Anne Curry explains that “no other battle has generated so much interest or some much myth” as the Battle of Agincourt, fought on October 25, 1415.
During the 600th anniversary of the battle, the historian has been busy giving lectures and taking part in events commemorating the conflict, as well as running a free online course. Curry has also published Agincourt, part of the Great Battles Series from Oxford University Press, in which she details the events of Henry V’s campaign into France, the battle, and how people have viewed it ever since.
Curry reveals that she has actually received hate mail for her research, and many people have been disappointed about her myth-busting. Her new book is a fascinating account of how the battle has been viewed and reinterpreted over the centuries. She also reveals some strange myths that have developed over time about Agincourt. Here are five of them:
V for Victory sign
“The story goes,” Curry writes, “that the French threatened to cut off the index and third finger of any archer they captured, the assumption being that they were so strong and the English so weak that there would be many suffering a mutilation that would make them incapable of ever using a longbow again. After the battle the archers allegedly made the V-sign to the French in order to show they still had their fingers, using the gesture as a mark of disdain for French pretension.”
However, no chronicle or even a 16th-century source mentions that the English archers made any gesture to the French side. In fact, the earliest recorded use of the V-sign gesture is from the year 1901.
The Legends of Davy Gam
Administrative records show about 500 Welsh archers and a few men-at-arms were part of Henry V’s army. Some of the Welshmen served in return for pardons for supporting earlier rebellions against the English. The most famous Welsh individual from the battle is Davy Gam, who is listed among the English dead in five chronicles. However, none of the sources mention his exploits, if any took place, from the battle. However, in the 17th century historians offered fanciful accounts of his role – in one version he is a spy sent out to oversee the French army; in another account he and his son-in-law are mortally wounded while saving Henry V from danger during the battle. The King then knighted them just before they died.
If you visit the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, one of the many objects you can see is of a spur set into a tree root. It was said that the spur was found on the battlefield of Agincourt hundreds of years later, and over time a tree had grown around the object. However, the museum analyzed the object and found that while the spur is from the Middle Ages, the tree timber “had been softened with water in order to place the spur within it.” The wood is also actually from a spruce tree, which are not found in that part of France. Unbelievably, Curry also found that two similar fakes also exist.
Meanwhile, the V&A has a few other objects that have a dubious history with the Battle of Agincourt, including a leaf from a manuscript that depicts the battle. While the page of parchment is medieval, the illustration was made around the year 1900.
Sir Piers de Legh and his devoted dog
One legend states that when Sir Piers de Legh was killed at the battle, his English mastiff dog stood over him to protect when he fell. The dog then returned home to England, where she started a famous breed known as the Lyme Hall Mastiffs. However, Sir Peirs did not die at Agincourt, rather seven years later at a siege.
The Agincourt Roll
In the 1570s or 80s, Robert Glover was working as a clerk at the Tower of London, and made three copies of a set of records that listed the names of some of the retinue leaders and men-at-arms who served at Agincourt. He was actually copying a document made by an English government official in November 1416, which was delivered to the Exchequer “as part of the post-campaign accounting process.”
This document, known as the Agincourt Roll, was printed in 1827 as part of a book on the battle by Harris Nicholas. Curry explains that it “has achieved quasi-mythical status. On some websites there is a claim that the roll was secret and that only certain families held it. In reality, these family-held versions were copied from Nicholas Harris but over the generations that fact was lost sight of. Commentators have not understood that the roll was simply one element in a complex accounting process, aimed at preventing fraud on the part of the captains. They have claimed that it was an ‘honour roll’ – that Henry had the names of those who were with him at the battle recorded in order to honor them. This is an anachronistic interpretation influenced by the move, from the later nineteenth-century, to memorialize individual soldiers by listing them on war memorials. There were no collective monuments or memorializing for the Agincourt troops. There were no sense of a band of brothers.”
The popular image has drifted away from the actual events of 1415. Shakespeare restaged Agincourt in 1599. His image of the battle still predominates today. Drayton rewrote the battle in 1627 as a Homeric epic with invented acts of bravery. Family pride in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries created traditions which are still being built today. History has become democratized and is no longer simply about kings and queens. From the mid-nineteenth century the Agincourt archer came to fore and has remained there ever since. Tales of rude gestures and archers with loose bowels generate a warm feeling that people in the past were just like us. A battle of Agincourt fought by Playmobile figures can be viewed on YouTube. It really is a battle for all time and and all people.