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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Riley

Battle Report: Agincourt, the facts and the fiction

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition: and gentlemen in England now a bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day. William Shakespeare, Henry V.

A 16th century depiction of the Battle of Agincourt SOURCE: public domain

The battle of Agincourt has been well and truly immortalised by the works of William Shakespeare, his epic 'Henry V' encapsulates one of England's finest days but how true to fact is it? ultimately, we don't know a whole lot about the famous battle and Shakespeare's work, amongst others, certainly stretches the facts.

Prelude to war

Prior to Henry V becoming king in 1413, England was already in the middle of The Hundred Years war, Started back in the 1340's under Edward III. The war hadn't been decisive for ether side resulting in a period of relative peace, but that was to change in 1415 when King Henry, tired of failed negotiations, claimed the French throne (just like his great-grandfather Edward had done some 70 years ago) and began to prepare for an invasion.

Henry spent the first eight months of 1415 preparing both his fleet and his army of some 12,000 men, landing on the French coast on 13th August 1415. Henry had used almost all of the good summer months, usually used for campaigning, actually building up and supplying his army, leaving only a few months of decent weather to actually fight the French and hopefully, take ether enough land to force a truce or, the actual crown of France.

A posthumous portrait of Henry V of England SOUCE: public domain

The siege of Harfleur

the first major militarily engagement of the 1415 campaign, happened when Henry's army laid siege to the town of Harfleur, an important settlement on the Normandy coast. Henry and his commanders hoped for a relatively quick siege, knowing that the clock was against them and, a large French force was surly being massed to push the English back into the sea.

The English army smashed the walls of Harfleur with siege weapons including, both trebuchet type weapons and cannon, but were unwilling to destroy the town as the point of the siege

was to capture and garrison it, not turn it to rubble. By late September, Henry was ready to storm the walls but, the occupants decided to parlay, and thus surrendered the city to the English. Henry, the ever chivalrous king, spared the inhabitants, allowing the knights who were taken prisoner to present themselves at Calais, with proper payment for their freedom, and the towns people were free to leave or, serve to Henry and the English.

As with all medieval sieges, Harfleur had many of Henry's men cut down not by arrows and swords but, by dysentery as the siege camps were filthy and muddy with almost no sanitation, think Glastonbury festival but without modern porter potties and the Rolling Stones. Over 1000 English soldiers, including 900 archers were left behind as a garrison force to keep the town secure, Henry likely expected the French to attempt the retake Harfleur as soon as he and his men left.

The march to Calais

With Harfleur under his Belt, Henry needed to get to the raiding, get to Calais and get home After the siege at Harfleur lasedt much longer and, the winter months creeping up on him along with the rumoured large French force amassing near Rouen . By early October, the large force under the constable of France, Charles d'Albret, that had been gathered, cut off Henry's route to Calais, forcing the much depleted English army south towards the River Somme.

Modern map showing the route taken by Henry V's army during the campaign of 1415 SOURCE:/

The French army, rumoured to be at least twice as large as Henry’s army was reluctant to meet with the English, choosing to stalk and wear down the tired archers and few men-at-arms who were trudging through the Normandy countryside. The English army was roughly 8,500 men strong by this point, with over 7,000 of them being the famous longbow men, with only 1,500 men-at-arms.

The Battle of Agincourt

By 24th October, the two vastly different armies met across a large open field flanked by thick woodland, near the village of Agincourt. The large French force, made up of thousands of mounted knights had no urgency, seeing the much smaller English army as an easy target, in dire need of supplies and the safety of Calais. Both armies settled in for the night, with the French army likely seeing the mornings battle as a virtual cakewalk whilst the English under Henry, were pensive and remained in silence all night.

Early the next day, Henry had placed his men where the two wooded areas were relatively narrow, creating a 'Battle of Thermopylae' effect, forming a bottle neck to reduce the effectiveness of the massive French force waiting to the north. Placing his archers behind wooden stakes and, most importantly, on the flanks protected by the woods, Henry used the few advantages he had masterfully, keeping his few men-at-arms in the centre surrounded by thousands of archers.

A map showing the two opposing armies along with the village of Agincourt and the two wooded areas flanking the battlefield SOURCE:

Some reports state that the English army was close to running out of food, a fact that may have spurred Henry on and forced his hand. Calling for his small force to move forward, collecting their defensive stakes, the archers quickly found themselves in range of the French forward lines and began to open fire.

Seeing the small force, Boucicaut, the French commander, ordered his vanguard to charge the English archers who began to unleash the unbeilable stopping power of the longbow. The initial cavalry charge made up of the cream of the French nobility, was cut down in minutes, ether by the hail of arrows or, the wooden stakes placed in front of the archers to protect them. Seeing this, the remaining cavalry and men at arms in the back lines began to lose their discipline with the cavalry leaving the battle field, leaving the dismounted knights in the firing line.

As with the cavalry, the dismounted men-at-arms were told to advance over the now muddy quagmire that had formed in from to the English lines. Heavily armoured, the French knights marched slowly across the wet, muddy field under a hail of arrows with no cavalry support or, archer fire of their own, as the French bowmen had been left in the rear assuming that they wouldn't be needed. Eventually, the French arrived at the English lines, tired, depleted and likely incredibly disheartened at the sight of both men and horse lay dead and dying in the mud and blood.

Even with the massive numerical advantage, the French were stuck between the English to their front and the droves of men in their rear, all wanting a bit of the action, what followed was a bloodbath. The archers on the flanks, were able to wrap around the back of the French mass and continued to shoot in their backs but, soon ran out of arrows. With Henry V himself reportedly fighting between his men, actually taking an axe blow to his crown, the battle wasn't looking good, the English lines were being pushed further back with more and more French reenforces arriving. Throwing down their bows, the archers quickly grabbed swords, axes, hammers and most famously, the mallets that they had used to hammer the stakes into the ground and attacked the exhausted French infantry until they began to surrender in droves.

An 1833 reconstruction of the banners flown by the armies at Agincourt SOURCE: public domain

Henry now had a dilemma, with thousands of frenchmen still ready to engage and, rumours of a fresh French Calvary attack in the rear of the English lines. thousands of both high and lowborn prisoners found themselves at the mercy of the English and their king, unfortunately for them, their time was to be cut short.

We will never know why Henry decided to kill the French prisoners, there are many different theories including, he didn't have enough men to guard them against the threat of the French counter attack or, Henry and his men simply gave into their blood lust. However you interpret the horrendous killing of unarmed prisoners, Henry's victory at Agincourt was complete, the rest of the French forces pulled back, allowing the English to march triumphantly onto Calais.

Agincourt myths

Now, I appreciate I've just spent the last few paragraphs explaining just why the Battle of Agincourt was a tremendous and unbelievable victory for Henry V but, that might not be completely true. The first common misconception about the battle is that it was some inevitable clash of titans with massive overarching implications but, the capture of Harfleur and the subsequent campaigns of 1416 to 1420, held just as much importance as the battle itself.

Another myth surrounding Agincourt is the effectiveness of the longbow as a ranged weapon. The medieval long bow was 'the machine gun of the middle ages' but, the supposed armour piercing capability of he bodkin arrows is less important than the blunt force trauma caused by mass arrows and, the archers at Agincourt taking part in the crucial hand to hand combat was the real turning point of the battle. The effect of constant volleys of arrows sapped both moral and, did tremendous damage to the men and horses that got stuck in the mud but, the overall piercing killing power is vastly overstated.

A common theme when discussing Agincourt, is the massive numerical disadvantage on the side of the English, overwhelming dysentery and a stupid, arrogant French enemy. Yes, there was dysentery in the English camp but, most of the ill soldiers had been sent back to England after the siege of Harfleur and Henry's remaining troops were reenforced before marching through Normandy. When it comes to the numbers at the battle yes, the French force was much large and, more professional but, at least 5,000 French soldiers never even took part in the fighting furthermore, the French tactic of smashing the English lines with cavalry wasn't a bad idea, the terrain was the real enemy.

A modern painting showing 15th century French Knights charging into infantry SOURCE: Unknown

The terrain at Agincourt was by far the most important factor in securing a victory, if Cavalry is allowed to charge at undefended archers, it often ends bad for the archers, the reason for the carnage that was Agincourt was the ground was quickly churned up, slowing down the oncoming knights, reducing their effectiveness.

Long term effects of Agincourt

From Shakespeare to Laurence Olivier, Agincourt and the deeds of Henry V are firmly placed in the hearts of minds of the English, but the short term successes were quickly replaced with massive defeats. Henry V was able to secure the French crown (having himself named heir to the throne) but, died on 31st August 1422 just before the French King Charles VI died himself, leaving Henry's 9 month old son, crowned Henry VI to inherit both the crowns of England and France.

Henry VI was not his father and throughout his minority and into the mid 15th century, all of the French possessions taken by his father were soon lost, culminating at the battle of Castillon in 1453, marking the end of The Hundred Years war.

The Battle of Castillon from Vigilles de Charles VII byMartial d'Auvergne (1484) SOURCE: Public domain

The Battle of Agincourt quite rightly, is considered a hallmark moment in Anglo-French relations but, it was a single battle in a long conflict that just so happened to have the best propaganda team in England behind it. Henry's victory was incredible, overcoming the odds to not just survive but, take most of the French nobility as prisoners or, leave their corpses in northern France, leaving the French monarchy in dire states that would see an English king crowned in Paris as King of France.

Henry V's short reign is remembered mainly for his wonderful military command during the campaign of 1415, leaving many historians questioning if Henry V had have lived longer, would England have been plunged into the Wars of the roses? A conflict that saw the house of Plantagenet destroyed from within. I guess we'll never know.

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

As always, thanks for Reading.

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