Henry V and Agincourt
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The hero king
Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III will remain for all time in popular imagination the kings conceived by Shakespeare. We may explain, we may criticise, we may demonstrate anything we like as logically as we please, but Shakespeare will remain convincing. Shakespeare elected to draw Henry V on traditional lines, and there is no character, certainly no male character, in all the plays in whom the great dramatist took a more unqualified delight. He is Shakespeare's "Happy Warrior," though we may find some difficulty in exactly appropriating Wordsworth's lines to him. Shakespeare's play is a panegyric of the hero king.
Nevertheless the historian is apt to resent such panegyrics, to suggest that the ambition of Henry V, like the wrath of Achilles, was the cause of woes unnumbered, and quite needlessly despatched to Hades many valiant souls of heroes.
Some historians go further and denounce in Henry a type of false ideals, honoured only by reason of the deceptive glamour which attends the achievement of brilliant feats of arms; finding in him nothing better than a re-incarnation of Edward III. But in fact it is possible to admit that Shakespeare idealised his hero, and at the same time to realise that essentially much of the criticism is beside the mark.
Persecution of Lollardry
Of Henry's reign there are two prominent features, the persecution of Lollardry and the French war. Concerning the former Shakespeare has nothing to say but if we have read Henry correctly, both were the outcome of the same conviction, crystallised in Henry's mind when he became actually King of England, that he was an instrument in the hands of the Almighty.
Reigning in virtue of his father's usurpation of the throne, conscious that the throne had been won in defiance of legality, mere legality counted for very little in his eyes. The Almighty had set him on the throne of England because He had chosen him to accomplish His work. The work to be accomplished was for a mind of Henry's type promptly identified with the work which ambition suggested. France had fallen upon evil days and the iniquities of her rulers cried to Heaven. Henry was the instrument whereby those iniquities were to be punished; France was to be brought under a righteous rule, and then probably France and England led by one Christian king, were to turn their arms against the Turk drive him from Europe, and recover the Holy Land for Christendom.
As for legality, any colour of it would suffice for his purposes; though for form's sake some pretence of legal right had to be asserted. Here was the work of God's appointed champion, and the methods by which it must be carried out were those of statecraft and soldiership. Given the point of view there is little difficulty in understanding that from first to last Henry was perfectly satisfied as to the righteousness both of his ends and of his methods.
His persecution of Lollardry was an incidental necessity. It was the stern duty of God's champion to stamp out heresy; the persecution was not as with his father a mere political expedient for conciliating the Church. In carrying out his task the hand of Justice should be ruthless — but it should be the hand of Justice.
Critics have seen in Henry's French war mere wanton aggression inspired by the weakness of the neighbouring country; and a total lack of statesmanship, since the union of France and England as a single dominion, was wholly impracticable. It was in fact impracticable because it ran counter to the idea of nationalism, an insuperable natural dividing force or a force which at the present day seems to be insuperable, because we live at a time when nationalism dominates European politics. But nationalism had not dominated European politics at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
England, Scotland, and France had indeed developed the spirit of nationality, but the idea that nationalities, however diverse, could not be effectively combined in a single dominion, would have appealed to no medieval statesman; and it is somewhat absurd to deny statesmanship to a medieval monarch because he had not grasped the truth which half the chancellories of Europe were still unable to recognise four hundred years afterwards.
Only a hundred years before, Edward I had made with regard to Scotland the same mistake which Henry made with regard to France; and English historians at least are not in the habit of denying the name of statesman to Edward I.
Henry's attack on Lollardry is apt to escape attention chiefly because it was systematic, brief, and effective. His father had merely allowed the churchmen to strike down a few insignificant persons. Lollardry in high places was winked at. The new king struck at once at Lord Cobham, the one peer who had identified himself with the new doctrines.
Cobham was tried, condemned, and thrown into prison. He broke prison and escaped into hiding. His escape was immediately followed by a wild plot on the part of the Lollards, who planned an insurrection. The young king got wind of the plot and effected a night surprise of the mustering rebels, of whom thirty-seven were promptly hanged.
It was immediately realised that the law against heresy would be enforced with vigour, and the voices of the Lollards were practically silenced, although it was not till some time later that Cobham himself was captured for the second time, and died a martyr.
But the Crown of France was the great prize which Henry had set himself to win. That country was rent by the two factions of the Orleanists and Burgundians. Each during the last reign had sought the help of the King of England by promising the restitution of provinces in France. Some inadequate help had been given first to one and then to the other.
But Henry V had no idea of being satisfied with what one party or the other would surrender as the price of his support. Before he had been a year on the throne he put forward the old claim of the King of England to the Crown of France; though this was made ridiculous by the fact that the law of succession on which that claim was based would have placed on the French throne, not Henry, but his cousin the Earl of March.
However, he professed himself willing to withdraw that claim if France ceded to him something more than all the territories ever held in France by any Plantagenet, together with the hand of the French princess Catherine. In return the French government made very extensive proffers; but they could not have baulked Henry by anything short of taking him at his word, and con-ceding the whole of his alternative demand — which was obviously out of the question. He had made it simply because he knew that to concede it was out of the question. He rejected the French terms, and announced solemnly that the responsibility for what was to follow lay with France.
Meanwhile parliament had endorsed the king's designs by making a very substantial grant. There was no difficulty in raising forces, for the war was popular. Nothing was to be feared from Scotland, since Albany and his supporters were afraid of having King James returned on their hands if they offended the King of England, while their enemies were afraid that the captive monarch would be made to pay the penalty if they attacked England.
In Wales, though Glendower was still alive, he had now ceased to be dangerous; so Henry had a clear field for his French operations. He could even count on the loyalty of the young Earl of March; and so long as that was the case conspiracies against the Lancastrian dynasty could not constitute a serious danger.
Such a conspiracy was, however, actually formed by Richard, Earl of Cambridge, brother of the Duke of York of whom mention was made in the last-reign when he was Earl of Rutland - the son of the old Duke Edmund of York the uncle of Richard II. Richard of Cambridge had married Anne Mortimer, sister of the Earl of March, so that as it happened the Mortimer claim to the Crown ultimately passed to his own offspring.
March, however, on being invited to join the plot, which without his approval was bound to come to nothing, refused, and carried the matter to the king; and the conspirators were seized, tried by their peers, and executed.
A week later Henry's army of invasion set sail from Southampton, and immediately, sat down to besiege Harfleur. Henry had no idea of miscellaneous raiding. With a military instinct far superior to that of his predecessors, he aimed at a systematic war of conquest; of bringing the land into his obedience piecemeal.
He anticipated a war of sieges; but he did not anticipate stout resistance, because Burgundy was half disposed in his favour and would certainly lend no appreciable help to the Orleanists with whom the Dauphin Louis had thrown in his lot. After a three weeks' siege Harfleur surrendered.
Henry's army, however, had suffered very severely, not from fighting, but from disease. Though no attempt had been made to relieve Harfleur, the Dauphin and Orleans had collected a considerable force, and it was clear that Henry, after garrisoning Harfleur, would have an army quite inadequate to carrying out his original programme.
The obvious course in the circumstances was to make Harfleur secure and withdraw the rest of the army to England; but Henry resolved that instead of simply embarking his troops he would march through Normandy to Calais. The motive is not clear. Probably he reckoned on winning prestige for himself and bringing discredit on the French government by making the. march unmolested. He may have had with him, at the highest estimate, eight thousand men, five-sixths of the force being archers, and many of these must have been suffering from sickness.
The Battle of Agincourt
Something very like the Crecy record was repeated. The French army, though very much larger, did not attempt to force a battle, but endeavoured to prevent the passage of the Somme. But when this was effected at an unguarded spot, Orleans felt that he must strike. The march had given time for large French reinforcements to come up, and on the night of October 24th the English found their advance blocked by the French masses.
On the day of battle the English were formed very much as at Crecy; the French also were dismounted, and in three masses, one behind the other, since the ground did not permit of an extended front or of a flank movement. On their front, however, were two squadrons of horse, who were intended to charge upon the archers. Between the two armies lay heavy plough land. Neither at first would advance to the attack, but Henry knew that he must force a battle or perish. The English line began to move forward.
But the French would no longer be restrained. The cavalry attempted to charge, the French van rolling on behind them. But the archers were prepared with an improvised palisade of pointed stakes. They halted, thrust these into the soft ground, and from behind them began to pour forth their arrows on the advancing masses. The cavalry were rolled over; the heavy armed infantry pressing forward were flung into confusion. The English archers and men-at-arms fell upon them, hewed them down, and hurled themselves upon the second line, which in turn broke and scattered after a brief resistance. The third line was seized with panic.
Massacre of the prisoners
A report that the French force had fallen upon the English baggage and was threatening the rear caused the order to be given that every man was to slay his prisoners; an order which it is possible to condone, seeing that the prisoners were at least as numerous as the captors. But the result was a tremendous slaughter.
The French slain outnumbered the entire English force, and among them were fifteen hundred nobles or knights. It seems practically certain that of the English not more than six score were killed all told: York and Suffolk were the only noblemen. Henry continued his march to Calais, and was received in London with a wild burst of enthusiasm.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.