By DAVID HORSPOOL
On this day 600 years ago, a depleted invading army faced an outnumbering defensive force across a ploughed field in Normandy. The English invaders had lost some of their numbers to dysentery – the “bloody flux” – and had been forced to leave 1,200 of their comrades behind to garrison the devastated town they had managed to capture after an extended siege. A fourteen-day march through hostile country had led them eventually to this stretch of open ground bordered by woods, where they took up position and waited for the French army, filled with princes of the blood, to attack.
The young king in command of the English army, Henry V, had made one mistake already in keeping his troops too closely quartered together at the siege, allowing disease to spread freely. Perhaps his march had been another. He could have disembarked after the siege of Harfleur, but decided instead to make for Calais. He had barely managed to elude his pursuers as he attempted to cross the River Somme. Now he was relying on his opponents to make a mistake, the same mistake they had made in his predecessors’ day, of trusting that their cavalry could overwhelm English archers and dismounted men-at-arms. If all went to plan, the French would charge, the arrow shower would cut them down, and those who got through would be impaled on the wooden stakes that the King had ordered to be driven into the ground in front of the bowmen.
But the French had no intention of falling for that old trick. This time, they waited for the invaders to come to them, confident that in a hand-to-hand fight, their weight of numbers would tell. They may have taken some comfort from the fact that October 25 was the Feast of St Crispin and St Crispinian, brother saints who had worked for the conversion of the Gauls in the third century, and were buried at Soissons, in Picardy. This, surely, would be a day for the French.
What rarely comes across in accounts of Agincourt is that it was, initially, a very big game of chicken. And Henry V blinked first, or appeared to, at least. He was the first to advance. Unfortunately for the French, the advance was only a short one, before the English took up their static positions again, with archers at the front, still defended by stakes, ready to loose their deadly barrage. But it was enough to prompt a French response, a charge by their over-populated vanguard, and the same old story played out again: horses and men downed by English firepower; horses and men stuck in the sucking mud; horses and men piling on top of each other, the dead and the living, the latter unable to advance or retreat, easy prey for the English men-at-arms, even for the lightly armed archers.
There are still many debates about Agincourt, some of which emerge from the impressive new exhibition at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London (which runs until January 31, with special family events for half term). How many fought on each side? What was Henry V’s original war aim? How much did his victory owe to luck rather than great leadership? Was the killing of prisoners towards the end of the battle a war crime? But the exhibition’s curators are surely right to concentrate first on the battle as an emblematic moment, an occasion that, whatever its strategic implications, proved inspirational to subsequent generations. This was a process that began shortly after the battle itself, as a manuscript copy on display from the Bodleian Library of the Agincourt Carol, written only days after news of the victory came back to England, attests.
To the French, of course, the legacy is rather different, if remembered at all. The exhibition, curated by Malcolm Mercer, curator of Tower History at the Royal Armouries Museum, with historical advice from Anne Curry, doyenne of Agincourt historians, is a bi-lingual affair, captioned throughout in English and French. If this is still the English (and British) view, it is one that pays much more than lip service to the French. We learn about the difficulties of the French political class, jostling to fill the power vacuum created by the madness of their king, Charles VI. We can compare conceptions of royal chivalry associated with the cult of St Denis on the French side and St George on the English, and marvel at the boy’s bacinet and mail shirt created for Charles as dauphin, or the exquisite “dragon saddle” of wood and bone made for Henry V.
Then there are the stories of the high-status French prisoners, who survived the battle to be ransomed, though the Duke of Orléans, Charles VI’s brother, had to wait twenty-five years for his freedom. He started and ended his captivity in the White Tower, but he was moved around the country, and an autograph letter on show at the exhibition from Henry confides the King’s fears that the Scots may attempt to spring the royal Duke from captivity in Pontefract Castle.
At the centre of the show, however, is a modern object that sums up the emotional pull that semi-legendary events like Agincourt achieve – once the bloody reality has faded from memory. It is a model diorama, with more than 4,000 painted tiny metal figures, displayed on a miniature re-creation of the battlefield that even includes soil from Normandy. Battle models have a distinguished if sometimes troubled history, re-enacting the debates of historians (and participants), as happened in the case of the Waterloo model made during the Duke of Wellington’s lifetime by Captain William Siborne. But they are also marvellous objects, which (is this a boy thing?) tend to bring out the child in the viewer (all right: in this viewer).
The Agincourt model is a thing of beauty, which gives an impression of the scope of the whole battle, while also making high-status individuals readily identifiable by their scrupulously reproduced heraldic symbols. But it is also a contribution to an argument. The model-makers, David Marshall and Alan and Michael Perry, told me that they took the advice of Professor Curry for nearly all their decisions about deployment, positioning and numbers. Having recently chaired a discussion of the battle at the London Lit Weekend at Kings Place, I know that Curry’s views are not unchallenged. Jonathan Sumption, the fourth volume of whose projected five-volume history of the Hundred Years War has recently been published (covering the Agincourt campaign), follows the literary evidence in arguing for a more traditional interpretation, that there were far fewer English soldiers than French. In following Curry, the model-makers present a rather more even contest than the myth-makers – Shakespeare chief among them – as well as some modern historians, would be prepared to concede.
To hear a recording of the discussion at the London Lit Weekend in full, where I spoke to Professor Curry, Lord Sumption and Dr Helen Castor (author of, among other things, Joan of Arc: A history) click here. It’s excellent preparation for a visit to this marvellous exhibition. The model, I am told, will go on permanent display after the Tower of London exhibition closes at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, but it is certainly worth seeing in context, to the accompaniment of the sounds of battle (recorded at a re-enactment) and beneath a ceiling of arrowheads, suspended menacingly above the room.