Agincourt 600 Years in the National Conscious – Pt.5 – National Identity & Culture

The battle is over and now it’s time to frame the battle in regards to its cultural significance. Let’s first realise that the battle of Agincourt was part of a much larger struggle between the English and French crowns. The Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) was significant in that it spanned five generations of Kings and had the effect of solidifying the national identities of each nation as in opposition. Previous to this the identities of England and France were highly similar due to the capture of the English throne by William the Conqueror in 1066. These close ties were obliterated in the chaos of the Hundred Years War as it evolved from simply that of a claim on the French throne to a much more national struggle of one nation against another. In many ways, the framing of the Hundred Years War as a distinctly national struggle allowed the targeting of non-military targets so as to reduce the income and manpower available to each side. A letter written in 1355 by Sir John Wingfield, who served in the retinue of Edward the Black Prince (1330–76) bears witness to this idea:

It seems certain that since the war against the French king began, there has never been such destruction in a region as in this raid. For the countryside and towns which have been destroyed… produced more revenue for the king of France in aid of his war than half his kingdom… as I could prove from authentic documents found in various towns in the tax-collectors’ houses.

In the wake of Agincourt, Henry V, attempted to secure his place in history by making the day of the battle (October 25th) a national holiday. Confusingly this ended up being split across a range of Saints days (but that’s the Middle Ages for you). Similarly, the battle is well recorded in almost all the English Chronicles which tend to pose it in rather straightforward heroic terms. The battle was also commemorated in a series of Ballads (which is helpful as many of the commoners could not read) tending to favour the bowmen as the central figure. Examples of these include The English Bowman’s Glory and the Agincourt Carol.

The memory of the English victory at Agincourt against the odds is also picked up by the monarchy during periods of aggression with the French crown between 1475 and 1629. For example when Henry VIII led an expedition against the French crown Agincourt was invoked in a biography of the King that had made it happen. Although the situation in France had fallen firmly in the favour of the French, not the English, gaining control of the country the memory of Agincourt helped to reassure the English that not all was lost. As Agincourt Day fell out of favour during the Reformation as the Saints days were altered and further lost importance with the rise of the Stuarts to the English throne another, and probably the most famous, version of the story appeared.

In the 1590s England’s traditional enemy, France, had been supplanted by that of Spain. The threat of whom was considerable and the nation in a state of panic. Against the backdrop of the armada Shakespeare wrote and produced Henry V. In doing so he set up most of the ideas that are still central to the English national spirit. He converted the speeches he found in the Chronicles to patriotic poetry focussed on the common man’s ability to turn the tide of battle. He clearly demonstrated the underdog coming out on top and so fuelled the idea that little guy had a fighting chance at glory. His speech written for Henry on the eve of battle shows Henry as a man of his people, willing to stand and die with his “common band of brothers.” (See the speech here)

Skipping on quite a bit, the memory of Agincourt was not lost on those men fighting in the Trenches of World War One. The novel The Bowmen was written at a time when the BEF was falling back under the pressure of the initial German offensive at Mons, but the novel tells the story of how the British were aided by ghostly Bowmen in holding the Germans. Some believe that this novel and the idea of ghostly bowmen aiding the English may have created the legend of the Angels of Mons. (In case you don’t know of this find a brief video here)

Most significantly the battle of Agincourt was incorporated in Second World War Propaganda when Britain faced off against Nazi Germany alone after the fall of France. The Spirit of Agincourt, that the outnumbered and out armed forces of Henry could overcome their foes was an important parallel to the British Situation. Lawrence Olivier was asked to produce a version of Shakespeare’s play in 1944 in support of the D-Day landings. The film itself wasn’t shown until after this event but struck a chord with the British mentality at the time.

Whilst today Agincourt seems a distant event in a distant past, it has been a battle that has had a significant impact on the way the British see themselves as an Island Nation. The “happy few” triumphing over the many is a common piece of our mythology and it’s constantly invoked in our darkest hours. Whilst we may no longer war with France, or have any real interested in European territory the 25th of October 1415 has been significant in the development of a distinct national identity separate to that of the European mainland.

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