Was Agincourt a Holy War?

Siege of Jerusalem

By Stephen Cooper

Henry V’s victory at Agincourt was described as a victory for God as well as the King.  When a session of Parliament was convened, only two weeks after the battle, Bishop Beaufort lavished extravagant praise on the King.

God in his great mercy gave him the victory and the Adversary was killed and undone, and it was clearly demonstrated that, by this gracious beginning, his just pursuit of his rights was and is approved by God Almighty.

As Christopher Tyerman has written, the royal rhetoric described Henry V at Agincourt as a holy warrior, worthy of comparison with the Old Testament hero Judas Maccabeus – a figure who also inspired the warriors who had joined the First Crusade.

As we all know the day of the battle was the Feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, but it was also special to St John of Beverley, who had the advantage of being English (or at any rate Anglo-Saxon) and was an important focus of loyalty in the North of England.  It was said that the shrine at Beverley had oozed drops of holy oil, resembling sweat, on the day that Agincourt was fought, indicating the great exertions which the Saint had made in Heaven on behalf of the English army.  On 16 December 1416 Henry V ordered the Bishop of London to celebrate the feasts of all three Saints on 25 October each year, throughout his diocese and in perpetuity.  Similar instructions were issued throughout the Archdiocese of Canterbury.

The propaganda was effective.  The chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet was not a royal spokesman, but he related that, when Henry lay dying in the castle of Vincennes in 1422, he sent for his confessor and his chaplains and ordered them to chant the seven penitential psalms; and

When they came to Benigne fac, Domine, where mention is made of the walls of Jerusalem, he stopped them, and said aloud, that he had fully intended, after he had wholly subdued the realm of France to his obedience, and restored it to peace, to have gone to conquer the Kingdom of Jerusalem, if it had pleased his creator to have granted him longer life.

This is a curious claim for the King to have made.  Whilst there is no doubt that the Agincourt campaign received the full backing of the Church in England, it was in no sense a Crusade, nor did it have any appeal internationally.  Moreover, Henry V had never gone crusading, and he had never before expressed a wish to take the Cross.  This stands in stark contrast to his father, who had crusaded in Prussia and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, before he became king.

The essential requirements for any Crusade were (1) the support of the Pope; (2) allies; and (3) a clear strategic objective.  None of these was present in 1415.

Papal support was necessary because, ever since the First Crusade in 1095, it had always been the Pope who had preached the need to defend and expand Christendom; and the Papacy’s money, and power to grant plenary indulgences, were essential to the process of recruitment.  However, during the Great Schism of 1378-1417, there were always two Popes competing for favours; and this made it extremely difficult to obtain pontifical backing – though the English had managed to win it for the ‘Crusade’ led by the Bishop of Norwich in Flanders in 1383.  In 1415, the difficulty was insuperable, because there were no less than three Popes in existence, in Rome, Avignon and Pisa!

England needed allies if any serious attempt were to be made to mount an attack on the Muslim world: she had neither the men nor the ships to do so on her own; but, for most of Henry V’s reign, the English had no friends in Western Europe who could have assisted her.  In particular, the French had always taken the leading role in relation to the Crusades.  In the late Middle Ages, the House of Lancaster may have dreamed the Crusading dream; but it was the French, inspired by Philippe de Mézières, who actually intervened and fought Islam, both in Barbary (1390) and Bulgaria (1396).  Henry V’s actions in invading Normandy were therefore in complete contradiction to any desire he may have had to strike a blow for Christendom.  Moreover, war with France inevitably involved war with France’s ally, Scotland; and Henry V found it impossible to win the support of either the Duke of Burgundy or the German Emperor Sigismund in 1415.  Alliances with each were to follow; but in each case the purpose was to win support for the war in France, not to project English power further afield, or in the cause of Christendom.

Finally, a Crusade had to have an objective; and on his deathbed Henry V was at least clear.  He had wanted, he said, to conquer Jerusalem; but this merely shows how out of touch he was.  The Holy City had been captured by Saladin in the late 12th century and, except intermittently and briefly, it had remained in Muslim hands ever since.  As a result, Christian attempts to regain territory in the 13th century had concentrated on expeditions to Egypt and Morocco, as well as Spain and the Baltic.  Then, in the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks had changed the rules of the game, by gaining control of much of the Balkans.  It was now impossible for the Christians to think in terms of expeditions to the Holy Land.  There was an urgent need to defend Europe – something which a Franco-Burgundian force attempted to do in alliance with the Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 – in which the English played no official part.  After the crushing defeat suffered by the Christian army there, the Ottoman Sultan threatened to march on Rome and ‘let his horse eat corn upon St Peter’s altar’.

Any idea that Henry V experienced a genuine deathbed conversion to the idea of crusading in the Holy Land is therefore preposterous.  Yet, on account of those very few words, spoken on his deathbed, he has sometimes been compared to the greatest of English crusaders, Richard the Lionheart.  Even K.B. Mcfarlane, normally devoted to patient prosopography, allowed himself to indulge in counterfactual speculation on this subject:

It is possible to believe that Henry might have bridged the gap that divides Napoleon and Godfrey de Bouillon, and have succeeded where Richard I and St Louis had failed… Had he been living in 1450 there is no reason why he should not have rolled up the map of Europe as in nine years he had rolled up that of France.  Indeed it is hard to believe anything else.

The reality is that Henry V was no crusader manqué.  He inherited the mantle of Edward III, who had chosen to give his war with France priority over the Crusade.  As a result English (and French) military energies were channelled into purely national causes for over a century; and the expedition of 1415 was a classic example of this.  The consequences are imponderable; but it is interesting to note that in 1402 Sultan Bajazet, who had threatened to sack Rome after Nicopolis, went down to crushing defeat at Ankara, at the hands of Tamburlaine the Great; and it took some years before the Ottoman Empire could be rebuilt, let alone before the Turks resumed the Jihad.  What if Henry V had chosen these years as the moment to forge an alliance with France and Germany, and devote English military power to a genuine pursuit of the Crusade?

Further reading

England and the Crusades, 1095-1588, Christopher Tyerman (University of Chicago Press, 1988)
Henry V, Christopher Allmand (Yale University Press, 1997)
Holy Warriors, A Modern History of the Crusades, Jonathan Philips (Vintage, 2010)

Image is of the Siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade taken from Wikipedia and is in the Public Domain