Agincourt is nothing to celebrate

A 15th century rendition of the battle

This Sunday marks the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, commonly celebrated as one of the greatest English military victories of all time. The Government has donated £1m of taxpayer’s money to mark the event, while there is even a pilgrimage from Shrewsbury to Holywell to commemorate the king’s victory.

And yet, even to those who dislike the sort of national masochism that passes for much history, there is nothing much to celebrate in Henry V’s conflict with France, a spurious war of aggression carried out by one of the worst monsters in English history.

Henry V was a pious, unsmiling man who was rather less fun than Shakespeare depicted him. His only recorded joke, “War without fire is like sausages without mustard”, reflects the humour of a monarch who left thousands of corpses in his rampage across France.

The Hundred Years’ War, as the conflict is known to us, had begun with Henry V’s great-grandfather Edward III, who claimed the throne of France through his mother Isabella, daughter of Philip IV. His dynastic case was fairly strong, depending on whether one believes Salic Law had been fully accepted at that point, but the war had eventually ground to a halt and under Edward’s successor Richard II the government was too divided to do much more than a few raids. By the time Henry V ascended the throne in 1413 it was all a bit spurious, but opportunity arose in the bitter divide that had arisen between the two French court factions, the Burgundians and Armagnacs. This had accelerated in 1407 when Louis, Duke of Orléans, was stabbed to death by men in the pay of the Burgundian John the Fearless. Furthermore the King of France, Charles VI, had gone insane, suddenly stabbing to death four men one day in August 1392, with the bouts of madness becoming more frequent.

By 1415, by which time he had been king for two years, Henry V was already recognised as lord of Poitou, Angoulême and Périgord, but he also insisted on Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Brittany and Touraine, the empire of his ancestor Henry II. When this was not accepted, as it inevitably wouldn’t be, he invaded.

(It seems odd to us that England could have waged war on France, a country four times its size in area today and at the time about five times as large in population; but France then was little more than an extension of the Île-de-France, the small region around Paris. People in the south-western province of Gascony continued to call a Parisian a “Franchiman” until the revolution, according to Graham Robb’s excellent book. In fact there may not ever have been more “French” people than English speakers.)

The most memorable victory was on October 25, 1415, at Agincourt, where an English army destroyed a French force five times as large. By the end of the day between 7-10,000 Frenchmen had been killed, but this included the execution of several hundred prisoners, ordered by the king himself; the cavalry had refused to carry out the command and it was left to the lower class archers to do the killings. Horrified at the murder of prisoners, the French saw it as the end of the age of chivalry, and today it would be called a war crime.

However, what followed was even worse. The invaders took Caen on September 4, 1417 after which there was “an orgy of rape and looting”; the English king only ordered an end to the slaughter after he “saw a baby sucking at the breast of its headless mother”, according to Desmond Seward.

Then in 1418-1419 came Rouen, where Henry V would show utter ruthlessness. He hanged prisoners in front of the city walls, and in return the Norman captain of the crossbowmen, Alain Blanchard, hanged Englishmen from the ramparts with dead dogs around their necks.

By October the inhabitants of the Norman capital were eating horseflesh. Some 12,000 old people and nursing mothers, useless mouths to feed, were driven out, expecting to be allowed to pass the English lines – as was expected by the rules of war – but to their horror Henry refused to let them through and they died in the ditch. Rouen surrendered on January 19, 1419. Upon entering Henry kissed each of 42 crosses carried by clergymen after attending a Mass of thanksgiving at the cathedral of Saint-Maclou. A cleric who had excommunicated Henry would spend five years in chains; Blanchard was hanged straight away. The city’s survivors “looked like funeral effigies, deaths from hunger continuing for days despite the arrival of food carts”.

I’m not sure why this is worth celebrating, except as a way of expressing our appreciation of the Bard. Henry eventually died in 1422 and, according to some reports, was looking at maps of the Middle East before he expired; the interesting historical what-if is whether he might have aided Constantinople, which had just 30 years left before its conquest by the Sultan Mehmed. When the Byzantines toured Latin Europe looking for support almost no one could be bothered to help them, but Henry V might just have been mad enough.

Henry V married the daughter of the insane French king Charles and their son, born just months before Henry’s death, would inherit his grandfather’s mental illness, triggering the War of the Roses. Henry VI was generally regarded as being a disaster and failure, yet his legacy is actually much greater than his father’s. For all Henry V’s military victories and the stirring words put into his mouth by Shakespeare, he left behind nothing but corpses and grieving mothers, while his feeble-minded son gave us King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton, two of the finest educational establishments in Britain. They still commemorate the poor king on May 21 every year, the anniversary of his death, where in the Presence Chamber of the Plantagenet Kings in the Tower of London, the headmaster of Eton College and the provost of King’s lay flowers on the spot where he was killed.