De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Anne Curry

Agincourt 1415: Henry V, Sir Thomas Erpingham and the triumph of the English archers

(Tempus: Stroud, UK, 2000) ISBN: 0 7254 1780 0


The essays contained in this volume arise from a conference held at  Norwich cathedral in 1996. They re-examine various aspects of the Agincourt campaign – the kingship of Henry V, the role of chivalry and heraldry and Shakespeare and the historiography of the battle – but particular attention is given to the role of the English archers and that prominent East Anglian Sir Thomas Erpingham, reputed to have been responsible for ordering the longbowmen into action. The essays are presented with well-chosen illustrations, many of them are familiar but some, especially those relating to Erpingham, will be less well known. There are also some specially-commissioned drawings of archers and men at arms during the battle, although the assertion that the picture of Jean, sire d’Aumont charging through a hail of arrow ‘gives some impression of the volume of the arrows’ might be taken with a pinch of salt! Unfortunately, the essays are presented without the scholarly apparatus of footnotes, which will leave the academic reader pondering over the source of some of the authors’ assertions.

            Anne Curry’s opening essay on Henry V paints a conventional picture of the warrior king, the exemplar of medieval kingship familiar to readers of Gerald Harriss, Ted Powell, Christopher Allmand and Christine Carpenter. Professor Curry does sound a welcome note of caution though, pointing out that Henry’s single-minded determination to press his claims in France caused intolerable strains on the national finances, signs of tension with his nobility and an unfortunate legacy to his infant son that would eventually destroy the Lancastrian monarchy. Matthew Bennett’s essay is a forceful restatement of his previously published views on the battle, surveying the differing accounts of Agincourt and, whilst acknowledging the importance of the English bowmen, reminding us that the feats of the English men at arms proved equally important in deciding the day. Paul Hitchin’s essay on weaponry and equipment of the English archers is a valuable description of the practical aspects of archery. Hitchin, an accomplished bowman himself, writes with considerable authority on a weapon with which he is well-acquainted. Professor’s Curry second essay is a biographical account of Sir Thomas Erpingham, including a skilful reconstruction of the documentary evidence of Erpingham’s role in the Agincourt campaign and that of his retinue. It serves to remind us of the rich sources for medieval military history which  exist within the archives of the English and French governments, much of which is still to be examined thoroughly. The section on Erpingham is concluded with an account by Ken Mourin of his local importance and shorter pieces on the Erpingham Gate at Norwich cathedral by Tony Sims and the Erpingham Chasuble by Gilly Wraight.  The argument of Matthew Strickland’s essay on chivalry will be familiar to most members of this society. He emphasizes the central importance of war and chivalry to the political culture of late medieval Europe and stresses how political behaviour was conditioned by and can best be understood through the shared attitudes of the warrior-aristocracy. Two essays on the role of heraldry provide an useful overview of its importance on medieval battlefields and of its arbiters and guardians, the heralds. Both Elizabeth Armstrong and Henry Paston-Bedingfield, York Herald at Arms, stress its role as a means of identifying the dead, although Smith’s contention that coat armour ‘enabled soldiers to follow their own particular lord on the battlefield’ (p. 124) appears dubious. As she herself notes, it was the standards and banners, increasingly utilising simple national symbols such as the cross of St. George, that provided the real focus of medieval battles; in the press of the mêlée the intricacies of the heraldry of coat-armour would surely have been lost. Christopher Smith’s essay on Shakespeare’s Agincourt provides an interesting voice in a collection otherwise dominated by almost unquestioning celebration of the role of the English archer. Smith points out that Shakespeare does not attribute the English victory to archery but instead employs a conventional language of war, stressing the deeds of the men at arms. Indeed, the ‘myth’ of the English archers’ success at Agincourt may be traced back to the mid-Tudor rhetoric of Roger Ashcam’s Toxophilus and Holinshed’s chronicle.

            A more fundamental questioning of the account of the English archers’ role presented here, and especially in the essays of Curry, Bennett and Hitchin, arises from what is actually meant by contemporary ‘official’ references to ‘archers’. If, as Bennett argues, archers were the ‘elite’ of the English medieval military, how do we explain the growing proportion of them in English armies in the Hundred Years War compared to men-at-arms. Is there not a paradox in the growth of an elite force as proportion in the army and the decline of English military fortunes from the late-1420s? This can be explained, I believe, because of a fundamental error in the authors’ interpretation of the administrative records of the Agincourt campaign. The term archer, as used in the account and muster rolls of the early fifteenth century, merely referred to those soldiers who received 6d a day if on foot and 8d a day if mounted and were to be differentiated socially from the men at arms. It says nothing of their armament or their tactical deployment. The proportion of ‘archers’ who actually used the longbow in battle is not evident in these sources. Other sources, however, suggest that the archers were indeed an elite, forming a decreasing part of English armies during the late middle ages. For instance, in 1449 Sir Walter Strickland recruited 69 archers and 74 billmen with mounts and 71 archers and 76 billmen on foot to serve in Normandy with the earl of Salisbury. In the exchequer records, however, all would have been listed as either archers on foot or archers on horseback. William, lord Hastings’s indenture to take reinforcements to Calais in 1477 further suggests that the description of men in muster rolls owed more to their rates of pay than their tactical role: in it Hastings was allowed to convert men at arms to archers and vice-versa depending upon the available funds. By the sixteenth century those styled as archers in the musters could be armed with bills, pikes, bows or handguns. In the musters taken in York in 1543 of the 108 able men the town assembled to serve in the war against Scotland only eight were noted as ‘tried archers’. The archers of the battle of Agincourt, then, were an elite – the celebrated ‘yeomen archers’ of Hitchin’s essay – but were not necessarily the mainstay of the English army. This book, then, is a tribute not so much to the archers of Agincourt as to the myth of the English bowman and its significance in Tudor and later accounts of English military superiority over other European nations.

David Grummitt
Oxford University