Henry V’s victory over the French could have changed the course of history, if he hadn’t died at the age of 34

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day

Pat MurphyEven if you’re not a Shakespeare buff, the chances are that you recognize at least snatches of the above, taken from the king’s pre-battle speech in the play Henry V. And while Shakespeare did indeed have a way with words and a fertile imagination, the event to which it refers was very real. Fought in northern France over 600 years ago – October 25, 1415 – the Battle of Agincourt is one of the most famous military victories in English history.

First, though, let’s back up a little.

The 1066 Norman Conquest had a profound effect on England. In addition to introducing a new French ruling class and important legal concepts like primogeniture (whereby land ownership was transmitted to a single male heir), the Conquest changed England’s external orientation. Rather than looking across the North Sea to Scandinavia, the focus would now be cross-Channel to France. Because the new rulers had extensive prior holdings there – almost half of modern France at one point – protecting those possessions became a primary objective.

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But it wasn’t an easy task. Although initially weak in resources and puny in size, the rival Capetian kingdom of France had large territorial ambitions, plus the patience to play the long game. By the early 1400s, only Gascony on France’s western seaboard and the port of Calais remained in English hands.

Then, adding spice to the mix, there was the matter of a claim on the French throne. When the Capetian dynasty died out in 1328, one of the potential heirs was Edward III of England, based on the fact that his grandfather had been Philippe IV of France. So when Edward’s great-grandson, Henry V, took to the field at Agincourt, it was in ostensible pursuit of this claim. As he saw it, his “just rights and inheritances” meant that he should be king of France as well as king of England.

By any reasonable expectation, Agincourt should have been a disaster for Henry. Severely outnumbered and running low on supplies, his tired, wet army had been on a three-week march when it was intercepted by a substantially larger, well-provisioned French force. The historian Juliet Barker describes the English as “trapped and desperate men, who knew that only a miracle could save them from death,” further adding the pungent observation that “Grim though the sight of them must have been, the smell was probably worse.”

Henry, however, was an experienced and adaptable commander. Unable to lure the French into making the first move, he repositioned his army within longbow range, placing it between two woods and thus forcing the French to crowd together when they attempted to come to grips.

And coming to grips was something the French felt compelled to do once Henry’s longbows let loose on them. Comprising about 80 per cent of his force, the archers inflicted immense damage, firing an estimated one thousand arrows per second.

Put simply, it was a death trap. Funnelled into a condensed space and assailed by volleys of arrows, the armour-plated Frenchmen who trudged through the mud to reach the English lines were promptly set upon with poleaxes, hammers and knives. And their numerical superiority actually worked against them, as follow-on waves floundered on the corpses of their fallen comrades.

By 1420, Henry’s campaign for his “just rights and inheritances” seemed to be on the verge of success. Courtesy of the Treaty of Troyes, he was given the French king’s daughter’s hand in marriage and recognized as the legitimate heir to the French throne, only to prematurely die two years later at the age of 34. And while his son was subsequently proclaimed Henry VI of England and Henri II of France, the latter part didn’t stick.

What if Henry had lived? Would the French throne have been a poisoned chalice, or would his undoubted talent and force of will have pulled it off, thus perhaps changing the European future? History is full of such imponderables.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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