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
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
"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
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
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 . 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
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
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
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
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.
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".
 For discusion see: Bradbury J. The Medieval Archer, The Boydell
Press, Woodbridge, 1985, pp. 95-101.
 Oman C.W.C. The Art of War in the Middle Ages AD 378-1515, Cornwall
University Press, London, 1953, p.125.
 Hibbert, C. Agincourt, B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1964, p.88.
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,
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
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Published online: 07/23/2005.