Shakespeare’s most patriotic and energetic history play begins
with the newly earnest young king seeking advice from the Archbishop
of Canterbury as to whether his claim to the crown of France is to
be religiously sanctioned. Having obtained the Church’s and his
nobles’ approval of a military campaign, the conference is interrupted
by a mocking gift of tennis balls sent by the arrogant Dauphin of France,
whose father the King is unable to fully control a bickering and divided
Beyond the courtly manoeuvring, we are also introduced to Bardolph,
Pistol and Nym, a group of working-class followers of Sir John Falstaff,
Henry’s former mentor. Despite arguing over women and money,
they undertake to join the king’s army at Southampton, where
Henry is able to foil the conspiracy of a trio of nobleman corrupted
by French bribes.
Once on French soil, the English army besieges the town of Harfleur,
which finally succumbs to Henry’s combination of rhetoric and
bombardment. While Henry shows his resolution by hanging his former
associate Bardolph for theft, an appalled and wrathful French court
decides to crush the now exhausted and retreating English forces.
On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, while the haughty French aristocrats
squabble over their horse and armour, Henry disguises himself as an
ordinary soldier and meets the men under his command – by turns
fearful, loyal and committed. It is the commitment of this ‘band
of brothers’ to their beloved king which helps turn the tide
of the battle in the face of overwhelming odds, and the French are
utterly routed. The King of France is forced to submit both his crown
and his daughter, and the play ends with Henry’s awkward yet
endearing wooing of the beautiful Princess Katherine.
THE BATTLE OF AGINCOURT
The famous Battle of Agincourt – a turning point in the Hundred
Years’ War – was fought on 25 October 1415 between Henry
V of England and a much larger force of French under a divided command.
Henry completely defeated the French, thus hastening the English conquest
of Normandy. Some 6,000 French died and hundreds, including the richest
nobles, were taken prisoner (one of these, Charles d’Orléans,
went on to produce some of the most beautiful lyric poetry in medieval
English). Henry gained France and the French princess Katherine of
Valois as his wife (after Henry’s early death – probably
from dysentery – Katherine married Owen Tudor, whose grandson
was the future Henry VII). The village of Agincourt (modern Azincourt)
is thirty miles south of Calais, in northern France.
The Battle Itself
Henry’s month-long siege of Harfleur had left his army (barely
1,000 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers) weakened by disease and hunger.
He attempted a chevauchée (raid through enemy territory) to
Calais, but was diverted by the French, and forced to cross the River
Somme. Henry proceeded parallel with the 25,000-strong French force
towards Agincourt, where he was finally brought to bay, initially deploying
his forces with archers at the flanks. The French leaders were so confident
of victory that they did not dispose their forces (some 10,000 men-at-arms,
with 15–20,000 supporting infantry) properly; most of the French
dismounted, abandoning wings of cavalry intended to charge and drive
off the archers. Henry seized the initiative by advancing into a narrow
gap between two woods, leaving the French unable to use their larger
forces. The English formed up in four ranks, with archers in front.
They then advanced, halted, and drove stakes into the ground to protect
themselves against the cavalry. The combined effect of archery, heavy
mud, and the row of stakes disorganised and foiled the packed cavalry,
but the French infantry continued to attack and engaged in hand-to-hand
fighting. This first line of French troops was defeated and the English
then advanced upon the second and third lines, driving the French from
Until recently, Agincourt has been feted as one of the greatest victories
in English military history. But in Agincourt: A New History (2005),
Anne Curry makes the claim that the scale of the English triumph at
Agincourt has been overstated for almost six centuries, and most egregiously
in Shakespeare’s play. According to her research, the French
still outnumbered the English and Welsh, but at worst only by a factor
of three to two (12,000 Frenchmen against 8,000 Englishmen).
According to Curry, the Battle of Agincourt was a ‘myth constructed
around Henry to build up his reputation as a king’. The primary
sources themselves generally do not agree on the numbers of the combatants
involved. For example, Enguerrand the Monstrelet, a chronicler writing
thirty-eight years after the battle, gave a number of 13,000 archers
and 2,000 men-at-arms for the English, while the French first and second
battalions plus the two mounted wings added up to 25,000 men. He does
not provide any numbers for the mounted reserve that made up the third
battalion, stating only that it ran away upon seeing the English victory
over the first and second.
Juliet Barker in Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle, claims
6,000 English and Welsh fought against 36,000 French, from a contemporary
heraldic source, which puts the French superiority in numbers at 6-1.
This is almost certainly an exaggeration: even Shakespeare puts the
odds at 5-1. The Encylopædia Britannica puts the English at 6,000
archers, 1,000 men-at-arms and ‘a few thousands of other foot’,
with the French outnumbering them by ‘at least four times’.
Other historians put the English numbers at 6,000 and the French numbers
at 20-30,000, which would also be consistent with the English being
outnumbered 4-1. Curry’s research is currently alone in putting
the odds at significantly less than this. In general, therefore, Henry’s
victory can be rightfully be seen as one of the most astonishing achievements
in the history of English warfare.
Fingering a Myth?
It has long been suggested that the famous ‘two-fingered salute’ or ‘V-sign’ derives
from the gestures of English archers fighting at Agincourt. The myth
claims that after previous battles, the French had cut two fingers
from the right hand of each captured bowman, and that at Agincourt
the English archers were gesturing their unmutilated fingers as a sign
However, the ‘two-fingered salute’ is almost certainly
older than Agincourt, appearing as it does in the Macclesfield Psalter
of c.1330 (in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), being made by a glove
in the psalter’s marginalia. We may also doubt the veracity of
this tenacious legend due to the fact that contemporary accounts of
the battle make no references to the French mutilating their prisoners
by cutting off fingers from their hands. In fact, the first definitive
known reference to the ‘V-sign’ in French is in the works
of François Rabelais, a sixteenth-century satirist.