From this day to the ending of the world,Henry V, Act IV, Scene III
But we in it shall be remember’d
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
I first became familiar with the Battle of Agincourt through Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. Not the play from which the above quote is pulled, but the 1989 film with Kenneth Branagh – featuring his moving rendition of that Saint Crispin’s Day speech. To this day, if I need to get pumped up for something (a test, a new job, etc) I’ll put on that scene. I defy anyone to not be stirred by Branagh’s rousing, pugnacious delivery. That said, Shakespeare’s account of Agincourt in the play is circumstantial. He doesn’t describe the battle in any way, but talks about the events leading up to it and after it.
The more recent film “The King” starring Timothée Chalamet as Henry also utilizes Shakespeare as source material, but then tries to pry in the pitched battle itself. It’s well done technically, though I feel it fails to properly depict the sheer scope of the Battle of Agincourt. The battle in “The King” feels like a romper-stomper featuring a few hundred men at arms and archers, where the actual battle pitted thousands against one another, and included at least 3000-5000 English archers (depending on the estimates you believe). It’s those estimates that largely feature as the subject in today’s book review.
Anne Curry’s 1415 Agincourt, A New History digs deep into those numbers, utilizing a variety of chronicles and first hand accounts, including the Gesta Henrici Quinti, Liber Metricus, Titus Livius, the Pseudo-Elmham, the Brut, the Religieux, and others. For an event that took place over 600 years ago, there’s a surprising amount of information about it. That said, the information is sometimes contradictory (as many historical chronicles tend to be). Maybe the French account differs from English account. Perhaps the author was viewing the battle from the rear where they couldn’t see so well, or maybe they were incited to exaggerate the facts in order to make one side or the other appear more valiant.
Curry pours over these accounts and does her best to distill them, to compare them to one another, and ultimately to pull out a likely truth. Some of these truths are almost certain, as various chroniclers might describe the same thing. Others are more obscured by time and the vagaries of the available accounts, so we’re left asking questions or making assumptions.
1415 Agincourt, A New History is a comprehensive analysis of the battle and not really a narrative of it. The author covers the political events leading up to Henry’s campaign in Normandy, dives into the Siege of Harfleur, and even dissects the activities that took place post-Agincourt – but she does so employing a scholarly approach. Curry does a good job of reaching her conclusions and that brings them real tangible credibility, but this sometimes makes for a more academic and ponderous read. I started this book in March of 2022 and only completed it in December. It took Henry less time to complete his whole campaign in France and sail back to England. There is a lot of data that’s examined, and it sometimes feels like the narrative is only a loose framework binding that data together.
But Curry pulls it all together like a bundle of loose threads that tighten up with a yank. In her concluding chapter, she writes “Henry had invaded France in 1415 as the son of a usurper and with his own title insecure. There was even a plot to kill him on the very day he had chosen for embarkation. Has he failed in France, his future in England would have been precarious. But he did not fail. He returned as God’s chosen king and warrior. He had proved himself.” Indeed, Henry’s obsession with France would only continue, as military expeditions continued to launch yearly through to the mid 15th century, enabled by this grand achievement near a little French commune called Agincourt on Saint Crispin’s Day in 1415.
1415 Agincourt, A New History is a fascinating and rewarding read for those willing to go once more unto the breach, and push through the demanding investigative nature of the text. The examination of the battle itself (which starts at about the halfway mark of this book) dives deep into the geography of the place, the timing of events, the logistics of how the English archers and their long-bows managed to sway the odds, and how the French seemed powerless to stop it. All of this is examined closely at a technical level – and regardless of the challenge, I couldn’t get enough.