Military History: The Battle of Agincourt
On the 25th October 1415, Henry V's army were vastly outnumbered by French knights at the Battle of Agincourt, but they did have one overwhelming advantage - the English longbow. This was the moment when a hundred years of war ended in a bloody climax and the age of chivalry died.
The 100 Years War
During arguably the world's worst century, that witnessed the longest war in history, plague and social unrest, the 100 years war dominated the 14th century.
The defining moment in the war came at Agincourt in Northwestern France.
It is the battle best remembered for Henry V's unlikely victory over impossible odds, when faced with a vastly superior French force.
A few thousand English archer's were able to clinch an unlikely victory over around 25,000 French knights and go down in history as the original 'band of brothers'.
This would be the last and bloodiest battle of the medieval age in which valour in combat would prove no match for a ruthless war machine.
The armies of medieval France were made up almost completely of armoured knights who had submitted to an ancient code of honour and courage known as the Order of Chivalry and France was it's heartland.
There was nowhere in Europe whose noblemen were more committed to it's ideology of personal glory, singular loyalty, courteousness and devotion to women and God.
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The Battle To End All Battles
The Englishmen destined to meet these knights on the battlefield, were in comparison, a very different animal. The English longbowman had a fearsome reputation throughout Europe in medieval times.
In August 1415 in Salisbury, a group of archer's from Lancashire, on their way to meet up with Henry V's army, were already stirring up trouble. Some of these archer's were simply armed criminals, king Henry had emptied England's jails and offered pardons in return for loyalty on the battlefield.
In the citys' Fisherton Ale House a group of the Lancashire bowmen set upon some of the townsmen, killing four of them. The bowmen were among thousands of volunteers who had been lured to the south coast of England with the prospect of money and adventure that could be gained in the war against France.
The English army was largely composed of archer's, many of them ruthless anti-social types, best avoided. They were well-armed and considered as professional killers, well-trained in the skill of archery.
By 1415, the longbow had become an integral part of daily life throughout England and Wales, as throughout the past century, a compulsory routine of archery practice was undertaken each and every Sunday, so as to supply a continuous flow of skilled bowmen for service throughout the hundred years war.
A New & Ambitious King
In 1413, Henry V, an ambitious young king, had inherited the royal throne and archer's were going to be needed. His first move as monarch was to strengthen his popularity by reasserting an ancient claim to the French crown. He genuinely believed that he had legal rights in France and so was fully justified in making war with the French and in doing so, stabilise Britain by uniting the nobility behind him.
More than 11,000 battle-hardened soldiers had travelled to Southampton to sign up into Henry's army. They were to be part of a hugely experienced force with ranks of men-at-arms who had fought in the Welsh wars.
Every ship in the country had been commandeered for war duty and every town had to send provisions in order to feed the army. Every last goose in the land was stripped of six wing feathers which were to be made into arrow flights. This was in effect, England's first professional army, down to the last detail.
They were also far in advance of the French when it came to military organisation. The French were calling upon their aristocrats to fight, because of their feudal obligations, the English on the other hand, were moving forward towards a contract system, whereby the king would buy support for a particular period of time, under specific terms of duty.
The French Prepare For Battle
In August 1415, French knights began to prepare for their ultimate test of chivalry, all-out war. They were considered as the warrior elite in military society and their core existence was to fight. Heavily protected by metal plate armour and state-of-the-art weaponry, a French knight was a feared killing machine, but the French had a major problem.
Their king, Charles VI, was quite mad, suffering from periodic bouts of insanity during which he is under the illusion that he is made of glass. Not the best preparation then for leading an army into battle. He even ordered that a number of steel rods be placed inside his clothing, so as to prevent him from shattering.
As a result of the king's madness, France's noble houses were engaged in a bitter power struggle. Medieval France, with a population of 15 million people, was five times the size of England, but it's subjects were divided into rival regions, each with their own armies and supremecy was disputed. This dispute was none more prevelant anywhere, than in the rivalry between Almegnac and Bergundy.
Henry's Invasion of France
With a mentally weakened king and a fractured country, it seemed that France was there for the taking. On August 14th 1415, Henry's army seized it's opportunity and set sail for France and the finale of the 100 years war began.
Henry's army landed in Normandy, attacking the rich port of Harfleur on it's way to the eventual battle at Agincourt.
However, the French garrison at Harfleur, managed to hold out for five long weeks. By mid-September supplies were beginning to run low and hundreds of Henry's men were dead. Then, astonishingly, the town's gates were opened in surrender.
The killing of prisoners was then as it is today, off limits, but for the English longbowmen, basic survival was top of their agenda.
By the time Harfleur eventually fell, they had not eaten a descent meal for two weeks.
Looting and the spoils of war was a free-for-all. The English soldiers were there not only for the honour and the glory of war, but also for pillaging whatever they could carry, there was even specific rules of war permitting this action to take place.
Two thousand of the townsfolk were escorted out of the town and were left to roam the land beyond the gates, to survive by whatever means they could, effectively becoming gypsy-like refugees in an instant.
Anger and Vengeance
All across France, the attack on Harfleur had triggered an overwhelming resentment of the English and the French king's war banner was raised, heralding a chivalric crusade against these impertenant invaders. In the city of Rouen, France's noblemen amassed in readiness for war. The presence of an invading king and his army, rallied the French as thousands upon thousands of nobles assembled to the cause.
But it wasn't only the nobles who came to fight, outraged by the English actions more than 6,000 common townsfolk of Paris signed up to join the fight. However, the French nobility did not want to run the risk of arming the 'peasantry', in case of a future revolt and they also felt that it was the aristocracy who should form the army that wins the battle, not the 'hoi polloi' who take the glory.
So it would be a noble army of French knights who would form the French Army, to test it's mettle as per the Chivalric Code. The Duke of Bergundy however, who controlled one third of all France, was plotting to overthrow King Charles and position himself upon the French throne. He had sworn that he would never fight on the same side as the king.
Marching To Safety?
In October 1415, Henry V's army began the march northwards from Harfleur to the apparently safe refuge of Calais, which the English held. Henry had received reports that a massive French force was moving to face him, but he nevertheless persisted in his mission. He intended to demoralise the French people by pillaging and burning towns and villages in an attempt to undermine the position of the French king.
But it was the English Army who were now in grave danger, the prolonged seige at Harfleur had cost them critical time and lives. They were now a month behind schedule and hunger was taking hold of the men. The French though, were growing ever stronger, as more and more knights were flocking to the cause in Normandy from all over France.
The most advanced divisions of the French Army were chasing and harassing the English Army all the way to Calais, never giving Henry's men a day's peace, leaving them exhausted and bewildered. Nearly 2,000 of Henry's men, almost a quarter of the entire army, died of dysentery along the way.
There was a mood of utter desperation within the English ranks as the French pushed them inland away from their supply route to Calais. They were now having to scavenge for nuts and leaves as meat and bread had run out. But then it seemed came a sudden degree of good fortune for the English, as on the 15th October, they came across a short cut across the River Somme, giving them the chance to elude the French Army and be within a short march of the safety of Calais.
But as they came over a nearby hill, they witnessed a fearsome sight as not half a mile away, across a short valley, they came face to face with thousands of French knights. The French had brilliantly outmanouevred Henry's army, cutting off their escape route to Calais....the English were now trapped.
The Eve Of Battle
The English now knew that a pitched battle was inevitable and as darkness fell, they had to come to terms with the prospect that in the morning, they would have to face an enormous horde of revengeful French knights.
All through the night, the French mocked the English king from just half a mile away and drank to their coming triumph. They were bhouyed enormously in the knowledge that they outnumbered the English by as much as 5 to1, believing that this meagre English force could in no way compete with their vastly superior numbers.
The French commanders however, remained cautious, as small English forces had defeated much larger French armies before. They ruled out a traditional head-on cavalry charge that had failed in the past, opting instead for the bulk of the army to move steadily forward on foot, supported by their secret weapon, crossbowmen hired from Italy, simultaneously flanking the English with their cavalry, attacking from the sides and rear. Without protection from their bowmen, Henry and his knights would be sitting ducks.
St. Crispins Day, 25th October 1415
At dawn, the combined armies of the French nobility came together, putting aside their regional differences, to stand toe to toe against the English. They were spread out over three battalions and totalled around 25,000 strong. Facing them across the valley were just 6,000 weary Englishmen and for nearly 3 hours all they did, was stare at each other.
The field of battle was a boggy quagmire and to launch an attack was considered by both sides as too dangerous. At 11:00am, Henry made the first move and ordered his men to advance. When they were within an arrow's range of the French, the English bowmen stopped, strung their bows and waited.
They then began mocking the French by putting up two of their fingers in a V sign. The French had threatened to cut off those two fingers if they captured any of the English archers, so they could never fire another arrow again.
The French commanders also had another far more pressing concern to contend with. The English had set up their men at the narrowest part of the battlefield with dense wodland on either side of them. This meant that the French would not be able to launch their planned flanking manouvre on either side of Henry's men.
The Foolish Charge
The uncouth, loutish behaviour of the English bowmen had now become too much for the French to bare. Foolishly, the commander of the French cavalry, not waiting for orders, launched a sudden attack upon the English line. This ill-judged folly had played right in to the hands of the English as they were all to a man, cut down by a hail of arrows that had turned the sky black. Within minutes hundreds of horses and their riders had been cut to pieces.
Thousands of dismounted knights now charged at the English and for a moment, the weary English line of men-at-arms began to bulge, but the do-or-die attitude of Henry's men held firm and the French found themselves in a terrible state.
It had been raining persistently for two weeks and the heavily armoured French knights were now getting bogged down in the thick mud whilst being rained on by a hail of arrows. Panic was starting to spread through the French ranks, frightened horses were now trampelling on the knights who were stuck in the mud with nowhere to turn.
As the bodies piled up in front of them, the English archers abandoned their bows and piled into the battle with daggers and malice. The noble French knights were trapped, crushed and were now sitting ducks as the English unleashed their fury upon them. Countless limbs and decapitated heads littered the battlefield after just one hour of battle.
In that first hour, 1,200 French knights had been taken prisoner including the highest ranking French commander. What they thought would be a great victory for the French, was becoming a massacre. Almost 8,000 knights had been slaughtered after just an hour and a half of battle.
Two hours in and the French began a counter-attack against the English men-at-arms and actually came within feet of Henry himself, but it was not to be and by the mid-afternoon, a famous English victory looked likely.
However, Henry had taken thousands of prisoners, more than his men could realistically handle. Worried that these prisoners might rise up and join the French 'last stand', Henry called up his toughest ranks of archers and ordered them to execute all the French prisoners. Many of these were thrown into a large nearby barn which was then set alight in order to 'finish the job quickly', it would be the final, defining act of the Battle of Agincourt.
More than 2,000 prisoners were either slaughtered or burned alive by the English bowmen and men-at-arms. it was considered a shocking violation of the Chivalric code, a major blot on Henry V's character and remembered as the day that chivalry died.
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