The Hundred Years War: Battle Of Agincourt
The King Of England...And France
The Symbol Of Resistance
In 1413 Henry V, aged only 27, mounted the English throne with the ambition to wrest control of northern France. By early July 1415 he had gathered in utmost secrecy a 12,000 strong army around Winchester while he collected suitable tonnage to ship his troops to France. On the 11th August his army set sail from the south coast in 1500 ships, reaching the tip of the peninsula north of the Seine two days later. Early the next morning, the 14th August, the English began to disembark. Fortunately for the English, the French Constable Charles d’Albret had expected Henry to land his army on the south side of the Seine as a prelude to a march on Paris.
Paris was not Henry’s objective. Instead he had his eyes on the great fortified port city of Harfleur (Le Harve) located a mile up the Lezarde River, a tributary of the Seine, protected by tidal salt marshes and a lake. Harfleur was held by 400 knights under the command of the experienced and courageous Raoul de Gaucourt.
By the 19th August the English had invested Harfleur from all sides, with the Duke of Clarence in the east blocking access and relief (if it ever came) from Rouen while Henry was camped on the port’s western side. Henry ordered siege lines to be erected while Clarence’s Welsh miners dug tunnels to undermine the walls and English artillery fired into the city both day and night. A month later and both sides were suffering from the effects of dysentery, the ‘bloody flux’ as it was called, and an acute shortage of food. Henry met Gaucourt on the 17th September but the stubborn French noblemen, impervious to Henry’s threats and flattery alike, refused to accept terms for surrender despite having lost a third of his garrison during the five week siege.
Gaucourt’s only hope was that the Dauphin, Prince Louis de Guienne, would come to his relief. Guienne- a fat, indolent, foppish 18 year old was hardly the man to risk leading a relief force to aid the hard pressed garrison of Harfleur. Fearing an English assault and subsequent massacre, the populace beseeched Gaucourt to capitulate, which he did on the 22nd September. It was sweet revenge for Henry who had been left fuming five days later.
More On Agincourt
The March To Calais
Henry’s councillors, including Clarence, urged the King to return in triumph to England and leave France to its civil wars and strife. Henry refused, so Clarence took his own advice and returned home in a huff, leaving the King to plan the next stage of the campaign. Harfleur was a small prize for such a huge effort and Henry was hardly a man to rest on his laurels. He wanted to lure the French into fighting a pitched battle and defeat them decisively, anything less would be a failure.
Trusting in God and his men, 5000 archers and 900 men at arms, Henry left Harfleur on the 6th October expecting to cover the 150 miles to Calais in a mere eight days. It would take a lot longer and prove a trying ordeal for his army, now halved through the gruelling siege of Harfleur. The French, ably led by d’Albret, shadowed the movements of the English along the Somme and at the fording point of Blanche Taque 6000 French blocked their advance across the river, forcing Henry to continue along the southern bank of the river. On the 15th October, when they should have reached Calais according to Henry’s wildly optimistic calculations, the English slipped past Amiens. Both the troops and Henry’s advisers began to wonder if they would ever get across the Somme.
Finally, four days later, having evaded the French army at Peronne by cutting across country and avoiding a bend in the Somme, the English reached Nesle where they found two undefended crossing points. They were safely across in a single day and could advance northwards on the 21st October in good order, although in daily expectation of a French attack.
Wisely the French bided their time and d’Albret argued, like the Duke de Berry, that the French should avoid a pitched battle. Henry would have little to show for his efforts if he returned to Calais without having fought and won a battle. Harfleur could then be retaken. But the Royal Dukes (Orleans, Bourbon and Alencon) swept aside d’Albret’s objections. They wanted to crush the English in the field and earn some much needed martial glory for themselves and France.
Where Is Agincourt?
On the 24th October came the news the English had dreaded but also looked forward to: the French army were drawn up in a flat plain between the villages of Agincourt, Tramecourt and Maisoncelle. Henry turned to his Welsh retainer, Dafyd Gam, asking him to estimate the vast French horde. After making a brief observation he replied coolly: ‘Sire. There are enough to kill, enough to capture and enough to run away.’ In fact the French outnumbered the English six to one with 36,000 troops in all as they drew up a strong defensive position along the Calais road that cut across the Agincourt plain. Their flanks were protected by woodlands; their backs by open fields and only a small shallow valley separate them from the puny English army.
During the night, Henry enforced total silence upon his men who were reduced to whispering. This eerie silence unnerved the French who expected it was an English ruse to escape their inevitable doom the following morning. They set up a picket line with fires at regular intervals along the road to prevent such an escape. Henry expected a night attack so he kept his men in battle order during much of the night. Henry did not sleep either as he made preparations for the coming battle and sent out scouts that returned with news that the ground resembled a muddy soup.
Agincourt As Shakespeare Saw It
Henry decided to extend the English line between the woods and hedges surrounding the villages of Maisoncelle and Tramecourt. As the ground in front of the English line, fronted by a line of sharp stakes, had turned into a quagmire the French attack would be slowed down and prove a most welcoming target for his archers. Conditions were ideal and Henry placed the dismounted men at arms in the middle of his battle line and the archers on the flanks. The centre would be under Henry’s personal command while the right was commanded by the Duke of York and the left by Thomas, Lord Camoys.
But Henry knew that his was a desperate and dangerous gamble. He had no reserves, there was no fall-back and he had nowhere close to escape to should he be defeated. Henry’s single line could be outflanked should the French use part of their army to go around the woodlands and attack him in the rear. Even if the French made a frontal assault the English might be crushed by the sheer weight of the attack.
The French did, in fact, have a battle plan drawn up a few days before the battle. Boucicaut, Marshal of France, and Constable d’Albret would command the first French battle. Their army consisted of 8000 dismounted men-at-arms, 4000 archers and 1500 crossbowmen. The main (centre) battle or division would be under Prince Charles d’Artois and Alencon with a similar number of troops, and flanked on the right and left by two wings of mounted men-at-arms under the respective command of Richemont and Bourbon.
There was a small rear-guard of 1000 knights and a small force of 200 knights that would be sent around the woods to attack the English baggage train. In fact, the plan broke down even before it was implemented and instead of being preceded by a shower of arrows from their archers and crossbowmen, the French men-at-arms pushed them to the back of the formation. Instead, it was the flower of French chivalry that was to be sent forward to crush the small English army into the ground.
Calm Before The Storm
The King At War
A Famous Speech From A Famous Play
St. Crispin's Day
After a long, cold night of torrential rain the fields were even muddier as the sun rose on St. Crispin’s Day- Friday the 25th October 1415. The English had spent the night in the open while the French had slept in tents and gorged themselves on wine and plentiful provisions. The French were sure that they would win an easy victory.
Hours passed as each side waited for the other to make the first move. The French had every reason to wait. With every passing hour their strength would increase and the English grow weaker. It was this realisation that prompted a frustrated Henry to make the first move. It was a calculated gamble as he ordered his men to pull up their stakes, move forward in full view of the enemy, and erect a new line of stakes further in the gap between the woods, closer to the French, hoping to goad them into attacking. This narrowed the front considerably, a change that favoured the English and tore up the French plan. The French had originally thought of sending their cavalry to attack the flanks of the English line but now they were forced to make a frontal assault, exactly what they had hoped to avoid. The French realised that the ground sloped downwards toward the English line and the field tapered off into a funnel shape the closer they got to the stakes. Furthermore it was only now, quite belatedly, that the French, who had failed to send out scouts- realised the ground was dangerously muddy and soft.
Yet they were committed to a plan and stuck to it with disastrous results. The French chose to open the battle with a cavalry charge that proved too puny- out of 1200 mounted knights, only a third (420 men) actually attacked. Their noble colleagues on foot were quickly in trouble as their heavy armour pulled them into the mud below. As they floundered and sunk into the mud up to their knees Sir Thomas Erpingham (in command of the archers) gave the signal and then shouted the dreaded order- ‘Now strike!’
Strong arms nocked arrows pulled the bowstrings to their maximum extent and sought the greatest elevation before firing off the first volley. Thousands of arrows whined through the air like a cloud before hitting the target or plopping into the muddy ground. Enough steel-tipped, armour-piercing bodkin arrows struck home to break up the French advance. Their effect upon the less protected horses was terrifying and master-less horses, bleeding and neighing wildly, ran back into the French lines trampling the dismounted knights into the mud.
Now an additional hindrance of dead and dying horses and men had been created for dismounted knights to advance over. Despite the massed volleys, huge casualties and confusion, the dismounted knights pressed on with determination and heroism. They could see little because the arrows made it dangerous to put one’s head up, even with an armoured helmet, as the English archers aimed straight at their visors. The knights were trapped inside their armour and their mobility, vision and breathing was dangerously restricted. Yet they continued advancing in their thousands.
A BBC Documentary About The Battle
Hand To Hand Combat
The greatest honour of saving the English army from destruction at the hands of the French dismounted men-at-arms must go to the small number of English men-at-arms who halted and bloodied the French advance that reached right up to their lines. They were joined by squires, camp followers and an increasing number of archers who had run out of arrows, using any weapon at hand, including axes, daggers and the mallets they had used to drive in their stakes- to cut, thrust, gouge and stab at the faltering French. Sheer numbers had crowded the French line preventing their knights from using their weapons effectively. The French were now so close that the archers could fire at them at point blank range with devastating effect.
In this confused and grim hand to hand combat no quarter was given. As commoners, the English archers knew they would be slaughtered out of hand by the French since they had no value in terms of ransom. As a consequence the English were, quite literally, fighting for their lives and fought with even more ferocity than usual against the French knights who might be captured alive and ransomed at a later date. This simple difference in psychology might explain the outcome of the battle.
For three gruesome, bloody hours the slaughter went on as the French dead piled up in heaps in front of the English lines. The English were growing weary with their deadly task. There was a last minute flurry among the French as the Duke of Brabant arrived in the afternoon. It came to nothing as Brabant was killed with his men. Alarmed by this and fearing that the scores of French prisoners might take up arms again if there was another attack; Henry took no chances and broke all rules of chivalry by putting his prisoners to death where they stood.
There was no French rally or second attack as feared. Instead what remained of the French army fled the field of battle leaving thousands of dead, wounded and captured to the merciless English. The English had lost a mere 112 men, two thirds of them archers, and had won the most miraculous of victories against all the odds and expectations. A month later Henry was back in England, his men were amply paid and England celebrated that wonderful Day of St. Crispin while the traumatised French simply referred to Agincourt as ‘that unfortunate day’ (la malheureuse journee) for generations to come. The Hundred Years War was set to continue for another four decades.