Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt was one of the three big battles of the Hundred Years’ War.  Of course, this conflict lasted a hundred and sixteen years—which isn’t surprising if you remember that the Seven Years’ War lasted nine years.  (Things are frequently labeled incorrectly—camel’s hair brushes are made from squirrel fur, Panama hats are made in Ecuador, catgut comes from horses, and The Canary Islands are named after dogs.  I once asked why a type of small boat was called a Boston Whaler.  The answer, of course, was because they weren’t made in Boston and had never been used for whaling.)

In all three major battles of the war—however long it lasted—the English defeated the French.  (The French seldom win battles.)  England still managed, however, to lose the war.  (The French seldom lose at negotiation!—Personally, I think the United States should shut down the State Department and turn it over to the French.  We could offer them cost plus ten percent.)

As in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, the tactics and weapons of the English demonstrated that they were more than a match for numbers and stupidity.  (That would be large numbers of stupid French.)

The Leaders

Henry V entered into the family business early, being knighted at the age of 12.  During a time when war usually consisted of lengthy sieges and rare battles, Henry V was an experienced warrior. 

So when his father died in 1413, Henry was already an combat veteran and he was the consummate warrior king.  Henry knew firsthand the rigors of war—the marches, the food, the hardships.  Indeed, 'this' is what eventually killed him a few years after Agincourt:  After laying a siege for seven months (that included the winter), he died of dysentery—a very common disease and a common cause of death among soldiers.

There is little doubt that Henry was ruthless:  He killed his prisoners at Caen, and during the siege of Rouen, he refused food to the women and children expelled from the city and caught between the two lines.  Technically, this was within his rights under the laws of war, but even at the time, it was considered ruthless.

By comparison, the French leadership was a joke.  The King, Charles VI, was insane, even for an inbred monarch.  Periodically, he became convinced that he was made of glass.  The French laissez-faire attitude notwithstanding, they considered this to be something of a negative in a battlefield commander.   And there was the king’s son, the Dauphin, who was next in line….well he was 19, frail, let us just say he was "unmilitary".  As a leader, he couldn't have gotten horny sailors to follow him into a whorehouse.  Going down the chain of command, the next link in the chain would be the Duke of Burgundy or the Duke of Orleans.  Surely, one of these two could have led the Frog army to victory, "Non?"

Well, no.  The Duke of Burgundy had murdered the father of the Duke of Orleans.  Burgundy would be, himself, murdered in revenge just four years, later.  Cooperation between the two men was unlikely and neither could lead by himself without the other's pulling out his troops in protest. (Besides, the Duke of Burgundy was seriously thinking about joining the English.)

It was up to military officers from the royal household to lead the French:  the constable, the marshal, and the Master of the Crossbows.  However, these were not very imposing leaders and they had a hard time maintaining discipline.

The armies

Armies of the 15th century were still based on the man-at-arms.  In other words, a man in a full suit of armor, trained to fight on foot or on horseback.  If he was of high enough social standing and had gone through the appropriate formal ceremony, he might be a knight.  More numerous than knights were the esquires—men of high enough station, but who had not yet been knighted.  Or the man-at-arms might have been simply a soldier.

Knights and esquires were cavalrymen and keeping a man on a horse equipped and ready for battle was expensive.  Far more numerous in the armies were the simple soldiers who were usually armed only with spears.

There were also archers, crossbowmen, and gunners.  By then, the English had come to rely heavily on its archers:  more than 80% of the army was armed with a longbow.  The French had archers, too, but they were still using crossbows.  The crossbow was a great weapon when used in a siege, but the rate of fire was horribly slow, making it far less effective in open battles.

An English archer with a longbow fired eight to fourteen arrows a minute, with a maximum effective range of about 400 yards (although at 400 yards, the arrow wouldn't have killed anyone).  An arrow could kill an armored knight at up to 50 yards and an ordinary soldier at up to 200 yards.  A competent English archer could knock and loose arrows so rapidly, that he might have several arrows in the air at the same time.

By 1415, the date of our battle, there was a bewildering array of gunpowder weapons available, too.  There were handheld weapons and massive bombards, and the French had the advantage over the English in both the quality and the quantity of such guns.  No one has yet figured out why, despite being in possession of such weapons, France did not bring any of them to the battle!  This is technically worse than bringing a knife to a gunfight.


The Hundred Years War was the high point for European Armor.  No longer just chain mail, now the well-dressed knight was covered from head to toe in polished steel.  The metal was tough enough to protect the soldier from arrows unless they were fired at point blank range, or the arrow managed to hit one of the few places where the armor left the knight exposed, like the eye slits of his helm.

Under the plate steel was a padded jerkin, worn both to protect the knight from a severe case of industrial strength metal diaper rash and to absorb impact.  Wearing armor could easily tire a knight, but far more worrisome was the danger of dying of heat exhaustion.  The “white armor” or polished armor was developed more to reflect off a little of the sun’s heat than for aesthetic reasons.

Contrary to what we see in the movies, a knight didn’t need a crane to get into the saddle.  The suit weighed 60-80 pounds, was articulated, and was distributed around the body.  The infantryman in our modern army frequently has to lug a heavier load.  And while a man wearing armor could get onto a horse by himself, he needed help donning that armor.

Actually, the heaviest piece of the armor was the helmet, so it was frequently not worn into battle.  Especially the dog-faced bascinet pictured at right.  (Someone said that the definition of a cultured person was one who could listen to the William Tell Overture without even briefly thinking of the Lone Ranger.  Can you look at this picture without thinking of Darth Vader?)

Normally, the queen of the battlefield was the great sword, a massive three foot sword.  This battle was different:  The key weapon was the English longbow.  Starting in the 13th century, the monarchs of England encouraged the people to practice and develop their skills at archery.  By the time of Agincourt, an English longbow archer had practiced his entire life on a bow with a 150 to 200 pound pull weight.  Archaeologists can identify the skeletons of such archers by the pronounced bone spurs on the left wrists, shoulders, and fingers.  French kings never encouraged their subjects to adopt the longbow, for fear of common rabble using the weapon against the crown.  There is a reason the Magna Carta originated in England, not France.

Henry invaded France in August, 1415.  Needing a port to resupply his men, he laid siege to Harfleur with an army of about 12,000.  With his gunpowder weapons, he was able to destroy the city’s walls, but it took five weeks before he was able to enter the city.  Dysentery had killed 2000 of his men, and another 2000 were so sick they had to be sent home. 

This invasion had already failed, but Henry needed to save a little face, so he decided to leave a garrison force in Harfleur and march the remainder of his surviving army (about 900 men and 5000 archers), north a hundred miles to Calais.  Effectively, he was saying, “All right, I’ll leave, but not until I am good and ready.”

Henry sent a letter to the Dauphin offering to settle the affair by personal combat.  Since this was the equivalent of Chuck Norris challenging Pee-wee Herman to a fistfight, the French refused.

Henry ran into trouble almost immediately, as the French burned bridges, defended crossings, and destroyed all the food stocks that the English might be able to use along their route.  Each burned bridge forced the English to divert further from the shore, exhausting the meager food supply they had brought with them.  Meanwhile, even the slow French were beginning to put together an army and move towards the English. 

Finally, on October 23, the French had blocked the road to Calais and the much larger French army set up camp, posted guards and made merry.  A few miles away, the English were huddled around the few houses of a hamlet, trying to find protection from the rain, and many sought out priests to make confession and receive the last sacrament.

The battle should have occurred the next day, but the French stalled, knowing that time was on their side.  Every day, more French forces arrived while the English, sick and starving, grew weaker.  Finally, on October 25, Henry rallied his men and forced battle by moving his “band of brothers” towards the French.

The Battle

Despite the accounts of no fewer than four eyewitnesses, historians will argue forever about the relative sizes of the two armies.  It is my blog, so I’m going to be a traditionalist.  The English had 812 men-at-arms and 3073 archers.  The French outnumbered the British six-to-one, so it was a fair fight.  The French had 22,400 men-at-arms and 2000 archers with crossbows.

Henry V, leading a really small force of sick and hungry men, announced he would peaceably return to England without killing any more French knights if the French king would give him his daughter in marriage.  Henry was ruthless, but he had big balls.

The French lay down, laughed, drank more wine and ate cheese.  They knew that Henry must drive them off the field and take his men to Calais, and if he failed to do so, the English army would starve. 

Henry had to make the first move.  Riding a small gray horse without spurs—a sure sign that he intended to fight on foot—he reminded his men that the French boasted they would cut three fingers from the right hand of every archer they captured.  (Did Henry’s speech sound anything like the one Shakespeare wrote?  Of course it did.  William would never exaggerate!)

The battlefield was fairly narrow, with the muddy ground flanked on both sides by trees.  The French aligned their cavalry in multiple ranks behind their archers and waited.

Now to win, Henry needed to find a way to goad the French into attacking.  The English army advanced until it was 200 yards from the French, then stopped and the archers pounded their protective wooden stakes into the muddy ground.  The French were enraged when the English archers fired their first volleys.

The French cavalry drove forward, forcing the French crossbowmen into the woods!  And the French cavalry could not flank the English archers because of the woods, so they were forced to attack directly towards the English line.  As they advanced, the arrows fell, and the muddy ground tired horses.  Even if they managed to cross the field, they were stopped by the sharpened stakes the archers had hammered into the ground in front of them for protection.

The French cavalry, blocked, recoiled and streamed backward….into the next rank of advancing French knights.  Forced forward again, they hit the English line, push those back a little….but by now the French forces were too close together—they could not use their weapons effectively, and the arrows were still falling…

The French were exhausted from charging through the mud and climbing over the bodies of dead French.  And as they advanced, they had to keep their heads down to prevent arrows from coming in their visors.  This meant they were advancing blind in the attack.

Meanwhile, behind them, the main force of 14,000 men had begun to move forward, but they, too, were compressed by the narrow space, even while the arrows continued to hiss through the air.  Some terrified knights dispersed and fled.  Some French knights rode forward to their deaths because of honor, or simply not to abandon the many who already lay dead in the field.

By now the French dead lay piled several feet high and the nimble English archers move into the field using whatever weapons at hand to finish off the French men-at-arms.  For many, this meant they used the hammers they normally used to drive in the stakes.

The English troops became ecstatic, not only because they were surviving and winning, but they had a fortune in wounded French knights who could be ransomed for a fortune.

It had only been thirty minutes, and it seemed the English had won, but the battle was not over.  Frankly the English were now tired by the job of slaughter, and they were still outnumbered.  Henry suddenly received news that his supply train in the rear was being attacked by a French force that had arrived too late to take part in the battle.  There were also a number of captured French knights behind his lines who could begin fighting again if rescued.  Henry ordered all but the most valuable prisoners to be executed—which was against the "code".

At first the English soldiers hesitated, not because of mercy, but for fear of losing a fortune, but then they began executing the French.  Since the slaughter of prisoners was a job beneath the dignity of an English knight, the executions were done by the archers.  It was very hard to kill a fully armored man, so many of the prisoners had their throats cut or were stabbed through the eye slit of their helmets.

The supply train really was attacked, but not by French troops.  More likely this was done by nearby townsmen.  Besides the loss of some valuables, the English lost all of their pages, who were young children.  This, like so much else that happened in this battle, was against the laws of war.

Casualty numbers vary greatly, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone.  I don’t know of a battle where they don’t vary, even today.  The English had 450 casualties, with   around 112 dead.  The French losses were staggeringly high:  10,000 or more dead with another 1500 men taken prisoner. 

Though the French eventually won the war, the battle was a high point for several reasons.  It was the high point for the English longbow archers.  Though it would take another two hundred years, gunpowder weapons would eventually rule the battlefield.  French honor and knighthood died that day, as exhausted French knights lay on their backs in a muddy field, while English peasants cracked their shells with hammers. 

Note.  If you would like to know more about this remarkable battle, there are two excellent sources.  John Keegan's The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme is everything a scholarly work could hope to be.  More entertaining, however, is Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt.  A historical novel, it is nevertheless extensively footnoted and accurate in detail.  If you have not yet read a book by Cornwell, postpone all other forms of entertainment until you have.

1 comment:

  1. I've read Cornwell and enjoyed the depth of his stories. I only read one of the nautical ones - Sharpe's Trafalgar. My two favorite historical novelists are C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brien. My first, though, was Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. I'd read Moby Dick in 4th grade, but it took me six weeks and I read it more from stubbornness than from am appreciation of Melville's thick prose. Agincourt always fascinated me, as much from a literary angle as from the historical one. Henry V definitely needed Billy Shakespeare's PR talents and Kenneth Branaugh's oratorical skills. With them, he might have won the war. Who in hell loses to the French?