It’s one of English history’s most celebrated victories, a battle in which Henry V’s invading force toppled a numerically superior French army near Agincourt. With the help of Shakespeare and company, this triumph of the Hundred Years’ War has come to represent an ultimate battle against the odds.
The scale of the military upset is just one of the myths that will be redressed for visitors to the revamped ‘Azincourt 1415’ which opens on 17 September at the Centre Historique Médiéval in Azincourt in north-east France.
Professor Anne Curry of the University of Southampton, whose work focuses on the records for the English and French armies in 1415 at the battle, explains how when the museum first opened in 2001 it held to an “old-fashioned interpretation” that Henry V’s forces were outnumbered by as many as five to one. Professor Curry has worked with the Centre on the new exhibition.
“There had been a tendency to use printed works of the 16th century rather than returning to the sources that for the period itself, such as financial records of the Crown on both sides of the channel, or royal orders,” says Curry. Such sources can show us that Henry V set out with 12,000 paid soldiers, yet when counting the losses documented through sick lists and also the garrison left to defend the French port of Harfleur, the actual number of men available to Henry V for battle is closer to 8,500. French forces would have numbered around 12,000.
This is far cry from some chronicle sources which go as far as 120,000 for the French. “Just ridiculous figures,” says Curry. “Even figures of 20,000 are not sensible, because the French didn’t reach those sorts of levels until the very end of the 15th century.”
Curry doesn’t believe that these newer figures will upset visitors invested in the tale of English victory, though, being grounded in research by Curry and by Bertrand Schnerb, a professor of medieval history at the University of Lille. “There will be quite a lot more explanation of the armies,” she says. “We’ve got enough in the financial records, essentially the pay records, so we can actually be much firmer. We don’t have to rely on what a monk in St Albans wrote in the late 1410s, or what Edward Hall wrote in 1548, or what Shakespeare said in 1599.”
As well as offering a closer look at the scale of the battle, the new museum emphasises the divisions within France at the time amid a civil war between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs.
“It looks at the lack of unity which really does undermine the French efforts to get an army together,” says Curry. “The French would never have admitted that Achilles heel before. It’s been accompanied by a real desire to set [the battle] in the context of France in 1415.”
(Image by Azincourt 1415)
How to tell the story of a battle
So how does such an exhibition present a story of the battle and medieval life with few actual artefacts?
Visitors can expect to see a lot of modern museology techniques, says Curry, from replicas of medieval clothing, weapons and armour to details about contemporary kings and queens of France. “It’s quite an imaginative museum, and the whole emphasis is on making it welcoming. That might seem a little curious for an exhibition about a battle, but I think it is trying to stimulate and to make people feel they’ve had an exciting, interesting and also informative visit.
(Image by Azincourt 1415)
“They’ve made the chronicle accounts into newspapers, so you can sit and read what an Englishman was saying about the battle a few years later, or what Frenchmen were saying about the battle. There are also illuminated tables on which you can see the movements of armies and also hear commentaries and things of this sort.” All of the information is presented in French and English.
Another striking feature, Curry explains, is the presentation of the French dead. “It was once said 5,800 men died. If you just think what that means – 5,800 people died – it’s crazy. In fact, we’ve only been able to substantiate about 350 by name. They’ve got this marvellous, mud-like wall made out of imitation soil and they’ve put these names on it. It’s a very interesting way of showing it.”
(Image by Azincourt 1415)
The most important new approach, says Curry, is that the data used by ‘Azincourt 1415’ aims to underpin what society was like at the time. “Because Agincourt’s one of those situations, it’s taken completely out of context, it kind of speaks for all time, doesn’t it? Because every time Shakespeare’s play is performed, the battle’s refought. So, the museum is trying to look at what society was like at the time for ordinary people. It’s looking at things like health, at what the soldier ate. It’s looking at how they camped and what the march was like. It’s trying to set the battle much more in the realities of 1415.”
The inauguration of Azincourt 1415, le Moyen-Âge en 7 Vallées (Agincourt 1415, the Middle Ages in 7 Valleys), by Mme Brigitte Macron, took place at the Centre Historique Médiévalin Azincourt, France, on Thursday 29 August 2019. The new exhibition opens to the public on 17 September
Anne Curry is a professor of medieval history at the University of Southampton.