Renegade Scots?


One does not bite the hand that feeds; and in his Budget speech on 18 March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did announce that £1 million would be spent by the Government on marking the 600th anniversary of Agincourt.

However, it is remarkable that in the same speech George Osborne also said that Shakespeare had portrayed Agincourt as a time ‘when a strong leader defeated an ill-judged alliance between the champion of a united Europe and a renegade force of Scottish nationalists.’ This anachronistic jibe at the EU, the Labour Party and the SNP seems like a schoolboy error, and yet Mr Osborne read Modern History at Oxford.

As a student of Agincourt, I have never before seen any suggestion that the Scots fought on the French side on 25 October 1415. If they had, they would scarcely have deserved to be called ‘renegades’, since Scotland was an entirely independent country at the time, and the King of England no longer maintained the claim to the Scottish throne, once been made by Edward I.

In fact, Shakespeare’s Cronicle History of Henry the fift, first staged in 1599, has only one Scottish character, Captain Jamy, and he fights on the English side. He does not say much and seems to be there to act as a counterfoil for Fluellen, the much more prominent Welshman, and Captain MacMorris, the comic Irishman; and, above all, to portray Agincourt as a British victory.  In 1599, the reign of Elizabeth I (who was a Tudor and whose courtiers included Welshmen and women) was drawing to a close.  It was fairly clear that she would be succeeded by James VI of Scotland; and an English army was embarking for Ireland; but, historically, Henry V’s victory in 1415 was an exclusively English affair.

Perhaps Mr Osborne’s confusion is forgivable.  In 1415, the Scots were fiercely independent. During several Wars of Independence, they had consistently allied themselves with the French, while during the Hundred Years War, individual Scottish soldiers had gone to fight the English in France.  The Scots were also tasked by their allies to create diversions, by invading the North of England, which they frequently did. The main Scottish chronicler of the day, Walter Bower (1385-1449) was very hostile to Henry V and all his achievements. In 1415 Henry did have to reinforce the Borders, and local forces did have to deal with two minor invasions in support of the French; but none of this provides us with evidence that any Scots fought on the French side at Agincourt.

There was a considerable change in the years that followed. Following the total defeat of the French royal army at Agincourt, the French called on their allies for assistance, and two Scottish armies disembarked at La Rochelle. Each of these may have numbered around 6,000 men, and they did make a difference. It was the Scots who enabled the Dauphin to win his first victory in the field, at Baugé in 1421, though they went down to catastrophic defeat at Vernueil in 1424. Yet the Scottish intervention was seen as decisive by Daniel Defoe, in an essay which he wrote in 1706 on the proposed Act of Union between England and Scotland. Defoe thought that, if Scotland had been united with England in the 1420s, the conquests made by Henry V in Northern France would have been made secure, France would have been ‘entirely subjected to the English power’ and ‘Britain would have given Law to all these parts of the World.’

Image of Elizabeth I taken from Wikipedia and is in the Public Domain

Stephen Cooper is the author of Agincourt, Myth & Reality (Pen & Sword, 2014)