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Celebrating Agincourt 600 at the Wallace Collection

Italian Gauntlets, 1390, inscribed wit hthe words, 'AMOR' (love). The Wallace Collection. Photo by Medievalists.net
Italian Gauntlets, 1390, inscribed wit hthe words, 'AMOR' (love). The Wallace Collection. Photo by Medievalists.net
Italian Gauntlets, 1390, inscribed wit hthe words, ‘AMOR’ (love). The Wallace Collection. Photo by Medievalists.net

This month, historians around the world are gearing up to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, one of the most significant battles of the Hundred Year’s War. On Friday, October 25th, 1415, the outnumbered English clashed with the French in a grisly battle that resulted in a decisive English victory. There have been many theories, interpretations and assumptions about what happened at Agincourt. Was the battle really won by the English longbow? How much has Shakespeare’s Henry V shaped our view of events at Agincourt?

At London’s Wallace Collection, home to 25 impressive galleries of paintings and an extensive armour collection, curator Tobias Capwell and martial arts instructor, Matt Easton attempted to debunk the myths surrounding Agincourt as part of the special exhibit, The Sinews of War: Arms and Armour in the Age of Agincourt, running at the museum from September 1 – December 31st.

The evening kicked off with an impromptu, fun performance of a snippet from Shakespeare’s Henry V. The actors wore English and French football jerseys while re-enacting parts of Act IV, Scene 8 of the play followed by Capwell and Easton’s talks on Agincourt.

Tobias Capwell (black horse), and fellow jouster, Dominic Sewell escorted King Richard III to his final resting place in Leicester Cathedral this past March. Photo by Medievalists.net
Tobias Capwell (black horse), and fellow jouster, Dominic Sewell escorted King Richard III to his final resting place in Leicester Cathedral this past March. Photo by Medievalists.net

Tobias Capwell: The Battle and The Myth (Curator of Arms and Armour, The Wallace Collection)

“History is not about what happened, but about what someone wants you to think happened.”

California native Tobias Capwell has been interested in medieval arms and armour since he was a child. He has been riding since age eleven and had his first joust at 19. In addition to being an internationally respected jouster, Capwell also has the distinction of leading the escort of Richard III’s coffin to Leicester Cathedral this past March. Out of armour, Capwell is a prolific author on medieval arms and the curator at London’s Wallace Collection. He spoke to us extensively about modern perceptions of warfare in the Middle Ages, how Shakespeare helped immortalize Agincourt in his play, Henry V, and how our perceptions of medieval battles like Agincourt, have been shaped by medieval film and television.

Many myths surround how we remember the medieval past; Capwell suggested that we probably wouldn’t remember this battle as much if it wasn’t for Shakespeare’s play, Henry V. Laurence Olivier’s cinematic take on Agincourt in Henry V , which Capwell felt was, ‘The greatest cinematic evocation of medieval knight on film’, is a medieval classic, but is also a perfect example of film becoming fact.

Why Agincourt? Why is this English victory so well remebered and written about over the past 600 years? Capwell suggested the reason behind it is that Agincourt resonates in contemporary events. Shakespeare wrote about Agincourt because the French and English were fighting at the time. Interest in Agincourt spikes when England and France are at war, as Capwell pointed out that interest surged again at the time of the Battle of Waterloo with Napoleon and some amateur archaeologists looking for the battle site.

Laurence Olivier's 1944 medieval classic, Henry V.
Laurence Olivier’s 1944 medieval classic, Henry V.

Agincourt: Film Fact and Fiction

Winston Churchill instructed Olivier to make Henry V in the midst of WWII. Olivier, of course, left out the controversial aspects, like the Southhampton plot and the murder of French prisoners but nonetheless, made an impressive movie about English victory against all odds. For Capwell, it’s not about the battle or what was happening in the 15th century at all, Agincourt has remained a reflection of current political events over the centuries.

As to film fact and fiction, Capwell believes Olivier took it seriously, and really did his homework. Henry V reflected contemporary events in the 1940s. Olivier had an advantage in that he had former Wallace Collection Curator, Sir James Mann (1897-1962) as his historical advisor.

Are we looking at history? Are we looking at what happened? Capwell feels that, “Our relationship with the memory of the medieval knight is a complex one”, he continues, “On the one hand they were defenders of Christendom. On the other hand, we view them as conservative, backwards and odd.” Capwell’s background, in addition to  being an arms and armour specialists, is in art history; he’s always been interested in the depiction of medieval battle and knights. For Capwell, Agincourt, basically represents the original Marvel team up.

Tobias Capwell taking attendees on a tour after giving a talk on Agincourt at The Wallace Collection. Photo by Medievalists.net
Tobias Capwell taking attendees on a tour after giving a talk on Agincourt at The Wallace Collection. Photo by Medievalists.net

What Really Happened?

Aside from film adaptations and plays, what actually happened on that fateful October day? The 1415 campaign was the prelude to Henry V’s greater plan to invade France. He required a solid victory against the French so he could get money to further his war plans. He attacked Harfleur, which according to Capwell, was not the most obvious thing to do, but Henry did it because it was glamorous and theatrical. He wanted to start the campaign with a bang. Unfortubately, it took a lot longer to capture Harfleaur than he expected and he lost more men than he anticipated. Henry V was looking for a fight, and needed a set piece, so he wanted the French to attack him.

Against All Odds

The French had 12,000 fully armed knights. Henry eventually managed to force the French to attack him by letting them make the first move. That was their mistake; they came to Henry on his terms and allowed the English to advance within bow shot of their lines. This allowed Henry to set up the battle as saw fit. It also helped that Henry captured the French battle plans 10 days before so he knew what they were going to do: he knew they were going to flank him. Henry started killing French prisoners because he was worried at some points that his lines were going to break, but they held and by the end of the battle, only a few hundred English were dead and over 4,000 French were dead. Henry V made sure everything was stacked in his favour and his efforts paid off. Although Agincourt is often referred to as a victory against the odds, Capwell argues that it wasn’t; Henry planned it that way. He added that we need to re-examine Agincourt and look at it in a way that challenges our preconceptions.

Matt Easton, owner of historical martial arts school, Schola Gladiatoria is an armour enthusiast, historical fencing instructor, and avid YouTuber. He has been involved in HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) since 1997 and been teaching since 2000.

He ventured onto YouTube accidentally in 2013 after seeing plenty of misinformation spread around the internet about the use of historical arms and armour. He said Agincourt is full of myths, like the popular notion that the long bow was, “The medieval machine gun that mowed people down. It wasn’t like that.” He wanted to discuss these, and other issues so coupled with his rebuttals, and a genuine interest in how to use English weapons, he started a YouTube channel devoted to debunking myths, sharing facts and teaching historical fighting techniques. Easton wanted to produce an enduring collection of data that was easily accessible to the general public and specialists alike, without having to write a formal book. He noticed people had migrated away from online forums and onto Facebook, but that it was difficult to find archived information on the social media giant. A few days after something is posted, it disappears into the Facebook abyss. He found that YouTube provided what he was looking for: a medium where he could discuss his topic, and easily archive and find older posts. To date, his YouTube channel, Schola Gladioria, has become extremely successful, with 84,000 subscribers and climbing. He hopes to inspire new audiences to become interested in and promote Historical European Martial Arts.

His plans seem to be working, Easton mentioned that his classes are completely booked, and that television and movie companies are contacting him because they are increasingly interested in upping their historical accuracy. He hopes to increase historical integrity across the board, in film, on TV and among the general populace.

The good news is that the interest is definitely there. Many people want to learn more about medieval arms and armour; it’s no longer a fringe interest. Easton remarked that, “You can reach specialist audiences more easily with social media now that was never possible even 10 years ago. It’s an accelerated form of learning, all the information is easier to find and share.”

~Sandra Alvarez

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