Henry V: Agincourt and the Importance of the English Longbow
In English Culture and Warfare

By Joseph Bauer

Henry V's Route through France


Kenneth Branagh's screen play adaptation of William Shakespeare's Henry V was released in November, 1989. Branagh directed the film and played the starring role as King Henry V. This film focuses on the conflict between 15th century England's King Henry V and France's King Charles VI over the right to the French throne, and the bloody war which was fought to settle the dispute. Young, newly crowned King Henry claims that Charles VI of France is an illegitimate king, and further asserts the he, King Henry V, is the rightfully descended heir to both the English and the French throne. The conflict ultimately culminates in an epic winner-take-all battle which, for the badly outnumbered English, is a life or death, glory or ruin scenario.

The film received multiple awards including Oscar: Best Costume Design, NBR Awards: Best Director, NYFCC: Best New Director, Bafta Film Award: Best Director, European Film Award: Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Young Film. The technical and artistic quality of this film is outstanding. Branagh creates the perfect blend of theater and film. The lighting, the sound, the set design, the shot angles, the costumes, the scripting, all the technical aspects that make a film a holistic cultural experience are present and woven together masterfully to make this a truly excellent quality film. Branagh uses the lighting to set an atmosphere of stark reality and solemnity. Most of the scenes in this film are shot with dark or dim lighting. Hues of grey, brown, and tan dominate the color spectrum along with shadows and indistinct forms in scenes such as King Henry's council chamber at the beginning of the film and later the long night before the final battle at Agincourt. A few, slightly lighter scenes punctuate important and triumphant moments.

One such moment is Henry's Saint Crispin's Day Henry V speech in which the brightly colored standards and vests of the King and his nobles stand out sharply against the drab woodland and the more modestly clad archers and foot soldiers. The soundtrack for this film is itself a worthy artistic work. It blends nicely with the mood and flow of the film carrying the viewer's emotions along with those of the characters in the film without attracting undue attention. Branagh uses mostly close up shots and in general keeps the viewer eye-to-eye with the actors. There are relatively few wide shots, and not even very many truly panning shots. The effect is that the feel of a stage play is retained to a degree. Also, the viewer gets no relief from the up-close intensity of feeling the weariness of the soldiers on their march or from the confusion and panic of the battle at Agincourt as soldiers so muddy they cannot be identified as friend or foe rush constantly by. Finally, the costumes designs are superb. There are no tacky, over done costumes to ruin the authenticity or misplaced costumes that do not fit the time period or societal place of their character. All is properly set to convince the audience that Kenneth Branagh and those around him really are the fifteenth century King Henry V and his small "band of brothers."

This paper will explore the history of the English longbow leading up to its use at Agincourt, as well as the nature and rational of the English belief that France was rightfully part of the English kingdom. Archers with longbows The historical figure of Henry V, his claim, his character, and his leadership as well as Henry's tactics in a decisive victory are examined. Branagh's interpretation of these aspects of the great battle will also be discussed.

Longbows have been used in England, and indeed throughout Europe and Asia, for thousands of years. They were not, however, traditionally used as a significant weapon in battle situations until circa 1250 A.D. Longbows dating back as far as circa 2500 B.C. have been found in England. It is commonly accepted that the longbow existed and was used for hunting since long before written histories of northern Europe were recorded. Longbows became important in medieval warfare when the English developed the practice of training large corps of longbow archers and strategically integrating them into their battle array. The technology of the bows experienced no significant advancement; rather the English learned the social disciplines and logistics necessary to utilize this weapon effectively in warfare.

Increasing use of the longbow by the English in military conflicts and eventually the formation of corps of longbow men began to occur after the conquest of Wales. It is possible that the use of the longbow in battle was inspired at least partially by the successful use of shorter bows against the English by the Welsh. At any rate, by the mid-thirteenth century, the longbow had emerged as a mainstay in the English battle formation and would remain important for the next 200 years until its use began to wane in the latter part of the fifteenth century. Troops lined up for battle Medieval English longbows are thought to have had draw weights of between 500 to 800 Newtons of force. Their effective range was probably 300 to 400 yards. At these distances, the arrows were capable of penetrating medieval armor. Even impenetrable armor had vulnerable points at joints and on the face. At closer ranges, longbows were extremely accurate. However, at distances of several hundred yards arrows had to be shot at steep trajectories reducing accuracy to a generalized range. Thus, to achieve effective use in battle, large numbers of archers launched coordinated volleys of arrows into the advancing enemy line. Because of the high draw weights, skill with a war strength English longbow took many years of training.

Thus, in order to utilize the longbow in war, England needed to maintain large numbers of men trained in its proper use. Recognizing this, King Edward I , who reigned from 1272 to 1307, mandated archery practice as the exclusive activity to be allowed on Sunday afternoons. This ensured that England would have a ready source of accomplished longbow men should she need to field an army on short notice. Edward's and following kings' encouragement of a peasant class skilled in the art of the longbow did result in ready armies. It also made the longbow something of a nationalistic symbol and an icon of medieval English culture and legend. The reality of an armed peasant class is fairly unique among the nations of medieval Europe. The play, Henry V, does not touch on the historical development of longbows. Branagh's film also does not include any coverage of the history of this weapon.

Now let's delve into the nature of England's claims to the French throne which led to the conflict which Shakespeare's Small map of France & EnglandHenry V centers around. English kings had controlled various amounts of land and various regions of the French mainland off and on for over 300 years before the reign of King Henry V. This odd phenomenon began when William, Duke of Normandy, crowned himself King of England after invading England and defeating King Harold the Saxon.  As Duke of Normandy he retained control of Normandy, while at the same time as King of England he brought Normandy under English control. Later English kings would gain and lose territory in France periodically over the next several centuries. Eventually, from these roots, claims would arise from various English Kings, including Henry V, that the English King was the rightful sovereign of France. The film spares the labor of tracing the whole history of this conflict and presents only Henry V's personal claim to the French throne.

Henry V is a very intriguing historical figure about whom much speculation has been made both by historian entertainers of his era, such as Shakespeare and modern historian entertainers such as Kenneth Branagh, who reinterprets Shakespeare's Henry. He occupies a fascinating position in history as the second king in a new line of English Kings, the House of Lancaster, as a reviver of old disputes who reignites the English's desire to rule France, and as a young but unusually capable leader and soldier. We will examine in turn three aspects of Henry; his claim, his character, and his leadership.

There is room for debate over the real reason Henry V actually chose to go to war with France. Perhaps he wanted to prove himself a man and a capable king worthy of his countrymen's respect. Or it could be that it was because his father had entertained designs on the French crown and Henry V merely picked up his father's unfinished (un-started really) project and put it into action. Still another possibility is that powerful leaders in the church were concerned about domestic situations which might be unfavorable to their power and that they persuaded Henry to go to war as a means of distracting him and making him an ally in a common cause. It may have been any of these reasons. It may have been all of these reasons. The film focuses on the idea that the church persuaded Henry V to pursue the French crown.

Whatever the motivations may have been, Henry made a bold and convoluted claim that Charles VI was an illegitimate king and that he, Henry V, was legitimately entitled to the crown of France. Henry V According to Branagh's depiction of Henry V's war counsel, Charles VI of France his claim was based on a long and nearly impossible to follow set of genealogical histories presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury which asserted that the crown had passed to Charles VI through a woman and that this negated his right to reign, among other things. The presentation given by the Archbishop is clearly not intended to be straightforward or understandable. Rather, it is a mere pretext to give the King grounds for a declaration of war. Charles VI's son, the Dauphin, heir to the French throne, sends Henry a gift of tennis balls in mockery of his initial claim. In response Henry becomes stern, resolute, and intent on making good his claims. He immediately declares war and sends his council members to make preparations.

Although the grounds for Henry's claims seem dubious at best, he is presented as solemn, conscientious, and noble who was concerned deeply with the gravity of the decision to start a bloody war. He was also troubled by the need to be absolutely convinced of his legitimate, divine right to the French crown, and upholding justice and lawful order. He was resolute in his approval of executing Bardolph for robbing a French church during the campaign. He is portrayed as having a sincere desire for right to be done and for truth to be honored. He does not hate the French people, nor desire to obtain anything that he does not truly believe to be his own. Finally, Henry is a king who exhibits genuine love and respect for his countrymen and his troops. He does not hold himself aloof nor scorn their hardships in his service, but joins them shoulder to shoulder in the work, holds their lives and their company dear, and inspires them to follow him by sharing his vision and making it their own. Branagh emphasizes these nobler aspects of Henry in his film. He portrays Henry as a deeply troubled, musing, deliberating King, who meditates on the choices and actions he has made and will make and the effects they will have on his men and his country.

Probably the single most emphasized aspect of Branagh's Henry V is his classic kingly leadership. He is set forth as the showcase example of inspiring leadership ability. At the very start of his bold expedition, a plot between three of Henry's close advisors, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland, to betray him into the hands of the French becomes known to the King. Henry loses no time in cleverly exposing the traitors while using their own words to condemn them. He then promptly restores order and confidence to the expedition and continues on unshaken. At the end of the battle at Harfleur, Branagh portrays Henry exerting himself to make a strong appearance before the town council men of Harfleur and his own troops. In reality, he is so weary that he is about to topple from his warhorse.

When King Henry reached France he started his campaign by laying siege to the town of Harfleur on the coast of Normandy. After taking Harfleur, Henry realized that he did not have the manpower, supplies, nor time to march on the capital. Instead, he decided to march north to Calais, which was already held by the English, conquering the villages he passed along the way. Battle scene King Charles VI sent the Constable of France, Charles d'Albret, with a large force to cut the English off on their march. The Constable's army, which had been swelled by the forces of many French noblemen who joined along the march, met Henry's army outside the town of Agincourt on Thursday 24, 1415. The actual sizes of the two armies are debated and estimates range widely. But most agree that the English were outnumbered on the order of as much as four or five to one. The English army was tired, poorly supplied, and desperate to reach Calais. The French army, by contrast, was content to corner the English and wait while more troops arrived daily.

The topography and natural features of the battle field greatly favored the English position. The open ground between the two armies was not a true field, but something closer to a muddy morass. This muddy field was flanked on either side by woodlands, which gradually came together toward one end of the field creating a sort of cone or funnel shaped pass between the woodlands. The English were positioned at the narrow end of the field. Henry placed his knights and infantry troops toward the center of the field with the main bodies of longbow men on either flank. Bowmen surrounded by sharp stakes The English drove sharpened stakes into the ground in front of the longbow corps to prevent the French cavalry from routing them. The stakes were likely placed along a diagonal such that they would force the French cavalry and infantry to crowd into the center of the battle field, thus preventing the French from using their superior numbers to flank the small English army. Once King Henry placed his troops, the English waited patiently, determined to hold their position and force the French to make the charge. Henry eventually was forced to move his formation forward on the battle field to provoke the French into feeling pressure to make a charge. During this process the longbow men had to remove their defensive stakes and move them to the new position. This was a dangerous gamble, but an effective one which drew a response in the form of a full advance by the French cavalry and men-at-arms.

The French cavalry charge seems to have had no significant impact on the English line. The men-at-arms crossed the field, but sustained heavy wounding and casualties from the rain of arrows being constantly poured into them by the longbow men. The topography combined with the layout of the English line pushed the French troops into a clump where they seem to have been unable to use their weapons efficiently due to their own overwhelming numbers. It is reported that the English longbow men used all their arrows and then joined the hand-to-hand combat with light weapons. Pressed thus from three sides and unable to maneuver or resist the more effectively placed English battle line, the French eventually laid down their arms.

Branagh presents the battle as long, confusing, desperate, and indecisive. He emphasizes the uglier side of warfare. The depiction of the Duke of York’s bloody death is one of the film's most gut wrenching, slow motion scenes. He also gives heavy camera attention to the many bodies of wounded or slain soldiers which begin accumulating and eventually litter the entire field at the end of the conflict. This gives the audience a greater sense of respect for what a battle really is, a deeper sense of respect for the feat which the English army accomplished, and creates a readiness to participate in the combined relief, grief, and exaltation of the King and his men.

Although King Henry actually had to fight other battles before eventually winning the French crown, Branagh skips straight to Henry V's signing of the Treaty of Troyes. He does this to emphasize Agincourt's place in history. Priest recording the battle.The Battle of Agincourt left an indelible mark on Englishmen and Frenchmen both. The English would continue to look to this battle as an example of English spirit and courage for hundreds of years, and indeed, even to the present day. It is an icon of English culture, standing for courage and perseverance. The French would remember the day bitterly, fostering resentment and jealousy of the English. Indeed, I believe, this battle was a significant factor in the root of the bitter nature of the continuing rivalry between the French and English in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Agincourt has also become significant as one of the last major battles of history to be won largely by the use of the longbow before it was replaced by firearms. This conflict was the full culmination of the development of two aspects of English culture, the effective military use of longbows and the popular conviction that England had the right to rule France. From the time of Agincourt forward, longbows become steadily less effective and less prominent in England's military engagements. Although Henry V was not the last Englishmen to ever suggest that England ought to rule France, he was the last English King to actually wear the French crown. And after his time, serious English efforts to conquer France dwindled away.

Marriage of Henry V & Catherine Valois of France

The Wedding of Henry V & Catherine Valois of France, after the Battle of Agincourt

Recommended Readings:

Those interested in reading further on this subject might try starting with these books; Juliet Barker's Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England (Barker 2005), Ian Mortimer's 1415: Henry V's Year of Glory (Mortimer 2009), and David Wason's Battlefield Detectives.

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