The Battle of Agincourt
An article by Jonathan Blair
Friday, October 25, 1415: Lightning, they say, never strikes twice, but at Agincourt, lightning was to strike a third time as the French would once again suffer a devastating blow by invading English forces, this time under Henry V. William Shakespeare would later immortalize the day of this battle with the following words:
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
The death of both the invalid Prince Edward and his aged father left Richard II of Bordeaux (1367-1400) the underage son of the Prince of Wales, as king under the regency of his uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399), perhaps the most powerful man in all of England. Richard's disinterest in war with France led to a truce between the two countries signed in 1396, a move that served to make Richard, already disliked for his attempts to increase the power of the crown, even more unpopular with both the gentry and commoners alike. Gaunt's son Henry of Bolingbroke (1367-1413) quarreled with his cousin the king, and as a result was exiled from England for ten years, leaving Bolingbroke's ten-year old son, Henry of Monmouth (1387-1422), a hostage in Richard's court. With Gaunt's death a year later, an increasingly unstable Richard declared Lancaster lands forfeit to the crown and Bolingbroke's banishment for life. The addition of the rich Lancaster estates to the treasury emboldened Richard to go to Ireland, where rebellion was brewing. Bolingbroke took advantage of Richard's absence and returned to England to claim the duchy of Lancaster. An ambush left Richard a captive of Bolingbroke's ally, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (1341-1408), and the king was imprisoned by Bolingbroke at the Tower of London. Bolingbroke claimed the throne as Henry IV on September 30, 1399, naming his son, Henry of Monmouth Prince of Wales and Duke of Lancaster and Aquitaine.
The rest of Henry IV's years were spent quelling Welsh rebellion under Owain Glyndwr(1359-c. 1416), civil war with his former ally, the earl of Northumberland, and an exhausted treasury before the king succumbed to a mysterious ailment leaving the twenty-five year old Henry of Monmouth, now called Henry V, on the throne.
France was having no easy time of it either. Charles V had died, leaving his twelve year-old son Charles VI (1368-1422) the throne of France in the keeping of his uncle, Philip II, Duke of Burgundy (1342-1404). Charles began showing signs of mental illness similar to schizophrenia in his early twenties, which led his uncle to take the throne at various times and dismiss Charles' advisors. This, along with the death of the king's brother Louis, Duke of Orléans (1372-1407) at the hands of Philip's son, John (1371-1419), lead to bad blood between the crown and the Burgundians for the next eighty-five years. France teetered on the brink of anarchy.
The siege lasted nearly a month before the citizenry of Harfleur surrendered on September 22 after a French relief force failed to appear and the barbican collapsed due to the efforts of the Engish sappers. Unfortunately, dysentery had swept through the English ranks at Harfleur and a third of Henry's army was either dead or disabled by the ravages of the disease or the combat at Harfleur. Henry had intended to march to Paris and then to Bordeaux before returning to England, but now that plan was thwarted. Instead, Henry planned a 120-mile march to Calais, and on October 8 the English left Harfleur for the north. Between Harfleur and Calais were several rivers, of which only the Somme would provide any difficulty. Henry reached the Somme on October 13 after an eighty mile march in five days, only to find the river blocked by the French forces. Unwilling to retreat, Henry followed the river until a bend gave him the advantage and Henry crossed at Bethencourt on October 19. The next day the English rested, having traversed two hundred miles in twelve days through drenching rain, hungry and with many still suffering from dysentery. A seventy-one mile hike the next four days found Henry at Maisoncelles on October 24, where he learned that the French straddled the road to Calais between Agincourt and Tramecourt.
The French army must have been a sight to see through the rain of the evening of October 24. 36,000 strong, the French outnumbered the English six to one (estimates vary widely on this, with most falling in the range of four to one and six to one). Henry knew that he had been out-maneuvered, so he sent some of the prisoners to the French camp offering terms: in exchange for Harfleur, Henry only wanted passage to Calais from where he would depart the continent. The French flatly refused, rejoicing in the straits in which the English found themselves. That night found the French carousing and feasting, while the terrified and demoralized English army sat still, having been ordered to remain silent or lose either their horse and armor or their right ear, depending upon their station.
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,The morning of October 25, 1415 found the two armies facing each other across a sea of mud with the French to the north in two tiers of dismounted men-at-arms with a third mounted line behind them. In addition there were a few catapults and cannon under the joint command of Charles d'Albret, Constable of France and Marshal Jean II Le Maingre (1366-1421) called Boucicaut. The English were to the south divided in three divisions: the center under Henry, the right flank under Henry's cousin, Edward of Norwich, Duke of York (b. 1373), and the left flank by Baron Thomas de Camoys (?-1419). The archers were under the command of Sir Thomas Erpingham (1357-1428), a veteran who had served Henry's grandfather and father.
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
Meanwhile the French infantry, in their heavy plate harnesses and carrying shortened lances, marched onward through knee-deep mud, led by Charles d'Valois, Duke of Orléans (1394-1465). The retreating cavalry struck through the line, causing it to slow. Reforming, the first line continued forward and soon began to sink into the mud knee-deep due to their armor's weight, creating a slow and easy target for the English bowmen. In hopes of minimizing their losses, d'Valois ordered his men to bunch up toward the middle and they charged as best as they could at the center of the English line, hoping to push through and capture Henry. The fury of the strike was such that the dismounted English men-at-arms were pushed back in the mêlée, but the press prevented the French from engaging with their weapons. This was compounded by the continued pressure of the rear French ranks pushing their comrades forward. Several French nobles fell, complicating the footing of their fellows who pushed them into the mud, drowning them. More and more Frenchmen lost their footing, causing them to crush the dead and living alike.
D'Valois desperately tried to turn the fight toward the lines of lightly armored English archers, but many had willingly dropped their bows and taken up swords and mallets to charge the French flank. It is believed that each French man-at-arms faced two or three archers, who would circle around and drop the slower-moving Frenchman, killing him once he had fallen. The second line of French infantry, under the command of John I, Duke of Alençon (b. 1385), rushed to the rescue. This only compounded the slaughter as they pushed the first line forward into the wall of the fallen. Alençon rushed in, killing the Duke of York (although some think that the overweight English duke may have fallen from his horse and been unable to get up) and wounding Henry's brother, Humphrey, Duke of Glouchester (1390-1447), getting close enough to cut one of the florets from Henry's crown. His zeal to reach Henry left him cut off from his fellow countrymen and Alençon knelt in surrender, expecting to be ransomed. Instead, Alençon died at the hands of one of Henry's bodyguards before Henry could intervene.
The French began to retreat in panic; smelling blood in the water, the other English lines closed in on the French flanks and in short order most of the first division of French infantry lay dead or wounded in heaps or had been taken prisoner while those in the second line either met much the same fate or fled the field. One who was not so lucky was the cousin of the king of France, Antoine of Burgundy, Duke of Brabant and Limberg (b. 1384). Having arrived late for the battle, Brabant hurriedly dressed in his armor and wore a tabard hastily borrowed from a servant. Charging the English, Brabant fought valiantly, but was soon unhorsed and, because of his unrecognizable tabard, had his throat cut as he lay on the field.
The French army was nearly routed at this point, but two French nobles made a last ditch effort to rally their comrades. With six hundred mounted men, the Count of Marle and the Count of Fauquembergues swore Henry's death and charged the field. Simultaneously, a rabble of peasants from Agincourt under the orders of the town's lord raided the English baggage train, near where the prisoners were held. Fearing the prisoners would take up weapons and attack his army from the rear, Henry ordered the killing of the prisoners. The nobility shied from this, not because of chivalry but out of concern of losing the rich ransoms the prisoners would bring in. Henry then turned to his commoners and ordered them to carry out his wishes. Only the truly important and wealthy were to be spared; all others were to die. As the commoners moved to do their work, it soon became obvious to Henry that the French third line was in full retreat and the final charge had faultered with the deaths of Marle and Fauquembergues, upon which he ordered the remaining prisoners spared.
This story shall the good man teach his son;Contemporary chroniclers numbered the dead at Agincourt at one hundred English (although modern scholars argue that the number is closer to five hundred) and ten thousand French (if you consider the slaughtered prisoners). Amongst the noble dead were the afore-mentioned Dukes of Alençon and Brabant, as well as D'Albret and Duke Edward III of Bar. The prisoners remaining numbered over fifteen hundred gentlemen, including the Dukes of Bourbon and Orleans, the Counts of Eu, Richemont, and Vendôme, and Marshal Boucicault. The battle was over by three in the afternoon, leaving the remainder of the day spent searching for more prisoners. Henry had the English dead cremated in a barn in Maisoncelles and the French dead left on the field where they lay, having been stripped of armor and valuables. Henry considered all this the will of God, proof of divine acknowledgement of his claim to not only the throne of England, but to France's as well.
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
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.
Agincourt was the last in a series of stunning victories the English enjoyed against the French, but it was thanks to nothing Henry had done to win it. Accident, weather, and misfortune plagued the French, as did overconfidence, leading to the downfall of a superior force. Although the English would have victories at Caen and Rouen, and secured the French throne through the Treaty of Troyes, Henry V would never hold the French throne, dying only six weeks before Charles VI.
About the Author
Jonathan Blair is a telecom detail engineer, i.e. a technical writer. He’s been interested in anything medieval since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. He lives in Hanover, PA, with his wife, Laura, and daughters, Meghan and Brianna. He dedicates this work to his Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, by John Keegan
Henry V: The Scourge of God, by Desmond Seward