Agincourt remembers battle lost in mists of time

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The Independent Online

Some French people found it strange, even perverse, to spend £1.2m on a hi-tech commemoration of one of the most crushing defeats in their nation's history.

The result – the Medieval History Centre at the site of the battle of Agincourt, which opened this summer – is a triumph, a scrupulously fair and beautifully conceived representation, not just of a battle, but a whole era. Have you ever wondered what it was like to pull the string of a six-foot-high English longbow? Or how much a medieval knight could see once he had closed his helmet and clanked into battle?

The centre, in the main street of the village of Azincourt (mis-spelled by contemporary English chroniclers and William Shakespeare) in the Pas de Calais, also uses modern, multimedia techniques to stunning effect. King Henry V and the French commander, the Constable d'Albret, are represented by elaborately dressed, full-size models, with blank, moulded faces. On to these masks are projected – eerily – the features of actors speaking the lines of Shakespeare's Henry V as the two armies prepare themselves on the eve of battle.

The movements of the armies on 25 October, 1415 – 6,000 English versus at least 60,000 French – are projected on to a horizontal screen, the size of a billiard table.

The standard, received history of the battle – the murderous effectiveness of the English longbows against the cumbersome French knights and slow-firing crossbows – seems to be broadly accurate.

But Shakespeare's casualty lists – thousands of French dead, against a handful of English victims – are exaggerated.

Between 1,000 and 1,500 English knights and archers are believed to have died, and approximately 30,000 French, including 7,000 knights and other mounted men-at-arms.

Agincourt was, one of the most murderous battles of the Hundred Years War. And one of the most pointless.

Henry V, having captured Harfleur, was limping home with a sick and exhausted army. If the French had let him go, his expedition would have been deemed a failure. By attacking him with blundering tactics, or no tactics at all, the French provided him with an improbable victory, which encouraged further English invasions and prolonged the intermittent war for another 40 years.

Agincourt – perhaps because it happened just when a sense of English nationhood and the "modern" English language were establishing themselves – has become a great symbol of English pluckiness and triumph against the odds.

This is partly due to Shakespeare, who embroidered the story 200 years later, and Laurence Olivier, whose great film of Shakespeare's play was made as a stirring call to arms during the "fight them on the beaches" era of the Second World War.

To the French, Agincourt, if they have heard the name at all, is just one of a dozen battles, won or lost, in the Hundred Years War. They have preferred to dwell on the Joan of Arc period 15 years later or the victories which expelled the English from France 20 years after.

British history text books, strangely, fail to give much room to the crushing English defeats at Formigny in 1450 and Castillon in 1453.

"There was some local opposition to the idea of celebrating a French defeat," said Claude Delcusse, 53, head master of the school in Azincourt, and head of the local committee which pushed for the creation of the new centre.

"But, in truth, the forces fighting here in 1415 did not represent the French and English nations as we know them today.

"It was more like a quarrel between two aristocratic families over the right to wear a French crown, which itself had limited importance."

Mr Delcusse, also director of the centre, says that the intention is to create a focus for the study of the entire period. An indoor and outdoor display of medieval customs and costumes is planned next summer.

Even so, two-thirds of visitors to the centre are expected to be British or from the English-speaking world.

Azincourt is 40 miles from Calais, in the angle of the two motorways – the A16 and A26 – which take British visitors towards Paris and the south.

The investment of £1.2m – from regional, national and European funds – is part of an effort to encourage tourists to spend time in the region before – or after – they head for the sun. The entrance to the building has been strikingly designed around giant longbows and arrows and the stakes, carried by the English archers to defend themselves from cavalry. The displays and captions have been created under the guidance of leading historians of the period, both French and English.

The texts are not translations of one or another but different versions of events, seen from the perspectives of the two countries. In fact, they differ little from one another in their presentation of the basic facts.

Even King Henry V's massacre of French prisoners – which would be seen as a "war crime" today – is presented dispassionately in the French commentary and captions. After winning the first part of the battle, it is explained, Henry found himself with more prisoners than English soldiers.

With part of the French army still threatening, he insisted that all but the most noble and wealthy prisoners be murdered (aristocrats could always be ransomed for large sums).

The Centre Historique Médiéval at Azincourt is open 9am to 6pm until November, and 10am to 5pm until April. Entrance for adults is 40 francs (£4) and Children over five, 30 francs.