The Battle of Agincourt: why should we remember it?
The Battle of Agincourt is the tale of the common man achieving greatness, writes Bernard Cornwell, which is why it still matters 600 years on
The battle of Agincourt was fought on a muddy field in northern France 600 years ago on Sunday – St Crispin’s Day, October 25th 1415. Kings, princes, dukes and nobles abounded on either side. It became then and has remained ever since one of the most famous English victories.
Legend says Agincourt was won by arrows. It was not. It was won by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval hand-to-hand fighting. It was fought on a field knee-deep in mud, and it was more of a massacre than a battle. Olivier’s famous film shows French knights charging on horseback, but very few men were mounted.
The French came on foot, and the battle was reduced to men battering other armoured men with hammers, maces and axes. A sword would not penetrate armour and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, but a poleaxe would fell him fast and then it was a simple enough job to raise the victim’s visor and slide a knife through an eye.
That was how hundreds of men died; their last sight on earth a dagger’s point. It is not a tale of chivalry, but rather of armoured men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls. At the battle’s height, when Henry V expected an attack on his rear that never materialised, he ordered the newly captured prisoners killed. They were murdered. Agincourt was filthy, horrible and merciless, and it is still celebrated as a golden moment in England’s history.
Much of the legend is true. Most of the English army were archers and their arrows caused huge damage. Henry V was an inspirational leader. He fought in the front rank and had a fleuret knocked off his crown. Eighteen Frenchmen had taken a solemn oath to kill him and all of them died at Henry’s feet, slaughtered either by the king or by his bodyguard. And, despite the recent academic controversy, it seems certain that the English were horribly outnumbered.
In the cold, wet dawn of October 25th, 1415, no one could have expected Henry’s army to survive the day. He had around 6,000 men, over 5,000 of them archers, while the French numbered at least 30,000 and were so confident that, before the battle was joined, they sent some newly arrived reinforcements away. By dusk on that St Crispin’s Day, the small English army had entered legend.
The English should never have been at Agincourt. Henry had invaded Normandy in hopes of making a quick conquest of Harfleur, a strategic port, but the town’s stubborn defence delayed him and, by the siege’s end, his army had been struck by dysentery. Sick men were dying and the campaign season was ending. Sensible advice suggested that Henry should cut his losses and sail back to England, but he had borrowed huge amounts of money to invade France and all he had to show for it was one gun-battered port, and going home looked suspiciously like defeat.
Instead, he decided to march to Calais with probably nothing more in mind than cocking a snook at the French who, though they had gathered an army, had done nothing whatever to relieve the brave defenders of Harfleur. Henry wanted to humiliate the French by flaunting his banners, but I doubt he truly wanted to face that large French army with his own depleted numbers.
The French had been supine all summer, but now, suddenly, they woke and moved to block Henry’s path. Henry tried to avoid them. A march meant to last eight days stretched to 16. The English exhausted their food, they were sick with dysentery and soaked from the unending autumn rains. They were driven far inland in search of a place to cross the Somme and then trudged north to discover the French army waiting for them on a muddy field between the woods of Azincourt and Tramecourt. The English were trapped.
The French were barring the English road home, and so Henry had to attack them. He hoped the French would attack him, and he ordered his archers to protect themselves from knights on horseback by making a thicket of sharpened stakes designed to impale the stallions’ chests. But the French remained motionless, so Henry was forced to advance on them. Did he really say “Let’s go, fellows!’? It seems so – but whatever his words, the English plucked up their stakes and waded through the mud to get close to the French line.
And the French, even though they must have seen the English were in disarray, did nothing. They let Henry’s men come to within extreme bowshot where, once again, the stakes were hammered into the ground and the battle line was reformed on a newly-ploughed field that had been soaked by constant rain. If I had to suggest one cause for the French defeat, it would be mud.
The two sides are now little more than a couple of hundred paces apart. The English, astonishingly, had been given time to reposition themselves, and now the archers began the battle by shooting a volley of arrows. At least five thousand arrows, most converging from the flanks, slashed into the French and it seems that the shock of that first arrow-strike prompted the French to attack. A handful of Frenchmen advanced on horseback, trying to get among the archers, but mud, stakes and arrows easily defeated those knights. Some of the horses, maddened by pain, galloped back through the French men-at-arms, tearing their ranks into chaos.
Some eight thousand French men-at-arms were advancing on foot. No one knows how long it took them to cover the two hundred or more paces which separated them from Henry’s men-at-arms, but it was not a quick approach. They were wading through mud made treacherous by deeply ploughed furrows and churned to quagmire by horses’ hooves. And they were being struck by arrows so that they were forced to close their helmets’ visors.
They can see very little through the tiny eye-slits, their breathing is stifled, and still the arrows come. The conventional verdict suggests that the French were cut down by those arrow-storms, but the chief effect of the arrows was to delay and, by forcing them to close their visors, half-blind the attackers.
The French knew about English and Welsh archers. The longbow was capable of shooting an arrow over two hundred paces with an accuracy that would not be matched till the rifled gun-barrel was invented. At Agincourt some barbed ‘broadheads’ would have been shot at those few horses that attacked the English line, but the vast majority were ‘bodkins’, long and slender arrowheads without barbs that were made to pierce armour. A good archer could easily shoot fifteen arrows a minute, so five thousand archers could loose 75,000 arrows in one minute; over one thousand a second!
Why did the French not deploy their own longbowmen? Because to shoot a longbow demanded two difficult skills; the first was an ability to draw an extraordinarily powerful bow (at least three times as powerful as a modern competition bow) and the second, because the string was drawn to the ear, the skill of offsetting the arrow’s aim. It took years for a man to develop the muscles and skill, and for reasons that have never been fully understood, such men emerged in Britain, but not on the continent.
So as the first French line advances it is being struck repeatedly by arrows, and even if a bodkin did not penetrate plate armour its strike was sufficient to knock a man backwards. It is likely that about one thousand arrows are hitting the attackers every second. If the advance took four minutes (and I suspect it took longer) then something like 300,000 arrows would have been shot at the eight thousand men.
Even if the English were short of arrows and cut their shooting rate to one third, then they would still have driven 100,000 arrows against the struggling 8,000, and if the legend is correct, then not one of those Frenchmen should have survived.
Yet they did survive, and most of them reached the English line and started fighting with shortened lances, poleaxes and war-hammers. The fight becomes a struggle of hacking and thrusting, slaughter in the mud. But if so many arrows had been shot, how did the French ever survive to reach the English and start that murderous brawl? The answer probably lies in the eternal arms race. Armour technology had advanced and plate armour was mostly good enough to resist the English bodkin heads.
And how good were those heads? Arrow-making was an industrial scale activity in England, yet few men understood exactly what happened when iron was hardened into steel (the usual technique was to add bones to the furnace, thus increasing the carbon content) and doubtless many of the English arrows simply crumpled on contact with the enemy’s armour.
“They had expected annihilation and gained victory”
So the many reached the few, but the many were exhausted by mud, some were wounded and the English, enjoying the luxury of raised visors, cut them down. What seems to have happened was that the front rank of the French, exhausted by slogging through the mud, battered and wounded by arrows, disorganised by panicked horses and by stumbling over wounded men, became easy victims for the English men-at-arms.
There would have been the ghastly sound of hammers crushing helmets, the screams of men falling, and suddenly the leading French rank is chopped down and its fallen men become an obstacle to those behind who, being thrust forward by the rearmost ranks, trip on the newly fallen bodies and so become victims themselves. One eye-witness claimed that the pile of dead and dying was as tall as a man, an obvious exaggeration, but undoubtedly the first French casualties made a rampart to protect the English men-at-arms.
The French had attacked the centre of the English line where the king, the nobles and the gentry stood. Their aim had been to take prisoners, and so become rich from ransoms, but now that centre was a killing ground and, to escape it, the French widened their attack to assault the archers who had probably exhausted their arrows. Yet the archers had been equipped with poleaxes and other hand-weapons, and they fought back.
The bowmen wore little armour, and in the glutinous mud they were far more mobile than their plate-armoured opponents, and any mtan capable of hauling a war-bow’s string was hugely strong and a battle-axe in his hands would be a ghastly weapon. And so the archers joined the hand to hand fight and the tired French were killed in their hundreds.
The second French line, another eight thousand men on foot, tried to support their beleaguered colleagues, but they too were cut down and the remainder of the French simply melted away. The extraordinary, awful battle was over. The field was now groaning with horribly wounded men; men lying in piles, men suffocating in mud, dead men, blood drenched men. Perhaps as many as five thousand French died that day while English losses were in the hundreds, maybe not even as many as two hundred. The few had gained their extraordinary triumph.
Why do we remember it? There were other victories, like Poitiers in 1356, that were more decisive and it is arguable that Agincourt achieved very little; it would take another five years of warfare before Henry won the concessions he wanted from the French and even then his premature death proved those gains worthless. Shakespeare helped, but Shakespeare was playing to an audience that already knew the tale and wanted to hear it again. Agincourt was famous long before Shakespeare made it immortal, yet even so there were those other great triumphs like Poitiers and Crecy, so why Agincourt?
It must have started with the tales that the survivors told. They had expected annihilation and gained victory. It might even be true that the archers, when the battle was over, taunted the French by holding up the two string-fingers that the enemy had threatened to slice off every captured bowman. The men in Henry’s army must have believed they had been part of a miracle.
The few had destroyed the many, and most of those few were archers. They were not lords and knights and gentry, but butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers from the shires. They were the ordinary men of England and Wales, and they had met the awesome power of France in hand-to-hand fighting and they had won.
The battle of Agincourt is part of the binding of England, the emergence of the common man as a vital part of the nation. Those common men returned to England with their stories and their pride, and these stories were told in taverns over and over, how a few hungry trapped men had gained an amazing victory. The story is still remembered, even six hundred years later, because it has such power. It is a tale of the common man achieving greatness. It is an English tale for the ages, an inspiration and we can be proud of it.
Bernard Cornwell is author of Warriors of the Storm, which is published by Harper Collins, priced £20. To order your copy for £16.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk. An adaptation of Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom is on BBC Two on Thursdays, 9pm
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