Happy St. Crispin’s Day! I’m half-way through first semester.
So far I’ve submitted two essays – one for Modern Scottish History and one for Osteology.
Backing up to last Friday, I had my first Osteology lab. We had to articulate a set of replica bones. This was to get us ready for our next lab… where we will be handed a box of fragmented Medieval remains and have to place them in the anatomically correct position.
And I know, I know… articulating human remains at 9 AM on a Friday sounds really morbid … but it’s core to understanding who we are as people. Our bones can’t tell us everything but they are one of the few records that cannot lie.
In fact, archaeologists have been able to identify skeletons of English longbowmen from enlarged muscle attachments on their bow-arms from the repetitive drawing of the bowstring. When compared with the fragmented bows found from the Mary Rose (a sunken Tudor ship) with estimated draw weight nearing 200 pounds they were able to create a better picture of the immense strength required to be a longbowman. Especially for the Medieval period when there weren’t a ton of written sources or gym selfies floating around, archaeologists can gain real insight into the everyday life of a bowman, who for the most part were members of the peasant classes, by looking at their bones.
I mention this because today is St. Crispin’s day aka the 601st anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt – a very decisive victory for Henry V in the Hundred Years War. Henry V, like a lot of English kings, heavily employed longbowmen against the heavy French chargers.
But, Kennedy! That happened soooooo long ago!! Why should we care?!?!
Glad you asked.
I believe that part of the reason a lot of people find history boring is because they cannot place themselves in ‘the world’ in which is happened. It becomes disconnected, people lose interest, the actions of the past are forgotten. But, by creating a relationship between the past and the present, history becomes accessible and in a lot of ways, lives again. Keeping history alive requires people to continue this dialogue keeping it relevant and relatable.
The public heavily outnumber the academic community, so if we want to work on our projects (and get funding) we have to give the public a reason to care. Which is a little sad, because personally, I don’t really understand why people don’t find the stories of where they came from/who they are/why they are compelling … but oh well.
Anyway, Agincourt. It started when I first read Henry V when I was 13, then turned into a research project my sophomore year of high school, and later a Kansas State History Day documentary my senior year. Truthfully, now, six years later, it’s a bit of an obsession. But, the reason the story is so compelling is because of the circumstances surrounding it and how those translate today.
Picture this: You’ve been walking for days. You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re sick. You’re on the run from a group of powerful people who want you dead – a group that outnumbers you six to one. But amidst all off this – the guy in charge is trudging right along side you. He’s tired too. He’s starving too. He’s sick too. The people who want you dead want him dead ten times over. But, that doesn’t matter because you swore to each other to get to the end of this. Neither of you intend to break that promise.
Those are the circumstances that faced Henry’s army at the dawn of October 25, 1415.
His army numbered just under 6,000, with 4,000 being peasant bowmen. The other 2,000 were a mix of knights and men-at-arms. They had been on a frantic retreat for nearly two weeks, attempting to make their way back to the Channel. In a last ditch effort, they established camp at the top of a muddy hill. They braced themselves at the break of dawn, expecting the worse to come from the amassed group of heavily armoured French knights, numbering nearly 36,000, waiting below. Had Henry wanted, he could have slipped away in the night, retreated to England, and saved his own skin.
Instead, Henry stayed with his starving army, made up of peasant bowmen, because he had made them a promise. He doesn’t even take the night to rest. Disguised as one of them, he speaks to his troops earnestly and honestly wishing to hear their views of the upcoming battle.
Then at the break of dawn, he gave his infamous speech, later immortalized by Shakespeare, about loyalty and honesty. Addressing his men as his brothers and making a vow to fight and if necessary die beside them. And he kept his promise. French eyewitness accounts write of Henry fighting in the front lines. Just to make sure you caught that, that’s the French praising the leadership and bravery of their enemy.
Against all odds, Henry won the day. He lost 112 men. The French casualties numbered over 12,000.
It’s not the medieval warfare that makes this story relatable but its spirit of loyalty and leadership. Against all odds, Henry refused to give up and in the end his faith in his men and their faith in him won the day.
For us today, the historical spirit of Agincourt lives on each moment we push ourselves just that bit farther. It’s relevant again each time we remain loyal to our friends treating them with respect and honesty. But, the most important lesson for Agincourt is how we should treat those we work with and who work for us with that same loyalty and honesty.
Some people at this point may wonder: Henry was king of England, what did he actually owe to a group of peasants?
A lot of people would probably say he owed them nothing. He’s their king, their boss. He can do what he wants. I would argue the opposite. He is their boss and that makes him even more accountable for his actions and his leadership. Good leaders lead by example – they are shoulder to shoulder with their people not hiding behind them. They have to be the one to accept the responsibility. If you expect respect, you first have to give your own.
You could say good leaders devote their lives to the protection of their followers. They make personal sacrifices for the good of those they represent. They do not, like a certain Republican presidential nominee, disrespect based on religion, gender, or ethnicity, blatantly lie, or refuse to be held accountable for their actions.
Good leaders, good people, value every person no matter their rank or role in society.
Henry didn’t discriminate between the peasants and the nobility in his army. This is evidenced by how the English kept their casualty records. The 112 includes everyone from the lowest peasant bowmen to Henry’s uncle, the Duke of York. The French list of 12,000 only includes nobility, excluding the countless others without rank.
Henry handled his army with unprecedented social equity basing rank and prestige on personal achievement not patronage or social status.
To put this in a civilian perspective, as long you work hard, remain loyal and honest, no matter your social status you will receive equal treatment and respect.
My father stressed this sense of loyalty and honesty a lot while I was growing up. (He’s a US Marine and a General in the Air Force so no guesses as to why he made those two things so important.) He was actually the person who first showed me the St. Crispin’s Day speech. It was during a particularly hard time in Middle School, the speech really resonated with that 13 year old version of myself.
My mother also lives by this same code of leadership. There have been dozen of times I’ve returned home late to find my mom still working. Even though she’s a vice president of a decent sized company, she always tells me the same thing, ‘If someone who works for me is working, so am I.’
My parents are pretty cool and I’m not just saying this because they’re reading this. (Hi Mom!)
So in that small way – that’s how I’ve kept the history of Agincourt alive and relevant. It’s not the original physical context. I’m not a medieval longbowmen. Hell, I’m not even English. But it’s not a stretch to say I’ve kept it in the original thematic context with some extra influence from my parents.
I’ve got a long way before I’m at any of their levels of leadership but I think I’m on the right track.