The story of the Battle of Agincourt follows the age-old narrative of the beloved underdog rising against the odds. A legacy of victory and glory would become synonymous with Henry V after this epic episode in medieval history. An idyllic tale of knights, courage and king; it is recounted even in modern memory, but how honest is it?
The scene is set in 1415, fighting for a claim to the French crown amid the Hundred Years War like many English Kings before him, King Henry V finds his army diminished: a result of casualty, disease and desertion two months into his campaign. On 25 October, near Azincourt in northern France, English and French forces would go head-to-head once again. The twenty-nine-year-old king, a seasoned soldier and commander, had at his disposal between six and nine thousand men-at-arms. The opposition boasted twenty to thirty thousand soldiers, according to contemporary accounts. Despite this overwhelming disadvantage on the side of the English, Henry rallied his troops, reminded them of their cause and the families back home they were fighting for: in Shakespeare’s King Henry V the protagonist declares: “The fewer men, the greater share of honour.” Their forces prevailed, marking one of the most significant victories of the Hundred Years’ War and one that would become legend.
This victory would make possible the conquest of Normandy and the treaty of Troyes in 1420 which would name Henry the heir to the French crown. The legacy of this grand triumph would be set in stone in the King’s burial in Westminster Abbey where he is depicted helmed and mounted as the warrior king he wished to be remembered as.
However, the realities of medieval warfare couldn’t be further from this simple narrative of the brave soldier fighting for his country, defeating the enemy with ease. The battlefield would have been horrific, filled with desperation and misery: piles of dead, soldiers up to their knees in mud and an unimaginable violence and bloodiness. The psychological impact of such an episode must have been traumatic. Thinking about medieval fighting today, the modern mind is somewhat detached. Perhaps the common perception is that warring was simply the nature of medieval life and that child soldiers like Henry V were steeled against the horror of seeing fellow men-at-arms and friends killed on the battlefield. This seems unlikely, indeed many of the noble commanders of Henry’s army, such as his youngest brother the Duke of Gloucester, were facing combat for the first time. Whilst it might be difficult to label the experiences of medieval soldiers under modern diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, it is almost certain that a great anxiety surrounded the idea of fighting on the battlefield. This could be reflected in the great emphasis on the religious culture of memorials and prayers for the dead.
The brutality of Henry’s fighting strategies also seems forgotten in the historical record. For example, at the six-month siege in Rouen he starved hundreds of people to death. Evidently, such elements of warfare were not fitting with the noble, honour-bond protagonist constructed as a symbol of English greatness as a justification of dominance in France.
Indeed, this mythologised episode of English history would become very significant propaganda for subsequent kings. It would go on to dictate Henry VIII’s foreign ambitions in France. He wanted to emulate this military glory and claim the French throne for himself as his namesake was able to, however, this was not achieved. Henry V’s transformation story from reckless youth to accomplished leader, as noted later, would also counteract the despair of royal heirs. In cases of the heirs of Victoria or George V, when young Princes acted in a fashion unfitting of a king, nobility could look to the history of Henry V for comfort.
The tale was revitalised by Shakespeare at the end of the 16th century. Henry’s character is constructed largely on one event: the Battle of Agincourt. The play is centred around 1415 and the protagonist is distorted to exaggerate the achievement of the battle. The plot features a ‘transformation story’ in which young and reckless Hal turns from rebel to ruler. Whilst it is true that Henry’s life would change dramatically after his father, Henry IV, usurps the throne and then again once he went from Prince to King, Shakespeare inflates these transitions to shine greater light on the achievement of 1415 which plays centre stage in his play. Shakespeare is also responsible for exaggerating the numbers on each side of the battle, an exaggeration that would stick in historical record, enhancing the valour of the victory.
Seeing kings through Shakespeare’s eyes is a common trend in English history; the connotation of Richard III as a ‘hunchback’ persists in modern imagination. Richard’s skeleton shows a sideways displacement of the spine, but not the limp and withered arm emphasised in the play. This embellishment in truth would serve to cast Richard as an ‘evil’ King to an Elizabethan audience. Thus, to view kings ‘through Shakespeare’s eyes’ is incredibly problematic.
As a final point, it must be mentioned that even after the battle at Agincourt, it took five further years to reach the peace treaty at Troyes. This points to the fact that this battle might not be as decisive as imagined in its mythology. It is therefore interesting that war and violence is remembered more vividly than peace.