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24 October 2015


Tag(s): History
There are several notable anniversaries this year. We have already marked the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta (see my blog Magna Carta 13th June, 2015) and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo (see my blog Waterloo 22nd August, 2015). This weekend marks the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, one of the most remarkable victories by any English army. A charity has been formed to commemorate it, Agincourt 600[i] and in the March 2015 budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that £1m would be allocated for commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, to be spent by 31st March, 2016.

Last month I attended a dinner to commemorate the occasion organised by Agincourt 600 at the Guildhall and there was much pomp and circumstance with an actor delivering the famous speeches that Shakespeare put in Henry V’s mouth and two historians, Anne Curry, who is also Chairman of the Trustees of Agincourt 600, and the Lord Sumption who put the battle into a historical context.

So how was the battle won and what was its significance?

The Battle of Agincourt was a major English victory in the Hundred Years War. It took place on 25th October, 1415 near modern-day Azincourt, in northern France. Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, against a numerically superior French army, crippled France and started a new period in the war during which Henry married the French king’s daughter, and their son, later Henry VI of England and Henry II of France, was made heir to the throne of France as well as of England.

Henry V led his troops into battle and participated in hand-to-hand fighting. The French were not led by their king, Charles VI, who was insane by this time, but instead by the Constable of France and various prominent French noblemen of the Armagnac party. The battle is well documented by at least seven contemporary accounts, three of them by eye witnesses. Nevertheless there are numerous disparities among the myriad histories that have been written of the battle. But key facts like dates and locations are not in doubt.

Henry V 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 the English claim on Aquitaine and other French lands. Negotiations with the French failed and after two attempts Henry V persuaded the Great Council he had called to discuss this to sanction war with France. War was seen as a legal due process for solving disagreement over claims to lands and titles.

Henry’s army landed in northern France on 13th August 1415, borne by a fleet sometimes estimated as 1,500 ships but it was probably much smaller. He besieged the port of Harfleur with an army of about 12,000, and up to 20,000 horses. The siege took far longer than expected. The town surrendered on 22nd September, and the English army did not leave until 8th October. The campaign season was coming to an end, and the English army had suffered many casualties through disease.  But Henry only had one town to show for his costly efforts so he gambled and marched on.

His army, now down to 9,000, marched through Normandy to the port of Calais. This was the English stronghold in northern France and Henry wanted to demonstrate by his presence in the territory at the head of a military force that his right to rule in the duchy was more than a mere abstract legal and historical claim. The French had raised an army which was not ready to defend Harfleur but now moved to block the English along the River Somme forcing Henry to move south. The two armies came to face each other on the 24th October but the French declined to fight hoping for the arrival of more troops.

The English were weary after marching 260 miles in 16 days, had very little food and were suffering from dysentery, and faced much larger numbers of well-equipped French men at arms. Modern estimates of the numbers vary greatly. They range from 6,000 to 9,000 English of which 5/6 were longbow archers and just 1/6 dismounted knights and men at armour. The main reason for this split was cost as archers came much cheaper than men-at-arms at 6d per day. Estimates for the French range from 12,000 to 36,000 of which 10,000 were knights and men-at-war.

On the morning of 25th October Henry deployed his army across a 750 yard wide strip of ploughed farmland between two areas of woodland. He organised in three divisions: the vanguard led by the Duke of York, the main division led by Henry himself and the rearguard by Lord Camoys. Henry made a speech emphasising the justness of his cause, and reminding his army of previous great defeats the kings of England had inflicted on the French, although one contemporary account suggests that there was no ‘band of brothers’ oratory, just the command “Fellas, let’s go!”

The French were also aligned in three divisions but their nobles were so anxious to capture English men-at-arms and so win their ransoms that as one of the contemporary accounts put it: “All the lords wanted to be in the vanguard, against the opinion of the constable and the experienced knights.”

The battle was fought on very muddy ground following heavy rain and this hampered greatly those wearing full armour. One account states that some knights, encumbered by their armour, actually drowned in their helmets. The English archers were marshalled by Sir Thomas Erpingham, one of Henry’s most experienced household knights. He placed a host of sharpened stakes in front to protect them and their main influence on the battle according to John Keegan was injuries to horses. Armoured only on the head, many horses would have become dangerously out of control when struck in the back or flank from high elevation shots.

Although the French did manage a charge the impact of thousands of 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 the French men-at-arms could scarcely lift their weapons. The French rearguard also kept advancing pushing those in front onto the axes and swords of the English. The French men-at-arms were taken prisoner or killed in their thousands.

Henry was directly involved in the hand-to-hand fighting. He received an axe blow to the head, while standing over his younger brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who had been wounded in the groin, which knocked off a piece of the crown that formed part of the helmet. 

The only French success was an attack on the lightly protected English baggage train which seized some of Henry’s personal treasure, including a crown.

Henry ordered the slaughter of what were perhaps several thousand French prisoners, sparing only the most high ranked who would command the largest ransoms. This apparent act of barbarity was, according to most chronicles, due to the unusual fact that the number of French prisoners vastly outnumbered the victors and Henry feared that they would not be able to guard them. Even the French chroniclers did not criticise him for this. Again the estimates of losses vary ranging from 1,500 to 11,000 French dead and just 112 English dead. The French losses included three dukes, eight counts, a viscount, an archbishop and numerous other nobles. Of the great royal office holders France lost her Constable, Admiral, Master of the Crossbowmen and the leading marshal.

Clearly this was a tremendous military victory but its impact was complex. It did not lead to further victories as Henry returned to England with his exhausted troops to be received in triumph in London on 23rd November. Henry returned a conquering hero, in the eyes of his subjects and European powers outside France, blessed by God. It established the legitimacy of the Lancastrian monarchy, and the future campaigns of Henry to pursue his “rights and privileges” in France.

Henry returned to France and won a few more battles. He retook Normandy, including Caen in 1417, and Rouen in 1419 turning Normandy English for the first time in two centuries. In 1420 he met with Charles VI to sign the treaty of Troyes by which he finally married Charles daughter’s Catherine of Valois and Henry’s heirs would inherit the throne of France. The Dauphin Charles VII was declared illegitimate.

In 1421 Henry returned to England leaving his brother Thomas, Duke of Clarence in charge of the campaign. Thomas fought a disastrous battle at Baugé and was slain. Again Henry returned to France visiting Paris and then laid siege to the Dauphin-held town of Meaux. The siege took seven months before Meaux fell. Henry went with his queen and the French court to Senlis, and then to Vincennes. He was exhausted by his various campaigns and died there, possibly of dysentery, on 31st August 1422, aged just 35.

His son Henry VI was just nine months old. It would emerge that he inherited his French grandfather’s insanity. He was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey on 5th November 1429 and king of France at Notre Dame in Paris on 16th December 1431. The war continued with fortunes waxing and waning on both sides. Joan of Arc inspired a dramatic victory to see off the English at Orleans in 1429 but later she was captured by the Burgundians who fought with the English and was burned at the stake. After her death the fortunes of war turned dramatically against the English.

The last battle of the Hundred Years’ War was at Castillon where the English were defeated. Despite the many heroic victories at Crecy, Harfleur, Agincourt and so on, the English lost the Hundred Years’ War and with it all the territories they held in France except the Pale of Calais, which they would hold until the sixteenth century. English landowners complained vociferously about the financial losses resulting from the loss of their continental holdings; this is considered a major cause of the Wars of the Roses that started in 1455.

The war stimulated nationalistic sentiment. It devastated France as a land, but it also wakened French nationalism. It accelerated the process of transforming France from a feudal monarchy to a centralised state. It was not just a fight between the kings of England and France but also between their respective peoples. There were constant rumours in England that the French meant to invade and destroy the English language. Once it was over the aristocracy stopped using French as their preferred language.

Bubonic plague and warfare reduced the numbers of population throughout Europe during this period. France lost half its population during the Hundred Years’ War. Normandy lost three-quarters of its population, and Paris two-thirds. The population of England was reduced by 20 to 30% due to plague in the same period.

Losing nearly all of its continental possessions affected the English mind-set. It was now just an island nation on the fringes of Europe. But this came just as the age of exploration was to begin. The nation of maritime islanders found itself well-suited to take advantage of its location and seafaring abilities to explore, and later conquer, much of the remaining world. Had Henry V survived to old age and won the Hundred Years’ War no doubt he would have moved his court to France and the history of both England and France would have been very different.

Source: Agincourt. Anne Curry OUP 2015

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