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Now Thrive the Armorers
Now Thrive the Armorers

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Now Thrive the Armorers

Henry V

Medieval feudalism existed to put armies on the field of battle. In Henry V, Shakespeare shows us medieval English warfare at the height of its success, during the Hundred Years’ War againstFrance(1337–1453). As the play begins, the French king denies King Henry his feudal lands. Henry responds by mustering an army to invade France, leading his followers toward the English-held port of Calais. They are overtaken by the French at Agincourt, the scene of one of the greatest upsets in military history. Although the English were outnumbered nearly 4 to 1, weather and terrain favored English defensive tactics, based on lowly longbowmen supported by a sprinkling of dismounted knights. Showers of English arrows goaded the heavily-armored French knights into riding past their own archers and crossbowmen to attack across the narrow and muddy field. Archery and mud took their toll on the attackers, and by the time the French knights reached the English line, they had lost all impetus and cohesion. The English counterattack brought a decisive victory: French casualties numbered as many as 5,000 men, while the English lost only 200.

Johann von Wallhausen. Manuale militare, oder Kriegss manual. Frankfurt am Mayn, 1616

The stars of the medieval battlefield were the mounted knights, yet by Henry V’s day, the outcome of battle was more often determined by the foot soldiers. The French defeat at Agincourt reflected a military system that emphasized cavalry over infantry, and was much better suited for attack than defense. At Castillon in 1453, the tables were reversed. An English relief force under John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, tried to break the French siege of Castillon. When Talbot’s horsemen assaulted an entrenched French position, they were shattered by the defending crossbows and by a newcomer on the medieval battlefield: the cannon. Talbot was among the slain, struck down by a French axe. The sword on display here was dropped in the river Dordogne by an Englishman fleeing from the battle—the final chapter of the Hundred Years’ War.


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Getting a Grip - Swords for the Street

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