Henry V leads the original “Band of Brothers” to a bloody triumph against all odds on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with meShall 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.”
The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which the Immortal Bard places in the mouth of his hero, King Henry V of England, is one of the great battle speeches in literature. Though likely Shakespeare’s own invention, it brilliantly portrays a young, inspiring commander attempting to hearten his starving and dispirited soldiers, in desperate straights as the face battle against (seemingly) hopeless odds. Whatever (if anything) Henry may have actually said that fateful morning in October is lost to history. But what is not lost is how he, and his tiny force of desperate men, stood firmly on the muddy field of Agincourt and defeated five-times their number, which included the flower of French chivalry.
Henry V (center), and as portrayed by Lawrence Olivier (L) and Kennth Branagh
Soon after coming to the throne in 1413, the 26 year old Henry proclaimed his intention to renew the century-old Plantagenet claim to the crown of France, the original casus belli for the Hundred Years War, which had lain dormant for a generation. This was a particularly audacious move, in that France had defeated the English and largely driven them from France in the previous century; and were widely considered a much stronger kingdom. However, the King of France at this time, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness (a trait he would perhaps pass on to his grandson, Henry VI of England). As often when the monarch is weak or infirm, powerful nobles had maneuvered to fill the power vacuum the king’s incapacity created. Factions had come to blows, and France was a nation whose nobility were divided against each other.
Henry, whose own claim to the English throne was questionable (his father had usurped the crown from his weak cousin, King Richard II), understood that nothing so unites a nation like a foreign war and a common enemy. The glorious victories of Edward III and the Black Prince sixty-and-more years earlier were hardly forgotten; and many an Englishman of all classes in society had benefitted from the pillage brought off from frequent campaigns across the Channel during their campaigns in France. What Henry needed to cement the loyalty of his subjects was success in battle against the hated French; and to gain a reputation as a warrior king.
Map depicting area of Henry’s 1415 campaign; from the estimable Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt”
On 11 August, 1415 Henry crossed to Normandy to begin a grand raid across northern France, following the same strategy Edward III and others had used before. However, a short and successful raid was not in the cards. Henry’s first target, the port town of Harfleur, at the mouth of the River Seine, held out for much longer than expected. By the time the town was stormed, on September 22, it was too late in the season to exploit the gain. The delay had also allowed the outraged nobles of France to assemble a large army near Rouen, under the command of the greatest magnates in the realm. These were marching north to punish Henry for his effrontery.
Henry’s army lost precious time besieging Harfleur.
Merely embarking his army and returning to England would do little to improve his reputation, and might well be seen as cowardly; potentially fatal to a young king seated insecurely on an ill-gotten throne. So, instead, Henry decided to extend the campaign with a raid through Picardy; perhaps consciously following in the footsteps of Edward III and his Crecy campaign of 1346. Defiantly marching through northern France, he could end this chevauchée at the sanctuary of English-held Calais; the only lasting fruit of Edward III’s great victory of Crecy.
As with any Medieval armies which sat down in one place too long, Henry’s army at Harfleur was racked by dysentery. So it was a sick and slow English force that set out, marching through a largely bare and (with winter approaching) an increasingly wet countryside. The English soon discovered that a dauntingly-large army, led by the greatest lords of France, were following close on their heals and looking to bring them to battle. Worse, arriving at the River Somme, Henry found his way across blocked by a second French force of several thousand on the opposite bank; looking to block his crossing and trap him on the western bank.
This was exactly the same situation his great grandfather had faced almost 70 years earlier. At risk of being hammered against the river by the pursuing French main army, Henry marched upriver; seeking an unopposed crossing point. All the time, the blocking force across the river shadowed his march, prepared to stop any attempt to cross. However, at a bend in the river, one that bulged northeast for many miles, Henry was able to cut across the base while the blocking force had to travel around the outside circumference. This allowed the English to find a crossing place unopposed.
However, this delay in getting across the Somme allowed Henry’s pursuers to cross down river and join the blocking force. The French, now north of Henry, moved to cut him off from Calais and force him to battle. The English halted near the castle of Agincourt, not far from where the French sat across their line of march. Here, the terrain narrowed between two woods; offering Henry a place where his smaller army could fight with both their flanks secure. The English camped and prepared for battle.