On 25 October, also known as St Crispin’s Day, 1415, a combined English and Welsh army gained one of history’s most remarkable victories at Agincourt in north eastern France.
Despite being heavily outnumbered, Henry V’s tired, beleaguered army triumphed against the flower of the French nobility, marking the end of an era where the knight dominated the battlefield.
Here are ten facts about the Battle of Agincourt:
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1. It was preceded by the Siege of Harfleur
Although the siege eventually proved successful, it had been long and costly for Henry’s army.
2. The French army positioned themselves near Agincourt, blocking Henry’s route to Calais
The French army’s clever manoeuvring forced Henry and his beleaguered army to fight if they were to have any chance of reaching home.
3. The French army consisted almost entirely of heavily-armoured knights
These men were the warrior elite of the time, equipped with the best arms and armour available.
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4. The French army was commanded by the French marshal Jean II Le Maingre, also known as Boucicaut
Boucicaut was one of the greatest jousters of his day and a skilled tactician. He was also aware of the past defeats the French had suffered at English hands at both Crecy and Poitiers the previous century and was determined to avoid a similar outcome.
5. Henry’s army consisted mainly of longbowmen
A self-yew English longbow. Credit: James Cram / Commons.
These men trained every single week and were highly-skilled professional killers. This was no doubt helped by English law, which made archery practice compulsory every Sunday to ensure the king always had a steady supply of archers available.
6. Henry made the first move
Henry advanced his army further up the field to a position protected by woodland on either side in his hopes to entice the French knights forwards.
7. The English longbowmen deployed sharpen stakes to protect them from cavalry charges
The stakes also tunnelled the French knights towards Henry’s heavily armed infantrymen in the centre.
The longbowmen had protected their positions on the flanks of Henry’s army with stakes. Credit: PaulVIF / Commons.
8. The first wave of French knights was decimated by the English longbowmen
As the knights charged forwards, the longbowmen rained volley after volley of arrows down on their opponents and decimated the French ranks.
A 15th-century miniature of the Battle of Agincourt. Contrary to the image, the battlefield was chaos and there was no exchange of archer fire. Credit: Antoine Leduc, Sylvie Leluc and Olivier Renaudeau / Commons.
9. Henry V fought for his life during the fray
When the French knights clashed with the English heavy infantry at the height of the battle, Henry V was in the thickest of the action.
Supposedly the English king suffered an axe blow to his head which knocked off one of the crown’s jewels and was rescued by a Welsh member of his bodyguard, Daffyd Gam, who lost his life in the process.
10. Henry had more than 3,000 French prisoners executed during the battle
One source claims Henry did this because he was worried the captives would escape and rejoin the fighting.
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Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt ( / ˈ æ ʒ ɪ n k ɔːr ( t ), - k ʊər / [a] French: Azincourt [azɛ̃kuʁ] ) was an English victory in the Hundred Years' War. It took place on 25 October 1415 (Saint Crispin's Day) near Azincourt, in northern France. [b] The unexpected English victory against the numerically superior French army boosted English morale and prestige, crippled France and started a new period of English dominance in the war.
After several decades of relative peace, the English had resumed the war in 1415 amid the failure of negotiations with the French. In the ensuing campaign, many soldiers died from disease, and the English numbers dwindled they tried to withdraw to English-held Calais but found their path blocked by a considerably larger French army. Despite the numerical disadvantage, the battle ended in an overwhelming victory for the English.
King Henry V of England led his troops into battle and participated in hand-to-hand fighting. King Charles VI of France did not command the French army as he suffered from psychotic illnesses and associated mental incapacity. The French were commanded by Constable Charles d'Albret and various prominent French noblemen of the Armagnac party. This battle is notable for the use of the English longbow in very large numbers, with the English and Welsh archers comprising nearly 80 percent of Henry's army.
Agincourt is one of England's most celebrated victories and was one of the most important English triumphs in the Hundred Years' War, along with the Battle of Crécy (1346) and Battle of Poitiers (1356). It forms the centrepiece of William Shakespeare's play Henry V, written in 1599.
Why the Battle of Agincourt is still important today
Outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, when Henry V won the Battle of Agincourt it was a famous victory in the Hundred Years War between the English and the French. And it was all because of the humble longbow. Now, on the 600th anniversary of the Battle, Linda Davies explains how it her new book, Longbow Girl, plus shares some fun facts about the longbow that we bet you never knew!
Laurence Olivier in his film version of Henry V. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
Laurence Olivier in his film version of Henry V. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 14.23 GMT
The Battle of Agincourt has caught the imagination of many writers over the centuries and it was one of the inspirations behind my novel, Longbow Girl. Why does it have such power?
Along with the battle of Crécy in 1346 and the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 was one of the three legendary victories for the English against the French during The Hundred Years’ War. This long-running war was a series of conflicts waged from 1337 to 1453 by England against France as the English Kings tried to win French territory and the French throne for themselves
In the lead up to the Battle of Agincourt, it looked as if King Henry V was leading his army to disaster.
Two months earlier, the King had crossed the English Channel with 11,000 men and put siege to Harfleur in Normandy. After five weeks the town surrendered but half of Henry’s men had died in battle or of disease. Henry needed to flee back to England. He headed northeast to Calais where he aimed to meet the English fleet and sail home. But on the way he marched into a trap! At Agincourt, a massive French army of twenty thousand men were waiting, hugely outnumbering the exhausted English archers, knights, and men-at-arms.
And it wasn’t just any old army waiting for him. The cream of the French Aristocracy had gathered to inflict what they thought would be a massacre on the English. The great prize was to be King Henry himself who they aimed to capture and ransom for a fortune.
Only it didn’t work out that way.
Against all the odds, King Henry V triumphed over a fresh army four times bigger than his own because, arguably, King Henry’s forces had the longbow. The massively powerful longbows were the medieval equivalent of modern machine guns. They could wound at four hundred yards, kill at two hundred and penetrate armour at one hundred yards. The five thousand longbowmen, each loosing fifteen arrows a minute, let fly a total of seventy five thousand arrows in one minute: an arrow storm that was said to have blocked out the light of the sun. It caused thousands of casualties directly but also indirectly, by maddening the French horses, which trampled the close-packed ranks of French foot soldiers.
So if one thing could be said to have won the “unwinnable” Battle of Agincourt, it was the Anglo-Welsh Longbowmen. Traditionally, the glory of victory had always been assumed by the aristocracy, the Knights and the Men-at Arms, not by the yeomen or peasant archers. The Battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt changed the martial balance of power between the nobility and the yeomen, or peasant farmers who wielded the longbow. The idea that strength and skill could triumph over wealth and status was a revolutionary one.
I loved the idea of these humble men changing the course of history with a simple piece of wood. Particularly since from the age of eight, I’d been practicing with my own simple piece of wood.
Linda Davies and her longbow
That was when my father gave me my first longbow. I loved shooting at targets, honing my skill. There’s something very visceral about shooting a bow and hearing the thwack as your arrow hits the bull’s eye (or the Gold as archers call it.) As an adult, shooting my bow, I wondered about a young girl, a longbow girl, and what it would have been like for her to have had to use her weapon for real, maybe to save her life, maybe to save her whole family’s life. And so began Longbow Girl.
The English Longbowman: 10 Things You Should Know
Though the extended weapon of longbow precedes the medieval Englishman by over 3,500 years (with the first known specimen dating from 2665 BC), it was the renowned longbowman of the middle ages who made a mark in the tactical side of affairs when it came to famous military encounters. And while Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) proved the prowess of the English longbowman, there was certainly more to the scope of being a dedicated archer in a military world dominated by heavily armored knights and men-at-arms. So without further ado, let us check out ten interesting facts that you should know about the English longbowman.
1) Not All English Longbowmen Were ‘English’ –
The common misconception about the English longbowman actually pertains to his categorization as being sole ‘English’. Now while the tactical aptitude of the longbowman flourished after the 14th century, the origins of archery-based warfare in Britain had a far older tradition. To that end, during the late 11th century Anglo-Norman invasions of Wales, the Welshmen gave a good account of themselves in archery against their well-armored foes.
Interestingly enough, the Normans were probably inspired by such a tactical acumen of the natives. And given their penchant for adaptability, the bow was raised to being a prestigious weapon after the Norman conquest of England. Practicality (obviously) played its role alongside ceremonious affairs – with the bow achieving its ‘prestige’ solely due to its sheer effectiveness in the hand of specialized archers who defended northern England from the encroaches of the lightly-armored Scots.
As a result, the English armies continued to employ Welshmen as dedicated archers. But even more antithetically, the English also employed Frenchmen in their ranks. Now from the historical perspective, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. That is because, by the 13th-14th century, the English Plantagenet monarchs continued to hold vast tracts of land and settlements in continental France. So many French people from these parts (like the Gascons and French-Normans) often viewed the English as their overlords, and thus served in their armies (including archery divisions) without compunction.
2) The ‘Indentured’ Retainers and the Yeomen –Illustration by Graham Turner.
According to historian Clive Bartlett, the English armies of the 14th century, including the longbowmen, mainly comprised the levy and the so-called ‘indentured retinue’. The latter category entailed a sort-of contract between the King and his nobles that allowed the monarch to call upon the retainers of the noblemen for purposes of wars (especially in the overseas).
This pseudo-feudal arrangement fueled a class of semi-professional soldiers who were mostly inhabitants from around the estates of the lords and the kings. And among these retainers, the most skilled were the longbowmen of the household. The archers from the King’s own household were termed the ‘Yeomen of the Crown’, and they were rightly considered the elite even among the experienced archers.
The other retainers came from the neighborhoods of the great estates, usually consisting of followers (if not residents) of the lord’s household. Interestingly enough, many of them served the same purpose and received similar benefits like household retainers. There was also a third category of the retainer longbowman, and this group pertained to men who were hired for specific military duties, including garrisoning and defending ‘overseas’ French towns. Unfortunately, in spite of their professional status, these hired retainers often turned to banditry, since official payments were not always delivered in time.
3) Monetary Matters and Plundering –
Oddly enough, in the early 14th century, both the levied archers and the retainers were paid the same amount (of 3 pence a day) in both England and France – in spite of their presumed difference in skill levels. However, by the 15th century, there were many changes in the military laws, with a notable one relating to how the raised levies could only serve in the ‘domestic’ arenas, like England and (in some cases) Scotland.
On the other hand, the retainer English longbowman groups bore the brunt of the fighting in ‘overseas’ France, thus endowing them with a professional character. Their improved pay-scale also reflected such a change, with the new figure being 6 pence a day – adding up around 9 pounds per year. In a practical scope, the number actually came down to around 5 pounds per year and for comparison’s sake, a medieval knight required around 40 pounds per year to support himself and his panoply.
Naturally, it begs the question – why did the retainer longbowmen agree to their ‘indentured contracts’ in spite of such low wages? Well, like in the case of the Mongols, the monetary benefit didn’t come from wages, but rather from various ‘perks’. For example, some household retainers were paid yearly annuities by their lords, and these sums frequently went into double figures. Others were gifted houses and monetary bonuses.
And lastly, there was the age-old attraction towards plunder and ransoms. Regarding the latter, high-ranking prisoners of war were immediately handed over to the captain, and consequently, the longbowman was paid a healthy reward. While in cases of low-ranking victims, the captor could directly demand his ransom. The resultant money (if paid) was then distributed in accordance with some set rules. Two-thirds of the sum could be taken by the captor (the longbowman), while the remaining one-third was divided among the captain, his superior commander and ultimately the king.
4) Training (Or Lack Thereof) –Illustration by Graham Turner.
Training specifically for warfare and battlefield tactics, or at least what we understand as rigorous training for warfare (aka boot camp), was notably absent from the itinerary of an English longbowman. So why was the longbowman considered potent, especially in the latter half of the 14th century? Well, the answer lies in their skill level, rather than the physical aptitude for battles.
Simply put, there was a tradition of archery among both the retainer and levied folks, with skill-sets passed down through generations. So while most of them didn’t train specifically for battle scenarios, they did practice their archery skills on recreational and hunting pursuits. In fact, some English monarchs banked on this ‘exclusivity’ of longbow-based archery skills that gave their armies an edge over other contemporary European forces (usually comprising crossbowmen) – so much so that numerous statutes were passed that obligated many retainers to practice their archery on Sundays.
There was also regular instructions from the royal court that wholesomely encouraged people to take up archery. As King Edward III’s declaration of 1363, makes it clear (as referenced in the English Longbowman: 1330 – 1515 by Clive Bartlett)–
Whereas the people of our realm, rich and poor alike, were accustomed formerly in their games to practise archery – whence by God’s help, it is well known that high honour and profit came to our realm, and no small advantage to ourselves in our warlike enterprises…that every man in the same country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows…and so learn and practise archery.
However, it should be noted that by the middle of the 15th century, the longbowmen were not considered as deadly as they were some decades ago. Contemporary chronicler Philip de Commynes talked about how the Englishmen in Charles the Bold’s army were not worthy of actual battlefield maneuvers. As a counter to the decreasing standards of the longbowmen, the Duke of Burgundy may have also trained these folks in shooting volleys when combined with the pikemen, thus hinting at the precursor to pike-and-shot formations.
5) Armor and Arms Supplied by the ‘Contract’ –
As opposed to the ill-equipped European archer of the early medieval times, the longbowman was furnished with armor and arms that were provided by his employer (the lord or the king). According to a household accounting book of 1480 AD, a typical English longbowman was protected by brigandine – which was a type of canvas (or leather) armor reinforced with small steel plates riveted to the fabric.
He was also issued a pair of splints for arm defenses, a ‘sallet’ (a war helmet or a steel-reinforced cap), a ‘standart’ (or ‘standard’ that protected his neck), a ‘jaket’ (basically his livery), a ‘gusset’ (which could have been either synthetic underwear or a small plate the protected his joints), and a sheaf of arrows. Presumably, many of such equipment were kept in stock and were only issued by the senior commanders in times of war.
6) The Actual Longbow –
Contrary to some notions, the longbow was not the only kind of bow used by English archers after the 14th century. In fact, most of the archers used their personal bows for hunting and occasional practice. But after they were retained (or levied), the men were supplied with newer war bows by the aforementioned contract system (or the state). These new longbows pertained more-or-less to a standard issue, and thus their mass-scale production became easier to manage.
Now the longbow was not actually the most efficient projectile-based weapon of its time. However, the design made up for its difficulty of usage through other means – like its relative cheapness and simplicity when compared to the crossbow. Furthermore, the longbow in the hand of an experienced longbowman packed quite a punch with its capacity to even puncture (early-period) steel armor over a substantial distance. This is what Gerald of Wales, the Cambro-Norman archdeacon, and historian of the 12th century, had to say about the Welsh longbow (the precursor to the ‘English’ variety), as sourced from the English Longbowman: 1330 – 1515 (By Clive Bartlett) –
…[I]n the war against the Welsh, one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron chausses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal.
7) Design and Range of the Longbow –
Unlike composite bows, the longbow used for wars was usually crafted from a single piece of wood, thus alluding to the simplicity of its design. In that regard, the preferred timber had always been of the yew variety, though seasonal changes and availability dictated the use of other wood types too – like ash and elm. To that end, the mass production of longbows was fairly regulated by the state (and the lords), with dedicated tree plantations specifically supplying many of the required staves.
There were also times when England had to import yew bow-staves from continental European realms, namely Venice and other Italian states. In any case, most of the bow-staves were frequently assessed and sorted out for quality by specially appointed officials while a longbow in itself could be furnished from a prime stave in under two hours by the expert bowyers, thus fueling an impressive rate of production.
Historian Clive Bartlett has talked about how the finished longbow (often painted and sometimes ‘whitened’) was over 6 ft (or 6 ft 2 inches), though even longer specimens (up to 6 ft 11 inches) have been discovered from the wreck of the famous 16th century Royal Navy warship Mary Rose. Now in terms of optimized shape, the members (limbs) of the bow should appertain to the round ‘D’ shape. This scope of physicality translated to around 80-120 lbs of draw weight, though higher draw weights of up to 185 lbs were used in battles – which made the draw lengths to go over 30 inches.
And finally, when it came to the range, there are no particular contemporary sources that accurately portray the figures during medieval times. However modern reconstructions (of even the Mary Rose specimens) have sufficiently proven that longbows could acquire ranges of somewhere between 250-330 m (or 273 to 361 yards). All of these factors of force and range, when combined, were enough to penetrate Damascus mail armor though plate armors were still relatively undamaged. But it should also be noted that the ‘bodkin’ arrows shot by the longbowman could potentially account for blunt trauma on heavily armored horsemen (like knights) since these riders already possessed the added forward momentum of their galloping war horses.
8) Bracers For Safety –
The extended scope of the longbow along with the taut nature of the string (usually made from hemp) surely transformed the craft into a dangerous weapon to handle. The main danger to the user was due to the string hitting the forearm area in its ‘backlash’. This could be avoided by either bending the elbow or adjusting the distance between the string and the bow when strung – but both of these measures hampered the intrinsic shooting range and technique of the longbowman.
So as a solution, the longbowman opted for bracers (forearm armor) that were crafted from leather and horn (and even from walrus tooth ‘ivory’ on rarer occasions). Generally exhibiting a strap-and-buckle system, as evidenced from the extant specimens salvaged from Mary Rose, the bracers also carried some form of insignia. These heraldic devices probably showcased the city-origin of the archer or the lord’s badge under whose command the longbowman served.
9) The ‘Harbingers’ –
The ‘Harbinger’ by definition pertains to a forerunner or herald who announces or signals the approach of another. However, in practical terms, the English ‘Harbingers’ of the medieval times served a tad different purpose. Attached to the logistical corps of the army, they were tasked with finding the billets of the ordinary soldiers and longbowmen before the arrival of the main body of troops.
These billets were fairly well arranged in English soil, with the quarters being allocated in accordance to the rank and influence of the soldier though in France, the method sometimes gave way to madness – with chaotic affairs and strong-arming deciding the good habitation scopes. Interestingly, the Harbingers (sometimes having longbowman divisions in their ranks) also served as scouts who looked for the dry sites conducive to camping which had access to essential requirements like wood and water.
10) Battle of Agincourt – A Victory Against Overwhelming Odds
In many ways, this renowned engagement from the Hundred Years War demonstrated the superiority of tactics, topography, and disciplined archers over just heavy armor – factors that were obviously rare during the first decades of the 15th century.
As for the battle itself, it pitted around 6,000 to 9,000 English soldiers (with 5/6th of them being longbowmen) against 20,000 to 30,000 French forces, who had around 10,000 heavy armored knights and men-at-arms. The haughty mindset of the French nobility participating in the battle could be somewhat gathered from chronicler Edmond de Dyntner’s statement – “ten French nobles against one English”, which totally discounted the ‘military value’ of a longbowman from the English army.
As for tactical placement, the English army commanded by Henry V, the King of England, placed itself at the end of a recently plowed land, with their flanks covered by dense woodlands (that practically made side cavalry charges nigh impossible). The front sections of the archers were also protected by pointed wooden flanks and palings that would have discouraged frontal cavalry charges.
But in all of these, the terrain proved to be the greatest obstacle for the armored French army, since the field was already muddy with recent occurrences of heavy rain. In a twist of irony, the armor weight of the French knights (for at least some of them) became their biggest disadvantage, with the mass of packed soldiers fumbling and stumbling across the soggy landscape – making them easy pickings for the well-trained longbowmen.
And, when the knights finally reached the English lines, they were utterly exhausted, while also having no room to effectively wield their heavy weapons. The English longbowmen and men-at-arms still nimble-footed, switched to mallets and hammers, and delivered a crushing blow in hand-to-hand combat on the frazzled Frenchmen. In the end, it is estimated that around 7,000 to 10,000 French soldiers were killed (among them there were around a thousand senior noblemen). And even more were taken prisoners, while the English losses were around the paltry figure of 400.
Honorable Mention – The Cry of ‘Havoc’
While William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar made the phrase famous, the cry of ‘havoc‘ was actually a call used during medieval times by the English (and Anglo-French) armies to signal the beginning of plundering. In essence, ‘havoc’ (or havok, derived from Old French havot, meaning pillaging) heralded the end of a victorious battle, and thus the war-cry was taken pretty seriously by the commanders. In fact, it was taken so seriously that even a premature call of ‘havoc’ during the battle often resulted in the death penalty (by beheading) for the ones who started the cry.
Now while this may seem harsh, such rigorous punishments were part of the military regulations of late 14th century. Many of them were formulated for the ‘practicality’ of instilling discipline in the army – a quality that often decided the outcome of a battle a case in point pertaining to the Battle of Agincourt. Furthermore, unlike the boisterous French nobles of the time, the English took collective precautions for their relatively smaller armies, thus upholding the principles of safety. So in essence, the premature ‘havoc’ callers might have run afoul of such principles, which could have put the entire army at danger when pillaging in their unguarded ‘mode’.
Book References: English Longbowman: 1330 – 1515 (By Clive Bartlett) / Longbowmen, Tactics, and Terrain: Three Battle Narratives from the Hundred Years War (By Molly Helen Donohue)
The Gendarmes and the Battle of Agincourt
One unusual fact emphasized in this 600 th anniversary year is the history of the gendarmerie. You’ll come across the gendarmes in their distinctive blue uniforms and hats if you drive through France they are the ones policing the roads and the rural areas. But they are, strangely, a branch of the army and not the civil police.
The gendarmery began as the royal constabulary, the Maréchaussée de France, originally intended as military police, keeping soldiers in check and stopping them looting after battles.
They fought in the battle of Agincourt under their commander, the Prévôt des Maréchaux (Provost of the marshals), Gallois de Fougières. 60 years old when he fought and died at Agincourt, he had gone from his home region of Berry on a Crusade in 1396, then to Italy in 1410. Considered the first gendarme killed in combat, his skeleton was discovered in the nearby church of Auchy-lès-Hesdin along with other knights of the time including the Admiral of France. His skeleton was taken to Versailles and buried under the monument to the gendarmerie in Versailles.
Agincourt: what really happened
Agincourt is legendary as one of England's finest moments, but historian Anne Curry says the facts do not substantiate our rosy view of this victory – and Henry V's conduct may not have been quite as noble as chronicles suggest
This competition is now closed
Published: November 6, 2019 at 6:05 pm
Agincourt, Henry V’s famous victory over the French on 25 October 1415, is a fascinating battle not just because of what happened but also because of how its myth has developed ever since. Tudor re-invention, leading to the quintessential Shakespearean portrayal of “we happy few”, has been the most influential, but every century has made its own accretions.
Shortly after the First World War Battle of Mons in 1914, for instance, a journalist created the story that angelic English bowmen, the ghosts of Agincourt archers, appeared in the sky to assist the British. This particular myth-making takes us full circle back to the period itself since several English chronicles speak of St George being seen fighting for Henry’s army. In looking for explanations today, however, a historian must be more circumspect and apply the methods of a detective. The first task is to find as much evidence as possible, the second to assess it critically in search of the truth. Just like the detective, the historian has to be wary of dubious testimony and look for hard evidence. The researches I have conducted over the past decade suggest that commonly held assumptions about Agincourt simply cannot be substantiated.
Detectives are fortunate in being able to interview those involved in the event. The historian has to make do with eyewitness accounts written down in the years following the battle. All raise problems. John Hardyng claimed to have been on the campaign but the accounts he provided in his verse chronicles 40 years later are perfunctory and the captain he claimed to have served under was in Berwick-upon-Tweed during the period of the campaign. Hardyng was therefore himself an early creator of an Agincourt myth.
The anonymous Gesta Henrici Quinti (the deeds of Henry V), written by a cleric with Henry’s army, is the earliest eyewitness account and full of interesting detail. It is not unbiased, however, since it was written as a eulogy of the king, using the battle as manifestation of God’s approval for Henry. The killing of the prisoners, missing from many English accounts, is consciously constructed in the Gesta not to implicate the king at all: “But then, all at once, because of what wrathfulness on God’s part no one knows, a shout went up that the enemy’s mounted rearguard were re-establishing their position … and immediately … the prisoners … were killed by the swords either of their captors or of others following after”.
The Flemish chronicler, Jean de Waurin, tells us that he was 15 years old and with the French army at the battle. He says that he gained information from Jean Le Fèvre, king-of-arms of Duke Philip of Burgundy’s chivalric order of the Golden Fleece, who was “at the time of the battle 19 years old and in the company of the king of England in all the business of this time”. Although their texts are fascinating, they are almost identical with each other and with the well known chronicle of Enguerran de Monstrelet, another writer of Burgundian allegiance. All wrote many years afterwards, and hindsight can be a very dangerous thing in battle narratives.
A final eyewitness was Sir Guillebert de Lannoy who wrote an account of his own experiences in the battle. This is short but useful because he had been captured by the time Henry issued the order to kill the prisoners. Wounded in the knee and in the head, he tells that he was lying on the ground with the dead at the time the fighting stopped and the English came to search through the heaps. He was pulled out and taken to a nearby house with 10 to 12 other wounded prisoners. When the order came that each man should kill his prisoners, which Lannoy claims was occasioned by the arrival of Anthony, Duke of Brabant at the battle, the house was set on fire but he escaped, only to be recaptured and taken to England.
Examining the evidence
Other French writers, however, ascribe the responsibility for occasioning Henry’s murderous order to different French lords. This reminds us of a fundamental truth about the chronicles. All the accounts of battle were partisan. For the French, Agincourt was such a disaster that someone had to be to blame, but exactly who depended on the writer’s political affiliations. Their accounts were highly politicised in the context of on-going tension between Burgundian and Armagnac factions.
To cite but one example: Monstrelet, Waurin and Le Fèvre deliberately included the story that Duke Philip, at the time Count of Charolais, had “desired with his whole heart to be at the battle to fight the English” but that his father Duke John of Burgundy had instructed his governors to keep him in the castle of Aire near Ghent “as securely and secretly as they could so that he could not hear any news nor discover the intended day of the battle”. In this way, Duke Philip’s lifelong embarrassment at his absence could be explained away Duke John was no longer alive to contradict.
Although the eyewitness accounts and the narratives in other chronicles are important in reconstructing the battle, we cannot simply accept what they say at face value any more than detectives should believe what witnesses and suspects tell them. In a desire to tell a good story, many modern writers on Agincourt have fallen into the trap of taking the best bits from each chronicle and stringing them together to produce a seamless narrative. Like a detective, a historian needs to compare the conflicting testimonies to establish possible scenarios. Other kinds of evidence need to be found which do not suffer from the subjectivity of the chroniclers.
We are fortunate to have the field itself to analyse as the scene of crime, but even more to have large quantities of administrative records. Urban records for the towns of northern France, for instance, can help us to be certain of the routes of the armies and on military preparations. But the sources which really enable us to make a breakthrough are the financial records produced by the English and French crowns because these provide totally reliable evidence on the crucial question of army sizes and even provide us with the names of individual soldiers. By this period, all soldiers were paid. Evidence for their service is therefore revealed in the records of the English Exchequer housed in the National Archives at Kew, and of the French chambre des comptes, to be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and various regional archives.
Analysing all of this evidence and putting it together with a critical, comparative study of the chronicles, what conclusions can we come to? Thanks to a document concerning the raising of taxes to pay the army, we have clear indication of the size of force that the French were proposing to raise – 6,000 men-at-arms and 3,000 archers. From the musters and payments we can trace the assembly of this army to the middle of September, although not early enough to rescue Harfleur from Henry.
This was the army which harried Henry’s march northwards from Harfleur and for which the French battle plan found in the British Library was devised. The French undoubtedly intended to bring Henry to battle either at the Somme or near Péronne but he moved his army away from any possible interaction. Once he had succeeding in crossing the Somme, the French had to act quickly if they were to intercept him before he reached Calais. Heralds were sent to him on 20 October challenging him to battle. It is possible that the chosen location was Aubigny just to the west of Arras. Henry initially moved in that direction but then turned towards the coast in the hope of eluding his enemy once more.
This meant that the French, hoping to be reinforced by the men of Picardy and the lands of the north-eastern frontier such as Bar and Brabant, now had to communicate the change of location. There is strong evidence that by the morning of 25 October not all of the additional troops had arrived at Agincourt. The Duke of Brabant certainly arrived late in the day, the Duke of Brittany only reached as far as Amiens. The Duke of Orleans may only have arrived on 24 October.
Furthermore, the decision that he should be present and should lead the army was also made late in the day at Rouen, when the King and Dauphin, fearful of the English threat and mindful of the disaster of Poitiers over 50 years earlier, were advised not to risk their presence in battle. Initially, because of concerns about the continuing quarrel between Orleans as leader of the Armagnac party and Duke John of Burgundy, both dukes were told to send troops but not to come in person. Although some troops had joined with the initial 9,000, the French army at Agincourt cannot have numbered more than 12,000. Virtually all the chroniclers tell us that the French delayed giving battle for as long as possible on the day in the hope that the missing troops would arrive in time.
The numbers game
What then of Henry’s army? We can easily trace the size of the army with which he left England. The Exchequer records show that he had entered into contracts with 320 men to provide troops. Adding in the 500 archers each from Lancashire and South Wales (North Wales was still seen as uncertain in loyalty in the aftermath of Glyn Dwr’s revolt), and likely 650 from Cheshire, we have an army of 11,850 or so. To this we can add men who indented but for whom no full record survives, as well as the carpenters, miners etc, although interestingly, the gunners were all recruited from the continent, suggesting that the English had lagged behind in the supposed “artillery revolution”.
Since those who provided troops submitted accounts to the Exchequer after the campaign with details of what had happened to their men, we can track how many died at Harfleur, how many were invalided home with dysentery, and how many were placed in garrison. The gunners, for instance, were left in Harfleur, proof that Henry did not intend to attempt any further conquests. Taking this evidence together, the army on the march and hence at the battle was around 9,000 strong.
The real contrast between the armies was their composition rather than their size. Of the 12,000 French, around 75 per cent were men-at-arms. The corresponding proportion for the English was 20 per cent, much as it had been at the start of the campaign. Knowledge that the English had such a small number of men-at-arms heartened the French and led to their placing more troops in the vanguard in anticipation of winning the day with a huge first clash. Ignorance, or a lack of understanding of the strength of the English archers, made them underestimate the danger that the latter posed.
At over 7,000, and defended by stakes and by the lie of the land, there were too many to knock out by a cavalry charge. The French do not seem to have deployed their own archers and crossbowmen in counter-actions even though we can show from pay records that such troops had been raised. As a result, the vanguard had little choice but to keep marching into the barrage of arrow fire, an experience for which there could be no prior training. Most were killed or wounded in the melee when they were already helpless, many by a swift dagger in the neck. Their fate dissuaded other French troops from entering the fray. Agincourt was therefore characterised by accusations of cowardice and treason as well as exceptionally high mortality rates for the French along with equally low rates for the English.
Slaughter of the nobles
It is doubtful that the French death rates would have been so high had it not been for King Henry’s panic after he had stood his army down. Whether the threat of French regrouping was real or not – and there is no evidence at all that any attack was ever made – Henry’s response was to slaughter soldiers who had already surrendered.
In the words of the chronicler Peter Basset, who himself served in later English campaigns, “that was the reason so many nobles were killed”. The number of prisoners who can be identified from the English royal records – since the crown had a right to a share in ransoms – is much smaller than the chroniclers claim. Henry’s reaction was symptomatic of his behaviour in the campaign as a whole. Whilst there is evidence of military skill, for instance in protecting the archers, overall he displayed a lack of confidence because he was afraid of failure. That was why he had avoided engagement until the French finally forced his hand.
It was Agincourt which transformed him and his kingship. He had invaded in 1415 as the son of a usurper and with his own title insecure. There was even a plot to depose him on 1 August, the very day he had chosen for embarkation from Southampton. He returned with confidence as God’s chosen king and warrior. No one could now challenge his royal title or his obsession with France. The English entered one of the most heavily taxed periods in their entire history as well as one of the most militarily demanding. In France, the Armagnacs were sullied by the defeat since their commanders had been captured, whilst the leading Burgundians had died a martyr’s death.
Anne Curry is the author of Agincourt: A New History (Tempus Publishing, 2005). This provides a narrative of the whole campaign and discussion of the battle. She has also written The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations (Boydell, 2000). This includes translations and discussions of the chronicles and literary sources as well as of the administrative records.
Agincourt: a timeline
1259: Treaty of Paris. Henry III (king of England 1216–72) gives up his claim to Normandy, Anjou and Maine and pays homage as Duke of Aquitaine to Louis IX.
1328: Death of King Charles IV. His cousin is crowned as Philip VI despite the claim of Edward III (king of England 1327–77) as the son of Charles’ sister, Isabella.
1337: Philip confiscates Edward’s lands in Aquitaine. The Hundred Years War begins. Three years later, Edward formally declares himself king of France.
1346: Edward invades Normandy and defeats the French at Crécy, subsequently taking Calais after a long siege.
1356: Edward, Prince of Wales, defeats the French at Poitiers and captures John II.
1360: The treaty of Brétigny gives Edward III full sovereignty in Aquitaine, Calais and Ponthieu in return for dropping the claim to the throne and releasing John II.
1369: Charles V restarts the war. Edward III reassumes the title King of France, and it is retained by his successor, Richard II (king of England 1377–99).
1399: Richard deposed by Henry IV (king of England 1399–1413). Over the next decade, civil war develops in France between the Armagnacs and Burgundians.
1415: Henry V (king of England 1413–22) launches the biggest invasion of France since 1359. Agincourt takes place on 25 October. Two years later he begins a systematic conquest of the whole of Normandy.
1419: John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, is assassinated by the Armagnacs, led by the Dauphin Charles in Paris.
1420: In the treaty of Troyes Henry V is recognised as heir to Charles VI, and a few days later marries Charles’s daughter Catherine. Henry dies a few weeks before his father-in-law in 1422.
1431: Henry VI (king of England 1422–61) is crowned king of France.
1450: The English are driven out of Normandy, and three years later, Aquitaine. Only Calais remains in English hands.
- Henry V was a proud and ambitious king, who had big ideas for his country.
- Henry V was considered a strong leader who gave his army great confidence in battle. ’s play Henry V is one of the writer’s best known plays and has helped Henry V remain one of the most famous of our English Kings.
- Shakespeare portrays him as a King very committed to his people and country.
- In one of Henry’s most famous speeches in the play he says “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more” which shows Henry V considered himself very much an equal with both his nobles and soldiers.
- Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, mentions the Battle of Agincourt a great deal.
- Henry V was the second English monarch (king or queen) to come from the House of Lancaster.
- Henry V was born in Monmouth in Wales and for that reason was sometimes called Henry of Monmouth.
- During Henry V’s coronation ceremony (where he was crowned king) a terrible snowstorm occurred. Apparently the King’s people couldn’t decide whether this was a good or bad sign!
- During Henry V’s first battle – the Battle of Shrewsbury – the young prince was hit in the face by an arrow.
- On the 25 October 1415, Henry V famously won the Battle of Agincourt. It was the most important battle of the Hundred Years War that took place between England and France between 1337 and 1453.
Henry V was famous as a ‘warrior’ King. He proved himself a brave soldier and despite his short reign, succeeded in making England one of the strongest kingdoms in Europe.
He was perhaps a natural as he fought his first battle as a teenager! Henry V was only 14 when he fought with his father at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.
Henry then went on to command the English army against the Welsh rebels who were led by Owen Glendower and between 1403 and 1408, the young Prince Henry, along with his English army, won a number of victories over the rebels.
Henry was obviously a strong-minded boy. During his teens, he had many disagreements with his father, Henry IV, as the young prince was determined to increase the power of the English throne.
As soon as he became King himself, he put his plans and ambitions into action. Henry V had only been King for two years when he began to set his sights on France.
In 1415, determined to reclaim the French crown, Henry and his army set sail to France. But England were the underdogs. The English had about 8,000 knights, archers and soldiers – the French had about 30,000. To make matters worse, the English army had little food, many felt ill, some had never been to battle and they had marched about 350 kilometres. But the English army secured themselves a good position – with a forest on either side of them and against all odds they won the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415. During the battle around 6,000 French soldiers were killed, and one third of the French nobility was either killed or captured.
Henry V carried on his war with France and conquered even more land. Finally, in 1420, the King of France, Charles VI, signed the Treaty of Troyes, which recognised Henry V as heir to the throne of France.
Henry V also then married Catherine, the daughter of the King of France, securing his position even further. Unfortunately he died just two years later aged only 35, just weeks before he would have become King of France!
But the fact that Henry V died early, at a time when he was very much in charge, meant he would be remembered well.
10 Facts About the Battle of Agincourt - History
T he English victory at the Battle of Agincourt gave birth to a legend that was immortalized in William Shakespeare's King Henry V. The battle took place in a muddy farmer's field in northern France on October 25, 1415 and was one in a series of encounters between France and England that has become known as the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453).
The story begins two months before the battle. Henry and his army had landed in France on August 14 near the mouth of the Seine River. The objective was to regain English territory lost to France over a period of centuries. The first task was to besiege and conquer a nearby town. Henry was successful, but the time-consuming effort took over a month. It was now early October. Henry realized that his reduced force and the limited time left in the campaigning season, meant that he would not be able to press his attack on the French. Instead, he lead his army north in a "show of force" that would end at the English port of Calais and embarkation back to England.
|Henry V at the time of the |
battle. His haircut provides
a more comfortable fit
for his battle helmet.
The two enemies faced one another, exchanging taunts designed to provoke an attack. Henry marched his force close enough to allow his archers to unleash a hail of arrows upon the French. The French knights charged forward only to be caught in a slippery quagmire of mud. To make matters worse, the French attackers were unable to effectively swing their broadswords because of the tight quarters of the battlefield and the continuing forward rush of their comrades behind them. Henry's archers fired lethal storms of arrows into this dense mass of humanity until the French began to retreat. The archers then dropped their bows, picked up what weapons they could find and joined the English knights in slaying their foe. The setting sun left a battlefield heaped with the bodies of thousands of French knights and the cream of France's ruling class. The English had dealt their enemy a disastrous blow.
". their horses stumbled among the stakes, and they were speedily slain by the archers."
Jehan de Wavrin was the son of a Flemish knight. His father and older brother fought with the French at the battle. Both were killed. The young de Wavrin observed the battle from the French lines and we join his account as the two armies prepare for combat:
. The French had arranged their battalions between two small thickets, one lying close to Agincourt, and the other to Tramecourt. The place was narrow, and very advantageous for the English, and, on the contrary, very ruinous for the French, for the said French had been all night on horseback, and it rained, and the pages, grooms, and others, in leading about the horses, had broken up the ground, which was so soft that the horses could with difficulty step out of the soil. And also the said French were so loaded with armour that they could not support themselves or move forward. In the first place they were armed with long coats of steel, reaching to the knees or lower, and very heavy, over the leg harness, and besides plate armour also most of them had hooded helmets wherefore this weight of armour, with the softness of the wet ground, as has been said, kept them as if immovable, so that they could raise their dubs only with great difficulty, and with all these mischiefs there was this, that most of them were troubled with hunger and want of sleep.
. Now let us return to the English. After the parley between the two armies was finished and the delegates had returned, each to their own people, the King of England, who had appointed a knight called Sir Thomas Erpingham to place his archers in front in two wings, trusted entirely to him, and Sir Thomas, to do his part, exhorted every one to do well in the name of the King, begging them to fight vigorously against the French in order to secure and save their own lives. And thus the knight, who rode with two others only in front of the battalion, seeing that the hour was come, for all things were well arranged, threw up a baton which he held in his hand, saying 'Nestrocq' ['Now strike'] which was the signal for attack then dismounted and joined the King, who was also on foot in the midst of his men, with his banner before him.
|A contemporary depiction of the battle. |
Agincourt stands in the background.
Then the English archers, who, as I have said, were in the wings, saw that they were near enough, and began to send their arrows on the French with great vigour.
Then the French seeing the English come towards them in this manner, placed themselves together in order, everyone under his banner, their helmets on their heads. The Constable, the Marshal, the admirals, and the other princes earnestly exhorted their men to fight the English well and bravely and when it came to the approach the trumpets and clarions resounded everywhere but the French began to hold down their heads, especially those who had no bucklers, for the impetuosity of the English arrows, which fell so heavily that no one durst uncover or look up.
Thus they went forward a little, then made a little retreat, but before they could come to close quarters, many of the French were disabled and wounded by the arrows and when they came quite up to the English, they were, as has been said, so closely pressed one against another that none of them could lift their arms to strike their enemies, except some that were in front.
[The French knights] struck into these English archers, who had their stakes fixed in front of them. their. horses stumbled among the stakes, and they were speedily slain by the archers, which was a great pity. And most of the rest, through fear, gave way and fell back into their vanguard, to whom they were a great hindrance and they opened their ranks in several places, and made them fall back and lose their footing in some land newly sown for their horses had been so wounded by the arrows that the men could no longer manage them.
[The French] men-at-arms without number began to fall and their horses feeling the arrows coming upon them took to flight before the enemy, and following their example many of the French turned and fled. Soon afterwards the English archers, seeing the vanguard thus shaken, issued from behind their stockade, threw away their bows and quivers, then took their swords, hatchets, mallets, axes, falcon-beaks and other weapons, and, pushing into the places where they saw these breaches, struck down and killed these Frenchmen without mercy, and never ceased to kill till the said vanguard which had fought little or not at all was completely overwhelmed, and these went on striking right and left till they came upon the second battalion, which was behind the advance guard, and there the King personally threw himself into the fight with his men-at-arms.
As the English continued to gain the upper hand, King Henry received news that the French were attacking at the rear of his army and that French reinforcements were approaching. King Henry ordered that all French prisoners be put to the sword - an order his knights were reluctant to follow as, if kept alive, these prisoners could bring a healthy ransom:
"When the King of England perceived them coming thus he caused it to be published that every one that had a prisoner should immediately kill him, which those who had any were unwilling to do, for they expected to get great ransoms for them. But when the King was informed of this he appointed a gentleman with two hundred archers whom he commanded to go through the host and kill all the prisoners, whoever they might be. This esquire, without delay or objection, fulfilled the command of his sovereign lord, which was a most pitiable thing, for in cold blood all the nobility of France was beheaded and inhumanly cut to pieces, and all through this accursed company, a sorry set compared with the noble captive chivalry, who when they saw that the English were ready to receive them, all immediately turned and fled, each to save his own life. Many of the cavalry escaped but of those on foot there were many among the dead."
Wavrin, Jehan de, Chronicles, 1399-1422, trans. Sir W. Hardy and E. Hardy (1887) Keegan, John, The Illustrated Face of Battle: a study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (1989).
Top 5 Facts: Battle of Agincourt
1. Victory songs – After the English victory at Agincourt, several celebratory songs were written. The most famous of these is The Agincourt Carol.
2. V – The derogatory ‘V’ sign of modern culture stems from Agincourt. The gesture was used by English archers in defiance of the French threat that any caught longbowmen would have their two bow-fingers cut off.
3. Outnumbered – One of the most contended issues today is exactly how badly the French outnumbered the English forces. Conservative figures lie around 4:3, while other estimates place it at 4:1 or even 6:1.
4. Welsh allies – The English forces at Agincourt were not just from England but Wales too. Indeed, one of the most notable generals, Dafydd Gam, died in the battle after reportedly saving Henry’s life.
5. The waiting game – Despite Henry’s resounding victory, he was not officially recognised as regent and heir to the French throne until 1420, five years after the conflict.