Was the Battle of Agincourt really a victory for Wales?

By Neil Prior
BBC News

  • Published
King Henry V pictured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
It is thought Henry V's army was boosted by 500 Welsh archers at Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt 600 years ago is one of the most famous English military successes - but should it really be remembered as a victory for Wales?

Marking a major turning point in the Hundred Years' War, the battle on 25 October 1415 was fought over the English kings' claim to the French throne.

However, legend has it that at Agincourt - like at the 1346 Battle of Crecy - Welsh longbowmen held the key to English success.

Henry V's army of around 8,000 was outnumbered by as much as five to one, yet 500 nimble-fingered Welsh archers were able to cut the heavily-armoured French knights to ribbons after cornering them in a narrow clearing.

Most of them came from Monmouthshire, the birthplace of Henry V, where their exploits are remembered in Monmouth's Agincourt Square - as well as a stained glass window in Brecon Cathedral.

To mark the 600th anniversary of the battle, throughout 2015 a group of enthusiasts from around Brecon and Monmouthshire have been staging a series of events to explain this unlikely medieval alliance.

Owain Glyndwr

Bryan Davies, the organiser of Agincourt 600 Wales - Cymru, has been fascinated with the competing folklores ever since he saw the Agincourt roll of honour at Brecon Cathedral as a boy.

"Even then I remember wondering why so many Welshmen from these small towns and villages strung out along what would eventually become the A40 went to fight in an English army; especially considering that this was all taking place at the same time as Owain Glyndwr's rebellion," he said.

"The biggest draw - then as now - was money. A longbowman could earn sixpence a day while a ploughman made twopence.

"But also some owed loyalty to Norman Marcher lords, while others signed up to make amends for having backed the wrong side after Glyndwr's rebellion failed."

Yet Swansea University's Welsh historian, Dr Matthew Stevens, believes that perhaps the English and Welsh were not ever such strange bed-fellows after all.

"Glyndwr's rebellion really had its popular support in north Wales," he said.

"When he marched south he burnt-out as many Welshmen as he did Norman settlers.

"But even going back as far as Edward I's reign, Welsh archers were an integral part of English armies. In 1298, just 16 years after Wales was conquered, they were present in numbers at the Battle of Falkirk.

"It's wrong really to think of a national Welsh identity at this time.

"People had much more of a sense of local loyalty, and whether it be a Welsh prince or a Marcher lord, men in south Wales were far more likely to stay loyal to the person on whom they depended for their own prosperity."

'Iron shortage'

But if the reasons for why Welshmen fought for an English king are clear, it's harder to explain how they became so skilled with the longbow in the first place.

Although Dr Stevens thinks he might have an idea.

"As early as 1283 Gerald of Wales describes the men of Gwent as being highly skilled longbowmen, and to understand why perhaps you have to look at the natural resources available to them," he added.

"It seems strange considering the metal industries of the 19th and 20th centuries, but at the time of Agincourt there was actually a major shortage of iron in south Wales.

"Whilst a suit of armour and heavy swords would have to be forged at great expense, from iron imported from Spain, arrows and spears only required a tiny metal point."