King Henry V and Agincourt
England's Greatest Three Hours?
by Max Keen
Max Keen, in true form full of energy and drama and amid much applause, entered the hall in full 15th century armour. Despite the restricted vision and hearing from his bascinet and visor, he managed to get to the front of the room narrowly avoiding everybody and everything. Once safely there, he removed the helmet with a clear sense of relief and with much enthusiasm described the function of the pieces of armour. The helmet was followed by the chainmail coif, cuirass (breastplate) and gauntlets, but Max remained in splendid character as he talked about how the various weapons were used to get through the ‘chinks’ in armour; some of it doesn’t bear thinking about!. The war hammer, a brutal weapon with spikes fore and aft and a particularly long one rising from the top was demonstrated and images of skulls from battle victims brought this home, one image being of Richard III’s skull with the infamous hole in the top of it.
The common foot soldiers and archers were not so well protected!
Henry was born in the tower above the gatehouse of Monmouth in 1386, the son of Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), and Mary de Bohun. He was pious, loved literature and music, and spoke Latin, French and English. When his father took the crown, young Henry was elevated to Prince of Wales at the age of 13, he was forced to engage in battle and led his own army into Wales when the Welsh revolted under Owain Glyndŵr then and joined forces with his father to fight at the battle of Shrewsbury in1403. He was given command of the entire Royal left wing (at the age of 16), and in an astonishing attacking move saved the day.
Henry succeeded his father in 1413, and turned his attention to regaining possessions in France, playing on the civil strife in France. After dubious attempts at diplomacy, the invasion and Agincourt campaign began. The port of Harfleur, fell after a lengthy siege, and the English armies marched to Calais, crossed the Somme, and met the French factions at Agincourt on 25 October 1415. The French were disorganized with factions turning up late and the terrain muddy from rain. Henry had made use of the battle site; woods situated on either side of the narrow field hid his archers and would funnel French down towards the English. He ordered the advance – a stroke of military courage & genius which caught the French off guard. An arrow storm began, the English archers firing at the French flanks as they struggled through the mud. This barrage forced the French to bunch up so they couldn’t use their swords and war hammers. The English archers then pitched in, killing French footmen and taking the knights as hostages. Many were taken and a French group of peasants, along with three knights, tried to free their countrymen – so Henry ordering that all the hostages be killed; thus died the flower of French nobility (the French did the same to 1000 English prisoners). It was a staggering defeat for the French – against all of the odds – and Henry returned to England to great acclaim!
From July 1417, Henry maintained his army in France through sophisticated systems of supply and command and by June 1419, controlled the vast majority of Normandy. The Treaty of Troyes was signed on the 21st May 1420; Charles VI remained king while Henry married his daughter Katherine and was designated as his heir – barring the Dauphin from the throne.
In 1422, while campaigning against the Dauphin, Henry contracted (possibly) dysentery and died.
Max finally and with great gusto and in Kenneth Branagh form (but louder) re-enacted the St Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s "Henry V" – we few, we happy few – to the cheers and applause of the audience.