“WE CANNOT change the past, but we are responsible for how we remember it.” The words of the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, on the commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, were heard by the thousands gathered in Westminster Abbey.
The Battle of Agincourt, fought on St Crispin’s Day, 25 October 1415, was remembered with hymns, prayers, and literature, in a special service on Thursday of last week.
Addressing the 2200 dignitaries, historians, clergy, and members of the public who attended, Bishop Chartres drew on the “enduring themes” across 600 years of commemoration: courage, and identity.
“We are in the midst of a debate about identity, including what it means to be British,” he said. “To give shape and meaning to life, we need to inhabit a narrative capacious enough to permit development, and to accommodate new things, as the celebrations this year have done.”
The sword of King Henry V — which had been carried through the Abbey at his funeral in 1422 — was carried in procession and placed on the high altar, alongside his helmet (from the Abbey’s museum), to the tune of the Agincourt Carol, and the words “England, give thanks to God for the victory.”
Agincourt was one of the most significant battles of the Anglo-French Hundred Years’ War. Henry V led his outnumbered army of archers and men-at-arms to victory against the French, close to the town of Azincourt, in northern France. About 6000 Frenchmen, and more than 400 English soldiers lost their lives.
A passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V was read by the actor Robert Hardy, and the St Crispin’s Day speech in Act IV was re-enacted by a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sam Marks. “But we in it shall be remembered — We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” he boomed, in full costume, with blood dripping beneath his crown.
Bishop Chartres praised the “triumph of the happy few”, and drew on the importance of comradeship and leadership in the Christian faith. “We all need representative figures we can admire, include, and identify with. . . The simple role of faith is a vital ingredient in effective leadership.”
The service was led by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall. The choir of Westminster Abbey sang the Te Deum, during which a wreath of English roses was laid on the tomb of King Henry V by the chairman of the charity that organised the service, Agincourt 600, Dr Sinclair Rogers.
Agincourt 600 was founded by a board of trustees to mark the anniversary of the battle this year. In the March budget, the Chancellor announced that £1 millon of grants would be allocated for the commemoration. The hour-long service at Westminster was one of hundreds of events — including concerts, lectures, and re-enactments — taking place around the UK in honour of the occasion.
The Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Alan Yarrow, and the founding chairwoman of Agincourt 600, Professor Anne Curry, who is Dean of Humanities at the University of Southampton, read from Samuel and Ephesians.
The service concluded with the account of a French soldier, in the First World War, of the 500th anniversary celebrations on 25 October 1915: “They are men we should honour, and for whom we should pray. It is to their tombs we should make our pilgrimage. And we will take care not to forget.”
After the National Anthem, the congregation followed out the Duke of Kent and Princess Michael of Kent.