Agincourt: 25 October 1415
25 October 2015 marks the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, where King Henry V of England won a famous victory over the French army. October’s Book of the Month looks at Worth’s copy of Thomas Goodwin’s The History of the Reign of Henry the Fifth to commemorate this anniversary.
‘At break of day the King of England, arm’d all over but his Head, heard Mass, which was thrice celebrated; then calling for his Helmet, on which for his Crest he had a Crown of Gold fram’d after the Imperial fashion, he mounted his Horse, and silently without Sound of Trumpet drew his Men out of their Intrenchments into a fair large Plain which had been newly sown with Wheat, where Sir Thomas Erpingham, an old experience’d Soldier, by the King’s Directions and Order, dispos’d ‘em in this manner. He chose a Place in the Field, near Agincourt, which was cover’d by a Hill spread with Trees and thick Bushes; and before this he drew up the Army, that, having such a Defence behind, they might be secur’d from being surrounded and oppress’d by Number. The Flanks were guarded by Woods on both sides, in one of which the King ambush’d a strong Body of Horse, with Orders to assault the Enemy in the Rear, when the Battel was join’d, which they successfully perform’d. A Battalion of Archers was plac’d in the Van commanded by the Duke of York, which Station, as a Place of most Danger and Honour, he had desir’d: and behind him was the Main Battel with King Henry at the head of it, attended by his Brother the Duke of Glocester, the Earl Marshal, the Earl of Oxford, and Young Suffolk, whose Father dy’d at the Siege of Harfleur. In the Van of Archers with the Duke of York were the Lords Beaumont, Willoughby, and Stanhope; and in the Wings the Horse were drawn up. The Rear, consisting of Archers, and such as were arm’d with Spears, Halberds and Bills, was led by the Duke of Exeter; the Archers, clad only in Wastcoats; their Arms were long Bows, Arrows, a Sword, Battel-Ax, and Dagger hanging by their Side. Some of ‘em wore Caps of Leather; others had ‘em made of Ozier, with an Iron Cross on the top. King Henry had four Standards, one of the Trinity, another of St. George, the third of St. Edward, and in the fourth were display’d the Arms of England.’
So begins Thomas Goodwin’s account of the battle of Agincourt. Goodwin, the son of the President of Magdalen College, Oxford, of the same name, was responsible for compiling an account, not only of the famous battle but also of the reign of Henry V. In his ‘Nine Books’ he sought to cover all aspects of the reign but undoubtedly Henry’s successful military career in France ran like a backbone through the work. Goodwin provides us with a blow by blow account of the action, including Henry’s famous speech to the troops before engagement with the enemy. Heavily outnumbered and in a desperate situation, Henry V and his army managed to turn what looked like an inevitable defeat into one of the most astounding military victories of the age. Faced with an enemy at least three times the size of his own army, better equipped, and led by the flower of the French nobility, Henry still managed to win the field. Like the last of the Plantagenets, King Richard III, he wore his crown into battle as a mark of defiance (and, indeed, as a tactical measure), willingly using himself as a bait so that his archers (his secret weapon), might more easily accomplish their task.
It was a resounding victory but was not without controversy. Undoubtedly one of the most controversial events during the battle was Henry V’s decision to order the execution of his French prisoners. Goodwin’s account makes it plain that this was a decision based on a perceived military threat:
‘These rational fears forc’d him upon an Action, which, being equally contrary to his Merciful Nature, and to the Generosity of his Courage, he could not resolve without the greatest regret: He commanded all the Prisoners to be kill’d, and the Soldiers being unwilling to do it, because they should be depriv’d of the expected price of their Ransom, he gave Commission to a Gentleman, accompany’d by two hundred Archers, to execute his Orders, which, tho in appearance Bloody and Barbarous, were render’d necessary by the extremity of his Affairs. He then order’d the Soldiers to prepare for another Battle, who, tho weary’d with fighting three hours, and many of ‘em wounded, readily obey’d…’
At the time the decision was taken Henry had defeated two of the three ‘battles’ of the French army but the third, under the counts of Marle and Fauquembergue, were preparing for further conflict. Even so, it seems likely that the soldiers’ unwillingness to undertake the order to kill their French prisoners was not only because they would lose money by doing it but also because the order fell far short of any chivalric ideal of warfare. Indeed, it could only be justified by Henry (and his apologists) by the fact that the French army had already unfurled their oriflamme, a banner which meant that no mercy would be given in battle.
That Goodwin was writing with an eye on the present (and future) as much as the past is clearly seen in his dedication of the volume to John, Lord Cutts (1661-1707). Cutts, a veteran of the Boyne and later Blenheim, was, in the eyes of Goodwin, cut of the same cloth as Henry V. As he says in his dedication: ‘Your Sword is drawn against the same Enemy, and You are fighting with equal Bravery against the Posterity of those whom our Ancestors fought and conquer’d. Our Black Prince’s and Fifth Henry’s Wars are now no longer acted only on our Theaters, but are reviv’d in the Field too, where to pursue Victory thro Bullets and Fire, to take the most fortif’d Towns Sword in Hand, and stand fearless in the midst of Dangers, which we cannot hear without trembling, is become a familiar Practice to Your Lordship…’ John, Lord Cutts, had played an important role in the military campaigns of the War of the Spanish Succession: his foolhardy capture of the Fort St Michael at Venloo in 1702 played an important role in the fall of Venloo to the allies. He would later fight with Marlborough at the battle of Blenheim in 1704 – and it seems likely that Goodwin’s account of Henry V (published in the same year) was written against the backdrop of the early eighteenth-century campaign against Louis XIV.
Well, researched, Goodwin’s account not only investigated the printed sources of his day but also demonstrated his wide forays into the available manuscript material about Henry V. As the image above makes clear, Goodwin was keen to draw attention to his sources, not only by referencing them in the margins of the work but also by providing readers with a list of the principal sources used by him. In this Goodwin was following in the footsteps of earlier seventeenth-century antiquarians. He cast his net far and wide, including a host of continental sources, many of them French accounts, to embue his history with an added veracity. As he said himself: ‘I have attempted to set a great Example of Heroick Vertue, in as fair and just a Light as I could; and for the Defects in the Stile and Composure, I have endeavou’d to make amends by the faithfulness of my Narrative, attested not only by Historians of known repute, but by the greater Authority of the Records of the Nation, and Manuscripts of the Cotton and other Librarys’.
Allmand, Christopher, Henry V (Yale University Press: 1997).
Allmand, Christopher ‘Writing History in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Goodwin’s The History of the Reign of Henry the Fifth (1704)’, in Dodd, Gwilym (York Medieval Press, 2013), pp. 273-288.
Goodwin, Thomas, The History of the Reign of Henry the Fifth (London, 1704).
Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library.