King Henry V’s sword was carried through London’s Westminster Abbey on Thursday as England celebrated the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, one of its greatest-ever victories in war.
A service was held in the royal church where the king is buried, six centuries on from the day when news of the victory arrived in London, triggering joyous celebrations.
The battle on October 25, 1415 saw a heavily-outnumbered and exhausted English army inflict a catastrophic defeat on the French that altered the course of the Hundred Years’ War.
King Henry was 28 and two years into his nine-year reign. His longbow archers routed the French nobility.
Westminster Abbey holds king Henry’s “funerary achievements” — the personal items carried at his funeral, namely his sword, shield, saddle and helmet.
His sword was carried through the church once again and placed on the altar next to his helmet.
Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, joined around 2,200 people at the service, many of whom were history buffs who snapped up the tickets.
The choir sang “The Agincourt Carol” in its original 15th-century English.
It begins: “Owre kynge went forth to Normandy / With grace and myght of chyvalry / There God for hym wrought mervelusly / Wherefore Englonde may calle and cry / Deo gratias!”
Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, gave a sermon in which he praised king Henry’s leadership and “clear and simple vision”.
A wreath of English flowers was laid on the king’s tomb.
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– Shakespeare’s inspiration –
Agincourt was immortalised in William Shakespeare’s 1599 play “Henry V”, whose stirring battle speeches still resound in the popular lexicon, including “Once more unto the breach, dear friends”, “we happy few, we band of brothers”, and “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'”
The Royal Shakespeare Company staged the play at its base in the bard’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, central England, with Alex Hassell in the title role, culminating in a final performance on Sunday’s anniversary.
Hassell’s understudy Sam Marks appeared in the abbey as king Henry and delivered the Saint Crispin’s Day speech, wearing a crown, armour and blood on his face.
“Henry says that he and his troops shall be remembered because of their actions on St Crispin’s Day until the ending of the world,” Hassell told AFP.
“Well, we may not be there yet but being part of their remembrance 600 years on feels rather wondrous.”
On performing on the anniversary, he spoke of an “added weight to the notion of dying in battle, of legacy, of being remembered, and of making history”.
Casualty estimates vary widely, but English losses are thought to have numbered more than 100, while the French lost thousands, including around 40 percent of the French nobility on some counts.
– ‘The most ghastly hours’ –
On his 90th birthday, actor Robert Hardy, who played king Henry in 1960, read to the abbey the Shakespeare play’s dramatic prologue, which describes “the poor condemned English”.
A longbow expert, he has visited the battlefield several times and it was still possible to envisage the lay of the land and the conditions the English archers fought in.
“Most of them had some kind of dysentery,” he told AFP.
“Imagine the stench — not only of the dead and dying, but the sheer effluvium of the thousands and thousands of men.
“It must have been the most ghastly hours to spend on that field.”
The City of London, the British capital’s financial hub, is keen to recall its part in bankrolling the expedition. It contributed 10,000 marks — £3 million ($4.6 million, 4.1 million euros) in today’s money.
It is exhibiting at the Guildhall the rarely-seen Crystal Sceptre, the 17-inch (43-centimetre) long mace given to the City by king Henry to mark his gratitude.
It contains red spinels from Afghanistan, blue sapphires from Sri Lanka and pearls from the Gulf.
The anniversary was, of course, also remembered Sunday in Azincourt, the village in northeastern France where the two armies clashed.
A remembrance ceremony took place on the battlefield, involving French and British troops.