Battle of Agincourt anniversary

The Bishop gave the address at a service at Westminster Abbey to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

Read the full story on the Diocese of London website here

Westminster Abbey Agincourt 600 (recording accessible here)

“O God of battles! Steel my soldiers’ hearts, Possess them not with fear”; even so Lord God may we be courageous in the perils and chances of our own day as Harry was in his. Amen

In 1765, the 350th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, Dr Johnson observed, “we are apt to promise to ourselves more lasting memory than the changing state of human things admits. The prediction is not verified; the feast of Crispin passes by without any mention of Agincourt. Later events obliterate the former.”

The afterlife of battles is a fascinating subject. Bannockburn is still resonant in the popular imagination north of the border as a significant landmark in the evolution of a Scottish identity. The legacy of Agincourt is more elusive. It did not lead to the kind of union between England and France which was Henry’s strategic aim. The conquests which followed were quickly lost in the course of the fifteenth century and it was perhaps just as well. As Jonathan Sumption argued in a sparkling speech at the Agincourt banquet in the Guildhall, the centre of the new Kingdom would have almost certainly been Paris, capital of its richer territories with a negative impact on the emergence of a specifically English identity.

We cannot change the past but we are responsible for how we remember it. Dr Johnson would perhaps have been surprised that Agincourt has not been forgotten, thanks above all to Shakespeare. The six hundredth anniversary has been observed with energy and imagination culminating in this service. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Trustees and supporters of Agincourt 600 led by Professor Anne Curry, doyenne of Agincourt studies and Dr Sinclair Rogers. They have directed our memories to the enduring themes.

*The courage of the outnumbered English army – “The poor condemned English, like sacrifices by their watchful fires sit patiently and inly ruminate the morning’s danger.” After the march from Harfleur many of them were in poor physical condition and suffering from dysentery as they faced the test of battle.

*The triumph of the happy few, the band of brothers – an idea which has travelled and flowered the other side of the Atlantic.

*Vulgar jingoism has been disallowed by summoning up memories of Anglo-French comradeship in 1915 but what remains of “Deo gratias Anglia, redde pro victoria” [Agincourt Carol: “England, give thanks to God for victory!”] is a blessing on our simple common humanity, a blessing on our beloved land and an invocation of the energy of the Holy Spirit.

It is significant that Churchill in 1944 before the D-Day landings asked Laurence Olivier to make a film of Henry V as a morale booster. The allied armies were in Normandy when the film was released and many of us have had an opportunity to see it in this anniversary year.

We are in the midst of a great debate on British values and identity at a time of mingled promise and peril. London in particular is a laboratory for testing whether it will be possible for the cosmopolitan civilisation which is becoming a global reality to hold together. In 1415 London celebrated in a pilgrimage led by the Lord Mayor [whose successor is with us today] to this Abbey Church. Subsequently the King was given a triumphal entry to the City on his return from France. Loyalties were perhaps less complicated. Now we are in the midst of debate about identity including what it means to be British. Some in the world are reacting to change by retreating into ever narrower definitions of their identity. But merely invoking the universal concepts of tolerance and respect with which we probably all agree does not generate sufficient energy to transform lives and build a community. To give shape and meaning to life we need to inhabit a narrative capacious enough to permit development and to accommodate new themes as these celebrations have done. Not only stories are needed but communities which inhabit them, communities which need not be based on ethnicity, but membership of which gives us dignity and something to live up to. We also need representative figures, whom we can admire and with whom we can identify.                

This is urgent because there are other seductive narratives in the market place offering a home and a cause for the bored or disaffected. You cannot exorcise the satanic by creating a spiritual vacuum.

No doubt social and economic factors have a role in incubating religious extremism but the religious element cannot simply be reduced to something else. We human beings are shape shifters and shape our lives and our futures by looking beyond ourselves. It is part of being human to worship and if there is no worthy object of worship then the vacuum is filled by something banal or dangerous.

One of the most striking things about King Henry V who lies buried in this Abbey Church is his clarity about the role of faith as a vital ingredient in leadership. Virginia Davis of Queen Mary College has recently published some reflections on the role of the Chapel Royal at Agincourt. My predecessor as Dean of the Chapel Royal, Esmond Lacey was on the field of battle although unlike the Archbishop of Sens on the French side he did not actually participate in the fighting. One of the Chaplains who composed our most valuable source for the battle, the Gesta Henrici Quinti was as he says “sitting on a horse among the baggage at the rear”. I can imagine how he must have trembled as the French charged. But his presence and that of the other members of the Chapel Royal is an indication as Dr Davis says of the importance the King attached to their role. In the rapid march from Harfleur to Calais everything non-essential was left behind but not the portable Chapel Royal. Henry was at mass at dawn on the day of the battle.

His was no fanatical ill-considered faith. He had taken care to consult the Church as well as his peers before embarking on the mission to France. Shakespeare’s Henry says

“We have no thought in us but France,

Save those to God that run before our business.”

Any serious mission has to be aligned with our deepest vision. That is one of the lessons extracted from Shakespeare’s play by Sir Laurence Olivier’s son Richard in his fascinating study “Inspirational Leadership: Henry V and the Muse of Fire”. Leadership is a hotly debated topic at the moment in church and state. There is much to learn from Shakespeare’s Henry who draws together his companions not to serve his own ego but in the service of a vision of a united realm under God. Henry had a clear and simple vision of what could be but he was able to improvise in emergencies and conquer fear in the conviction that there are some things more important than living. And he could communicate that confidence to others –

“A largess universal like the sun

His liberal eye doth give to everyone,

Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,

Behold, as may unworthiness define,

A little touch of Harry in the night.”

We can cry God for Harry, England and St George with a good conscience as we distil the themes which embrace our more diverse community while not forgetting the victims of war. We remember prisoners like Charles d’Orleans who was captured at Agincourt aged 21 and spent the next 24 years a prisoner in England. He has left us in his prison poetry a lonely voice from six hundred years ago which has still has the power to arouse our fellow feeling. As he says in one of his English poems “My poor hert bicomen is hermyte”.

We remember those who died and suffered on both sides but just as they did when news of the battle arrived in London and was communicated to the Lord Mayor we sing Te Deum Laudamus as we go now, marvelling at the continuities of the English story and the way in which this Abbey is a storehouse of precious memories, to the tomb of King Henry close by the shrine of Edward the Confessor to salute the victor of Agincourt. Deo gratias Anglia, redde pro victoria.