Today marks the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, one of countless historical battles one has to remember if you are interested in English or British history. This one though has gained something of a mythical status. In its own way the Battle of Agincourt made England; as surely as Magna Carta, the Book of Common Prayer, football and cricket, drinking tea, standing in queues, pubs, talking about the weather, good manners and fair play.
Agincourt is just one momentous battle in the 100 years war and France was understandably very confident of victory seeing that their 20,000 soldiers was four times that of the English forces under the leadership of King Henry V
For centuries afterwards and with some justification, the French have complained about the slaughter of their surrendered or captured soldiers, perhaps because they were largely from the ruling elite. Like the Romans and Vikings who had once invaded their land, the English military weren’t and still aren’t afraid of going in close with cold hard steel and do what has to be done. The British Army are almost alone in charging at gun carrying enemy with bayonets in the modern era having done so in the Falklands war of 1982 and Afghanistan just 3 or 4 years ago with the most notable recent charge being in Iraq when a small squad of men charged at 100 insurgents in 2004, killing 40. It takes unbelievable amounts of courage and discipline running into machine gun fire but the effect on the enemy when they see they are effectively going to be stabbed to death is obviously terrible.In the 1980’s a mock trial was held which put King Henry V in the dock for possible war crimes but it is always hard to judge an event 600 years ago as the morals, standards and pressures of the day were much different to today,
However the fact is that 400 Englishmen died at Agincourt, compared to 7,000 French which no doubt shows the scale of the victory and leads one to wonder about how many died needlessly.
Like the traditional and indeed current British Army, the English army was very small but also very experienced and combat ready compared to the French army of unfortunate drafted peasants who were compelled to fight and aristocrats who turned up more prepared for a sporting event than an actual fight.
The French at Agincourt were disunited, divided; the upper-class knights even believing that their peasant footsoldiers were an entirely different race, and riding over them roughshod and this isn’t just a phrase. They treated their men with contempt.
The English at Agincourt were more than hard men, though. Henry V had fired up the English on patriotism, stoking the idea that they were a single people regardless of class. One nation. The English became the English at Agincourt. The clinching proof came in the battle report sent back to England to be read aloud which for the first time since before the Norman conquest of 1066 was written in English rather than Latin or Norman French. The feats were remembered and came to prominence by the common men who returned to their villages and regaled crowds in pubs of how against all the odds they had won a stunning victory.
Another reason why Agincourt is so central to our identity lies with that little known playwright, William Shakespeare. Though King Henry V did indeed motivate his men on the eve of battle, it is unlikely he did so in such an elegant manner.
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.
Agincourt, as channelled through the Bard, became the touchstone of English identity. Agincourt is how the English like to think of themselves: The outgunned underdogs who, through courage and unity, win against the odds. The most resonant events in our long island history are Agincourt sequels.
In fact in 1599 when Shakespeare wrote Henry V, England was under threat from Spain having recently won another Agincourt with the Spanish Armada. Whether it is the Battle of Trafalgar, Waterloo or Rorkes Drift in the 19th Century or even Mons in WW1, it is the bulldog spirit that we like to think of with victory against the odds. Even defeats can be thought of in this way with the evacuation of an entire army by little civilian ships at Dunkirk right from under the noses of the invincible Nazis.
It was no co-incidence that when the pivotal Battle of Britain came about that the boys of the RAF Fighter Squadrons became known as “The Few”. Churchill knew his history and knew his Shakespeare. He then instructed Laurence Olivier to make a movie version of Henry V as a morale booster for a nation fighting the longest odds ever. A nation alone fighting Nazi Germany.
These days terms like The Few, Once More Unto the Breach, or Band Of Brothers are still used to denote comradeship and very hard fought victories whether in politics, sport or war as aptly shown by the excellent HBO series Band of Brothers.
And what of that other icon of Agincourt? The origin of the V sign. There is definitely some truth to the fact that elements in the French army had threatened to cut off two fingers of any captured English bowmen and so rendering them useless to the military of the day. It is said that in a show of defiance the English bowmen wave their right hands in the air and showed the French that they still had their fingers. However whether they did or not, is open to debate.
Still, in Britain and most English speaking countries, sticking two fingers up at someone is the equivalent of sticking one finger in the air in the USA.
Of course with the hand rotated the other way round, Churchill also popularised the V for Victory sign.
These days the Victory sign has become synonymous also with the sign for peace and is particularly with girls in the Asia-Pacific who seem to use it all the time to look cute or demonstrate how much fun they are having in photos. So whether you’re going to spend today watching sport or TV, reading or simply taking selfies, the chances are that The Battle of Agincourt is the inspiration somewhere or other.
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