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The Battle of Agincourt

The stunning English victory at the Battle of Agincourt achieved eternal fame in Shakespeare's Henry V, and has moved from the realm of history into mythology as a metaphor for the triumph of the underdog against all odds. Yet, while the general causes for Henry V's invasion of France, the latest campaign in the Hundred Years War, the siege and long march that led to Agincourt, and the general course and outcome of the battle are well-known, historians continue to debate some of the most basic facts of what happened. Were the English really that badly outnumbered? Were the casualties so one-sided? Was Henry V justified in slaughtering the noble prisoners he had captured?

Henry V's campaign in France reopened hostilities in the Hundred Years War and was likely launched for a number of reasons; land and wealth perhaps being second to the young king's desire to unite his nobles in a common purpose, especially after the turbulent reign of his father, Henry IV who had seized the throne by force. War with the old enemy France was an excellent way to unify his barons, demonstrate his worthiness as king and take advantage of the factitious leadership in France, under the mad King Charles VI, to increase England's French holdings. It is unlikely the young king had any idea his campaign would lead to a crushing defeat of the French, and such a complete fulfillment of his objectives.

Henry invaded northern France on 13 August 1415, and besieged the port of Harfleur with an army of near 12,000, but the town resisted strongly and the siege dragged on. Although Harfleur surrendered on 22 September, the English army did not leave until 8 October, with an army greatly weakened through dysentery and disease. With his army weakened and the winter season rapidly approaching, Henry decided to march to the port of Calais, the only English stronghold remaining in northern France.

Because the siege had dragged on so long, the French Constable, Charles d'Albret had time to call-up a massive feudal army from across France. The French army was able to mirror the English march along the Somme, affectively preventing Henry from reaching Calais without a major battle. The English had very little food, had marched 260 miles in two and a half weeks, were suffering from sickness, and faced three to four times their number of experienced, well-armed and armoured Frenchmen. On 24 October, Henry was brought to ground in a wooded gorge between the villages of Agincourt and Tramecourt, and forced to prepare for battle, with little shelter from that evening's heavy rain. The mud caused by this rain would prove an important factor in the battle, clearly favoring the dismounted, and more lightly armoured English. Indeed, the mud would prove deep enough that more than one knight suffocated after being knocked into it.

French accounts state that, prior to the battle, the young king reassured his nobles that if the French prevailed, the English nobles would be spared and ransomed, but the French would show no such mercy to common archers, so they had best fight to the bitter end. This is the obvious source for the famed &quote;St. Crispin's Day Speech&quote; penned by Shakespeare, but accounts differ significantly as to whether or not Henry actually told either the French of his men that he would not discuss terms for his own ransom. (Whatever he said, or had even desired, he would have known his words to be largely rhetoric. He was a king; the nature of medieval warfare dictated that the French would seek to capture, not kill him, and his own lords would rather see him captured then killed.)


The Battle

For three hours after sunrise there was no fighting; then Henry, finding that the French would not advance, moved his army to extreme bowshot from the French line (400 yards). Here the archers placed their stakes, and opened the engagement with a barrage of arrows.

The French at this point lost some of their discipline and the mounted wings charged the archers, but were decimated and then driven back in confusion. The Constable himself then lead the center battle, comprised of dismounted men-at-arms. This was a tactic the French had adopted from the English, but whereas dismounted knights had served the latter so well, it proved a disaster for the French. At Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) the English men-at-arms had patiently stood their ground, just as they did here. But the dismounted French knights were pressing the attack. Weighed down by their armour, they struggled to reach and engage the English men-at-arms and became easy targets for the English bowmen. Finally reaching the English line made matters worse. The massive French numbers forced into a narrow gorge meant that they were too closely packed to fight properly. However, as casualties mounted and prisoners were taken, the French started to engage the line to good effect. The thin English was pushed back and seemed poised to break, and Henry himself was almost beaten to the ground. But at this moment, the archers, using hatchets, swords and other weapons, penetrated the gaps among the now disordered French. Unencumbered in the deep mud, the archers were able to outmaneuver their opponents, and many more French men-at-arms were slaughtered or taken prisoner. The second line of the French met the same fate as the first, and when the leaders of the third line sought and found their death in the battle, their men broke ranks and fled to safety.

The only success for the French in the battle also led to one of Henry's most hotly debated decisions. Ysambart D'Agincourt led a mounted sally from Agincourt Castle and seized the King's baggage with 1,000 peasants. Thinking his rear was under attack, Henry was now faced with the threat that he held enough prisoners that, were they rearmed, he would have an entire enemy army behind his lines. Thus, Henry ordered the slaughter of all captives. The nobles and senior officers refused the task, for both chivalric and practical reasons. Chivalric, because it offended both their sense of honor, and the general rules of war, and practical, because it meant the loss of a treasure-trove of ransoms. Henry then passed the job to his archers, who had no such compunctions, and the slaughter commenced.

In the morning, Henry returned to the battlefield and had any wounded Frenchman who had survived the night killed. The exact reasons for this second slaughter remain under debate. Apologists for the king say that all noble prisoners had already been taken away and any commoners left on the field were too badly injured to survive without medical care, while critics see both the initial slaughter of the prisoners and the that of the survivors the next day as an act of barbarity; Henry's bloody statement of his absolute mastery of the day.

Aftermath

The French suffered disastrously, mainly because of the massacre of the prisoners. The Constable, three dukes, five counts and 90 barons were among the dead, and a number of notable prisoners were taken, amongst them the famed poet, Charles, Duke of Orléans and Jean Le Maingre &quote;Bouccicaut&quote;, Marshal of France.

While there is little doubt that English losses dwarfed those of the French, documentation simply does not support the traditional English claims, upon which Shakespeare drew, that English losses were only thirteen men-at-arms (including Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York) and 100 foot soldiers. Interestingly, the course of these deceptive numbers was Henry himself. The king paid the English retinues at their pre-battle strengths, thereby deliberately concealing their actual numbers, while quickly spreading the story of nearly insignificant English losses, which survive to this day. Modern estimates place the losses at between 300 - 500 English dead; which while not insignificant in an army of 6000 does still pale besides the French &quote;royal fellowship of death&quote;.

The catastrophic defeat that the French suffered at the Battle of Agincourt allowed Henry to far more than fulfill his original objectives. He returned home with an united nobility, as a celebrated warrior-king, in the mold of Edward III. The Treaty of Troyes (1420) recognized him as the regent and heir to the French throne, which was further cemented by his marriage to Catherine of Valois, the daughter of King Charles VI.

The successes won by Agincourt did not completely break the French spine. Insurrections began two years after the famous battle, and Henry was forced back into the field. Ever victorious, perhaps he would have ultimately prevailed, but he did not live to inherit the throne of France. In 1422, while securing his position against further French opposition, Henry V died of dysentery at the age of 34, two months before the death of Charles VI. He was succeeded by his young son, Henry VI. During his long, disastrous reign, the English were expelled from all of France besides Calais, and England became consumed by in the bloody War of the Roses.

Unanswered Questions

Was Henry justified in ordering the slaughter of the prisoners?
The slaughter of the French prisoners was clearly the single largest contributor to French casualties and one of the bloodiest acts of the Hundred Years War, and seems a monstrous act to modern eyes. Most modern scholars have generally condemned it, and certainly Henry's own knights refused to carry out the order.

Yet there are many possible reasons for Henry's order. It may simply have been a bloody act of revenge for the attack on the baggage train. It may also have been simple, equally bloodthirsty, pragmatism: since between one and two thousand prisoners are said to have been returned to England, the number of captives before the slaughter must have been much larger. Henry may simply have not wanted to take the chance, or absorb the cost, of moving a body of prisoners that outnumbered his own army. Thus the slaughter may have simply been a successful, if savage, way of demoralizing the remaining French combatants and quelling those prisoners left alive into acquiescence.

But just as possible, is that the English claims over the last six centuries may be true. Certainly there were more French prisoners than the entire English army, all still in armor on a battlefield littered with weapons. The French third line had not yet attacked, and the French sally against the baggage line (itself a questionable act) had shown that Henry's rear was unprotected and filled with largely unguarded prisoners. The act, however brutal, may have been the decision of a commander in the heat of battle faced with the need to make immediate decision and without the benefit of hindsight to know the battle was already destined to be his.

Whatever the case, and whatever the distaste the act has for modern scholars, it is worth noting that not a single contemporary chronicler of either side saw any fault in Henry's actions. It might have stretched the laws of war, but the French had committed similar acts previously themselves. The slaughter ended when it was clear that the French would not sally again and the third line was retreating from battle. The challenge in understanding what exactly happened may be one of learning how to think like a 15th century person, not a 21st century one.

Were the English as outnumbered as traditionally thought?
Agincourt has stood for six centuries as one of the greatest victories in English military history. But the question of how many men fought on each side has never been conclusively determined. In recent years, the debate has swung in two radically different directions.

In Agincourt, A New History (2005), Anne Curry makes an extreme claim that the scale of the English triumph at Agincourt has been overstated for almost six centuries. While she acknowledges that the French outnumbered the English and Welsh, she argues the numbers were at worst only by a factor of three to two (12,000 Frenchmen against 8,000 Englishmen). According to Curry, the Battle of Agincourt was a &quote;myth constructed around Henry to build up his reputation as a king&quote;. The legend of the English as underdogs at Agincourt was further exaggerated and cemented into English popular history by Shakespeare, who exaggerated the French casualties and reduced the traditional (and understated) English 115 to a mere 29 (Act IV, Scene 8).

Conversely, Juliet Barker's, Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle, claims 6,000 English and Welsh fought against 36,000 French, with the odds being six to one, from a French heraldic source. How can two contemporary scholars, with the same source material be at such odds?

Simple: the primary sources themselves generally do not agree on the numbers of the combatants involved. The 'traditional' numbers are 5,900 Englishmen and 36,000 French, and these are the numbers taken by many documentaries about the Battle of Agincourt. However, at least two chronicles written no more than 30 years after the battle place the number of English at 12,000. But whereas one gives the French crown 25,000 men to make war with, the other says that 25,000 men were in the first two battles, and the third battle was &quote;equally great, but fled without ever joining battle.&quote; Shakespeare showed the battle as having 5-1 numbers, and can be expected to have exaggerated in England's favor from what the sources he read claimed. Curry and Barker's claims notwithstanding, most modern historians seem to place English numbers at somewhere around 6,000 and French numbers at between 18 - 25,000.

Myths and Legends

Saints Crispin and Crispinian
To modern people, the names of Saints Crispin and Crispinian are likely only known because of the famous &quote;St. Crispin's Day&quote; speech in Shakespeare's Henry V. But in the Middle Ages, Crispin and Crispinian were well-known, if minor saints; the patron saints of cobblers, tanners, glove makers and all manner of leather workers. Tradition held that they were twin sons, born to a noble Roman family in the 3rd century AD, who fled persecution for their faith, winding up in Soissons, Gaul. There they took on the role of preachers by day, and shoemakers by night. Their congregation grew and drew the unwanted attention of Rictus Varus, the governor of Belgic Gaul. Both twins were martyred by beheading c. 286.

While the feast day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian is October 25, they are among many saints who were removed from the liturgical calendar during Vatican II, based on a lack of evidence that the twins were actual, historical people, and not the syncretic reinvention of a local deity (likely Lugus-Mercurius) into the Christian pantheon. So now they're gone, but thanks to Shakespeare, perhaps not entirely forgotten.

V for Victory
It has long been told that the famous &quote;two-fingers salute&quote; derives from the gestures of English archers, fighting at Agincourt. The myth claims that the French cut off two fingers on the right hand of captured archers and that the gesture was a sign of defiance by those who were not mutilated.

This may have some basis in fact - Jean Froissart's (circa 1337-circa 1404) Chronicle, a &quote;journalistic history&quote; of Europe in the fourteenth century records the twists and turns taken by the Hundred Years' War. The story of the English waving their fingers at the French is told in the first person account by Froissart, however the description is not of an incident at the Battle of Agincourt, but rather at the siege of a castle in another incident during the Hundred Years War. Froissart died long before the Battle of Agincourt, so, if the &quote;V sign&quote; did originate with English longbowman, it was well before that battle.

Agincourt and the Lyme Hall Mastiffs
Sir Peers Legh was an English knight who was wounded at Agincourt. When he fell, his Mastiff stood over him and protected him against all attackers during the long battle. Although Legh later died, the Mastiff returned to Legh's home and was the forefather of the Lyme Hall Mastiffs, a founding pedigree of the modern English Mastiff breed.

 

Bibliography

Barker, Juliet. Agincourt : Henry V and the Battle That Made England, Little Brown (2006).
Curry, Anne. Agincourt: A New History. Tempus UK (2005)
Keegan, John. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. Penguin Classics Reprint (1974)
Seward D. The Hunderd Years War: The English in France 1337-1453, Constable & Compary Ltd (1978)

Websites of Interest:

How a Man Shall Be Armed- Getting dressed for war at the end of the 14th century!

The Great Battles: Agincourt- A concise overview of the battle.

The Battle of Agincourt Resource Site- This collection of Web pages contains information and resources about the Battle of Agincourt that was fought on 25 October 1415 during the Hundred Years War. This main page contains a description of the battle as well as links to lists of books, Web sites, and other sources of information.

The Azincourt Alliance- A group that arranges reenactments of the battle

Account of the Battle c.1453 by Enguerrand de Monstrelet

Agincourt Honor Roll- An overview of the battle and a listing of over 21% of the English soldiers who took the field on October 25, 1415.

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