The Agincourt Carol

Known as the ‘Agincourt Carol’, Deo gracias Anglia, redde pro victoria!, or ‘England give thanks to God for victory!’, celebrates King Henry V’s exploits in France and his victory at the Battle of Agincourt (25 October 1415). It was suggested in the nineteenth century that it was first performed by Henry’s army in the immediate aftermath of the battle, but this is quite implausible given the sophistication of the text and the music. It has been suggested more recently and rather more plausibly that the song (or a primitive version of it) may have figured among the many different pieces that were performed during the pageant that was staged in London on the king’s return to the capital (23 November 1415). But none of the eight surviving accounts of the pageant makes explicit mention of it. Moreover, the fourth stanza’s references to the delivery of the French captives to London suggests that the composition of the song postdates this event.

fire beastTwo versions are known, one found in an early fifteenth-century roll (Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.3.58), the other in a mid fifteenth-century book of carols and liturgical pieces (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Arch Selden B.26, fols. 3r–33v). Both are relatively formal manuscripts. As with libelli of the kind in which the Later Cambridge Songs are preserved, rolls were often sometimes used as a convenient means of transporting and setting out music for performance rather than for long-term preservation: the absence of any need for binding and for page turns made them cheap and convenient. But the decoration, handwriting and notation of the Trinity Roll suggest that this example was intended to last. The decoration of the Oxford manuscript—red and blue initials with substantial flourishes in the margins—and the care taken over its layout and script suggest that it was also meant to endure. Neither manuscript has a clear provenance, but the dialect of Middle English found in the carols found in the Trinity Roll is thought to be that of southern Norfolk. The text which follows is the version found in this manuscript:

Deo gracias anglia
redde pro victoria.

Our kyng went forth to normandy
Wyth grace and myth of chyvalry
Þer god for hym wrouth mervelowsly
Qwerfore ynglond may cal and cry
deo gracias.

Deo gracias anglia
redde pro victoria
.

He set a sege for sothe to say
To harflu toune wyth ryal a ray
Þat toune he wan and mad a fray
Þat fraunse xal rewe tyl domysday
deo gracias.

Deo gracias anglia
redde pro victoria.

Than went hym forth owr kyng comely
In achyncourt feld he fauth manly
Thorw grace of god most mervelowsly
He had both feld and vyctory
deo gracias.

Deo gracias anglia
redde pro victoria.

Ther lordys eerlys and baroune
Were slayn and takyn and þat ful soun
And summe were browth in to londoune
Wyth ioye and blysse and greth renoune
deo gracias.

Deo gracias anglia
redde pro victoria.

Almythy god he kepe our kyng
Hys pepyl and al hys weel welyng
And 3eve hem grace withoutyn endyng
Þan may we calle and savely syng
deo gracias.

Deo gracias anglia
redde pro victoria.

The format is that of a carol, a song of celebration for two or three voices usually associated with the Christmas season, but which could sometimes, as here, be used to commemorate an event of great stature. Here the refrain is set for three voices, the verses for two. Note also the effectiveness of the poetry: the poet skillfully notes the highpoints of the campaign—the capture of Harfleur, the defeat of the French at Agincourt and the many noble captives taken there—and by using ‘we’ and ‘oure’ throughout, he invites the nation as a whole to celebrate Henry’s victory.


There are two manuscripts:

  1. Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.3.58 (‘The Trinity Roll’), § 7. Trinity O.3.58 is a long scroll made from vellum and measuring 2,033×178 mm. When rolled up it forms a cylinder approximately 60 mm in diameter. The principal contents comprise thirteen polyphonic carols with music on a five-line stave. The beginning of each song is marked by the use of a small decorative initial in blue ink with red flourishes, the beginning of each stanza by a simple initial in red or blue ink. The text is written in tidy Anglicana script typical of the first few decades of the fifteenth century. There is an inscription, now badly faded, at the head of the roll, and a later hand has copied the prayers for four masses on the dorse (or outer side) of the roll. There is a description of the manuscript by Roger Bowers in I. Fenlon (ed.), Cambridge Music Manuscripts, 900–1700 (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 88–90 [VV2], a volume published to coincide with an exhibition held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in July and August 1982. The section of the roll on which the Agincourt Carol appears is reproduced in Deeming, ‘The Sources and Origin of the “Agincourt Carol”’, p. 32.
  2. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Arch Selden B.26, fols. 3r-33v. Arch Selden B.26 comprises five separate manuscripts which were bound together in about 1660. The Agincourt Carol is to be found in the first of these manuscripts (i.e. fols. 3r-33v, at fols. 17v-18r), which dates from the second quarter of the fifteenth century and which is known as the ‘Selden Carol Book’. Its contains songs and liturgical polyphony in Latin and Middle English. The brief description of the manuscript in the Summary Catalogue (no. 3340) may be read online. There is, moreover, an online facsimile of the entire book at Early Manuscripts at Oxford University. (Note also here the specimen of late eighth-century, insular, half-uncial, script on fol. 34rv, a fragment from a manuscript of the Pastoral Care by Gregory the Great.)

Modern Edition: R. L. Greene (ed.), The Early English Carols (2nd edn, Oxford, 1977). YBCK.

Modern Recordings: There is a tremendous performance from 1986 by Christopher Page and the Gothic Voices: ‘The Service of Venus and Mars: Music for the Knights of the Garter’ (Hyperion CDA66238), a disc which is also presently available as part of CDS44251/3; but this is, again, one excellent recording among many. For a more recent reconstruction, see the recording from 2012 by David Skinner and Alamire: ‘Deo Gracias Anglia! Medieval English Carols from the Trinity Carol Roll’ (Obsidian CD709).

Commentary:

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