Agincourt: History, Poem, Chronicle

My contribution to the commemorations of the sixth-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt  is, of course, a poem (scroll down for text and translation).  These stanzas are embedded in a London prose chronicle in British Library MS Cotton Cleopatra C. IV: it’s clear that the author of the chronicle was un-versifying this poem to form part of his account of the battle, before giving up and just copying the stanzas out verbatim.  So here we have a surviving section of another Agincourt poem to put alongside the Agincourt carol and the other accounts of the battle.

John Gilbert, ‘The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt’ (1884), Guildhall Art Gallery

The poem is stanzaic with a final-line refrain, rhyming ababbcbc, with ornamental alliteration in the majority of its lines.  The form of this poem is sometimes called a pseudo-ballade.  Geert de Wilde has studied the origins of this verse form in a recent article.  The earliest poem in this ababbcbc rhyme scheme is the ‘Lament for the Death of Edward I’ (itself an adaptation of an Anglo-Norman original).  Two of Laurence Minot’s historical poems, a poem on the battle of Crécy and a poem on the siege of Calais, use this stanza form, though also without the refrain.  One of the Vernon/Simeon lyrics, ‘Seldom Seen is Soon Forgot’, which laments the death of Edward III, recounting his successes and fearing for his young grandson’s future.  All of these poems use ornamental alliteration.  The Vernon/Simeon poem has a refrain, a feature which seems to have become increasingly popular in the fifteenth century.

The poet who wrote the poem which the chronicler drew on as a source and then included verbatim thus chose a form with a history, a history of history.  It’s a form that was used to record the fates of English monarch and their exploits in France.  So to choose this form for an Agincourt poem is to link it, by means of its form, to this longer tradition.

Stedes ther stumbelyd in that stownde,
That stod stere stuffed under stele;
With gronyng grete thei felle to grownde,
Here sydes federed whan thei gone fele.
Owre lord the kynge he foght ryght wele,
Scharpliche on hem his spere he spent,
Many on seke he made that sele,
Thorow myght of God omnipotent.

(Steeds there stumbled at that moment, who stood sturdy loaded under armour; with great groaning they fell to the ground when they began to feel their sides feathered with arrows.  Our lord the king he fought very well, he wielded his spear against them ferociously, many he made sick on that occasion through the might of all-powerful God.)

The duke of Glowcestre also that tyde
Manfully, with his mayne,
Wondes he wroght ther wondere wyde.
The duke of Yorke also, perde,
Fro his kyng no fote wold he flee,
Til his basonet to his brayn was bent;
Now on his sowle he have pete,
Mersifull God omnipotent.

(The duke of Gloucester, manfully with his retinue, also at that moment inflicted extraordinarily wide wounds there.  The duke of York, also, indeed, would not flee a single footstep from his king, until his basinet [his helmet] was bent to his brain; now, merciful all-powerful God, may he have pity on his soul.)

Hontyngdoun and Oxforde bothe
Were wondere fers all in that fyght;
That erste was glade thei made ful wrothe,
Thorow hem many on to deth were dyght.
The erles fowghten with mayn and myȝt,
Rich hauberke thei rofe and rente;
Owre kyng to helpe thei were full lyght;
Now blesse hem God omnipotent.

(Both Huntingdon and Oxford were always wonderfully fierce in that battle; those who were formerly happy they made very sad, by them many were put to death.  The earls fought with power and might, they cleaved and cut many a rich hauberk [chainmail coat]; they were very keen to help our king; now all-powerful God bless them.)

The erle of Suthfolk gan hem assaylle,
And sir Richarde Kyghle in that stede,
Here lyves thei losten in that bataile,
With dyntes sore ther were thei dede.
Ȝif eny man byde eny good bede
Unto God with good entent,
To tho two sowles it mote be neede,
Gracius God omnipotent.

(The earl of Suffolk began to attack them, and Sir Richard Kyghley there too, they lost their lives in that battle, they were killed there with heavy blows.  If any man prays any good prayer unto God with a good intention, it should be for those two souls, gracious and all-powerful God.)

Sire William Bowsere, as foule in fright,
Preste he ther was upon his pray,
Erpyngham he come hym with,
Her manhode help us welle that day.
Off Frensshe folk in that afray
Thre dukes were dede with doleful dent,
And fyve erles, this is no nay;
Ther holpe us God omnipotent.

(Sir William Bourchier, equally horrible in terror, he was vigorous there against his victims, Erpingham accompanied him there, their valour helped us considerably that day.  Three dukes of the French nation in that battle were killed with a cruel blow, and five earls, this is no lie; there all-powerful God helped us.)

Lordes of name an hunderde and mo
Bitterly that bargayn bowght;
Two thousand cot-armers also,
After her sorow thedere thei sowght.
Ten thowsand Frensshemen to deth wer browght,
Off whom never none away went;
All her names sothly know I nowght,
Have mersy on hem Cryst omnipotent.

(A hundred and more noblemen of reputation cruelly suffered that fate; two thousand of those bearing heraldic arms as well, thither they sought after their sorrow, ten thousand Frenchmen were killed, of whom none left the field alive; truly I do not know all of their names: all-powerful Christ have mercy on them.)

[NB there are two more stanzas following these, one on French prisoners and one on the death of the ‘fals Flemyngys’, which I have not translated.]

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