Battle of Agincourt
After the negotiations of 1414 and the earlier part of 1415 had failed to give Henry V what he wanted – a significant return of previous English holdings in France, and the payment of a long outstanding ransom debt by the French – the English nobility backed their king in his projected war. Thus in August 1415 a force of some 12,000 professional fighters landed and immediately besieged Harfleur.
Harfleur, however, held out until late in September, and the exhausted English fighters needed another fortnight to recover, and to settle the spoils. With much of the campaigning season past, it was decided to head for home, with Calais the intended route. By this time the French had managed to assemble a large army to oppose Henry’s now depleted force. The French manoeuvred to keep the English from crossing the Somme. Harassment by peasants and armed bands further weakened the English and Welsh, as did the onset of disease and hunger.
When Henry managed to ford the Somme and continue his march to Calais, the French, still gathering reinforcements, finally had to face their foe in a pitched battle.
Though there is much debate about exact numbers it is agreed the English were outnumbered by the French. A reasonable estimate of the forces would be the English at fewer than 7,000, of whom all bar about 1,000 were longbowmen, and the French at 20,000 or more, with large numbers of heavily armed and armoured men-at-arms, and more than 1,000 mounted knights.
The ground for the battle favoured the English. It was a narrow strip of land with dense woods either side protecting the English flanks from mounted attack. What is more the ground had been recently ploughed, and heavy rain had reduced it to a quagmire in places. During the night of October 24 the French had walked their horses in the area, churning it further.
The Constable of France, Charles d’Albret, leading his nation’s finest was unable to restrain the nobility eager for vengeance after so many years of war and so many significant defeats, as at Crecy and Poitiers. The large numbers of crossbowmen d’Albret commanded were sent to the rear, where their firepower was of no value. The lighter troops – peasants from the region in large numbers, and less well armoured men of lower rank, were also kept from the front line, the honour of being in the vanguard being held by the noblest and thus heaviest armoured of all d’Albret’s force.
After several hours of waiting, the English, who wanted to fight a defensive battle given their numbers, were forced forward, aware that as every hour passed d’Albret’s strength grew. At this moment the French had the chance to seize the advantage, the palings (sharpened stakes facing the enemy) used to protect the archers on the English flanks from cavalry attack being uprooted and moved forward with them. But d’Albret did not manage to react. When just within bow range the longbowmen let loose a hail of arrows, finally goading the French forward. As the heavy troops struggled the 300 yards or so through the mud to get at the English centre the arrows rained down on them. The knights had to close their visors, reducing their air intake and their view. The press from the rear knocked some at the front over, to drown in the mud or be crushed beneath the following feet.
When finally the French van arrived at the English line of fewer than 1,000 men-at-arms they did push their opponents back. But this was by weight of numbers, not force of arms, as the crush was so great that swordplay was largely impossible.
With the armies closing the longbowmen, unable to fire once the two forces were enmeshed, grabbed whatever weapons they could and ran to the fray. The exhausted French, weighed down with armour, sinking in the mud, were slaughtered by the light troops who danced around their defence to find a weak point and strike.
At one point in the battle Henry V, perhaps believing he was being attacked in the rear, perhaps seeing the reforming French forces still facing him, ordered the slaughter of all except the greatest of the prisoners taken. The sight of such execution robbed the remaining French of their morale, and the men killed were their leading nobles. The rest of the French force broke and ran. Henry lost perhaps 500 dead, the French several thousand, with as many as 1,500 major nobles captured into the bargain. It would take the French a generation to recover.
The victory on St Crispin’s Day was later immortalised by Shakespeare , and has become part of the English psyche – even down to (it is supposed by some) our favourite gesture of defiance, the V-sign, said to have been the response by the English bowmen to the French threat to cut off the bowstring fingers of any archers they captured