Tuesday 27 October 2015

Agincourt: a 600 year old myth?

In the tiny and well kept church of St Mary at Barnham in Sussex is an intriguing little piece of ancient graffiti. Protected today behind perspex, and difficult to read, local tradition states that the Latin text asks for the reader to 'pray for the soul of my father who died at Agincourt'. Is this then a direct link between an individual and a medieval battle that has come to be regarded as iconic? Does this tiny inscription actually refer to a real person? A warrior that fought through the mud, blood and terror of that damp October day alongside an English king? Or is it perhaps just one more myth to be added to the already long list of such myths that surround this much written of little war? If it is, then it's in good company - for even today, six long centuries after armour clad warriors tore each other to pieces in a muddy field, the whole event is almost more myth than reality - and one of the greatest of those myths still survives, often repeated and never questioned, right through to the present day.

The significance of the battle of Agincourt goes far beyond medieval military history, and far beyond what was actually only a moderately successful armed incursion into the realm of France by a belligerent young English monarch. It was undoubtedly a logistically great, and unexpected, victory for the outnumbered English, and saw the pitiless deaths of a large number of the French nobility. But really? Does that make it worthy of all the fuss and jingoistic nonsense that has been poured forth from the national media in the last few week? I think not. No, the real reason that Agincourt has become so significant to the people of this damp and verdant island is simply because it is how the English like to see themselves. Agincourt has become more significant in the last two and a half centuries than it ever was during the Middle Ages, for the very simple reason that it embodies an 'idea', perhaps even an 'ideal', of Englishness. The idea of the underdog, taking on a massive and overbearing enemy and, against all odds, coming out victorious. It is the story of 'the few' against the many - and no coincidence that the Laurence Olivier version of Shakespeare's Henry V was actually made during the height of the Second World War - a time when mention of 'the few' would awaken sharp echoes of very recent events that took place in the skies above southern England. As Jeremy Paxman of all people has written, the phrase 'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers', has become "the rallying cry of the English idea of heroism".

Agincourt has become the democratic battle in the eyes of the English. When proud and humbly born yeomen brought down the might of the French aristocracy with their peasant weapons. It was a battle won by massed flights of feather fletched arrows piercing the elegant plate-armour of the nobility. It is the battle where the common men of England, against all the odds, stood their ground and overturned the accepted order of the day. Where noble birth would not save you, whatever your rank, from the mud and the blood.
And that is largely the problem with Agincourt both as a battle and a symbol of English 'pluck' - yes I said 'pluck' - in that the story has now become far more powerful than the reality. The images and ideas have become more potent than the truth. The myths have become the story that the good man teaches his son, and any attempt to dispel such myths is actually met with hostility.  A knee-jerk reaction that sees such questioning of accepted 'fact' as simply un-English, un-patriotic and verging on the sort of thing only 'johnny-foreigner' would do! The reaction, even of some historians, to someone questioning the essential truths of the Agincourt myth would put even the outrage of a member of the English Defence League being given a gift voucher for a Burka wholesalers to shame. You simply don't do it.

The problem of course is that much of the story that has been pedalled out these last few weeks is simply that - a story. A myth that has grown up around the cinema and writers of nineteenth century epic novels for ambitious, Empire bound, schoolboys. You see, the traditional story of the 'great victory' of Agincourt is largely based on misinformation and misconception. It may well be a story that chimes well with our view of ourselves, but we must recognise that even great stories sometimes need examining again in the light of new, or even old, information. Okay, I'm not going to suggest here that the English didn't win the battle or something similar. I'm unlikely to accuse Henry V of 'war crimes' either (as a recent French interpretation did). All I'm suggesting is that our recent image of the battle, of the plucky English archers, picking off the French knights with their longbows, is largely a fiction. Simply didn't happen. Actually couldn't happen. It's a myth.

You see, there is rather a fundamental problem with the traditional story of the battle of Agincourt - and when I say 'traditional' I mean of course that portrayed by Hollywood, and most likely the image you have in your head - in that the English longbow, the English archer and the English cloth-yard arrow, could NOT penetrate the high quality plate armour worn by the majority of French men at arms that day. It simply couldn't do it. Not a hope. The image of the massed volleys of arrows turning the sky black and bringing down wave after wave of French knights simply couldn't have happened the way most people think it did. The "thud of bodkin arrowheads striking through plate-metal armour and tearing into flesh" didn't happen either. Sorry! And it is, I think you will agree, a rather fundamental problem with regards to our interpretation and image of the battle.

Now at this point I should rather make a confession. Never something I'm totally happy to do obviously. You see, the thing is, long before graffiti got it's claws into me, I wrote my MA thesis on the military decline of the longbow. I also, for my sins, wrote almost a whole page of the Mary Rose catalogue, and spent a lot of time looking at late medieval and Tudor archery. Perhaps more importantly, I am an archer myself. I have been since I was eight years old, and have used a longbow for over a quarter of a century, and in my twenties regularly shot a war-bow several times a week. I know longbows, I know what they can do, and as such this rather major flaw in the whole Agincourt debate didn't pass me by.

Now I am by no means the first person to have noted this rather fundamental flaw in the Agincourt story. Not by a long way. There has been a rather vocal argument between a number of historians over the last few decades arguing exactly this point. On the one side some have stated that the 'science' rather supports the view that arrows from a medieval longbow cannot penetrate good quality plate armour. One the other side historians have argued that frankly, the science is doing it all wrong, and that the historical accounts must be correct. It's an argument that has, at times, seemed bloodier than the battle itself. So what of the science I hear you ask? Well, it's simply really. Ever since this 'problem' was first noted, way back in the nineteenth century, people have been conducting tests to see exactly what an arrow from a longbow could penetrate. Most of the early tests, which were admittedly pretty unscientific, came to the conclusion that the arrows simply couldn't do the job. However, with every set of tests that came back negative there were always those whose answer was that the tests themselves were faulty - and that the wrong type of bow had been used, or the wrong type of arrow - or even the wrong type of armour. New tests were needed.

Finally, only in very recent years, were a new set of tests were undertaken. The arrows and bows were modelled exactly on those found aboard the Tudor warship 'Mary Rose', the armour was of exactly the same metallurgy as examples from the period, and the tests were undertaken in scientific conditions at a defence research laboratory. Much to the delight of those historians who favoured the traditional view of the battle - the arrows were found to pierce plate armour! However, closer examination of the results showed that the arrows certainly could pierce plate armour - but only if shot from almost point blank range, striking the armour at a particular angle - and then only piercing it to a depth of about an inch. Bearing in mind that armour was worn over a heavily padded 'arming doublet', it's safe to say a more damaging wound could probably be inflicted with my desk stapler. So how then had this come to pass? How could historians have got it all so very wrong for such a long time? How could all the written accounts just be so incorrect? Well, the truth is that neither the contemporary accounts, or the historians, had all managed to get it wrong.

Believe it or not the battle of Agincourt is one of the best described late medieval battles to have taken place in western Europe. The stunning and unexpected outcome of the battle, and the fact that so many members of the nobility perished that day, made it a popular subject for contemporary historians and chroniclers. As a result we have quite literally dozens of contemporary and near contemporary accounts of the conflict - all of which have been brought together most usefully by Dr Anne Curry in her wonderful volume 'The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and interpretations'. They range from eye-witness accounts of the slaughter itself, to historical monographs written a decade later and detailing the battle as God's vengeance upon the unworthy French. However, whilst the sources may be varied, they all tend to agree on one thing. The English archers that day did great slaughter - but that the slaughter was not done with arrows. The accounts talk of the English archers 'wounding' French knights with arrows, and most certainly killing, maiming and wounding the horses of the French cavalry attack, but not of the massed volleys of arrows plunging French knights into the mud - as so beloved of film-makers everywhere. The slaughter from the English archers came in a different manner. It came with the swords, the axes, the knives and the clubs - searching out into the mud, amongst the screaming and dying horses, to put an end to men clambering to their feet amongst the blood and horse shit. It was the savagery of daggers thrust into armoured joints, of axes chopping down onto exposed flesh, and leaden clubs beating in the steel helmets until all movement ceased. It was, put simply, butcher's work. Mud splattered steel and once bright embroidery ripped from the mangled bodies that choked in the filth and their own life blood. A great English victory, hard won from an overwhelming force, that perhaps saw the very best of medieval England; but most certainly its worst.

And so endeth the myth. Ah, but myths don't die that easily. You see, despite a rearguard action by a few well meaning but misguided historians, we've rather known all this for quite a while. Anyone reading any of Anne Curry's books on the subject will note that she steers very well clear of discussing the actual power of a longbow. About what it can actually do. The trouble is that nobody really wants to be the person that turns around and says that, all that stuff you thought you knew, is utter rubbish. It won't go down too well. Certainly won't get you invited to too many dinner parties, that much is certain. Not twice anyway.

So where then does this leave the myth of the battle of Agincourt? What reality or truth must we consider when viewing that long distant conflict? Does it change anything? Which story should the good man teach his son? 

Well, I for one think there is a clear answer, and it is that we should never accept a 'given' history. That we should always question that which is placed before us as accepted 'truth'; particularly where patriotism and jingoistic rhetoric play a part. History is indeed written by the victors - military history doubly so. This perhaps is more pertinent to graffiti studies than you might think. With so little written upon the subject, what has been written tends to be accepted as the truth. It shouldn't be so. As with all history, new evidence leads to new interpretations, and we should always be open to looking at them with as open a mind as possible. And as for the Agincourt graffiti in Barnham church - well perhaps we'll leave some myths and stories to endure just a little while longer...