Today is the 600th anniversary of the major battle between the armies of England’s King Henry V and France’s King Charles VI (Charles d’Albret, The Beloved) – although the French King didn’t lead the French army as he was ill. Henry V, on the other hand, led his army into battle and even took part in hand-to-hand combat. The battle took place near modern-day Agincourt in the Pas-de-Calais. It was a significant victory for England in the Hundred Years War with France. The victory changed the direction of the war and led directly to Henry V marrying the French King’s daughter. Their son, later Henry VI, became heir to both the English and French thrones (although the gains achieved by his father were all but lost under Henry VI’s weak reign).
The victory at Agincourt on the 25 October 1415 was achieved despite the numerically superior French army. Estimates suggest the English force was made up of between 6,000 and 9,000 men with anywhere between 12,000 and 36,000 on the French side. Of the English army some five out of six were longbow archers and the remaining were dismounted knights or men-at-arms in heavy armour. The French comprised 10,000 knights and men-at-arms with the rest being infantry, crossbowmen and archers.
Casualties were as little as 112 on the English side dead with an unknown number of wounded. French casualties were dramatically higher – up to 10,000 (mostly killed) and around 1,500 noble prisoners. History has largely assigned the English victory to the success of the longbow, saying it decimated the French ranks. The longbow, seen as major advance in military techology in the early 15th century, was a significant factor but recent research suggests that thousands of the French men simply died from drowning or being crushed in the mud of the fields around Agincourt Castle.
Below is an article I wrote on the heroic propaganda value Shakespeare’s Henry V history play had in the 20th century. I wrote the article in 1997 while studying a module on Shakespeare at university (lecturer: Sheila Longdin).
The twentieth century should be remembered as the bloodiest century the world has ever known. From the Boar War to the Balkans, the century was one long procession of death and terror. A vehicle used to propagate many of the wars during the century – or at least those involving the English – has been Shakespeare’s history play Henry V. Its storyline of war, of the King of England invading and winning French lands and rights, has “unlimited scope for the kind of spectacle and violent action demanded by popular audiences,” and makes it ideal for heroic propaganda purposes. (Quinn, 1969: 12).
At the start of the century, a production during the Boar War (a conflict between the British and the white Boers in South Africa, then a British colony) had King Henry heroically, though somewhat unrealistically, leaping in full armour over the walls of Harfleur to capture the Governor and town – Harfleur being a battle that preceded Agincourt. This early 20th century production set the tone for many to follow, including Laurence Olivier’s wartime film version in 1944 and Kenneth Brannagh’s big screen production in 1989.
In this essay I will use the text of Henry V to highlight many of the images of war, heroism and masculinity that has made the play so ideal for 20th century war propaganda.
Henry V is the story of a young English king and his claim to the throne of France. His religious leaders tell him that he has the God-given right to the French throne, as well as that of England, and this allows the King to act in the name of God. Henry at first seems uncertain of his rights and he wants to be sure of his claim to the French crown. He asks the Archbishop of Canterbury: “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” – to which Canterbury is reassuring: “The sin upon my head, dred sovereign!” (I, 2, 95-98). The churchman – the highest in the land – then invokes an image of death to inspire Henry: “Forage in the blood of French nobility,” and further urges the King to invoke the spirit of his dead ancestors in his noble and just cause. (I, 2, 102-112). Henry accepts the advice of Canterbury but has shown wisdom, as J. H. Walter points out, by displaying the foresight to ask the right questions. (Walter, 1969: 141).
Portrait of Henry V of England
With resolve and renewed confidence Henry now faces the future and his destiny in France and, when the French Dauphin mocks him with a gift of tennis balls, Henry is strong and confident enough to promise revenge for the imsult. He speaks of creating many a widow “and of the yet ungotten and unborn / That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.” (I, 2, 281-288).
Before Henry sets sail for France he must first take care of a plot within his own Court. At this point Henry’s merciful and magnanimous nature is demonstrated as he shows mercy to an offender – blaming his indiscretions merely on an excess of wine. This draws out a remark from one of three conspirators against the King – still unknown at this point in the play but soon to be exposed. Lord Scroops asks of the King:
That’s mercy, but too much security; / Let him be punish’d, sovereign, lest example / Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind. (II, 2, 44).
This desire for a lack of mercy on the part of Scroop backfires when he, the Earl of Cambridge, and Sir Thomas Grey are exposed. The three, stricken with terror, ask for the King’s mercy – only now to be told:
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy / For you own reasons turn into your bossoms, / As dogs upon their masters, worrying you. / See you, my princes and my noble peers, / These English monsters! (II, 2, 79-85).
Having shown his capacity for mercy previously, he is now unforgiving and deals with the three conspirators harshly. The conspirators dealt with, the English now move into France through Calais and then onto Harfleur. Here they attack the fortress and we see King Henry in his element – at the front of his army inspiring them on with eloquent and heroic speeches.
The English army has attacked Harfleur and is in action around its walls when Henry – astride horseback – rides into the heart of his army to make one of the best speeches he has in Shakespeare’s play. Full of vivid imagery, it begins “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close up the walls with our English dead!” (III, 1, 1-2). Henry is at once inspiring, threatening and, above all, kingly. His words inspire courage in his army, many who will be feeling trepidation and fear at the impending battles with the French:
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, / Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage / Then lend the eye a terrible aspect. (III, 1, 7-9).
He invokes images of warlike ancestors and of great war leaders:
On, on, you noblest English! / Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof; / Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, / Have in these parts from morn till even fought, / and sheath’d their swords for lack of argument. (III, 1, 17-21).
He inspires his men with pride:
The mettle of your pasture; lest us swear / That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not; / For there is none of you so mean and base / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. / I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, / Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot; / Follow your spirit; and upon this charge / Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’ (III, 1, 27-34).
In Laurence Olivier’s film version, Henry is on horseback while making this dramatic and rousing speech, his sword raised above his head, his free hand steering his mount in circles to meet the gaze of his enthralled soldiers all around him. His army greet his rallying cry with lustre and great cheering while Henry’s faithful Captain Llewellyn encourages with the back of his sword those not inspired unto the breach once more.
For Olivier, making his film in 1944 – at the very moment of British and Allied armies were fighting on French soil – this scene has remarkable propaganda power and meaning. Productions invariably reflect the time in which they were made. In one production of Henry V, during the reign of King George III, the wording was changed to flatter the monarch. The last line of Henry’s Harfleur speech was changed to “Cry ‘God for Henry! England and King George’!”
King Henry could easily take Harfleur with force, but again he shows his charitable spirit when he offers the Governor of the town a chance to surrender. However, he does this from a position of power and confidence in his army to succeed and the Governor knows this all too well. In the film version made by Kenneth Brannagh in 1989, with Brannagh himself as Henry, the Governor stands on the walls of Harfleur above the main gates, with Henry on horseback some distance in front of the gates. The King has his army poised around him and his nobles by his side. He begins with a warning:
This is the last parle we will admit; / Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves; / Or like to men proud of destruction defy us to our worst.
He makes it clear that if he strikes again he will not stop “Till in her ashes she lies buried.” He warns that if this happens his army will show no mercy, even to “Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.” He summons up crude and violent images of “naked infants spitted upon pikes” and of “Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughterman.” (III, 3, 1-43).
Faced with such power, the Governor has no choice to submit to Henry’s wishes and he admits that reinforcements are not on the way, and says to Henry:
We yield our town and lives to thy soft mercy. / Enter our gates; dispose of us and ours; / For we are no longer defensible. (III, 3, 44-49).
In the Brannagh version, the king sighs with relief at not having to carry out his threats, and tells Lord Exeter to enter Harfleur, but to show mercy.
After Harfleur the English army regroups and a scene ensues in which Henry’s friend from his younger days – and from the two plays entitled Henry IV – Bardolph is hanged for stealing from a church. Bardolph and his friends, Pistol and Nym, are used in the play to represent the less noble character of the English army. At Harfleur they tried to resist the need to fight, only to be forced on by Llewellyn. Pistol seems to be using the campaigns for his own ends – so that he can return to England and boast of his wars with the King.
The scene of Bardolph’s execution is passed over in Olivier’s film – which could perhaps do without images of dissent and cowardice in the ranks when the country was at war. Brannagh has no such concerns and uses the scene very well. He has Henry riding onto the scene just as Bardolph is being hanged and has the King watching the situation with dismay but with an inability to intervene and prevent the death of his old friend. Henry’s friendship with Bardolph cannot influence him in war. He has to set an example and he remarks:
We would have all such offenders so cut off; / and we give express charge that in our / marches through the country there be nothing / compelled from the village, nothing taken but / paid for, none of the French upbraided or / abused in disdainful language; for when lenity / and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler / gamester is the soonest winner. (III, 6, 116-123).
Henry is no longer Bardolph’s drinking buddy in the Boar’s Head. He is King and must show that he is King and that his authority must be upheld and respected. Henry’s unwillingness to act to save Bardolph does not mean that he does not feel for his old friend. Indeed, the King shows care and thought for his men’s welfare and is fearful for their well being.
Henry demonstrates his ordinary thoughts and concerns in a scene before the decisive battle at Agincourt when he has left his nobles and wanders around the camp. In the darkness he goes uncrecognised, and has a conversation with several ordinary soldiers and reflects to them:
For, though I speak it to you, I think the King / is but a man, as I am; the violet smells to him / as it doth to me; all his senses have but human / conditions; his ceremonies laid by, / in his naked-ness he appears but a man; and though his / affections are higher mounted than ours, yet / when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing. / Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, / his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as / ours are: yet in reason, no man should possess / him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by / showing it, should dishearten his army. (IV, 1, 105-118).
Despite his majesterial image of kingship, Henry is but a man like others and shares the doubts and fears of the ordinary soldier as to what is to come in the morning. The ordinary soldier, as an individual, fears that he will not see the end of the day to come, but Henry has the dilemma of thinking this of his entire army, but is unable to express such worries for fear of appearing weak.
Henry knows his army is far smaller than the French army but has to install confidence in his soldiers and nobles despite this fact. As they prepare for battle, the Earl of Westmoreland despairs:
O! that we now had here / But one ten thousand of those men in England / That do no work to-day. (IV, 3, 16-18)
Henry quickly contradicts him:
“The fewer men, the greater the share of honour. / God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.” (IV, 3, 22-23).
He continues, using the fact that the day is St Crispin’s Day:
He that outlives this day, and comes safely home, / Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d, / 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 he will strip his sleeve and show his scars, / And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day,’ (IV, 3, 41-48).
Henry is telling his men that they are about to make history, that their names will live forever, and that he would consider any person fighting with him as his brother:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; but 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. (IV, 3, 60-67).
At Agincourt, the use of the longbow causes massive losses on the French side, while ensuring relatively few in the English army. The French, seeing defeat approaching, attack the camp of the English – brutally killing women and childen, including the boy who had accompanied Pistol, Bardolph and Nym to France. This outrages Henry who, in the Olivier film, vents his anger by riding into the battle, sword drawn and inflamed with anger.
Henry has led his army to victory despite being outnumbered by five to one. The English had been dismissed as a “poor, starved band whose feeble appetite for battle will be crushed by the mere appearance of the French host,” but the army and King had proved their mettle in battle. (Winny, 1978: 201). Many productions underplay the significance of Agincourt because of the belief that one of the armies was “a paper force which a puff of wind will dispense.” Even Olivier’s production does not dwell on the English victory. “The outcome of the battle seems to confirm that a paper army is in the field” – it is simply assigned to the wrong nationality. (Winny, 1978: 201).
The French herald, Mountjoy, rides to the English camp in humble defeat:
I come to thee for charitable licence, / That we may wander o’er this bloody field / To book our dead, and then to bury them; / To sort out nobles from our common men; / For many of our princes – woe the while! / Lie drown’d and soak’d in mercenary blood. (IV, 7, 75-80).
He continues, “The day is yours.” (IV, 7, 90).
Henry responds by asking what is the name of the castle in the distance. “They call it Agincourt,” says Mountjoy, to which Henry says “Then call we this field of Agincourt, / Fought on the day of Crispin Cirspianus.” (IV, 7, 93-95). King Henry has shown that his army and his people can find the courage and morale to fight even when facing an apparent hopeless situation.
Portrait of Charles VI of France
Henry’s task in France was complete, he had succeeded in gaining the French lands and rights and won the hand of the King’s daughter, Katherine. Henry had also succeeded in putting his past into mere history. His impetuous youth seemed far behind him. However, all his achievements were short-lived, as Chorus explains in the closing lines of Henry V:
This star of England; Fortune made his sword, / By which the world’s best garden he achiev’d, / and Of it left his son imperial lord. / Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King / Of France and England, did this king succeed; / Whose sate so many had the managing, / That they lost France and made his England bleed. (V, 2, 408-416).
King Henry died in 1422, possibly of dysentery, at the Château de Vincennes in France. He was 35 and had been King for only nine years. He was succeeded by his son , who became King Henry VI. The young heir was only nine months old when he inherited the throne. He also inherited the French throne shortly after when Charles VI – his grandfather and his father’s foe at Agincourt – died. Henry VI inherited the continuing Hundred Years War with France and despite his father’s marriage into the French royal family, his reign over France was disputed. In 1445 Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou, the niece of Charles VI. Hopes that this would restore peace between the two nations failed and by 1453 he had lost all English possessions in France except for the port of Calais.
Henry had a mental breakdown and this allowed Richard, Duke of York, to seize control of the Government as regent for a year before Henry recovered. However, Henry’s time away from the throne had increased the dynastic ambitions of Richard of York and the War of the Roses ensued between the forces of Richard and Henry. Henry was captured and imprisoned by Richard in 1460 and, despite being rescued by forces loyal to his wife Margaret, he was deposed as King in 1461 following the victory at Towton by Richard’s son, who then became King Edward IV.
Margaret’s forces continued to resist the new King and Edward IV himself was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1465. Henry was restored to the throne but by 1471 fortunes reversed again and Edward retook power and Henry was now the prisoner in the Tower. Henry died in the Tower in May 1471, possibly killed on the orders of Edward. He was 49.
Despite his troubled and twice fractured reign, Henry VI was informally regarded as a martyr and a saint until the 16th century. He also left a real lasting legacy of educational institutions, including Eton College, King’s College Cambridge and All Souls College Oxford.
Quinn, Michael (1969), Shakespeare’s Henry V – A Selection of Critical Essays, Macmillan.
Shakespeare, William, Henry V (refrences: act, scene, lines).
Walter, J. H. (1969), in Quinn, Michael (1969), Shakespeare’s Henry V – A Selection of Critical Essays, Macmillan.
Winny, J. (1978), The Player King – A Theme of Shakespeare’s Histories, Chatto and Windus.