Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Famous Anniversary

I love history, although I'm not a particular fan of military history--with two notable exceptions.

I've studied two battles with great interest and mark their anniversaries each year: March 6, 1836--the day the Alamo fell
(I am a Texan after all)--and October 25, 1415--the day the Battle of Agincourt was fought.

Today is the 592nd anniversary of Agincourt. This battle between the armies of England's King Henry V and France's Charles VI was a part of the Hundred Years' War.

Henry had invaded northern France in August, 1415. After two months of a long siege and many losses, he decided to travel northeast toward the port of Calais, which was held by the English, before winter set in.

The French army under the command of the Constable Charles d'Albret forced Henry due east toward Agincourt. According to Wikipedia, "[t]he English had very little food, had marched 260 miles in two-and-a-half weeks, were suffering from sickness such as dysentery, and faced large numbers of experienced, well equipped Frenchmen."

At Agincourt, the English army, which numbered about 7,000, found themselves facing a French army of at least 21,000 (some estimates are that there were as many as 36,000 Frenchmen).

The battle was fought on a narrow strip of open land between two woods. The French blocked Henry's way north to Calais. Heavy rains the night before had left the recently plowed ground muddy, making it difficult for the soldiers to move about.

Henry had his men drive pointed stakes into the ground on either side of the open area so that the points faced each other across the 750-foot field. He placed his archers behind these "palings" as the stakes were called. The intent was to prevent the French horsemen from trampling his archers, who carried the now well-known English longbows.

Both French and English accounts tell of the stirring speech Henry gave his badly outnumbered men the night before the battle. Shakespeare immortalized that speech in his play Henry V. In it, Henry uses the famous words, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

I'm going to stop here and share a video clip from the 1989 film Henry V, starring Kenneth Branagh. YouTube would not let me post it so you'll need to go here to see it. I suggest you watch the clip and then I'll tell you about the battle. Be sure to look behind the herald as he speaks to see the palings in the ground.

Remember that mud? The French were wearing heavy armor and found themselves weighed down by their full plate. The English were dressed in much lighter armor and were better able to manuever.

Accounts of the battle indicate that there were so many Frenchmen on the field that they couldn't move around or even wield their swords. Row after row crowded in on the men ahead of them. When the heavily armored French knights fell, they could not get up again. Reports from the battle indicate that a number of French nobles drowned in that sea of mud.

When the French cavalry charged at the archers, their horses were stabbed by the sharp points of the palings. The leaping horses simply churned up more mud. Wikipedia reports on one account that said "the panicking horses also galloped back through the advancing infantry, scattering them and trampling them down in their headlong flight."

The French, bogged down by the mud, made easy targets for the English longbow archers. The French Constable was killed in battle and his undisciplined troops were in such turmoil that their commanders were forced to surrender.

I've located another clip from the same film, in which Henry asks for the lists of the dead French and English. See it here. Once again, note the lines of palings on the sides of the battlefield. Wikipedia describes the use of palings at Agincourt as a battle-
field innovation.

While it makes a good story, most historians agree that Shakespeare overstated the French casualties while understating the English. Even so, most accounts agree that the English were outnumbered by between three and four to one, making their victory truly amazing.

So, today, I salute the brave men who fought at Agincourt--both English and French--and the remarkable courage that drove Henry into battle despite such overwhelming odds.


Alex said...

Branagh's "Henry V" is in one of my top three favorite movies ever, and the most chilling moment for me is the long tracking shot in the aftermath of the battle, when Branagh's Henry carries the "dead" Christian Bale to the corpse wagon accompanied by the choral arrangement of "Non Nobis" on the soundtrack. Not historical, perhaps, but awesome stuff nonetheless and it drives home the human cost of the victory.

Maya Reynolds said...

Alex: Then I'm glad I provided the link to your most chilling moment :)

The most chilling moment for me is when Henry says, "Here was a royal fellowship of death." I never hear it without shivering.



ScaramoucheX said...

I love the K Branagh, 'Henry V', but I have equal regard for the 'Henry V' directed by Laurence Olivier, in which he also starred.
Olivier did three around the same time, Henry and 'Hamlet' and 'Richard III'.
I find the Olivier's Henry V very stirring and fresh, even tho it was made in 1944. The production was done partly to stir the spirit of the English people, who were of course at war with Germany; maybe this real-world consideration pulled greater performances from all concerned.
I strongly recommend viewing, if you love Agincourt.
It's a truly great cinematic experience!

ScaramoucheX said...

I hope I'm not belaboring my pint, but it occurs to me also that the Olivier 'Henry' has an otherwordly charm that Branagh's lacks, tho Branagh is unparalled in his Shakespearean enthusiasms. Perhaps because the picture is so old, perhaps because Olivier as an actor had an ethereal quality on the screen, yet at the same time very unusual combination (I have that myself, so I well recognise it, lol).
It's a shame that the studio execs of the day (1944) didn't think the audiences would be willing to sit through a film true to Shakespeare's text; Branagh has had tremendous success w making film versions of the plays containing every single word Will himself included...Branagh's 4.5 hour 'Hamlet' is a marvel.

SmartlikeStreetcar said...

This was a wonderful way to start St. Crispin's Day. Thanks!

Maya Reynolds said...

Scaramouchex: Thanks for the referral. I'll check out Olivier's version.

I'm a huge Branagh fan. And I love movies that use the original Shakespearean text.

Maya Reynolds said...

Richard: Thank YOU.

Despite six years of Catholic schooling, St. Crispin and St. Stephen are two of the only saints whose days I actually remember :)