Henry V and the 'Battle That Made England'

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Author Juliet Barker discusses new history of Henry V and her book Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Agincourt is one of the most evocative names in English military history. Shakespeare's version of King Henry V's speech before the battle is not only great theater, but a scene summoned as recently as the Second World War to boost British morale.

When English and French forces lined up against each other on St. Crispin's Day in 1415, that famous band of brothers was exhausted, hungry, sick with dysentery, and vastly outnumbered.

And while the battle continues to echo through history, there remains a great deal of confusion about where it happened exactly, how the English pulled off their remarkable victory, even what day of the week it happened on.

Juliet Barker's new book, Agincourt: King Henry V and the Battle That Made England, addresses many of these questions. The author joins us now from the studios of the BBC in Leeds. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. JULIET BARKER (Author, Agincourt: King Henry V and the Battle That Made England): It's my pleasure.

CONAN: Your description of the two armies as they faced off before each other on the eve of battle is marvelously evocative. The disparity in the size and the shape, and particularly, we think of these knights in shining armor - literally, not quite so in the English case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARKER: Certainly not. They'd been tramping through the French countryside for 18 days, and they were starving, and they were sick, and they'd been under continuous rainfall - so much that the armor would've rusted and they wouldn't have had the chance to clean it up and polish it up and make it look sparkling again.

The main thing about the English army, though, is that there were only some 900 men-at-arms, the knights as we consider them, who were dressed from head to foot in plate armor. Over 5,000 men in the army - the rest of the army - were all archers, and that was what made the English army so unique, not only that they were employing archers who used the longbow - which was a weapon unique to England - but that there were so many of them and so few men-at-arms.

On the other hand, the French army was almost entirely composed of men-at-arms, and they were in their polished armor because they'd been rested, they were well fed. They hadn't had to tramp through the countryside.

So the odds seemed entirely in the French favor. The English were outnumbered by at least 4 to 1, and possible as many as 6 to 1.

CONAN: And the big difference, at least according to your account, was a difference in leadership. The English had Henry V - a seasoned, tough warrior -while the French king was, well, sitting, well, several miles away. He wasn't even there.

Ms. BARKER: Well, the problem with the French king was that he was mad. He thought he was made of glass, so he didn't dare sit down in case he broke. And that meant that for many years, people in the country had been fighting for power, and so there was this big split in the country between two factions, and everybody hated each other.

And although they all hated the English, they probably hated each other more. So they were all striving to take control of the battle and to be in charge, and they all wanted - as was the chivalric code of honor - to be in the front line.

And, of course, what they couldn't do was to decide who was going to lead them. So in the end, they took this very sort of fair, but really stupid decision that all the great princes of the army would be in the front lines, and all their men went to the back.

So, of course, when the front lines were overwhelmed by the English, the rest of the army was left completely leaderless. The big thing about Henry V was that he was not just a seasoned warrior, but he was also a really charismatic man and he was able to inspire his troops. And unlike many other monarchs, he actually fought there in person, and he was in the middle of that army. And his men knew that he would live and fight with them, or he would die with them.

CONAN: Juliet Barker, the author of Agincourt: King Henry V and the Battle That Made England. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Okay, Henry inspired his troops. Was his speech as good as Shakespeare has it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARKER: Well, my favorite contemporary chronicle account actually says that all he said was fellas, let's go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARKER: It's not quite the great Shakespearean speech. So we don't really know. He was a man of few words, so I think Shakespeare was probably embroidering a little there.

CONAN: Oh, it never happens in playwrights. The other interesting fact is that the rain that streaked the English armor with rust and caused their joints to seize up, well, that proved to be a pretty important factor in the battle.

Ms. BARKER: Absolutely, because what happened was that they were fighting on a plateau, which had been newly sown with winter wheat. And the rain had made the ground really, really soft and heavy, so that when the English drew up their battle lines - they were in a long, thin battle line.

But the French had masses and masses and masses of men all piled up behind each other, all wearing heavy armor. Their horsemen came pounding in from the sides, were driven off, and drove straight back over their men-at-arms who were advancing on foot.

And all these men-at-arms were tripping in the mud, and it was really difficult for them with the weight of their armor to lift their feet. And what happened was that it was like a crowd effect, that the people from behind were pushing to get forward, and they gradually pushed over the front lines. And there were literally more people who suffocated and drowned in the mud because they couldn't get up again than were actually killed by the English archers.

So it was a major factor in the success of the English at the battle. They had so few people clad in real - in the full armor - that they had an advantage in that they were lighter on their feet.

CONAN: One of the things that doesn't make it into Shakespeare's account is Henry V's order at one point in the battle to start killing prisoners.

Ms. BARKER: Oh, it does, actually. It is in Henry V, very much so. And he says that - Shakespeare says that it was because the French had killed the boys in the battleā€¦

CONAN: Oh, right. Yes, of course, yes. I'm sorry.

Ms. BARKER: Yes, that's okay. But what actually happened was that there was a French rally, and there were cries of (foreign language spoken) and people thought that there was going to be a rally and that the French were going to overwhelm them. Because they were so outnumbered, Henry V gave the order that all the prisoners should be killed.

Now there's much argument about how many could possibly have been killed. And obviously, if there was a major French rally, then he needed as many men as possible to fight against the French.

We know that some prisoners were killed, but we also know that the huge number of prisoners that the English took back to England with them means that the most of the French - noble prisoners, at least - survived the battle.

So it was probably exaggerated. We're not sure. It's a blot on his reputation as a humanitarian, but in terms of military discipline at the time, it was quite accepted. Nobody questioned that decision at the time. And in fact, the French actually blamed the people in their own ranks who'd caused the rally for causing the problem. They didn't blame Henry V at all.

CONAN: This battle devastated the great families of France, and one of the really interesting parts of your book is the descriptions of what happened to the women that they left behind.

Ms. BARKER: Absolutely extraordinary. You get women who lose all the men-folk from their family. You get whole families where grandfather, father, and sons are wiped out on the battlefield. And that meant that for many women, they were left with very young children. Some of them didn't know - because there were so many casualties, they couldn't find all the bodies and they couldn't identify them.

So many women, sometimes months and months after the battle, didn't know whether they were wives or widows because their husbands' bodies couldn't be found. That meant that they couldn't take control of the estates, they were in legal limbo, and it caused immense hardship.

There's one poor women who, seven months after the battle, didn't know still whether her husband had been killed or not, and she had seven young children to support. What was she supposed to do? And it's stories of individuals like that, I think, that really bring home the tragedy for the French.

CONAN: We just have a minute left with you. You describe this in your subtitle as the battle that made England, yet it was not very many years after that when French forces, inspired of Joan of Arc, took all of this land back.

Ms. BARKER: Yes, indeed. But the point is that Henry V, had he lived - Henry V only lived for seven more years after the battle of Agincourt, and the battle saved England in the sense that it prevented England tumbling into civil war for many decades.

And although the English lost most of the lands that they conquered after Agincourt, they hung onto them for 50 years, nearly. And that's at a time when they had a king who was Henry V's baby son, and that meant that the English were still loyal to him and that many Frenchmen also supported his claim to the throne.

So it's - in a sense it's the battle - it's more important that the battle kept England from being overwhelmed by civil war.

CONAN: Juliet Barker, thank you very much.

Ms. BARKER: Thank you.

CONAN: Juliet Barker's book is Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England. She joined us today from the BBC studios in Leeds. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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