St. Crispin’s Day, 25th October 1415.
After the siege and fall of the French city Harfleur, the English king Henry V decided to march to Calais through Normandy with the bulk of his army. On October 8, 1415, he set forth on the journey which took an unexpected turn when the French army blocked their way across river Seine. The English army was extremely fortunate for they found a crossing several days later after marching up-stream along the southern bank. But the French army still followed the exhausted English. This left Henry V with no option but to make a stand and fight. This he did on the 25th of the same month near Agincourt. This battle turned out to be one of the most successful battles in the British military history. In a battle lasting for around 3 hours, it is said that a depleted and exhausted army of around 5,500 routed an army at least 3-4 times its size (the claims of the sizes of the armies is a point of debate which we will not consider for now). The French losses were staggering with 7,000-10,000 deaths and more than a thousand captured. The losses on the English side were comparatively much lower.
The English had nothing to lose from the battle. The bulk of their small army was archers whereas the French army mostly comprised of heavily armed knights and men-at-arms. The English could only hope that the accuracy and range of their longbows would give them an advantage before the French cavalry pounced on them. But, given the numerical superiority, the French could easily negate that slim advantage.
However, there was one distinct advantage for the English army over their opponent, which proved to be decisive. It was the unity of command. The English were led by their king, who inspired his army to stand up to the challenge whereas the French did not have a single leader who could unite their army. The mentally ill king Charles VI and also the Dauphin were absent from the battle and the army was led by several lords such as Charles d’Albret. The competition between the lords and the absence of unity greatly hampered the French cause.
On that historic day, the English army lined up near the village of Maisoncelles, where they had camped for the night, expecting an imminent attack. The French stood facing them about three quarters of a mile away between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt and contrary to the expectation of the English, they were willing to wait. Henry V expected the French to attack at daybreak and exhaust themselves in doing so. However, three hours after daybreak, when the expected attack did not come, the king began to lose his confidence. He knew that the battle had to be fought that day. For his exhausted army, there would be no tomorrow. With no food, they could not keep their hopes for another day. Taking this into consideration, Henry V and his advisors took the decision to take the initiative themselves.
The English army moved forward in their formation of men-at-arms at the centre and archers flanking them in lines curving in. This enabled the archers to shoot at the French at the centre of their line. When the French were within the range of the longbows, the English stopped and the archers planted long stakes they had carried with them in the ground in front of them. These were intended to hinder the cavalry. It was these archers who shot their arrows at the heavily armored French thus prompting them to advance.
The French were in a formation of three lines of men-at-arms, the third line mounted. Between the first two lines there were some archers. Flanking the main lines were more mounted men-at-arms and some guns.
It was these mounted men in the flanks who made the first move against the English. They galloped the 300 yard stretch separating the two armies bravely. The archers hit many horses and wounded them. This infuriated the animals and they either rolled to the ground or ran off in all directions. Many horses ran back towards the French men-at-arms who were now moving forward and created havoc in their lines. However, some of the cavalry managed to reach the English line. Upon reaching it, their horses were impaled on the fence of stakes the archers had erected. The riders were thrown off, soon to be hacked to death by the archers.
The dismounted men-at-arms reorganized themselves and moved forward. The same factors that seemed to be advantages to the French army turned out to be the opposite. Their armour impeded their movement and the mud in the field made it worse. Once they reached the English men-at-arms, the French found little room to fight. The front was too narrow for such a large army and they were too congested. The English on the other hand had a smaller army and could fight effectively as their colleague did not hinder their movement. What followed is reported to be the annihilation of the French army. When they fell, the heavy armour prevented them from getting up and others fell upon them. Many died due to suffocation rather than battle wounds and many more were captured while lying under the bodies of other men. Thus in a short while a large number had been taken prisoner.
The third line of the French, consisting of mounted men-at-arms watched the scene helplessly. They were at first not willing to join the battle. But, they did not leave their positions either. So, there was the possibility of them making a charge at the English. If this happened the English were going to be forced to abandon their prisoners. In such an event, the prisoners could easily take up arms and attack from behind or just escape. It is said that because of this threat, Henry V ordered the majority of the prisoners to be killed keeping only the most valuable men such as the Duke of Orleans alive. What followed was a cold blooded murder which may be attributed to something done out of necessity. However, knowing there was no hope of victory, the mounted French knights decided to leave.
The battle of Agincourt was undoubtedly a decisive military victory for the English. But the English could not follow up on the victory. It took another campaign several years later for Henry V to gain control in France.
There seemed to be a lot of points to be clarified in the historical accounts written. Many were undoubtedly written to glorify the English king. What is clear is the fact that many French lords were either killed or taken prisoner on that day. But the facts such as the claims about the extent of numerical superiority of the French and whether Henry V was a good general are points of debate and will be so for years to come.