On the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Dr Hannes Kleineke discusses how the memories and growing legends surrounding the battle were used in medieval Parliaments…
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he 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: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
On 25 October, the feast of SS Crispin and Crispinian, 1415 an English army under the leadership of King Henry V destroyed a larger French force under the Constable and Marshal of France, Charles d’Albret and Jean le Meingre, known as Boucicaut, near the village of Agincourt in Picardy. Despite the efforts of some modern historians (some, albeit not all, of them French) to demonstrate that the armies were perhaps rather more evenly matched than was at one time supposed, there can be little doubt that the English army, exhausted by over two weeks’ forced marches and ravaged by disease, was outnumbered and ostensibly the underdog in the engagement. Certainly, contemporaries were in no doubt about the significance of the victory, which saw several princes of the French royal house of Valois and a number of other leading nobles killed or captured along with the Constable and Marshal: the French military establishment had been effectively decapitated. Within four days of the battle, news of the victory reached London, where church bells were rung and the citizens processed through the streets to Westminster in celebration. Just under a month later, the King himself made his triumphal entry into the city.
Agincourt was to be remembered for many generations. In the 1430s schoolboys in Suffolk recorded in their exercises how ‘21 Englishmen had put to flight 12,000 Frenchmen in a marsh’, perhaps in reference to the legends that were beginning to develop around the battle; particular feats of arms could be commemorated by the augmentation of armorial achievements, as in the case of the Wallers of Groombridge in Kent who added to their helm crest of a walnut tree a shield of the arms of the duke of Orleans whom an ancestor had captured on the battle field; and by the early 17th century families like the Wodehouses of Norfolk or the Wykes of Devon were maintaining family traditions of the deeds of valour believed (often spuriously) to have been performed on the battlefield of Agincourt by their ancestors.
In Parliament, too, there were regular reminders of the glory days of October 1415. In the years that followed, a mention of the King’s great victory became a staple of the sermons that opened Parliament, and during the session of October 1416 the first anniversary of the battle was marked with a special Te Deum in the royal chapel. Under Henry VI, other themes became dominant, but Agincourt nevertheless continued to be invoked, whether it be in negotiations in 1427, 1429 and 1439 over the release of some of the prominent prisoners who remained in English hands (like the count of Vendome and the dukes of Bourbon and Orleans), or in the quest for grants of taxation to defend Henry V’s conquests.
In the Lords, the captains of the various contingents of Henry V’s army made up a majority of the temporal peers. In the Commons, too, the dwindling number of veterans of the great battle must have commanded attention, particularly when the vexed question of the continuing war in France and its funding was debated in the decades after Henry V’s death. Up to the 1430s there were regularly half a dozen such men among the Commons, including individuals of particular note like Sir Thomas Strickland who had carried the King’s banner of St. George during the battle, or Sir Brian Stapleton, who took no fewer than eight French prisoners.
Alongside them, there were the ‘gentlemen in England now a-bed’, above all those who had been invalided home during the siege of Harfleur earlier that year, men like Sir William Asenhill, Thomas Deschalers, Lewis John, and John Tyrell, but none could have thought himself more accursed to have missed the battle than Sir Ralph Shirley, whose contingent went on without him to Agincourt, where one of the men-at-arms, Ralph Fowne, gained the distinction of taking the duke of Bourbon prisoner.
In the 1440s, as the English fortunes in France declined in parallel with the number of surviving combatants of 1415, the symbolic status of the veterans of Agincourt grew all the greater. In November 1449, as the loss of the duchy of Normandy to the French began to loom, the Commons elected as their Speaker the ageing Sir John Popham, one of now just three Members who had fought at Agincourt. Popham declined the office, but the message that this reminder of past glories sent to Henry VI’s ministers was all too clear.
Even after the loss of Lancastrian France, the legend of Agincourt continued to flourish. On the occasion of their own respective invasions of France in 1475 and 1513 Edward IV and Henry VIII were at pains to stop off at the battle field, and it would be interesting to know how widely the mid-15th-century folksong now known as the ‘Agincourt Carol’ became familiar (before being popularized by Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film). Beyond doubt, though, its central sentiment resonated with most contemporaries:
‘Deo gratias, Anglia, redde pro victoria!’