Army of Henry V

Five hundred years ago the English were considered to be good fighters and good bowmen. Their one yard long arrows didn't miss the target at the marketplace, a deer in the king's woodlands or a noble knight in his armour. The stubborn islanders were proud and independent, and the 6-feet longbows behind their shoulders were a reliable guarantee of their freedoms. They respected the bow which made them the equal to arrogant noblemen and sometimes even raised them above the nobility. Gleemen (wandering minstrels), soldiers returning from the Continent and village merry men alike sang in praise of the longbow in numerous ballads. Let's mention just a few lines from the famous Conan Doyle's White Company:

What of the bow? The bow was made in England: Of true wood, of yew wood, The wood of English bows; So men who are free Love the old yew tree And the land where the yew tree grows.
What of the cord? The cord was made in England: A rough cord, a tough cord, A cord that bowmen love; So we'll drain our jacks To the English flax And the land where the hemp was wove.
What of the shaft? The shaft was cut in England: A long shaft, a strong shaft, Barbed and trim and true; So we'll drink all together To the gray goose feather And the land where the gray goose flew.
What of the men? The men were bred in England: The bowman--the yeoman-- The lads of dale and fell Here's to you--and to you; To the hearts that are true And the land where the true hearts dwell.

It's hard to add anything to this, except to say that the yew was often from Spain rather than from England. Bows were made from other types of wood, but these were always inferior to the yew. Arrows were made of hard Norway pine and before a battle they were thrust into the ground so that they were at hand at any moment. At 200 yards these arrows could pierce the finest Milan-made armour, the best in Europe at that time.

Before the age of gunpowder, crossbows and bows were the most fearsome weapons of Medieval Europe. Why was it the English that used their archers so effectively and lethally by the XIV century? To cut a long story short it is worth mentioning that until the 1280s there were no worthwhile war bows. There were plenty of hunter-like bows that were used extensively in warfare, though they were weak, primitive and had a short range. Archers, who were recruited from the lower levels of society, could hardly oppose the heavy knights' cavalry. Traditionally, since the Greek-Persian wars flat shooting was practised, whereas the Oriental-style shooting from a distance with a curved trajectory was less common since it was more difficult and required higher levels of skill and training. Having first faced in action these oriental composite bows, Europeans tried to use the experience of their foes, recruiting new companies of archers (Venetian stratiots) who were armed with copies of the Oriental bows. Some people may say that we are too categorical in our estimates, but before the Hundred Years War the bow wasn't a main weapon of the infantry. Yes, bows did play a role in medieval battles, sometimes an important one, but it was never decisive.

As always happens the way to perfection was hard, and the English became the best archers in Europe after some bitterly learnt lessons. In October of 1066, at Senlac Hill near Hastings, the archers of Duke William easily dispersed the numerically weak mounted guard of Harold. Harold himself perished in the battle from an arrow in the eye, and the old Anglo-Saxon England was overrun by invaders. It's easy to assume that Anglo-Saxons, like other tribes of Germanic origin, disregarded archery in favour of hand-to-hand combat. For the next two hundred years, when the old rivalry between Normans and Anglo-Saxons was forgotten and a new great nation - England - was born from the union between these two peoples, no chronicles mention any progress in archery. Of course, there were the tales of Robin Hood with his merry men who bravely fought the sheriff of Nottingham, or Walter Tirel, who was accused of shooting King William Rufus.

The situation changed during the reign of Edward I, a king blessed with wisdom and military talents. It was he who, having recognised the lessons of the Welsh wars in which he saw the Welsh longbowmen in action against his troops, introduced to the English the famous longbow and didn't hesitate to give it to the common people. He encouraged archery by all means, and from that time straw targets could be seen in every village where good yeomen competed in this art of warfare. Now they learned to shoot by salvos with a high trajectory, shooting up to 12 arrows per minute or 6 per minute if they were targeted. No knights' army could withstand such a deadly rainfall! The people repaid the trust placed in them by their monarch. Longbows in the hands of common English lads brought death to thieves and trumps that were very numerous at that time, to insurgents who threatened the power of the king and the freedoms of the country, and to the easy-going previously invisible Scots who were always ready to breach the borders of the kingdom. The first signs of people's representation date back to this period, since only people who have something to defend can be entrusted with such a deadly weapon. In this way a longbow and an arrow became a symbol of English freedom of that period.

Very soon the victorious 'song of the cord' was heard on the Continent. At the beginning of the Hundred Years War, Edward III, the grandson of the great Edward I, brought to France thousands of warriors with red crosses on their white shirts. The red cross, adopted by the English during the crusades, was worn on the jackets and surcoats of lads who didn't know what a "miss" meant. The vineyards of Crecy and the fields of Poitiers were covered by the dead bodies of the French nobility, and the river Sluys clogged with the floating wrecks of French ships - everywhere the whistles of flying arrows meant an incoming deadly menace. Half of France was conquered, the other part trembled as it awaited an imminent invasion, Burgundy betrayed the kingdom and went independent - these were the results of the excellency of the English archers. Despite all the early victories the war was still dragging on.

Henry Prince of Wales initially gained a poor reputation. A bully and a rowdy who could drink and eat well, he had many adventures and escapades, like those colourfully depicted in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales". His father, the tough and wise Henry IV, could do little to calm his son down. Several times he tried to reason with him, but it ended in the exile of some of the prince's merry friends. If it were not for his huge ambition he would have left little but bills for broken windows. Once crowned, to the surprise of the public he proved himself as an experienced politician, protector of law, order and faith and prosecutor to heresy. The state of the finances was far from perfect when he became king. War (though victorious so far) required money, and the good citizens who had to pay for everything hinted in Parliament about their dissatisfaction with his rule. Landlords were gradually forcing peasants out of their lands, surrounding previously common fields with fences. Theologises and men of science were challenged by the lectures of Oxford professor Wickliffe, who denounced major church rituals. Popes in Avignon and Rome were cursing each other. The Scots, only partially pacified from time to time, kept raiding counties in the North. On top of that, the French, having recovered from their defeats, started kicking out English garrisons from the Continent. Henry decided that France had to pay for everything, and started gathering his army.

Victory in war is a good tonic for internal problems at home. Having heard the king's appeal, good Englishmen forgot their problems - France will pay for everything! Merry yeomen with swords on one side and halberd and bow on the back rallied together under the banners of lilies and lions in their thousands - so too did the noble knights in their hundreds. All of them wanted to stand for the honour of their good old England, to visit foreign places, to keep the glory of their people high. Also present were those who weren't particularly happy about the close attention of criminal authorities, and tried to run away in the turmoil of a war on the Continent, keeping them as far away as possible from the gallows. These men were mainly interested in how to fry a stolen hen in the heat of the Hundred Years War. To the king's credit those "warriors" who were caught red-handed were punished without delay. Alas, that happened all too rarely.

There is no need for us to describe the campaign in France once again. It was done long ago by Shakespeare in his timeless "King Henry V". Reading through it we can easily imagine endless marches under rain, the sieges of Harfleur and negotiations, the cannonade of early guns and the noise of falling towers and among all of these horrors the king himself appealing to his compatriots:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon: let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide;
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof-
Fathers that like so many Alexanders
Have in these parts from morn till even fought,
And sheath'd their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding- which I doubt not
; For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

So Henry marched through Northern France. Soldiers slaughtered peasants' cattle, dishonoured women, drank vinyards dry - in other words, they enjoyed themselves until the French army stood across their road at Agincourt. Again as at Crecy and Poitiers, dejection was clearly seen in the English camp whereas the French camp was in high spirits. That may seem strange at first sight - where had the low spirits come from after so many decades of victories? Hasn't the longbow proved its absolute superiority on the battlefield? Unfortunately for the English it was not as simple as that. First of all the French enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority, but that wasn't the reason for the English concerns. The real reason was that, despite all of its fame, the longbow wasn't a universal weapon. In hand-to-hand combat it was useless. Its advantages were also lost when advancing in a field - it wasn't by chance that both at Crecy and Poitiers the English were fighting strictly defensive battles, having surrounded themselves with sharp stakes. Had a knight reached the first line of archers, they would have been in a very difficult situation. We should take as an example the battle at Patay, when archers on the march were caught by surprise by French cavalry of Joan of Arc and slaughtered. So Henry's chances were far from good, especially if he had to start battle with an attack. Everything initially went wrong. Provisions were scarce in the English camp - a few days more and the king would have had to lead his exhausted soldiers into the battle in an open field right under the arrows of the Brabant crossbowmen and knights' spears. But the French lacked patience...

The night before the battle was not calm. Henry encouraged his soldiers as best he could, and they responded in kind. They didn't hope to win, but rather to die with honour. They believed in themselves and their longbows, which had been made individually to be equal in length to the hands stretched in different directions. They didn't pull the cord like their continental colleagues, rather bending the bow itself with the force of about 50 kg applied by the left hand. The bow made of yew and several dozens of arrows was all that opposed their fate, hidden in the darkness of night from which only remote metal tinkles and the neigh of battle horses could be heard. At sunrise, having briefly prayed, the English put the sharp stakes into the ground and prepared for the day. And what a feast of bows and arrows was that! In wave after wave the French attacked the stakes. Thousands of cords were playing the melody of battle. Thousands of hearts were beating in unison beneath the plates of steel armour and surcoats. St. Crispin’s day, 25th of October, 1415, will long be remembered in France - by its close the flower of the French knights were laying in thick mud, mown down by English arrows.

This victory - one of the most glorious in English history - is darkened by a bloody crime committed by the victors. Tension prior to the battle resulted in Henry's order to butcher the prisoners of war. Since no knight could participate in this, the order was carried out by the same archers who weren't restricted in their actions by any Code of Honour. We doubt that the order was carried out with any enthusiasm, since it deprived the winners of their lawful prey and the chance of ransom.

We won't further describe here the history of Henry V and his successes, nor his sudden death. Rather we will briefly comment on the contents of our set. Like the previously released set of Joan of Arc, it contains 30 figures of infantrymen, 6 mounted figures and 6 horses. The figure of Henry V is easily recognisable by his raised sword and great helmet with a crown. Two screen versions of Shakespeare's Henry V depict the king with a bare head and even the Italeri set depicts him with an open-face bascinet in his hand. We decided to make the king with his helmet based on the one that is kept in Canterbury cathedral. We also placed great emphasis on archers - salt and blood of the English army. To avoid problems with casting we placed them on a grating-like sprue. To give some touch of individuality to the set, we added some unusual figures: an archer with a dagger in hand finishing off a prisoner, another archer dragging his fallen comrade by his feet and two squires evacuating their wounded lord on a petrinalle. In line with our new tradition a figure of the Moscow Strelets is added to the set.