Battle of Agincourt - 600 Years

We’ve finally arrived at the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, one of the most famous battles in French or English history. Many of us first learned about the battle from Shakespeare’s Henry V, and in particular are familiar with the king’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, with its famous “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” line, supposedly delivered to his troops on the eve of battle. 
Agincourt Marker

As with so much history, there is still debate regarding this battle. In fact, the name of the town is actually Azincourt, and the arguments only get larger from there. The rote story, so to speak, is that the English were tremendously outnumbered, but with the aid of the longbow and a type of underdog courage, prevailed over the feckless French. That traditional view is challenged, even today, and the evolution of the story is still happening. As study of the battle continues, perhaps someday we will have more clarity on the actual history. Regardless, it is likely that the French held a distinct numerical advantage, and that their attack on a well-situated English army was reckless. 

Road into Agincourt

What cannot be debated is that the English won an incredible battle at Agincourt, their last major victory of The Hundred Years War, and the longbowmen of the English side are to thank. The French pushed themselves into the fray in such a way as to make fighting almost impracticable for themselves, and it’s likely that many French were caught in a crush - almost incapable of fighting for that reason alone. English archers devastated the front lines with their arrows, and were able to advance through the muddy terrain and kill many with knives and heavy mallets. Still, there’s no doubt the French knights and soldiery showed their bravery, and the result of the battle with such terrible casualty rates purely reflects that fact. 

The battlefield today is still very much as it was on that Friday in 1415. The town is small, the area is still rural, and the battlefield is practically all farmland. It’s possible to stand on the field and picture the French knights spurring their horses, with their finest trappings, alongside others on foot advancing in full armor through the mud and into the ranks of the English. There have been enough findings of relics throughout the years to verify that the field is accurately known. While there are a few historical markers and stones, the town has gone to a higher level and added historic decorations, with those leading to a very nice museum.  

Agincourt Monument

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the battlefield a couple or three times, and admit my surprise and delight at such a detailed and complex museum in a small town. You’re able to step through pictures and text (in French and English) that guide you through the events leading to the battle, as well as the combat, itself. The displays range from reproductions of the weapons, clothing, and armour, to actual relics from the field; miniature soldiers on a scale field and a great in-the-round “video” of the battle complete the experience. Most importantly, this museum gives you enough to understand and interpret what happened there. 

In the large scheme of things Agincourt is difficult for me to assess. It once again demonstrated the effectiveness of the English longbow, but the war was lost regardless, and Henry V was never able to take the French throne. It can be argued that the French loss was actually beneficial, giving rise to the advent of Joan of Arc, a more consolidated French army, and the final victory for the French in the series of conflicts that we now call The Hundred Years War. It also gave us a historic battlefield, a lesson in bravery and frustration, and a great Shakespeare story. What more could we ask for? 

Agincourt Museum

Battle of Hastings Anniversary

On this day in 1066 Duke William of Normandy overcame great odds and defeated King Harold and the English on Senlac Hill in southern England, at what is now called the Battle of Hastings. The English lost, terribly, and primarily because of Harold rushing to battle. Having defeated the Norse just a couple weeks earlier at Stamford Bridge, Harold practically force-marched his men south to meet the Normans. He fought without archers and without the additional volunteers that certainly would have arrived from all around England. 


On the battlefield itself his men stood firm, until mistakes made by the men on his right flank opened up a vulnerability to the Norman cavalry. King Harold’s brothers likely commanded the right flank, but by committing the same mistake twice - charging the enemy when they should have stood firm - they brought about one of history’s greatest upsets. The traditional story is that Harold was hit in the eye by a Norman arrow, and that is very possible. Regardless of what happened, the Battle of Hastings was the first and foremost action of the Norman Conquest. While action continued on for years, that was the decisive event.

Hastings Battlefield
My first trip to England was 20 years ago, and I was able to attend the large reenactment that’s annually held on the battlefield. I witnessed a great mock battle with a huge crowd that largely cheered the English. William the Conqueror had promised to build an abbey if victorious that day, and he did keep his promise. The remnants still exist today.

 Today the battlefield is a great place to visit, and is just a train ride of an hour and a half from London’s Charing Cross Station. Leave the train at the Battle stop, and you’re a pleasant 15 or 20 minute walk from the field. I highly encourage a visit to one of the most significant places in the history of western civilization.

Battle Train Station

Pritzker Military Museum and Library - Chicago

I was in Chicago last week, found a few unexpected hours in my schedule, and decided to make the best of that time. The weather was cool and windy (imagine that in Chicago), so I wasn’t really interested in one of the boat or bus tours. I’ve often wanted to visit the site of the Battle of Fort Dearborn from the War of 1812, so I decided to walk south on Michigan Avenue toward Roosevelt; even though the actual site is debated, the most likely option is that spot, or a location about a mile farther south. At the very least I’d get the lay of the land, so to speak. (I should note that this event is sometimes referred to as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, though I personally hesitate to ever use the term “massacre” when referring to a battle during wartime.) I was starting from the actual site of Fort Dearborn in downtown Chicago near the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, and decided to grab a quick bite before heading south. 

While having lunch I looked through a Chicago map and brochure that I had picked up at my hotel, just to be sure that I knew the best route to my destination. In a moment of serendipity, I also discovered something else. Listed among nearby attractions was the Pritzker Military Museum and Library and, to further my luck, it was shown as being on Michigan Avenue, along my route toward the battlefield site. I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d find there - never heard of it before - but I knew I had to take a look. I accidentally walked past the entrance on my way south, but discovered on the way back north that it was actually well-marked - on the corner at Monroe, practically across from Millennium Park. 
The museum actually lies on the second and third floors of the building, and is accessible by elevator and stairs. Upstairs I was greeted by a lady who gave me a great description of what they had, and where I’d find it. Of particular interest to me was an exhibit regarding Major Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath, a career soldier who served in the 20th Indiana Regiment during the American Civil War, through the Indian Wars, and ending with the Spanish-American War, when he died from disease in Puerto Rico. The Pritzker Museum has apparently just published his journals, and the exhibit was a complement to the book: Dignity of Duty: The Journals of Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath, 1861-1898. 
The Pritzker is indeed a museum and library, with a great collection of books, periodicals, and magazines. With large windows to allow in light, and comfortable chairs throughout, I can see how this place could easily become a historian’s hangout. I noted a list of upcoming speakers, which looked very intriguing, and included Douglas Mastriano speaking on his recent biography of Sergeant Alvin York. 

While the museum side of things was somewhat limited, what they had on display was interesting, including various artworks, Vietnam War photography, a Medal of Honor exhibit, a great U.S. flag commemorating the USS Maine, and some original, early art by Howard Chandler Christy. With plenty of room and always something else of interest along the way, I spent an enjoyable couple hours there. I should also note that the book selection seemed to be very comprehensive, and would be an asset to plenty of scholars. 

Sometimes you luck into things, and I consider the Pritzker Military Museum and Library a lucky find. I’m unclear whether I actually stood on the Fort Dearborn battlefield, but what I found along the way was even better. If you’re ever in Chicago, it’s absolutely worth the $5 admission and a couple or three hours of your time. I’ll certainly return.