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Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
The Battle of Agincourt was fought on St. Crispin’s Day (25th October 1415), so today is the 600th Anniversary. The battle was fought between the English army of King Henry V and a French army that had no clear leader, partly due to the fact that Charles VI of France was mad and his son a ‘couch potato’.
The battle is an iconic part of English history for the simple reason that it is the classic David v Goliath tale. I interpret this story as one where a smaller but more agile force can defeat a larger and stronger force with the right tactics. The fact that it takes great courage if you are David though is worth emphasising, for tactics are nothing without ‘heart’. Exactly how did it become an English David v French Goliath though?
When Henry V launched his invasion of France in August 1415, 2 months before the battle, he sailed from Southampton with an army of about 12,000 men, and at least twice as many horses. It is worth noting that Henry engaged a fleet of 1500 ships, 12 times the size of the Spanish Armada which was to threaten England 150 years later. Henry headed for Harfleur, an important town on the coast of Normandy, and had his troops disembarked from the ships by 16th August 1415. Henry intended to besiege Harfleur and force them into an early submission, prior to marching across France to demonstrate the validity of his claim to be the King of France. As it turned out the siege of Harfleur was to cost England much more than Henry had anticipated. Thousands of men died or were sent home due to dysentery and the losses due to hand-to-hand fighting whilst taking the town. It took over 7 weeks to secure Harfleur’s surrender, and Henry was not able to leave his newly garrisoned town until early October.
Henry was now short of time for the summer campaigning season was almost over, so he decided to march from Harfleur to Calais, which was then still an English town. Henry anticipated that it would take 8 days to march the 150 miles and so ordered only that only 8 days of rations were to be carried. When the English army left Harfleur there were between 6000 and 7000 troops; almost half of the army had been lost.
The French though put themselves between the English army and the direct route to Calais, so our troops were forced to march further inland, away from their target. By the time they eventually crossed the River Somme in safety, they had been marching for 2 weeks and had run-out of regular food supplies. Many English troops were living-off the hedgerow pickings. They now marched north heading straight for Calais in the hope that they had given the French the slip. However when the English army climbed up onto a wide plateau just beyond the village of Azincourt on 24th October 1415, they found their route to Calais blocked. There in front of them lay the chivalric might of the French army, hundreds of banners and flags making a truly imposing martial scene.
English win against all odds, Archers reign supreme!
The precise size of the French army has never been established but most historians agree that there were approximately 30,000 French troops camped outside Azincourt, so they outnumbered the English by about 5 to 1! Henry V was still supremely confident of his ability to defeat the French army, even against these odds and he immediately drew-up his army in battle formation. Yet neither side were ready to engage before darkness set-in, so Henry ordered his troops to stay within each reach of the battlefield and to rest. Unfortunately it started to rain and so the vast bulk of the English army spent the night getting cold and wet, with little or no food.
When the English troops gathered after dawn on 25th October their morale must have been at very low ebb, and it is here that perhaps Henry genius made the difference. Henry put himself at the front of his battle line, demonstrating his willingness to either win or die with his troops. As it turned out the rain the previous evening did the English army a great service, for as the French troops attacked they became mired in the mud of the ploughed fields. Most wore a full suit of armour because they were afraid of the deadly fire of the English and Welsh archers. These suits could weigh up to 5 stones (70lbs) which made marching and fighting in mud a living nightmare, soon to be followed by death.
The English army won a remarkable and emblematic victory that day, and in doing so they slaughtered thousands of French men-at-arms. So many died that they formed great heaps of bodies in front of the English battle-line, often trodden down drowning in mud! Most of the French dead were the civic and aristocratic leaders and they died because yet again they arrogantly ignored the might of English archers.
A victory for the common man of England!
Although the English army was lead by a man, Henry V who was extremely capable and confident, the difference between the 2 armies was the large numbers of archers on the English side. These men had been trained over many years, as archery practice was compulsory in England during the Hundred Years War with France. They came from all over England and South Wales as well. They had all been contracted through ‘captains’ to fight for Henry. They were not press-ganged or forced to fight they were paid by Henry as their contract stated; it was an army that represented the people of England, not just those who could afford expensive armour.
Approximately ¾ (75%) of the English army was composed of archers, who were in the main ordinary, common folk. They were artisans or small-holders, the yeomen of England. Their long bows, called war bows, were unique and special to England, and had a draw weight of 150lbs. To be able to fire an arrow took incredible strength and skill and it required years of practice to be able to meet Henry’s minimum standard of 10 arrows fired per minute. The best archers could fire 15 arrows per minute with deadly accuracy, an arrow every 4 seconds. Their arrows could pierce armour, so English archers fired a thunderstorm of metal that decimated the French troops, even before they had had a chance to engage the English professional soldiers (men-at-arms). Once their arrows ran out the archers used pikes and small swords to get amongst the French troops, it was a case of kill or be killed!
Why should we commemorate Agincourt?
After 600 years and at a time when we have much better relations with the French, what is the relevance of Battle of Agincourt today?
Its greatest effect at the time was to galvanise the people of England to a single enterprise, to help build a nation and show to all the people of England that they had a common interest. This is not to be lightly dismissed as England was still emerging from a very real sense of ‘them and us’. For 250 years England had been run by an Anglo-Norman elite, many of whom despised the common people of England. The commoners were the old Anglo-Saxon families who had been defeated by William the Conqueror, who were then so horribly oppressed by the aristocratic elite. Only 30 years before, in 1381, there had been the Peasants Revolt, where the same common folk of England took-up arms against their distant and rapacious lords.
Yet in 1415 the people of England came together against a common foe, although ironically the first of those was the Scots. Even while Henry was assembling his army in Hampshire the Scots invaded England in July 1415. Their forces were quickly defeated, but Henry decided to leave behind many man in Northumberland and Cumbria to guard against further Scottish incursions. The Scots as always were ready to help France against England.
In an age when most people travelled very little, and often remained in the same village or town for their whole life, the effort to create and supply Henry’s invasion involved every part of England and people were given a real sense of national belonging. It is estimated that Henry took 2 million arrows to France, and these all had to be produced and packaged in England. For every arrow there were 6 goose feathers, all from the same animal. For months before Henry left England the whole nation was put on a war-footing.
Let us take pride in England’s past
What does the battle mean for us today? Most of all it should mean pride! We should be able to take pride in the sacrifices and achievements of all those people who have contributed to the England we now have. As we have rightly been remembering the recent fallen of the 2 Great Wars of the 20th Century, so we should not forget those more distant fallen who also helped make us what we are today. Even though we may not agree with Henry’s claim to the French throne, his victory at Agincourt was a great achievement for England. The organisation and sacrifice that enabled the victory represented the zenith of our achievements in France, before the ignominious defeats by a revitalised French lead by Joan of Arc.
In many senses the Hundred Years War, and England’s humiliating expulsion from France enabled us as a nation turn away from Europe and look to the wider world. Under the Tudors England started to become a great sea-faring nation and look for opportunities a little further a field that France, perhaps something that may prove useful in our current debates over our relationship with EU!
The last word in this piece though must refer back to Shakespeare, for although I disagree with his failure to put the archers’ centre-stage, I do agree with his sentiments. The quote above is iconic, for every English soldier who fought with Henry V had to wear the Cross of St. George on their front and back. In 1415 no one had any doubt that they fought for ENGLAND!