by Rod D. Martin
October 25, 2015
Today in 1415 on this, St. Crispin’s Day, King Henry V triumphed at Agincourt. The battle is one of the defining moments in the history of the English-speaking peoples. It is a victory like unto Marathon or Arbela; or for Christians, and certainly for the devout King Henry, a postcanonical deliverance comparable to the victory of Gideon, or to the parting of the Red Sea.
Historians speak of the First British Empire, which began in Jamestown and ended at Yorktown, and of the Second British Empire, of which India became the keystone and which died very quickly once its heart was removed.
But eight decades before Columbus and Cabot sailed to the Americas, the victory at Agincourt established an earlier, English, empire. The high point of the Hundred Years War, from the English perspective at least, it brought about the Treaty of Troyes, which settled the claims of the previous century and granted France’s throne to Henry’s heirs.
The battle itself still captivates. Four eyewitnesses wrote accounts, agreeing in the major details and leaving historians little doubt as to what took place.
Though successful, the siege of Harfleur – then the principal port city of France – had taken longer and cost more than hoped (“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead!”). His numbers diminished to barely 6,000, many of his men sick with dysentery, Henry decided to retire to Calais and thence to England.
The French, led by an insane king and an arrogant, wicked court, had failed to assemble their forces in time to relieve Harfleur, but now stood astride Henry’s rain-soaked path. They outnumbered his single line of men-at-arms plus archers by about five to one, including cavalry the English lacked. They wanted vengeance. And they offered him two choices: give himself up as a captive for ransom, or face certain annihilation.
It is Shakespeare, of course, who has shaped our memory of these events, but his account is faithful enough. In the words of Plantagenet scholar Dan Jones, “if we read the letters the real Henry dictated…there is a stridency and grandeur to his tone that is unmatched in dictations by any of his other aristocratic captains. Shakespeare’s grown-up Hal thunders true to the spirit, if not the letter, of his real-life counterpart.”
We remember Henry’s response to the French herald Montjoy: “If we may pass, we will. If we be hindered, we shall your tawny ground with your red blood discolor . . . The sum of all our answer is but this: We would not seek a battle, as we are. Nor as we are, we say we will not shun it.” One can hear this echo, 525 years later and one month to the day after the French abandoned Paris to the Nazis, in Churchill: “We shall defend every village, every town and every city. The vast mass of London itself, fought street by street, could easily devour an entire hostile army; and we would rather see London laid in ruins and ashes than that it should be tamely and abjectly enslaved.”
In a rather striking departure from medieval norms but consistent with his Christian character, Henry had prohibited his men from looting, and had even executed a friend for having done so (“In our marches through the country, there [must] be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language”). But by the time of Henry’s answer to Montjoy, the English army had marched 200 muddy miles on increasingly empty stomachs. They were exhausted. And they were certain of defeat by the well-rested, well-fed, well-armed French.
Even so, Henry would not yield. “If we are marked to die,” he told his beleaguered men, “we are enough to do our country loss — and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honor.
This day is called the feast of Crispian. He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when this day is named . . . strip his sleeve and show his scars and say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day!’ Old men forget — yet all shall be forgot, but he’ll remember with advantages what feats he did that day . . . 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 today 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 accursed they were not here — and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day!
And so trusting their fates to God despite the certainty of death, they fought. And fighting on, they won.
Scholars marvel at the magnitude of their victory. Some attempt to explain it away, but the evidence against them is overwhelming. Others attribute it to the technological advantage of the English longbow, and yet the great military historian John Keegan has shown that Harry’s archers could not have been enough.
At the outset about 6,000 English faced roughly 30,000 Frenchmen. Half an hour later, 10,000 Frenchmen lay dead. 2,000 more were prisoners, among them the marshal of France, two dukes and two counts. Indeed, more French knights were taken prisoner than the total of all English knights. Among the French dead were both the constable and the admiral of France – their commanders-in-chief – the master of longbowmen, the master of the royal household, three dukes, eight counts, 90 members of the lower nobility, and 8,400 “knights, esquires and gallant gentlemen.” It was, in Henry’s words, “a royal fellowship of death.”
And the English dead? “Edward the duke of York, the earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Ketley, Davy Gam, esquire; none else of name, and of all other men, but five and twenty.”
Having themselves been in the thick of the battle, the news of this astonishing deliverance reached Henry and his men only after. It moved them profoundly. The king prohibited any man from boasting of the victory “or tak[ing] praise from God which is His only.” When asked whether Henry would permit the telling of the numbers killed, he replied “Yes, but with this acknowledgement: that God here fought for us.”
In Agincourt’s aftermath lie some of history’s greatest questions. What if Henry had not died young? What if his son, the infant Henry VI, had not been a tragically weak king who lost not only France but also England? What if the disinherited French heir (the Dauphin) had accepted the settlement at Troyes and with it peace, rather than rallying his forces, fighting on for three more decades and ultimately ending the war on his own terms?
From our perspective as sons and daughters of Albion (as all Americans surely are), even the questions seem tragic. But one cannot know from what else God might have delivered all of us. Perhaps English culture and tradition would have been wiped out by the more numerous French. Perhaps serfdom would have made its way across the Channel. Perhaps there would have been no English Bill of Rights, no American Revolution.
Perhaps Virginia would today look like Haiti.
Either way, in that hour, God certainly delivered Henry, the English army and likely England itself from utter destruction. And most of a century before Ferdinand and Isabella completed the Reconquista in Spain, half a century before the last bit of the ancient Roman Empire fell to the Muslim Turks – in that same summer of 1453 in which England’s dreams in France were finally shattered – the union of France and England thus achieved offered not only lasting peace between the two but the prospect of a truly dominant European power, one which might have changed every detail of the last half millennium.
It was not to be. But like a latter day Alexander, though those who came after couldn’t keep it, Henry won it. As with Churchill later, he won it not merely against all odds but when all continued resistance seemed futile. He won it through his indomitable character and the valor to which he inspired his men. Perhaps he won it at least somewhat through technological advance and innovative tactics. But in his own estimation and that of any reasonable observer, he won it only because his Father won it for him.
Agincourt and King Harry have shaped the Anglo-American character as few things could. There are few days we should keep with as much reverence and honor as the Day of St. Crispin. And so we shall, as Henry promised, from this day to the ending of the world.