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The Hundred Years' War
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 Hundred Years' War Home
  Battle of Sluys (1340)
  Battle of Crecy (1346)
  Battle of Poitiers (1356)
  Battle of Agincourt (1415)
  Battle of Orléans (1428-1429)
  Battle of Castillion (1453)
The Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt
October 25, 1415
by Steve Beck

The Agincourt Campaign

On 11 August 1415, Henry V, the English king for two years, set sail for France with an army to substantiate his claim to the French Throne. His plan was to take Harfleur as a bridgehead before marching down the Seine to Paris and Bordeaux. There are a number of possible reasons for this campaign. It was an attempt not only to reclaim what Henry believed to be his lawful birthrights, the Duchy of Normandy and the French Throne, but also as a means of securing his reign by diverting attention from the problems at home. Moreover, it was not without provocation by the French who had raided the English coast. After a generation of defeats and setbacks, this English force held three main strengths. If properly deployed, the English archer was one of the most formidable fighting forces in Europe, the strength of Henry as a general and the disorder of the French leadership under the frequent insanity of a weak king.

Contemporary observers describe a fleet of 1500 ships that carried Henry's army across the channel. While this is undoubtedly an exaggeration, a fleet this size being many times larger than England's standing navy, it must have been an impressive array in order to carry a force of 8000 archers and 2000 men-at-arms together with artillery, horses, baggage train and camp followers. They landed unopposed on 14 August, three miles west of Harfleur. Harfleur was a strongly fortified town with strong walls, 26 towers, a moat, three barbicans (fortified gateways with drawbridges) defended by several hundred men-at-arms. The French proved adept at countermining forcing the English to rely on artillery for their attack. Medieval artillery was large and cumbersome with cast iron cannons up to 9 feet long and of over a foot in caliber firing stone balls weighing up to a quarter of a ton. There were problems getting them into position as the French also possessed cannon and crossbowmen placed on their walls overlooking their attackers. This, together with numerous sallies by the defenders, combined to make the lives of the English gunners miserable as they sustained heavy losses.

The besieging Englishmen were forced to sleep mainly on the ground drinking contaminated cider, wine and water. As a result, dysentery and disease was rife. Harfleur finally surrendered on the 22nd September which according to the laws of war, saved it from sacking. In the process, however, Henry had lost over one third of his army and many of the survivors were sick.

His original plan of marching on Bordeaux was now out of the question. Against advice, he decided the best way to "show the flag" was to feign battle with the gathering French army before outmarching them to Calais, 120 miles away.

Abandoning the artillery and baggage train, Henry placed The Earl of Dorset in command of Harfleur with a force of up to 500 men-at-arms and 1000 archers. He left on the 8th October with a force of about 900 men-at-arms and 5000 archers carrying only eight days provisions. The advance guard was commanded by Sir Gilbert Umfraville and Sir John Cornwall, the main body by Henry himself, the Duke of Gloucester and the Earl of Huntington while the rear guard was commanded by the Duke of York and the Earl of Oxford. They found the Bethune river flooded and were forced to march upstream in search of a ford which they crossed on the 11th. The following day, they crossed the Breste having marched 80 miles in five days.

On the 13th, they swung inland to cross the Somme above its mouth but discovered from a prisoner that a French force numbering 6000 blocked the crossing. Turning southeast, in search of a crossing, they marched for five days, becoming hungrier and hungrier before managing to cross the Somme at Bellencourt and Voyenes where a French cavalry attack was beaten off. All the time, the French kept pace. After crossing on the 19th, Henry declared the 20th a rest day that saw the arrival of French heralds to issue a challenge for battle.

"Our lords have heard how you intend with your army to conquer the towns, castles and cities of the realm of France and to depopulate French cities. And because of this, and for the sake of their country and their oaths, many of our lords are assembled to defend their rights; and they inform you by us that before you come to Calais they will meet you to fight you and be revenged of your conduct"

Henry simply replied "Be all things according to the will of God ."

The 21st saw the English march 18 miles and 53 in the next three to be within two days of safety. Late on the 24th, the Duke of York's scouts informed Henry that the main French army had crossed their path and blocked the way to Calais. The English took up position along a ridge and the French also took up battle positions within half a mile but didn't attack, having learnt from Crecy.

Henry, realizing he was heavily outnumbered and the weakened state of his army; many had dysentery and all were exhausted and hungry having lived off nothing but nuts and raw vegetables for days, offered to return Harfleur and pay for damages in return for free and safe passage to Calais. The French, however, demanded that he also renounce all claims to French soil apart from Guyene. While Henry then modified his offer slightly, the negotiations proved unfruitful and they soon broke off after darkness fell.

Prisoners who had been taken during the campaign were released on oath that they would return if God granted Henry and the English victory in battle.

The English camp that night became very quiet, not only due to the exhaustion of the army and their precarious position; most expecting to die the following day in battle but on Henry's order. Silence was to be enforced at the risk of the loss of horse and harness for a knight or the right ear of a person of lesser standing. So quiet did the camp become that French outposts came to believe that the few fires in the English camp marked the position of an abandoned position.

The French camp, on the other hand, could not have been more different. So confident of victory were they that many sat up late drinking, gambling and boasting about who would kill or capture whom. Some knights even painted a cart in which Henry would be paraded through the streets of Paris!

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 Battle

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.

The Aftermath

Contemporary estimates of French losses range from 4 to 11,000 while more modern scholars estimate 7-10,000. In addition, 1500-1600 prisoners, all nobility, were taken to England as prisoners. Many of these, unable to pay the demanded ransom, never returned. This resulted in the loss of nearly half of the French nobility and the French king's support base. Most came from the northern provinces there the French recruited most of their military. The highest estimate of English losses, however, is 500 with more reliable sources estimating closer to 100.

With the only French army in the field destroyed, Henry was unable to press home his advantage and march on Paris due to the impoverished state of his army and a lack of seige weapons. The English, with their prisoners eventually reached Calais on the 29th. While little territory was gained, apart from a new stagepoint for invasion at Harfleur, the French military was decimated allowing Henry's future victories to be achieved far more easily.

"The result can however be summarized in a single sentence: a regular, trained and disciplined army defeated one that possessed none of these virtues"[3].

Footnotes

[1] For discusion see: Bradbury J. The Medieval Archer, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1985, pp. 95-101.

[2] Oman C.W.C. The Art of War in the Middle Ages AD 378-1515, Cornwall University Press, London, 1953, p.125.

[3] Hibbert, C. Agincourt, B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1964, p.88.

References

Bennett M., Burn J. Agincourt 1415: Triumph Against the Odds , Osprey Publishing Ltd., Oxford, 1991.

Bradbury J. The Medieval Archer , The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1985.

Burne A.H. The Agincourt War: A military history of the latter part of the hundred years war from 1369 to 1453 , Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1956.

Hibbert, C. Agincourt , B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1964.

Keegan J. The Face of Battle , Johnothan Cape Ltd, London, 1976.

Oman C.W.C. The Art of War in the Middle Ages AD 378-1515 , Cornwall University Press, London, 1953.

Seward D. The Hunderd Years War: The English in France 1337-1453 , Constable & Compary Ltd, London, 1978.

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Copyright © 2005 Steve Beck

Written by Steve Beck  If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Steve Beck at: beckster05@yahoo.com.au.

Please visit Steve Beck's website at: http://www.geocities.com/beckster05/index.html.

Published online: 07/23/2005.
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