‘He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.’ – Henry V
The Battle of Agincourt took place on 25 October 1415 and was a major English victory of the Hundred Years War. Over the course of 2015 many events will commemorate the battle – amongst them a Royal Armouries’ special exhibition at the Tower of London, which will explore the ‘the story, myths and legacy of this extraordinary battle’. A sumptuously illustrated book – the defining reassessment of arguably the most iconic military engagement of the medieval era – accompanies the exhibition. Join us on the YaleBooks blog as we celebrate Agincourt600 by sharing a selection of extracts from The Battle of Agincourt: ‘Agincourt Chivalry’, ‘Agincourt Weaponry’ and ‘Shakespeare’s Agincourt’.
This extract is taken from the chapter Chivalry, Piety and Conduct by Matthew Strickland
The culture of honour was also highly competitive; a man’s stock of respect and ‘worship’ needed to be continually replenished, above all by feats of arms in which valour could be displayed and measured. To lead the attack in a battle was a great honour, and at Agincourt, Edward, duke of York requested from King Henry the privilege of leading the vanguard, though so dangerous a command would soon cost him his life. It was customary to create new knights before a battle so that they would fight more bravely in order to prove their worth; 500 young French nobles were said to have been knighted on the eve of Agincourt. Those dubbed by chivalry, piety and conduct Boucicaut himself, including Philip, count of Nevers, would have been fully alive to the ‘associative honour’ of being knighted by so distinguished a chivalric figure.
Such powerful dictates of honour, however, did not always sit easily with military professionalism. The sound advice of the seasoned commanders Albret and Boucicaut that the English should not be engaged in battle as they marched between Harfleur and Calais was overruled because of the reproach and dishonour the French would suffer if they allowed an invader, who had captured Harfleur and laid waste the land, to pass unchallenged. On the battlefield itself, the fact that so many nobles vied for a place in the front ranks to gain greater honour gravely compromised the ability of the French leadership to command the army effectively once the vanguard was defeated.34 The Religieux of St Denis blamed the older nobles for allowing themselves to be swayed from wiser counsel by the young men, made rash and over-confident by their ‘own excessive ardour’. In particular he criticised the duke of Alen.on, who previously ‘had enjoyed a great reputation for wisdom’ but who, ‘carried away by a foolish passion and by an overwhelming desire to fight’, had left the main body of the army over which he had command and instead ‘had thrown himself boldly into the middle of the m.l.e’. Behind such criticism, however, we may glimpse the intense pressure that their cultural milieu exerted on men of such rank to demonstrate their martial prowess, to prove themselves as knights as well as dukes or counts, not least before such a great gathering of fellow princes and nobles, and in battle against the king of England himself. According to Le F.vre and Waurin, a group of eighteen French gentlemen led by Lauvelet de Masinguehem and Gaviot de Bournoville made a pact that they would cut their way through to King Henry and either knock the crown from his helmet or die in the attempt. The chance for such a feat of arms came but rarely: Henry’s death or capture would probably have proved a decisive moment in the battle and covered these knights with glory. One reportedly got close enough to damage the king’s crown with a blow, but all were killed. The actions of Anthony, duke of Brabant similarly reflect how tactical wisdom could be overcome by a pressing desire not to miss so great a battle. He had arrived in such haste that he left most of his men behind and, with so small a retinue, he was soon overwhelmed.