Ever since I came to live in London, I have looked on Westminster Abbey as a great symbol of the city and of the English people. As a student and writer of history, I encounter it at the coronations, weddings and funerals of monarchs stretching back centuries; it is a church that has always been full of people and colour.
So it was a great privilege to walk through its great space early in the morning. Only when it was almost empty did I appreciate its vastness – and the air of spiritual mystery that enveloped us along with the Abbey’s treasures.
This visit took place a few days after the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. We were there at the invitation of the current Dean, the Very Rev John Hall, who had arranged for us to visit the tomb of King Henry V, victor of that celebrated but terrible conflict. On October 25, 1415, Henry’s army of around 6,000 men, mostly archers, defeated French forces of some 40,000 or more. Chroniclers recorded that the pale morning sun was blotted out by the density of the English arrows, which turned the bright sky black. It is estimated that 15,000 French soldiers died that day; the English lost fewer than 200.
This was a true English victory, with only some Welsh swelling the ranks of the Archers. It was fitting that Henry V celebrated the victory at Westminster Abbey – the first recorded Service of Thanksgiving held there. Yet, as John Field argues in his glorious illustrated history of the building, Kingdom, Power and Glory, Henry V “sensed a curse” lurking there, perhaps remembering how his father, Henry IV, had died in the room known as the Jerusalem Chamber.
In the Treaty of Troyes which settled the indemnity of Agincourt, Henry became heir to France, displacing the Dauphin. He was poised to follow the “Mad” King Charles VI; he had married Charles’s daughter and the couple had a son, the future Henry VI of England. But the English king died of dysentery in 1422 when the boy was still a baby. Henry V’s funeral at the Abbey was sumptuous, and was the only time the body of an English monarch was carried in procession with the banners of both England and France. In order that prayers could be eternally said for him, a chantry chapel was built above his tomb.
This is a tiny jewel, rarely open to the public because its narrow, worn stone staircase is simply too dangerous. Being there, and on that anniversary, moved us both profoundly. My husband is descended from Henry V, and was also a pageboy at the Queen’s wedding in the Abbey. I cannot help thinking of the 15th century as “my” period, since it is the setting for my Anjou Trilogy of historical novels, the third of which, Quicksilver, has just been published. At times I feel like a time-traveller, so familiar have I become with the dynastic alliances, courtly behaviour, manners, culture and costumes of that time.
Nor has its brutality escaped me, and as I gazed at the tomb of Henry V, I had mixed feelings about his victory, in which the bodies of dead Frenchmen were piled high.
I am no genealogist, but in view of my ancestry a number of these experts delight in sending me information relating to the time of my research. To my surprise I learned that 57 of my direct ancestors fought at Agincourt – of whom 41 were killed on the day or died of their wounds. Those who perished include Antoine de Bourgogne, Duke of Brabant; Jean I “the Wise”, Duke of Alençon; Guillaume IV de Melun, Comte de Tancarville… The list goes on and on; their titles sound imposing, and yet there was nothing splendid about their deaths.
The rest were taken for ransom and released – all but one, whom Henry V declared should never be set free. This was Charles, Duke of Orleans, the French king’s nephew, 21 years old and a fine soldier. He was found lying in the mud, buried under two dead knights who fell on top of him.
For 25 years, until 1440, he languished in the Tower of London. During this long incarceration, he wrote poetry in both French and English and became famous as the finest poet of his generation.
You will gather from this that my ancestors at Agincourt were on the “wrong” side, from my husband’s point of view. And it was also poignant to reflect, as we watched the early morning sun stream into the nave, that I belong to the Catholic Church that built the Abbey, while he belongs to the Anglican Church that now maintains it.
Since religion has never been allowed to divide our marriage, nor shall history. Dean Hall is the most witty and erudite guide that one could ask for; and, as a priest from the Catholic wing of the Church of England, he sees the Abbey as a place where the wounds of the Reformation can be healed.
As we left the church, he took us into a side chapel where there is a tiny memento, worn almost beyond recognition, which depicts the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. “The Reformers missed it,” said the Dean, who has a great devotion to Our Lady. His face lit up with delight, and so did ours.
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