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Upon Saint Crispin’s day

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

Wikipedia, John Gilbert — The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt (1884), Guildhall Art Gallery

Have you seen The King? If not, then mend your ways. Production with an excellent feel of the times, additionally well-acted — what else is there to ask for? Of course, one might quibble over historical accuracy, people, places and events. Some might point at details of armaments or clothing being inaccurate or derived from a different time, yet what for? Unless it’s to spoil all the fun.

I have to disappoint some of you though, I’m not going to write about the film or critique the acting, I shall regale you with the story of the Battle of Agincourt depicted in the film (hence my association). Although, as many of you may already be aware, a more appropriate tag would be: with my historical streak I will try to give you the fairest of the countless versions of these events. So, settle comfortably, and fasten your seat belts, for we are about to embark on a journey into the past.

It was on 25 October in the Year of Our Lord 1415 with the Kingdom of France suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the young and ardent ruler of England, Henry V. Just like his predecessors, the new King of Lancaster dynasty warred in France to renew his claim to the crown of this kingdom. He became known as a scourge to the French at the gory battle of Agincourt, on which controversy still lingers.

Beginning with the Bard of Devon who wrote: „From this day to the end of the world, But we in it shall be remembered — We few, we happy few […]”, to revered historians and self-taught adepts of the past, we all see, or rather want to see, within these brutal middle ages, a time of terror but also a time of heroism beyond the measure of all time, a descent of fortitude unprecedented before and since: „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 accurs’d they were not here[…]”. As beautiful as it sounds, there is not much truth in Shakespeare’s terms. The young King’s expedition had as much to do with justice and heroism as a brothel does with a chapel. Perhaps the starkest reflection on this battle came from Military Historian Mike Loades who labelled Henry V’s voyage to France as “land piracy”. „This was simply Henry V seeking to expand his coffers by pursuing this slightly spurious claim to the French crown and trying to mop up some French territories that would pay him some taxes. So, it was a private royal adventure that he recruited a band of folk who were happy to go and grab some extra money[…]”. Thus, looking at this venture from such a perspective one can notice the sketchiness of its nobility so effectively portrayed by Shakespeare or Laurence Olivier and then many after them.

Henry V’s Normandy expedition rekindled the third phase of the Hundred Years’ War, that lied dimmed ( following the peace of Brétigny in 1360), in which he not only captured an important port and at the same time a foothold in Normandy and Aquitaine, but also defeated the far greater forces of the opposing kingdom. At Agincourt, the English monarch cut through the armed wing of the Armaniacs took a large number of prisoners and nearly ended the war by winning it. Henry narrowly failed to achieve the ultimate aim sought by English kings — the French crown and de facto power over France.

An interesting, though a crucial phase of the Hundred Years’ War occurred between 1415 and 1453. It was at the turn of these few decades that the Kingdom of France, racked by civil war, almost suffered defeat and fell under the rule of the then King of England, who had succeeded his father late in 1413. An extensive diplomatic campaign against the coalition of Armaniacs — a pro-French party constituting, so to speak, the royal government — was mounted forthwith, at the time of Henry’s succession, including intelligence inter alia in Paris, propaganda measures, and an agreement with the Burgundian party headed by John the Fearless, who was Duke of Burgundy, Count of Nevers, Artois and Flanders. In addition, the English king made claims to the French crown, renounced by Edward III. He also demanded the return of the Plantagenet lands and marriage to the king’s daughter.

Henry V began preparations for the offensive as early as mid-1413, gathering supplies, conducting enlistments and strengthening garrisons on the Scottish border, in Wales and at Calais. After announcing his demands on the French, he ordered the mobilization of the army at Southampton, and already on 13 August, his forces made a successful landing at the mouth of the Seine. Immediately after reaching the French coast, an English army of 8,000–9,000 men, laid siege to the port of Harfleur, which was to serve as a base for the advance to Normandy and Aquitaine. The distribution of the types of English troops is curious in this respect — it is now thought that, with about 1,500 men of arms, Henry V brought some 7,000 archers, an unprecedented practice at the time.

The town, despite a sparse garrison, surrendered, only on September 22, after a siege of more than a month, which demoralized the English, a large number of whom fell ill to dysentery, in addition repeatedly prey to raids by nearby French forces, prompting the English king to order a 20-day rest. On 8 October, after leaving a small garrison of defenders at Harfleur, he set out for Calais with an army of some 6,000 men and very meagre provisions.

The French, on the other hand, in response to the seizure of the town on the coast, assembled in a convention at Rouen, attended by the King of France and the Duke of Aquitaine and many nobles. On the scene, it was agreed, with the objections of a few dignitaries, that the English army should be pursued. So it happened, a major mobilization was announced immediately, thanks to which the French army on the eve of the battle is estimated at a dozen thousand, mainly men at arms. Henry, meanwhile, followed the coast northeast with his men, but in the vicinity of the Somme crossing, due to the flooding and French fortifications, was forced to go deeper into enemy territory to seek another passage, only to find it near the town of Nesle, whence, pursued by the French, he proceeded directly towards Calais. On the evening of October 23, exhausted by fatigue, sickness and overloaded with spoils, the English camped in the vicinity of Agincourt and Tramecourt and awaited the actions of the enemy, whose army drew more and more men.

The forces of both sides before the battle are estimated differently. Researchers in all cases appraise the French army as larger, even by several times, however, no consensus seems to be reached on this subject. The most common estimate is between 20,000 and 30,000 men, but in light of new research, this number is reduced to as low as 12,000, while Henry’s much smaller force is estimated at between 6,000 and 9,000. Modern scholars such as Anne Curry advocate the theory that the English were slightly outnumbered by the French.

Considering the forces which Henry landed in France, there may have been just over 6,000 on the battlefield with him. The storming of Harfleur resulted in losing a significant chunk of the army given its size. In addition, illness, prevalent in the English camp, eliminated a number of soldiers from the battle, so the English king sent them home. Moreover, he had to leave a garrison in the captured town — as if by necessity to secure the return.

Nevertheless, the Armaniac army led by Charles d’Albret, who did not actually command but rather led a war council composed of many high-ranking noblemen, outnumbered the adversary. If we look at it as a whole, it was also better armed, given by the fact to a great extent it consists of knights, of whom the English could number no more than half a thousand. It is not known to what extent they comprised Henry’s centre. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that infantry recruited from common folk held sway on medieval battlefields.

Accordingly, one may assume that the richest French knights who formed the first ranks of the banners thrown into charge were heavily armoured with the finest plating able to withstand the blow of a sword or a mace or to deflect an arrow. The knights were also keen on using basinets with a cover called a “dog’s snout”, which were in a way a relic of the changes in armour occurring in the last quarter of the 14th century. Just at the beginning of the next century the basinet face, protruding quite far off the helmet’s bell, turned rounder and the collar protecting the neck gave way to an additional plate mounted to the breastplate, the so-called bevor. The English archers, who constituted the vast majority of the invading forces, certainly could not afford armour worthy of a knight, as they came from either town or village communities, so they most likely wore protective gear typical for light infantry, i.e. chain mail on quilted leather, sometimes also plate-like limb coverings, and helmets without a facial screen, such as open wing, allowing for ease of aiming and better ventilation. In both armies, dismounted knights and infantry used blunt weapons or spars (war hammers, halberds, mace, etc.) capable of smashing armour or at least damaging it enough to eliminate an opponent from the battle, either by destroying it or by causing internal injuries. The need to hold such weapons with both hands led to the abandonment of shields. It also ceased to be necessary due to the improvement of protective gear, which provided sufficient cover against projectiles.

Opposing forces faced one another in the early morning of St Crispin’s Day, separated by a freshly ploughed field which, unluckily for the heavily-armed French, had softened after torrential rains, turning into a quagmire.

Until today the exact positioning of the warring parties remains unclear. A somewhat simplified account, owing to the historical sources, holds that the English line-up south of the villages of Agincourt and Tramecourt, between the woods and the orchards or farmsteads belonging to Agincourt. The French, on the other hand, arrayed themselves in deep formation to the north of the enemy. The two armies were to be separated by a distance of about one kilometre. Such a position allowed the English to lean their flanks against terrain obstacles, thereby preventing the enemy from mounting a flanking, devastating strike, for it must be remembered that Henry’s army would not stand a chance in an open, knightly battle. Conversely, for an army under the command of d’Albret, such a narrow isthmus providing access to the enemy’s formation, where, to make matters worse, the terrain was not favourable to the charge of heavy cavalry, and simply meant a death sentence, as the French would not fully develop its ranks. Another hypothesis found regarding the configuration of the troops at Agincourt is one shifting the entire battle to the southwest due to the lack of archaeological evidence found at the site of the battle as traditionally accepted. According to it, the English would have leaned their flanks against the woods of Tramecourt and today’s Bucamps or somewhere in its vicinity. However, it seems unlikely that Henry’s men would be stretched so far, as the distance in a straight line would be about two kilometres. With such small numbers of soldiers as 6,000–8,000, maintaining such a long and very shallow front seems impossible with the overwhelming superiority of the enemy. The French spread out between Canlers and Avondance would then have had enough space to develop an array. Much to their relief, indeed, and greatly affecting the course of history as we know it. The second version is also contradicted by accounts from the battlefield referring to the confusion brought about by the successive waves of attacking Frenchmen crashing into each other. With such vast terrain, manoeuvring the retreating troops should pose no threat, as they could have fled in different directions, given the battlefield was unobstructed to the west. Yet, these are purely theoretical considerations, as in the heat of battle many things can occur quite unexpectedly.

Charles d’Albret, in principle, did not want to attack the enemy but succumbed to the persuasions of the war council. The plan of battle involved the cooperation of various types of troops, depending on the hypothesis adopted (and there are many of these), differing mainly in details, such as the destination of troops or their arrangement in formation. The battle was to begin with the dispatch of light infantry and crossbowmen, who were to engage the English archers, while the cavalry would attack the flanks of the enemy. The dismounted knights, on the other hand, would be sent against the English centre. All these troops were to be thrown into battle in three waves — the first consisting of 8,000 cavalry, 1,500 crossbowmen and 4,000 infantry, the second of the same size and the last consisting of 8,000–10,000 heavily-armed horsemen. In the light of more recent research, the numbers of the first and second banners of cavalry are greatly exaggerated; most of the knights were on foot, with only two groups to be sent to the English flanks to stratify the archers.

Henry’s war council determined that the English had no advantage in waiting for the d’Albret to attack since his army was larger and better equipped; they themselves, moreover, were exhausted by dysentery and scarcity of provisions. The king, therefore, gave the order to move the troops forward at a bow-shot distance. When the head of the English formation reached about 350 metres away from the enemy, the archers drove stakes of spiked wood in front of them, creating, as it would later turn out, an effective obstacle for the French cavalry. As Enguerrand de Monstrelet wrote, “the English archers, of whom there were at least thirteen thousand, discharged the rain of arrows with all their might, as high as possible so that they would not lose their effectiveness”. This figure is certainly exaggerated by the chronicler, but the hail of arrows discharged from longbows achieved its intended purpose — confusing the enemy’s ranks thus making a coordinated attack impossible. What is interesting here is not so much the passage bringing numbers as the detail about the angle of the salvo, for it is contradictory to period illustrations showing the archers at Agincourt firing a volley almost horizontally or perpendicularly to the advancing French.

Against the barrage of arrows, the French advanced the Genoese crossbowmen, who got massacred while launching several salvos and retreated from the battlefield, ducking between yet unready knights, thus making their forming up even more difficult.

Eventually, the first wave launched a charge aimed directly at the archers across a boggy, freshly ploughed field. A cavalry advance collapsed under English arrows. Even though the plate armours were enough to protect the knights, their squires and the lighter-armed ones were killed en masse. Furthermore, mounts fell under the riders crushing those in close proximity. To make matters worse, those who managed to near the English fell into the spiked barricade built by the archers, resulting in violent death or being cast from the horses’ backs and falling directly under the blades of enemy axes. A terrible panic ensued and the battlefield turned into a mire of blood and mud. Faced with this course of events, the French had too little momentum upon striking the English line, further hampered — perhaps — by their infantry, against whom they fell, making way to push back the troops positioned in the centre.

Moments later, the second surge moved forward while a disorganised number of knights still huddled in the foreground. The d’Albret men could not build impetus, trampling each other. The tightly crowded knights could not line up and had to fight in a tight formation, which proved impossible in practice.

While the French were being routed, and a third of their army wasn’t yet poised to charge, a small detachment under the command of Robinet de Bournouville, accompanied by a local knight, perhaps as a guide, and a group of 600 soldiers aided by the peasantry plundered the English camp near the village of Maisoncelles. King Henry V, hearing the word from the camp, grew fearful of an attack on the rear of the battle-weary troops. As some of his men guarded a large number of captives, thereby depleting the main force, Henry ordered them to dispose of the problem, assigning one squire and two hundred archers to do so. The danger from such a large number of captives seemed considerable, for at the right moment they could cause quite a stir by rising once more to fight. The massacre, however, had to be stopped at some point, as evidenced by over a thousand internees brought back to England by the king after his successful campaign.

It must be recognised that, for those times, killing captives was not an unprecedented event. There are well-known accounts of the Battle of Aljubarrota when John of Portugal carried out a similar measure. Such was a repetitive practice to which medieval people applied a slightly different sensibility than we do today. However, knights seldom committed murder on their peers for war was an excellent pretext to enrich themselves, and prisoners of wealthy families were ransomed at high prices.

Near four o’clock in the afternoon, the fighting ceased. The English King defeated a grand Armaniacs army, thus effectively eliminating the French government forces. Up to 11,000 French men died on that day on the fields of Agincourt. The famous Jean Boucicaut, who led the second wave into battle, fell into captivity — and died several years later in England. Charles d’Albret himself and the Duke of Brabant were killed during the massacre of prisoners. France lost all the royal governors of the north (Bailiff), many high ranking officials, 1560 knights, 5 counts and 90 barons, meaning in practice the loss of half the nobility of the country.

Either way, it was the worst defeat of the French in the long and eventful Hundred Years’ War. The Burgundians had no time to spare — they threw themselves at the throats of the remnants of the Armaniacs, provoking a revolt in Paris in 1418. Skilfully incited hatred of the people led to the slaughter, the causes of which are to be sought in the battle of 1415, as it contributed significantly to the impoverishment of many French families, who were in often cases forced to dispose of wealth accumulated over generations to buy their loved ones back from English captivity.

After the defeat of sovereign France in 1416, John the Fearless recognised Henry V as the rightful king, exacerbating the kingdom’s woes. Diplomatic talks between the feuding countries soon followed. Mediation involved Sigismund of Luxemburg and the then Polish king Władysław Jagiełło, who, as historian Edward Potkowski wrote, “advised the English king to strike a peace deal”. Soon a new peace treaty was signed in Troyes. According to the agreement Henry was acknowledged as the heir to the French crown and was given the hand of Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI. On the other hand, the son of the King of France was considered illegitimate and excluded from the succession. All the lands so far gained from the French during the Hundred Years’ War were confirmed and given to the ruling dynasty in England. It would seem that the Treaty of Troyes ends the war and brings France to its knees. However, as they say, “history is a fussy mistress”. Only two years after the treaty, Henry V passes away to eternity, and shortly after him, a mad king (Charles VI) bids farewell to life. Thanks to this and the appearance of Joan of Arc, the fortunes of the war, beginning with the liberation of Orléans (1429), turn in favour of the French. Soon Charles VII (disinherited Dauphin) crowned himself in the cathedral of Reims, a city recaptured by the Virgin of Orléans. In 1435 peace was made with Burgundy, and a few decades later the English finally withdrew from the continent.

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