Revisiting Azincourt – 600 years of myth making.

King Henry Vth

King Henry Vth

O for pity!–we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.’

I have always been fascinated by the battle of Azincourt since I first watched the grainy images of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version on a wet afternoon off school sick as a child. What I found so compelling about the film was the layer on layer interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Olivier set the action in The Globe theatre of 1600 with his actors wearing Elizabethan dress and contemporary hair styles but then as the camera moved through a gauzy curtain as he took the action to Southampton the viewer was transported back to August 1415 and the costumes changed to elaborate and very beautiful copies of C15th dress as he left the confines of the little ‘wooden ‘O’ of the Globe and turned to full technicolour movie action.

Battle of Agincourt

Battle of Agincourt

I was very conscious of the cinematic devices at work throughout the film and the propaganda value of Olivier’s nationalistic masterpiece at the height of World War II. What better vehicle for expressing the sentiment of Shakespeare’s ‘band of brothers’ than relating the legend of Henry Vth’s victory against overwhelming odds to the struggle for freedom in Europe played out on the beaches of Normandy?

The film was made near the end of the war and was intended as a morale booster for Britain and was partly funded by the British government. The film was originally “dedicated to the ‘Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempting to recapture.’” The movie won Olivier an Honourary Award by the Academy for “his Outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

Poster for the 1944 film version of Henry Vth

Poster for the 1944 film version of Henry Vth

Then, as I studied more about Shakespeare’s version of Henry Vth’s campaign, I began to understand a further layer of interpretation and political propaganda at work at the Elizabethan court. England poised against the two super powers of Spain and France, proud of her independence and her illustrious history of fighting off both countries whether that be in the mud of Normandy or on in the English channel. Shakespeare likens the native soldier to a mastiff hound, seen by the arrogant French commanders as brutal and single-minded, courageous but bound on a course of self-destructive aggression and unable to comprehend when they are beaten and should withdraw to fight another day.


That island of England breeds very valiant
creatures; their mastiffs are of unmatchable courage.


Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a
Russian bear and have their heads crushed like
rotten apples! You may as well say, that’s a
valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.


Just, just; and the men do sympathize with the
mastiffs in robustious and rough coming on, leaving
their wits with their wives: and then give them
great meals of beef and iron and steel, they will
eat like wolves and fight like devils.

Moving back in history to the period before Shakespeare composed his play, the exploits of King Henry Vth were still regarded as a model to be emulated and referenced. In 1513, when Henry VIII led an expedition to France, the anonymous ‘translator of Livius’ published ‘The First Life of King Henry the Fifth’ to coincide with the campaign and flatter Henry’s enormous ego no doubt.

Previously 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. King Edward, whose great uncle Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York had died a hero’s death at Azincourt protecting King Henry from the Duke of Alencon’s offensive, set out on a French campaign and took his army to the field of the battle to soak up the atmosphere and propaganda value of the association before he sold out to Louis XI’s offer of a lucrative pension in lieu of military action.  The two kings agreed to a seven-year truce and free-trade between the two countries.  Edward IV received 75,000 crowns upfront, essentially a bribe to return to England and not take up arms to pursue his claims in France. He would then receive a yearly pension thereafter of 50,000 crowns. Also the King of France was to ransom the deposed Lancastrian Queen, Marguerite of Anjou who was in Edward’s custody, with 50,000 crowns. It also included pensions to many of Edward’s lords who might otherwise have been rather more disparaging about his glorious campaign!

The Plantagenet kings of England whether they were Lancastrian or Yorkist could never relinquish the dream of re-gaining those territories in France which had been won back by Edward III and the Black Prince in the great military victories of the C14th which echoed down to their own age in the names of Crecy and Poitiers. Although the comparison between Edward IV and Henry Vth cannot be taken too far considering their respective attitudes to the prosecution of their claims and the outcome both wanted that association with their great predecessor because no monarch had ever managed to live up to Edward III’s reputation for kingship. Both were also insecure upon their thrones, the product of usurpation and disrupted lines of succession. A successful war with France was always a sure way to gain acceptance and popularity in parliament, with the people and to achieve international recognition.

Edward IV and King Louis meet on the bridge at Picquigny in 1475.

Edward IV and his rather less glorious campaign in France

Edward IV seemed to see his compromise as a great victory over the French despite certain rumblings of discontent among his own commanders including his brother, Richard of Gloucester. He commissioned a special misericord for his stall seat at St George’s Chapel in Windsor which depicted the infamous meeting on the bridge at Picquigny between himself and King Louis which might seem an unusual subject at first glance unless he intended it to be a further snub to his rival as he literally presented the royal arse to him as he rested during prayers! ‘it is undeniable that Edward was excessively pleased with the outcome of his ‘great enterprise‘ and we will never know whether he planned it like this. It must also be remembered that two of the surviving poems lamenting Edward’s death regarded the French campaign as a great victory, emphasizing that France had to pay ‘tribute‘, and that it was such a clean victory, ‘without a stroke, and afterward came home‘. (excerpt taken from the Richard III Society website

So how did the actual victor of Azincourt use his victory to his advantage in 1415?

‘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. (taken from History Today

Henry had mortgaged the crown up the the hilt of his own sword in order to finance his pursuit of his claims in France. Defeat would have made him one of the most unsuccessful and unpopular kings of his age but his miraculous victory, against all the odds and the number of high ranking French prisoners who he brought back in triumphal procession through the streets of London secured him immortality even if he never recovered from the debilitating dysentery which he contracted during the Siege of Harfleur. The scale of the victory may have been distorted by a combination of elation and failure to record deaths among the lowly archers who comprised the bulk of his army but it enabled Henry to get more concessions from parliament for further offensives in the period immediately after Azincourt which lead to the establishment of the English Kingdom in France that clung on for the next 30 years before it was swallowed up.

Henry’s greatest achievement was also to prove his undoing though, not only in terms of the illness that claimed his life too early but also through his insistence on marriage to the French princess Catherine de Valois because fatefully their only son and heir to the kingdoms of both England and France who succeeded his father at the tender age of just 9 months carried the same insanity as her father, Charles the Well Beloved. Like his maternal grandfather Henry VI was to find himself incapable of ruling his kingdom. The resulting power struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York would usher in The Wars of the Roses and see the end of the Henry’s direct bloodline. This product of his union with France ended his days in the Tower of London, most probably murdered on the orders of Edward IV after learning that his own son and heir had been killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury.


2 Responses to “Revisiting Azincourt – 600 years of myth making.”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


  2. Lady of Winchester Says:

    Except it is unlikely Edward of York died saving Henry V. The consensus seems to have been that the poor man suffocated as his armour was too tight, or he was somehow trapped in the mud.

    A new edition has recently been released of Juliet Barker’s excellent book on Agincourt, which includes some new appendices exploring numbers involved in the battle, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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