Attitudes to Agincourt

The enmity between England and France is an ancient one. But the museum dedicated to a famous English victory offers hope for future relations between the two countries, writes Stephen Cooper.

Graveyard of French chivalry: the battlefield of Agincourt today. Robert Harding/Michael BusselleOn arrival at the London 2012 Olympic Games President François Hollande thanked Britain for ‘rolling out the red carpet’ for French athletes to win medals. This was thought to be in retaliation for Prime Minister David Cameron’s comment that he would roll out the red carpet for French businessmen fleeing the high rates of tax proposed by the Socialist president. The truth is that England and France have looked askance at each other since the Norman Conquest of 1066; the Entente Cordiale was signed only in 1904.

The French and the English take a different view about many things, not least history. When I taught English at a French school in the 1960s the children there had never heard of Crécy, Agincourt and Blenheim, but they knew all about Bouvines (1214), Orléans (1429) and Fashoda (1898). It is not very long since a French politician objected to the fact that when he arrived in London, he arrived at a station called Waterloo. Yet when the British travel to Paris, they face a whole range of streets and monuments named after Napoleon, his generals and their victories.

Memories of Henry V’s crushing victory on October 25th, 1415 at Agincourt (which the French call Azincourt) are entirely different on the two sides of the English Channel (in French, La Manche.) Professor Anne Curry may have revised the numbers of men who fought there, but no English historian has ever doubted that the English were heavily outnumbered. Yet in L’Art Militaire et les Armées au Moyen Âge (1946), Ferdinand Lot argued the contrary.

Henry V wanted ‘Agincourt Day’ to be remembered forever, though it was Shakespeare who wrote the lines that we all remember:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered.

Was this confident prediction fulfilled? Henry V reigned for only nine years, but while he lived he was able to make good use of his victory, both at home and abroad. Politically he obtained unprecedented levels of taxation from his subjects, with the full co-operation of his Parliaments. Diplomatically he isolated the French king and the large number of noble prisoners whom he took captive at Agincourt proved useful pawns in negotiations. Yet the long-term consequences of Agincourt were minimal. It was in no sense ‘the English revenge for Hastings’, as has sometimes been claimed. Hastings led to the almost total annihilation of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and hence to a revolution in government, the Church, landholding, language, culture and diplomatic relations, which lasted for at least 200 years. By comparison Agincourt was a flash in the pan. The English proceeded to conquer Normandy between 1417 and 1419, but the conquest lasted only 30 years and had no permanent effects.

Henry did attempt to secure his place in history by making Agincourt Day into a public holiday; but there was more than one saint’s day to choose from. St George had become the patron saint of England during the reign of Edward III; but Agincourt was fought on the Feast of Crispin and Crispinian. Any of these saints would have been acceptable to the Convocation of Canterbury, but the Convocation of York favoured a fourth candidate, St John of Beverley, whose shrine had oozed drops of holy oil resembling beads of sweat on the day of the battle. A compromise was reached, and it was ordained that John, as well as Crispin and Crispinian, should be celebrated in perpetuity on October 25th; that St George’s Feast in April be given the status of a ‘greater double’; and that greater attention should also be paid to the Welsh Saints, David, Winefride and Chad, on their holy days.

Agincourt entered popular culture as well as religious rites. All the English chronicles record the story, in a straightforwardly heroic manner, while the battle also gave rise to a number of ballads, including the Agincourt Carol and The English Bowman’s Glory. In 1475, when Edward IV mounted a new invasion of France via English Calais, William Worcester completed his Boke of Noblesse, urging Edward to imitate Henry V. Likewise in 1513, when Henry VIII led a further expedition, the anonymous ‘translator of Livius’ published The First Life of King Henry the Fifth. A version of Michael Drayton’s Fair stood the wind for France was ‘hurried into print’ in 1629 as ‘background-making music for the Duke of Buckingham’s imminent campaign in France.’

Yet events soon combined to falsify the prediction. The English duchies of Normandy and Gascony were lost when the French re-invaded and Sir John Talbot, the English commander, was killed in battle at Castillon in 1453. Calais, last bastion of the Lancastrian ‘Empire’, was lost in 1558. No English King after Henry VIII really wanted to press his claim to be King of France, though they kept the title until 1802. Meanwhile, by undermining the medieval idea of Purgatory, the Reformation changed the nature of saints’ days. In the late 16th century men celebrated ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Day’ and, from 1605, ‘Guy Fawkes Day’ in preference to the anniversary of Agincourt. James VI and I (1603-25) was a Scotsman and the Scots had played no part at Agincourt. As Dr Johnson noted in 1765:

It may be observed that we are apt to promise to ourselves more lasting memory than the changing state of human things admits. The prediction is not verified: the feast of Crispin passes by without any mention of Agincourt.

‘Agincourt Day’ had ceased to be important but, in the meantime, Shakespeare had transformed the nation’s memory of the battle, and of Henry V. When his history play of that name was first staged in the 1590s Philip II’s Spain had temporarily replaced France as our traditional adversary; but England was still under threat and Shakespeare’s hymn to English patriotism was highly relevant to the appeal to arms issued by Elizabeth I in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada. Shakespeare turned the worthy but dull speeches which he found in the chronicles into sublime poetry. He celebrated Agincourt as a victory of David over Goliath and, to some extent, as the victory of the English yeomen, who were commoners. These were powerful myths.

Henry V was not much performed in the 17th century; but it has been a regular feature of English repertoire since 1738. It was performed every year during the Seven Years’ War with France (1756-63) and became a favourite role for the great Victorian actor-managers. The myth of the ‘rise of the common man’ appealed to the Victorian middle classes and was celebrated in The Yeomen of England, one of the ‘hits’ from Merrie England, which was first performed in 1902.

The heroic tradition survived the Union of the Parliaments of 1707 and the emergence of a common British identity. However the historians of the Enlightenment, north and south of the Scottish Border, soon began to present a different view. In his Complete History of England the Scot Tobias Smollett wrote:

[Henry V’s] renown was founded upon the most pernicious ambition, which seemed to swallow up every principle of justice, and every consideration of humanity.

Academic historians have been divided ever since.

Military history may be said to date from the years following Waterloo in 1815 (the 400th anniversary of Agincourt); and the spirit of Agincourt has been regularly invoked ever since. Lord Macaulay liked to recall that he had been born on Agincourt Day, and there has been a succession of battleships in the Royal Navy called HMS Agincourt. H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story (1905) epitomised the idea that Agincourt was a victory for the ‘Island Nation’, though at the time the battle was the prelude to the conquest of Normandy and Henry V’s recognition as heir to the King of France.

When war was declared in August 1914 the German army marched into Belgium and ran into the much smaller British Expeditionary Force at Mons. The BEF held its ground for a time but was eventually forced to retreat. This was the setting for a short story by Arthur Machen entitled The Bowmen, which was published in the Evening News. It tells how the British were helped by ghostly archers, who arrived and shot down the Germans in droves. Machen never pretended that his story was anything other than fiction, but it seems likely that it helped to spread the legend of the Angels of Mons.

The 500th anniversary of Agincourt coincided with the end of the Battle of Loos, when the British, now stuck in the trenches, first suffered casualties on an industrial scale. The newspapers for October 25th, 1915 (the 500th anniversary of the battle) were full of lists of the dead and wounded; but The Times still carried two items devoted to the medieval conflict. One was the text of the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. The other was a leading article, also entitled ‘Saint Crispin’s Day’:

Five hundred years have come and gone today since England won the last and greatest of her medieval victories on foreign soil. This is the day of Agincourt ... From Crécy and Poitiers, onwards to the immortal signal at Trafalgar, from Trafalgar and Waterloo to the Marne and Ypres, the English sense of duty is the secret of our discipline and our success.

The most extraordinary use of Agincourt as propaganda occurred during the Second World War. Laurence Olivier had performed the role of Henry V on stage at the Old Vic in 1937; and in the early years of the conflict he entertained the troops with a one-man show, including extracts from Henry’s stirring speeches. In 1944 Churchill instructed Olivier to make a film of Shakespeare’s play, to boost morale in preparation for D-Day. As it happened the film was not shown until afterwards, but it was a huge success when it did appear. From the British point of view it did not matter that Henry V’s aim had been to subdue the French, whereas the Allies intended to liberate them, nor that the D-Day invasion force was one of the largest in history – hardly a ‘happy few.’

Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s play was by no means the last. The BBC’s Age of Kings in 1960 starred Robert Hardy as Henry V and he went on to appear in an early ‘drama-documentary’, The Picardy Affair of 1962. Like Olivier, Kenneth Branagh won numerous awards with his film version of Henry V in 1989. Meanwhile the play itself has been staged many times in the last half century and there have even been attempts to do so in an anti-heroic manner.

Nowadays the English public remembers Agincourt through the medium of Shakespeare and not through Agincourt Day; but the French scarcely remember the battle at all. They never had cause to celebrate Agincourt Day and Shakespeare’s Henry V is almost never performed in France.
When French historians write about Agincourt they naturally place it in the context of French history. When that is done it becomes clear that the French monarchy regained the upper hand militarily within a relatively short space of time, either as a result of Joan of Arc’s spectacular career (1429-31), or because of Charles VII’s army reforms in the 1440s, or because of the growth of French nationalism. Whatever the cause of this renaissance, the France of Charles VII and Louis XI was able to resume its rightful place as the most powerful kingdom in western Europe. When the English were swept out of the duchies of Normandy and Aquitaine in 1449 and 1450, it was by means of a series of lightning strikes, which lasted only a few months, and left them only Calais.

Yet there is one place where French and English traditions about Agincourt come together; and that is curiously in the village of Azincourt, where there is a splendid museum. When I visited in 2009 the battle was presented as the victory of the little man over the bully and of the common man over the aristocracy. It was also presented as the unfortunate result of a dynastic quarrel rather than as symptomatic of an insoluble conflict between nations. In this way the outcome is made palatable to a French audience. After all the French have been Republicans, on and off, for over 200 years now. Why should it matter to them whether the Plantagenets or the Valois won that day? This seems a very sensible way of presenting the event, especially to modern schoolchildren, of either nationality. If they want to talk about their differences, François Hollande and David Cameron could do worse than arrange to meet at Agincourt.

Stephen Cooper is writing a book on Agincourt to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle in 2015.

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