2015 was not only the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta but the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War. Like Magna Carta, the first example of an English monarch accepting limits on his power imposed by his subjects, Agincourt, a key English victory over France took on new significance as the centuries passed. Both Magna Carta and Agincourt became symbols of what it meant to be English, informing a developing national identity. In Agincourt, part of the Great Battles series, historian Anne Curry, author of Henry V: From Playboy Prince to Warrior King and co-author of Bosworth 1485: A Battlefield Rediscovered traces Agincourt’s cultural and political influence from the Hundred Years’ War to the present day.
The Battle of Agincourt took place in 1415, in the midst of a time of transition in English history and literature. King Henry V, the victor of the battle, and his father Henry IV conducted the business of state in English instead of the Norman French used by their predecessors since 1066. There was a growing middle English vernacular literature informed by the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, poet laureate during the reign of Henry V’s great-grandfather, Edward III. The decades long conflict with the French contributed to an emerging sense of English identity.
One of the key themes of Agincourt is separating the facts of the battle from the legends popularized by William Shakespeare’s play Henry V. The stirring St. Crispin’s day speech by Henry V in the play was treated as historical fact from the eighteenth century until the twentieth century and was reprinted in its entirety in The Times for the 500th anniversary of Agincourt in 1915.
As Britain’s Empire expanded over the course of the 19th century, the battle became synonymous with courage in times of adversity. The play was staged during times of military conflict and the famous 1944 film version starring Lawrence Olivier was informed by the Second World War. There was no French translation until 1999 and the play was unsurprisingly not as well received in France as it has been in the English speaking world.
The impact of Agincourt on nationalism continues to the present day. Although Wales was governed by England at the time of the battle, stories of the importance of Welsh archers to the victory over France contributed to modern Welsh national identity. In 1995, Baroness White of Rhymney, wrote to The Times that the victory over the French would not have been possible without “the 5,000 longbowmen, mainly from Gwent.” mid-21st century analysis of the surviving muster rolls, which reveal comparatively limited Welsh participation has done little to changes views of the significance of Agincourt in Wales.
The legacy of Agincourt spread throughout the English speaking world including Canada. In her discussion of the mythology of the battle, Curry discusses the legend of how the Toronto suburb of Agincourt received its name. In 1858, a general store owner in the area named John Hill needed financial support to expand his business and open a post office. A friend from Quebec agreed to invest on the condition that a French name was given to the settlement. Hill chose Agincourt because it was the only name fulfilling the conditions of the investment that was also acceptable to the English and Scottish residents of the community. Curry concludes that the story “may be apocryphal” but is one more example of the Battle of Agincourt’s enduring cultural influence.
Click here to purchase Agincourt: Great Battles Series by Anne Curry from Amazon.ca
Click here to purchase my book Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights from Amazon.ca
Next: Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution by David L. Preston
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