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Agincourt from Different Angles

May 6, 2013 by Reader's Connection

AgincourtThere really was a Nicholas Hook, and he really was an archer at the battle of Agincourt. When writing his novel Agincourt, Bernard Cornwell took the names of almost all his archers from the muster rolls of Henry V’s army, which he found in the British National Archives.

I don’t know whether the real Nick Hook paired up with a beautiful woman who was the abandoned daughter of a seemingly heartless French lord. But it was archers who to a great extent carried the day at this celebrated battle, and Cornwell wanted to make that clear.

King Henry VLike many non-historians, I gained my first impression of Agincourt by reading and watching Shakepeare’s play King Henry V. And as Cornwell has said in an interview:

What’s interesting about the Shakespearean account is that it doesn’t mention the longbow. It seems to be one of the court plays. It’s appealing to the aristocrats . . . it goes down in Shakespearean terms as this sort of heroic, chivalric victory . . . it wasn’t, it was the most ghastly slaughter in the mud . . .I’m doing it through an archer. It’s going to be an archer’s story.

Not only is Nick Hook a great archer, but saints talk to him. And not just any saints, but Saints Crispin and Crispinian. The battle of Agincourt famously occurred on Saint Crispin’s Day, so these were the right saints for an archer to have in his ear. Don’t be scared away from the novel by the threat of ghastly slaughter. It’s there, but there is intrigue and romance and a family feud and terror in a tunnel and lots of dysentery. Though I don’t suppose that last one is a selling point.

Agincourt : Henry V and the Battle That Made EnglandIn a historical note, Cornwell expresses admiration for Juliet Barker’s Agincourt : Henry V and the Battle That Made England, and I’m reading that now, which gives me a chance to settle an important question.

Did King Henry really fight the battle of Agincourt because the French royals had made him mad by sending him tennis balls, implying that Henry was just a kid? Richard Thompson explains this while introducing the song “King Henry” on his wonderful concert DVD 1000 Years of Popular Music , and Shakespeare puts the incident in Act I, though he doesn’t claim that this alone triggered the invasion of France. (The galliard is a kind of dance.)

FIRST AMBASSADOR . . . the Prince our master
Says that you savour too much of your youth,
And bids you be advised. There’s nought in France
That can be with a nimble galliard won;
You cannot revel into dukedoms there.
He therefore sends you, meeter for your spirit,
This tun of treasure, and, in lieu of this
Desires you let the dukedoms that you claim
Hear no more of you. This the Dauphin speaks.
What treasure, uncle?
Tennis-balls, my liege.
We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have matched our rackets to these balls
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.

Agincourt : Henry V and the Battle That Made EnglandJuliet Barker: “This simply did not happen.” And I don’t believe Cornwell mentions tennis balls. His archer Nick wonders from time to time why the English are  invading France, but he has other concerns. He gets into military action in the first place to get out of the trouble he caused by slugging a priest who was going to rape a woman. High-level politics aren’t his strong suit.

I enjoyed Cornwell’s novel immensely–thanks again to my colleagues who gave me a copy–and am enjoying Barker’s historical account.

Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt on CDCornwell’s Agincourt is also available as a downloadable e-book, a downloadable audiobook, an audiobook on CD and in large print

Juliet Barker’s history is also available as a downloadable e-book.

The library owns different editions of Shakespeare’s Henry V, and three treatments of the play on DVD.


By way of wishing Shakespeare a belated Happy Birthday (b. April 1564), click on this picture of actor David Gwillim (4/2/14 – No, don’t bother, the YouTube has vanished. I should delete this whole part of the blog post but I worked too hard on it.)to watch four versions of the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. (“We happy few, we band of brothers”) Most of the commentors love Kenneth Branagh’s version, don’t think much of Gwillim’s.

Check out RUDigitized‘s response:
1. (Lawrence Olivier, from a British morale-building production during World War II) Meh he’s good.
2. (David Gwillim, BBC production) I guess it was ok. I wish it would have been played by a man though.
3. (Don’t know who this is. Do you?) Getting there.
4. (Kenneth Branagh) My kitten watched this scene with me. It’s now a Lion.



In defense of David Gwillim, I’ll say that (a) for what it’s worth, he bears the closest physical resemblance to the Henry of the portrait, (b) the BBC production leaves in some lines I like, about Henry being a glutton for honor, lines that both Olivier and Branagh cut, and (c) since RUDigitized is so gender-snide about Gwillim, I’ll confess that the most moving recital of these lines that I’ve heard lately was performed by Ann Patchett during her McFadden Lecture in April. (The outnumbered English were independent booksellers and the evil, humongous French army was  I was moved in part because of my surprise at hearing the lines while I was reading these books about Agincourt; but even ignoring that coincidence, she delivered the lines wonderfully.

And I think Branagh’s background music is drippy. I say meh to RUDigitized.

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will, I pray thee wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It earns me not if men my garments wear:
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace, I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me,
For the best hope I have. O do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day and see old age
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall 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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


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