1415: The battle of Agincourt

Part nine in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1400–1449. Ralph Griffiths examines Henry V's successful victory over France which made him a winner in his own country too

Watercolor Painting Depicting Battle of Agincourt (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415 was the climax of Henry V’s first invasion of France. The English victory was overwhelming, while Henry’s role in the fighting made his reputation as a military genius blessed by God. It was a turning-point in the king’s life and in his quest to be king of France as well as England. The year was also critical for his kingdom and its relationship with Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well as for its European reputation, as preparations for the campaign brought to a head issues which influenced developments for long after.

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Soon after Henry became king in March 1413 at the age of 25, he began preparing for an invasion of France which he had advocated in his father’s reign. Preparations included securing the Welsh and Scottish borders and strengthening England’s military and naval capabilities. The king combined the self-confidence and ambition of youth with single-minded purpose and military experience gained in Wales against Owain Glyn Dwr. In 1414, Henry’s intentions became clearer and after Parliament met in November, MPs could report to their constituencies that he would soon be taxing his subjects and the Church and seeking loans to raise an army larger (at 12,000 combatants) than any since the Crécy campaign (1346) of his great-grandfather, Edward III, who had staked a claim to the French throne in 1340.

Henry’s ultimate objective, and his obligation as Edward’s heir, was the French crown. More immediately and realistically, he tried to force territorial concessions from the elderly and insane French monarch, Charles VI, and his quarrelsome nobility: it was the best time to invade France. Henry and Charles exchanged ambassadors over many months, but the French could not agree to ever-increasing English demands. Meanwhile, Henry was planning to shock the French with his power. By mid-March 1415, Charles realised that invasion was coming and negotiations could only delay it. In April and May Henry proclaimed that “we, with God’s help, are about to go overseas to recover and regain the inheritances and just rights of our crown, which, as everyone agrees, have long been unjustly withheld”.

At the same time, Henry’s enterprise put great strains on England, its men, money and loyalties, especially since he might be absent for as long as a year. These strains showed themselves during 1414–15; the way in which they were managed helped to ensure astonishing successes for the English which continued even after the king’s early death (1422).

The army of 1415 was mostly recruited in central and southern England, and the king’s lands in Lancashire, Cheshire and south Wales provided its mainstay, archers. Though the Welsh revolt petered out after 1409, Glyn Dwr was at large until 1416 and there was resentment which had to be overcome if the king wanted to impose war taxation in Wales and raise Welsh soldiers. Thus, soon after he became king, Henry aimed to draw a line under the revolt. He even made overtures to Glyn Dwr in July 1415, a month before embarkation. Service in France and loyalty to the king benefited Welsh soldiers on their return and, in the longer term, reconciled Welsh families to English rule.

1415: in context

England keeps the increasingly confident Scots at bay, expands overseas and is loyal to the king (after a rocky start) – but there’s trouble brewing

Kingship in Britain was in crisis in the century’s first decade. After Henry IV (1399–1413) seized the crown from Richard II, who was murdered in 1400, it took nine years to overcome rebellion; in Scotland, James I’s captivity in England (1406–24) put government in the hands of senior nobles. Yet royal authority in both kingdoms was sustained by nobles, churchmen and subjects, and attracted widespread loyalty. Following Henry V’s invasion in 1415, England could wage continuous war in France for 35 years while keeping the Scots at bay. The remarkable Treaty of Troyes (1420) recognised Henry as heir to the French crown and he married a French princess. But after his death (1422), English nobles and gentry and his son Henry VI failed to fulfil Henry V’s ambitions before (1449–50) losing all the English conquests in northern France except Calais. By 1450, England was heading for civil war, the Scottish monarchy for a period of greater confidence.
 
Each monarchy was the focus of intense patriotism and Scottish and English kings claimed dominions beyond their realms: the Scots against Norway in the Northern Isles, the English in Wales and Ireland which had long-established English administrations. At the Council of Constance (1414–18), the English proclaimed that the Welsh and Irish, even the Scots, were part of the English “nation”, just a few years after Owain Glyn Dwr led the most dangerous rebellion (1400–9) against Henry IV. These responsibilities were underpinned by sophisticated central and local governments and financial resources, especially in England; while the co‑operation of nobles (including great lords in the Welsh March, northern England and Ireland, and in west and north Scotland), gentry, the Church and townsfolk – often in Parliaments − was essential to maintain peace and wage war.
 
Britain’s population was less than it had been, and famines and plagues recurred after 1400. The population was unevenly distributed: England’s was fairly stable at about two and a third million, more than the combined totals of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Arable and pastoral farming, the economy’s foundation, was also unevenly spread in the lowlands and uplands, and stock rearing (especially sheep) became more popular. Although wool exports from English and Scottish ports were in the doldrums, England’s textile industry produced increasing quantities of good cloth for export; and while many towns had shrunk in size, some prospered and London (with Westminster) and the emerging Scottish capital, Edinburgh, were in a class of their own.
 
Despite rebellion and war, the arts flourished through royal, noble and urban patronage and spiritual devotion. London’s Guildhall was begun in 1411, James I’s palace at Linlithgow in 1425; a Welsh knight began Raglan castle (1430s), Kilclief (County Down) was among many new tower houses, and “wool churches” sprouted in East Anglia. The poet John Lydgate was patronised by Lancastrian kings and nobles, and James I composed The Kingis Quair in captivity, both writers indebted to Chaucer (died 1400).

The Irish question

The crown’s second dominion, Ireland, was also a problem. Glyn Dwr tried to ally with independent Irish chieftains who resented Anglo-Irish lords and English governors in Dublin, and might assist England’s French and Scottish enemies. Moreover Ireland, more so than Wales, was a drain on English resources; when Henry V gave priority in men and money to the French war, the lordship of Ireland gradually fell under the control of Anglo-Irish lords. This detached Ireland from effective English rule during the rest of the century.

The separate kingdom of Scotland was a greater threat. From the 14th century, the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland gave every English king who planned to campaign in France pause for thought that the Scots might launch raids, or worse, across the border. Henry V inherited one advantage from his father: King James I had been a prisoner in England since 1406. Yet this did not deter the Scots, for the Duke of Albany, Regent of Scotland, was not keen to negotiate James’s return, even though his own son, Murdach, was also imprisoned in England. In November 1414 Parliament took steps to defend Berwick and the borders, and Henry tried to come to terms with Albany by exchanging Murdach for Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland, who had been in Scottish hands since 1402. This agreement would have been a useful insurance in 1415. But the exchange was postponed and shortly before Henry embarked for France, French envoys arrived in Scotland (22 June); a month later a Scottish force crossed the border and the English retaliated. The French war increased tension between England and Scotland, and Scots even served in French armies after 1419.

Of course, Henry had to stamp his authority on England if he were to campaign in France – especially so early in his reign. His father Henry IV seized the crown from Richard II in 1399 but this act, which founded the Lancastrian dynasty, did not go unchallenged and he spent much of his reign fighting rebellions. When Henry V succeeded in 1413, some claimed that the deposed Richard II was still alive, and others believed that Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, was his rightful heir. Henry also faced trouble from Lollard heretics inspired by John Wycliffe (died 1384), whose calls for church reform were regarded as traitorous, especially when, in January 1414, the king’s friend, Sir John Oldcastle, joined a rising. Parliament passed anti-Lollard legislation, and early in 1415 the execution of heretics in London gripped the public and the city chroniclers – and helped Henry harness the Church in support of his war.

A plot to kill the king

Oldcastle escaped and by August 1415 was causing trouble in the Welsh borderland, just when a plot against the king was being hatched. These threats to Lancastrian rule were not coordinated but Henry V’s war preparations gave them focus. The plot aimed to kill the king at Southampton and place the young Earl of March on the throne; but it was nipped in the bud, and the Agincourt victory ended for a generation all serious challenges to Henry and his son, Henry VI, that used the revolution of 1399 as justification. The leading plotters were the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope of Masham and Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland, hoping that March would attract support in Wales and Scotland. At the last moment (31 July), March himself revealed all to the king and the leaders were summarily executed; Henry left it to Parliament in his absence to endorse what he had done. The treatment of the plotters and the presence of most nobles in the English army reflect Henry’s success in mastering his enemies and reconciling dissidents. Victory at Agincourt induced Church and Parliament to support future campaigns.

Agincourt entered English (and Welsh) mythology because contemporaries celebrated it, exaggerated Henry’s achievement and saw God’s hand in it all, and because Shakespeare’s vision has been compelling drama ever since. But it was close-run; Henry’s army left Southampton on 11 August, late in the season for a long campaign. It made for Harfleur on the River Seine, rather than English Calais, presumably “to stuff the town with Englishmen” so Normandy could be overawed, the channel secured and communications with Aquitaine established.

But the army found the town of Harfleur heavily fortified and the siege was long and disease-ridden; a third of the army either died or was invalided home with dysentery. The town eventually surrendered on 22 September after heavy bombardment. The decision to march through Normandy to Calais turned out to be dangerous. Henry’s exhausted army, perhaps 9,000 men, mostly archers, had difficulty in finding a safe crossing of the River Somme, so that instead of covering 150 miles, they marched 250 miles in 17 days, allowing a larger French army to overtake them. In the heat of battle at Agincourt, moreover, Henry flouted chivalric convention by slaughtering many captives. But his victory on 25 October swept all criticism aside.

To an English observer, the French seemed “like a countless swarm of locusts”, but they were not led by their king or his heir, and most of the royal dukes were absent. Henry donned his helmet with “a very rich crown of gold encircling it like an imperial crown” and delivered a speech to his men: “In the name of Almighty God, and of St George, Forward Banner! And St George this day thine help”. The French cavalry was dislocated by English and Welsh archers and the hand-to-hand fighting was ferocious. The French dead were piled to the height of a man’s head; the losses on the English side were astonishingly small. To the English, this seemed God’s work.

Agincourt was not a decisive battle, though Harfleur’s capture was important. For the French, the battle was devastating to morale. For the English, it became the stuff of patriotic propaganda focused on Henry V and binding nobles, churchmen and Parliament to his causes. He was reportedly carried ashore at Dover on the shoulders of exultant subjects; in London (23 November) pageants proclaimed: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. Agincourt helped to create a regal myth that sustained the king and his French enterprise − and made subsequent defeats seem all the more scandalous.

On the continent, the reputation of England and its king was transformed. At the Church Council at Constance (1414–18), English envoys lauded “our victorious king of England, Henry V, faithful soldier of Christ and strongest striver after peace”. Sigismund, Emperor of Germany, visited Henry (May 1416) to make peace between England and France, and went away his ally. In Italy the king was known as Il Magnifico. Agincourt’s memory spurred Henry to renew hostilities (1417) which led to the conquest of Normandy and the Treaty of Troyes (1420), which recognised him as heir to the French throne. 1415 was the year when the Lancastrian dynasty was stabilised at home and set out on extraordinarily ambitious paths abroad.

History facts: 1400–1449 

30 outbreaks of plague or pestilence occurred in the British Isles from 1400 to 1449, though they were increasingly localised and urban
 
37 English Parliaments were held between 1400 to 1449, all but four at Westminster
 
Between 1415 and 1450 an English army crossed to northern France in all but five years

Key years: Other important events in the first half of the 15th century

1400 – Henry subdues the Scots. After seizing Richard II’s crown, Henry IV faced serious difficulties. A conspiracy to assassinate him at Windsor was thwarted at the last moment, and the nobles involved were killed at Cirencester (January). Richard II’s murder at Pontefract (February) outraged many; in the summer Henry led an army to subdue the Scots; and in September Owain Glyn Dwr declared himself prince of Wales, prompting Henry to lead his first expedition against the Welsh.

1401 – Licence to burn. The statute “on the burning of heretics” enabled the first English Lollard, William Sawtre, to be burned at Smithfield (March). It authorised relapsed heretics to be punished by a government that feared insurrection as well as criticism of the Church.

1403 – Battle of Shrewsbury. By quick and decisive action, Henry IV defeated Henry “Hotspur” and his father Northumberland, who had Welsh and Scottish support, at the Battle of Shrewsbury (July). This marked the beginning of the king’s long but successful campaign to quell rebellion against him.

1412 – First Scottish university founded. Scotland’s first university was founded at St Andrews and received authorisation from Pope Benedict XIII. Before that Scottish students went to continental (especially French) universities for their education and religious training during the wars with England.

1420 – Henry V becomes Duke of Normandy. The notable Treaty of Troyes between Henry V and Charles VI of France (May) was the pinnacle of Henry V’s achievement. It recognised him as duke of Normandy and heir to the French throne, and in June he married Charles’s daughter Catherine. The Dauphin was disinherited and Henry and Charles entered Paris together on 12 December. Henry V died two months before Charles VI (1422) so that the “dual kingdom” was inherited instead by the nine‑month-old Henry VI.

1429 – Right to vote is defined. A statute of the English Parliament defined the qualification for voting in county elections: it was limited to freeholders with property worth 40 shillings net per annum and was probably designed to raise the standing of MPs and avoid disputed elections. The statute remained in force until the Great Reform Act of 1832.

1437 – A great frost heralds high food prices. According to the Great Chronicle of London, early in the year there was “a passing great frost − and one of the strongest that hath been seen. For bread was frozen so hard together that unless men would thaw it by the fire men might not eat it nor cut it with a knife but if they would hew it with axe or hatchet”. There followed several years of grain shortage and high food prices in England and Scotland.

1440 – Eton and Cambridge are founded. Henry VI founded Eton College for 25 poor scholars, the first English king to found a public grammar school with educational and religious objectives. Four months later (February 1441) he also founded King’s College, Cambridge. They were among a number of such foundations in mid-15th-century England.

1449 – English power declines. Events in this year heralded a collapse of political confidence in England: an English attack on the Breton fortress of Fougères precipitated renewed war with France which soon ended the English occupation of Rouen (October) and Normandy. Meanwhile, the disgruntled Duke of York withdrew to Ireland (June) where he had a power-base, while James II strengthened Scotland’s alliances in the Low Countries by marrying Mary of Gueldres (July).

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1483: Richard grabs the throne

Go back: 1381: The Peasant’s Revolt

Part ten in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1450–1499

Ralph A Griffiths is a historian and an emeritus professor at Swansea University

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This article was first published in the December 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine