The chronicle of Henry V title page

Shakespeare, Henry V and the battle of Agincourt

James Wright

MOLA archaeologists are returning to The Stage in Shoreditch to excavate the important Curtain Theatre remains. To celebrate this historic excavation a series of Shakespeare-inspired events is underway. Join Archaeologists James Wright for a talk on the 18 April as he leads an exploration of the real life events of the battle of Agincourt and reveals how Shakespeare interwove these into Henry V, which premiered at the Curtain Theatre in 1599. James gives us an introduction in this blog…

The battle of Agincourt took place just over 600 years ago on 25th October 1415. It was fought between the diminutive English army of Henry V and an overwhelmingly large French force. So great was the reputation of the remarkable English victory that it led to the creation of one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays – Henry V.

The battle of Agincourt took place in northern France. It was part of a dynastic dispute between England and France known as the Hundred Years War, which lasted between 1337 and 1453.

It is difficult to estimate medieval battlefield statistics, but it is believed that the English numbered around 5000 archers and men-at-arms whereas the French gathered between ten and thirty thousand troops.

Central to the victory was the longbow coupled with the rapid mobility of the lightly armoured English troops. An archer was capable of firing up to ten arrows a minute. The heavily armoured French advanced slowly through heavy clay soils, after a rainstorm, and were decimated. The two armies engaged in hand-to-hand combat and Henry V was in the thick of the fight, as was his cousin Edward, Duke of York, who lost his life.

So ferocious was the battle that estimates of French dead amount to between six and ten thousand, whereas the English casualties were only around 3-400.

Ultimately the battle was not a great political success. Henry returned to France in 1417 and undertook many sieges which eventually wore down the French. He was then nominated heir to the throne after the death of Charles VI of France. Henry died just six weeks before Charles, and under his son’s rule the majority of English lands in France were eventually lost.

Shakespeare’s play about Henry and Agincourt was written during the early months of 1599.  Accounts of rival acting company The Admiral’s Men for the Rose Playhouse show a marked dip in profits at just this time. Shakespeare clearly had a smash hit on his hands!

The play itself was written in response to a war fought by the English in Ireland during the 1590s and contains many references to contemporary events. Over time Henry V has been the most resilient of Shakespeare’s history plays and is often related to modern political situations.

Book tickets for Henry V, the Curtain, Shakespeare and the Manipulation of History at 6.15pm on 18 April and explore The Stage events programme.

  • Shakespeare
  • From the experts
  • Research
  • Post-medieval
  • Event
  • Community project

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