604 Years Since Agincourt

 

We are in God’s hand, brother, not in theirs.

King Henry V

The anniversary of the long ago battle of Saint Crispin’s Day gives us yet another opportunity to recall the immortal “Band of Borthers Speech” that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Henry V, a speech that could put fight into a dog dead three days, or, mirabile dictu, even a live Congress Critter:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here

But one ten thousand of those men in England

That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?

My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one man more methinks would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

We would not die in that man’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouth as household words-

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-

Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

October 25, 1415 was an amazing day for the English.  The English longbow had long proved in the Hundred Years War to be a devastating weapon in the hands of skilled archers, but rarely had the English faced such long odds as they did at Agincourt.  Approximately 6,000 English, exhausted and worn from their march, faced approximately 30,000 French.  About five out of six of the English were archers with the remainder men-at-arms, knights and nobility.  The French had about 10,000 men-at-arms, knights and nobility, and 20,000 archers, crossbowmen and miscellaneous infantry.

 

The English established their battle line between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt, which offered excellent protection to both of their flanks.  The English archers made up the front line with stakes set in the ground before them to impale charging horses.  Archers were also placed in the woods to provide flanking fire against advancing French.  The men at arms and knights and nobility, were divided into three forces behind the archers.  They fought on foot.

The terrain between the woods that the French would have to cross in their attack of the English consisted of newly ploughed, and very muddy, fields.  Having walked through muddy fields on several occasions in rural Illinois, I can attest that simply getting from point A to point B in such terrain can be exhausting, let alone fighting at the end of the tramp through the morass.

For three hours there was no fighting, the French waiting for reinforcements.  King Henry tiring of this had his army advance to put pressure on the French to attack.  Alarmed by this offensive movement by the English, the French finally attacked.

The French advanced in three battles, or lines, one behind the other.  The mounted French, only about 1200 men, were in the first line.  All the other French fought afoot.

The charge of the mounted French was a complete disaster  and set the tone for the entire battle.  Due to the woods, the English archers could not be outflanked, and their blizzard of arrows wreaked havoc with the horses of the French as they made their frontal charge.  The French cavalry fell back on the advancing dismounted French men-at-arms.  These advanced against heavy fire from the longbowmen, who fired into the French men-at-arms until they ran out of arrows, and then joined in the melee with the English men-at-arms.  The French initially succeeded in forcing back the English line.  However, their success was short-lived.  Exhaustion set in among the French after their trek through the muddy fields, and the English longbowmen, wearing no armor and therefore much more agile than their adversaries in the mud, attacked with surprising success, aiming their blows at unarmored portions of the bodies of the French men-at-arms.  The fighting lasted about three hours before the French withdrew in defeat.  The stunned English slowly realized that they had won one of the most incredible against the odds victory in military history.

Chorus: Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world’s best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.

Exit

Shakespeare, Henry V

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4 Comments

  1. Only 604 years?

    The above brief summary of the fight is an excellent explanation for the lopsided casualty lists and unanticipated English victory.

    Subjects such as this are rarely studied in US public schools and universities. They don’t add to the impulse to hate America; and, toxic masculinity.

  2. Whenever I think of the bowmen of Agincourt I always recall these lines from Kipling’s poem Norman and Saxon:

    They’ll drink every hour of the daylight and poach every hour of the dark.
    It’s the sport not the rabbits they’re after (we’ve plenty of game in the park).
    Don’t hang them or cut off their fingers. That’s wasteful as well as unkind,
    For a hard-bitten, South-country poacher makes the best man-at-arms you can find.

  3. Keegan’s book is good.

    A recent nonfiction book entitled “Agincourt” is another. It is written by a Brit whose noble family has records of ancestors back to the Norman Conquest. He had ancestors on both sides at Agincourt.

    Trivia: Churchill’s “V for Victory’ hand gesture likely originated with the English yeoman/archers showing the few French left alive/prisoners their two fingers which the French had promised to amputate after winning the battle.

    ,

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