by Anne Flinders, dramaturg
The Battle of Agincourt was a major English victory in the Hundred Years’ War. The battle occurred on Friday, 25 October, 1415 (Saint Crispin’s Day), near the modern-day village of Azincourt in northern France. Henry V’s victory at Agincourt against a numerically superior French army crippled France and started a new period in the war, during which, first, Henry married the French king’s daughter and, second, his son Henry VI was made heir to the throne of France (although Henry VI later was unable to capitalize on his father’s battlefield success).
Henry V led his troops into battle and participated in hand-to-hand fighting. The French king of the time, Charles VI, did not command the French army himself as he suffered from severe repeated illnesses and moderate mental incapacitation. Instead, the French were commanded by Constable Charles d’Albret and various prominent French noblemen of the Armagnac party.
The battle is notable for the use of the English longbow, which Henry used in very large numbers, with English and Welsh archers forming most of his army. The battle is also the centerpiece of the play Henry V by William Shakespeare.
Contemporary Accounts of the Battle
The battle of Agincourt is well documented from at least seven contemporary accounts, three of whom were eye-witnesses. The approximate location of the battle has never been in dispute and remains relatively unchanged after almost 600 years. Immediately after the battle Henry summoned the heralds of the two armies who had watched the battle together and with the principal French herald, Montjoie, settled on the name of the battle, Agincourt, after the nearest fortified place. Two of the most frequently cited accounts come from Burgundian sources: of Jean Le Fevre de Saint-Remy, who was present at the battle, and the one of Enguerrand de Monstrelet. The English eyewitness account comes from the anonymous Gesta Henrici Quinti, believed to have been written by a chaplain in the King’s household, who would have been in the baggage train at the battle.
Henry V invaded France following the failure of negotiations with the French. He claimed the title of King of France through his great-grandfather Edward III, although in practice the English kings were generally prepared to renounce this claim if the French would acknowledge the English claim on Aquitaine and other French lands (the terms of the Treaty Bretigny). Henry initially called a Great Council in the spring of 1414 to discuss going to war with France, but the Lords insisted that he should negotiate further and moderate his claims. In the following negotiations Henry said that he would give up his claim to the French throne if the French would pay the 1.6 million crowns outstanding from the ransom of John II (who had been captured at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356), and concede English ownership of the lands of Normandy, Touraine, Anjou, Brittany and Flanders, as well as Aquitaine. Henry would marry Princess Catherine, the young daughter of Charles VI, and receive a dowry of 2 million crowns. The French responded with what they considered the generous terms of marriage with Princess Catherine, a dowry of 600,000 crowns, and an enlarged Aquitaine. By 1415 negotiations had ground to a halt, with the English claiming that the French had mocked their claims and ridiculed Henry himself. In December of 1414, the English parliament was persuaded to grant Henry a “double subsidy”, a tax at twice the traditional rate, to recover his inheritance from the French. On 19 April 1415, Henry again asked the Great Council to sanction war with France, and this time they agreed.
Henry’s fleet prepares to depart for France from Southampton.
Henry’s army landed in northern France on 13 August 1415 and besieged the port of Harfleur with an army of about 12,000. The siege took longer than expected. The town surrendered on 22 September, and the English army did not leave until 8 October. The campaign season was coming to an end, and the English army had suffered many casualties through disease. Rather than retire directly to England for the winter, with his costly expedition resulting in the capture of only one town, Henry decided to march most of his army (roughly 9,000) through Normandy to the port of Calais, the English stronghold in northern France, to demonstrate by his presence in the territory at the head of an army that his right to rule in the duchy was more than a mere abstract legal and historical claim. He also intended the maneuver as a deliberate provocation to battle aimed at the Dauphin, who had failed to respond to Henry’s personal challenge to combat at Harfleur.The French had raised an army during the siege which assembled around Rouen. This was not an entirely feudal army, but in part an army paid through a system similar to the English. The French hoped to raise 9,000 troops, but the army was not ready in time to relieve Harfleur. After Henry V marched to the north the French moved to blockade them along the River Somme. They were successful for a time, forcing Henry to move south, away from Calais, to find a ford. The English finally crossed the Somme south of Péronne, at Béthencourt and Voyennes and resumed marching north. Without the river protection, the French were hesitant to force a battle. They shadowed Henry’s army while calling a semonce des nobles, calling on local nobles to join the army. By 24 October both armies faced each other for battle, but the French declined, hoping for the arrival of more troops. The two armies spent the night of 24 October on open ground. The next day the French initiated negotiations as a delaying tactic, but Henry ordered his army to advance and to start a battle that, given the state of his army, he would have preferred to avoid, or to fight defensively (this was how Crecy and the other famous longbow victories had been won). The English had very little food, had marched 260 miles in two and a half weeks, were suffering from sickness such as dysentery, and faced much larger numbers of well equipped French men at arms. The French army blocked Henry’s way to the safety of Calais however, and delaying battle would only further weaken his tired army and allow more French troops to arrive.
Preparation for Battle
The battle was fought in the narrow strip of open land formed between the woods of Tramecourt and Agincourt. The French army was positioned at the northern exit so as to bar the way to Calais.
Early in the morning on the 25th, Henry deployed his army (approximately 1,500 men-at-arms and 6,000 longbowmen) across a 750-yard part of the defile (a narrow pass or gorge between low mountains or hills). The army was organized into three “battles” or divisions, the vanguard led by the Duke of York, the main battle led by Henry himself, and the rearguard led by Lord Camoys. In addition, Sir Thomas Erpingham, one of Henry’s most experienced household knights, had a role in marshalling the archers. It is likely that the English adopted their usual battle line of longbowmen on either flank, with men-at-arms and knights in the centre. They may also have deployed some archers in the centre of the line. The English men-at-arms in plate and mail were placed shoulder to shoulder four deep. The English and Welsh archers on the flanks drove pointed wooden stakes into the ground at an angle to force cavalry to veer off. This use of stakes may have been inspired by the Battle of Nicopolis in Bulgaria in 1396, where forces of the Ottoman Empire used the tactic against the beaten French and allied cavalry.
The English made their confessions before the battle, as was customary. Henry, worried about the enemy launching surprise raids, and wanting his troops to remain focused, ordered all his men to spend the night before the battle in silence, on pain of having an ear cut off. He told his men that he would rather die in the coming battle than be captured and ransomed. The men-at-arms on both sides were high-ranking men who knew that if captured they could expect to be ransomed. As “commoners”, on the other hand, the English archers knew they could expect to be killed out of hand by the French if they were defeated, as they were not worth ransoming.
King Henry (Makenzie Larsen) prepares for battle with her army. (Clockwise from top left: Camilla Hodgson, John Valdez, Kristin Leinbach, Nathan Stout, Sarah Flinders, Makenzie Larsen, Matthew Fife). BYU’s Young Company production of King Henry V, 2013.
Henry made a speech, emphasizing the justness of his cause, and reminding his army of previous great defeats the kings of England had inflicted on the French. Contemporary Burgundian sources have him concluding the speech by telling his men that the French had boasted that they would cut off two fingers from the right hand of every archer, so that he could never draw a longbow again. (Whether this was true is open to question; as previously noted, death was the normal fate of any soldier who could not be ransomed.)
The chronicler Edmond de Dyntner stated that there were “ten French nobles against one English”, ignoring the archers completely.
The French were arrayed in three lines or “battles”. The first line was led by Constable D’Albret, Marshal Boucicault, and the Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, with attached cavalry wings under the Count of Vendome and Sir Clignet de Brebant. The second line was commanded by the Dukes of Bar and Alencon and the Count of Nevers. The third line was under the Counts of Dammartin and Fauconberg. The Burgundian chronicler jean de Wavrin writes that there were 8,000 men-at-arms, 4,000 archers and 1,500 crossbowmen in the vanguard, with two wings of 600 and 800 mounted men-at-arms, and the main battle having “as many knights, esquires and archers as in the vanguard”, with the rearguard containing “all of the rest of the men-at-arms”.The Herald of Berry uses somewhat different figures of 4,800 men-at-arms in the first line, 3,000 men in the second line, with two “wings” containing 600 mounted men-at-arms each, and a total of “10,000 men-at-arms”,but does not mention a third line.
Approximately 8,000 of the heavily armored French men-at-arms fought on foot, and needed to close the distance to the English army to engage them in hand-to-hand fighting. If they could close the distance, however, they outnumbered the English men-at-arms by more than 5-to-1, and the English longbowmen would not be able to shoot into a mêlée without risking hitting their own troops. Many of the French men-at-arms had fathers and grandfathers who had been humiliated in previous battles such as Crecy and Poitiers, and the French nobility were determined to exact revenge. Several French accounts emphasize that the French leaders were so eager to defeat the English (and win the ransoms of the English men-at-arms) that they insisted on being in the first line; as one of the contemporary accounts put it: “All the lords wanted to be in the vanguard, against the opinion of the constable and the experienced knights”.
There appear to have been thousands of troops in the rearguard, containing servants and commoners whom the French were either unable or unwilling to deploy. Wavrin gives the total French army size as 50,000. He says: “They had plenty of archers and crossbowmen but nobody wanted to let them fire. The reason for this was that the site was so narrow that there was only enough room for the men-at-arms.” Most of the rearguard played little part in the battle, and English and French accounts agree that many of the French army fled after seeing so many French nobles killed and captured in the fighting.
The field of battle was arguably the most significant factor in deciding the outcome. The recently ploughed land hemmed in by dense woodland favored the English, both because of its narrowness, and because of the thick mud through which the French knights had to walk. A team of experts from a wide range of disciplines (archaeologists, forensic scientists, crowd dynamics specialists, metal-detectorists and military experts) has analyzed the crowd dynamics of the battlefield. The 1,000–1,500 English men-at-arms are described as shoulder to shoulder and four deep, which implies a tight line about 250–300 men long (perhaps split in two by a central group of archers). The remainder of the field would have been filled with the longbowmen behind their palings. The French first line contained men-at-arms who had no way to outflank the English line. The French, divided into the three battles, one behind the other at their initial starting position, could not bring all their forces to bear: the initial engagement was between the English army and the first battle line of the French. When the second French battle line started their advance, the soldiers were pushed closer together and their effectiveness was reduced. Casualties in the front line from longbow arrows would also have increased the congestion, as the following men would have to walk around (or over) the fallen.
The field of Agincourt as it appears today.
The analysis states that when the density reached four men per square meter, soldiers would not even be able to take full steps forward, lowering the speed of the advance by 70%.Accounts of the battle describe the French engaging the English men-at-arms before being rushed from the sides by the longbowmen as the melee developed. The English account in the Gesta Henrici says: “For when some of them, killed when battle was first joined, fall at the front, so great was the undisciplined violence and pressure of the mass of men behind them that the living fell on top of the dead, and others falling on top of the living were killed as well”.
Although the French initially pushed the English back, they became so closely packed that they are described as having trouble using their weapons properly. The French monk of St. Denis says: “Their vanguard, composed of about 5,000 men, found itself at first so tightly packed that those who were in the third rank could scarcely use their swords”,and the Burgundian sources have a similar passage. In practice there was not enough room for all these men to fight, and they were unable to respond effectively when the English longbowmen joined the hand-to-hand fighting. By the time the second French line arrived, for a total of about eight thousand men (depending on the source), the crush would have been even worse. The press of men arriving from behind actually hindered those fighting at the front.
As the battle was fought on a recently ploughed field, and there had recently been heavy rain leaving it very muddy, it proved very tiring to walk through in full plate armor. The French monk of St. Denis describes the French troops as “marching through the middle of the mud where they sank up to their knees. So they were already overcome with fatigue even before they advanced against the enemy”. The deep, soft mud particularly favored the English force because, once knocked to the ground, the heavily armored French knights had a hard time getting back up to fight in the mêlée. Juliet Barker (author of Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England) states that some knights, encumbered by their armor, actually drowned in their helmets. Their limited mobility made them easy targets for the volleys from the English archers. The mud also increased the ability of the much more lightly armored English archers to join in hand-to-hand fighting against the French men-at-arms.
On the morning of 25 October the French were still waiting for additional troops to arrive. The Duke of Brabant (about 2,000 men), the Duke of Anjou (about 600 men), and the duke of Brittany (6,000 men, according to Montstrelet) were all marching to join the army. This left the French with a question of whether or not to advance towards the English.
“Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415″, painted by Sir John Gilbert.
For three hours after sunrise there was no fighting. Military textbooks of the time stated “Everywhere and on all occasions that foot soldiers march against their enemy face to face, those who march lose and those who remain standing still and holding firm win”. On top of this, the French were expecting thousands of men to join them if they waited. They were blocking Henry’s retreat, and were perfectly happy to wait for as long as it took. There had even been a suggestion that the English would run away rather than give battle when they saw that they would be fighting so many French princes.Henry’s men, on the other hand, were already very weary from hunger, illness and marching. Even though he knew as well as the French did that his army would perform better on the defensive, Henry was eventually forced to take a calculated risk, and move his army further forward to start the battle. This entailed abandoning his chosen position and pulling out, advancing, and then re-installing the long sharpened wooden stakes pointed outwards toward the enemy which helped protect the longbowmen from cavalry charges. (The use of stakes was an innovation for the English: during the Battle of Crecy, for example, the archers were instead protected by pits and other obstacles.) If the French cavalry had charged before the stakes had been hammered back in, the result would probably have been disastrous for the English. However, the French seem to have been caught off guard by the English advance. The tightness of the terrain also seems to have restricted the planned deployment of their forces, as they had thought of deploying the three “battles” in a single line of as many as 14,000 men-at-arms and many thousand common footmen. In addition there would be about 4,000 archers and crossbowmen in front of them to hit the English army and two cavalry units of about 600 men, plus twice that number of mounted valets to the side and rear of the army to make an attack to the English flanks.
The French had originally drawn up a battle plan that had archers and crossbowmen in front of their men-at-arms, with a cavalry force at the rear specifically designed to “fall upon the archers, and use their force to break them,” but in the event, the French archers and crossbowmen were deployed behind and to the sides of the men-at-arms (where they seem to have played almost no part, except possibly for an initial volley of arrows at the start of the battle). The cavalry force, which could have devastated the English line if it had attacked while they moved their stakes, charged only after the initial volley of arrows from the English.
English and Welsh Archers behind stakes.
It is unclear whether the delay occurred because the French were hoping the English would launch a frontal assault (and were surprised when the English instead started shooting from their new defensive position), or whether the French mounted knights instead did not react quickly enough to the English advance. French chroniclers agree that when the mounted charge did come, it did not contain as many men as it should have; Gilles le Bouvier states that some had wandered off to warm themselves and others were walking or feeding their horses. In any case, within extreme bowshot from the French line (approximately 300 yards), the longbowmen dug in their stakes and then opened the engagement with a long range barrage of arrows.
The French cavalry attack
The French cavalry, despite being somewhat disorganized and not at full numbers, charged the longbowmen, but it was a disaster, with the French knights unable to outflank the longbowmen (because of the encroaching woodland), and unable to charge through the forest of sharpened stakes that protected the archers. John Keegan argues that the longbows’ main influence on the battle was at this point: armored only on the head, many horses would have become dangerously out of control when struck in the back or flank from the high-elevation long range shots used as the charge started. The mounted charge and subsequent retreat churned up the already muddy terrain between the French and the English. Juliet Barker quotes a contemporary account by a monk of St. Denis, who reports how the wounded and panicking horses galloped through the advancing infantry, scattering them and trampling them down in their headlong flight from the battlefield. The Burgundian sources also say that the mounted cavalry retreated back into the forward ranks of French men-at-arms advancing on foot.
The main French assault
The Constable of France himself led the attack of the dismounted French men-at-arms. French accounts describe their vanguard alone as containing about 5,000 men-at-arms, which would have outnumbered the English men-at-arms by more than 3 to 1, but before they could engage in hand-to-hand fighting they had to cross the muddy field under a bombardment of arrows.
The plate armor of the French men-at-arms allowed them to close the 300 yards or so to the English lines while being under what the French monk of Saint Denis described as “a terrifying hail of arrow shot”. To protect themselves as much as possible against the arrows they had to lower their visors and bend their helmeted heads to avoid being shot in the face—the eye and air-holes in their helmets were among the weakest points in the armor, as they carried no shields to ward off the arrow storm. This head-lowered position restricted both their breathing and their vision. Then they had to walk a few hundred yards through thick mud, a press of comrades and wearing armor weighing 50–60 pounds. Increasingly they had to walk around or over fallen comrades.
The French lines overwhelmed by English arrowshot; Battle of Agincourt, 1415.
The surviving French men-at-arms reached the front of the English line and actually pushed it back, with the longbowmen on the flanks continuing to shoot at point blank range. When the archers ran out of arrows they dropped their bows and, using hatchets, swords, and the mallets they had used to drive their stakes in, attacked the now disordered, fatigued and wounded French men-at-arms massed in front of them. The French could not cope with the thousands of lightly armored longbowmen assailants (who were much less hindered by the mud and weight of their armor) combined with the English men-at-arms. The impact of thousands of arrows, combined with the slog in heavy armor through the mud, the heat and lack of oxygen in plate armor with the visor down, and the crush of their numbers meant the French men-at-arms could “scarcely lift their weapons” when they finally engaged the English line. The exhausted French men-at-arms are described as being knocked to the ground by the English and then unable to get back up. As the melee developed, the French second line also joined the attack, but they too were swallowed up, with the narrow terrain meaning the extra numbers could not be used effectively. The French men-at-arms were taken prisoner or killed in their thousands. The fighting lasted about three hours, but eventually the leaders of the second line were killed or captured, as those of the first line had been. The English Gesta Henrici describes three great heaps of the slain around the three main English standards. According to contemporary English accounts, Henry was directly involved in the hand-to-hand fighting. Upon hearing that his youngest brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester had been wounded in the groin, Henry took his household guard and stood over his brother, in the front rank of the fighting, until Humphrey could be dragged to safety. The king received an axe blow to the head which knocked off a piece of the crown that formed part of his helmet.
King Henry V in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of Agincourt.The King wears on his surcoat the Royal Arms of England, quartered with the Fleur de Lys of France as a symbol of his claim to the throne of France.
The attack on the English baggage train
The only French success was an attack on the lightly protected English baggage train, when Ysembart d’Azincourt, leading a small number of men-at-arms and squires plus about 600 peasants, seized some of Henry’s personal treasures, including a crown. Whether this was part of a deliberate French plan or an act of local brigandage is unclear from the sources. Certainly, d’Azincourt was a local knight but he may have been chosen to lead the attack because of his local knowledge and the lack of availability of a more senior soldier. In some accounts the attack happened towards the end of the battle, and led the English to think they were being attacked from the rear. Barker, following the Gesta Henrici, believed to have been written by an English chaplain who was actually in the baggage train, concludes that the attack happened at the start of the battle.
Henry orders the killing of the prisoners
Regardless of when the baggage assault happened, at some point after the initial English victory Henry became alarmed that the French were regrouping for another attack. The Gesta Henrici places this after the English had overcome the onslaught of the French men-at-arms and the weary English troops were eyeing the French rearguard (“in incomparable number and still fresh”). Le Fevre and Wavrin similarly say that it was signs of the French rearguard regrouping and “marching forward in battle order” which caused the English to ascertain they were still in danger.
Calvary assault. “King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415” by Sir John Gilbert.
In any event, Henry ordered the slaughter of what were perhaps several thousand French prisoners, sparing only the most highly ranked—presumably most likely to fetch a large ransom. Henry’s fear was that the prisoners would rearm themselves with the weapons strewn about the field, and that the exhausted English would be overwhelmed. Though ruthless, it was arguably justifiable given the situation of the battle; even the French chroniclers do not criticize him for it. In his study of the battle, John Keegan argued that the main aim was not to actually kill the prisoners but rather to terrorize them into submission. He felt that due to the relatively low number of archers involved in the killing (200), together with the refusal of the captors to help (as they would have lost ransoms) and the sheer difficulty of killing such a large number of prisoners in a short space of time, the actual number killed might not have even reached the hundreds.
This action marked the end of the battle, as the French rearguard, having seen so many of the French nobility captured and killed, fled the battlefield.
Due to a lack of reliable sources it is impossible to give a precise figure for the French and English casualties. However, it is clear that though the English were outnumbered, their losses were far lower than those of the French. The French sources all give 4,000–10,000 French dead, with up to 1,600 English dead. The lowest ratio in these French sources has the French losing six times more men than the English. The English sources vary between about 1,500 and 11,000 for the French dead, with English dead put at no more than 100.
Barker identifies from the available records “at least” 112 Englishmen who died in the fighting (including Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, a grandson of Edward III), but this excludes the wounded. One widely used estimate puts the English casualties at 450, not an insignificant number in an army of about 8,500, but far fewer than the thousands the French lost, nearly all of whom were killed or captured. Using the lowest French estimate of their own dead of 4,000 would imply a ratio of nearly 9 to 1 in favor of the English, or over 10 to 1 if the prisoners are included.
The French suffered heavily. Three dukes, at least eight counts, a viscount and an archbishop died, along with numerous other nobles. Of the great royal office holders, France lost her Constable, Admiral, Master of the Crossbowmen and prévôt of the marshals. The baillis of nine major northern towns were killed, often along with their sons, relatives and supporters. The battle “cut a great swath through the natural leaders of French society in Artois, Ponthieu, Normandy, Picardy.” Estimates of the number of prisoners vary between 700 and 2,200, amongst them the Duke of Orleans (the famous poet Charles d’Orléans, who remained in England as a prisoner for twenty-four years) and Jean Le Maingre (known as Boucicault), Marshal of France. Almost all these prisoners would have been nobles, as the less valuable prisoners were slaughtered.
Charles, Duke of Orleans; imprisoned for 24 years in England and held without ransom. He was a near claimant to the French throne before the English victory at Agincourt, and Henry V feared he would attempt to regain that claim.
Although the victory had been militarily decisive, its impact was complex. It did not lead to further English conquests immediately, as Henry’s priority was to return to England, which he did on 16 November to be received in triumph in London on the 23rd. Henry returned a conquering hero, blessed by God in the eyes of his subjects and among European powers outside of France. It established the legitimacy of the Lancastrian monarchy and the future campaigns of Henry to pursue his “rights and privileges” in France. Other benefits to the English were longer term. Very quickly after the battle, the fragile truce between the Armagnac and Burgundian factions broke down. The brunt of the battle had fallen on the Armagnacs and it was they who suffered the majority of senior casualties and carried the blame for the defeat. The Burgundians seized on the opportunity and within 10 days of the battle had mustered their armies and marched on Paris. This lack of unity in France would allow Henry eighteen months to prepare militarily and politically for a renewed campaign.
It took five more years of military campaigning, but Henry was eventually able to fulfill all his objectives. He was recognized by the French in the Treaty of Troyes (1420) as the regent and heir to the French throne. This was cemented by his marriage to Catherine de Valois, the daughter of King Charles VI.
Notable casualties include:
Leading officers: Charles I d’Albret, Count of Dreux and Constable of France; Jacques de Chatillon, Lord of Dampierre and Admiral of France; David de Rambures, the Grand Master of Crossbowmen; three dukes, seven counts, and some 90 bannerets and others.
English and Welsh
Notable casualties included:
Edward of Norwich, the 2nd Duke of York; Michael de la Pole, the 3rd Earl of Suffolk; Dafydd Gam (Davy Gam), Welsh hero who reportedly saved Henry V’s life at Agincourt.
The prisoners were arguably more significant than the dead as, by the laws of chivalry, the property of a prisoner could not be seized. This meant that (in theory) great swathes of France–notably the vast dominions of John of Bourbon and Charles of Orleans–could not be called upon or tapped for military resources by the home country, being in possession by a conquering enemy via the capture of the prisoner, a prospect that worked out more favorably for the English crown than the French for the remainder of the war.