Agincourt is a village in northern France. Near here in 1415, King Henry V of England won a decisive battle in the Hundred Years War. Though the French outnumbered the English four to one, at the end 5,000 Frenchmen lay dead while only 113 Englishmen were killed. This slaughter was partly accomplished by skillful use of the Welsh longbow, a weapon that spelled the end of the armored knight, the military basis of feudalism.

At dawn on 23rd October 1415, both King Henry V, the English king, and the Duc d'Albret, the French Commander laid out their forces near their respective camps. To start, the lines were a little over a mile apart, a little to the south of the French village of Azincourt (which is in the present-day departement of Pas de Calais). We, of course, had to bastardise the name, because that's what we English do best. The plain between the armies was a gently rolling field, freshly plowed and planted, about 900 yards wide. It had been raining continuously for two weeks, and the field was a sea of mud.

The French had two very dense lines of armored foot soldiers with genoese crossbowmen and bombards between. Mounted knights guarded the flanks and formed a reserve in the rear. d'Albret's plan was to use the bombards to cut the English lines into smaller sections that could be handled individually. Unfortunately, everybody (including d'Albret!) wanted to be in the front line. It got so dense that the bombards couldn't be fired, as they would hit more French than English. They actually were fired once, to no effect.

The crossbowmen were equally ineffective. Being mercenaries, their desire to fight was not huge, and was helped only by a small pot of gold. Due to either their work-shy nature or plain stupidity, the crossbowmen of the French force allowed their bowstrings to get wet overnight before, and thus were almost useless.

Henry laid out his forces in the traditional English fashion, with men-at-arms flanked by wedges of archers in the centre, protected by large pointed stakes. (Horses won't charge at big pointy things.) The archers at the ends of the lines were positioned forward from the rest of the troops to give covering fire along the main front. This is an excellent defensive position, but it gives very little scope for attack. In the woods on the flanks were the cavalry, under the Dukes of York and Clarence.

After the forces were arranged, they sat and stared at each other for four hours. The English had no desire to attack, and the French were presumably not pleased at the idea of wading through a mile of mud.

About 11 AM, as some of the French were sending their servants back to camp to bring lunch, Henry decided to force the issue. He ordered his troops to move the line forward, and to reset the positions within extreme longbow range from the French lines. He didn't have enough men-at-arms to form a reserve or to guard the camp. This was to have dramatic consequences later on.

As Henry had planned, the first volley of arrows goaded the French into attacking. The first attack was from the mounted knights on the flanks of the French position, intending to overrun the longbowmen protecting the English flanks. It was a disaster. While an English arrow would not normally penetrate a knight's plate armor, a horse cannot carry enough armor to be effective. Wounded horses threw their riders into the mud and trampled through the close-packed ranks of French foot soldiers. They also churned up the mud in front of the English positions, making things more difficult for future French attacks.

The main French attack was from the first line of men-at-arms. Unfortunately, everybody tried to push their way into the first line, including Constable d'Albret. As they marched toward the English, their line was squeezed together by the narrowing field, until they were so close together that they couldn't lift their arms to use their weapons. However, even with the mud and the crowding, the shock of the French men-at-arms hitting the English line was terrific, throwing the lines back for several yards.

It was, however, ineffectual. Despite some terrific fighting, the English line was never in any serious danger. While men-at-arms in plate armor are normally quite mobile, the combination of the mud and the crowding made them almost helpless. The English simply knocked them down, to drown or suffocate under fallen bodies.

The second line of men-at-arms followed the first. Now, however, there was the added complication that the English positions were blocked by a wall of bodies. The second line had no better luck against the arrows, mud, and English men-at-arms than the first.

After the collapse of the second line, the English common soldiers started in on the traditional battlefield activity of taking prisoners for ransom and stripping the armor and jewelry from the dead. However, the remaining French forces, both the survivors of the first two lines and the entire third line, plus the crossbowmen, easily outnumbered the English. As the counts of Marle and Fauquembergues tried to rally the French for a third attack, Henry gave the order to kill the prisoners. This removed the risk of the prisoners turning on their captors and freed their guards for duty elsewhere.

At roughly the same time, a group of French knights cut through the woods and attacked the English camp. In Shakespeare, the raid on the camp was Henry's reason for ordering the prisoners killed; I suspect that it was a later justification. Remember, the murdered prisoners represented a very large amount of ransom money, which Henry needed very badly.

The attack of Marle and Fauquembergues was defeated with no particular effort. Their charge (in which both of them were killed) was the last offensive action that the French mounted.

The Battle of Agincourt was fought on the 25th October 1415 between an English army of some 6,000 led by king Henry V and a French army of some 30,000 led by Jean le Maingre, otherwise known as 'Boucicault', the Marshal of France and Charles d'Albret the Constable of France.

The Background

The Hundred Years war between France and England had originally begun in the year 1337 when Edward III laid claim to the throne of France. Despite some early successes the English ended up with little more than Calais for their efforts. Edward's successor, Richard II had little interest in pursuing his grandfather's claim to the title of King of France and had concluded a twenty-eight year truce.

Richard's successor Henry IV had his hands full with matters at home and had little time for foreign adventures but it was a different matter with his son Henry who had been pursuing the idea of marrying Catherine de Valois for some years. The French however, were dragging their feet and so Henry decided in 1415 to launch a small scale invasion of France; the objective was to take control of a port in Normandy that could be used to support a march on Paris that would bring the French to the negotiating table.

The Siege of Harfleur and the march to Calais

Unfortunately Henry's departure was delayed by French financed plot on his life (the Southampton Plot) and despite their being no opposition to the English landing in Normandy on the 14th August, it took five weeks to capture Harfleur (a good deal longer than Henry had expected) and conditions amongst the besiegers were unhealthy to say the least. An outbreak of dysentery epidemic thinned the ranks of the English As Adam of Usk recorded "Many perished in the siege by a flux of the bowels, among whom were the bishop of Norwich, and the earls of Arundel and Suffolk."

Thus when Harfleur finally surrendered on the 22nd September, Henry had lost a considerable proportion of his original army. Having started with some 11,000 men, and after leaving the Earl of Dorset as Captain of Harfleur with a garrison of 500 men-at-arms and 1000 archers, he had only 6,000 left to conduct his campaign. Therefore, rather than march on Paris he decided to march 120 miles across country to Calais (which of course the English already held), no doubt burning and looting as he went. Given that there was a large French army making its way towards him, at best this could be regarded as a somewhat reckless if not downright suicidal decision. But although all his senior commanders argued against the idea, Henry insisted on making this grand gesture of defiance.

So on the 8th October Henry left Harfleur with a force of about 900 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers carrying only eight days provisions. The advance guard was commanded by Sir Gilbert Umfraville and Sir John Cornwall, the main body by Henry himself, the Duke of Gloucester and the Earl of Huntington while the rear guard was led by the Duke of York and the Earl of Oxford.

Now the major obstacle that stood in the way of the English army and Calais was the river Somme. Henry had originally intended to cross the Somme at Abbeville near the coast only to find that the French had moved to block the river crossings and had occupied Abbeville. He was therefore forced to march up river to try and both find away across and to try and put some distance between himself and the French army, whose simple objective was to corner Henry and force him to do battle.

Henry eventually managed to cross the Somme at a point between Bellencourt and Voyenes on the 19th October. He then decided to rest on the 20th (his men were having to march the long way round to Calais) only to find his peace disturbed by the arrival of French heralds who issued a challenge for battle;

Our lords have heard how you intend with your army to conquer the towns, castles and cities of the realm of France and to depopulate French cities. And because of this, and for the sake of their country and their oaths, many of our lords are assembled to defend their rights; and they inform you by us that before you come to Calais they will meet you to fight you and be revenged of your conduct

To which Henry's response is recorded as "Be all things according to the will of God". As it happens Henry had no intention of leaving the matter entirely up to the Almighty as the last thing he wanted to do was actually fight the French. But despite his efforts to avoid the French army, on the 24th October they eventually they caught up with him just outside the village of Azincourt or Agincourt.

Since the English army had now marched some 260 miles in 17 days, over twice the time and distance originally planned, they were tired and hungry and not in the best condition to fight. Henry made one last effort to avoid a battle by offering to surrender Harfleur and to pay damages in return for a safe passage to Calais, but the French would have none of it. They had 30,000 men in the field and were confident of their ability to crush Henry's army.

The French battle plan

The French formed themselves into three lines, the first two consisted dismounted men-at-arms and the third mounted. Between the first and second lines they placed their archers and crossbowmen. There were further divisions of mounted knights placed on each flank, the left wing commanded by the Count of Vendome and the right by Clignet de Brebant, and even some cannon at the rear. (Although these played no real part in the battle.)

Now the French were not stupid and were perfectly well aware of the capabilities of the longbow and they had a perfectly straightforward and sensible tactic for dealing with this threat. They planned to send their cavalry sweeping around to charge the flank of the archery companies and drive them from the field of battle before they had a chance to do much damage. And given their vast numerical superiority it didn't appear that they would necessarily have too much trouble in accomplishing this task.

Unfortunately the French had a number of problems putting this plan into effect. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, their chosen location for the battle, midway between the villages of Tramecourt and Azincourt, was a recently ploughed field, bordered on both sides by forest that narrowed from some 1200 yards at the French side to some 900 yards at the English end. As a field of battle this was simply too narrow for their plan to be put into effect; their cavalry couldn't outflank the English army and were reduced to charging straight at it.

Secondly, as the French were expecting an easy win, every Jean, Jacque and Henri had turned up hoping for a share of the glory. Thus the French simply had too many men on the battlefield which hampered their ability to manouevure, or to even actually do any fighting at all as it turned out. Finally it had been raining, which didn't bother the English and Welsh archers that much (they put their bowstrings under their hats to keep them dry) but did bother the Genoese crossbowmen. And did of course render the going rather soft, well it turned the battlefield into a quagmire to be honest, which rather favoured the English as it made cavalry charges somewhat difficult to execute.

(The original French Battle plan has survived, the British Museum has a copy Cotton Caligula D. V Folio:f.43v )

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt was fought on the 25th October 1415, otherwise known as Saint Crispin's Day. Henry awoke before dawn that day, heard three masses and took communion, before making an address to his assembled army during which he sought to inspire his men by alleging that the French had promised to cut three fingers from each hand of every archer they captured. (Note that there is no evidence that the French ever made such a threat. Had the French captured any English archers they would have simply killed them, which was the fate of all commoners captured in war who could not command a ransom.)

The English men-at-arms formed themselves into a single line around four deep, (there were only a 1,000 of them) divided into three groups. The Duke of York commanded the right, Baron Camoys the left and Henry himself took charge of the centre. Both sides were drawn up ready to do battle at dawn, and stayed that way for the next four hours waiting for the other side to make the first move. Perhaps sensing that the French generals were not quite up to the task, Henry ordered his men to move forward to within 250 yards of the French lines, which was just within longbow range, and opened fire so that the arrows fell "upon the enemy like a cloud laden with rain".

The French were naturally not happy about being used as target practice and thus their cavalry were goaded into charging straight at the English lines. They were beaten back by repeated volleys of arrows and so the French sent their first wave of dismounted men-at-arms at the English line. These men were so closely packed together that each individual had difficulty in finding enough room to swing their swords at the enemy and also found themselves wading through mud that was ankle deep at best and reached up to their waists in the worst spots. Naturally this slowed down their progress across the battlefield and made them easy targets for the English missiles heading their way.

Most of the first French line were destroyed and the much of the second line then decided to run away. This might have been the end of the affair, only the Duke of Alencon together with some late reinforcements led by Anthony of Brabant, Duke of Barabant, decided it was time for one last effort for France.

It was at this point that Henry V ordered the killing of all the French prisoners of war that his men had take so far, out of fear that they could be freed and thus rejoin the battle. Many of his own nobles balked at this breach of the rules of chivalry (not to mention the cost of all those lost ransoms) but fortunately Henry's infantry had no such qualms and cheerfully slaughtered them.

However the last French charge almost managed to hack its way through to Henry himself, which is when tradition accords to Dafydd Gam the heroic task of rescuing his king at the price of his own life. With their king now safe the English forces finished off the French including the unfortunate Anthony of Brabant was in so much of a hurry to fight that he had neglected to put on his full armour with identifying heraldry. Thus the English failed to recognise him as a noble duke and killed him.

As Adam of Usk wrote now "the victory fell to our king, on whose die only seven and twenty were slain" although actual English losses were somewhere between 100 to 500 killed. Adam probably meant twenty-seven people who mattered, and "among whom the men of noble birth who died were the duke of York, and the young earl of Suffolk, sir Richard Kyghley and Sir John Skidmore, knights, and David Gam, of Breconshire". French losses were a different matter with between 7,000 and 10,000 dead and another around 1,500 taken prisoner.

After the Battle

The victorious English army eventually reached Calais on the 29th October were the local residents did their best to relieve the victors of much of their loot by jacking up their prices for board and lodging and other necessities. But despite being a much celebrated victory of almost mythic proportions the direct consequences of the battle of Agincourt were somewhat inconsequential as Henry simply went home. It was too late in the year and Henry simply lacked the military resources to follow up the victory with any major territorial gains, although he did get to keep Harfleur.

The major impact of the battle was psychological; the English were now convinced that God was on their side and that they could defeat anything the French threw at them, whilst the French were similarly convinced that they were going to get creamed every time they took the field. This came to matter when Henry returned to Normandy in 1417, when the unwillingness of the French to put an army into the field to challenge him led to the fall of town after town to his forces. The battle thus paved the way for the high point of English fortunes at the Treaty of Troyes in 1420.


SOURCES

  • Desmond Seward The Hundred Years War (Robinson, 2003)
  • Agincourt - the Battle at www.aginc.net/battle/ops.html
  • Battle of Agincourt, 1415 trom, The Chronicles of Enguerrand de Monstrelet, translated by Thomas Johnes (London, 1840), vol. 1. at http://www.deremilitari.org/RESOURCES/SOURCES/agincourt.htm

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.