Skip to comments.On This Day In History...The Battle of Agincourt.
Posted on 10/25/2003 6:28:11 AM PDT by Valin
The Day Of the Battle
It rained for most of the night turning the ground sodden with ankle deep mud in some places.
Both armies rose before dawn and assembled for battle, the English numbering 5000 archers and 900 men-at-arms and the French between 20-30,000. The rules of chivalry dictate that the field of battle should favor neither side but the French freely took up a position that was disadvantageous to them. They assembled perhaps 1000 yards apart, separated by a recently ploughed field. A slight dip between them ensured that the armies were in full view of each other. Either side of the field was bordered by forest that narrowed from 1200 yards where the French assembled to only 900 where the armies could be expected to meet. This greatly restricted the free movement that the French would require to exploit their far greater numbers, preventing them from outflanking and enveloping the smaller force.
The English Deployment
The English formed into a single line, with no reserves, into three groups of men-at-arms, comprising the advance, mainbody and rearguard, each around four deep. The right was commanded by the Duke of York, the center by Henry and the left by Lord Camoys. There is some debate as to the formation of archers. The traditional view is that each the three groups of men-at-arms were separated by a large wedge of archers with a body of archers on each flank. This would allow the archers to fire on the French not only from the front but also the flank. More recent research suggests that this would have considerably weakened the line. If heavily armed men-at-arms were to come in contact with a body of lightly armed archers, they could be expected to quickly disperse them breaking the line. As such, the archers would have been positioned on the flanks, in accordance with usual English practice, 2,500 to a side, angled forward to allow converging fire on any attack to the lines center.1. This formation was to have important consequences later in the battle.
It is possible that a small formation of archers may have been positioned in the Tramcourt woods to the rear of the French lines. Its role would be to cause confusion in the French ranks and divert troops from the main battle. As the French advanced to make contact with the main English body, they would also have been in a position to provide flanking fire. The existance of such a force has been vigorously denied by English chroniclers.
The French deployment
The French formed three lines, the first two made up of dismounted men-at-arms and the third mounted. Cavalry was placed on each flank, 1600 commanded by the Count of Vendome on the left and 800 commanded by Clignet de Brebant on the right. On the flanks to the rear, some ineffectual cannon were placed that never fired more than a few shots during the battle. Between the first and second lines were placed the archers and crossbowmen. The reality of the French lines, however, was far different. Every French nobleman wanted to be in the first line and to have his banner prominently displayed. This resulted in much jostling for position, crowding out the archers and crossbowmen to the flanks so that the first two lines became more or less one large chaotic mass. "The strength of the armies of Philip and John of Valais was composed of a fiery and undisciplined aristocracy that imagined itself to be the most efficient military force in the world, but was in reality little removed from an armed mob"2.
The two sides thus assembled, waited unmoving for four hours from about 7am to about 11am. The wise counsel of d'Albret and Boucicaut prevailed, at least temporarily, arguing that they should let the English attack where their inferior numbers would have placed them at a greater disadvantage. In fact, it was argued that they should not attack at all and let the English starve. In such a way, the English would be defeated without having to give battle. The French, still confident of victory, used this time to jostle for position, eat, settle quarrels and throw insults at the English. While many sat, some remained standing as not to muddy their armor. One thousand yards away, Henry knew that they would have to fight that day as his troops, without food, would only get weaker. On council from his advisors, he ordered the English advance
The English advance
The English quietly and steadily advanced on the French position to within extreme longbow range (approx. 250 yards). To advance in good order, this would have taken up to ten minutes. If the French had attacked during this period, it would have been disatrous for the English. Having gained information that the French intended to attack his archers with massed cavalry, Henry had ordered each archer to carve an eight foot long stake, pointed at each end. Upon reaching their position, the archers drove their stakes into the ground at such an angle as to impale a horse as it charged. These stakes would have been planted in a thicket in the archers positions; dangerous for a mounted rider to enter but offering enough space for a lightly armed archer to freely move. Within this thicket, the archers would have stood in a loose belt with their flanks resting against the woods.
At the order, the archers let loose the first arrow strike. The "air was darkened by an intolerable number of piercing arrows flying across the sky to pour upon the enemy like a cloud laden with rain." While this may not have caused too much damage, having been fired from extreme range, it must have produced a deafening thunderclap of noise as it hit the French lines. As an English archer could loose up to ten flights a minute, by the time the first landed another would have been in the air. In the confusion of what had just happened, amidst the noise of outraged Frenchmen, injured animals and soldiers, the French cavalry on the flanks charged forth, followed by the first line of dismounted men-at-arms.
The French Cavalry Charge
If it is to retain any sort of order, a cavalry charge can move at only 12-15 miles an hour. It would have taken about 40 seconds to cover the distance to the English lines; enough time for three to four further volleys of arrows. During the morning wait, lax command had allowed many of the cavalry on the flanks to wander off out of position. Caught by surprise by the English assault, the charge was severely undermanned. Moreover, due to the woods on either side of the field, they were unable to outflank the archers necessitating a frontal assault. The few who did reach the lines of archers, perhaps not seeing the stakes in between the mass of archers, crashed straight into the thicket of spikes and were unable to breach the lines. As the survivors retreated in disarray, they were followed by further volleys of arrows. Horses crazed and uncontrollable by injury and fright, with no space to manouver, crashed directly into the advancing men-at-arms breaking their orderly advance.
French Men-at-arms Attack and Melee
To march the distance to the English lines would have taken three to four minutes giving some breathing space for the English. This was done over muddy ground further broken up by the mad cavalry charge. As the distance closed, the English archers were able to fire at right angles to their targets. Their arrows were fixed with the "Bodkin point", specially designed to penetrate armor. As the French advanced, they formed into three columns to attack the English men-at-arms. This was partially forced, partially planned. The French men-at-arms saw archers as inferior in social standing and, therefore, not worthy opponents whereas there was ransom to be gained by capturing an English noble. Furthermore, as the French advanced on the English position, the field narrowed by 150 yards compacting the French line. This was compounded by those on the flanks shying away from the hail of arrows pressing further inward. By the time they arrived at the English line, the French did not have enough room to fight freely.
Using lances cut down for fighting on foot, the attacking line would have rushed the last few meters to maximize the shock of impact to knock over the defenders, open gaps in the line, isolate individuals and push back the line in disorder. The English may have stepped back at the last moment to wrongfoot the French spearmen or if they had possessed greater numbers, they may have been able to rush forward themselves to steal the momentum. The French line attacked largely unsupported, in disorder and close to exhaustion from their trudge over broken ground. The French artillery, reduced to a position of impotence by a lack of a clear field of fire, and the archers and crossbowmen, outclassed by the faster, longer and more accurate rate of fire of the longbow, had been pushed out of position by the men-at-arms. When the French reached the English line, it had very little momentum left.
Still, as the two forces clashed, the English line buckled but soon rallied, neither side was willing to give way. The English not willing to leave their secure place for the open battlefield which would mean almost certain annihilation, and the French certain of victory and the force of numbers pushing from behind. With the press of numbers, the French were unable to attack or defend effectively meaning that the English would win in a one on one contest. As the attackers fell, they presented obstacles to those following. As the English pressed forth, cutting through the French attackers, a tumbling effect would have developed where the French were pushed forward from behind but also back by the English. As the shaken French line spilled out towards the archers, the archers downed their bows and grabbed their swords, axes and other weapons, including those dropped by the French, and fell on the flank. The heavily armed men-at-arms would not have been overwhelmed by this onslaught; it is much more likely that the archers in groups of two or three would have singled out those men-at-arms shaken by the initial charge. As one or two attacked the French man-at-arms, the third would maneuver behind to slash at unprotected parts such as behind the knee. Once down, the exhausted knight could be quickly dispatched with a blade through a joint in the armor or through the grills of the faceplate. This would have gradually repeated the tumbling effect on the flanks, lengthening the killing zone and enveloping the French. Many slightly injured, or knocked down were unable to rise through exhaustion, weight of their armor in the mud and were trampled underfoot by the press behind them.
The first French line was almost totally destroyed, either killed or taken prisoner. As the second line arrived on the scene, many quit the battlefield upon seeing the result of the first attack. Those who attacked met largely the same fate. The Duke of Barabant, arriving late to the battle due to a christening party the previous night led a brief charge which was quickly broken up and for which he lost his life.
Contemporary observers describe the piles of French bodies as "as high as a man", an exaggeration, but befitting what had happened. Within half an hour, the first two French lines were annihilated. Henry was careful not to let individuals sequester prisoners as the third French line remained on the field as a very real threat.
The Killing of Prisoners
As prisoners were moved to the rear, in greater numbers than the whole English army, simultaneous reports came to Henry's attention. A mob of peasants with three knights under the command of the Lord of Agincourt attacked the baggage train to the rear. As the English could afford no more than a token guard, they were quickly overwhelmed and the attackers made off with their plunder, including one of Henry's crowns. This may, in fact, have been a poorly timed flanking attack, based on the French plan to cause disruption to the rear of the English position. As this occurred, the Counts of Marle and Fauquemberghes rallied 600 men-at-arms for a counter attack which ended as disastrously as the others. In response, to the ensuing panic, Henry ordered the killing of the prisoners. The English men-at-arms refused, probably not so much on moral grounds (killing an equal after their surrender was dishonorable) as financial. They stood to lose the ransom from the prisoners. As a result, 200 archers were given the job as they were tough, professional soldiers outside the bounds of chivalry.
There are many possible reasons for this order. It may simply have been revenge for the attack on the baggage train. It has also been suggested that it may have been used as a terror weapon to control the prisoners. As between one and two thousand prisoners were returned to England, those on the field would have greatly outnumbered the archers, at least 10-1 so it may have been an effective, even if brutal method of moving them quickly to the rear and knocking the last bit of fight out of them. More importantly, there were more prisoners than the English, all still in armor on a battlefield littered with weapons. With the third French line threatening to attack, Henry would have been worried about this threat from the rear. How many were killed is unknown but contemporary observers say it was more than were killed in battle. Modern scholars have roundly condemned Henry for this action but it is interesting to note that no observers of the day, even the French, have done so. In fact many argued it was justified and even went so far as to criticize the third French line for acting in a was as to force it. From the viewpoint of a 15th century knight, it was seen as necessary, the French also having done similar previously. The attack never materialized, and the killing of prisoners stopped as the threat evaporated. With the two first lines destroyed and the third slinking away, the battle of Agincourt was won.
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
-- Wm. Shakespeare, King Henry V
SEE THIS -- if for nothing more than the St. Crispin's Day speech.
Did you enjoy Braveheart? If so then this is worth it. You'll see where a lot of Gibson's ideas came from.
And as the poster of the image of the DVD said, it's worth it just for the Saint Crispian's day speech. You'll understand the power of Shakespeare when delivered by someone who has mastered it.
"Morning of Agincourt" by Sir John Gilbert.
The English army at prayer before the Battle of Agincourt on 25th October 1415.
"With Banners Bravely Spread" by Sir John Gilbert.(Probably depicting knights before Agincourt.)
"The Battle of Agincourt", by Brian Palmer.
The French Knights attack Henry V's English infantry lines and are repelled during the Battle of Agincourt, a victory for Henry V.
(Lifted these from this web site:
Some things never change.