The Battle of Agincourt
On St. Crispin’s Day (October 25th), 1415, an English army led by king Henry V defeated a much larger French force in battle near the French village of Agincourt. You can read all about the battle here. Between seven and ten thousand French soldiers were killed, with England’s losses estimated by some to be as few as two hundred. As a result of the battle, Henry gained or retained control of large swathes of France. The dazzling success of England’s armies under their dashing young King provoked an outpouring of national pride, including the popular ballads ‘King Henry Fifth’s Conquest of France’ and ‘The Agincourt Carol’.
Almost two hundred years after the battle, England’s finest poets were still celebrating the victory. William Shakespeare’s play Henry V (1600) is centred on the battle of Agincourt and the rallying speech he puts into Henry’s mouth, (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) is one of the most iconic pieces of poetry in our language. Only five years later, another poet, Michael Drayton, wrote a celebratory and triumphalist poem about the battle, ‘The Ballad of Agincourt’.
Over five hundred years later, the resonance of Agincourt — as mediated through Shakespeare — was so powerful that the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a pointed reference to it in his memorable comment in praise of the R.A.F. fighter pilots who had defended England against Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1940 — “never in the field of human conduct have so many owed so much to so few”. The very fact of the existence of Agincourt 600 and its associated poetry competition is proof of the battle’s enduring place in English identity and our national mythology. Below are a number of challenges you might want to take up to create your own poetic commemoration of the battle.
Agincourt 600: Poetry Challenge Two
At Agincourt, Henry V ordered his archers to execute the French prisoners whose families could not afford to pay a ransom. However, most of the prisoners who were to be executed were from the same social class as the English archers — they were largely peasants and workmen who had only joined the army to defend their country — and many had been forced to. How do you think the English archers felt when they pulled back their bowstrings and were about to let loose steel-tipped arrows into their tied and bound, helpless enemies?
- Perhaps they were angry and vengeful — after all, only a few hours earlier these soldiers had been trying to kill them. Maybe they killed with eagerness and glee.
- Or perhaps they recognised their common humanity with the enemy — ‘he’s a farmer, just like me’ — and refused to fire — or at least, had doubts about it.
- Both armies shared the same Catholic religion. When the French prisoners pleaded for their lives in Jesus’ or the Virgin Mary’s name, did the English archers feel they ought to show mercy? Remember, in those days people took religion very seriously.
- Or maybe they just ‘followed orders’ — can you draw a comparison between these actions and the actions of the Nazi officials, and others, who committed atrocities against the Jewish people during World War Two ?
In his poem ‘Strange Meeting’ the English poet Wilfrid Owen dreamed that he travelled to Hell, where he met a German soldier he had killed (in the First World War) on the previous day. In the dream Owen reconciles with his former foe and addresses him as ‘strange friend’. He regrets killing him, referring to the ‘pity of war’ — when young men who do not know each other and might even have been friends had things worked out differently, try to kill each other because their Governments tell them to.
Similarly, in ‘The Man He Killed’ Thomas Hardy wrote in the persona of an English soldier who had shot an enemy soldier dead, speculating that they’d have probably got on well and had a pint together had they not been on opposite sides:
Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.
Write a poem written in the first person — a monologue — that expresses the thoughts and feelings of an English archer ordered to execute an unarmed French soldier. Alternatively, write it from the point of view of the Frenchman about to die. Imagine you are that archer/French soldier. The poem should be set in the moment the string of the bow is pulled back but before the arrow is released; the tension of the quivering bow-string reflects the emotions of both the archer and his victim. Consider the following:
- What do you see and hear?
- What do you feel?
- What do you think?
- What do you do?
- Are you aware of what others are doing and saying around you?
- What are your feelings about Henry, who has led his army to a great victory, but is now executing unarmed men?
- What are your feelings about your victim/killer?
Your archer might have no qualms whatsoever about killing his victim or he might feel so appalled by the prospect of murdering an unarmed man that he wants to throw down his bow and run. The victim might be stoic and resigned to his fate or be in a state of absolute panicking terror. It’s up to you.
Write in any style, but you might want to look at the example from Wilfred Owen (‘Strange Meeting’ — extract below) and use that general style:
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
(from Wilfred Owen, ‘Strange Meeting’)
- Make each line roughly ten to twelve syllables in length; don’t worry about rhyming — unless you really want to rhyme. If you choose this style, you’re writing in something called ‘blank verse’ which is a traditional medium for the dramatic monologue.
- Communicate emotion and the terror of the situation through language and imagery — think carefully about this and be as vivid as you can.
- The poem can be as long or as short as you like – the important thing is its impact.