Henry V leads the original “Band of Brothers” to a bloody triumph against all odds on Saint Crispin’s Day, 1415
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
The St. Crispin’s Day speech, which the Immortal Bard places in the mouth of his hero, King Henry V of England, is one of the great battle speeches in literature. Though likely Shakespeare’s own invention, it brilliantly portrays a young, inspiring commander attempting to hearten his starving and dispirited soldiers, in desperate straights as the face battle against (seemingly) hopeless odds. Whatever (if anything) Henry may have actually said that fateful morning in October is lost to history. But what is not lost is how he, and his tiny force of desperate men, stood firmly on the muddy field of Agincourt and defeated five-times their number, which included the flower of French chivalry.
Henry V (center) and as portrayed by Lawrence Olivier (L) and Kenneth Branaugh
Soon after coming to the throne in 1413, the 26 year old Henry proclaimed his intention to renew the century-old Plantagenet claim to the crown of France, the original casus belli for the Hundred Years War, which had lain dormant for a generation. This was a particularly audacious move, in that France had defeated the English and largely driven them from France in the previous century; and were widely considered a much stronger kingdom. However, the King of France at this time, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness (a trait he would perhaps pass on to his grandson, Henry VI of England). As often when the monarch is weak or infirm, powerful nobles had maneuvered to fill the power vacuum the king’s incapacity created. Factions had come to blows, and France was a nation whose nobility were divided against each other.
Henry, whose own claim to the English throne was questionable (his father had usurped the crown from his weak cousin, King Richard II), understood that nothing so unites a nation like a foreign war and a common enemy. The glorious victories of Edward III and the Black Prince sixty-and-more years earlier were hardly forgotten; and many an Englishman of all classes in society had benefitted from the pillage brought off from frequent campaigns across the Channel during their campaigns in France. What Henry needed to cement the loyalty of his subjects was success in battle against the hated French; and to gain a reputation as a warrior king.
Map depicting area of Henry’s 1415 campaign; from the estimable Bernard Cornwell’s “Agincourt”
On 11 August, 1415 Henry crossed to Normandy to begin a grand raid across northern France, following the same strategy Edward III and others had used before. However, a short and successful raid was not in the cards. Henry’s first target, the port town of Harfleur, at the mouth of the River Seine, held out for much longer than expected. By the time the town was stormed, on September 22, it was too late in the season to exploit the gain. The delay had also allowed the outraged nobles of France to assemble a large army near Rouen, under the command of the greatest magnates in the realm. These were marching north to punish Henry for his effrontery.
Henry’s army lost precious time besieging Harfleur.
Merely embarking his army and returning to England would do little to improve his reputation, and might well be seen as cowardly; potentially fatal to a young king seated insecurely on an ill-gotten throne. So, instead, Henry decided to extend the campaign with a raid through Picardy; perhaps consciously following in the footsteps of Edward III and his Crecy campaign of 1346. Defiantly marching through northern France, he could end this chevauchée at the sanctuary of English-held Calais; the only lasting fruit of Edward III’s great victory of Crecy.
As with any Medieval armies which sat down in one place too long, Henry’s army at Harfleur was racked by dysentery. So it was a sick and slow English force that set out, marching through a largely bare and (with winter approaching) an increasingly wet countryside. The English soon discovered that a dauntingly-large army, led by the greatest lords of France, were following close on their heals and looking to bring them to battle. Worse, arriving at the River Somme, Henry found his way across blocked by a second French force of several thousand on the opposite bank; looking to block his crossing and trap him on the western bank.
This was exactly the same situation his great grandfather had faced almost 70 years earlier. At risk of being hammered against the river by the pursuing French main army, Henry marched upriver; seeking an unopposed crossing point. All the time, the blocking force across the river shadowed his march, prepared to stop any attempt to cross. However, at a bend in the river, one that bulged northeast for many miles, Henry was able to cut across the base while the blocking force had to travel around the outside circumference. This allowed the English to find a crossing place unopposed.
However, this delay in getting across the Somme allowed Henry’s pursuers to cross down river and join the blocking force. The French, now north of Henry, moved to cut him off from Calais and force him to battle. The English halted near the castle of Agincourt, not far from where the French sat across their line of march. Here, the terrain narrowed between two woods; offering Henry a place where his smaller army could fight with both their flanks secure. The English camped and prepared for battle.
The size of the English and French forces has traditionally been stated as being 6,000 and 36,000 respectively. Recent, revisionist historians have attempted to place the French number at a mere 12,000, and the English (conversely) as high as 9,000 strong; and thus diminishing the wonder of Henry’s victory in the battle that followed. However, this is contrary to all contemporary sources, including French, which put the French forces as not less than 20,000; and most agree to the higher number, 36,000. It has been accepted by most historians since the battle that the French outnumbered the English by as many as 5-1. (For a detailed debate on the disputed numbers, go here.)
The French at Agincourt were commanded by Count Charles d’Albret, the Constable of France, the highest ranking military officer under the King. He was assisted by the renowned old knight Jean II Le Maingre, called Boucicaut, the Marshal of France. He was a veteran of the ill-fated Nicopolis Crusade, being one of the very few to have been ransomed by the Turks. Though both d’Albret and Boucicaut were experienced and capable medieval commanders, they lacked the necessary social rank to rein-in the headstrong nobility of France. These included 5 Dukes (Orleans, Bourbon, Alençon, Brabant, and Bar) and at least 8 Counts; as well as dozens of lesser nobles and knights. However, the presence of these high-ranking lords of France worked to the detriment of the army’s command-and-control: quarrelsome and proud, even the Constable could not order about these princes of the realm; and throughout the battle no one man truly commanded the French forces.
The English knew the odds against them, and had little illusions regarding the likely outcome of the battle before them. In the case of defeat, mutilation or death awaited the archers, and death or capture the men-at-arms. But with the desperate courage of men with no other option, the English prepared to stand and triumph, or to die in place.
From “Henry V” (1944), directed by and starring Sir Lawrence Olivier. The film did and excellent job of recreating the armor of the day. Here Henry treats with a French emissary. His uncle, the Duke of York, stands behind and to the right of Henry, bearing the Plantagenet arms, cadet branch
Terrain was the key factor in the coming battle. By placing themselves across Henry’s line of march at Agincourt, the French had gifted the English with a narrow field; perfect for an army so badly outnumbered. This narrowness allowed Henry’s much smaller army to anchor its flanks on woods to either side, and thus protecting them from being outflanked.
A second (and even more critical) factor was the state of the ground itself: steady rain the previous days had turned the newly-plowed field into a morass of mud. Worse, deep furrows had been plowed into the clay soil, for the planting of winter wheat. With the previous night’s rain, these had become flooded man traps, with the clay beneath turned to sucking mud.
Terrain aside, Henry had another great advantage: The five thousand English archers were all armed with the Longbow, a highly effective weapon capable of delivering 15 arrows a minute in the hands of the expert English archers. With an astonishing draw rate of 120 – 150 pounds, it could reach out to 350 yards; penetrating mail at 100 yards, and light plate armor at 25 yards. At a rate of fire of 12 arrows a minute, Henry’s five thousand archers could loose 60,000 arrows each minute; or 1,000 arrows every second! When the archers launched their attack, the white goose-feather fletching’s on the falling arrows gave the appearance of a snow storm.
The Longbow had proven a battle-winner during the battles of the previous century. But the French knights in 1415 were heavily armored in the newest plate armor over their mail; and for this reason (as well as class chauvinism) disrespected the effectiveness of the English archers in the coming battle.
The French cheerfully prepared for the coming battle, confident in their numbers and prowess. So sure they were of victory the French lords diced the night before, wagering for the ransoms they could expect to gain in the capture of the English nobility in Henry’s army!
By 1415, the noble warriors of Europe were very well protected in suits of plate armor, with mail beneath. However, the weight of such armor proved detrimental in the muddy field of Agincourt.
In the morning, the French deployed in three “battles” (divisions). The vanguard, or first division, was comprised of 5-8,000 dismounted men-at-arms; and was commanded by Constable D’Albret and Marshal Boucicault. This first division was crowded with nobles eager to be the first to fall upon and come to blows with the English “Goddames”; and included the Dukes of Orléans and Bourbon. Their horses were sent to the rear, it being understood that the English arrows were particularly dangerous to the only partially armored horses. However, the Vanguard would be supported in the initial attack by two wings of cavalry under the Count of Vendôme and Sir Clignet de Brebant (a famous knight, one of seven French champions in a renown deed-of-arms against a like-number of English champions in 1402). Their role would be to charge and break through the archers on the English wings, and then to swing inwards and attack the English men-at-arms from behind; all this while the first French “battle” pinned the English in place. This tactic had worked well at the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382, where Boucicaut had earned his spurs; and it is likely that at his suggestion this plan of attack was adopted.
The French second line was commanded by the Dukes of Bar and Alençon, and the Count of Nevers. Alençon had bragged the night before that he would personally kill or capture King Henry; so that he could be displayed in Paris (“in an iron cage”). This division contained 3,000 men-at-arms (also dismounted), and perhaps several thousand crossbowmen. The third line, commanded by the Counts of Dammartin and Marle, may have numbered as many as 10,000 and included most of the foot.
King Henry deployed his much smaller army across a 750 yard section of the field; in the typical English fashion of the 100 Years War. His approximately 1,000 dismounted men-at-arms were divided into three “battles”, side by side instead of one in front of the other (as with the French): the rightwing led by the King’s uncle, the Duke of York, a grandson of Edward III; the center (or “main”) led by King Henry himself, assisted by his younger brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester; and the leftwing, commanded by Thomas Lord Camoys.
Between each of the divisions were supporting wedges of archers, called “harrows”; with more archers thrown forward on both wings. The front of the archer’s position was protected from cavalry charge by sharpened wooden stakes, slanting forward to impale a charging horse.
The rain had stopped by dawn. Several hours after sunrise, both armies were in deployed in position; but neither made a move. The English planned to stand on the defensive, and the French were awaiting the arrival of even more troops. Henry pushed the issue by ordering his line to advance to within 300 yards (bow range) of the enemy. This entailed having the archers pull up their stakes and replanting them in front of their new position. During this maneuver, the complacent French made no move to interfere. Here we have another sign that no one was truly in over-all command of the French army. Certainly the veteran Boucicaut must have seen that this was the French’s opportunity to fall upon the English before they could rearrange their line; and, most critically, before the archers could implant their stakes. But no such order came for an attack.
The battle began in earnest with the English, now in range of the French first division, unleashing a hail of arrows into the ranks of their Gallic opponents. Some 60,000 bodkin-tipped shafts fell in that first minute; the smacking of iron arrow heads into steel plate armor sounding like hail clattering on a sheet metal roof. This deadly hail stung the French into action, and the first two divisions began to plod forward towards the English line. As planned, the mounted cavalry on the flanks under Vendome and Clignet de Brebant charged forward, attempting to scatter the English archers on Henry’s wings. However, the plunging fire from the English archery took a toll of their horses as they advanced: though armored in front, the rear-quarters of the knight’s destriers were unprotected. Collapsing horses caused those behind to trip or swerve out of the way, disordering the massed French cavalry. Wounded or riderless destriers swerved away from the English line, some plunging through the dismounted French first line as it advanced in the center, disrupting its ranks as well.
The French cavalry reached the archers, despite this galling hail. However, they seem to have taken no thought as to how to penetrate the hedge of stakes in front of the archer’s position. Brought to a halt before this chevaux de frise and decimated by point-blank fire, the French cavalry broke and routed back; some at least disordering the oncoming French lines and further churning up the muddy ground.
As the dismounted French Vanguard drew closer to the English position, they found themselves brought under ever more intense and effective archery fire from the flanking wings and wedges of longbowmen. Arrows fell like hail, finding creases in armor, or at closer ranges piercing mail and the lighter armor on arm or leg. Lowering their heads so to protect their vulnerable eye-slots from the chance arrow, the French edged away from the arrow storm to either flank; bunching ever tighter till their line instead began to resemble three deep columns approaching the English men-at-arms like the forks of a trident.
Now the very heavy armor that the French counted upon to provide some measure of protection against the galling English archery, undermined their attack. In the soft clay-based mud, the heavily armored knights sank up to their calves; advancing only at a slow and exhausting pace. When the French Van reached the English line, they were already winded from this exertion; the deep mud and the plodding pace it forced upon them depriving the French of the impact that their numbers should have had upon the thinner English line.
Even so, coming at last to close-quarters the French mass pushed into Henry’s line; the sheer weight of their forces pushing the English back several yards. But as the furious melee quickly bogged down to a slogging match, the English archers, running out of arrows, took up the heavy sledge hammers they had used to pound in their stakes or pole axes they carried as a secondary weapon; and charged into the slow-moving, quickly tiring French. Such heavy mallets and pole arms crushed armor or concussed the man beneath. Unencumbered by armor, the lightly armed archers were much less effected by the mud; and now swarmed over and slaughtered the flower of French Chivalry.
As the second French line under d’Alençon and Bar came up, it threw its weight behind those already embattled. Now the French Van found itself unable to move; assailed in front and pressed closely from behind by comrades eager to join the battle. The dead piled up in front of the English position in heaps, further encumbering the stalled French advance. Soon the field was churned into a bloody red morass; the deep-plowed furrows filling with blood.
At some point during the melee, d’Alençon wounded the King’s brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Seeing his brother fall, Henry rushed forward, warding the lad while Humphrey was pulled to safety. Nearly making good his boast to kill or capture the English king, Alençon struck Henry in the helm with his battle axe; shearing off part of the golden crown on the English king’s helmet. Stunned, Henry staggered back; but was saved as Alençon was cut down by the King’s bodyguards.
Many on both sides died in the press, though the casualties were overwhelmingly French. Packed in too tightly to fight effectively, the French were cut down in droves. On the English right the King’s uncle, the Duke of York, died standing up (likely of heart failure); unable to fall for the press of dead all around him!
After the first two divisions were slaughtered in turn, a lull in the battle allowed the English to take French prisoners to the rear. The ransom of noble prisoners could make a poor knight rich overnight; and the capture of such high ranking nobles as were falling into the English hands promised great wealth indeed. However, as the French third division (itself larger than the English army) prepared itself to renew the attack, Henry could not spare a single man to guard the several hundred prisoners. Henry ordered the prisoners killed, rather than have so many unguarded Frenchmen in his rear. Only those of the highest rank were spared.
This was not the only atrocity that day: during the battle, a small force of French cavalry had rode around the woods and into the English rear. Here they had raided the English baggage, and in the process killed the young boys who acted as grooms and pages that had been left there.
As it turned out, the attack by the French reserve division never materialized. Perhaps seeing the wholesale destruction of the flower of the French army before them, the largely lower-status foot soldiers of the final division were loath to continue the obviously lost struggle. In any case, this reserve withdrew without striking a blow. (Lack of leadership may have played a part: the Count of Marle, who was one of the commanders of the French third line, was among the dead; and so must have deserted his place of command to join the melee.)
Agincourt was an utter and unexpected disaster for France. The casualties were staggering, numbering perhaps as many as 10,000 (according to French sources!); and was particularly high amongst the elite of French society. Three Dukes (Alençon, Brabant, and Bar), at least eight Counts (including the Constable, d’Albret), a Viscount and an Archbishop were slain in the battle, along with numerous other nobles. Along with the Constable, France lost her Marshal, Boucicault (captured); and Lord Dampierre, the Admiral of France. Estimates of the number of prisoners vary between 700 and 2,200, including the Duke of Orléans. As the less valuable prisoners had been slaughtered during the crises of the battle, these were all ranking nobles.
For the English the battle was an astonishing change of fortune. A sick, tired, badly outnumbered army had triumphed against all odds. Though losing some 1,500 (or as little as 100 in some contemporary English sources) in the bloody fighting, they had gained a legendary victory, perhaps the greatest in English history. In the long span of conflict between Englishmen and their Gallic neighbors, only Hastings, Crecy, Blenheim, and Waterloo compare in significance.
At a stroke, England had regained the upper hand in her long war with France. Henry would use the victory at Agincourt to conquer all of northern France; and through subsequent negotiation and a royal marriage to the French King’s daughter place himself in line as heir to the throne of Charlemagne. Only Henry’s untimely death seven years later perhaps prevented a union of England and France under a Plantagenet dynasty.
In the days and years that followed men back in England, hearing the tales of Agincourt told in tavern, church, and in hall by the veterans who fought there, would indeed “hold their manhoods cheap” that they were not there, on Saint Crispin’s Day!
(Above) An episode from the excellent series, “The Weapons that Made Britain”; starring the estimable Mike Loades
(above) From Sir Kenneth Branagh’s masterpiece version of “Henry V”
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.