King Henry was surrounded by his generals and closest advisers, including his brother, the Duke of Gloucester. They were camped at Agincourt and, like the French, waited for daylight, although in a different mood.
‘Gloucester,’ the King said, ‘it’s a fact that we’re in great danger. So we should increase our courage to meet that. Good morning, brother Bedford. God almighty!’ He screwed his face up. Then he smiled. ‘There is some spark of goodness in all evil, if we would only take the trouble to look for it: our bad neighbour makes us early risers, which is both healthy and efficient. Apart from that, he is our conscience and our preacher, exhorting us to prepare ourselves properly for our task. So we can, as the saying goes, gather honey from the weed, and draw a moral from the devil himself.’
The elderly Sir Thomas Erpingham joined them. ‘Good morning old Sir Thomas Erpingham,’ said Henry. ‘A good soft pillow for that revered white head would be more fitting than a rough French turf.’
‘No so, my liege. I prefer this lodging because I can say, “now I’m sleeping like a king.” ‘
Henry looked round at his loyal followers. It was a good thing when men cherished their discomfort because of the example set by others. It reassured them, and when the mind was encouraged there was no doubt that limbs that had previously been idle and dead threw off their lethargy and began to move again with a re-invigorated spirit and a new nimbleness.
‘Lend me your cloak, Sir Thomas,’ he said. ‘Brothers, give my compliments to the princes in our camp. Say good morning to them from me and ask them all to go to my tent.’
‘We shall, my liege,’ said Gloucester.
‘Would your grace like me to stay?’ said Erpingham.
The king shook his head. ‘No, my good knight. Go with my brothers to the noblemen of England. I have to think and I don’t want any company.’
Empingham began following the others then turned. ‘The Lord in heaven bless you, noble Harry,’ he said.
‘God bless you, old friend,’ said Henry. ‘You speak cheerfully.’
He raised the gown’s hood then strolled out towards the tents where the men slept. He was challenged by an officer on guard duty – one Pistol, who did not recognise him.
‘Who goes there?’ shouted Pistol.
‘Reveal yourself to me! Are you an officer? Or are you one of the rabble?’
‘I am a gentleman volunteer,’ said Henry.
‘Are you a carrier of the powerful pike?’
‘Exactly,’ said Henry. ‘What are you?’
‘As good a gentleman as the emperor.’
‘Then you are better than the King.’
Pistol laughed. ‘The King’s great fun, and full of generosity: a lively lad, one of the boys: of good family: handy with his fists. I kiss his dirty shoe, and adore the lovely lad. What’s your name?’
‘Leroi? A Cornish name. Are you one of the Cornish crew?’
‘No,’ said Henry. ‘I’m a Welshman.’
‘Do you know Fluellen?’
‘Tell him I’m going to hit him over the head with his leek on St. David’s day!’
Henry laughed. ‘Don’t wear your dagger in your cap that day, in case he knocks you about the head with it.’
‘Are you his friend?’ asked Pistol suspiciously.
‘And a relative too,’ said Henry.
Pistol made a rude gesture. ‘A fig for you, then!’
‘Thank you very much,’ said Henry. ‘Goodbye.’
‘My name is Pistol.’
‘It suits your ferocity,’ said Henry.
Pistol turned and marched away. Henry was just about to walk on when he saw two officers approaching each other and he heard one exclaim:’Captain Fluellen!’ He stopped, hidden by the darkness.
‘Indeed so, Captain Gower,’ came the reply. ‘For Christ’s sake speak more softly!! It’s the most astonishing thing in the whole wide world when the proper and ancient rights and laws of war are ignored. If you would just take the trouble to examine the wars of Pompey the Great you’ll find, I promise you, that there was no chit-chat or piffle-waffle in Pompey’s camp! I promise you you will find the ceremonies of war and the concerns of it and the orderly conduct of it, and the seriousness of it, and the discipline of it, to be otherwise.’
‘Why, the enemy is noisy. You can hear him all night long.’
‘If the enemy is an ass and a fool and a chattering idiot, is it appropriate, do you think, that we should also, look you, be an ass and a fool and a chattering idiot? In all honesty now?’
Gower gave in. ‘I will speak more softly.’
‘I beg and pray that you will,’ said Fluellen.
The two officers walked away together. Henry reflected that there was a great deal of honour in the Welshman, even though it was a bit out of date. Three soldiers were coming towards him, chatting. One of them, Alexander Court, put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.
‘Brother John Bates, isn’t that morning breaking over there?’
‘I think it is,’ said Bates. ‘But we have no reason to wish for daybreak.’
The other, Michael Williams, agreed. ‘We’re seeing the beginning of the day over there, but I don’t think we’ll ever see the end of it.’ He saw the figure of the King, standing, anonymously, nearby. ‘Who goes there?’ he demanded.
‘A friend,’ said Henry.
‘Which captain do you serve under?’
‘Under Sir Thomas Erpingham.’
‘A good old commander and a most kind gentleman,’ said Williams. ‘Tell me, what does he think about our situation?’
‘Something like being wrecked on a sand bank and expecting to be washed away by the next tide.’
‘He hasn’t spoken those thoughts to the King?’ said Bates.
‘No, nor is it appropriate that he should. Though I have to say that the King is only a man, as I am. The violet smells the same to him as it does to me. The sky looks the same to him as it does to me. All his senses have only human dimensions. If you took all his trappings away he would be just like any other man in his nakedness, and though his ambitions are more elevated than ours, yet when they come down to earth they do so just like ours. So when he sees something to be worried about there’s no doubt he is just as worried as we are. But still, it’s common sense that no-one should cause him concern by looking scared in case, by looking scared himself, it should lower the army’s morale.’
‘He can show all the outward courage he likes but I think that, cold a night as it is, he’d rather be up to his neck in the Thames,’ said Bates. ‘And I wish he were as well, and me with him, with all my heart, as long as we were away from this place!’
‘Indeed, I’ll tell you what I know about the King. I don’t think he would wish himself anywhere but where he is,’ said Henry.
‘Then I wish he was here by himself,’ said Bates. ‘Then he’d be certain to be ransomed, and many poor men’s lives would be saved.’
‘I can’t believe you dislike him so much that you want to see him here alone, however much you may be saying that to sound out other men,’ said Henry. ‘For myself, I couldn’t die anywhere as contented as in the King’s company, his cause being just and his dispute honourable.’
‘You know more about it than we do,’ said Williams.
‘Yes, or more than we want to know,’ said Bates. ‘Knowing that we’re the King’s subjects is all we need to know. If his cause is a wrong one our duty of obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.’
Williams was thoughtful. ‘But if the cause isn’t good, the King himself has a great responsibility to bear when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in battle join together at the last judgment and all shout “We died at such a place”: some cursing, some crying out for a surgeon, some for the wife they left unprovided for behind them: some about the debts they owe: some about the children they left destitute. Few die well who die in battle, I’m afraid, because how can they act with Christian love when violence is their purpose? Now if these men don’t die well it will be a serious matter for the King who led them into it, and whom to disobey would be against the whole principle of subjection.’
‘So, if a son, sent on business by his father, should die at sea while in a state of sin, the responsibility for his wickedness should, according to your argument, lie with his father who sent him,’ said Henry. ‘Or if a servant, carrying a sum of money for his master, attacked by robbers, should die without repenting of his many unreconciled sins you would call the business of the master the cause of the servant’s damnation. But this is not the case. The King is not responsible for the state in which his individual soldiers die, nor the father for his son’s nor the master for his servant’s because they didn’t intend them to die when they solicited their services. In any case, there is no king, however good his intentions, who could, if it comes to fighting a war, fight it with all pure soldiers. Some would no doubt be burdened with the guilt of premeditated and planned murder: some of broken vows to virgins in order to seduce them: some who had previously taken advantage of the wars by disturbing the peace with pillage and robbery. Now if these are able to defeat the law and escape their just punishment, though they can run faster than men they have no wings to fly from God. War is God’s beadle. War is His vengeance. And men are being punished for previous breaches of the King’s laws in this action of the King’s. Where they had feared hanging they themselves took life: and where they had hoped to be safe they perish. So if they die unprepared the King is no more guilty of their damnation than he was earlier guilty of the crimes for which they are being punished. Every subject’s duty is to the King but every subject’s soul is his own. So every soldier in war should do the same as every man sick in his bed: wash his conscience clean of even the smallest sin. And then if he dies in that state death will be an advantage to him: and if he doesn’t die, the time spent in making the preparation is blessed. And as for the man who escapes death it wouldn’t be sinful to think that, having made so complete a surrender to God, God allowed him to outlive that day to show his greatness and to teach others how to prepare for death.’
Williams wasn’t impressed by this officer’s argument. ‘There’s no doubt that every man who dies with sin it’s on his own head. The King’s not responsible,’ he said sarcastically.
‘I don’t expect the King to take responsibility for me, but I will fight lustily for him,’ said Bates.
‘I myself heard the King say he will not allow himself to be taken for ransom,’ said Henry.
‘Yes, he said so. To make us fight willingly, but when our throats are cut he may be ransomed and we won’t be any the wiser,’ said Williams.
‘If I live to see that happen I’ll never trust his word again,’ said Henry.
‘That’s right, you tell him!’ laughed Williams. ‘A deadly shot from a small gun – is what your personal disapproval can do against the power of a monarch. You might as well try turning the sun to ice by fanning it with a peacock’s feather. You’ll never trust his word again! Come on, that’s an absurd thing to say.’
‘Your criticism is a bit too blunt,’ said Henry. ‘At another time I’d be angry with you.’
‘Let it be a quarrel between us to be settled if you survive,’ said Williams.
‘I accept the challenge,’ said Henry.
‘How will I recognise you?
‘Give me something of yours and I’ll wear it in my cap,’ said Henry.’Then, if you ever dare to acknowledge it, I’ll resume the quarrel.’
‘Here’s my glove,’ said Williams. Give me one of yours.’ They exchanged gloves. ‘I’ll wear this in my cap, too,’ said Williams. ‘If you ever come to me after tomorrow and say “this is my glove” by this hand I’ll box your ears!’
‘If I ever live to see it I will respond,’ said Henry.
‘You’d just as soon dare to be hanged!’
‘Well, I’m going to do it, even if the King is present,’ said Henry.
Williams began walking away. ‘Keep your word,’ he said. ‘Farewell.’
Bates and Court followed him. ‘Be friends, you English fools,’ said Bates. ‘Be friends. We have enough quarrels with the French if you’re capable of counting.’
‘Quite right,’ said Henry. ‘The French could bet twenty crowns to one that they will beat us because they carry them on their shoulders. But it’s no treason to cut French crowns from French shoulders and tomorrow the King himself will be doing some cutting.’
The three walked off and Henry was left on his own again. ‘The King responsible!’ he exclaimed aloud. ‘Oh yes, let us all make him responsible for our lives, our souls, our worried wives, our children and our sins. They expected him to carry the whole load. What a terrible burden. But it came with kingship. It was subject to the grumbling of every self-absorbed fool. Kings have to sacrifice all the peace of mind that private men enjoy. And what do Kings get for it that ordinary men don’t have apart from ceremony and more ceremony? And what was that worth? What kind of god was ceremony that had to suffer more griefs than those that worshiped it? What was the advantage? He wished he could see the value of ceremony. Why did men worship ceremony? Was it anything more than social rank and ritual, that created awe and fear in other men? In which the King is less happy, being feared, than others are in fearing him. Instead of drinking sweet respect he has to swallow poisoned flattery. The greatest king just has to be sick and order ceremony to cure him to see how powerless it is. Will the flatteries of those who fawn upon him make the raging fever subside? Will it give way to genuflecting and low bowing? When he makes the beggar bend his knee can he also control the health of that knee? No. Ceremony, was a vain illusion that played subtly on a king’s peace of mind. He was a king and he was exposing ceremony. He knew it wasn’t the anointing balm, the royal sceptre or the orb, the sword, the mace, the imperial crown, the robes of interwoven gold and pearl, the elevated titles that go with kingship, the throne he sits on, nor the ever present pomp that accompanies royalty. No, it was none of these. None of these, lying on a royal bed, can sleep as soundly as a wretched slave who, with a tired body and an empty mind, crammed with peasant bread, immediately falls asleep. He never knows the horror of lying awake in the terrifying black night but like the sun god’s slave, sweats from sunrise to sunset in the heat of the sun and sleeps blissfully all night long. Then the next day he gets up after dawn and helps his master on to his horse and goes on doing the same thing year after year with purposeful work until his death. And apart from ceremony, such a wretch, filling his days with work and his nights with sleep, has the advantage over a king. The slave, a member of the country’s work force, enjoys the benefits of peace but with his slow brain he little understands how vigilant the King has to be to maintain the peace that the peasant benefits from.’
Sir Thomas Erpingham approached Henry, clearly relieved at having found him. ‘My lord, your nobles, anxious about your absence, are searching the camp for you,’ he said.
‘Good old knight, collect them all together at my tent,’ said Henry. ‘I’ll be there before you.’ The old man went to do as he was told and Henry fell into his reflection again as he walked back to his tent.
He appealed to the god of battles to steel his soldiers’ hearts. Don’t let them be afraid. Deprive them of their ability to count lest realizing the size of the opposing army frightened them. He prayed as he walked. ‘Not today, oh Lord, please not today – don’t think about my father’s sin in the way he got the crown. I have reburied Richard’s body in Westminster Abbey and shed more remorseful tears on it than the drops of blood it shed. I have given pensions to five hundred poor people to raise their withered hands to heaven twice a day to beg my pardon for the blood he shed. I have built two chapels where the grave and solemn priests still pray for Richard’s soul. I will do more, although whatever I do is worthless since my penitence and plea for pardon come after all the benefits…’
His prayer was interrupted by his brother’s voice. ‘My liege…’
‘Yes, I know what you want,’ said Henry. ‘I’ll go with you. The day, my friends, and everything, is waiting for me.’