When I was young, my father had an Edwardian children’s book on British history which had many gripping pictures: the Thin Red Line, Lucknow, Rorke’s Drift. One of the most affecting to my mind was a painting from 1884 by Sir John Gilbert: The Morning of Agincourt...
Banks of lowering cloud; swirling smoke from distant campfires; crows rising over the sodden forest; and the solemn demeanour of the English knights, hands held in prayer on their saddle pommels. The painting is constructed as a myth, which of course it is: good old Sir Thomas Erpingham standing shoulder to shoulder with the English yeomen. As Shakespeare said: “Gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here.” It’s one of the hoary old myths of the English state.
Son of a usurper, Henry V was new on the throne. He had already faced a Lollard rising which had reached London. A war of aggression deflected from domestic troubles. Easy to forget this when you watch Shakespeare’s play, so electrifyingly recreated on film by Laurence Olivier just before D-Day in 1944.
The story of English intervention on the continent goes far back in time, long before the Angevins and Plantagenets spent vast resources and countless lives prosecuting their claims in France. First, as far as I know, was Æthelstan, who provided ships and men to help his foster son Alan Twisted Beard regain the kingdom of Brittany from Viking occupiers. This was one of our more successful foreign interventions.
Later, of course, intervention became a matter of policy: stepping in whenever one continental European power – usually the French – became too powerful. The War of the Spanish Succession; the Seven Years’ War; the Napoleonic Wars; and then two world wars. Thank goodness for the European Union, I can only reflect!
Still carrying those childhood myths, I went to Agincourt long ago, one late sixties summer hitching back from Greece. Heading for Calais, just as Henry had done with his bedraggled English army that October 1415, I took a local train from Arras to Blangy sur Ternoise and then walked up the D 104, then just a pitted country road.
After a couple of miles I came to Maisoncelle where Henry camped the night before the battle, his army wet, hungry and plagued with dysentery. The battlefield is a mile beyond, just as described by an eyewitness in the chronicle Gesta Henrici Quinti, flanked by two woods, about a thousand yards apart – easy to imagine thick with autumn mud. Back in the sixties, there was a scruffy country crossroads where an old signpost showed Azincourt to the left, and Tramecourt to the right. There, a wooden cross stood over the grave pits with a weathered inscription commemorating members of the Tramecourt family lost in wars over the 500 years between St Crispin’s Day 1415 and Flanders fields in 1915.
Shakespeare must take some of the blame – or credit – for this particular myth, though he was recycling an earlier play, The Famous Victories of Henry V, loved by jingoistic Elizabethan audiences in another time of war. But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he never lets us go with only one viewpoint. Into the mouth of an ordinary soldier, Michael Williams, he puts one of his most famous speeches about the sorrow of war:
“But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make… I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it…”
These issues never go away, as many will recall who were at the memorable National Theatre production of Henry V after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when at half time the audience berated foreign secretary Jack Straw about the fateful decision to go to war. Something to remember, perhaps, this year on 25 October?
Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester.