The King’s Welshmen: Welsh Involvement in the Expeditionary Army of 1415
By Adam Chapman
Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol.9 (2011)
Introduction: The victory of the English at Agincourt is still frequently attributed in the popu-lar consciousness to Welsh bowmen in their knitted Monmouth caps. The battle is undoubtedly part of a wider patriotic narrative in both England and Wales. The belief in the English victory being a result of Welsh efforts, though ubiquitous, is almost impossible to reference in a way that might satisfy the editor of an academic journal. A possible origin may lie in Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599). The garrulous captain Fluellen reminds the king not of the number or importance of Welshmen in his army, however, but in that of his great-uncle, Edward the Black Prince, at Crécy. Contemporary accounts of Agincourt make very little mention of Welsh involvement. The Welsh chronicler Adam Usk notes the death of two men, one of them in error, as the first, Sir John Scudamore of Kentchurch, Herefordshire, in fact survived until 1435. The second, Dafydd ap Llywelyn ap Hywel of Brecon, better known as Dafydd or Davy Gam, Usk describes as “David Gam of Brecon.” The chronicle of Peter Basset and Christopher Hanson also notes the death of “Davy Gam esquire, Welshman.” Although Thomas Walsingham and the Great Chronicle of London also list Gam among the dead, they do not mention his origins or nationality. No chronicle or early history mentions the presence of Welsh archers at Agincourt, and nowhere in the extant corpus of fifteenth-century Welsh verse is the battle mentioned.
For much of the six centuries between 1415 and the present Agincourt is the silent battle in Welsh culture. Dafydd Gam seems to be viewed through the prism of Shakespeare, where he is mentioned among the dead presumably because of the playwright’s use of Hall and Holinshed. Wylie suggests that Dafydd was also known as “Fluelin,” but on what basis is not made clear. Barker, echoing this, goes further, describing him explicitly as “the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Fluellen,” a link even accepted by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Much was made of Gam by the late-sixteenth-century Welsh writer David Powel, who described him as “the great stickler for the house of Lancaster.” It is unlikely, however, that Shakespeare knew Powel’s work. In the histories of Hall and Holinshed Gam is noted among the battle dead and termed an esquire, but there is no mention of his being Welsh or hailing from Brecon. Gam was undoubtedly a significant figure whose descendents played a role in Welsh society in the fifteenth century, and he will be discussed more fully later in this paper. As we shall see, however, he was far from typical of the Welshmen who actually served in Henry’s army in 1415 but who went unnoticed in the chronicles and early histories. The intention of this essay is to address the role of the Welshmen recruited for Henry V’s great expeditionary army of 1415 from his Welsh estates and the particular place which they occupied within it. It is not, however, the intention to rake over the role of archers at Agincourt as a whole or the role of the longbow in general, as these topics have been thoroughly addressed elsewhere.
There are four key considerations to address. First, although too broad to be fully discussed here, we need to assess the connections, from a Welsh perspective, between the events of the Glyndŵr rebellion and Henry V’s military adventures in France. The second issue concerns the organization of the Welsh contingents recruited from Henry’s Welsh estates in 1415, the documents that describe this process, and the motivations of both the authorities and the men concerned. Thirdly, to what extent were these Welshmen important to the 1415 expedition? Finally, what can we make of the subsequent representation of their efforts? Exploration of the reality of Welsh involvement in 1415 has been limited in spite of the large, and generally thorough, historiography of Henry V’s adventures in France. H.T. Evans, borrowing heavily from Wylie, reviewed the muster rolls of the Welshmen recruited from the royal demesne in Wales as long ago as 1915, but in light of more recent study of the 1415 campaign and the post-rebellion context of the lands of Wales, a new analysis can, and should, be attempted.