Saturday, 1 November 2008

The Battle of Agincourt: Once more unto the breach


The Battle of Agincourt took place almost 600 years ago – and historians have been fighting about it ever since. So was this our finest hour, or a source of national shame? Jerome Taylor investigates

Saturday, 1 November 2008



The English armoured cavalry takes on the French at the Battle of Agincourt

It began on St Crispin's Day. The battle over the Battle of Agincourt kicked off exactly one week ago when the Centre Historique Médiéval, a museum in the centre of Agincourt, France, hosted what was described as a "revisionist conference" marking the 593rd anniversary of a clash that – on this side of the Channel at least – has come to symbolise English heroism. Little did the museum know that the lecture would spark a vicious war of words between academics, and throw French and English sentiments once more unto the breach.

The first volley was inadvertently loosed by the museum's director. According to British reports, Christophe Gilliot announced that the English at Agincourt had been responsible for "war crimes" and that the true size of the French army defeated there by England's archers has been hugely exaggerated over the past 600 years.

The museum's 27-year-old director had referred to the decision by England's King Henry V's to execute thousands of French prisonersduring the course of thebattle. "At the very least, the English forcesacted dishonourably," M. Gilliot was reported as saying. "The Middle Ages were a very violent time, of course, but some might accuse the English of acting like what might now be called war criminals."

The reaction from the English was swift and brutal. The subsequent media storm provoked outrage as historians and columnists lined up to accuse M. Gilliot of pro-French bias and of unfairly describing a horrendously violent medieval battle in modern-day terms.

"It is ridiculous for French historians to use the language of human rights when describing medieval warfare," sputtered the historian Andrew Roberts. One columnist suggested that describing Henry V's actions as "war crimes" would be like accusing the Romans of animalwelfare abuses in the Coliseum.

But now the French are fighting back. Speaking to The Independent yesterday, M. Gilliot denied saying Henry V was a war criminal and claimed his comments on Agincourt had been taken entirely out of context. "I was very surprised and upset by the English reaction," he said. "For a start this was not a big conference of French academics. The most famous person there was the mayor of Agincourt."

"Secondly I never once used the phrase "crime de guerre" (war crime). As a historian, I cannotpossibly compare medieval warfare to modern combat – that would be ridiculous. All I was saying was that, like all medieval battles of the time, Agincourt was extremely violent, and many French prisoners were executed by the English."

But whatever might have been lost in translation, M. Gilliot's comments, and the fury they provoked, have once again revealed how, almost 600 years on, the Battle of Agincourt is still an enormously emotive issue.

Whether it is Kenneth Branagh's rousing rendition of Henry V's "St Crispin's" speech in his 1989 adaptation of Shakespeare, or the new historical novel on Agincourt by Sharpe author Bernard Cornwell, the Battle of Agincourt fascinates us like no other medieval campaign.

Fought in knee-high mud on the morning of 25 October 1415, it is to this day regarded by many as one of the greatest battles in British military history. Agincourt was glorified by Shakespeare as the moment when a feckless Henry V became a true king as he led his exhausted army to victory, and evokes images ofstalwart English bravery against seemingly impossible odds.

English historical sources have long described the battle, fought in a narrow strip of land between the villages of Azincourt and Tramecourt, north west France, as a military masterstroke.

Exhausted by their month-long siege of Harfleur and ravaged by dysentery, Henry V's bedraggled army of English nobles and local mercenaries were forced to fight a much larger French army which had intercepted them on their way to Calais. Contemporary English sources describe the enemy as 10 times the size of Henry's forces – which had none of the heavy cavalry that the French nobles possessed.

Undeterred by the odds, Henry deployed on his flanks 5,000 longbow archers and waited for the French to attack. But squashed between the woods and unable to outflank the English, when the French finally did launch their assault they were undone by the long range of the archers' bows. It was the first time that cheaply trained archers, armed with little more than a single pieceof flexible yew, were able to bring down knights on horseback in such great numbers..

But Agincourt and many of the tactics used by Henry V during his many campaigns in northern France, were as brutal as they were remarkable and pose a problem for contemporary historians trying to understand his motives.

During the latter stages of theBattle of Agincourt, Henry V gave the order to slaughter hundreds (possibly thousands) of French prisoners who had been taken captive, and who would have been worth much more had they been kept alive and subsequently ransomed.

"The idea of Henry V acting like a war criminal comes up time and time again," says Dr Craig Taylor, a senior lecturer at York University and an expert on the Hundred Years War. "But no serious historian would view his decision to kill the French prisoners in those terms. From a moral point of view, Henry V clearly did things that in modern terms would be entirely unacceptable, but which were an entirely acceptable part of medieval warfare."

Those who would defend Henry's reputation point to contemporary French and English sources which all described the young monarch'sdecision to execute the prisoners but did not criticise him for doing so.

Most historians agree that the massacre was carried out in the afternoon, following a French counter-attack on the baggage train that had looked like it might succeed. Concerned that the French might break through the English lines and liberate their own soldiers, Henry ordered the execution of all the captives.

Some historians even argue that Henry had the right to put his captives to the sword. The French regarded the English army as a rebel army, not a foreign invasion, and were therefore flying the "Oriflamme" – a blood red banner flown from the lance which told the enemy that no quarter would begiven to them if they were captured.

Concerned that the massacre of the prisoners would reflect poorly on his heroic Henry V, Shakespeare justified the slaughter by inventing a story that French nobles had killed a boy on the baggage train whom Henry was friends with.

"It's important to remember that no sources from the time, including the French sources, criticise Henry's decision to kill the prisoners," says Dr Taylor. "It's only when we fast-forward a century, when the rules of war were becoming clearer, that we see Shakespeare has a problem with it and therefore concocts the storyof the killed boy."

And separately, a growing number of academics are starting to question exactly how much larger the French forces in fact were.

M. Gilliot, meanwhile, is concerned that the misrepresentation of his views risks damaging his museum's reputation. "We have a very good relationship with English academics," he said. "I'm very upset at the way I have been portrayed. Historians must only be interested in the facts. It is not our job to moralise."

Agincourt: The myth of the V-sign

*Popularised in the 20th century by Churchill, legend has it that the V-sign traces its origins to the Hundred Years War. Popular folklore states that the French promised to cut off the first two fingers of any English longbowmen they captured so that they would never be able to pull back the strings of their bows. The bowmen would taunt their French adversaries by holding their healthily attached fingers high in the air. The problem, however, is that the story is almost certainly nothing more than an urban myth. No contemporary sources mention the V-sign.

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