(Fought 25 October 1415) (Play by William Shakespeare, 1599) (Dir. Laurence Olivier, 1944) (Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1989)
On St Crispin’s Day, King Henry V of England gained a brilliant, against-all-odds and in ultimate strategic terms, futile victory. Henry and his army were pinned near the castle Agincourt, far from the coast and outnumbered at least 3 to 1. Henry made offers of concessions, but the enemy insisted he renounce the French Crown and get out of town.
A combination of weather, topography and the English long-bow turned the tide in what proved to be a very nasty battle, a fight to the finish in fact. Winston Churchill, in his History of the English-speaking Peoples, (page 177 abridged), wrote: “Henry, who had declared at daybreak, “For me this day shall never England ransom pay,” now saw his path to Calais clear before him. But far more than that: he had decisively broken in open battle at odds of more than three to one the armed chivalry of France. In two or at most three hours he had trodden underfoot at once the corpses of the slain and the will-power of the French monarchy.”
The Battle of Agincourt is 600 years old today. We have seen it used as a potent symbol of English (and British) propaganda – see the World War I painting by Harry Payne above – especially in its most famous, brilliant emanation, the Shakespeare play (c. 1599, serving its own political purpose during the reign of Elizabeth I), which was magnificently staged as a war tool in 1944 by Laurence Olivier, and made into a gripping and vibrant film by Kenneth Branagh in 1989 (a relatively quiet year, unless you were in Romania, Panama or Afghanistan).
The great game for France that was the Hundred Years’ War dragged-on after Agincourt, for good and mostly ill (Joan of Arc leading a heroic defence a mere 15 years later and becoming a dish that Frenchmen maintain was the last the English cooked properly). This animosity lasted and lasted, till the Germans finally came along. When Shakespeare wrote his play, he probably had a different campaign in mind, Spain’s threat to England, and he sugar-coated Henry’s essential nastiness, emphasised his courage and audacity, and gave him a culminating battle-cry speech so heady that you want to get amongst it yourself:
“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.”
Henry V’s chapel, hidden in the east end of Westminster Abbey, is open today to mark the anniversary. The chapel was meant to allow eternal masses for Henry’s soul, which he perhaps thought was in hazard after his rather unethical slaughter of prisoners during the battle of Agincourt. In 2010, a mock court thought him guilty of war-crimes and said so, but Henry perhaps will make his appeal to a higher tribunal.
The French should have let Hank get past them and go to Hornfleur (picture by Corot):