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The truth about Agincourt

Challenging the myths around the famous battle of Agincourt

12 May 2016

To mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, Research Highlights talks to some of our historians who are challenging the myths around this famous battle.

The Battle of Agincourt took place on 25 October 1415 in modern-day Azincourt in northern France. Henry V led his troops to an unexpected victory to defeat the French and make his claim to the throne of France. Much of what we remember about Agincourt comes from Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, but how much of this is based on fact?

Anne Curry, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Southampton, is one of the world’s leading experts on the Battle of Agincourt. In her most recent research, published in her latest book, Great Battles Agincourt, Anne has traced the legacy of Agincourt from 1415 to 2015, using a wide range of sources, from newspapers and depictions of Agincourt in literature to films. To mark the 600th anniversary, the University also ran a two-week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), led by Anne, which enabled participants to explore the myths and realities of the battle.

“Agincourt typified the struggle of little England against the world and heroism, particularly of the common man. For example, Dickens wrote that we won because of the ‘good, stout archers’ who were fighting against the French aristocrats and it has become tied up in the national identity of Britishness,” says Anne.

Shakespeare’s Henry V has been very powerful, she explains. “The image of the battle that people have in their minds is Shakespeare’s Agincourt, and this has affected our written culture ever since.” The battle of Agincourt was initially not well known, but wars with France brought it into the public consciousness, Anne explains; in the first and second world wars, speeches from the play were used to boost the troops’ morale. “We tend to get caught up in the Shakespearean idea of Henry as a warrior king and forget the fact that the battle happened on the back of a failed campaign; Henry was intercepted at Agincourt on the way home after a siege and was fortunately able to redeem this situation through victory in the battle,” says Anne.

This is a very exciting time to be studying Agincourt and to have shed light on some of the myths around the battle. The University of Southampton has become a hub of research on Agincourt and there are many more secrets to uncover.

Anne Curry - Professor of Medieval History

Enduring myths

The prestige around the name ‘Agincourt’ has led to its use in some unexpected places. “Families thought they would get credibility if they were linked to Agincourt, and this had led to many spurious claims about people’s ancestors being at the battle,” says Anne. This started in the late 16th century, when people started to incorporate the motto ‘Agincourt’ into their coats of arms. Through her research on sources such as muster rolls and financial records of the campaign, Anne has created a database of a large number of people who were involved in the campaign, which enables these claims to be verified.

Agincourt also lends its name to towns in South Africa and Iowa in the US, beachside apartments in Australia, a ship and a racecourse, to name but a few. Other battles in history haven’t seen this attachment with the name, explains Anne, and this popularity is largely because of Shakespeare. “When the battle started being commemorated in newspapers from 1757, it was speeches from Shakespeare that they printed rather than anything from the period itself,” says Anne.

The ‘V’ sign has been attributed to the battle of Agincourt: legend has it that the French threatened to cut off the English archers’ fingers, so in defiance they held them up in a ‘V’ sign. “This is a nice story but there is no record of this from the time of the battle so it is almost certainly a 20th century urban myth,” says Anne.

It is wrongly thought that the bulk of Henry V’s army was Welsh. “From the muster rolls, we know the names of the 500 Welsh archers and the few men-at-arms who accompanied them. I suggest there were a total of 8,500 British men on the campaign, so the Welsh only made up a small proportion.”

Dr Rémy Ambühl, a lecturer in medieval history, has examined around 100 contracts for the ransom of prisoners during Agincourt, which show that a wide spectrum of society, rather than just knights, were held for ransom after the battle. “This questions the idea of the famous massacre at the end of the battle: the massacre, if it took place, was not discriminatory; greater soldiers were not spared at the expense of the lower ranks,” he says.

The army and the fleet

It is widely claimed that the French army outnumbered the English by five to one, but Anne’s research questions this. “The French couldn’t have had the size of army that is claimed. This is just out of context for medieval history and if you look at the battle site, so many troops simply wouldn’t have fit into the space.” In her previous research, Anne has suggested that the English had 8,500 troops and the French had around 12,000. “This has been controversial because people are very attached to the notion that the French vastly outnumbered the English,” she adds.

The fleet of ships that took Henry V’s soldiers across the English Channel has long been thought to number around 1,500 foreign vessels. Southampton historian Dr Craig Lambert’s research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, suggests there were far fewer – around 700 ships – and that they were mainly English ships. Craig examined issue rolls from the National Archives, which record money issued by the exchequer. From these records, he worked out that Henry was hiring ships at a rate of three shillings, four pence per tonne and that he hired around 250 foreign ships, as well as requisitioning around 400 vessels from English merchants. “It was previously thought that most of Henry’s fleet consisted of foreign ships, but we have shown that the larger proportion was actually English, says Craig, who has also confirmed a theory that Henry had around 50 ships to protect the transport fleet as it crossed the Channel.

“This is a very exciting time to be studying Agincourt and to have shed light on some of the myths around the battle,” says Anne. “The University of Southampton has become a hub of research on Agincourt and there are many more secrets to uncover.”

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