By Will Barber Taylor
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 accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii
600 years ago this month, a battle was fought. It was a battle that would change the history of the western world forever. On Friday, the 25th of October 1415 the large and well prepared army of Charles VI of France but lead by Charles d’Albret, Constable of France was soundly beaten by the smaller but much more effective army of Henry V of England. That battle not only resulted in a disintegration of medieval France but also the first indication of Britain’s future dominance of the world.
The chain of incidents that led up to Agincourt began 78 years before in 1337 when Henry’s great grandfather, Edward the Third declared war on France. Edward claimed through his mother, Isabella the She Wolf of France, that he was rightful King of France and thus attacked the French. The ensuing conflict was known as the 100 Years War and wouldn’t end until thirty years after Henry’s death. The events that directly impacted Agincourt began in 1414 when Henry attempted to negotiate with the French over certain areas of land. The talks eventually broke down, with the final insult, according to Holinshed coming in the form of “a box full of tennis balls”. This insult was the final straw and precipitated the English invasion of France.
Following the invasion, Henry sieged the port town of Harfleur in Upper Normandy. The siege took longer than expected and Henry had spent thousands on winning the town only to gain little in terms of an advantage over the French. Having gathered supplies from the town, Henry marched towards Calais but was intercepted by the French forces and forced to camp in an open field, waiting for the inevitable battle.
Though the English army, mainly made up of cheap Welsh archers, did not know the terrain and had less men than the French, they had several advantages. Firstly, they had an experience commander at the helm. Henry V had served under his father during the campaign against Welsh outlaw Prince, Owain Glyndwr and his performance during the Battle of Shrewsbury against renegade baron, Harry “Hotspur” Percy became legendary. Charles d’Albret had little military experience and had certainly not fought in major campaigns, unlike Henry and his generals. Secondly, the English had superior technology. The longbow used by the Welsh archers had first been used to win the Battle of Crecy but unlike at Crecy the archers were far more important as, due to cash flow problems, Henry could only afford to pay for cheap archers rather than expensive soldiers. Furthermore, most of the French troops were aristocrats without any great military experience themselves. Trapped in the boggy mud of Agincourt, they stood no chance against the highly trained and powerful English fighting machine.
Following the major British victory of Agincourt, the French defences fell to pieces and Henry V was proclaimed heir to the throne of France, before marrying Charles VI’s daughter Catherine of Valois. Though Henry’s imperial ambitions were short lived the impact of his success would be felt down the centuries. Aside from inspiring one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Agincourt reshaped the political map of Europe. Britain began on a road that would lead to future victories such as Blenheim, Trafalgar and Waterloo. Agincourt shaped the world we live in today.