ENGLAND UNDER HENRY THE FIFTH
THE Prince of Wales began his reign like a generous and honest
man. He set the young Earl of March free; he restored their estates
and their honours to the Percy family, who had lost them by their
rebellion against his father; he ordered the imbecile and
unfortunate Richard to be honourably buried among the Kings of
England; and he dismissed all his wild companions, with assurances
that they should not want, if they would resolve to be steady,
faithful, and true.
It is much easier to burn men than to burn their opinions; and
those of the Lollards were spreading every day. The Lollards were
represented by the priests - probably falsely for the most part -
to entertain treasonable designs against the new King; and Henry,
suffering himself to be worked upon by these representations,
sacrificed his friend Sir John Oldcastle, the Lord Cobham, to them,
after trying in vain to convert him by arguments. He was declared
guilty, as the head of the sect, and sentenced to the flames; but
he escaped from the Tower before the day of execution (postponed
for fifty days by the King himself), and summoned the Lollards to
meet him near London on a certain day. So the priests told the
King, at least. I doubt whether there was any conspiracy beyond
such as was got up by their agents. On the day appointed, instead
of five-and-twenty thousand men, under the command of Sir John
Oldcastle, in the meadows of St. Giles, the King found only eighty
men, and no Sir John at all. There was, in another place, an
addle-headed brewer, who had gold trappings to his horses, and
a pair of gilt spurs in his breast - expecting to be made a knight
next day by Sir John, and so to gain the right to wear them - but
there was no Sir John, nor did anybody give information respecting
him, though the King offered great rewards for such intelligence.
Thirty of these unfortunate Lollards were hanged and drawn
immediately, and were then burnt, gallows and all; and the various
prisons in and around London were crammed full of others. Some of
these unfortunate men made various confessions of treasonable
designs; but, such confessions were easily got, under torture and
the fear of fire, and are very little to be trusted. To finish the
sad story of Sir John Oldcastle at once, I may mention that he
escaped into Wales, and remained there safely, for four years.
When discovered by Lord Powis, it is very doubtful if he would have
been taken alive - so great was the old soldier's bravery - if a
miserable old woman had not come behind him and broken his legs
with a stool. He was carried to London in a horse-litter, was
fastened by an iron chain to a gibbet, and so roasted to death.
To make the state of France as plain as I can in a few words, I
should tell you that the Duke of Orleans, and the Duke of Burgundy,
commonly called 'John without fear,' had had a grand reconciliation
of their quarrel in the last reign, and had appeared to be quite in
a heavenly state of mind. Immediately after which, on a Sunday, in
the public streets of Paris, the Duke of Orleans was murdered by a
party of twenty men, set on by the Duke of Burgundy - according to
his own deliberate confession. The widow of King Richard had been
married in France to the eldest son of the Duke of Orleans. The
poor mad King was quite powerless to help her, and the Duke of
Burgundy became the real master of France. Isabella dying, her
husband (Duke of Orleans since the death of his father) married the
daughter of the Count of Armagnac, who, being a much abler man
than his young son-in-law, headed his party; thence called after him
Armagnacs. Thus, France was now in this terrible condition, that
it had in it the party of the King's son, the Dauphin Louis; the
party of the Duke of Burgundy, who was the father of the Dauphin's
ill-used wife; and the party of the Armagnacs; all hating each
other; all fighting together; all composed of the most depraved
nobles that the earth has ever known; and all tearing unhappy
France to pieces.
The late King had watched these dissensions from England, sensible
(like the French people) that no enemy of France could injure her
more than her own nobility. The present King now advanced a claim
to the French throne. His demand being, of course, refused, he
reduced his proposal to a certain large amount of French territory,
and to demanding the French princess, Catherine, in marriage, with
a fortune of two millions of golden crowns. He was offered less
territory and fewer crowns, and no princess; but he called his
ambassadors home and prepared for war. Then, he proposed to take
the princess with one million of crowns. The French Court replied
that he should have the princess with two hundred thousand crowns
less; he said this would not do (he had never seen the princess in
his life), and assembled his army at Southampton. There was a
short plot at home just at that time, for deposing him, and making
the Earl of March king; but the conspirators were all speedily
condemned and executed, and the King embarked for France.
It is dreadful to observe how long a bad example will be followed;
but, it is encouraging to know that a good example is never thrown
away. The King's first act on disembarking at the mouth of the
river Seine, three miles from Harfleur, was to imitate his father,
and to proclaim his solemn orders that the lives and property of
the peaceable inhabitants should be respected on pain of death. It
is agreed by French writers, to his lasting renown, that even while
his soldiers were suffering the greatest distress from want of
food, these commands were rigidly obeyed.
With an army in all of thirty thousand men, he besieged the town of
Harfleur both by sea and land for five weeks; at the end of which
time the town surrendered, and the inhabitants were allowed to
depart with only fivepence each, and a part of their clothes. All
the rest of their possessions was divided amongst the English army.
But, that army suffered so much, in spite of its successes, from
disease and privation, that it was already reduced one half.
Still, the King was determined not to retire until he had struck a
greater blow. Therefore, against the advice of all his
counsellors, he moved on with his little force towards Calais.
When he came up to the river Somme he was unable to cross, in
consequence of the fort being fortified; and, as the English moved
up the left bank of the river looking for a crossing, the French,
who had broken all the bridges, moved up the right bank, watching
them, and waiting to attack them when they should try to pass it.
At last the English found a crossing and got safely over. The
French held a council of war at Rouen, resolved to give the English
battle, and sent heralds to King Henry to know by which road he
was going. 'By the road that will take me straight to Calais!' said
the King, and sent them away with a present of a hundred crowns.
The English moved on, until they beheld the French, and then the
King gave orders to form in line of battle. The French not coming
on, the army broke up after remaining in battle array till night,
and got good rest and refreshment at a neighbouring village. The
French were now all lying in another village, through which they
knew the English must pass. They were resolved that the English
should begin the battle. The English had no means of retreat, if
their King had any such intention; and so the two armies passed
the night, close together.
To understand these armies well, you must bear in mind that the
immense French army had, among its notable persons, almost the
whole of that wicked nobility, whose debauchery had made France a
desert; and so besotted were they by pride, and by contempt for the
common people, that they had scarcely any bowmen (if indeed they
had any at all) in their whole enormous number: which, compared
with the English army, was at least as six to one. For these proud
fools had said that the bow was not a fit weapon for knightly
hands, and that France must be defended by gentlemen only. We
shall see, presently, what hand the gentlemen made of it.
Now, on the English side, among the little force, there was a good
proportion of men who were not gentlemen by any means, but who
were good stout archers for all that. Among them, in the morning -
having slept little at night, while the French were carousing and
making sure of victory - the King rode, on a grey horse; wearing on
his head a helmet of shining steel, surmounted by a crown of gold,
sparkling with precious stones; and bearing over his armour,
embroidered together, the arms of England and the arms of France.
The archers looked at the shining helmet and the crown of gold and
the sparkling jewels, and admired them all; but, what they admired
most was the King's cheerful face, and his bright blue eye, as he
told them that, for himself, he had made up his mind to conquer
there or to die there, and that England should never have a ransom
to pay for HIM. There was one brave knight who chanced to say that
he wished some of the many gallant gentlemen and good soldiers,
who were then idle at home in England, were there to increase their
numbers. But the King told him that, for his part, he did not wish
for one more man. 'The fewer we have,' said he, 'the greater will
be the honour we shall win!' His men, being now all in good heart,
were refreshed with bread and wine, and heard prayers, and waited
quietly for the French. The King waited for the French, because
they were drawn up thirty deep (the little English force was only
three deep), on very difficult and heavy ground; and he knew that
when they moved, there must be confusion among them.
As they did not move, he sent off two parties:- one to lie
concealed in a wood on the left of the French: the other, to set
fire to some houses behind the French after the battle should be
begun. This was scarcely done, when three of the proud French
gentlemen, who were to defend their country without any help from
the base peasants, came riding out, calling upon the English to
surrender. The King warned those gentlemen himself to retire with
all speed if they cared for their lives, and ordered the English
banners to advance. Upon that, Sir Thomas Erpingham, a great
English general, who commanded the archers, threw his truncheon
into the air, joyfully, and all the English men, kneeling down upon
the ground and biting it as if they took possession of the country,
rose up with a great shout and fell upon the French.
Every archer was furnished with a great stake tipped with iron; and
his orders were, to thrust this stake into the ground, to discharge
his arrow, and then to fall back, when the French horsemen came on.
As the haughty French gentlemen, who were to break the English
archers and utterly destroy them with their knightly lances, came
riding up, they were received with such a blinding storm of arrows,
that they broke and turned. Horses and men rolled over one
another, and the confusion was terrific. Those who rallied and
charged the archers got among the stakes on slippery and boggy
ground, and were so bewildered that the English archers - who wore
no armour, and even took off their leathern coats to be more active
- cut them to pieces, root and branch. Only three French horsemen
got within the stakes, and those were instantly despatched. All
this time the dense French army, being in armour, were sinking
knee-deep into the mire; while the light English archers, half-
naked, were as fresh and active as if they were fighting on a
But now, the second division of the French coming to the relief of
the first, closed up in a firm mass; the English, headed by the
King, attacked them; and the deadliest part of the battle began.
The King's brother, the Duke of Clarence, was struck down, and
numbers of the French surrounded him; but, King Henry, standing
over the body, fought like a lion until they were beaten off.
Presently, came up a band of eighteen French knights, bearing the
banner of a certain French lord, who had sworn to kill or take the
English King. One of them struck him such a blow with a battle-axe
that he reeled and fell upon his knees; but, his faithful men,
immediately closing round him, killed every one of those eighteen
knights, and so that French lord never kept his oath.
The French Duke of Alen?on, seeing this, made a desperate charge,
and cut his way close up to the Royal Standard of England. He beat
down the Duke of York, who was standing near it; and, when the King
came to his rescue, struck off a piece of the crown he wore. But,
he never struck another blow in this world; for, even as he was in
the act of saying who he was, and that he surrendered to the King;
and even as the King stretched out his hand to give him a safe and
honourable acceptance of the offer; he fell dead, pierced by
The death of this nobleman decided the battle. The third division
of the French army, which had never struck a blow yet, and which
was, in itself, more than double the whole English power, broke and
fled. At this time of the fight, the English, who as yet had made
no prisoners, began to take them in immense numbers, and were still
occupied in doing so, or in killing those who would not surrender,
when a great noise arose in the rear of the French - their flying
banners were seen to stop - and King Henry, supposing a great
reinforcement to have arrived, gave orders that all the prisoners
should be put to death. As soon, however, as it was found that the
noise was only occasioned by a body of plundering peasants, the
terrible massacre was stopped.
Then King Henry called to him the French herald, and asked him to
whom the victory belonged.
The herald replied, 'To the King of England.'
'WE have not made this havoc and slaughter,' said the King. 'It is
the wrath of Heaven on the sins of France. What is the name of
that castle yonder?'
The herald answered him, 'My lord, it is the castle of Azincourt.'
Said the King, 'From henceforth this battle shall be known to
posterity, by the name of the battle of Azincourt.'
Our English historians have made it Agincourt; but, under that
name, it will ever be famous in English annals.
The loss upon the French side was enormous. Three Dukes were
killed, two more were taken prisoners, seven Counts were killed,
three more were taken prisoners, and ten thousand knights and
gentlemen were slain upon the field. The English loss amounted to
sixteen hundred men, among whom were the Duke of York and the
Earl of Suffolk.
War is a dreadful thing; and it is appalling to know how the
English were obliged, next morning, to kill those prisoners
mortally wounded, who yet writhed in agony upon the ground; how
the dead upon the French side were stripped by their own countrymen
and countrywomen, and afterwards buried in great pits; how the dead
upon the English side were piled up in a great barn, and how their
bodies and the barn were all burned together. It is in such
things, and in many more much too horrible to relate, that the real
desolation and wickedness of war consist. Nothing can make war
otherwise than horrible. But the dark side of it was little
thought of and soon forgotten; and it cast no shade of trouble on
the English people, except on those who had lost friends or
relations in the fight. They welcomed their King home with shouts
of rejoicing, and plunged into the water to bear him ashore on
their shoulders, and flocked out in crowds to welcome him in every
town through which he passed, and hung rich carpets and tapestries
out of the windows, and strewed the streets with flowers, and made
the fountains run with wine, as the great field of Agincourt had
run with blood.