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The Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415

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A.H. Burne analyses the key factors that led to what would be a major victory in the Hundred Years' War.

The Battle of Agincourt, 15th-century miniatureThe rival armies went to rest, but few to sleep, on the eve of that fateful day of St. Crispin 1415, in very different physical and mental states. The English had marched for seventeen days with only one day’s rest and had covered 260 miles, an average of fifteen miles per day.

The greater part of the army, it is true, was mounted, but there remained an appreciable portion of archers on foot. The French had not experienced such a trying and exhausting time. They had certainly marched with speed, covering about 180 miles in ten days, but all but a tiny portion of the combatants were mounted. The mental state of the two armies was even more dissimilar.

The English believed that they would most of them lose their lives in the inevitable battle next day. The idea of surrender does not seem to have entered the heads of any of them. It was to be literally a case of “do or die”. They prepared solemnly for the contest, saw to their weapons, confessed and were shriven, and laid themselves down to rest on the rain-soaked open field.

Well might they despair of victory. They had seen the enormous French army, over four times as numerous as their own, which was scarce 6,000 strong, of whom less than 1,000 were men-at-arms, the rest being archers (for they had no artillery). It was a small army, but it was homogeneous and it possessed a degree of discipline that was quite unique for that epoch. Let a French contemporary, whose sympathies were French, testify on this score. The monk of St. Denys declared:

They considered it a crime to have bad women in their camp. They paid more regard than the French themselves for the welfare of the inhabitants, who (consequently) declared themselves in their favour. They closely observed the rules of military discipline and obeyed scrupulously the orders of their King. His words were received with enthusiasm, and not only by the leading men; for the common soldiers also promised to fight to the death.”

The king had strictly enjoined complete silence in the lines that night, and his orders were obeyed. Such was the silence that the French outposts suspected that the English were preparing to slip away. St. Remy adds picturesquely, “Not a horse neighed.” Henry V worked up his troops to a pitch of fervour akin to that produced by Joan of Arc in the French army marching to the relief of Orleans.

In the opposite camp things were vastly different. The French lords were wagering as to which of them should capture the English king. It is even stated by Polydore Vergil that they had a cart specially painted in which to promenade their royal captive through the streets of Paris. All was clamour and confusion, attaining almost to chaos.

The noise of shouting lords, grooms and servants reached even to the English lines over half a mile away; the rain was falling steadily most of the night, and the French lords were shouting for their varlets, and sending them in all directions in search of straw to lay on the damp chumed-up ground (recently sown with autumn wheat) on which they had to lie.

In short, there was all the difference between the two armies. On the one hand was the ordered discipline of a regular trained army of selected soldiers; on the other, a vast rabble-like horde of hastily-raised troops, of a heterogeneous nature, brought together from all parts of France, and even from further afield, and lacking one single undisputed head, to whom they could look with reverence and confidence in the ordering of the battle. Indeed, there could scarcely have been a greater contrast, except in the arms and armour carried, between two medieval armies.

The English king had billets in the village of Maisoncelles, but there could be little sleep for him that night. He must have been in a state of great mental excitement. What his inmost feelings were it is difficult to say. Until quite recently he had affected to welcome a battle, and it is generally held that he spoke the truth. But the sight that had greeted him that afternoon, of the vast French army, surely removed any desire that he still retained for a battle. Yet if he felt any misgivings he kept them strictly to himself. The story is well attested, and is not a figment of Shakespeare’s imagination, that when the impossibility of avoiding a battle became manifest and Sir Walter Hungerford exclaimed:

I would that we had 10,000 more good English archers, who would gladly be here with us today,”

The king replied:

Thou speakest as a fool! By the God of Heaven on whose grace I lean, I would not have one more even if I could. This people is God’s people, he has entrusted them to me today and he can bring down the pride of these Frenchmen who so boast of their numbers and their strength.”

But whatever his secret feelings, he had other things to occupy his mind and attention during the hours of darkness. He was prepared, whatever he might say, to strike a bargain for the possibility of reaching Calais without a battle, and negotiations to that end passed to and fro between the two headquarters, just as they had done on the eve of Poitiers. The price he was prepared to pay was the return of Harfieur to its old owners; but the French, confident in their own strength, would not agree to this and the price they proposed was beyond what Henry’s pride allowed him to concede.

The negotiations thus fell through and a battle next day became inevitable. At dawn on October 25th, 1415, the feast day of St. Crispin and St. Crispianus, the two martyr-cobblers of Soissons, the rain had stopped and the two weary armies roused themselves and were deployed by their respective marshals in order of battle. The English king, having attended mass, donned his armour and surcoat, resplendent with leopards of England and the fleur-de-lys of France, his helmet encircled by a golden crown, studded with pearls, sapphires and rubies. He then mounted his grey palfrey, having for some reason removed his spurs; and thus he rode down the line, stopping frequently to harangue the troops and to receive their acclamations.

He then placed himself at the head of the centre division, the Duke of York being in command of the right division and the Lord Camoys in command of the left division. The French, however, appeared not to be ready for battle and a long, and doubtless painful, pause ensued during which we may describe the ground about to be fought over.

It is easily described, for it is beautifully symmetrical. If the two contestants really desired a field that would give no advantage to either side, as they declared, they certainly found it at Agincourt. The arena formed a rectangle, the two sides being formed by the woods surrounding the villages of Agincourt1 and Tramcourt, the open space being 940 yards wide at the narrowest point, and the two ends being formed by the two armies in line, just over 1,000 yards apart. There was a barely perceptible dip between the two armies, but the two flanks fell away appreciably, a surprising discovery to the visitor, for no account mentions the fact.

Owing to the slight dip between them the two armies were in full view of one another. Each army filled the open space, a newly-sown wheat-field, and as the arena was slightly wider on the French side it follows that their line was slightly wider than the English, about 1,100 yards to 950. But the French, being many times more numerous, their line had a similar proportion of extra depth. The English men-at-arms were only four deep, and the archers about seven to the yard. The numbers were so small that the king could not afford a reserve, bar a minute baggage-guard. In this he took a profound risk.

There is wide divergence of opinion as to the exact formation of the English army, but I believe it to have been as follows. It consisted in the main of three divisions, each division having its men-at-arms in the centre and its archers on the wings. In addition, there was a strong force of what we should now call “army archers,” attached to no division, but formed in two bodies one on each wing. The archers of the centre division would thus be in contact with the archers of the inner wings of the flank divisions; likewise, the outside archers of the flank divisions would be in contact with the “army” archers.

Thus, looked at from the front at a distance, as the French would see them (and this is important for my argument), the English army would appear to have men-at-arms in the centre, divided by two small clumps of archers, while the main archer force would be on the wings. I suggest that the army archers were about 3,100 strong and the divisional archers 1,850. Thus the biggest clumps, viewed from the front, would be on the wings, each about 900 strong. A simple calculation shows that such a formation should just fill the space of 940 yards between the woods.

The French army, unlike the English, was mainly composed of men-at-arms. These were formed in three lines, all being dismounted except the rear one and two bodies of cavalry, each 600 strong, stationed on the two wings. These were detailed to open the battle by a mounted attack on the English archers who could be seen grouped on the wings. The French army was practically an undisciplined rabble, and when I speak of three lines, I mean in theory only. In practice there was a deal of jostling, squeezing and intermingling of men-at-arms and archers, while the guns seem to have been pushed out of line altogether; it is doubtful if they fired more than a few rounds at the most.

Thus the two armies formed up at dawn on October 25th, 1415, and for the next four hours they stood motionless, eyeing each other closely, each waiting upon the other to advance. But a battle cannot take place if neither side will advance, and at eleven o’clock the King of England decided to take the offensive himself. “Advance banner,” rang out the famous order, on which everyone “knelt down and made a cross on the ground and kissed it.”2 The whole army then began to advance in line.

The French front was, I reckon, 470 yards north of the Agincourt-Tramcourt road and the English army moved steadily forward till it was 170 yards north of the cross-road, 50 yards south of the present coppice wherein lies the main French grave pit. It moved slowly, frequently halting for the heavily-armoured knights to take breath. At extreme bowshot range the army came to a halt, the archers planted their stakes in front of their front rank thus making a sort of fence, and opened fire.

This fire was probably calculated to provoke the French into advancing, for they had few archers with whom to return the fire. It had the desired effect. The mounted cavalry essayed to charge the flank archers according to plan, and as they started to advance, the front line of dismounted men-at-arms also moved forwards, probably without explicit orders from the Constable d’Albret, their nominal commander-in-chief.

The mounted attack of the two flanks was to be made by parties each about 600 strong— there is much contradiction about the numbers — but owing to the confusion and lack of discipline in the French ranks, only a mere 150 or so on each wing actually took part in the attack. That on the Agincourt side was led by Sir William de Savense, whose party in the words of St. Remy:

threw themselves on the English archers, who had their sharp stakes fixed before them; but the ground was so soft that the said stakes fell. And the French all retreated excepting three men, of whom Sir William was one; to whom it unluckily happened that by their horses falling on the stakes they were thrown to the ground, among the archers and were immediately killed. The remainder, or the greater part of them, with all their horses, from fear of the arrows, retreated into the French advanced-guard in which they caused great confusion, breaking and exposing it in many places, and caused them to retire to some new-sown ground; for their horses were so wounded by the arrows that they were unmanageable. And thus the advanced-guard being thrown into disorder, the men-at-arms fell in great numbers and their horses took to flight behind the lines, following which example numbers of the French fled.”3

Up to this point I think the story is quite clear and straightforward. But now comes the crucial point. Before quoting it, however, we must glance at the French main body, which was now advancing in the centre.

All the authorities agree that when they came into contact with the English they were in such close formation that they could scarcely raise their arms to make use of their weapons. How came this about? Surely they would not form up in such ridiculously close order? I believe two causes conspired to produce this unfortunate and fatal result. Look at the sketch-map and you will notice that the width of open space in the French position was about 150 yards wider than in that of the English, and that as the French advanced their frontage would diminish owing to the funnel-shape of the open ground made by the two woods. This was bound to have the effect of compressing the advancing French lines.

But I think there was another and more decisive cause than this. I have described the English men-at-arms as being in three groups, separated by clumps of archers. These archers were formed in wedges, which I take to mean the same formation that proved so effective at Créçy, namely, bastion-like projections in front of the line of men-at-arms. As the French army advanced they would instinctively, if not by order, concentrate against the English men-at-arms, whom they considered their rightful opponents—not the despised common breed of archers. Indeed, one account specifically states that they did so. Moreover, the nearer they approached and the more they were goaded by the arrows of the English archers, the more they would tend to flinch away from these archers as they pushed forward into the three ominous re-entrants that the English line comprised.

It should be noted that there is no mention in the above English account of the horses or men being made immobile by the mud. After all, the English experienced the same mud, and they advanced farther through it than did their opponents. No, it was arrows, not mud, that turned back the French horsemen and started the rot. Nor did the mud prevent the French horsemen from galloping through their own infantry in the course of their flight.

We can now return to St. Remy’s account, with the picture of the great mass of the French plodding forward into the centre of the field, goaded by arrows from the front and flanks whilst great breaches were torn in their own ranks by the panicking horsemen.

The English archers, perceiving this disorder of the advanced-guard, quitted their stakes, threw their bows and arrows on the ground and seizing their swords, axes and other weapons, sallied out upon them, and hastening to the places where the fugitives had made breaches, killed and disabled the French, ... and met with little or no resistance. And the English, cutting right and left, pushed on to the second line, and then pushed within it, with the King of England in person.”

It would seem that only isolated clumps of archers penetrated beyond the wall of dead and dying that was soon all that was left of the first French line, for their second line was now surging forward, and a great part of it had mingled with the first in an unwieldy conglomeration of armoured men, utterly crowding out the crossbowmen who were originally between the two lines. The incursion of this second line merely added to the carnage and to the height and thickness of the wall of prostrate forms, on to the top of which the agile and lightly-armed English archers mounted.

Scarcely more than thirty minutes had sufficed to produce this astonishing result, and the battle gradually petered out as fewer and fewer Frenchmen remained on their feet. The contest had been for them a kind of nightmare: the more they pressed forward into the fight the more impossible it became for any of them to fight at all. They could not wield their arms, and one man falling would bring down those next to him—and there was no getting up; the pages, one of whose duties it was to help their lords to their feet, were not at hand. It was said that the weight of two men in armour falling on top of a third would take away the breath of the man underneath. Some Englishmen indeed fell victims to this disaster. The Duke of York at one period pushed forward into the front line. He over-balanced or was pushed over, and others fell on top of him.

When, after the battle was over, his body was pulled out from the shambles he was found to be unwounded but stone dead. He had been suffocated to death. Thus perished the last remaining grandson of Edward III. Large numbers of the French men-at-arms met the same fate. Indeed John Hardyng, who was present, declares in his rhymed Chronicle, “More were dead through press than our men might have slain.”4

Thus, in a remarkably short space of time, the first two French lines, outnumbering their opponents by at least three to one, had been vanquished. There remained the third line who, it will be remembered, were mounted. They did not advance; to do so would have been fruitless, neither did they retire as a body; but there was considerable confusion, and many fainter-hearted men quietly slipped away to the rear. Those who stood fast became visible to King Henry, over the wall of dead.

One glance showed him that for the moment, at least, no danger need be expected from them, and he allowed the victors to take up the congenial task of taking prisoners and arranging for ransoms. But it was a slow task, and a rather gruesome one, disentangling the living from the dead, prising open helmets, unriveting plate-armour and collecting and marshalling those of the living who could walk. The work had gone on for over two hours when suddenly two disturbing events occurred, one in front, the other in the rear.

Only a small baggage-guard had been provided, and it was quite inadequate to ward off a serious attack. Such an attack was now delivered by an armed marauding body, who broke into the camp, and made havoc therein. Not only were the royal beds carried off, but the king’s chief crown and his seals. At the same time danger suddenly loomed up in front. Strenuous efforts had been made by the leaders of the French third line, who were now joined by the Duke of Brabant (youngest brother of the Duke of Burgundy), with a small body of men. The force thus collecting in his front by itself outnumbered the English army; the English troops were completely off their guard, absorbed in prisoner-taking.

Moreover the prisoners had not yet, for the most part, been divested of their armour. The archers thus had their hands full; if they let go of their captives and moved off to repel the impending attack, their captives would have been free to pick up weapons that sprinkled the ground and attack them in the rear, possibly in conjunction with their comrades who were still running amok in the English camp. It was an ugly situation; anything might happen. Something had to be done at once, and there seemed only one thing to do: it must be a case of “No quarter” after all: the prisoners must be killed. Sternly the king gave the order, and reluctantly and hesitantly his soldiers obeyed, for it meant to them the loss of ransom. How many were killed is not known, but presently the threat of attack died away and the throat-cutting was stopped.

Some modernEnglish writers have condemned this measure in unmeasured terms: “a cruel butchery”, it is dubbed by Ramsay. But needless to say, such things should be judged by the context and customs of the time, and no contemporary chronicler seems to have condemned it, not even the French ones. Indeed one contemporary Frenchman blames his own countrymen for it, on the grounds that their useless rally made this slaughter inevitable. It is also tolerably certain that the French would have done the same under similar circumstances. Indeed twenty years previously, on the eve of the Battle of Nicopolis, the French commander had cut the throats of 1,000 prisoners, so as not to be encumbered with them next day.5

A feature of the battle was the enormous number of Frenchmen killed. The total cannot have been far short of 10,000 and it included three Dukes—Alençon, Brabant and Bar—the Constable of France and commander-in-chief Charles D’Albret, together with no less than 90 other lords and 1,560 knights. Indeed it was said that more than half the nobility of France were casualties. The prisoners included both the leading Dukes, Orleans and Bourbon, the count Arthur of Richmond and marshal Boucicaut, in fact a “clean sweep” was made of the higher commanders in the French host, which thus became a scattered flock without a shepherd.

The English casualties were at the most a few hundred, mainly wounded; it is impossible to give closer figures than this. The chief victim was of course the Duke of York, to whom the credit must go for the provision of doublepointed stakes for the archers. The young Earl of Suffolk, whose father had died at Harfleur, also perished.

Of the actions of the French leaders in the battle there is no reliable information, but two stories about King Henry are well attested. At one period of the battle he entered the fray, and at that moment his young brother Humphrey of Gloucester was slightly wounded and fell at his feet. The king stood over his prostrate body till the Duke could be dragged, away.

The other story is that eighteen French knights swore that they would hack their way to the king of England and strike down his crown, or perish in the attempt. They perished in the attempt, but not before one of them had got within reach of the king of England and struck him on the helmet, lopping off one of the fleurons of the crown and denting the helmet. The dented helmet now hangs high up on the wall above the tomb of the king in the chapel of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey—surely the most dramatic piece of medieval armour in existence!

In contrast to Crecy and Poitiers, the issue of the Battle of Agincourt was decided in the first half-hour. This is the more striking when we remember that the odds were even greater against the victor at Agincourt than at the former two battles, and historians have spilt much ink in trying to find the explanation for the overwhelming success. But I think the answer is not far to seek. Battles can be likened to a tug-of-war. On each side there are a number of factors, all pulling the same way — towards victory. The resultant force of all these factors is the measure of the “pull to victory,” and the side which produces the biggest resultant is the winner. It is as simple as that.

In the case of Agincourt, there is no need to label and examine each of these factors in detail, for all the factors except one — relative numbers— were, as far as can be seen, in favour of the English army. Hence the English victory. The result can however be summarized in a single sentence: a regular, trained and disciplined army defeated one that possessed none of these military virtues.

Further reading: 

1 The French called it Agincourt at the time; it was at a subsequent date that they changed it to Azincourt.

2 The Brut, Continuation H (ed. Brie), p. 554.

3 This attack, which can hardly have extended 200 yards in distance and a trot in pace, is the subject of the famous “Charge” in the film Henry V.

4 This is confirmed by The Brut (Continuation H): “Great people of them were slain without any stroke.” (The Brut, ed. Brie, p. 555.)

5 Yet the latest French biographer of Joan of Arc seldom mentions the name of Henry V without the elegant soubriquet “The Cut-throat.”

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