On the 25th of October 1415, St Crispin’s day, Henry V fought valiantly against the French in what became one of the most significant battles of the One Hundred Years War and of his reign. But if we are to believe this narrative, we are ignoring all the facts. The truth is that Henry’s army was sick and tired. Most of them were hungry as well, and the capitulation of the town of Harfleur (who had no choice but to give in to Henry’s demands) did little to motivate them. The sources vary, but all of them agree that the French outnumbered them, and it was going to be one hell of a fight –and as some of them viewed it, a massacre.
“The French army was disposed, according to the regular medieval way, in three “Battles” or divisions, one behind the other … The first, or “vaward” consisted of about 13,500 men; of these 8,000 were men-at-arms, and 5,500 were archers, who stood behind the men-at-arms … Ring Henry, also, after prayers had been held and mass celebrated, drew up his army in three “battles” or divisions, not, however, like the French, one behind the other, but each division in line with the other, so as completely to fill up the space between the two woods.” (R. B. Mowat)
Henry had risked everything for this enterprise, yet even he couldn’t break his rules of engagement. Besides citing his claim to the French throne, he had also cited the bible which said that unless provoked, he wouldn’t attack. Until now, he had manipulated the situation to make it seem as if he was the injured party; hence his reluctance to attack. But as it became evident that the French were not going to attack, he decided to draw first blood.
Ian Mortimer points out that one of the reasons why the French lost the battle was because they had cornered the English, preventing them from reaching Calais, but “in doing so they had placed themselves in a narrow confined space between two woods, and with ground sloping away on either side.” Furthermore, “they were encamped in a ploughed field that had turned into a quagmire as a result of the recent heavy rain –and conditions were going to get worse.”
And they did get worse. Henry V relied on his bowmen as his great-grandfather, Edward III, had done, and the French, believing they wouldn’t be as vital, pushed their crossbowmen to the back. Approximately, Henry’s army consisted of a thousand knights, esquires, and other fighting men, excluding the archers, on each division. Archers numbered 5,000. And the latter, besides the muddy terrain, did the most damage to the French army.
When their king gave the order to attack, they put a piece of earth on their mouths and charged towards the French. Although the French were prepared to take them on, their position made it difficult to fight, and the shower of arrows on their cavalry overwhelmed them. And the speed in which they fired was thanks to their light armor which made it easier for them to move their arms.
“The French commanders could only look on with dismay and mounting consternation as the riders on the wings rode chaotically back into the vanguard. Even those who had not lost their horses, and how had clung on, had great difficulty controlling their steeds as they careered in panic away from the arrows … There was only one option left open: to sound the trumpets commanding a full onslaught of all the troops. And to overwhelm the English through sheer force of numbers.” (Mortimer)
Nonetheless, the odds as it’s been described, were not in their favor. And despite their bravery, some of the commanding officers, realizing what the outcome would be, had to yell at their men to retreat.
The fighting lasted about three hours. Among the English casualties were the Duke of York and the Earl of Suffolk. The French suffered more casualties, along with many being captured. The author of the Gesta wrote that never had the Englishmen “fallen upon their enemies more boldly or fearlessly, or with a better will.” One might be wondering what was Henry doing the entire time, and the answer was that he was fighting “as a famished lion for his prey”. Before the battle began, he said some words of encouragement to his men. Shakespeare would later immortalize this battle by having Henry delivering a glorious speech in which everyone cheers, and is convinced by Henry’s mighty words that the battle will be won. Shakespeare like most historical fiction authors today was writing from hindsight. In real life, the people fighting that day didn’t know what the outcome would be. The French were confident in their numbers, but the confidence was shattered as soon as arrows rained down on them, and the fierce hand-to-hand combat broke down. As for the English, famished and tired, they were unsure whether they would win, but the terrain, the number of bowmen (and their armor), helped them. And no doubt, seeing their King fight with the same ferocity, and charging at the enemy when his younger brother Humphrey was stricken, helped too.
But there is a darker aspect, one that when we hear about this battle, often forget or dismiss entirely: The Slaughter that came afterwards. After hearing that what remained of his enemy forces, intended to launch a second attack, Henry ordered that the prisoners be killed.
“The order was met by his own men with incredulity rather than horror since it entailed the loss of so many valuable captives, and the threat of hanging was used as an incentive for any soldier inclined to disobey.” (Matusiak)
Over a century after the event, the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall made the event more gruesome, adding that the great majority were stabbed, their skulls bashed “with poleaxes” or “slain with mallets.” While this can be interpreted as dramatic license, the truth is not less horrifying. Regardless of Henry’s fears, his actions were cruel, and a perfect reminder that just as Henry V could claim to be the purveyor of divine justice, he could also be an angel of vengeance.
Those that weren’t executed were because of their ranks and lineage (including the Duke of Orleans), Henry told them: “Look at my men. They never mounted on women, nor robbed men or the Church” while another account has him saying that the reason the French lost was because they “had committed sacrilege in robbing and violating churches … taken by force all kinds of people … they had robbed the whole population and destroyed them without cause.”
This victory validated Henry’s ambition, and it also pushed him to the limits, to keep proving to his nations that his enterprise was well justified and blessed by God. And 600 years after the battle, Agincourt continues to capture the imagination of many history buffs, but beneath the romantic myths spawned by the nationalist sentiment that the one hundred years war helped spawn, and that the play-writers and other fiction authors gave it, lies a more interesting (and complex) story.
- Henry V by R.B. Mowat
- Henry V: The Warrior King of 1415 by Ian Mortimer
- Henry V by John Matusiak
- The One Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward