Battle of Agincourt
Posted on 24th April 2023
Our King went forth to Normandy
With grace and might of chivalry
There God for him wrought marvellously;
Wherefore England may call and cry
Thank the Lord! Thank the Lord!
Thank the Lord, England Give thanks to the Lord for Victory!
Few Monarchs seal a place for themselves in the national identity quite like Henry V, a hero on the battlefield, his deeds are immortalised in the words of William Shakespeare, have been depicted on stage and screen for generations, and he has long been known as England's Warrior King. It was not for him to be a footnote in history.
He was born in Monmouth Castle in 1386 the son of Henry Bolingbroke of the House of Lancaster and Mary de Bohun. He was also the grandson of John of Gaunt who had been Regent during King Richard II’s minority.
The young Henry was an earnest child who rarely gave himself over to frivolity or the distraction of playing games. Instead, he devoted himself to his studies and it was said of him that he had been born to rule even though he was not in the direct line of succession and could have had no reasonable expectation at the time of ever doing so. Particularly as his father, one of the most powerful magnates in England was often in dispute with King Richard who believed he harboured ambitions to seize the crown. It would lead to him being exiled abroad and his estates in England seized.
Richard was right in his assumption that Bolingbroke posed a threat but whether this was the result of personal ambition on his part or the Kings paranoid behaviour towards him remains uncertain. In late June 1399, Henry Bolingbroke returned to England along with a small number of knights to reclaim his estates but as the nobility of England flocked to his banner his ambitions changed. He now determined that he would seize the crown after all.
As Henry advanced on London, Richard, who had recently returned from a failed expedition to Ireland seeing his support slip away panicked and fled the city in the dead of night disguised as a priest. Finally cornered in Flint Castle in Wales, Richard was induced to surrender on the promise of safe passage. Instead, he was taken prisoner and forced to abdicate the throne in favour of Henry. The problem now was what to do with an ex-King.
Finally, removed to the remote Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire Richard was locked in a room and starved to death. Upon learning that his cousin was now dead, or close to it, on 30 September 1399, Henry Bolingbroke had himself crowned King Henry IV of England. Later that same year his son, also Henry, was made Prince of Wales and heir to the throne.
The young Henry was eager to be a dutiful son, he worked hard at his studies and took a keen interest in both politics and military affairs even taking a command position at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 when still a boy.
In 1408 he was given command of the Royal Army in Wales tasked with suppressing the rebellion of the formidable Owain Glyndwr. This was no common assignment, but the young Henry was to prove himself personally courageous, a shrewd tactician, and utterly ruthless in pursuit of victory. Indeed, he was almost killed when he was struck in the face by an arrow and for several days he lay seriously ill as the Royal Physician John Bradmore fought to save his life.
Using honey as an antiseptic, Bradmore cut into the prince’s face to extract the arrowhead using a screw-like device he had designed himself. He then flushed out the open wound with alcohol to prevent infection before sewing it up. The operation was successful, but Henry was left with permanent facial scarring that remained very visible and determined that any portraits painted of him in the future only ever showed him in profile.
Even as a boy Henry had demanded to be taken seriously and as he grew older, he insisted on being given a greater say in the running of the country, not that he was immune to those temptations that beset and distract young men it being said that he was “a diligent follower of idle processes, much given to practices of music, and fired with the torches of Venus.” But if so, it was only temporary. leading to his having a fractious relationship with his father locked as they were in a battle of wills, but the self-confident young prince had long ago proved himself indispensable.
He would not have to wait long for his opportunity to rule when on 21 March 1413, Henry IV died. Three weeks later, on 9 April, the man who should never have been King was crowned Henry V at Westminster Abbey.
Well over six feet, slender and gaunt with dark hair, a prominent nose and eager expressive eyes the spartan lifestyle and sobriety of England’s new King disturbed many, not that he had been immune to those temptations that beset and distract young men it being said that in his youth he was “a diligent follower of idle processes, much given to the practices of music, and fired with the torches of Venus herself.” If so, it was only temporary and as King he set to work immediately restoring order, putting an end to old enmities, and bringing stability to the country he now reigned over; and as humourless and stern as he appeared his means of doing so would not be by threat and intimidation but compassion and reconciliation. He had the body of the murdered King Richard II brought to London and reinterred in Westminster Abbey with all due solemnity, many of those who had opposed his father were pardoned, and he declared that no law would be passed without parliament’s consent. Having thus restored peace to England he could now concentrate on war with France.
The English claim to the French throne was revived upon the death of Charles IV in 1328, who had passed away without male issue making Edward whose mother Joan of Navarre was the late French King’s sister his closest male heir. The French, however, chose instead Philip of Valois to be their King effecting a change of dynasty something the English viewed as little more than a usurpation. It was the beginning of the Hundred Years War.
It was this that formed the basis for Henry’s intended invasion of France. and unlike Edward’s underfunded and under resourced campaign that culminated in his great triumph on the battlefield at Crecy but little else, he was leading a country that was enthusiastic for war as the nobility, the church, and parliament all rallied to his cause.
As might have been expected from their sober new king his preparations were thorough and ongoing. New ships were built and not just commissioned, supplies stored and arms stockpiled. While the levies were mustered the call was also made for volunteers particularly for skilled longbowmen and veterans from previous campaigns. The pay may have been pennies and a little coin at signing, but the prospect of booty was great.
Many of those Henry now sought were already men of violence, hardened criminals, to whom he now offered amnesty should they enlist for service abroad; but they were not easy men to control. In the town of Salisbury some were involved in a fight. A contemporary account describes events:
“The Sunday after St Peter’s in Chains a crowd of the Duke of Lancaster’s bowmen engaged to set out with the King overseas attacked many of the city men in The Fisherton Alehouse killing four of them and injuring many more.”
Such incidents were not uncommon for these were dangerous man not just trained in the longbow but skilled in the use of weapons of all kinds. Some had already fought for Henry in Wales and knew him to be generous in turning a blind eye to their excesses.
It was also an auspicious time for the King of England to renew his claim to the French crown for their King, Charles VI, was delusional, some might say mad. He was often incoherent in his speech, erratic in behaviour, he would refuse to change his clothes for months on end and believed himself to be made of glass and might shatter at any moment. He even had steel rods sewn into his clothes in the hope of preventing just such a scenario.
On 12 August 1415, King Henry V, sailed with his armada for France. Landing unopposed he then laid siege to the fortress city of Harfleur which much to his frustration refused to surrender. By the time they did so over a month later Henry had lost some 2,500 men killed mostly from disease and had seen his supplies greatly depleted. It had been his intention to march swiftly upon Paris, but the prospect of another siege dissuaded him from doing so. Instead, he decided on a march to Calais with the aim of provoking the French army to attack him. His Council opposed him suggesting it was unwise to commit his troops to a 100-mile slog through muddied ground in deteriorating weather given the weakened state of his army. He could after all sail to Calais. But Henry was adamant that he would not let his campaign whither on the vine at Harfleur. It was as if he wanted to provoke the French into attacking him. If so, they would not disappoint him.
In the absence of the feeble-minded Charles VI the French army was jointly commanded by Constable D’Albret, Marshal Boucicault, and the Duke of Orleans, all were capable soldiers and eager to avenge previous indignities endured at the hands of the English. Their constant bickering however, only hindered the formulation of any coordinated plan of action. They did, however, do all in their power to bar Henry’s passage to Calais, bridges were destroyed where necessary other available crossings were placed under guard. It took a great deal of hard searching by the English scouts to find crossings of the many water hazards that stood in their way. Or means of avoiding them altogether which added greatly to the distance travelled.
As the two armies eyed each other nervously the French sent emissaries to Henry intending they said to negotiate the safe passage of his army to Calais, but he knew this was just a delaying tactic on their part as their army grew to such a size that any coming confrontation could only end badly for him. He would have to commit to battle, something he had desperately wished to avoid given the poor state of his much depleted, half-starved, and exhausted army. But where could he fight that would give him at least a slim chance of victory?
The place Henry decided to make a stand was a small strip of land squeezed between two dense forests near the small village of Agincourt, just 30 miles from his destination Calais. Henry knew that taking up a defensive position here negated the prospect of being outflanked and he had also noticed that the land had recently been ploughed slowing down any French advance. He had at his disposal some 7,000 lightly armed longbowmen and 1,500 men-at-arms. A force unlikely to cause anxiety in his enemy,
The French army by now around 25,000 strong had taken up a position at the northern end of the field thereby still blocking Henry's route to Calais.
The night before the battle Henry addressed his troops telling those noblemen who accompanied him that if they were captured they were almost certain to be spared for ransom but then turning to the common soldiers he informed them that if defeated they would surely be killed so they had better fight for their lives and that night they prayed to God, were absolved of their sins, and slept in the open. They expected to die on the morrow and their spirits were hardly lifted by a heavy downpour of rain and a constant drizzle thereafter.
Their final night on earth it seemed had been made as miserable for them as possible. It was not a good omen, and it did not appear that God was on their side, but it was in truth a Godsend for the rain further churned up what was already soggy and muddied ground, a very great encumbrance to any attacking army.
The French passed a more comfortable night, well fed and confident in victory. Indeed, music and singing could even be heard in their camp but then they 10,000 mounted knights among them the cream of the French nobility, 10,000 men-at-arms, and 5,000 crossbowmen more than enough to overwhelm a much smaller force weakened by starvation and exhausted by endless marching on rain sodden ground - but they had not yet learned the lessons of Crecy and Poitiers..
Having earlier informed his archers to make preparation for their imminent death and his knights of their likely ransom, Lord Hungerford bemoaned their lack of troops to which Henry responded in words altered for dramatic effect and later immortalised by Shakespeare, "Do you not believe that the Lord with these few can overthrow the pride of the French?"
Henry had placed his bowmen in advance of his army and on either flank amid the trees and undergrowth of the forest thereby creating a deadly crossfire. In the centre, his men-at-arms he formed into columns with himself in command of the reserve division from where he could observe the battle unfold. Meanwhile, the bowmen drove pointed wooden stakes into the ground in advance of them to force any mounted cavalry to veer off. They then kissed the ground, the dust from which they had come and believed they would soon return and busied themselves in keeping their bows dry in the rain that continued to fall.
Henry, having prepared his men well now permitted prayers to be said and blessings to be made.
But still with battlelines drawn the French had not attacked, so Henry ordered "In the name of Almighty God and Saint George, advance banner." His army without breaking formation now advanced to within longbow range of the French some 300 yards, where halting they once more hammered their stakes into the ground. King Henry and his knights now dismounted to fight on foot alongside their men-at-arms, and he had dressed for battle with his surcoat of brightly coloured leopards and lilies emblazoned with the insignia and arms of both England and France. His helmet polished and plumed glistened beneath a reluctant sun while upon it he placed his crown of gold. He then ordered his bowmen to unleash their arrows upon the enemy.
Around midday having been stung into action the French advanced with 1,500 crossbowmen in the vanguard followed by 800 mounted knights and 8,000 men-at-arms. As they did so the English archers shouted in unison "Hurrah! Hurrah! Saint George and Merrie England! before raising the firing fingers of their hand and flashing the V Sign. It was their response to the French threat to sever the fingers of any English bowmen who fell into their hands.
Behind the main French assault was a second line with a further 600 cavalry and 4,500 men-at-arms. Progress was slow and the crossbowmen who could only release their bolts at close range were holding up the advance. The mounted knights impatient to get to grips with the enemy rode forward of the crossbowmen trampling many of them underfoot as they did so and with the men-at-arms racing to keep up the entire advance began to descend into chaos.
Under a relentless hail of arrows that had already cost them a great many men and horses the French cavalry were at last able to extricate themselves from the mess and form a battle line.
The Welsh Longbow was the most lethal long-range weapon of its day. As much as seven feet in length it had an effective range of up to 400 yards and a trained bowman, could fire 15 arrows a minute. But it took immense strength to use it and was exhausting work. The preferred rate of fire was 6 arrows a minute but at Agincourt the rate of fire would have been high, and it is possible that the French knights were met with as many as 70,000 arrows a minute, and the power of the longbow was immense. It was said that the arrow from a longbow could penetrate armour, slice through a man, and still kill the horse he was riding.
The advance of the French horsemen was hampered by the uneven ground and the mud slowed it even further and the longbow had lost none of its effectiveness. Hundreds of knights were killed long before they ever came close to the enemy and those knights who were unhorsed, weighed down by their armour and unable to move in the mud were slaughtered by the onrushing English men-at-arms.
The French infantry bogged down in mud that was in places knee deep were unable to come to the aid of their comrades in time. The entire advance had slowed to a snail’s pace and all the time the arrows continued to rain down. The French began to flee the field and as they did so they crashed into the advancing second line causing even further chaos and panic.
Henry seeing this now took the initiative and ordered his army to move forward. After a few hundred yards his bowmen again drove their stakes into the ground and began to fire their arrows into the retreating troops who could not escape the ceaseless rain of death.
Initially surprised at this move the French soon rallied to launch yet another attack but the knights were again repelled, and it was the men-at-arms with less distance to travel who now clashed with their English counterparts.
The fighting was ferocious, but the English archers now abandoned their bows and armed with axes and knives joined in the fight, and in the thick of the action was Henry himself. Upon learning that his younger brother Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, had been wounded he took his Household Guard and cutting a path through to where he was threatened with capture dragged him to safety but not before he had himself been beaten to the ground and almost killed.
As the battle wore on the French commitment to the fray began to waver. Even so, things were still far from over.
Late in the afternoon the English baggage train stationed to the rear of the army came under attack from troops and peasants sallying forth from a nearby castle and village. Fearing an attack in his rear and aware that the French had reserves greater in number than those troops already committed he ordered that all the prisoners taken be killed fearing that they might rearm themselves with those weapons discarded on the battlefield and re-join the fight. Only the most noble were saved.
Witnessing the slaughter of the prisoners the French at last lost heart and began to abandon the battlefield.
Henry's victory was total. He had lost 450 men, the French more than 8,000 including the cream of their nobility with a further 1,000 taken for ransom.
At Agincourt, Henry V destroyed not only French power but the authority of the Valois Monarchy, and when he returned to London a few months later it was to a rapturous reception. When a request was made to show his battered helmet and sword to the adoring crowd, he refused declaring that his victory was God’s, and God’s alone.
The French meanwhile squabbled among themselves, and argument soon turned to murder. With a King unfit to govern the Dauphin tried to assert his rights, there was a fearful massacre in Paris, the Duke of Burgundy was assassinated, and so the mayhem continued. France was a broken country, disunited and fractious, providing an opportunity that the English King was not about to spurn.
Yet again Henry’s preparations were thorough and this time he had a plan to both conquer and hold. On 23 July 1417, he invaded once more this time with an army 40,000 strong and not just of fighting men but miners, engineers, blacksmiths, armourers, and all could string a bow and wield an axe. He also brought with him cannon and siege engines all amply supplied.
After the speedy capture of Caen, Henry’s army marched through Normandy unopposed before becoming bogged down in a prolonged siege of Rouen. The city Elder’s had refused to surrender on terms in the belief that well-armed they could resist until relieved, but no help came. When thousands fled the city Henry displayed the ruthlessness that had come to define him by refusing to let them pass. They would starve to death in the open ground of no-man’s-land. Only on Christmas Day did he briefly relent permitting some priests to distribute loaves of bread among them.
In January 1419, Rouen at last surrendered freeing Henry’s army to advance on Paris which they did hindered not by French arms but the requirement for booty. So it was not until August that they camped outside its city walls where wearied by the prospect of further siege warfare they remained. The French did nothing to remove them, and the following month entered negotiations for the peaceful transfer of power. The subsequent Treaty of Troyes signed on 21 May 1420, disinherited the Dauphin, and named Henry V the heir to the French throne upon the death of Charles VI. To seal the deal Henry was married to Charles’ daughter Catherine of Valois, which was less of a trial for her than it was for her father as the newlywed’s appeared to be genuinely fond of one another.
The union of England and France under one monarch now appeared inevitable, that Henry V’s triumph had been complete and absolute, and seventeen years younger than the man he sought to replace it seemed the map of Europe was about to be redrawn, but the God who had so blessed his campaign would now deny him the fruits of his victory.
On 31 August 1422, Henry V died of disease at Vincennes, most likely dysentery, or the bloody flux as it was then known and just two months before Charles VI. In the days immediately preceding his demise he had tried to secure the French throne for England by naming his son as heir, but the boy was barely out of the womb and those pledged to represent him were neither so great nor so feared.
England's great Warrior King was dead at the age of just 35. Had he lived just a few weeks more England and France would have been united and the children of Henry and Catherine, or their nearest relatives, would have been heirs to the French Crown. Yet in the coming decades everything the English had gained under Henry V would be lost and their claim to reign in France so nearly a reality would lie in tatters and be an illusion once more.
***The Agincourt Carol, written shortly after the victory (Full Text can be found on our Fact File).
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