October 25th: The Battle of Agincourt
Early 15th century painting of the Battle of Agincourt.
Of the many poetic phrases often used by men and women in the military to describe their fellows, few if any have been as widely used, emblazoned, stated, or tattooed as “band of brothers.” Most people who invoke the phrase in one way or another no doubt know it’s one of the many gems of the great grand-daddy of so many famous English language idioms: William Shakespeare. But the deeper details of the phrase’s origin aren’t as widely known. After all, it’s not from one of his that most schoolchildren are lucky/forced to read at some point, like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet.
Original cover page of Shakespeare's Henry V.
The phrase from one of his historical plays, Henry V, about the early years of the titular King of England’s reign. It’s part of a section called the Saint Crispin’s Day Speech in Act IV, Scene III, wherein King Henry aims to rally and bolster his outnumbered and hungry army as they prepare to do battle. He succeeds and his men then go on to win against impossible odds. As you can imagine, the flowery speech was a bit of dramatic license on the part of the playwright. But the fight he and his men won that day in 1415, the Battle of Agincourt, was no invention of Shakespeare’s. It was a stunning upset victory for the English in their on again/off again Hundred Years War with France that hinged upon what was, back then, a fairly revolutionary idea in European warfare: what if we killed our enemies from a distance instead of running at each other with heavy metal objects?
Also, you're wearing this.
Henry V became King of England at age twenty-six in 1413 and, within a year, was already talking about invading France. Later historians and writers would speculate that he reopened combat with the French to distract from domestic issues or because he’d been coerced into doing so by English bishops who feared he’d seize their land. But the only cause mentioned at the time was Henry’s claim that the throne of France rightfully belonged to him through the family ties that linked much of the nobility of both nations. Henry’s government and the French under King Charles VI, attempted to negotiate a settlement but that quickly fell through. Henry raised an army of roughly 12,000 men, crossed the English Channel, and landed in northern France on August 13th, 1415.
King Henry V of England.
For over a month, the English besieged the city of Harfleur (an event Shakespeare also covered in several scenes of his play, including one where his also-famous phrase “once more unto the breach” was coined). The city fell on September 22nd and a few weeks later, on October 8th, Henry and most of his army, somewhere between 6,000 and 9,000 men, marched north with the intention of taking the French stronghold city of Calais. The French, who had finally managed to raise an army they deemed large enough to stop Henry, moved their troops as quickly as they could to prevent Henry’s army from crossing the River Somme. They were ultimately unsuccessful and, on October 24th, the two forces found themselves facing each other across a strip of plowed fields between two wooded rises near the present-day town of Azincourt.
Believed to be the present day location of the Battle of Agincourt.
Henry’s men had marched hard, over 260 miles in two weeks. They were low on food and supplies and disease ran rampant through the ranks. Only about a sixth of them were trained men-at-arms; the vast majority were longbowmen, English and Welsh commoners armed with 6-foot long bows of yew wood. They were considered no match for the average knight or nobleman with his extensive training and heavy armor. The French, fighting on their home turf and led by the Constable of France (a noble who ranked second only to the king) Charles d’Albret, outnumbered the English at least two-to-one and had a large contingent of heavy cavalry. So things looked pretty rough for Henry. But with his men in need of rest and resupply, he had no choice but to try and fight his way through.
Charles d'Albret, Constable of France.
Early the next morning, Henry positioned his troops in three sections: his men-at-arms and knights in the center with longbowmen on the flanks behind wooden stakes driven into the ground to deter enemy cavalry. At some point he gave a speech to his men, although it likely contained less flowery language than the version in the play. And many more reminders that, as commoners, most of his soldiers could not be ransomed for money from their relatives if captured. And captured soldiers who could not be ransomed were typically executed. So it doubtlessly inspired his men to fight harder, but it seems unlikely any of them felt inclined to get a section of it tattooed anywhere.
Laurence Olivier as King Henry giving the Saint Crispin's Day Speech in the 1944 film version of the play.
The French lined up in three massive ranks, although specific numbers and arrangements differ in various accounts. Despite their superior numbers, they held off on attacking as the English were preparing their battle lines that morning, likely because they were waiting on even more reinforcements or hoped the desperate English would charge them first. Whatever the cause, they gave Henry’s men all the time they needed to get in position. Once they were, the thousands of English bowmen loosed a volley of arrows that rained down on the surprised and enraged French. The battle began.
Another painting of the battle.
The French cavalry charged, but hemmed in by the woodlands to their flanks could only cross the 1,000 yards of open field between them and the English. It had rained heavily the day before, turning the loose, plowed ground into a muddy quagmire. Horses fell and floundered in the mud as English arrows continued to rain down, wounding and panicking both men and their mounts. The cavalry retreated in disarray, further churning up the ground, and the French men-at-arms, most in heavy plate metal, took their turn at attacking the English. Running in full armor with a broadsword across a muddy swathe the length of ten football fields proved even more foolish than trying to do it on horseback. And the English arrows, which could pierce even plate armor at a range of a few hundred yards, continued to rain down.
Typical English longbowman of the time.
By the time surviving ranks of French troops reached the English front lines, they were caked in mud and utterly exhausted. Many were simply tipped over and unable to stand back up in their 50 pounds, or more, of armor. Others were crushed and suffocated by the rushing mass of their own numbers (which was actually somewhat common in medieval combat). Many were killed by the same longbowmen who’d harried them so badly in their advance and now, with their enemy close and arrows running low, swarmed the exhausted French knights with hatchets and hammers. The battle was over in about three hours. The only success the French met was when a small contingent of their cavalry attacked the English supply train and stole a bunch of King Henry’s bags and one of his spare crowns.
Painting of King Henry during the battle.
By even the lowest estimates, French losses were at least six times those of the English, perhaps as many as 11,000 men. Constable d’Albret was among the dead. In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, Henry ordered thousands of prisoners executed, possibly fearing another French attack and unable to spare men to watch them, possibly out of cruelty and vengeance. The French were utterly stunned by the defeat and King Henry returned to England a few weeks later in utter triumph. He died of dysentery during a siege a few years later in 1422 during yet another campaign in France, but his legacy as the conquering hero at Agincourt is what he’s best known for.
Tomb of King Henry V in Westminster Abbey.
Much of Henry’s continued fame is no doubt thanks to the Bard of Avon’s dramatic depiction of the 1415 campaign and the brilliant speech he depicts the king giving on that fateful morning. And while we will never know the exact words King Henry V had for his men as they braced themselves for battle that morning, we can all probably agree that the ones Shakespeare retroactively came up with for him are about as inspirational as you can get in iambic pentameter.