In 1415, Henry V had begun his campaign to claim the French throne by taking Harfleur. However, his army suffered significant losses, not because of the fighting but from a virulent epidemic of dysentery. Instead of taking the safe option of wintering back in England, Henry embarked on a provocative march across northern France to Calais.
It was a daring and risky endeavour. His army was now no more than around 6,000-9,000 strong, many of whom were weakened by dysentery. The French attempted to prevent the English army from crossing the Somme, delaying the march by several days.
Although Henry finally managed to secure a crossing, he found himself far to the south of Calais, with supplies running dangerously low. He continued northwards, although open battle with the French now seemed inevitable.
Late in the day on 24th October 1415, the French finally managed to intercept Henry, blocking his road to Calais. The ensuing battle took place near the village of Agincourt, just 45 miles south of Calais.
But what really happened at the battle of Agincourt? Of course, we know that Henry won, but how?
We have only a handful of eye-witness sources to work with. These all have their own political biases and problems. Some were writing long after the event. There is also a question mark over how actively engaged in the battle some of these witnesses were (and even as to whether one of them was there at all).
In short, if you read about the battle today, you can encounter a variety of different versions, pieced together from the mix of sometimes conflicting, contemporary accounts.
In pulling together my account of the battle, the account given in Gesta Henrici Quinti should, in my opinion, form the primary (but not sole) guide to the course of events. Why? This document was written by an English Chaplain present with Henry’s army. It is the only account that was a) written by someone who was there and b) written very shortly after the battle. It also provides an account of English tactics which offers, in my view, the most realistic explanation of how the battle was fought.
The Eve of Battle
As the two armies confronted each other it became clear that the French outnumbered the English. The English probably only had around 8,000 men, maybe as many as 9,000 and possibly as few as 6,000. French numbers are hard to judge due to the wildly varying estimates provided by chroniclers. A reasonable estimate based on official records rather than chroniclers would be around 12,000.
In all, the English were most likely outnumbered by a factor of at least 3 to 2 (but not by the more fantastic ratios of 3 to 1 or more provided by some chroniclers).
As the two armies settled into camp for the night, Henry ordered complete silence in the English camp. This made it harder for the French to launch a surprise attack undetected. As it happened a small group of French did attempt a raid that night, but quickly withdrew after a minor skirmish.
The rival armies
The opposing armies differed from each other significantly in terms of their composition.
The French army contained a significant number of heavily armed and armoured men-at-arms. These men were all trained to fight hand-to-hand with a variety of weapons including swords, lances, and axes. They could fight as equally well on foot as they could mounted. The most skilled horsemen amongst them were picked to the fight on horseback during the battle but the majority would fight on foot.
The French also had a significant number of archers, crossbowmen and gunners. They formed a minority of the total army but nevertheless represented a significant force.
The English, by contrast, had only a few men-at-arms. No more than around 20% of their army were as well armed and equipped as this. They were significantly outnumbered by their French counterparts. Fully 80% of the English army consisted of their famous longbowmen.
When deployed effectively, the English longbowmen were a potent force. However, they could be vulnerable if caught in a straight melee with the more heavily armed men-at-arms, especially those on horseback.
The French plan
The French had previously drawn up a plan in the event of a pitched battle. However, it had been revised and fiddled with several times to reflect changing circumstances.
Initially, the French anticipated fielding a significant army that incorporated a substantial contribution from the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany. In the event neither Duke contributed anything much more than a token force. This was partly down to the animosity both Dukes held for the Armagnac faction that dominated the French court. The plan was therefore revised for a much smaller French force. However, as the French had gradually mustered more men, it had to be revised once more for a larger army.
The final iteration of this plan was to position the main force of men-at-arms on foot in the centre. These would attack in three waves: a vanguard, a main battle line and a rear guard. The French suspected the English would position their archers on the flanks (as they often did). To deal with this, the French planned first to move forward their own archers. These men would engage and weaken the English longbowmen. Meanwhile a large force of mounted men-at-arms would sweep around the flanks and, ideally, attack the English archers from the flanks or rear.
The English plan
As night fell, Henry could see that the French had selected a strong defensive position. However, it had been raining a lot recently, making the ground muddy and waterlogged. This meant that any French attack would be slowed by the boggy conditions.
Henry also saw that the battlefield was constrained on both sides by woods. This made it harder for the larger army to outflank the English. However, to take full advantage of this, he would ideally need to advance his army some 300 yards, to the point where the gap was narrowest. Such an advance would be risky, as it would leave his archers highly exposed to cavalry attack.
Henry had previously ordered his archers to carve stakes, which they could use to create an improvised defensive barrier. It was a tactic that had first been used against the French by the Ottomans, in the Nicopolis Crusade in 1396. However, the stakes would be of no use whilst the army was moving. If the French cavalry attacked during an advance, the archers would probably be massacred. It was a dilemma that must have troubled Henry as he planned his strategy that night.
The French command
Command of the French army was an issue. The absence of a single clear commander (neither the King nor the Dauphin were present) created a challenging situation. Military leadership fell, in theory, primarily to Charles d’Albret, the Constable of France, assisted by Marshal Boucicaut. Both were experienced soldiers who enjoyed high office but, crucially, they lacked high noble rank. This was unfortunate.
Also present in the army were several Dukes. Socially and politically, they outranked the military commanders to a significant degree. This was especially true of the Duke of Orleans, the young head of the Armagnac faction that dominated the court. For these reasons military strategy had to be agreed in a council.
‘The services of mechanics and artisans’
Fighting in the vanguard provided the greatest opportunity to win honour in battle. Given the smaller size of the English army there was a very real chance that anyone fighting in the French rear might miss out on the action. Therefore, virtually everyone who was anyone wanted to be in the vanguard or, at least, with the main battle line.
To placate all these clashing egos, virtually all the French leaders of any note were permitted to fight in the first two waves. The rear guard would follow on behind, largely denuded of leadership. The idea of sending archers in to engage the English longbowmen at the start of the battle was abandoned. Space constraints on the field made it difficult to accommodate them. More importantly, the haughty French blue bloods almost certainly baulked at the idea of following lowly commoners into battle. The archers, then, were mostly dumped at the back.
Some of the French archers, given nothing to do, may even have departed that night, or early the following morning. Their services, it seemed, were no longer required. As one French lord of the time put it, dismissing the potential worth of commoners volunteering from Paris, “the services or mechanics and artisans can surely be of little value.”
It was dawn on 25th October 1415. Henry began his morning early, with prayers and masses. The army formed up and Henry rode along the line, quietly organising his men. It was clear that they were heavily outnumbered. With the army assembled, Henry knelt and kissed the ground, saying, “Saint George, thine help!” His men followed his example, took a piece of earth, and kissed it as they prayed for divine aid.
All the while they could clearly see the larger French army watching them from a distance. The flower of French chivalry formed up on foot, in the front, in full plate armour, their numerous banners billowing in the wind. It must have been a truly magnificent sight.
The French cavalry was either situated on the flanks or, perhaps, waiting at the rear. Also at the back, just in front of the French baggage were the bulk of the ‘spare’ archers, guns, and other siege engines.
A final token attempt was made to broker a peace before battle commenced. A small deputation from both armies met on neutral ground between the two armies. However, the parley didn’t last long. With the formalities over, there was little Henry could do now but wait for the French to attack.
But the French did not attack. They waited.
‘Fellows, let us go!’
Three tense hours passed, and no one made a move.
Henry eventually realised that the French were probably not going to make the first move. They were blocking his road to Calais after all. They had all the time in the world. Henry’s army, by contrast, was tired and weakened, running low on supplies, and worn down by dysentery. They could not really afford to delay.
Finally, Henry decided to take the initiative. The army would march forward those 300 yards to claim the ideal defensive position, where battlefield was most constrained. It would also bring them to within longbow range of the French. It was a huge risk, but there seemed to be no other option.
Shakespeare gives Henry a rousing speech to inspire his troops. The real-life Henry was not really a man to make long speeches but, on this occasion, what he did say was no less poignant. Turning to his army to issue the order to advance, Henry called out, “Fellows, let us go on our journey!”
A dangerous gamble
Things did not look good for the English. The archers uprooted their stakes. Then they carried them 300 yards forward before re-planting them, driving them firmly back into the ground with their heavy lead mallets. All this was done in full view of the French army. Any cavalry charge during this manoeuvre would have resulted in a massacre.
But there was no cavalry attack. Henry’s gamble had, amazingly, paid off.
Why didn’t the French attack?
For one thing, if some or all their cavalry had been near the rear, they wouldn’t have seen the English advance. Instead, they would have to rely on messengers from the front getting word back to them. Secondly, and more importantly, the French probably didn’t expect an English advance. They assumed the inferior force would take a defensive stance until their hand was forced.
The French were also probably delaying their own attack until other French forces had arrived to optimise their chances of success.
In short, the English caught them off guard. The cavalry believed they would have some time before launching an attack. As a result, many of them were simply not at their station. Several simply wandered off to kill some time before they were called to action.
The English formation
Henry’s army now occupied the narrowest gap between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt. There were just enough men to fill it, but only if almost everyone took a position in the frontline.
There were no men spare to form any kind of significant reserve – a big no-no as far as military thinking of the day was concerned. However, Henry needed all his men to fill the gap between the woods. Doing so made it extremely difficult for his army to be outflanked, especially by cavalry. The benefit of having secure flanks outweighed the risks of having no reserves on which to call.
Henry divided his men-at-arms into three divisions. All would fight on foot; there would be no English cavalry in this battle. He would command the centre. Command of the right wing fell to his cousin, the Duke of York. The left would be commanded by Sir Thomas Camoys, a highly experienced soldier.
The archers were commanded by another experienced soldier, Sir Thomas Erpringham. The archers deployed in wedges, positioned on the far flanks and in between the three divisions. This wedge or ‘harrow’ formation had the advantage of providing them with the optimum field of fire.
The military genius of Henry V
The formation Henry adopted was significant. It featured sizeable defensive ‘wedges’ of archers (80% of the army), protected by stakes, occupying a constrained battlefield, with relatively small gaps in between. These gaps were filled by Henry’s three divisions of men-at-arms. The path of least resistance for any attack would be to funnel into the gaps between the wedges.
A not dissimilar formation had been used by the Roman general Suetonius Paulinus to defeat Boudica. Suetonius deployed it to allow a numerically inferior Roman force take advantage of a constrained battlefield to defeat a far larger army.
But had Henry come up with the idea on his own or had he based it on a genuine knowledge of Suetonius? The most detailed account of this tactic appears in Tacitus; a source not that widely used in medieval times. However, if anyone was likely to have read Tacitus, it would have been Henry. Like his father before him, he was a keen classical scholar. Also, his mother came from one of the most important families of book publishers in England.
Henry’s deployment at Agincourt may have been no mere coincidence. It was certainly reminiscent of Suetonius’ tactics. It was a formation the Romans possibly called ‘the saw’ (although there is some academic dispute over this).
Henry’s archers were now within striking distance of the French front lines. Partly to provoke an attack, the archers fired a couple of opening volleys at the enemy. At long range, against men in heavy armour, it probably had limited effect.
However, whether because of this provocation or in response to the English advance, the French began to act. The French cavalry formed up on the wings for their charge. But many were still not at their stations and the cavalry commanders were not about to wait much longer for their wayward comrades to assemble. The attack should have consisted of between 400 and 500 men on each wing. In the event only around 300 on one wing, and a wholly inadequate 120 on the other, launched the attack.
The cavalry charges
The ground was boggy, slowing and breaking up the charge. The archers on the wings were safely behind their stakes, with their flanks covered by woodland. It would be impossible for the cavalry to make a flanking manoeuvre without losing momentum and formation.
As the cavalry closed, the archers opened fire. Modern tests have shown that the quality of armour worn by these horsemen offered good protection except at closer ranges. However, a well-aimed shot at close range against a charging knight could easily be fatal. The archers could also target their horses, which were not so well armoured. The hail of arrows forced the men-at-arms to close their visors, obscuring their vision.
The charge swiftly lost formation, horses stumbled in the mud or were shot by the archers. Some did make it to the English line but couldn’t find an easy path through the stakes. Wavering at close range, they must have made more vulnerable targets for the longbowmen.
A few attempted to filter around the flanks through the woods, managing to get in amongst the archers. However, they were so badly outnumbered that they were easily pulled from their horses and overwhelmed.
The cavalry began falling back in disarray. The attack had failed.
The main attack
Whilst the cavalry wavered, the vanguard started advancing behind them. They advanced on foot in full plate armour, armed with swords, axes and short lances for hand-to-hand combat. They too were so heavily armoured that they were virtually impervious to enemy arrows from the front, except at close range.
However, as the cavalry and riderless horses fell back in disarray they ran through (and sometimes over) the vanguard, breaking up their formation. One French chronicler wrote that the cavalry:
“…had their horses so severely handled by the archers, that, smarting from pain, they galloped on the van division and threw it into the utmost confusion, breaking the line in many places.”Enguerrand de Monstrelet
The ground was boggy, waterlogged, and slippery. It was no easy task for the vanguard to advance over such terrain in heavy armour. Men slipped and fell. Others found themselves bogged down in mud up to their knees. Wading through thick mud, quickly made them hot and tired. The going must have been particularly hard for those men slogging through the ground churned by the cavalry on the wings.
The English archers began to unleash their volleys. The vanguard’s frontal armour offered significant protection, but they had to close their visors and keep their heads down, impairing their visibility.
The French archers and artillery attempted to support the attack. However, stuck at the rear they couldn’t really see the enemy that clearly. Firing over the heads of their own troops, they were largely ineffective.
As the vanguard approached the English lines, they could see the banners of the English lords that sat between the wedges of archers. There was much honour to be had in fighting and defeating an English lord but little to be gained from engaging a common archer. This, coupled with the problem of cutting their way through a wall of stakes, naturally channelled the attack between the wedges. The French advanced into ever-narrowing funnels.
As the assault flowed between the wedges, their flanks were exposed to the archers at closer range. Now they were vulnerable. The archers took aim and shot at where the armour was weakest. The vanguard began to take significant casualties.
Our English Chaplain provides us with an account of the longbowmen’s actions:
“…a most bitter battle raged, and our archers notched the ends of their arrows and sent them against their flanks, continually renewing battle.”Gesta Henrici Quinti
The ‘saw’ formation now had its desired effect. As the mass of men-at-arms attempted to converge and break through the narrow end of each funnel, they found themselves bunched together. It became increasingly difficult for the men at the front to find the space to wield their weapons.
Still, by sheer weight of numbers alone, the vanguard initially forced back the English men-at-arms in at least a few places. However, as the English recovered from the impact they pressed back and the line was restored.
The French continued to press but their advance ground to a virtual halt. Men from behind, unaware of what was happening, continued to push against the men in front. As the main battle line arrived to reinforce the vanguard, they only served to create a more serious log jam. The archers were now able to fire into the flanks of virtually stationary targets pressed together in a packed formation. For men who’d practiced target shooting on the green for most of their adult lives, it was a turkey shoot.
Worst of all, the French near the front were so pressed together that they couldn’t fight effectively. Their English opponents, however, had no such difficulty. As one French chronicler noted, the men in the attack found themselves:
“…so tightly packed that those who were in the third rank could scarcely use their swords.”The Monk of St. Denis
Fairly early in the battle, not long after the main attack advanced on the English lines, a small party of French raiders attacked the English baggage train. These were led by a local man by the name of Ysembart d’Azincourt. He used his local knowledge to sneak through the woods and around behind the English lines.
The raiders attacked the rear of the baggage train where, by a stroke of luck, they came upon the king’s treasure. They quickly grabbed as much plunder as they could and, placing self-interest before country, ran off with it, taking no further part in the battle.
The triumph of ‘mechanics and artisans’
Meanwhile, in the main battle, the English archers were running out of ammunition. Dropping their bows, they picked up whatever other weapons came to hand and joined the melee. Their lighter armour was far better suited to manoeuvring in such cramped and muddy conditions:
“When their arrows had been used up, they took up axes, stakes, swords and the heads of lances that lay between them, and laid the enemy low, ruining and transfixing them.”Gesta Henrici Quinti
The French death toll was high, trapped as they were in the teeth of the saw. The English, by contrast, suffered few casualties. The English chaplain provides a vivid description of the carnage:
“…the undisciplined violence and pressure of the crowd at the rear was so great that the living fell upon the dead, and even those falling upon the living were killed, such that, in the three places where there was a strong force and the line of our standards, the heap of those who had been killed and those who lay crushed between them grew so great that our men climbed the piles which had grown higher than a man’s height, and slaughtered their adversaries at the rear with their swords, axes and other weapons.”Gesta Henrici Quinti
The fighting lasted for three bloody hours. It was, in many ways, a repeat of the battle of Watling Street, fought so many centuries before between Suetonius and the doomed Boudica. The same basic tactic had delivered the same devastating result.
The vanguard and the main battleline had suffered horrendous casualties. Men fell by the score in the meat grinder of the saw. Disoriented, tired, and demoralised the remaining men began surrendering in significant numbers.
The battle was now largely over. Most of the English turned their attentions to collecting prisoners whilst the last pockets of resistance were mopped up.
A final assault
Elements of the rear guard began mustering to launch a final assault but, lacking effective leadership, such attempts were piecemeal and disorganised.
Nevertheless, patchy and ineffectual as these efforts no doubt were, it created a scare in the English ranks. News of the French raid on the baggage train may also have reached Henry by this time. Was this a prelude to another major French attack?
Henry immediately began re-organising the line just in case they’d need to face a new onslaught. However, there was a big problem. Frenchmen from the vanguard and the main battle line were surrendering in droves. Could these men be trusted not to pick up arms and re-join the fight if another French assault fell on the English? Henry did not have the forces to man the line and effectively guard so many prisoners.
Henry would not take the chance. He gave the order that all French prisoners, save only the richest and most important, should be massacred. It was a ruthless decision, even if it was logical under the circumstances.
If anyone had doubted the grim determination of Henry V before this day, there could be no denying it now.
The order to massacre the prisoners was not that popular with the English lords and knights. Most prisoners could be ransomed, and some could command a tidy sum. Massacring them was unchivalrous and, more importantly, it was throwing away hard cash.
Significant numbers on the English side defied Henry’s orders or dragged their feet in carrying them out. Henry therefore appointed a detachment of archers, men who were unlikely to benefit directly from any ransom money, to carry out the killing.
One French prisoner who survived described how his captors locked him and several other prisoners in a house before setting fire to it. Fortunately, he managed to escape only to be recaptured by a different group of English soldiers shortly after. These men, seeing he was wearing expensive armour, chose to risk defying Henry and kept him alive, hoping to profit from a ransom.
How many French were eventually massacred is uncertain. However, it was likely to have been a significant number. It was a ruthlessly brutal act, even by medieval standards. By the time it became obvious that no new attack was materialising, and Henry cancelled the order, it was already too late for many.
There was no further French attack. Most of the rear guard, and other remaining troops, seeing the battle was lost, were fleeing the field. It was over. The English had won a spectacular victory.
The cost to the French was incredibly high. The Dukes of Alençon, Bar and Brabant were all dead. So too was d’Albret, the Constable of France. Marshal Boucicaut, the Duke of Orleans, and the Duke of Bourbon were all prisoners. As many as nine counts lay dead on the field. The casualty list of nobles and knights read like a who’s who of the Armagnac court faction.
English casualties had, by contrast, been relatively light. Amongst the English lords present at the battle the most notable casualty was Edward, Duke of York. It is not known exactly how he died although a particularly high casualty rate was recorded on his wing of the battlefield on both the French and English sides. As Edward died childless, his title eventually passed to his nephew, Richard, who was only four years old in 1415.
The French army was comprehensively defeated. However, the campaigning season was largely done, and Henry’s army was exhausted. Henry therefore pressed ahead with his original plan to march to Calais where his army could be re-supplied and have a well earned rest.
Henry himself returned to England on 16th November, celebrating his great victory with a triumph on the 23rd. The victory at Agincourt was taken by Henry as a vindication of his right to the French crown. As far as Henry was concerned, God had passed judgement in his favour. He would allow himself a brief period of celebration before preparing plans to renew his campaign for the conquest of France.
The French would enjoy an eighteen-month respite before Henry returned in force to follow-up on his victory. However, respite from the English invader did not bring peace.
Agincourt had taken a disproportionately high toll on the Armagnac faction at the French court. Many of their senior nobles had been killed or taken prisoner. This fact had not gone unnoticed by the Duke of Burgundy, who had contributed no more than a token force to the battle. Within ten days, before Henry had even departed for England, the Duke had mustered an army to march on Paris. Henry’s victory provided a golden opportunity for him to wrest control of the court from what remained of the Armagnac faction.
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References and further reading
Photograph of Longbowmen firing – Tewkesbury Medieval Festival 2009: taken by Lee Hawkins
Agincourt campaign map created by Paul Watts based on a map of Northern France and Flanders in 1383 by Hel-Hama (originally from wiki commons)
Agincourt tactical battle map created by Paul Watts
Henry V in battle – illustration by Harry Payne, 1915 (via wiki commons)
The Thanksgiving Service on the Field of Agincourt – Edmund Leighton 1909 (via wiki commons)