Every nation has its favourite tales from the past, but how accurate are they? On the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, Simon Jenkins, author of A Short History of England, casts a critical eye over British legends.
Events in history like the Norman conquest, the “Glorious Revolution” and the American revolution have become rooted in national myth. At the Battle of Agincourt, English forces defeated the numerically superior French. It is a victory that lives on in the popular imagination thanks to the speech delivered on the eve of battle by the monarch in William Shakespeare play Henry V. Actually, the truth can be a little different.
The Battle of Agincourt, 1415
Myth: England’s triumph
“For England, Harry and St George” ranks with Trafalgar and Waterloo in the annals of English arms. It was the climax of English success in the French wars. Henry V was recognised by the Burgundians and most of Europe as King of France. Ironically, he was the first who was believed not to have spoken French.
Henry returned to London to a hero’s welcome, with city aldermen coming to meet him at Blackheath and escorting him for five hours to London Bridge. Marrying the French Queen Catherine supposedly ended the 100 years’ war. But then it took five years for the French finally to capitulate at the treaty of Troyes (1420) and Henry to enter Paris in triumph. Worse, England was unable to hold in peace what it had won in war. Henry could not stay in Paris and keeping an army on mainland Europe was expensive.
In 1422 he succumbed to the battlefield curse of dysentery and the glittering new empire fell upon the shoulders of his 10-month-old son. A mere seven years after Agincourt, war broke out. Inevitablement.
Read Simon’s take on other ‘myths’ here great British ‘myths’.