The Little Grey Horse: Henry V’s Speech at Agincourt and the Battle Exhortation in Ancient Historiography

The Little Grey Horse – Henry V’s Speech at Agincourt and the Battle Exhortation in Ancient Historiography

Hansen, Mogens Herman

Histoss Vol.2 (1998)

History of the Battle of Agincourt (1833)

History of the Battle of Agincourt (1833)


Abstract: This article is a continuation of M.H. Hansen, “The Battle Exhortation in Ancient Historiography,” Historia 42 (1993) 161-80, hereafter referred to as Hansen, and at the same time a reply to W.K. Pritchett, “The General’s Exhortation in Greek Warfare,” in Essays in Greek History (Amsterdam 1994) 27-109, hereafter referred to as Pritchett. In my reply I argue (a) that Pritchett’s (repeated) view of how King Henry V addressed his army at Agincourt is (still) unconvincing, and (b) that Pritchett misrepresents my view of battle exhortations while, in his own treatment of the genre, he endorses what is one of the main points of my article, viz., that apophthegms and short addresses to individual men and small contingents shouted to the soldiers as the general passed along the lines were later written up in rhetorical form as if the general had been standing in front of his army and addressed his men with a genuine speech. The article is concluded with a typology of battle exhortations to be developed in future studies.

Introduction: Speeches by generals to their army are of different kinds. One type is the speech—deliberative or exhortative—delivered at what is often called a syllogos, i.e. a meeting of the army held in some convenient place resembling an assembly place where, for example, the men can stand or sit in a horseshoe facing the speaker. Quite a different type is the battle exhortation, allegedly delivered to the army when drawn up in battle formation. In historiography harbingers of this type of speech can be found in Herodotos; the genre is already fully developed in Thucydides’ work, and it is known from the majority of later Greek and Roman historians. On the other hand, this type of speech is poorly attested in rhetorical theory and practice, and since classical rhetoric was cut to fit what was actually needed, one begins to suspect that the battle exhortation is essentially a historiographic fiction and not a rhetorical fact.

In any study of the ancient battle exhortations a crucial problem is that in most cases we have just one single source which we have to trust or reject. An evaluation of the source by comparison with other (independent) sources is virtually impossible. Accordingly, it is no wonder that W. K. Pritchett chose to introduce his treatment of a typical Greek pitched battle with a detailed description of the battle of Agincourt in 1415, because ‘it affords striking parallels to many particulars which some modern rationalistic historians have queried in ancient accounts’. The battle exhortation is one of these particulars, and Pritchett’s view is that such speeches known from ancient historians are what they purport to be: an account in direct or indirect speech of what the general actually said to his army standing in front of the army drawn up in battle formation. Pritchett does not return to the battle exhortation later in his chapter and leaves his readers with the impression that, by adducing Henry the Fifth’s speech before Agincourt, he has once and for all removed all doubts as to whether battle exhortations were actually delivered in something like the form in which they are transmitted. Historians (now including me) who still dare to discuss the issue are treated with serene contempt in the recent study which he wrote in response to my article in Historia.

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