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A Victory, but not Against the Odds

To mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, Arms and Armour Curator Tobias Capwell separates the myths from the facts to explore what really happened on that dramatic but often misunderstood moment in European history.

The Wallace Collection is currently showing a free display The Sinews of War: Arms and Armour from the Age of Agincourt. By ‘The Sinews of War’, Roman military thinkers meant money. The money needed to wage war. And for a long time, this way of conceiving and describing an essential economic foundation for military action was generally accepted. Until that is, the Renaissance, when Machiavelli convincingly demolished the idea in Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (written c. 1517; published posthumously in 1531). Chapter 10 of Book II opens with the statement that ‘contrary to the vulgar opinion, Money is not the Sinews of War.’ Instead, the Sinews of War were good, well-armed fighting men.

Without such an army no amount of money will meet your wants, the natural strength of your country will not protect you, and the fidelity and attachment of your subjects will not endure, since it is impossible that they should continue true to you when you cannot defend them.

Cutting even more to the heart of the matter, Machiavelli pointed out that ‘war is made with iron and not with gold’. With weapons wielded by men who know how to use them, a ruler can take as much gold as he requires or desires.

A474 frontSo it is the Machiavellian view of an ancient idea that effectively encapsulates the starting point for the Wallace Collection’s special display The Sinews of War: Arms and Armour from the Age of Agincourt (1 September – 31 December 2015). Conveniently, it was also Shakespeare’s fictionalised King Henry V who exhorted his soldiers to ‘stiffen up the sinews’ in advance of the final attack on the French city of Harfleur.

The permanent displays of medieval and Renaissance arms and armour at the Wallace Collection have several defining strengths, including sixteenth-century princely armour, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century civilian swords, or rapiers, and associated self-defence paraphernalia, and early decorated firearms. Perhaps most remarkable however, especially of a collection of such a small size (in comparison to the other national British museums), is the reasonably large group of early (pre-sixteenth century) arms and armour. Among those objects are a notable number dating from late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.

European Armoury I-8Normally, these pieces dating from and relating to the mid-point of the Hundred Years War are displayed as part of a much larger permanent gallery display, which has remained largely unchanged since 1908. These Edwardian museum displays are wonderfully immersive, and create an inspiring, stimulating environment, but they also make it quite difficult to explore the original living contexts and functions of the objects displayed. To look at the collection in new ways, we must create special exhibitions and displays.

IMG_0303This year, the 600th anniversary year of Henry V’s famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt provided an important opportunity for one such special display. To commemorate a dramatic but often misunderstood moment in European history, all of the weapons and pieces of armour with specific relevance to the battle have been removed from their normal locations in the permanent European Armouries at Hertford House and moved down into one of our temporary display spaces, the Porphyry Court on the Lower Ground Floor. Here we have the freedom to present carefully selected pieces in a different way, arranged to tell particular stories and explore new points of view.

IMG_0305Almost as soon as the fighting had ceased, myths began to grow up around the battle fought on 25 October, 1415, near the French village of Azincourt in the Pas-de-Calais. Here an English army of around 8000 men had met and defeated an only moderately larger assembly of French forces totalling between 10,000 and 12,000. Tales always grow in the telling, and one aspect of this battle that began inflating almost immediately was the size of the French army; the extreme disparity in the sizes of the two armies helped to emphasise the greatness, the miraculousness even, of the English victory. God and the right were clearly with the English, and Henry V in particular.

S256 front-1At the same time as battle participants, eyewitnesses and contemporary historians were doing their best to record and compile accurate accounts of what really had happened at the battle, a parallel tradition of memory was building momentum- the tradition of the myth, as opposed to the reality, of Agincourt.

The myth presents an exhausted English army (they weren’t; the whole army travelled on horseback or in horse-drawn vehicles), sick with dysentery (they weren’t; the sick had all been invalided home), facing a vastly superior enemy army (it wasn’t- the French were probably at most greater in numbers by around 50%, many of which did not actually take part in the battle), who all attacked on horseback (they didn’t; cavalry only played a minor part in the opening stages of the battle; the majority of the French advanced on foot) and winning a spectacular victory against the odds.

In fact, if we were to attempt to calculate the actual odds of victory or defeat, we would probably find that they were stacked heavily in favour of the English.

Despite having chosen the place of battle, the French afforded their enemy the luxury of time to survey the landscape, choose his ground, and deploy at his leisure. Henry and his commanders took full advantage of this opportunity, positioning their troops in a great arch spanning the width of newly ploughed and rain-soaked field, flanked by trees on either side. To reach Henry and the other English royal nobles arrayed in the middle of the field, the French, goaded into attacking, had to march past the forward wings of the English line (which were packed with high concentrations of archers), allowing themselves to be shot in their flanks and even from behind, all the while slogging through thick, gluey clay-mud which was a foot or more thick in places. While the French exhausted themselves in this advance of great disadvantage, being harassed, wounded and killed all the while by the literally thousands of arrows being poured into them (c. 7000 archers, each with a minimum of 24 arrows = 168,000 arrows; with around 2500 archers shooting at any one point, and with each of those loosing 6 arrows per minute, that’s 15,000 arrows flying per minute, for around a quarter of an hour, before all arrows were expended). The English knights and men-at-arms waited patiently in their line of battle, fresh and highly motivated.

A251-2Henry had achieved a tactical situation which ideally suited his army, and which was highly disadvantageous for his opponents. The odds tipped further in his favour by his very strict and clearly defined command structure, and by the contrastingly shambolic lack of discipline and organisation amongst the French. This was an important and impressive victory, but it was certainly not against the odds.

Battles are usually studied through the written sources and by examination of the landscape and its archaeology. Another important approach can be made however by looking at the ‘sinews’ of a battle as Machiavelli understood them. In the study of more modern conflicts, we can talk to the people who were there. In the case of more ancient battles, no involved person remains to be interviewed, but we do have the other sort of sinew, the equipment, and the interrogation of that source is a major contribution a museum collection and its staff can make. We hope that by bringing together a small but very closely relevant group of weapons and armour, we can illuminate the reality of the battle a little more brightly, existing as it does in the shadow of the myth.

By Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour


The Wallace Collection’s free display The Sinews of War: Arms and Armour from the Age of Agincourt is on view in the Porphyry Court until 31 December.


For those of us on the wrong side of The Pond, is there any sort of publication for this exhibit?

Scott Baltic on 28 October 2015

How lucky I was to be at Tobias Capwell’s study day on Agincourt which filled in all the gaps with erudition and humour, and was a visual delight as well!

However, is this statement [from the blog] correct??
” the WHOLE army travelled on horseback or in horse-drawn vehicles”
Surely the foot soldiers were on foot??

Penelope Woolfitt on 2 November 2015

The medieval armour would be the most appropriate thing I would like to have in my medieval collection.

Jeniffer Martin on 26 November 2015