The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Agincourt Song

Source: William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. London: Chappell & Co., 1859, pp. 38-41

Also found as the Agincourt Carol (PDF of the sheet music)

At the coronation of Henry V., which took place in Westminster Hall (1413), we are told by Thomas de Elmham, that “the number of harpers was exceedingly great; and that the sweet strings of their harps soothed the souls of the guests by their soft melody.” He also speaks of the dulcet sounds of the united music of other instruments, in which no discord interrupted the harmony, as “inviting the royal banqueters to the full enjoyment of the festival.” — (Vit. et. Gest. Heur. V., e. 12, p. 23.) Minstrelsy seems still to have flourished in England, although it had declined so greatly abroad; the Provencals had ceased writing during the preceding century. When Henry was preparing for his great voyage to France in 1415, an express order was given for his minstrels to attend him. — (Rymer, ix., 255.) Monstrelet speaks of the English camp resounding with the national music (170) the day preceding the battle of Agincourt, but this must have been before the king “gave the order for silence, which was afterwards strictly observed.”

When he entered the City of London in triumph after the battle, the gates and streets were hung with tapestry representing the histories of ancient heroes; and boys with pleasing voices were placed in artificial turrets, singing verses in his praise. But Henry ordered this part of the pageantry to cease, and commanded that for the future no “ditties should be made and sung by Minstrels or others,” in praise of the recent victory; “for that he would whollie have the praise and thankes altogether given to God.”

Nevertheless, among many others, a minstrel-piece soon appeared on the Seyge of Harflett (Harfleur), and the Battayle of Agynkourte, “evidently,” says Warton, “adapted to the harp,” and of which he has printed some portions. (Hist. Eng. Poet., vol. ii. p. 257.) Also the following song, which Percy has printed in his Reliques of Ancient Poetry, from a M.S. in the Pepysian Library, and Stafford Smith, in his Collection of English Songs, 1779 fol., in fac-simile of old notation, as well as in modern score, and with a chorus in three parts to words, “Deo gratias, Anglia, redde pro victoria.” The tune is here given with the first verse of the words,1 for although the original is a regular composition three parts, it serves to shew the state of melody at an early period, and the subject is certainly a national one.

Song On The Victory Of Agincourt - 1415.
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

There are also two well-known ballads on the Battle of Agincourt; the one commencing “A council grave our king did hold;” the other “As our king lay musing in his bed,” which will be noticed under later dates; and a three-men’s song, which was sung by the tanner and his fellows, to amuse the guests, in Heywood’s play, King Edward IV., beginning —

“Agincourt! Agincourt! know ye not Agincourt?
Where the English slew or hurt
All the French foemen ?“ &c.

Although Henry had forbidden the minstrels to celebrate his victory, the order evidently did not proceed from any disregard for the professors of music or of song, for at the Feast of Pentecost, which he celebrated in 1416, having the Emperor and the Duke of Holland as his guests, he ordered rich gowns for sixteen his minstrels. And having before his death orally granted an annuity of an hundred shillings to each of his minstrels, the grant was confirmed in the first year of his son, Henry VI. (A.D. 1423), and payment ordered out of the exhequer. Both the biographers of Henry declare his love for music.2 Lydgate and Occleve, the poets whom he patronized, attest also his love of literature, and the encouragement he gave to it.

John Lydgate, Monk of Bury St. Edmuuds, describes the minstrelsy of his time less completely, but in nearly the same terms as Chaucer.

Lydgate was a very voluminous writer. Ritson enumerates 251 of his pieces, and the list is far from being complete. Among his minor pieces are many songs and ballads, chiefly satirical, such as “On the forked head-dresses of the ladies,” on “Thievish Millers and Bakers,” &c. A selection from these has been recently printed by the Percy Society.

Among the devices at the coronation banquet of Henry VI. (1429), were, in the first course, a “ sotiltie” (subtlety) of St. Edward and St. Lewis, in coat armour, holding between them a figure like King Henry, similarly armed, and standing with a ballad sender his feet.” In the second, a device of the Emperor Sigismund and King Henry V., arrayed in mantles of garter, and a figure like Henry VI. kneeling before them with a ballad against the Lollards;3 and in the third, one of our Lady, sitting with her child in her lap, and holding a crown in her hand, St. George and St. Denis kneeling on either side, presenting to her King Henry with a ballad in his hand.4 These subtleties were probably devised by the clergy, who strove to smother the odium which, as a body, their vices had excited, by turning public attention to the further persecution of the Lollards.5 In a discourse which was prepared to be delivered at the Convocation of the Clergy, ten days after the death of Edward IV., and which still exists in MS. (MS. Cotton Cleopatra, E. 8), exhorting the clergy to amendment, the writer complains that “The people laugh at us, and make us their songs all the day long.” Vicious persons of every description had been induced to enter the church on account of the protection it afforded against the secular power, and the facilities it provided for continued indulgence in their vices.

In that age, as in more enlightened times, the people loved better to be pleased than instructed, and the minstrels were often more amply paid than the clergy. During many of the years of Henry VI., particularly in the year 1430, at the annual feast of the fraternity of the HOLIE CROSSE, at Abingdon, a town in Berkshire, twelve priests each received four pence for singing a dirge: and the same number of minstrels were rewarded each with two shillings and four pence, besides diet and horse-meat. Some of these minstrels came only from Maydenhithe, or Maidenhead, a town at no great distance, in the same county. (Liber Niger, p. 598.) In the year 1441, eight priests were hired from Coventry, to assist in celebrating a yearly obit in the church of the neighbouring priory of Maxtoke; as were six minstrels (MIMI) belonging to the family of Lord Clinton, who lived in the adjoining Castle of Maxtoke, to sing, harp, and play in the hall of the monastery, during the extraordinary refection allowed to the monks on that anniversary. Two shillings were given to the priests, and four to the minstrels: and the latter are said to have supped in camera pieta, or the painted chamber of convent, with the sub-prior, on which occasion the chamberlain furnished eight massive tapers of wax. (Warton, vol. ii., p. 309.) However, on this occasion, the priests seem to have been better paid than usual, for in the same year (1441) the prior gave no more than sixpence to a preaching friar.

As late as in the early part of the reign of Elizabeth, we find an entry in the books of the Stationers’ Company (1560) of a similar character: Item, payd to the preacher, 6s. 2d. Item, payd to the minstrell, 12s.; so that even in the decline of minstrelsy, the scale of remuneration was relatively the same.

Notes from Chappell:

1. I do not intend to reprint songs or ballads that are contained in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry, without some particular motive, for that delightful book can be purchased in many shapes and at a small cost. As a general rule, the versions given by Percy are best suited to music, because more metrical than others, although they may be less exactly and minutely ha accordance with old copies, witch are often very carelessly printed or transcribed. Return

2. "Musicis delectabatur." - Tit. Liv., p. 5. "Instrumentis organicis plurimum deditus." Elmham Return

3. Ritson has printed one of these ballads against the Lollards, in his Ancient Songs, p. 63, 1790, taken from MS Cotton, Vespasian, B. 16. Brit. Mus. Return

4. Quoted by Sharon Turner, from Feb. 419. Return

Editor's Note: See also:

Our King Went Forth To Normandy

Fuller Maitland, English Carols of the Fifteenth Century

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