This month marks the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt and a flurry of books are being published to celebrate the occasion.
- Michael Jones
Henry V inherited the throne of England, which at that time included Wales, Calais and a substantial chunk of South West France, from his father (Henry IV) in 1413. His father had usurped Richard II and England was still recovering from the split. As Prince of Wales Henry had already been thoroughly tested in combat, having defeated the Welsh uprising of Owen Glendower, and in peace making. He was a just, pious and popular monarch. With England united, his attention turned to recovering the rest of his realm, which at one time had contained Normandy, Brittany and much more of South West France.
In the 15th Century world God was at the centre of everything, including justice. Wars were believed to be an extreme form of trial by combat and God would deliver victory to the righteous. The lost lands in France belonged to the English king, himself ordained by God, and thus a war to regain them would be righteous. Provided it was righteously conducted Henry would prevail. He therefore went to great lengths to explain his cause and request immediate return of his lands. Unsurprisingly the French monarchs rejected his claim and the stage was set for war.
Certainly it was a propitious time to fight France; their monarch (Charles VI) was mad, the Dauphin debauched and the country divided by the rival claims of the dukes of Orleans and Burgundy. Henry assembled a fleet and landed in France with an army of about 12,000 men. His first step was to lay siege to Harfleur, the local port to secure his base. This he duly took, albeit after a longer than anticipated fight (the French fought brilliantly and with great resolve). His casualties to enemy action were low, but dysentery had broken out in his camp. More importantly, the bulk of the French army had not arrived and so there could be no decisive battle to determine Henry’s demand for restitution of his lost lands. He therefore decided to march to Calais, demonstrating his sovereignty over the land and possibly bringing the French to battle.
He set out on 8th October with about 7,000 men and 8 day’s food. The French Army finally started gathering and blocking his route to Calais. The net result was that on the evening of 24th October, having marched on without food for days, Henry’s tired and hungry 7,000 occupied a ridge near Agincourt, looking down at a French force over 15,000 to 30,000 fresh, well fed men. This is where the problems for historians start. There are very few contemporary accounts of what happened and those made after the event are not necessarily reliable.
For sure, there was no battle on 24thso both sides camped. After some skirmishes in the night the troops returned to the field at dawn the next day. There was then a long pause. The English, who had already demonstrated the power of the longbow at Crecy and other battles in the 100 years’ war, were on a dry ridge. 1,000 yards away the French were at the bottom of the slope, which had recently been sown and following almost incessant rain, had turned to a quagmire. The French had the numbers, the English the ground. Moreover, the English had the benefit of unity having fought together before in Wales and at the battles following Henry IV’s seizing the throne. Their men were seasoned, paid professionals and their commander the king was charismatic, respected and tactically brilliant. Although the French force included some very experienced warriors, they were feuding, lacked unity of command and had no longbows. They did have a surfeit of chivalrous zealour, but that didn’t help them.
Eventually the English managed to provoke the French into an assault. Quite how they achieved this is a matter of hot debate amongst academics. The author’s credible but unconventional view is that the English had placed some archers forward of their line in the woods that flank the battlefield and a convenient meadow who were able to engage (a longbow’s range is around 250 yards).
On command the forward archers opened fire while the English line advanced a hundred yards or so, staying on the dry land on top of the ridge. The French cavalry horses started being hit, could not stay where they were, could not withdraw and therefore charged the English. As a Crecy, they were destroyed by archery. The bulk of the French Army then had to advance (to leave would have been to concede defeat). The combination of the mud, the constrictions of the flanking woods, the press of men from behind and the arrow onslaught meant that they did not arrive at the English line in a cohesive formation and that they were tired when they got there. The melee was desperate and the French were slaughtered. The estimates are 100 English casualties, and well over 5,000 French including much of their nobility.
It was by any measure a staggering tactical result. It also had huge strategic impact; the slaughter of so much of the French nobility and incarceration of others left the country largely leaderless. This laid the path open for Henry and his successors to reconquer much of France, which they did until stopped by Joan of Arc. But that is another story.
The fatal flaw of this book is to structure itself on the 24 hours of the battle, as for much of this time nothing happened and the battle itself only took about three hours. Most of the chapters therefore include large numbers of asides explaining the context and describing some of the protagonists. The result is a disjointed narrative with too much repetition of minor detail.
The second problem is that the author seeks to justify his interpretation of what happened through the books of hunting. Yes, Henry V and most other martial chaps were great hunters and of course some aspects of hunting deer do transfer to field-craft (as much today as they did then). However extrapolating from hunting prowess to the devastating military win is a step to far. The reality is that the English won because they were an experienced, combat proven team who were well led, had great mutual confidence, stood on better ground and had better weaponry which put to great effect. The author notes all this in passing, but fails to recognise it as the essence of military success.
There are better books on Agincourt, and no doubt more to come.