Contrary to popular belief, a carol is not just for Christmas. The archaic meaning of the word ‘carol’ is a song of celebration, sung by groups at a time of rejoicing. Christmas was one such time to rejoice, but so too was the winning of an important battle. The Agincourt Carol celebrates the victory of the English over the French at Agincourt in 1415. The verses of the carol tell the story of the battle in English, whilst the Latin chorus gives thanks to God. In many ways the structure of the Agincourt Carol is similar to the structure of the Christmas carol ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’, which was written to fit an early 16th century tune.
We know what the Agincourt Carol sounded like as it is written down in two 15th century manuscripts, complete with musical notation. We can also be sure that it was written after the battle, since the song refers to the king still being alive (spoiler – Henry V died just seven years after the battle) and it makes no reference to events after the arrival of the captured French nobles in London late in 1415.
Like the writings of Chaucer (whose son fought in the battle), the Agincourt Carol was written at a time before the modern conventions of spelling were established. This has resulted in a work that is more easily understood by modern audiences when it is sung rather than when it is read. In a time when the majority of writing would document the words of kings and nobles, the Agincourt Carol reflects the authentic voices of ordinary people. ‘England, give thanks to God for the victory!’
View the Agincourt Carol, in full, below.