The 25th of October this year is the 605th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt; a battle that has developed almost mythical status, what with the various versions that abound. But putting discrepancies aside, it does have all the ingredients for a blockbuster storyline, doesn’t it? Young and ambitious king; in a foreign land; troop numbers stacked against him; some top notch weaponry; and a touch of bedevilment to give the hero human traits. No wonder Shakespeare immortalised the battle in one of his plays; though even he questioned the morality of some of the decisions taken that day.
But who was the main protagonist? It was Henry V, of course; the man who had become King of England just over two years before and was not yet thirty years of age.
What was the setting? Hundred years war between England and France; though Henry was keen to revive the disagreements between them and go for broke, having pressed his claim to the French throne and been rejected. It would seem that he had spent many months preparing for war behind the scenes, whilst he’d played at diplomacy in public.
What were the odds? Very much stacked in favour of the French, if numbers are the measure.
What was the weaponry? An interesting mix of old and new; lances, shields, swords, clubs, war hammers, daggers, that sort of old-fashioned thing, and then two-handed swords and bows with armour piercing clout being the cutting edge technology introduced.
First stop; Harfleur
Henry had arrived in France two months before to begin his campaign to beat the French. Within a few weeks he’d had success; besieging the town of Harfleur and enjoying its surrender. But though the French army had not turned up in its defence, victory had still come at quite a price for his army. Some historians believe he lost half his men, with battle, hunger, and disease all taking their toll. But rather than hop onto his ships and sail back immediately, he’d decided to head further north up the coast to Calais to perhaps extend his reach.
Why he marched instead of setting sail is up for discussion, however as his army travelled they were tracked by the French along the way. He was thus forced to take a meandering route, and found himself then further slowed at the Somme. Having made that crossing, however, a little further on his way he was blocked by a considerable French army.
The lie of the land
It was a fresh French force that Henry met on a strip of muddy land edged by forest near Azincourt; he was outnumbered and seriously unwelcome. Quite how much the odds were stacked against him is one of the many disputed facts, but he won’t have felt confident, that’s for sure. Tradition has it that word had got out that the French had sworn to chop off the archery fingers of every English bowman caught, so keeping his men motivated will have been a focus.
However, despite all this, there was a silver lining; the topography of the area was in his favour. The strip of land – obviously chosen by the French, for they’d opted where to wait for him – was actually narrow enough to hamper easy advance and command of cavalry and foot troops. And it turned out to be a very poor choice. The mind-set of the French leaders was such that they each wished to be at the front of their men. And though this was laudable in concept, it was utterly impractical in reality, for it meant that a significant proportion of critical players were amassed at the front; funnelled.
From stand-off to sitting ducks
Henry was blessed with plenty of archers. His opponents were greater in number, but many were on foot with hand weapons, or on horseback. For a while, both sides played a waiting game, but then Henry broke the deadlock by commencing his advance, and in doing so he took the French by surprise. Their cavalry launched in retaliation. At any other time this might have been a decisive action, but here, at Azincourt, it was a disaster.
Well-practised archers can fire out a barrage of arrows at a rate of up to ten a minute. And Henry’s longbows had reach too. The attacking French vanguard were cut to shreds, with horses bolting and trampling those who got in their way. The knights, in their heavy armour, then tried to advance on foot, but they soon found themselves caught in the quagmire too. It was a massacre, people dying from arrow wounds, sword slashes, axe attack, suffocation… and then by royal decree. That’s right, one thing is not disputed; Henry did order his men to kill hundreds of the captured French, everyone from humble foot soldiers to dukes.
From start to finish, the Battle of Agincourt was short and sharp; the whole fracas maybe three hours tops. The number of dead for each side was possibly aligned with the original ratio of the forces, but very much against the French; they suffered huge losses.
As is well known, it was a significant victory for Henry. Plays have been written. Songs have been sung. Inspiration has struck many a leader since. In truth, one has to sift through a lot of spin to even start to get feel for the person Henry really was, how well he led his army, and how much lady luck was on his side that St Crispin’s Day in 1415. Of course, one also has to judge the actions of a king by the standards of his day, but even Shakespeare sought to gloss over Henry’s decision to execute his prisoners by declaring it revenge for the murder of his baggage boys. And interestingly, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg oversaw a mock trial in 2010 which found the king guilty of war crimes. But regardless of the character of the man overall, there have been many over the centuries who’ve quite simply thought it to be a long awaited avengement for the Battle of Hastings.