The Battle of Agincourt – 25th October 1415In the early morning of St Crispin's Day, 25th October, 1415 King Henry V’s dysentery ravaged and outnumbered English Army that had been marching since leaving Harflleur 17 days before found itself forced to give battle against the relatively fresh and numerically superior French Army commanded by the Constable of France, Charles d'Albret, near the small hamlet of Azincourt or AGINCOURT. This is the story of the battle that took place on that day.
Henry V's claim to be King of France was based on the fact that his great-great-grandmother Isabella was the daughter of King Phillip IV of France. When the last surviving son of King Phillip IV, Charles IV, died childless the dowager queen Isabella claimed the throne of France on behalf of her son Edward III of England. As King Phillip IV's grandson Edward III of England was his sole surviving direct male descendant. The French however crowned Phillip of Valois, Phillip IV's nephew, and so began the "Hundred Years War".
Two significant treaties conceded by the French after the English Kings pursued their birthright by force of arms confirmed the rights of the Kings of England to the French throne. The first was after the English victory at the Battle of Crecy on 26th August 1346 and the second after the Battle of Poitiers on 19th September 1356. A further treaty, the Treaty of Bretigny signed on 8th May 1360 confirmed Edward's rule of Aquitaine, Limousin, Gascony and Calais (among other territories), but the English King had to renounce his claim to the rest of France. Four years later in 1364 Charles V came to the French throne and the war restarted in 1369. In the eyes of the English this nullified the renunciation made as part of the Treaty of Bretigny.
It was on this pretext that Henry V set sail from Southampton at the head of an English Army on 11th August 1415.
King Henry V landed at Chef-en-Caux in the Seine estuary on 13th August 1415 and attacked the 100-man garrison of the Port of Harfleur in Normandy with 2,000 men-at-arms and 6,000 archers. Two French knights the Sieur d'Estouteville and the Sieur de Goucourt took over the command of the defence of the town after coming to the garrison's aid bringing with them an additional 300-men. It is at Harfleur that Henry V makes his famous ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends…’ speech in Shakespeare’s play.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Extract from Act III Scene I – Henry V by William ShakespeareHenry's brother the 1st Duke of Clarence, Thomas of Lancaster, led part of the English Army to the east of the town on 18th August 1415. The town was invested and a French relief convoy, bearing supplies of guns, powder, arrows and crossbows was captured. The siege of Harfleur had begun.
The details of the siege are not well documented, but it is known that after Henry’s twelve great guns seriously damaged the walls, a general assault was planned for 18th September 1415. On learning of this Harfleur's commanders requested a parley and it was agreed that if the French Army did not arrive by the 23rd the town would surrender to the English. With no sign of relief in sight, Harfleur yielded to Henry on 22nd September 1415. The Sieur d'Estouteville and the Sieur de Goucourt were released on parole to gather ransom, and the town's people who were prepared to swear allegiance to Henry were allowed to remain, those who did not were ordered to depart.
During the siege the English Army suffered badly from dysentery, which continued after the siege ended. Leaving a small garrison to defend the town, Henry set out at the head of an army of approximately 7,000 men on Monday 8th October 1415 intent on reaching Calais. At Calais, which was the only significant English stronghold in Northern France, Henry could rest and re-equip his force throughout the coming winter ready to renew the campaign the following year.
During the Siege of Harfleur, the French had been able to mobilise a large feudal army. King Charles VI of France suffered from bouts of Psychosis and was considered incapable of commanding the French host. Charles d'Albret, the Constable of France, and Jean Le Maingre, the Marshal of France, supported by the prominent French noblemen of the Armagnac faction commanded the French Army. They had positioned the French force so that the English could not reach Calais without a fight. Given the condition of the English Army this was something that Henry wanted to avoid.
Enroute to Calais Henry's English Army had to cross the River Somme and his scouts searched for an undefended or weakly defended bridge or ford in the hope of slipping past the French Army. Although Henry's Army managed to cross the River Somme they failed to evade the French. Having marched 260 miles in two-and-half weeks the English were confronted by a vastly numerically superior French Army near a small Normandy hamlet called Azincourt.
The precise numbers of each army are not accurately documented and whether or not the size of the opposing forces was as different as some accounts tell cannot be verified. It is generally accepted however, that the French outnumbered the English by at least three to one, possibly even as much as five to one. The French Army was between 20,000 and 30,000 strong whilst the English Army had been diminished by sickness enroute from Harfleur.
When King Henry’s English Army arrived late on 24th October 1415 they found the French waiting for them and halted in the vicinity of where we are standing. Both armies spent a restless night in the open sheltering as best they could from the heavy rain that was falling. It is whilst in the English Camp prior to deploying to the battlefield that Henry V makes his famous ‘Band of Brother’s or St Crispin’s Day’ speech in Shakespeare’s play.
Extract from Act IV Scene III – Henry V by William Shakespeare
In the early morning of St Crispin's Day, 25th October, 1415 the opposing armies assembled to face each other across the 1,000 yards or so of recently ploughed fields that separated them. The rain that had fallen throughout the night had turned the fields into a sea of mud that in some places was ankle deep. The ground dipped between the two opposing armies so each was in full sight of the other. The two woods that restricted movement to the space in between marked the flanking edges of the battlefield. At the English end this was about 750 yards wide whilst at the French end it opened out to about 1,200 yards. The area where the two armies would be expected to meet was about 900 yards wide.
The French deployed at the northern end of the battlefield in three 'battles'. On each flank were the wings of French cavalry made up of mounted nobles, knights and men-at-arms. The Count of Vendome commanded the left wing of about 1,600 and the Clignet de Brebant commanded the right wing numbering around 800. Forward in the centre was the main 'battle' of dismounted men-at-arms, including twelve princes and many of who were of noble birth, totalling between 6,000 and 9,000. Behind them was a body of approximately 4,000-6,000 crossbowmen and behind them was a further dismounted 'battle' of about 6,000-9,000 men-at-arms and armed servants that had arrived late in the night. To the rear was the third 'battle' consisting of mounted French Cavalry.
Thus arrayed, the two opposing armies remained in their respective positions for most of the morning. The French Constable d'Albret and Marshal Maingre having to exercise great control over the rest of the French nobility to prevent them surging forward, arguing that they should let the English attack so that their inferior numbers would place the English at a disadvantage. During the wait however, the dismounted French nobles jostled for position and the French deployment of the morning dissolved as the crossbowmen were pushed out towards the flanks and the first two 'battles' became one large chaotic mass.
At the other end of the battlefield Henry knew that he would have to fight. His men without sufficient food and water would only get weaker and so on the advice from his senior advisors he eventually ordered his line to advance. The English Army advanced in good order at a steady pace to just within 250 yards of the French lines. This would have taken just over ten minutes and had the French attacked during that time the outcome of the battle could have been very different. On reaching this new position, the archers deployed at the flanks and drove their stakes into the ground to form their protective palings. The English were ready for the battle.
With his lines set, King Henry gave the order for the archers to loose their first arrows. An English archer can loose up to ten arrows per minute and by the time the first arrows were landing on the French the next was in the air. An account of the battle tells that the "air was darkened by an intolerable number of piercing arrows flying across the sky to pour upon the enemy like a cloud laden with rain." The first flights of arrows would not have caused much damage amongst the French being fired at extreme range, but the reaction it provoked did.
The French lines were already in chaos due to the jostling taking place. The arrival of the English arrows added outrage to the chaos and what control the Constable d'Albret was able to exercise over the waiting French disintegrated. In his book The Art of War in the Middle Ages AD 378-1515 C W C Oman describes the strength of the French Armies of this period as being "composed of a fiery and undisciplined aristocracy that imagined itself to be the most efficient military force in the world, but was in reality little removed from an armed mob." Never was this truer than at the Battle of Azincourt when the French cavalry at the flanks charged to be followed closely by the men-at-arms of the centre dismounted ‘battles’.
During the long hours of waiting throughout the morning, the mounted Frenchmen at the flanks did not just sit on their horses waiting. Many got off to rest, whilst others wandered out of position or found friends with whom to pass the time. Command of the cavalry on the flanks was lax and the French were overconfident in their superior numbers. Unable to charge the English from the flanks, the woods at either side of the battlefield prevented that, the French cavalry would have to charge directly against the English front.
The suddenness of the beginning of the battle when the English archers fired their arrows caught many by surprise. The order to charge, if such an order was given, was not heard by all and the necessary control and compactness required to make an effective cavalry charge was not achieved. Many were still dismounted and out of position when the cavalry surged forward and this further broke up the French cavalry attack. The French cavalry charge was directed against the archers, but as the Frenchmen reached them they crashed into the thicket of wooden stakes. Unable to get at the archers (who were fleet of foot amongst the stakes and continued to shoot arrows into the horses’ flanks) the French cavalry that survived veered away towards the English centre or in retreat. It was at this time that the English archers were at their most effective. The French horses became uncontrollable as the English archers fired arrow after arrow into their exposed flanks. Maddened by the injury inflicted upon them and frightened by the din of battle the horses, with no space to manoeuvre, crashed directly into the advancing French men-at-arms. In less than a minute after the start of the French cavalry charge the English archers had sent the mounted Frenchmen crashing back into their advancing dismounted countrymen.
The dismounted French men-at-arms, following in the wake of the French cavalry charge, took a lot longer to cross the space between the two armies than one would expect. They not only had to wade through the sea of mud caused by the rain, but the cavalry had churning up that sea of mud even further causing their advance to slowdown. As they came towards the English the area between the two woods narrowed and this compressed their ranks. This compression meant that the men-at-arms were unable to take a full stride and their rate of advance was further reduced. The English archers firing their "bodkin" armour piercing arrows caused them to bunch even more, as they shied away from the hail of arrows, and in the time it took them to close with the English main body the English archers wrought havoc. The combination of mud, increased density, reduced forward speed and Frenchmen falling on being hit by the English archers gave rise to a heavy congestion towards the front ranks. In their rush to get at the English the French men-at-arms towards the rear pushed forward compounding the crowding effect even further and the speed of advance became almost that of a slow march.
Whether by design or accident the French men-at-arms split into three columns, possibly as a result of the retreating French cavalry passing back through them.
The French artillery, the bombards, was unable to effectively support the dismounted attack as they lacked the clear field of fire necessary. The French archers and crossbowmen had been pushed out of position by the men-at-arms in the pre-attack jostling and were ineffectually deployed to have any great effect. They were also outclassed by the faster, longer and more accurate rate of fire from the English longbows that dominated this initial period of the battle.
Despite the fact that the English archers were causing such havoc amongst the advancing French none of the columns moved to attack them. This in part was due to the fact that the French saw the archers as socially inferior and thus not worthy opponents, but also because the centre was where the English nobility were fighting and it was there that a man could get rich through ransom.
As they got to within a few metres the dismounted French nobility and men-at-arms in the lead rushed forward to maximise their impact on the English front rank, but after crossing that sea of mud between the two armies there was very little momentum left in the French charge. As the two armies came together, the English front line buckled but soon rallied. The French still certain of their success by the force of numbers continued to arrive before the English front rank. The later arrivals however were unable to get to the enemy as their own comrades blocked their path.
Neither side was willing to give way. The English were not willing to leave the security of their own ranks and the French were unable to effectively break the English line. The men-at-arms and knights that fell became obstacles over which their comrades had to climb. The Frenchmen towards the rear in their efforts to get at the English continued to push forward only to stumble over the fallen. The English pushed back forcing those Frenchmen still on their feet back into the path of those following. In the melee that resulted shaken and exhausted Frenchmen began to fall out of the fight towards the English archers as the lines swayed back and forth.
The English archers seeing their opportunity downed their bows to grab swords, axes or whatever other weapon came to hand. They fell upon the heavily armed French men-at-arms as they were pushed back from the English front ranks. In groups of twos or threes they singled out Frenchmen shaken by the initial charge and as one or two attacked, the other got behind him to slash at his unprotected parts. Once brought down the exhausted Frenchman was quickly dispatched with a blade through a joint in his armour or the grills of the faceplate. Many more slightly injured, or knocked down, were unable to rise through press of bodies due to exhaustion and the weight of their armour in the mud. These were trampled underfoot by the press of those behind them and a number drowned.
The initial wave of Frenchmen was totally destroyed, either killed or taken prisoner. As the second wave arrived on the scene the destruction was evident. Many of the common soldiers quit the battlefield upon seeing the carnage and those who attacked met largely the same fate. The Duke of Brabant, arriving late to the battle due to a christening party the previous night, led a brief charge that was quickly broken up. He paid dearly for the privilege, losing his life. Within half an hour of the battle being joined the first two French ‘battles’ had been total defeated. The third ‘battle’ however remained arrayed on the battlefield poised to attack.
One anecdote of the battle recounts that King Henry upon hearing that his brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester had been wounded in the abdomen took his household guard and cut a path through the French. Standing over his brother Henry proceeded to beat back waves of Frenchmen so that Humphrey could be dragged to safety.
With the third ‘battle’ poised to attack Henry had the French prisoners gathered together and put under guard to be moved to the rear. As this was happening, the Counts of Marle and Fauquemberghes rallied 600 French men-at-arms and counterattacked. This ended as disastrously for the French with both Counts being killed.
It was about the same time that Henry received reports that Ysambart, Lord of Azincourt had attacked the English camp and the baggage train. The token English guard that Henry had left to protect the camp had quickly been overcome and put to the sword.
This gave Henry a conundrum as he was faced with a very real threat from the Frenchmen he held captive as well as the third ‘battle’ still assembled ready for battle. The captives numbered more than the entire English Army and all were still in armour. The battlefield was littered with discarded weapons and they could easily overcome the token guard that Henry could afford to guard them. This combined with the panic that threatened to engulf the English Army as a result of the attack to their rear resulted in Henry ordering the killing of the prisoners.
The English nobles and men-at-arms refused, they had received their surrender on the field of battle and killing an equal after their surrender was considered dishonourable. Perhaps more importantly they stood to lose the ransom from the prisoners that would make many of them rich. The task of despatching the prisoners was given to 200 archers who were tough, professional soldiers considered to be outside the bounds of chivalry and whom the French would have despatched without flinching an eye had they themselves been captured.
It is not known how many of the French were killed after the Battle of Agincourt, but observers say it was far more than were killed during the battle. Contemporary estimates put the total French losses at between 4,000 and 11,000 while more modern estimates range between 7,000 and 10,000. Many contemporary reports describe the piles of French dead as being "as high as a man". This is undoubtedly an over exaggeration, but perhaps befitting of the destruction of the French forces that occurred on St Crispin’s Day 1415.
Amongst the French dead were: -
Not all of the French prisoners were killed about 1,500, all nobility, were taken to England including Charles of Valois, Duke of Orleans and the Marshal of France, Jean Le Maingre. Many of these unable to pay the demanded ransom were never to return.