Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Henningsen: Shaping The Past

On October 25th, 1415, near the small village of Agincourt, a tattered English army under King Henry V scored one of history’s most famous upset victories. Outnumbered, hungry, weakened by disease, wearied by constant marching in autumn rains, English archers rallied to destroy the pride of France’s aristocracy.Agincourt gave England temporary superiority in the Hundred Years War, a conflict ultimately won by the French. It would be nothing more than a historical footnote were it not for Shakespeare’s Henry V. We may not remember Agincourt, but we recognize Henry rallying his downtrodden troops to do the impossible.

“We shall be remembered,” he assures them. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."

Hearing Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh give this speech – easily found on YouTube –awakens in even the most timid scholar the urge to grab a longbow and smite the French. It’s the prototype of every half-time talk ever given and made Agincourt the model of come-from-behind triumphs against overwhelming odds.

But it didn’t happen that way. Henry spoke about himself and the justice of his cause – not, as Shakespeare has it, about his men and the brotherhood they’d forged. They were there to do his bidding and further his ambition.

Shakespeare’s version shows how we shape our understanding of the past regardless of actual facts. Agincourt occurred in a self-interested war pursued by an arrogant king bent on personal gain and glory. But Shakespeare transformed it into a glorious crusade led by a boy wonder embodying everything conceivably meant by the term “kinglike.” Yes he could be ruthless, but his true gift, we’re told, was inspiring others to exceed their limits.

And who wouldn’t, when the king himself promises,
“... he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.”

Writing almost two centuries later, Shakespeare reflects European rulers of his own era, who centralized royal power by uniting the person of the monarch with the ideal of the nation.

Shakespeare may have had a particular ruler in mind when he wrote the play, but it wouldn’t have been Henry. More likely it was his own monarch, who’d led England to victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 – Elizabeth I.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
Latest Stories