Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Drayton
Editor: James Mardock
Not Peer Reviewed

The Ballad of Agincourt


Introduction

A poet, playwright and antiquarian, and a near exact contemporary with Shakespeare, Michael Drayton (1563-1631) returned to the subject matter of Henry V's reign several times over the course of his long career, notably in his contribution to the collaborative historical play The First Part of . . . the Life of Sir John Oldcastle (1600). In 1627 he published a 315-stanza, meticulously annotated epic poem on the 1415 campaign, The Battle of Agincourt, covering much the same ground as Shakespeare's play covers, and following the same chronicle sources, though Drayton seems, like the author of Famous Victories, to have been more indebted to Hall than to Holinshed.

In a more popular vein, Drayton included a ballad of Agincourt as Ode 12 in his volume of Poems Lyric and Pastoral of 1606, and again in a slightly revised form in his Poems of 1619. Aside from (possibly) its use the adjective "bruisèd" to describe Henry's helmet (cf. H5 TLN 2868), Drayton's poem seems to owe little directly to Shakespeare's play. Nevertheless, it contains several flourishes reminiscent of Henry V, including the celebration of Henry's refusal to name a ransom and his battlefield invocation of his army's ancestors' victory at Crécy. While Shakespeare's play downplays the fact that the English army fought Agincourt while in desperate retreat, Drayton's poem actively denies it, portraying the English as "March[ing] towards Agincourt" as though by choice.

The most conspicuous way Drayton's treatment of Agincourt differs from Shakespeare's is the three stanzas he spends celebrating the most famous aspect of the battle, the technological superiority of the English longbow, which gave Henry's army a decisive tactical advantage. Whether to emphasize the role of divine providence in the victory or to downplay the part of the yeomen in favor of the nobles, Shakespeare makes no mention of the archers.

The text below is modernized from a facsimile of the Bodleian Library copy of the 1619 Poems, 305-8, provided by Early English Books Online.

Michael Drayton, "The Ballad of Agincourt" (1606/1619)

To the Cambro-Britains and their Harp, his Ballad of Agincourt

Fair stood the wind for France
When we our sails advance,
Nor now to prove our chance,
Longer will tarry;
But putting to the main,
At Caux, the mouth of Seine,
With all his martial train
Landed King Harry.
And taking many a fort,
Furnished in warlike sort,
Marcheth towards Agincourt
In happy hour,
Skirmishing day by day
With those that stopped his way,
Where the French gen'ral lay
With all his power.
Which, in his height of pride,
King Henry to deride,
His ransom to provide
To the king sending;
Which he neglects the while
As from a nation vile,
Yet with an angry smile
Their fall portending.
And turning to his men,
Quoth our brave Henry then,
"Though they to one be ten
Be not amazed.
Yet have we well begun;
Battles so bravely won
Have ever to the sun
By fame been raised.
"And for myself," quoth he,
"This my full rest shall be:
England ne'er mourn for me
Nor more esteem me.
Victor I will remain
Or on this earth lie slain,
Never shall she sustain
Loss to redeem me.
"Poitiers and Crécy tell,
When most their pride did swell,
Under our swords they fell.
No less our skill is
Than when our grandsire great,
Claiming the regal seat,
By many a warlike feat
Lopped the French lilies."
The Duke of York so dread
The eager vanguard led;
With the main, Henry sped
Amongst his henchmen.
Exeter had the rear --
A braver man not there.
O Lord, how hot they were
On the false Frenchmen!
They now to fight are gone,
Armor on armor shone,
Drum now to drum did groan.
To hear was wonder,
That with the cries they make
The very earth did shake.
Trumpet to trumpet spake;
Thunder to thunder.
Well it thine age became,
O noble Erpingham,
Which didst the signal aim
To our hid forces!
When from a meadow by,
Like a storm suddenly
The English archery
Stuck the French horses.
With Spanish yew so strong,
Arrows a cloth-yard long
That like to serpents stung,
Piercing the weather.
None from his fellow starts,
But playing manly parts,
And like true English hearts
Stuck close together.
When down their bows they threw
And forth their bilboes drew,
And on the French they flew;
Not one was tardy.
Arms were from shoulders sent,
Scalps to the teeth were rent,
Down the French peasants went;
Our men were hardy.
This while our noble king,
His broadsword brandishing,
Down the French host did ding
As to o'erwhelm it,
And many a deep wound lent,
His arms with blood besprent,
And many a cruel dent
Bruisèd his helmet.
Gloucester, that duke so good,
Next of the royal blood,
For famous England stood
With his brave brother;
Clarence, in steel so bright,
Though but a maiden knight,
Yet in that furious fight
Scarce such another.
Warwick in blood did wade,
Oxford the foe invade,
And cruel slaughter made
Still as they ran up;
Suffolk his axe did ply,
Beaumont and Willoughby
Bare them right doughtily,
Ferrers and Fanhope.
Upon Saint Crispin's Day
Fought was this noble fray,
Which fame did not delay
To England to carry.
O when shall English men
With such acts fill a pen?
Or England breed again
Such a King Harry?