Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Drayton
Editor: James D. Mardock
Not Peer Reviewed

The Ballad of Agincourt


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 Poemsof 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.