This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” These nine words from Shakespeare’s Henry V are among the best known in the great playwright’s canon. Yet they are also seriously misleading. For, as King Henry prepared to do battle with his French foes at Agincourt 600 years ago, he did so not with a hopelessly outnumbered force – as Shakespeare’s description of the battle would have us believe – but with an army of around 8,500 men.
That army had numbered close to 12,000 when Henry led it across the Channel in mid-August, making it the largest sent to France since Edward III’s invasion 70 years earlier. The English king was hellbent on conquering Normandy – and he was not about to fail through a lack of numbers.
But despite the size of his army – and the subsequent acclaim for his victory at Agincourt as a high-water mark in medieval English history – Henry’s campaign in Normandy started badly. After more than a month, his army had seized just one target – the port of Harfleur on the Channel coast – and at a terrible cost. As the author of the contemporary chronicle Gesta Henrici Quinti observed: “Dysentery carried off more of our men than the sword, and had so direly afflicted and disabled many of the rest that they could not journey on with him further.”
Muster rolls of the sick show that at least 1,500 were sent home, while Henry’s heavy bombardment had weakened Harfleur’s walls so much that he was forced to leave a huge garrison of 1,200 men to defend it. Hardly surprising, then, that he decided to abort his campaign and attempt to return home quickly via Calais. There is no evidence that he sought a battle with the French.
So how did the battle at Agincourt come about? The answer is that the French were determined to catch and crush the English king. When Henry reached the river Somme (see the map later in this feature) he was dissuaded from attempting to cross by rumours that the French were waiting for him on the northern bank. Even as Henry moved eastwards, he knew his pursuers would try to intercept him. Prisoners had divulged that the French planned to override the English archers, prompting Henry to “proclaim throughout the army that every archer was to prepare for himself a stake, square or round, six feet long… and sharpened at both ends. Whenever the French army drew near to do battle and to break the English ranks… the archers should drive in their stakes in front of them.” This was a wise precaution, and one that shows Henry’s awareness of the dangers facing himself and his army.
Once Henry had managed to cross the Somme, the French sent heralds summoning him to battle. Agincourt was a pre-arranged battle, and it was the French who wanted to fight it.
On the face of it, all advantages lay with the French. They chose the location and, as they arrived first, we must assume they chose their position. They also enjoyed a numerical advantage. Contemporary chroniclers’ claims that the French army numbered anything up to 100,000 men are wildly unrealistic – the figure was probably nearer 12,000 – yet, for all that, they undoubtedly took to the field with more men than their English rivals.
So why were they unable to make these advantages count? The answer lies in rudderless leadership, lack of cohesion and the withering power of Henry’s archers.
The most senior member of the French royal family present at Agincourt on the morning of the battle was the 21-year-old, militarily inexperienced Duke of Orléans. Chronicles place a great deal of blame on France’s callow young leaders, who ignored the warnings of the older, more seasoned commanders and predicted that Henry’s men would be afraid of the larger French army. Instead, as the author of the Religieux of St Denis remarked: “The English marched in resolute fashion on the French, determined to hazard the chances of combat, and exhorting each other to fight valiantly to the death.”
The many weeks of living and fighting together in enemy territory had served to strengthen rather than undermine English confidence: they knew that they could rely on each other in a way that the French, beset by political divisions and a lack of royal leadership, could not.
Yet the real ace in Henry’s hand was his corps of more than 7,000 archers. These were not only far more numerous than their French counterparts (most of whom were armed with slow-reloading crossbows) but also far more effective – and it wasn’t long before they were raining down hell on their enemies.
The French army’s opening move of the battle to was to launch a cavalry charge against Henry’s archers in an attempt to knock them out of the fight. This was an entirely sensible tactic, yet it seems that too few Frenchmen volunteered to take part in the charge, and it failed to make any impact. “God and our archers caused them soon to stumble, for our archers did not shoot a single arrow that day which did not kill and bring to the ground man or horse.” This observation in a version of the Brut chronicle is an exaggeration – not all of Henry’s 7,000 or so archers were up to Robin Hood standards – but the cumulative effect of their arrow storm, as well as their determination and discipline, proved devastating.
The failure of the cavalry charge dealt a serious blow to French prospects of victory. But the real key to understanding the scale of their defeat lies in what happened when they then attempted a mass advance on foot.
Up to 5,000 men moved forward, intending to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the English men-at-arms – troops of similar martial training, armour and equipment. Some did reach the English lines – which explains the death of the Duke of York in the subsequent fighting – but the majority failed miserably, falling beneath what one French chronicle described as a “terrifying hail of arrow shot”.
Imagine what it must have been like, having no choice but to try to push forward slowly across sodden, muddy ground in the face of a storm of arrows. The fact that the arrows rained down in spurts rather than a continuous bombardment made it all the more terrifying: the French didn’t know when they were next going to face the barrage.
The result was a funnelling effect, forcing men to crowd in on each other, packed so close that they could no longer raise their weapon arms. As men fell over, others piled on top of them, and many died from suffocation without ever actually engaging in the fight.
Those French men-at-arms who did survive to reach the English line were so disabled that even the lightly armed English archers were able to enter the melee, “throwing down their bows and arrows and taking up their swords, hatchets, mallets, axes, falcon beaks and other weapons”, as the Burgundian soldier Jean de Wavrin put it.
In this scenario, in which hand-to-hand fighting between the men-at-arms of both sides was limited, it is hardly surprising that English fatalities were relatively low; we don’t know the exact figure but it’s unlikely to have exceeded a few hundred. The number of French deaths was much higher, though to date it has only been possible to identify around 500 dead. And when you factor in that these men met their deaths in just a couple of hours – many of them hailing from the same noble families in Upper Normandy and Picardy – there’s little doubt that the impact of the defeat on the area was considerable. At least 320 prisoners can be identified.
So the English were the conclusive victors at Agincourt. But does that make the battle medieval England’s finest hour? When considering this question, it’s important to remember that Agincourt was not a decisive battle. Charles VI may have been known as the ‘mad’ king but he was astute enough not to join the French army at Agincourt, nor to send his son, the dauphin. Therefore, though the English took some high-ranking Frenchmen prisoner, these were not politically significant enough to force the French to the negotiating table.
However, the battle did enhance Henry’s position at home and gave him leverage to raise money and troops for further expeditions, culminating in the conquest of Normandy between 1417 and 1419. Not surprisingly, the French chose not to engage Henry in battle again.
Soon, however, other developments were more significant than Agincourt, especially Charles VI’s recognition of Henry as his heir and regent of France in the treaty of Troyes of May 1420. And this event had as much to do with political divisions in France as Henry’s military prowess.
Though Henry made efforts late in 1416 to have his victory remembered through the saints on whose day it fell (Crispin and Crispinian, though he also credited St John of Beverley with help in the battle), there is no evidence that Agincourt achieved ‘cult status’ in any modern sense. Once Henry was dead, parliament petitioned for campaign wages that had not yet been paid to be recalled, and there was never any major income from the ransoms of the leading prisoners.
By the middle of the 15th century (when England faced defeat in the Hundred Years’ War), English military losses in France made Agincourt a distant memory. However, in November 1449, when most of Normandy was already lost, the House of Commons made a significant gesture by choosing as their speaker Sir John Popham – the only MP who was a veteran of Agincourt.
Edward IV visited the field during his French campaign of 1475, and the author of The First English Life of Henry V (1513–14) hoped to stir Henry VIII to action in France by recalling his namesake’s successes.
For all this, it wasn’t until the late 16th century that Agincourt began to attain its iconic status. This was linked to a growing interest in late medieval history, genealogy and aspirations to gentility. In order to acquire coats of arms in the visitations of the heralds, it was useful to claim that your ancestors had fought at Agincourt.
As a result, many spurious claims were advanced and tales improved in the telling. One particularly egregious example came from the Waller family of Groombridge in Kent, who added the escutcheon (heraldic shield) of Charles of Orléans to their arms between 1592 and 1619 on the false grounds that Richard Waller had captured the duke at the battle and housed him at Groombridge, making so much money out of the ransom that he could rebuild his house and church. In fact, Waller had the duke’s younger brother in his custody, and not as a result of the battle but through a hostage arrangement of 1412.
From the late 16th century onwards, many minor gentry families created Agincourt myths for themselves. Michael Drayton’s poem The Battaile of Agincourt (1627) regaled its readers with stories of derring-do – some of which starred men who had not even been at the battle. An example was John Woodhouse. He was credited with hitting French soldiers on the head with a large club, which found its way onto the Woodhouse coat of arms, along with the motto Frappe fort (‘hit hard’ – the expression allegedly used by Woodhouse when wielding his club against French skulls).
Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599) is a manifestation of the huge interest in the medieval past that blossomed in late 16th-century England. Its portrayal of Agincourt dominates modern views of the battle, to the extent that many people believe that Henry V actually uttered the words attributed to him by Shakespeare.
The play all but disappeared from theatres during the 17th century but enjoyed a renaissance in the mid-18th century when its invocation of a triumphant victory over the French made it a powerful piece of propaganda amid renewed and regular outbreaks of conflict with France. Indeed, when The Times first noted the anniversary of the battle on 25 October 1757, it was Shakespeare’s words that it chose to employ.
The Bard’s battle
A study of newspapers reveals how useful Agincourt, and especially Shakespeare’s version of Agincourt, was as a means of conjuring past successes against the French and encouraging contemporary politicians and soldiers to try to emulate their predecessors on the battlefield. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars provided a major impetus: the first HMS Agincourt was launched in 1796 and a horse called Agincourt ran at Newmarket in 1805, the same year that punters could pay a shilling to view Robert Ker Porter’s picture of the battle – a panorama covering 261 square metres.
Within this scenario, the notion developed that the English had won because of their democratic tradition. Charles Dickens, in his Child’s History of England (1853), contrasted the good stout archers with the proud and wicked French nobility who dragged their country to destruction. A lecture script sent out to accompany the showing in schools and factories of Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V in 1944 brought to mind a kind of ‘Tommy Atkins’ of the 15th century, depicting the archer who broke the charge of the French knights at the battle.
Colonial and pioneer societies have routinely invoked Agincourt, too, as the epitome of a heroic spirit in challenging circumstances. At the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the town of Agincourt in Fennimore County, Iowa in 1907, John Philip Sousa was commissioned to compose his March to Agincourt. Another anniversary, the silver jubilee of King George V in 1935, prompted the BBC to commission the Agincourt overture from Walter Leigh.
The first known tour for those with an interest in inspecting the scenes of Henry V’s triumph was organised by Thomas Cook in 1886. That Agincourt held a place at the head of the long list of British military achievements was confirmed by its inclusion in the Army Pageant held at Fulham Palace in 1910. Since its director was the well-known Shakespearean FR Benson, it is hardly surprising that the dialogue used was largely penned by the Bard.
By the time of the 500th anniversary of the battle in 1915, Britain and France were allies in the First World War, engaged in a mortal conflict against a common enemy. The French battalion stationed near Agincourt invited British officers to share the day with them as a “joint celebration of an ancient battle day of honourable memory to both”, reported the Illustrated London News. That same spirit underlies the collaborations planned for the 600th anniversary.
Stripping away the myths and legends of later centuries, what have we left? For me, Agincourt is a battle that, above all else, demonstrates the significance of good leadership. Its lessons are perennial: the size of an army matters less than the skills of its commander and the cohesion of its troops.
Build-up to the battle
Henry V launched his August 1415 invasion of Normandy during the long contest for the throne of France between French and English rulers known as the Hundred Years’ War. The seeds of that conflict were sown when the French king Charles IV died in 1328. Edward III of England was the nearest male relative (his mother, Isabella, was Charles’s sister). Yet the French, hardly keen to be ruled by an Englishmen, chose Philip, Count of Valois, who reigned as Philip VI. Though initially accepting Philip, in 1340 Edward declared himself king, partly in response to Philip’s seizure of English landholdings in Aquitaine.
Edward defeated Philip at the battle of Crécy in August 1346. In 1356 the Black Prince, Edward’s son, captured Philip’s successor, John II, at Poitiers, forcing the French to the negotiating table.
In 1360 the treaty of Brétigny was signed, a diplomatic settlement giving Edward huge swathes of south-west France free from French overlordship. But in 1369 the French reneged on this treaty, depriving the English of almost all of those gains.
In 1396 the 10-year-old lord Henry (the future Henry V) accompanied his half-cousin King Richard II to Calais to celebrate the latter’s marriage to the French king’s daughter, a match accompanied by the agreement of a 30-year truce.
After he was crowned in England, Henry chose to end this truce and to invade France. He was the first English king to lead an army to France in person since Edward III in 1359. But Henry also pursued a new approach in the Hundred Years’ War: his aim was conquest. He had engaged his troops for 12 months in order to take Normandy. But after a longer-than-expected siege of his first target, Harfleur, he chose to march quickly to Calais, avoiding battle. The French, however, had other plans, and intercepted him at Agincourt.
Key moments at Agincourt
The most decisive points in this historic engagement, from eve of battle to the controversial execution of prisoners…
24 October, afternoon
Henry’s army arrived at Agincourt to find the French blocking his route to Calais. He expected the French to give battle that day, and he drew up his men into battle formation. Chronicle accounts tell us that Henry gave his pre-battle speech and that other preparations were made at this point. His soldiers confessed their sins and made ready to fight. But the French did not attack: they were still waiting for more troops to arrive. They had missed their chance to attack Henry before he had the opportunity to choose the best possible position for his archer-strong army.
Preparing for battle
Night of 24–25 October
Henry prepared for the next day by sending out scouts to survey the ground and discussing with his commanders how best to deploy his troops in order to give maximum protection to his archers. The French camp was noisy and chaotic – even now not all troops had arrived. Some of the older French commanders – such as the marshal Boucicaut – expressed concerns about giving battle but their advice was ignored.
25 October, early morning
Henry adopted a defensive position with three battalions of men-at-arms in the centre, and archers on the flanks and initially in front. All were protected by a wall of stakes, while woodland at the sides also provided useful defence. Initially there was a stand-off. Henry moved his army forward to goad the French, but remained on the firmer ground, forcing the French to cross waterlogged terrain.
25 October, mid to late morning
The French opening move – a mounted charge against the archers – was too weak, with men reluctant to expose their horses to the damaging rain of arrows. The main assault of men-at-arms on foot followed, but was halted by a large-scale arrow storm, which made the French men crowd together so closely that they could not raise their weapons. Some fell, and others fell on top of them. The force of the attack was lost and the remaining men proved easy pickings even for the lightly armoured English archers. The French rear divisions, seeing what had happened to their compatriots, fled without engaging.
25 October, between noon and 1pm
Henry stood down his army and allowed his men to search through the enemy heaps for prisoners. A cry went up that a new French troop was approaching. Henry’s men, with their helmets and gauntlets removed and their weapons put aside, were in no position to offer resistance and feared that their prisoners could take advantage of the situation. Henry ordered the prisoners to be killed. Some were herded into a barn, which was set on fire. A brief engagement followed but the French soon chose to withdraw completely.
25–26 October, evening
The two most important English casualties, Edward, Duke of York and Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, were dismembered and their flesh removed by boiling, so that their bodies could be taken back to England. Other English dead were burned. Henry remained concerned that the French might attack again. He ordered his soldiers not to distract themselves by collecting booty from the field but rather to burn it. Early on 26 October Henry had his army march quickly away from Agincourt in defensive formation, ensuring that the remaining prisoners were well guarded.
Anne Curry is professor of medieval history and dean of humanities at the University of Southampton.