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Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt was an English victory against a larger French army in the Hundred Years' War. The battle occurred on Friday 25 October 1415 (Saint Crispin's Day) , in northern France. Henry V's victory started a new period in the war, in which he came very close to capturing the throne of France for himself and his heirs.

The French king of the time was Charles VI, however he did not command the French army himself as he was incapacitated, instead the French were commanded by Constable Charles d'Albret and various prominent French noblemen of the Armagnac party.

The battle is notable for the use of the English longbow, which Henry used in very large numbers, with longbowmen forming the vast majority of his army. The battle was also immortalised by William Shakespeare as the centrepiece of his play Henry V.

Campaign

Henry V invaded following the failure of negotiations with the French. He claimed the title of King of France through his great-grandfather Edward III, although in practice the English kings were generally prepared to renounce this claim if the French would acknowledge their claim on Aquitaine and other French lands (the terms of the Treaty of Bretigny). He initially called a great council in the spring of 1414 to discuss going to war with France, but the lords insisted that he should negotiate further and moderate his claims. In the following negotiations Henry said that he would give up his claim to the French throne if the French would pay the 1.6 million crowns outstanding from the ransom of Jean II (who had been captured at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356), and the lands of Normandy, Touraine, Anjou, Brittany and Flanders, as well as Aquitaine. Henry would marry Princess Catherine, the young daughter of Charles VI, and receive a dowry of 2 million crowns. The French responded with what they considered the generous terms of marriage with Princess Catherine, a dowry of 600,000 crowns, and an enlarged Aquitaine. By 1415 negotiations had ground to a halt, with the English claiming that the French had mocked their claims and ridiculed Henry himself. In December 1414, the English parliament was persuaded to grant Henry a "double subsidy", a tax at twice the traditional rate, to recover his inheritance from the French. On 19 April 1415, Henry again asked the great council to sanction war with France, and this time they did.

Henry's army landed in northern France on 13 August 1415 and besieged the port of Harfleur with an army of about 12,000. The siege took longer than expected. The town surrendered on 22 September, and the English army did not leave until 8 October. The campaign season was coming to an end, and the English army had suffered many casualties through disease. Henry decided to move most of his army (roughly 7,000) to the port of Calais, the English stronghold in northern France, where they could re-equip over the winter.

During the siege, the French had raised an army which assembled around Rouen. This was not a feudal army, as sometimes has been said, but an army paid through a system very similar to the English. The French hoped to raise 9,000 troops, but the army was not ready in time to relieve Harfleur. Then after Henry V marched to the north, the French moved to blockade them along the River Somme. They were successful for a time, forcing Henry to move south, away from Calais, to find a ford. The English finally crossed the Somme south of Péronne, at Béthencourt and Voyennes and resumed marching north. Without the river protection, the French were hesitant to force a battle. They shadowed Henry's army while calling a semonce des nobles, calling on local nobles to join the army. By October 24 both armies faced each other for battle, but the French declined, hoping for the arrival of more troops. The next day the French initiated negotiations as a delaying tactic, but Henry ordered his army to advance and to start a battle that, given the state of his army, he would have preferred to avoid. The English had very little food, had marched 260 miles in two-and-a-half weeks, were suffering from sickness such as dysentery, and faced much larger numbers of well equipped French men at arms. However Henry needed to get to the safety of Calais, and knew if he waited, the French would get more reinforcements.

The French suffered a catastrophic defeat, not just in terms of the sheer numbers killed, but also because of the number of high-ranking nobles lost. It took several years more campaigning, but Henry was eventually able to fulfill all his objectives. He was recognised by the French in the Treaty of Troyes (1420) as the regent and heir to the French throne. This was cemented by his marriage to Catherine of Valois, the daughter of King Charles VI.

Battle

Situation

Henry V and his troops were marching to Calais to embark for England when he was intercepted by French forces which outnumbered his. English effectiveness and readiness was questionable as a result of their prior maneuvers consisting of an 18 day march across 250 miles of hostile territory under constant harassment. They suffered from dysentery and exhaustion, and were further hampered by inclement weather.

The lack of reliable and consistent sources makes it very difficult to accurately estimate the numbers on both sides. Most contemporary English sources have the English outnumbered by 10–1 or more. The Burgundian sources use numbers of 50,000 for the French, and 11,000 or 13,000 for the English. The other French sources include at least one which has the English army as slightly larger than the French. Another has the French "more than half again as numerous as the English".

Estimates used by recent historians vary from 6,000 to 9,000 for the English, and from about 12,000 to about 36,000 for the French. Anne Curry, basing her research on administrative records rather than contemporary chronicles, has recently argued that the odds were much less in favour of the French than traditionally thought, at about 4–3 (12,000 French to 9,000 English). The English were probably not outnumbered as badly as the legend would have it, however many modern British historians (for example, Juliet Barker, Christopher Hibbert) would still accept that they were outnumbered by 3–1 or more. In response to Curry's work, Barker has argued that the eyewitness accounts make no sense if the odds were as low as 4–3.

The battle was fought in the narrow strip of open land formed between the woods of Tramecourt and Agincourt (close to the modern village of Azincourt). The French army was positioned by d'Albret at the northern exit so as to bar the way to Calais. The night of 24 October was spent by the two armies on open ground,

Early on the 25th, Henry deployed his army (approximately 900 men-at-arms and 5,000 longbowmen) across a 750 yard part of the defile. (It has been argued that fresh men were brought in after the siege of Harfleur; however, other historians argue that this is wrong, and that although 9,200 English left Harfleur, after a 250 mile march and more sickness had set in, they were down to roughly 5,900 by the time of the battle.) It is likely that the English adopted their usual battle line of longbowmen on either flank, men-at-arms and knights in the centre, and at the very centre roughly 200 archers. The English men-at-arms in plate and mail were placed shoulder to shoulder four deep. The English archers on the flanks drove pointed wooden stakes called palings into the ground at an angle to force cavalry to veer off.

The English must have feared that they wouldn't get out alive. In fact, an English account describes the day before the battle as a day of remorse in which all soldiers cleansed themselves of their sins to avoid hell. The English nobles were lucky to be able to ransom themselves back if they were captured. French accounts state that, prior to the battle, Henry V gave a speech reassuring his nobles that if the French prevailed, the English nobles would be spared, to be captured and ransomed instead. However, the common soldier would have no such luck and therefore he told them they had better fight for their lives.

The French, on the other hand, were confident that they would prevail and eager to fight. The French believed they would triumph over the English not only because their force was considerably larger, because they were fresh and better equipped, but also because the large number of noble men-at-arms would have considered themselves superior to the large number of commoners (such as the longbowmen) in the English army. The English army contained approximately 1,000 men-at-arms; using the lowest detailed French estimate (the Herald of Berry), the French army contained 10,000 men-at-arms (1,200 of which were mounted). Provided they could close with the English army, the French would therefore have been confident that their much larger number of heavily armoured troops would prevail in hand-to-hand fighting. Another reason for impatience was that many had fathers and grandfathers who had been humiliated in previous battles such as Crecy and Poitiers, and the French nobility were determined to get revenge. Several French accounts emphasise that the French leaders were so eager to defeat the English that they insisted on being in the first line. (For example: "All the lords wanted to be in the vanguard, against the opinion of the constable and the experienced knights".)

The French were arrayed in three lines called "battles". Waurin says there were 8,000 men-at-arms, 4,000 archers and 1,500 crossbowmen in the vanguard, with two wings of 600 and 800 mounted men-at-arms, and the main battle having "as many knights, esquires and archers as in the vanguard", with the rearguard containing "all of the rest of the men-at-arms". The Herald of Berry uses somewhat different figures of 4,800 men-at-arms in the first line, 3,000 men in the second line, with two "wings" containing 600 mounted men-at-arms each, and a total of "10,000 men-at-arms". The Herald does not mention a third line.

There appear to have been thousands of troops in the rearguard, containing commoners who the French were either unable or unwilling to deploy. Waurin gives the total French army size as 50,000. He says: "They had plenty of archers and crossbowmen but nobody wanted to let them fire. The reason for this was that the site was so narrow that there was only enough room for the men-at-arms. Similarly the monk of Saint-Denis says "Four thousand of their best crossbowmen who ought to have marched in the front and begun the attack were found to not be at their post and it seems that they had been given permission to depart by the lords of the army on the pretext that they had no need of their help.

The rearguard played little or no part in the battle however, with English and French accounts agreeing that a significant proportion of the French army fled after seeing so many French nobles killed and captured in the fighting.

Terrain

Arguably, the deciding factor for the outcome was the terrain. The narrow field of battle, recently ploughed land hemmed in by dense woodland, favoured the English. An analysis by Battlefield Detectives has looked at the crowd dynamics of the battlefield. The 900 English men-at-arms are described as shoulder to shoulder and four deep, which implies a tight line about 225 men long (perhaps split in two by a central group of archers). The remainder of the field would have been filled with the longbowmen behind their palings. The French first line contained between four and eight thousand men-at-arms, outnumbering the English men-at-arms at least four to one, but they had no way to outflank the English line. The French, divided into the three battles, one behind the other at their initial starting position, could not bring all their forces to bear: the initial engagement was between the English army and the first battle line of the French. When the second French battle line started their advance, the soldiers were pushed closer together and their effectiveness was reduced. Casualties in the front line from longbow fire would also have increased the congestion, as following men would have to walk around the fallen. The Battlefield Detectives state that when the density reached four men per square metre, soldiers would not even be able to take full steps forward, lowering the speed of the advance by 70%. Accounts of the battle describe the French engaging the English men-at-arms before being rushed from the sides by the longbowmen as the melee developed. The English account in the Gesta Henrici says: "For when some of them, killed when battle was first joined, fall at the front, so great was the undisciplined violence and pressure of the mass of men behind them that the living fell on top of the dead, and others falling on top of the living were killed as well". Although the French initially pushed the English back, they became so closely packed that they are described as having trouble using their weapons properly. The French monk of St. Denis says: "Their vanguard, composed of about 5,000 men, found itself at first so tightly packed that those who were in the third rank could scarcely use their swords., and the Burgundian sources have a similar passage. In practice there was not enough room for all these men to fight, and they were unable to respond effectively when the English longbowmen joined the hand-to-hand fighting. By the time the second French line arrived, for a total of perhaps 8,000 men (depending on the source), the crush would have been even worse. The press of men arriving from behind actually hindered those fighting at the front.

As the battle was fought on a recently ploughed field, and there had recently been heavy rain leaving it very muddy, it proved very tiring to walk through in full plate armour. The French monk of St. Denis describes the French troops as "marching through the middle of the mud where they sank up to their knees. So they were already overcome with fatigue even before they advanced against the enemy". The deep, soft mud particularly favoured the English force because, once knocked to the ground, the heavily armoured French knights struggled to get back up to fight in the melee. Barker (2005) states that several knights, encumbered by their armour, actually drowned in it. Their limited mobility made them easy targets for the volleys from the English archers. The mud also increased the ability of the much more lightly armoured English archers to join in hand-to-hand fighting against the heavily armed French men-at-arms.

Fighting

On the morning of the 25th the French were still waiting for additional troops to arrive. The Duke of Brabant, the Duke of Anjou and the Duke of Brittany, each commanding 1,000–2,000 fighting men, were all marching to join the army. This left the French with a question of whether or not to advance towards the English.

For three hours after sunrise there was no fighting. The French, knowing that the English were trapped, and perhaps aware of their previous failures attacking English prepared positions, would not attack. Henry would have known as well as the French did that his army would perform better in a defensive battle, but he was eventually forced to take a calculated risk, and move his army further forward. This entailed pulling out the palings (long stakes pointed outwards toward the enemy) which protected the longbowmen, and abandoning his chosen position. (The use of palings was an innovation: during the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, two similar engagements between the French and the English, the archers did not use them.) If the French cavalry had charged before the palings had been hammered back in, the result would probably have been disastrous for the English, as it was at the Battle of Patay. However the French seem to have been caught off guard by the English advance. The tightness of the terrain also seems to have restricted the planned deployment of their forces. A battle plan had originally been drawn up which had archers and crossbowmen in front of the men-at-arms, with a cavalry force at the rear specifically designed to "fall upon the archers, and use their force to break them". However in the event the archers and crossbowmen were deployed behind and to the sides of the men-at-arms, where they seem to have played almost no part in the battle, except possibly for an initial volley of arrows at the start of the battle. The cavalry force, which could have devastated the English line if it had attacked while they moved their position, only seems to have charged after the initial volley of arrows from the English. It is unclear if this is because the French were still hoping the English would launch a frontal assault themselves, or because they simply did not expect the English to advance at the exact moment they did. French chroniclers agree that when the mounted charge did come, it did not contain as many men as it should; Gilles le Bouvier states that some had wandered off to warm themselves and others were walking or feeding their horses.

In any case, within extreme bowshot from the French line (approximately 300 yards), the longbowmen dug in their palings, and then opened the engagement with a barrage of arrows.

The French cavalry, despite being somewhat disorganised and not at full numbers, charged the longbowmen, but it was a disaster, with the French knights unable to outflank the longbowmen (because of the encroaching woodland) and unable to charge through the palings that protected the archers. Keegan (1976) argues that the longbows' main influence on the battle was at this point: only armoured on the head, many horses would have become dangerously out of control when struck in the back or flank from the high-elevation shots used as the charge started. The effect of the mounted charge and then retreat was to further churn up the mud the French had to cross to reach the English. Barker (2005) quotes a contemporary account by a monk of St. Denis who reports how the panicking horses also galloped back through the advancing infantry, scattering them and trampling them down in their headlong flight. The Burgundian sources similarly say that the mounted men-at-arms retreated back into the advancing French vanguard, "causing great disarray and breaking the line in many places".

The constable himself led the attack of the dismounted French men-at-arms. French accounts describe their vanguard alone as containing about 5,000 men-at-arms, which would have outnumbered the English men-at-arms by about 5–1, but before they could engage in hand-to-hand fighting they had to cross the muddy field under a bombardment of arrows. The armour of the French men-at-arms is described by the Burgundian sources Le Fevre and Waurin as follows:

In addition, the French were so weighed down by armour that they could hardly move forward. First, they were armed with long coats of armour, stretching beyond their knees and being very heavy. Below these they had 'harnois de jambes' (leg armour) and above 'blans harnois ' (white i.e. polished armour). In addition they had 'bascinets de carvail'. So heavy were their arms that as the ground was so soft they could scarcely lift their weapons.

Such heavy armour allowed them to close the 300 yards or so to the English lines while being under what the French monk of Saint Denis described as "a terrifying hail of arrow shot". However they had to lower their visors and bend their heads to avoid being shot in the face (the eye and airholes in their helmets were some of the weakest points in the armour), which restricted both their breathing and their vision, and then they had to walk a few hundred yards through thick mud, wearing armour which weighed 50–60 pounds.

The French men-at-arms reached the English line and actually pushed it back, with the longbowmen continuing to fire until they ran out of arrows and then dropping their bows and joining the melee (which lasted about three hours), implying that the French were able to walk through the fire of tens of thousands of arrows while taking comparatively few casualties. The physical pounding even from non-penetrating arrows, combined with the slog in heavy armour through the mud, the heat and lack of oxygen in plate armour with the visor down, and the crush of their numbers, meant they could "scarcely lift their weapons" when they finally engaged the English line however.

When the English archers, using hatchets, swords and other weapons, attacked the now disordered and fatigued French, the French could not cope with their unarmoured assailants (who were much less hindered by the mud). The exhausted French men-at-arms are described as being knocked to the ground and then unable to get back up. As the mêlée developed, the French second line also joined the attack, but they too were swallowed up, with the narrow terrain meaning the extra numbers could not be used effectively, and French men-at-arms were taken prisoner or killed in their thousands. The fighting lasted about three hours, but eventually the leaders of the second line were killed or captured, as those of the first line had been. The English Gesta Henrici describes three great heaps of the slain "which had risen above a man's height" around the three main English standards.

One of the best anecdotes of the battle involves Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Henry V's youngest brother. According to the story, Henry, upon hearing that his brother had been wounded in the abdomen, took his household guard and cut a path through the French, standing over his brother and beating back waves of soldiers until Humphrey could be dragged to safety.

The assault on the baggage train and the killing of the prisoners

The only French success was a sally from Agincourt Castle behind the lines attacking the lightly protected English baggage train, with Ysembart d'Azincourt (leading a small number of men-at-arms and about 600 peasants) seizing some of Henry's personal treasures, including a crown. In some accounts this happened towards the end of the battle, and led the English to think they were being attacked from the rear. Barker (2005) prefers the Gesta Henrici however, believed to have been written by an English chaplain who was actually in the baggage train, who says that the attack happened at the start of the battle.

Regardless, there was definitely a point after the initial English victory where Henry became alarmed that the French were regrouping for another attack. The Gesta Henrici puts this after the English had overcome the onslaught of the French men-at-arms, and the weary English troops were eyeing the French rearguard ("in incomparable number and still fresh"). The Burgundian sources Le Fevre and Waurin similarly say that it was signs of the French rearguard regrouping and "marching forward in battle order" which made the English think they were still in danger.

In any event, Henry ordered the slaughter of what was perhaps several thousand French prisoners, with only the most illustrious being spared. His fear was that they would rearm themselves with the weapons strewn upon the field, and the exhausted English (who had been fighting for about three hours) would be overwhelmed. This was certainly ruthless, but arguably justifiable given the situation of the battle; perhaps surprisingly, even the French chroniclers do not criticise him for this. This marked the end of the battle, as the French rearguard, having seen so many of the French nobility captured and killed, fled the battlefield.

Aftermath

Due to a lack of reliable sources it is impossible to give a precise figure for the French and English casualties. However, it is clear that though the English were considerably outnumbered, their losses were far lower than those of the French. The French sources all give 4,000–10,000 French dead, with up to 1,600 English dead. The lowest ratio in these French sources has the French losing six times more dead than the English. The English sources vary between about 1,500 and 11,000 for the French dead, with English dead put at no more than 100. The lowest ratio in the English sources has the French losing more than fifty times more dead than the English.

Barker identifies from the available records "at least" 112 Englishmen who died in the fighting (including Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, a grandson of Edward III), but this excludes the wounded. One fairly widely used estimate puts the English casualties at 450, not an insignificant number in an army of 6,000, but far less than the thousands the French lost, nearly all of whom were killed or captured. Using the lowest French estimate of their own dead of 4,000 would imply a ratio of nearly 9–1 in favour of the English, or over 10–1 if the prisoners are included.

The French suffered heavily. The constable, three dukes, five counts and 90 barons all died. Estimates of the number of prisoners vary between 700 and 2,200, amongst them the Duke of Orléans (the famous poet Charles d'Orléans) and Jean Le Maingre, Marshal of France. Almost all these prisoners would have been nobles, as the less valuable prisoners were slaughtered.

Notable casualties

Sir Peers Legh

When Sir Peers Legh was wounded, his mastiff stood over him and protected him for many hours through the battle. Although Legh later died, the mastiff returned to Legh's home and became the forefather of the Lyme Park mastiffs. Five centuries later, this pedigree figured prominently in founding the modern English Mastiff breed.

Modern re-assessment of Agincourt

Were the English as outnumbered as traditionally thought?

Until recently, Agincourt has been fêted as one of the greatest victories in English military history. But, in Agincourt, A New History (2005), Anne Curry contradicts what previous historians have argued, and other contemporary Agincourt historians continue to argue; in Curry's view, the scale of the English triumph at Agincourt has been overstated for almost six centuries.

Basing her research on contemporary administrative records rather than chronicles, Curry estimates that the French still outnumbered the English, but at worst only by a factor of three to two (12,000 Frenchmen against 7,000 to 9,000 Englishmen). According to Curry, the Battle of Agincourt was a "myth constructed around Henry to build up his reputation as a king". The legend of the English as underdogs at Agincourt was given credence in popular English culture with William Shakespeare's Henry V in 1599. In the speech before the battle, Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Henry V the famous words, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," immediately after numbering English troops at twelve thousand, versus sixty thousand Frenchman. (Westmoreland: "Of fighting men they have full three-score thousand." Exeter: "There's five to one ..." (Act IV, scene 3). Shakespeare equally overstated the French and understated the English casualties as well; at the end (Act IV, Scene 8), when Henry's herald delivers the death toll, the numbers are 10,000 French dead and just "five and twenty" English. (The well known Olivier film version of 1944 has this as "five and twenty score" i.e. 500, which is closer to the modern estimate of casualties.)

Juliet Barker in Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle (published slightly after A New History) argues the English and Welsh were outnumbered "at least four to one and possibly as much as six to one". She prefers the figures given by Jehan Waurin (a Burgundian in the French army) who is relatively detailed about the French army, and suggests figures of about 6,000 for the English and 36,000 for the French, "based on {Waurin's} suggestion that the French were six times more numerous than the English". Curry's book was published too late to significantly influence Barker's work. In the Acknowledgments, however, while paying tribute to Curry's scholarship, Barker says: "Surviving administrative records on both sides, but especially the French, are simply too incomplete to support her assertion that nine thousand English were pitted against an army only twelve thousand strong. And if the differential really was as low as three to four then this makes a nonsense of the course of the battle as described by eyewitnesses and contemporaries."

Many documentaries about the Battle of Agincourt use the figures of about 6,000 English and 36,000 French, with a French superiority in numbers of 6–1. The 1911 Encylopædia Britannica puts the English at 6,000 archers, 1,000 men-at-arms and "a few thousands of other foot", with the French outnumbering them by "at least four times". Other historians put the English numbers at 6,000 and the French numbers at 20,000–30,000, which would also be consistent with the English being outnumbered 4–1. Curry is currently alone among scholars in English in putting the odds at significantly less than this, although she is also the only one to have relied primarily on administrative records when estimating the odds (rather than contemporary accounts). However, Curry does not include the numbers of armed French locals who answered the call to arms (for which there is little good documentary evidence to provide a precise figure).

See also

Notes

  • a. Pronunciation: The story of the battle has been retold many times in English, from the fifteenth-century Agincourt song onwards, and the English pronunciation of "Agincourt" is commonly used. Merriam-Webster has a small audio file here and the English Pronouncing Dictionary, ISBN 0 521 81693 9, from the Cambridge University Press offers . The modern tendency, however, is to use pronunciation closer to the original French, as in this interview with Juliet Barker on Meet the Author, here

References

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