The Battle of Agincourt,
The English victory at the Battle
of Agincourt gave birth to a legend that was immortalized in William
Shakespeare's King Henry V. The battle took place in a muddy
farmer's field in northern France on October 25, 1415 and was one
in a series of encounters between France and England that has become
known as the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453).
The story begins two months before the battle. Henry and his
army had landed in France on August 14 near the mouth of the Seine
River. The objective was to regain English territory lost to France
over a period of centuries. The first task was to besiege and conquer
a nearby town. Henry was successful, but the time-consuming effort
took over a month. It was now early October. Henry realized that
his reduced force and the limited time left in the campaigning
season, meant that he would not be able to press his attack on
the French. Instead, he lead his army north in a "show of
force" that would end at the English port of Calais and embarkation
back to England.
As the English army marched north, it was dogged by a French force
intent on bringing Henry to battle. The French were able to slip
ahead of Henry and block his path to the sea at Agincourt. On the
morning of October 25, the two armies faced one another on a recently
plowed field muddied by an overnight rain and constricted by woodlands
on either side. The majority of Henry's army was made up of archers;
the remainder consisted of armored knights who fought on foot. His
opponent's force consisted primarily of knights who fought on foot
and on horseback, supported by archers. Although estimates of the
relative strength of the two armies vary, there is no argument that
the English were vastly outnumbered.
|Henry V at the time
battle. His haircut provides
a more comfortable fit
for his battle helmet.
The two enemies faced one another, exchanging taunts designed
to provoke an attack. Henry marched his force close enough to allow
his archers to unleash a hail of arrows upon the French. The French
knights charged forward only to be caught in a slippery quagmire
of mud. To make matters worse, the French attackers were unable
to effectively swing their broadswords because of the tight quarters
of the battlefield and the continuing forward rush of their comrades
behind them. Henry's archers fired lethal storms of arrows into
this dense mass of humanity until the French began to retreat.
The archers then dropped their bows, picked up what weapons they
could find and joined the English knights in slaying their foe.
The setting sun left a battlefield heaped with the bodies of thousands
of French knights and the cream of France's ruling class. The English
had dealt their enemy a disastrous blow.
Jehan de Wavrin was the son of a Flemish
knight. His father and older brother fought with the French at
the battle. Both were killed. The young de Wavrin observed the
battle from the French lines and we join his account as the two
armies prepare for combat:
"When the battalions of the French were
thus formed, it was grand to see them; and as far as one could judge
by the eye, they were in number fully six times as many as the English.
And when this was done the French sat down by companies around their
banners, waiting the approach of the English, and making their peace
with one another; and then were laid aside many old aversions conceived
long ago; some kissed and embraced each other, which it was affecting
to witness; so that all quarrels and discords which they had had
in time past were changed to great and perfect love. And there were
some who breakfasted on what they had. And these Frenchmen remained
thus till nine or ten o'clock in the morning, feeling quite assured
that, considering their great force, the English could not escape
them; however, there were at least some of the wisest who greatly
feared a fight with them in open battle.
...The French had arranged their battalions between two small
thickets, one lying close to Agincourt, and the other to Tramecourt.
The place was narrow, and very advantageous for the English, and,
on the contrary, very ruinous for the French, for the said French
had been all night on horseback, and it rained, and the pages,
grooms, and others, in leading about the horses, had broken up
the ground, which was so soft that the horses could with difficulty
step out of the soil. And also the said French were so loaded with
armour that they could not support themselves or move forward.
In the first place they were armed with long coats of steel, reaching
to the knees or lower, and very heavy, over the leg harness, and
besides plate armour also most of them had hooded helmets; wherefore
this weight of armour, with the softness of the wet ground, as
has been said, kept them as if immovable, so that they could raise
their dubs only with great difficulty, and with all these mischiefs
there was this, that most of them were troubled with hunger and
want of sleep.
...Now let us return to the English. After the parley between
the two armies was finished and the delegates had returned, each
to their own people, the King of England, who had appointed a knight
called Sir Thomas Erpingham to place his archers in front in two
wings, trusted entirely to him, and Sir Thomas, to do his part,
exhorted every one to do well in the name of the King, begging
them to fight vigorously against the French in order to secure
and save their own lives. And thus the knight, who rode with two
others only in front of the battalion, seeing that the hour was
come, for all things were well arranged, threw up a baton which
he held in his hand, saying 'Nestrocq' ['Now strike'] which was
the signal for attack; then dismounted and joined the King, who
was also on foot in the midst of his men, with his banner before
Then the English, seeing this signal, began suddenly to march, uttering
a very loud cry, which greatly surprised the French. And when the
English saw that the French did not approach them, they marched dashingly
towards them in very fine order, and again raised a loud cry as they
stopped to take breath.
|A contemporary depiction
of the battle
Agincourt stands in the background.
Then the English archers, who, as I have said, were in the wings,
saw that they were near enough, and began to send their arrows
on the French with great vigour.
Then the French seeing the English come towards them in this
manner, placed themselves together in order, everyone under his
banner, their helmets on their heads. The Constable, the Marshal,
the admirals, and the other princes earnestly exhorted their men
to fight the English well and bravely; and when it came to the
approach the trumpets and clarions resounded everywhere; but the
French began to hold down their heads, especially those who had
no bucklers, for the impetuosity of the English arrows, which fell
so heavily that no one durst uncover or look up.
Thus they went forward a little, then made a little retreat,
but before they could come to close quarters, many of the French
were disabled and wounded by the arrows; and when they came quite
up to the English, they were, as has been said, so closely pressed
one against another that none of them could lift their arms to
strike their enemies, except some that were in front...
[The French knights] struck into these
English archers, who had their stakes fixed in front of them...
their. horses stumbled among the stakes, and they were speedily
slain by the archers, which was a great pity. And most of the rest,
through fear, gave way and fell back into their vanguard, to whom
they were a great hindrance; and they opened their ranks in several
places, and made them fall back and lose their footing in some
land newly sown; for their horses had been so wounded by the arrows
that the men could no longer manage them.
[The French] men-at-arms without number
began to fall; and their horses feeling the arrows coming upon
them took to flight before the enemy, and following their example
many of the French turned and fled. Soon afterwards the English
archers, seeing the vanguard thus shaken, issued from behind their
stockade, threw away their bows and quivers, then took their swords,
hatchets, mallets, axes, falcon-beaks and other weapons, and, pushing
into the places where they saw these breaches, struck down and
killed these Frenchmen without mercy, and never ceased to kill
till the said vanguard which had fought little or not at all was
completely overwhelmed, and these went on striking right and left
till they came upon the second battalion, which was behind the
advance guard, and there the King personally threw himself into
the fight with his men-at-arms.
As the English continued to gain the
upper hand, King Henry received news that the French were attacking
at the rear of his army and that French reinforcements were approaching.
King Henry ordered that all French prisoners be put to the sword
- an order his knights were reluctant to follow as, if kept alive,
these prisoners could bring a healthy ransom:
"When the King of England perceived
them coming thus he caused it to be published that every one
that had a prisoner should immediately kill him, which those
who had any were unwilling to do, for they expected to get great
ransoms for them. But when the King was informed of this he appointed
a gentleman with two hundred archers whom he commanded to go
through the host and kill all the prisoners, whoever they might
be. This esquire, without delay or objection, fulfilled the command
of his sovereign lord, which was a most pitiable thing, for in
cold blood all the nobility of France was beheaded and inhumanly
cut to pieces, and all through this accursed company, a sorry
set compared with the noble captive chivalry, who when they saw
that the English were ready to receive them, all immediately
turned and fled, each to save his own life. Many of the cavalry
escaped; but of those on foot there were many among the dead."
Wavrin, Jehan de, Chronicles, 1399-1422, trans.
Sir W. Hardy and E. Hardy (1887); Keegan, John, The Illustrated
Face of Battle: a study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (1989).
How To Cite This Article:
"The Battle of Agincourt, 1415" EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com