had a rate of fire of up to six arrows a minute. They could pierce armor. They equalized over distance the lethal capacity of an expensively attired, well-trained upper-class knight and an unarmored peasant with a strong drawing-arm. This is a longstanding truth of conflict: light or improvised arms judiciously deployed can wreak equal havoc on more highly developed and valued military hardware, and a force that masters its tactics with such weapons can easily take on a numerically superior and richer army. It also helped that the English army, though smaller and hungry, had fought together while the French one was very much an ad hoc, come-as-you-are affair.
That is the lesson and the story of Agincourt, which was fought the next day, October 25. English and Welsh bowmen drove sharpened stakes into the ground to prevent direct assaults on their position by cavalry and rained death upon the French horsemen, who were mired in the wet field and killed in vast numbers. The English took a large number of prisoners, 700 of whom Henry ordered to be slain at a late point in the battle when it probably appeared that French reinforcements were arriving. As with many medieval battles, the casualties were hideously lopsided. Henry lost a few hundred men; the French lost many thousands when the battle became a rout. (The frequency of this kind of defeat was one reason why battles remained relatively rare.) Since Henry had framed the battle as a test of God’s approval for his cause, it was received as such in the immediate aftermath. He brought his men triumphantly into Calais and was back in London on November 23, where he was greeted like a new Alexander.
The Agincourt campaign, against all the odds, had been a triumph, and over the following five years Henry led two even more spectacular sorties to Normandy. He besieged and took great Norman towns like Falaise, Caen, and Rouen. He continued to exploit divisions among the French nobility, allying himself with the Burgundians and attempting to drive the Armangnacs—whose figurehead was nominally Charles VI, but whose true king was his son, the dauphin Charles—back into southern France, beyond the Loire. His victory seemed total when, in May 1420: he forced the French to agree to the Treaty of Troyes, by which Henry’s conquests were recognized; he wed the princess Catherine de Valois; and he was personally recognized as heir to the French crown upon the death of the mad and feeble Charles VI.
As it happened, Henry died a few months before Charles did. He contracted dysentery while besieging the town of Meaux and expired on August 31, 1422. He left behind him a baby of nine months old, also called Henry. This infant was now heir to the thrones of both England and France, surrounded by ambitious royal relatives of unequal skill. As an adult Henry VI would prove temperamentally unsuited to kingship and eventually descended into a similar form of madness to that of his French grandfather. His rule saw the outbreak of English civil wars very similar in nature to the Burgundian-Armagnac conflict in France. They were the Wars of the Roses, and their legacy was to cast a shadow over the 15th century’s reputation in the long skein of English history, thanks in large part to Shakespeare’s plays.
It is no surprise that in such a context Henry V’s reputation was gilded from the moment of his death. His near-contemporaries celebrated him as an “invincible king” and a “God of warriors” and “King of all the world.” Shakespeare gave him some of the greatest lines in English drama—ironic in that Henry favored a more direct form of speech (one source says his final words before doing battle at Agincourt were “fellas, let’s go!”). Historians still rank him as the finest king medieval England ever had. All of this glory was earned in one risky engagement, brilliantly fought on St. Crispin’s Day.
Does Henry deserve his reputation? Was Agincourt really as great a victory as it seems? We can make the case either way.
It took the Armagnac French thirty years to dissolve Henry’s dual kingdom of England and France, but the struggle to maintain it ruined the finances and political stability of Henry VI’s rule and played a major role in producing a dreadful English civil war. Henry was undoubtedly one of the most competent and clear-sighted kings in English history, but he also benefited in terms of his reputation from an early and abrupt exit from the stage, freeing him from the need to defend or justify his belligerence in a time of declining fortunes. Moreover, Agincourt was a battle that ought not to have been fought and could easily have gone badly wrong. Had it done so, it would have left England without any king at all, having gained little more than Harfleur in the bargain.
The suggestion that Agincourt represents or demonstrates any real or lasting difference in the character of France and England, the French or English, is so ridiculous that it does not deserve a second thought. However, on the 600th anniversary of the battle we must recognize that it has at the least assumed a central place in the origin myth of England. This is less true in France: Shakespeare’s Henry V was not performed in French until the 1990s, and then only to sniffy reviews that said it aspired to Monty Python but achieved only Asterix. Fair enough. It has always been true that we build our national stories out of the elements of the past that seem most pleasing. Human beings, it seems, must tell stories, so they might as well be useful ones.