My historical novel, The Agincourt Bride, focused on Catherine, youngest daughter of King Charles the Sixth of France and the princess so charmingly introduced by Shakespeare in the closing scenes of King Henry the Fifth. The trophy wife Henry wooed and won as the victor of the Battle of Agincourt, presenting himself as a plain-speaking, self-deprecating man at arms,
‘…whose face is not worth sun-burning. Take me, take a soldier. Take a soldier, take a King.’ (King Henry the Fifth, Act V Sc ii)
Well – take William Shakespeare, take a brilliant playwright but do not take an accurate historian. Will was a Tudor propagandist and a Francophobe, as all Englishmen of his period were and he had no respect for a timeline.
In my novel I looked at the Battle of Agincourt from a French perspective, showing it as not so much a glorious English victory as a self-inflicted French loss. Coincidentally it took place on the day before Princess Catherine’s fourteenth birthday, which fell on October 26th 1415. She would have been celebrating at the court in Paris when the dreadful news of the defeat was brought.
Catherine’s brother, the nineteen year old Dauphin Louis, had not fought at Agincourt because the Constable of France had persuaded him that his life was not worth risking in a conflict that was expected to be little more than a swift French demolition of an exhausted and demoralised English army. The numbers in the field justify this analysis – roughly six thousand English versus an estimated thirty thousand French. However, the Dauphin’s absence meant that the French cohorts were without royal leadership – an immensely important factor in medieval warfare. Their king, Charles VI, was unfit to fight; unfit to rule in fact because he was insane, suffering periodic and progressively worse fits of delusion, during which he imagined himself, among other things, to be made of glass.
This lack of a royal leader meant that the French forces were far from cohesive. The king’s illness had led to a disastrous political situation – an effectively vacant throne and loyalties split between two leading noble factions, the Burgundians and the Orleanists, who were constantly fighting each other for the control of France. The Duke of Burgundy, known ironically to his followers as Jean the Fearless, never actually brought his forces to Agincourt, although his brother did and died for his pains, and the twenty-one-year-old Duke of Orleans, who did fight, was taken prisoner and held in England for twenty-five years before being ransomed.
Many military historians credit the English victory to the superior firepower of Henry V’s carefully-recruited and rigorously-trained longbowmen, who could shoot up to fifteen armour-piercing arrows per minute – the medieval equivalent of a fusillade from a modern machine gun. These crack archers were paid the considerable sum of one groat (or four pence) per day and an extra two pence per battle and the king made sure they got it all in silver coins. One might imagine that just carrying their purses would have kept them fit – and they were fit! Strangely after their military losses at Crécy and Poitiers in the previous century, the French had not swapped their arbalesters, with their slow and clumsily reloaded crossbows, for the phenomenal human speed and strength of longbowmen; had they done so the result of the battle might have been very different.
The French called Agincourt ‘the death of chivalry’ due to the carnage inflicted on their proud and aristocratic cavalry, partly by the archers’ arrows and partly by the pointed stake each of them hammered into the ground ahead of him and hid with his body until it was too late for the first French cavalry charge to avoid. Their galloping horses were impaled, creating a gruesome barricade into which ensuing lines of French knights unknowingly charged. Those not killed by enemy fire were suffocated under the weight of heavily armoured and dying horses. Hardly a noble line escaped loss and some, like the ducal family of Bar, were completely wiped out.
Meanwhile the political situation in France disintegrated, along with the bemused and distraught teenage Dauphin, who shut himself away in his apartments, avoiding affairs of state. Arguably he could be considered a casualty of Agincourt as much as those who died on the battlefield, although the cause of his death two months later is not clear and nor is that of his brother Jean in 1417. But their demise and the absence of the Duke of Orleans, imprisoned in an English castle, were further reasons why Henry V found it relatively easy to conquer northern France over the ensuing years. The French were leaderless and rudderless, hopelessly sunk in a morass of corruption and bickering, as fatal politically as the quagmire of mud and blood that had killed so many on the field of Agincourt.
However, it was five years before any peace treaty could be concluded, not a few days as Shakespeare would have us believe. Princess Catherine finally married King Henry in 1420 to seal the Treaty of Troyes, which made him Heir of France – but he was never king. How different might European history have been if Henry V had not died of dysentery only two years later, six weeks before Catherine’s father King Charles finally succumbed to his delusions?
These deaths left a nine-month-old boy as king of both England and France, a helpless baby who grew into a hapless monarch, which proved a recipe for the Wars of the Roses and, ultimately, for the establishment of a new dynasty. Tudor was a name unheard of in England in 1415 except for a single hint in the presence of one Owen ap Tudur ap Meredith listed among the triumphant Welsh archers who took the field at the Battle of Agincourt.
Joanna Hickson spent twenty-five years at the BBC writing and presenting for radio and television. Gripped by Shakespeare’s historical plays, Joanna began researching the King Henry V’s ‘fair Kate’ as a schoolgirl and the story of Catherine de Valois and the Tudor genesis has remained with her throughout life. She lives in Wiltshire and is married with a large family and a wayward Irish terrier. Her latest book, Red Rose, White Rose, is out now.