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The Battle of Agincourt 1415: Technology, Interpretation & Legacy

In 2015, the Historical Association launched a range of national competitions to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Staff from the Wallace Collection assisted the Year 7 students at Kineton High School, in Warwickshire. In this blog, David Edge, Armourer and Head of Conservation at the Wallace Collection, explains the project.

1One of the competitions set by  the Historical Association was aimed at pupils in Key Stage 3 (11-12 years old) studying the medieval period as part of their National Curriculum. As well as enabling the pupils to develop a deep understanding of the fifteenth century, the project was also intended to tap into their perceptions of significance, and get them to look at the museum exhibition as an interpretation – ultimately leading them to question curatorial decision-making and how what we are told through museum displays and exhibitions can affect our interpretations of events or ideas of significance. The participating schools had to select one of a choice of six themes upon which to focus an exhibition which would be curated entirely by the students, and Kineton chose ‘Weapons and Technology’.

A team of Year 7 students undertook this project, which involved a considerable amount of study and effort outside lesson time – but they thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Their findings and reflections have been published in a catalogue, which also includes the curatorial information in the exhibition itself, and is mostly all their own work.

As Armourer and Head of Conservation at the Wallace Collection, I spent a day away from my regular duties at the museum to visit the school and assist with the project. The students had to select the objects they found most relevant from a range available (mostly replica artefacts, weapons and armour, but also including some original material), complete all the paperwork required for loans, including condition-checking, learn about their chosen items, and present them within an exhibition context. They had to learn how to handle their display-objects in a safe and professional manner (you will note in the photographs that during handling of the exhibits the children are wearing museum-approved nitrile gloves, to avoid risking their sweaty fingerprints marking the metal surfaces!), and they also discussed such matters as display techniques, access and labelling. They themselves chose, for example, to put the arrow-heads and original excavated lance-head behind glass for safety, but wanted to have the replica riveted mail out and available for the visitors to handle.

One of the students created a powerpoint explaining the course of the battle, and this was run on a continuous video-loop projected onto a whitescreen in the exhibition room (a conference room adjacent to the school library). Additionally, while the display was open and running, a soundtrack played continuously (appropriately, the contemporary ‘Agincourt Carol’)

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Here are some of the interpretations from the catalogue the students wrote:

 

The Battle of Agincourt
The Battle took place in October, that was pretty late in the year for armies to be fighting in the Middle Ages. As the map in our The Battle of Agincourt Powerpoint Presentation shows, it took place in northern France, near The Somme river. The English were on their way home and had just crossed the river, when they were blocked off by a huge French army.

So they had to fight. The English had mostly cheaper soldiers because of the way the king paid for the army – longbow archers and men-at-arms (which is knights that are fighting on foot). The English had mostly infantry. In contrast the French army had lots of expensive, armoured knights on horseback (because the French army was paid for differently – the nobles paid for themselves basically). The French were feeling really confident and patriotic, so loads of French nobles wanted to take part. The French army did have archers too – mostly crossbowmen – but they had positioned them at the back of their forces.

The English longbow archers are really famous and they’d been really important at Crecy in 1346 (we have included a manuscript picture of Crecy). In Tudor times, when the gun had taken over from the bow, lots of songs and plays looked back on English longbows as being really fast and strong. It was like the Tudors saw the Hundred Years War as a sort of golden age.
Actually, although the archers were really important at the start of the battle to slow the French advance down, our research found that they made less impact then they used to. This is because by 1415, the knights were wearing steel armour, not iron, so it was harder (with more carbon in it). That meant that a so-called “armour-piercing arrow”, actually didn’t go through plate armour. Even so, we have bodkins in our exhibition too, which were really good for going through mail and fish-tail arrowheads which would knock down the horses, so the French army was still in trouble.

Then, you have to remember that it was October and it had been raining a lot. Everything was dirty and muddy that is why lots of the English had nasty illnesses too. Our research found that in the World War One, the Somme area got horribly muddy and soldiers had to wade slowly through it, which was really difficult. Agincourt is in just the same area, and the mud made the French army get stuck, so even though were lots of them, they couldn’t keep charging at the English and the French crossbows never got a chance to join in.

Then the English archers got out from their sharp sticks and took hammers and daggers into the main battle. So in a way the battle was won by archers, but they used hammers, not bows, to batter the struggling French knights.

Afterwards, the English killed loads of French prisoners, but because that doesn’t look very glorious, Shakespeare made out that the French had attacked the baggage and the boys, so that Henry V had an excuse, but we don’t know if he really did.

 

How significant was the battle?

At the time, it was pretty significant, because it killed lots of the French nobles, and some others were captured, so the French had nobody to rule them. This made it easier for Henry V to take over France completely, because there wasn’t much resistance yet. The Dauphin (heir to the French throne) was still alive, but he didn’t have enough nobles to make a proper resistance army. The King of France at the time was mentally ill and thought he was made of glass, which made him literally weak, but also weak in his own imagination!

It has also been quite significant because ruling France kind of became traditional for England. This meant other kings like Henry VIII used it to show how strong, but also how English they were.

Shakespeare wrote a play called Henry V in 1599 and it was shown at the newly built Globe Theatre. Henry’s whole campaign in France is in the play, but most of the Battle of Agincourt itself actually takes place off stage, with actors running on to have a scene as if they were taking a quick break from the main fighting.

There are some very rousing speeches in it which are about fighting bravely even when you are hugely outnumbered, but also some really sad speeches about how war ruins the farming landscape and makes everybody poor too, so it’s quite balanced. Bits of it are quite funny too.
In Elizabethan times, the main enemy was Spain, but English people still used Agincourt to remember how great they are (were). We have put Shakespeare’s play and a song in our exhibition because it went on and the play has been seen over and over.

Later, in 1944, when the British and Americans were going to invade France to get rid of the Nazis (D Day), Laurence Olivier made an expensive film to make British people feel brave and proud too, so it’s gone on and on.

The Battle of Agincourt scene in Laurence Olivier’s film version seems to have been shot on a beautiful, sunny day, on ground firm enough to charge horses on. In contrast, Kenneth Branagh’s version looks much less glorious. Agincourt took place in wet October, and the sticky conditions of Somme mud played a big part in slowing down the French army so the crossbowmen, positioned at the back, couldn’t be used effectively.

(The front cover of the Signet Classics edition of Henry V, and a scene from Olivier’s 1944 film, both show the historically inaccurate winching of the Dauphin onto his horse! Both images were included in the exhibition)

These images strongly suggest that Olivier’s film has had a big impact on people’s perception of history – Signet could have chosen all sorts of line drawings, as it’s other titles show, but the publishers selected this one. The film-makers knew it was “wrong” at the time, but wanted to make the French knights look stupid and clumsy.

 

A study of armour and weapon technology
Arrowheads to pierce plate armour, like the one being forged in these photos from Reading University, were made from iron. Iron is not as hard as steel. In the 1300s, plate armour was also made from mostly iron, but by 1415 plate armour was steel. That’s why in the tests that Reading University did, the arrowhead bent instead of going through the steel sheet.

5This manuscript illustration from c.1480 shows a forge in the Middle Ages. The iron or steel was heated until it was soft, but it wasn’t melted completely. You can see the bellows in the background, the furnace and a quenching bath – putting the hot metal into cold water made it even harder.

6David Edge, Head of Conservation at the Wallace Collection, came into our school and showed us how they put slivers of metal artefacts under an Vickers metallurgical microscope to see the structure of the metal. We asked if we could get a microscope to look at it ourselves, but it would only be 10X magnification and the one in the museum does 160X. Below, you can see that iron (the lighter shade) is full of slag but the steel (the darker section) is iron and carbon.

7bMost soldiers wore a jack of plates or “brigandine”, or even just a quilted and padded jack made out of lots of layers of cloth.
The brigandine is cheaper to make because you can just use lots of chips of steel, rather than one carefully shaped, large piece. On the replica, kindly lent by the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, London, you can see where the plates are wearing through on one shoulder.

Padding offered some protection, but was less strong than plate armour as our exhibition arrow shows!
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Since the objective of the whole exercise was to create an exhibition, rather than for it to run for any length of time, the display has now been taken down, but a record of it has been kept, and of course that record with accompanying photographs has been submitted to the exhibition competition organisers. Regardless of whether or not Kineton actually wins, all agreed that the exercise was both useful and fun to carry out.

While it was up it was viewed by other students at the school, plus teaching staff, parents during a ‘Parents Evening’, and the whole Board of Governor. The students had also included a ‘Visitors’ Comments’ box with the exhibition, and by the end of a fortnight it was overflowing. Some of the comments are included below… but my personal favourite is the one from an admiring but slightly disgruntled sixth-former complaining that he never got to do any such thing in Lower School!!

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Finally, the teachers and pupils at Kineton High School have asked me to thank especially the Trustees of the Wallace Collection, and the museum’s Education Department, for kindly agreeing to loan replica items of armour from their educational ‘handling’ collection, to help furnish the exhibition’s displays. An anonymous local collector also loaned material, for which they are also most grateful. All the necessary paperwork and official loan forms were filled in and submitted by the student curators!

 

A Wallace Collection art-object loan form

A Wallace Collection art-object loan form

 

From the Wallace Collection museum point of view, our professional assistance and participation in activities like this serve to bring the museum world into the lives of young people who have previously had little experience of even visiting a museum, let alone going ‘behind the scenes’ to set up a museum display for themselves, but that is surely what Museum Education is all about, so for myself I found it a very well-worthwhile way of spending a day of my time! And as always, of course, the children themselves were absolute stars, bright, engaged and interested, full of ideas and insightful comments, hoovering up knowledge and delighting in sharing what they’d learned with others.

Well done, Kineton Year Sevens!

David Edge
Armourer & Head of Conservation

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Update 29 April 2016
Congratulations to the pupils Kineton High School for being runners up in their competition and being merited special recognition!

 

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