If you said ‘the English’ or ‘King Henry V’ then full marks. If you said ‘we did’ then please go to the bottom of the class. ‘We’ did no such thing. That battle took place 600 years ago and ‘we’ probably have about as much DNA in common now with the English and Welsh soldiers who fought on the English side as we do with the French.
The battle was fought by English and Welsh soldiers and bowmen, but we nearly all now have Scottish and Irish blood running in our veins along with the English and/or Welsh, and probably a good mix of lots of blood from other nationalities. We may, some of us, be descended from those people but we aren’t them and their victory isn’t ours. It isn’t even our nation’s victory because our nation has changed so much over the last six centuries. England is now just a sub set of a much larger country.
Our monarch isn’t even a direct descendent of Henry V. She has no direct connection to his family. Edward I is an ancestor of both the Queen and Henry V, but her lineage doesn’t become ‘Royal’ again in an English sense until Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle Of Bosworth in 1485 and one of his daughters married James IV of Scotland, through whom she is descended from Edward I. The English ‘royal’ lineage is then broken again on the death of James I (VI of Scotland) and doesn’t return until George I, his great grandson through his daughter Elizabeth Stewart. I am probably more closely related to Henry V than our Queen and so are you.
What our forefathers did is not something for which we can claim credit. ‘We’ didn’t win the Battle Of Agincourt, a long dead army won it. The same can be said for the defeat of the Spanish Armada, to which I will return later, or the Battle Of Waterloo, the First World War and the Second World War. My grandfather fought in the First World War and my father fought in the second, but their victories aren’t my victory. ‘We’ didn’t win those wars, they did.
The Battle Of Agincourt is often portrayed as one of England’s finest hours, but what was the truth of the matter?
Following a lull in the war lasting several years Henry decided once again to press his claim to the French throne and hired an army to go with him to France. He had no trouble hiring soldiers as one of the ways for a poor man to become a rich man in those days was to be on the winning side in a battle. But this was no honourable war to bring an end to the rule of a despot or to liberate Christians from pagans or anything like that. It was a war to increase Henry’s power and make him and others richer. If you think that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a capitalistic war then the Hundred Years War can be viewed in much the same way. I’ll return to that idea of capitalistic warfare a little later.
The average man or woman in the streets of England wouldn’t benefit from the war by a single penny. In fact it could only cost them as the money needed to raise and pay for an army came through taxation, in 1414 the tax rate was doubled to pay for the war. But the profits didn’t go back to the people after it was all over. It went into the pockets of the King and lords and some trickled into the pockets of the rank and file soldiers.
There can be little argument that Henry and his army got lucky. Depleted by disease and weakened by hunger, after the siege of Harfleur had taken longer than anticipated, Henry decided to go on a flag waving march across northern France rather than just going home. With poor October weather hampering them and hunger and disease rampant in his army this was not a good idea. Henry was trying to reach the safety of Calais, an English stronghold at the time and he would be able to face the French on his own terms and gain some sort of credit for what was otherwise a failed expedition.
The French had other ideas and steered the English army away from Calais, pinning them on the wrong side of the River Somme. Henry faced the French at Agincourt not because he wanted to but because he had to and it was chance that led him to the perfect battleground, from the English point of view. The muddy conditions and encroaching forest on either side meant the French couldn’t fight on horseback as they wished and had to trudge through the mud in full armour. If he had met the French on their terms the English would probably have been annihilated. OK, he wasn’t the first commander to benefit from luck and he probably won’t be the last, but that doesn’t make him a great strategist. It could even be argued that he was a poor strategists for having got himself into such a fix in the first place.
What is rarely mentioned is that Henry ordered a major atrocity. Fearful that prisoners taken during the first French attack might turn on their captors and try to re-join the French army he ordered that the prisoners should be killed when the French began their second attack. This was unheard of. In those days prisoners were worth a lot of money in ransom; leaving out the pure inhumanity of such an act, killing such valuable prizes was unthinkable at the time.
What is also not mentioned is that the English would be kicked out of the whole of France (with the exception of Calais) in 1437, only eighteen years after Agincourt. Therefore it wasn’t even the decisive battle of the Hundred Years War. It meant that the Hundred Years War ended with a French victory. Having won the battle the English eventually lost the war. You didn't think we actually won it, did you? You might well have done because events after Agincourt are rarely mentioned by those who celebrate that victory.
In terms of ships lost it was a far greater victory for the Spanish than the English victory over the Spanish Armada. The Spanish Armada lost only five ships to actual combat. They scuttled ten and a further twenty were lost in the storms that dispersed the Armada after the Battle of Gravelines. By contrast, the following year, the English Armada lost forty ships sunk or captured, ten of which were to Spanish naval fire.
So why do we not hear about the English Armada? Well, for a start Shakespeare didn’t write a play about it or make references to it in his other plays. He was writing at the time of Queen Elizabeth and he would have been likely to lose a lot of favour had he made any such embarrassing references.
The expedition was also a capitalist venture. It was floated as a joint stock company. Elizabeth I put up a quarter of the money, the Dutch one eighth and the remainder was put up by various wealthy or noble (in the aristocratic meaning of the word) investors. The investors were hoping to make a profit from the war, so it was hardly a noble endeavour.
So when will we start hearing people saying ‘we’ lost the English Armada right after they say that ‘we’ defeated the Spanish Armada?
The disaster occurred because of a confusing message was sent by the British Commander, Lord Raglan, to the commander of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan, to prevent the Russians from removing naval guns from captured British fortifications. When asked by Cardigan which guns he was supposed to protect the dispatch rider, Captain Louis Nolan, pointed to the Russian guns in the valley in front of them, not even aware that from his position Cardigan couldn't see the correct guns.
We remember the charge because of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem. It kept it in the public mind and instead of being seen for what it was, a military debacle, it became synonymous with the bravery of the soldiers who charged the guns. I’m not disputing their bravery, only pointing out that we remember the charge for the wrong reasons.
Of course these claims of victory by association aren’t unique to battles or wars. It rears its head every time football is discussed. You can’t stand in a pub for long before overhearing some overweight bloke in a replica football strip saying, with all confidence, that ‘we’ beat so-and-so last time ‘we’ played them, as though he had personally scored the winning goal. No mate. You were in the stands, not on the field. Even worse, you might not have even been in the stands, you might have watched the match on telly. You beat no one. A team of footballers, or rugby players or cricketers beat another team of footballers etc. When the victory is claimed by the supporters they are misappropriating the efforts of others, just as ‘we’ misappropriate the victories of long dead soldiers.
So, when you talk about history and say ‘we’ did this or ‘we’ did that please ask yourself, do you really mean ‘we’? And if you are talking only of the victories, do remember that ‘we’ also suffered a great many defeats. 'We' lost the Hundred Years War. ‘We’ lost the first Iberian campaign in 1808. ‘We’ lost the American War of Independence. ‘We’ lost the War of 1812. I’m sure there are many others that ‘we’ also lost, but as we are only reminded about the victories they are sometimes hard to call to mind.
We must also remember that not all wars were fought for noble causes. I have already cited the English Armada as an example, but Britain started the Opium Wars so that British traders could sell opium to Chinese addicts and the Boer War was mainly about who controlled the wealth of diamonds and gold to be found in South Africa. Every colonial war fought was about stealing the natural resources of people who were unable to defend them. And then there was Iraq……
Next week I'll be taking a look at the thin line between protecting our privacy and maintaining our security.