Positions at Agincourt: Image from Thinklink.com
Famously, during the night before the battle the King of England (Henry V) went around his camp giving words of encouragement to his men. The King sat and talked with both commoner and knight, hoping that letting his men see him unafraid would give them the confidence to fight the next day.
As the sun rose on the 25th October 1415 (the feast day of Saint Crispin), the English army moved out of its camp to take up a position on the road to Calais. Henry’s much smaller force formed three divisions of knights and men-at-arms. The furthest right was commanded by Lord Camoys, with the Duke of York commanding the centre and Sir Thomas Erpingham on the left. The long bowmen (whom made up most of the armies numbers) were deployed on either side of this battle line with stakes placed to their front to limit the impact of a potential cavalry charge. The French force formed three significant battles (lines of men) to the English front. The Constable of France led the first French line. The Dukes of Bar and d’Alençon led the second and the Counts of Merle and Falconberg led the third. Legend states that the first French battle contained most of the armies noblemen, so sure where they of a quick victory.
Before we get to the battle itself, let’s talk terrain. The field of Agincourt was narrow and on either side woodlands limited any potential flanking movement. It was a battlefield that favoured Henry’s small numbers as any advance the French made would end up being squeezed inwards by the woods. The rain from the previous night and days before had taken its toll on the ground as well. Agincourt’s field was most likely deeply ploughed farmland at this point ready to receive deep set winter barley and as such it featured many ruts that would slow an advance. The fact that this soil was probably waterlogged and rather claggy would also be a problem for any armoured force moving across it as it would both slow the advance and sap the men’s energy. Right, back to the battle.
Before battle was joined something rather odd occurred on the English side of the field. In a symbolic gesture the English soldiers knelt to the ground and either kissed or consumed some of the soil. It is another gesture that would become legendary in time as each man symbolically showed that they might be returning to the earth if they did not win the battle and had accepted such a situation.
The English waited for the French to make the first move, but there seemed to be little activity on their side of the field. This has often been attributed to a range of factors ranging from a lack of leadership in the French camp to the fact that the French may have been waiting for more reinforcements. My conclusion is that the French had no need to attack the English as they blocked the English escape route and could have easily forced the English into a foolhardy move. This is in fact almost what occurred, seeing that the French made no move Henry’s banners gave the order to advance. His forces, almost unopposed made their way down the field to come within bow range of the French and there they halted, planted their stakes and once again waited.
The archers began to do their work firing a volley into the already compact French battles and so the French began their advance. The battle of Agincourt had finally begun. The French advance started off well but quickly became bogged down in the mud and slowed to the pace of a fast walk. The archer’s arrow storm took its toll knocking men from horses and throwing others to the ground. The first French battle began to lose its cohesion as it wallowed towards the English. It did, however, make it to the English line and a series of desperate combats began. The English bowmen, now unable to fire their weapons either from a lack of arrows or the risk of hitting their own men took up their poll axes, maces, hammers and swords joining the battle going on at the centre of their lines.
As the first French battle began to falter the second advanced to the attack. But again, this was repulsed. The battle now depended on the advance of the third and final French battle, but rather than advance it hovered on the edge of the field its commanders unsure of what to do. Henry’s forces sent a herald ordering them to leave the field or face battle with no quarter given, and so the French retreated and the English had their stunning victory.
The battle itself had several desperate moments. The Duke of York lay slain in the centre, trampled into the mud. The King himself, had almost been captured and had defended his brother, the Duke of Gloucester, from a mob of Frenchmen. The French had lost the Duke D’Alençon (who was killed whilst trying to surrender to Henry personally), the Constable of France (Charles D’Albret), the Duke d’Orleans and de Brabant amongst many other senior nobles.
As the battle closed, something significant occurred to the rear of Henry’s forces. A small force of Frenchmen under the local nobles Isambart D’Agincourt and Robert de Bournonville had managed to skirt the woods and fell upon Henry’s baggage train. In the confusion, Henry feared an attack from his rear and promptly ordered the killing of his prisoners to avoid the threat they posed. This decision is still seen as highly controversial today and is often left out from Agincourt’s story. In response to this threat Henry wheeled his army about and quickly dispatched the raiders. Luckily Henry managed to achieve this before many of the prisoners had been murdered and thus averted the majority of the slaughter. As the day came to a close the English ransacked the French camp and dispersed the last of the third French battle.
After such a stunning victory Henry’s forces made it to Calais completely unmolested by the French with their booty from both the battle and Harfleur in tow. Henry’s disastrous campaign, in the course of one day, had become a significant victory for the English cause in France. Whilst relatively unimportant in the recovery of England’s French territory the Battle of Agincourt severely hampered France’s ability to react to future campaigns by Henry and would eventually lead to him becoming France’s regent and heir-apparent (under the Treaty of Troyes 1420). Henry would marry the French King’s daughter Catherine of Valois but would fail to become king of France because he died suddenly two years later in 1422.