The Battle of Agincourt is among the most celebrated of all English victories. Yet, argues Gwilym Dodd, Henry V’s triumph against overwhelming odds sowed the seeds for England’s ultimate defeat in the Hundred Years War.
Tired and exhausted after a two week march, on October 25th, 1415 an English army inflicted a crushing defeat on the flower of French chivalry near a village in Picardy called Agincourt. It was a victory that seemed to sum up the indomitable spirit of the English nation: steadfastness, tenacity and pluck in the face of severe adversity. The focus of Shakespeare's play on Agincourt reflected the pivotal moment the battle held in the reign of Henry V (r. 1413-22). It also ensured that his reputation as one of England's most capable and successful monarchs came to be defined to a large extent by the victory he achieved on St Crispin's Day, 1415. Yet, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, there is room to question the quality of leadership that Henry displayed and the unblemished reputation which he has subsequently enjoyed. On the surface, Agincourt was a great victory, but history shows that great victories often lead commanders into self-delusion, enticing them to pursue over-ambitious and ultimately unrealisable political and military goals.
In three main respects credit can be given to the English for winning at Agincourt. First, the English army had in its king a dynamic, capable and experienced tactician. Henry V, at 29 years of age, was in the prime of his life when Agincourt was fought. His early adult life had been spent fighting to secure the crown for his father, initially at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 (when he had been in the thick of the action and was wounded in the face by an arrow) and latterly in command of the English forces which successfully pacified Wales. Henry was no remote, armchair general: his presence, with his army, at Agincourt inspired confidence and respect among his troops. Shakespeare's celebrated scene depicting the king addressing his army on the eve of battle is almost certainly grounded in historical truth. He had been with his army since it had landed on French soil on August 14th and in that time he had also established a reputation as a disciplinarian: he famously had a soldier hanged for stealing from a French church.
Second, Henry and his captains displayed considerable acumen in the way they prepared the English army for battle. Although it was the French who had selected the general location for the clash of arms, the English were still allowed some initiative in how they deployed their forces. Crucially, the true strength of the archers, positioned mostly on the flanks of the main body of English men-at-arms, was obscured from the French, partly because of the favourable lie of the land and partly because the woods and scrubland on the edges of the battlefield could be used for concealment. The English archers were, as is well known, a decisive factor in securing victory for their side, but they were also vulnerable, especially to cavalry charge. Henry and his advisers recognised this and duly ordered that each archer prepare a stake, measuring six feet long, to be driven into the ground to form a protective barrier. Whether or not this was decisive in blunting the French cavalry during the battle itself is unclear, but it would have given the archers enough sense of security to allow them to concentrate on their deadly fire.
Third, the decisive factor which handed victory to the English at Agincourt was the combined use of archers and men-at-arms (the former comprising yeomen, the latter knights and esquires). It is often thought that the English archers won the day on their own, but this is not true. Their sustained fire into the ranks of the French vanguard as it advanced towards the English positions did not stop it but significantly blunted its effectiveness as a fighting force. They were thus easy prey for the relatively fresh lines of waiting English men-at-arms, who can take equal credit with the archers for breaking the back of the French army. But the archers were still vital. What made the English force distinctive was the overwhelming preponderance of archers to men-at-arms – a ratio of 5:1 in an army comprising around 6,000 men altogether, according to the latest estimates. The French suffered grievously at the hands of the English archers because there were so many of them, perhaps as many as 5,000. It has been estimated that the French army, in comparison, totalled around 24,000 men, of whom at least 10,000 were men-at-arms, 10,000 lightly armed combatants and 4,000 a mixture of crossbowmen, archers and infantrymen. This gave the English army the advantage in terms of its ability to kill or wound from a distance, but it put it at a disadvantage in the event of close quarter, hand-to-hand fighting.
An important question arises: did the English really win the battle, or did the French lose it? While it is important to acknowledge the martial achievements of the English, it is worth asking whether any of this would have made a difference had the French played their hand differently. The answer must be 'no'. The French had it within their grasp to inflict a decisive defeat on the English, but a number of ill-considered decisions, their overconfidence and bad luck combined to let victory slip through their fingers.
The site of the battle was not selected with due care. As we have seen, the narrowness of the battlefield allowed the English army to use the terrain to its advantage, in particular by using the woods to hamper outflanking movements. Second, the French army was still assembling when battle was joined, which meant that it was not up to strength and lacked cohesion. Third, and crucially, the French plan to attack the English archers with cavalry ahead of the advance of the dismounted French men-at-arms, foundered for lack of numbers. Had these attacks been pressed home, inflicting substantial losses on the archers, it is highly doubtful whether the English men-at-arms would have been able to withstand the onslaught of the French vanguard. The important point is that the French knew how to beat the English, even if on the day their plan did not work. Finally, it rained the night before. This made the ground soft and difficult for the French men-at-arms, clad in heavy armour and dismounted, to traverse the field quickly and easily.
On balance, then, the French should have won the battle. They were the stronger military power. The French were overconfident not because they were arrogant, but because they had every reason to think it would be an easy win. They were not alone in thinking this: Henry himself understood it. It should be remembered that the English army had been trying to escape from French forces when its path was blocked at Agincourt and battle was forced upon it. At one point in the march Henry had been approached by French heralds inviting him to do battle at Aubigny in Artois. According to some sources, Henry had accepted the challenge and began marching due north to the rendezvous, but soon changed his mind and diverted his army onto a more direct route towards Calais, steering clear of Aubigny. One English source says of the English at this point that 'their hearts were quaking with fear' at the prospect of fighting the French, and another that prayers were said that God might 'turn away from us the violence of the French'. They knew that the advantage lay with their adversaries. Perhaps it was in some way an acknowledgement of just how unexpected the victory had been and how close the English had come to catastrophe that so much emphasis was placed on the victory at Agincourt as a sign of God's approval. How else was the victory to be explained when the odds were stacked so heavily against the English?
Why, then, did the English army find itself in such a perilous position? It is here that we confront an unpalatable truth, for the situation which confronted Henry's army – of trying to reach Calais without being caught by the enemy, of being unable to cross the Somme at the preferred location of Blanchetaque near the coast, of then having to march inland deeper and deeper into enemy territory to find a suitable crossing and of then being trapped by a far superior enemy and forced into battle – was entirely avoidable. Henry's initial intention had been to seize the strategically vital port of Harfleur, situated on the mouth of the Seine, before marching southwards to Bordeaux. Yet the siege and eventual capture of Harfleur took longer than expected and by the beginning of October it was clear that Henry had left it too late for his planned march southwards. But what to do instead? The siege had taken its toll on Henry's force: it is estimated that over 2,000 men had died of dysentery and a further 2,000 men had been invalided home. With another 500 men-at-arms and 1,000 archers needed to garrison Harfleur, the force which Henry had at his disposal was drastically weakened. By any measure, the sensible thing would have been to set sail for England and return the following year. This is what Henry's advisers wished to do, but Henry would not countenance the idea and it was at his personal insistence that the army struck out northwards to try to reach Calais overland. A contemporary English chronicler, writing in about 1417, recorded the key moment:
Although a large majority of the royal council advised against such a proposal as it would be highly dangerous for him in this way to send his small force, daily growing smaller, against the multitude of the French, our king – relying on divine grace and the justice of his cause, piously reflecting that victory consists not in a multitude but with Him … who bestows victory upon whom He wills, with God affording His leadership … did nevertheless decided to make that march.
It seems then that the king could not bear the idea of restricting his military achievements of that year to the siege and capture of Harfleur. He needed more to show for the huge expense and trouble that the expedition of 1415 had cost. Moreover, Henry's reputation and pride were at stake. But the very notion that the English could march all the way to Calais, 144 miles distant, without encountering a sizeable French force was at best optimistic and at worst hopelessly misconceived. Such a decision could not be justified on its own terms, so writers resorted to the image of divinely inspired leadership to explain the king's actions. Above all, it was victory at Agincourt which retrospectively justified Henry's most extraordinarily risky dalliance with Fortune's wheel.
Recent work on the 1415 campaign has argued that, from the outset, Henry was motivated by a strong religious zeal and an unbending faith in God's support. It is more likely that Henry was simply a strong-willed, impetuous young man intent on action and adventure. He was a born soldier, wholly immersed in the martial culture of the day and impatient to make a name for himself. Following the English deliverance at Agincourt, both Henry and his subjects were nevertheless quick to conclude that such an improbable victory would never have occurred had the English cause not met with the approval of God. This set of circumstances, in which the military and strategic ambitions of a forceful young king were nourished by an absolute conviction in divine providence as a result of the victory at Agincourt, had a profound impact on the course of the rest of Henry V's reign.
There were two immediate legacies of Agincourt. First, in practical terms, the English were now unquestionably the stronger military force. The French army had been decimated on the battlefield: estimates put their losses in the region of 6,000 men, with some 2,000 of those being princes, nobles and men-at-arms. In comparison, English losses were minimal: the Duke of York and young Earl of Suffolk were the only casualties of note. No fewer than seven senior members of the French royal family had been killed, including the dukes of Bar, Brabant and Alençon. In spite of Henry's infamous (but entirely understandable) order to kill those French prisoners in English hands at the closing stages of the battle, when he feared a renewed French assault, numerous important French captives were taken, including the dukes of Orléans and Bourbon. These men were to wait many years before their release and their absence further depleted France of its military commanders. In contrast, the English star was ascendant and within months plans were afoot for a new expedition to cross the Channel. This was the second legacy of the Agincourt campaign: the great wave of enthusiasm and confidence which swept over the land after the victory in 1415 gave added impetus to the plans of Henry and his commanders to extend English control in France. Their target was Normandy. In a campaign that lasted over two years, between 1417 and 1419, the English succeeded in doing what they had never done before: conquering and occupying new territory within the kingdom of France. Caen was captured in September 1417, then Alençon, Mortagne and Bellême; in January 1418 Falaise fell; and, finally, after six months under siege, the biggest prize of all, Rouen, capitulated in January 1419. These years appeared to confirm Henry's reputation as England's greatest king.
But all this disguises the fundamental weakness of the English position and the deeply flawed nature of Henry's strategy. The ultimate success of the English in France rested not on the conquest and occupation of Normandy, but on persuading the French that their situation was so hopeless that they had no choice but to seek terms and accede to the English demands. For Henry the only realistic way this could be achieved was by exploiting the split that existed within the French nobility between the Burgundians and Armagnacs and persuading one of the two sides to join him. In October 1416 Henry had reached an accord with John 'the Fearless', Duke of Burgundy, who agreed to recognise Henry as king of France once a sizeable part of the kingdom had fallen under English control. But John's commitment to Henry was unreliable and in September 1418 he drew closer to the Dauphin, son of Charles VI and leader of the Armagnacs. When Henry attempted to negotiate with the French in May 1419, now having conquered Normandy, Burgundy walked away from the talks. It was a key moment, for it showed that, even in the face of internal division and the loss of territory and with an ineffective king and little immediate hope of military revival, the French were still confident enough to resist making significant concessions. For the English, too, it was at this moment that the realisation must have dawned that winning a major battle and conquering Normandy had not necessarily brought overall victory any closer.
Then a most extraordinary event occurred that entirely transformed the situation for Henry. On September 10th, 1419, when the Duke of Burgundy met the Dauphin at Montereau, Burgundy was cut down and killed by one of the Dauphin's attendants. It is not clear whether this was pre-planned or a terrible misunderstanding, but the result was the same. The duke's son, Phillip, became the sworn enemy of the Dauphin and immediately joined the English. The treaty of Troyes (May 21st, 1420) was the direct outcome of this new Anglo-Burgundian partnership. It was unquestionably a diplomatic triumph for Henry: by its terms, Charles VI agreed to the marriage of his daughter Catherine to Henry; once Charles died, the French crown would immediately devolve upon Henry and his heirs. On parchment at least, Henry had won the war. The king of France had been forced to the negotiating table and had agreed in principle to hand his country over to be ruled by the Lancastrian dynasty. Not even Edward III had come close to this in the days of English success in the mid-14th century. But the triumph of the treaty of Troyes, like the victory at Agincourt, was mainly illusory. The treaty could say what it liked. The reality was that half of France was still controlled by the Dauphin and he remained implacably hostile to an agreement which effectively barred him from his inheritance. Little had changed, except that the treaty now placed an explicit obligation on Henry to challenge the Dauphin and overrun Armagnac territory. Far from heralding a new era of peace and prosperity, the treaty of Troyes committed England to a war with no end in sight.
It is telling that when news of the treaty of Troyes filtered through to Henry's subjects there was no spontaneous rejoicing. The reception was distinctly lukewarm. When Parliament met in December 1420 concerns were expressed about what status England would have once Henry ruled over the two kingdoms. More importantly, MPs asserted that, with the settlement of France on Henry and his heirs, England no longer had any obligation to fund the continuation of the war. The hearts of Englishmen were no longer in the fight: they no longer shared their king's dream for a cross-Channel empire. When Henry returned to France in June 1421 he did so without having secured a grant of taxation to fund his campaigning. More seriously, it became clear that a Herculean effort would be needed to defeat the Dauphin. These were bitter months. Henry marched south to seize Orléans, but after three days surveying the city's defences he withdrew, realising that its capture lay beyond his capabilities. He then directed his efforts at reducing Armagnac-held towns to the south-east of Paris, but quickly discovered that even capturing small places required huge outlays of treasure, material and time. Nowhere was this clearer than in the siege of Meaux, which lasted between October 6th, 1421 and May 10th, 1422. If a town of even modest size took seven months to take, what hope was there that English forces could roll up the vast hinterland of Armagnac-held territory south of the Loire? There are signs that even Henry understood the hopelessness of his task when he allowed those members of the garrison of Meaux who remained loyal to the Dauphin to pass unmolested through his lines to rejoin their own side. It was at Meaux that Henry contracted the illness that would kill him. It was probably just as well that it did, for his untimely death saved him from confronting the fact that his designs on France could never be realised.
Agincourt was a hollow victory because it engendered unrealistic expectations and, in particular, it blinded Henry and his advisers to the strategic impossibility that England could ever subdue its neighbour across the Channel. At no point in the Hundred Years War was France as weak as it was in the period 1415-21 and yet Henry was no closer to winning the conflict in 1415 or 1420 than any other English king in the 14th or 15th centuries. This harsh truth was evident to contemporaries. In the late 14th century, Charles V is reported to have commented that:
England was only a little country by comparison with France, for he had ridden the length and breadth of it several times and had given much thought to its resources. Of the four or five regions into which one could divide the kingdom of France the poorest would offer more revenue, more towns and cities, more knights and squires than the whole of England. He was amazed at how they had ever mustered the strength to achieve the conquests they had.
In the negotiations which preceded the long truce of 1396 the French had also pointed out that 'they did not have sufficient strength to conquer the kingdom of England, and … the English were in no way strong enough to subjugate France'. It was this plain fact which persuaded Henry's predecessor, Richard II (1377-99), that England's interests were best served by peace. But Henry was a soldier, not a peacemaker. He wanted to prove himself a capable military commander. It was in pursuit of this goal that he recklessly risked the lives of his soldiers in an ill-conceived march to Calais from Harfleur. For sure, he led his soldiers bravely in battle, but a responsible commander should never have put his forces at such risk in the first place. The victory at Agincourt gave Henry the initiative, but in the end he became a prisoner of his own ambitions and in the process of trying to realise them he subjected both England and France to one of the most intensive periods of fighting seen in the war. The greatest tragedy for England, however, lay in the twin legacies which Henry left after his death, for he not only lumbered the kingdom with foreign policy goals impossible to fulfil, but also an infant son whose mental deficiencies – almost certainly inherited from his grandfather Charles VI – were to prove catastrophic and were to lead to the sort of ruinous divisions in England that had existed in France during the 1410s. In a number of different ways, Henry had sown the seeds of England's final defeat in the Hundred Years War 30 years later.
Gwilym Dodd is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nottingham and the editor of Henry V: New Interpretations (University of York Press, 2013).