10/25/12

King Henry V’s Victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415

On this day in history 1415, an English army led by King Henry V, the Duke of Gloucester, and Edward the Duke of York, defeated a French army led by the Constable of France, Charles d'Albret at Agincourt (Azincourt). Known for being a crushing French defeat, the Battle of Agincourt ( in Pas-de-Calais, Northern France) is the single most well known event of King Henry's V short but war-racked reign.

King Henry V's, pictured top right at Battle of Agincourt ,October, 1415

Ever seeming to be an enigmatic figure, historical accounts prove that King Henry was in all likelihood a religious zealot, not just a pious king of Christendom as would be expected but a man holding supreme self confidence in his abilities as a lord, knight, and conqueror. Still today Henry V’s greatest legacy relates to his military victories as most of his reign focused on conquering or raising and saving the coin necessary to conquer France.

As prince, Henry of Monmouth had done everything that could be asked of a noble and later a king’s oldest son and heir. Prince Henry fought in a number of engagements against the Welsh during Glendower’s Rebellion, and was present with his father at the Battle of Shrewsbury during ‘Hotspurs’ Rebellion in 1403, where he took a serious arrow wound to the face in the thick of the fighting. He perhaps gained his first insight into the greater functions and formalities of being a lord and being a king at an even younger age when he served as a squire with Richard II’s retainers on campaign in Ireland, where he may have witnessed the Kings’ earls parleying and making treaties with the Irish chieftains. [1] [2]

In all likelihood the wild times of Prince Henry’s youth is a Shakespearean invention, the truth being that he was devoted, highly focused, and iron willed young man ready to begin his reign over the kingdom which his father had won. Of equally great importance to the early life and reign in the development of Henry was his pious, absolutely zealous outlook on his role as the King of England. In the words of author Trevor Royle, “[Henry] embraced [a] more profound belief that England had been chosen by God to be a favored nation to humble the pride of France.” Historically it is known that Henry‘s faith was unwaveringly in line with the Church and the Pope’s decrees in Rome.

King Henry V (b.1386-1422)

By 1415 the Welsh were all but pacified and the King had survived the Southampton Plot leading up to his first major invasion of France. Henry had taken a strongly militaristic stance with the French Kingdom and the Burgundians, stockpiling weapons, materials of wars, and ships for war on the ocean and on land.

Under Henry’s strategy a naval force in the channel was critical to what can be called the opening to the Normandy Campaigns, a conflict which produced the King’s two most notable victories, the Siege of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt. What became erroneously known as the Agincourt campaign began with the costly siege of Harfleur, which followed the English landing in France, August of 1415.

King Henry and his knights pray to Jesus, Mary, and St. George moments before the Battle

Henry’s first Normandy Campaign August-October 1415

Harkening back to King Edward III’s siege of Calais in 1346-1347 and his other notable victories against the French, King Henry claimed Harfleur as Duke of Normandy, using his cast iron cannons to bombard the defenses of the town. Harfleur was eventually taken after an assault on the breached walls of the town, five weeks of miserable and costly siege warfare. A third of his force had perished in the battle most due to dysentery and other communicable diseases which spread rapidly through the ranks; many others were invalided home to England severely weakening the once healthy and proud English force which had set sail only a month before. [3]

Henry’s legendary victory at the Battle of Agincourt 25 October 1415 is a highly popularized and historically interpreted event of the 'dark' medieval age. The victor of Agincourt, though remembered today for his decisive and shocking victory over an overwhelmingly numerically superior French host, is often spared the criticism of having shed so much blood in a useless military action which could have cost him his life and annihilated his already diminished and weak (vulnerable) army.

Agincourt regardless of its great cultural significance, including in the time of the Tudors where anti-French propaganda served a direct political purpose in England [4], is still a controversial topic of medieval history today. The battle was really a blunder by both sides, for the English it was a lost cause chevauchée launched by King Henry in a campaign which had deteriorated into merely a fight for survival for the men under his command. [5] The French despite facing a small, hungry, and sick force chose a poor field of battle, slowed down by the thick mud of the freshly ploughed field; were slaughtered by arrows in the futile charge or cut down by the English men-at-arms waiting for them on the other side.

Whether it is dramatic interpretation or the interpretations of authors in academic or popular histories, Henry V’s Battle of Agincourt under the hail of arrows and carnage of that French onslaught, commanding the center battle, turning back two massive charges of knights and men-at-arms, is an iconic historical imagery even into the modern era.

John Gilbert's Morning of the Battle of Agincourt 1415

The Field of Battle, composition and battle order of the French

French forces at Agincourt numbered most likely between 20,000-30,000 soldiers- made up of knights, squires, men-at-arms, skirmishers, and crossbowmen. They were commanded by a number of nobles and well born knights, led by Charles d'Albret who was killed during the battle, just one of many notable deaths on the French side.

What played out in all three attacks against (two of them planned & organized) was the destruction of the attacking French in the face of literal a ‘storm of arrows’ anywhere near the British lines outside Agincourt. The deployment of experienced and accurate Welsh archers placed primarily on the flanks of Henry’s battle lines is ultimately the decisive factor in the stunning British victory during the battle.

Absolute terror awaited the surviving knights and dismounted French men-at-arms when they finally crashed into English lines for the melee in the charges of the first and second divisions. Exhausted from running through the mud in full armor, many  were slaughtered by the English men-at-arms who held the line successfully, unquestionably with help of the archers who dropped their bows and now took up arms in the melee, killing the heavily armored French men-at-arms with falchion swords, axes, and maces while they struggled to regroup and push through the lines.

The last charge was just as ferocious as the first one, the Duke of Alencon slaying the Duke of Gloucester, coming close to striking Henry V dead, knocking him to ground and as the legend would tell-cutting a piece of his crown off in a fierce and bold charge directed at the King’s life. Little quarter was afforded this day and after his surrender, yielding and appealing to King Henry personally, the brave Duke was cut down by an English knight out for blood, unawares or uncaring that he had surrendered to his king's mercy.

Deployment of armies, Agincourt October 25 1415

Slaughter in the rearguard-Death at Agincourt, conclusion of the Battle

The participation of Welsh archers who inflicted thousands of casualties with their arrows adds to the mystique of the battle, tactically the Welshmen were highly skilled and experienced bowmen who were perhaps the deciding factor the English victory above all other variables. Many French noblemen captured or in the process of surrendering were murdered in a breach of the chivalric-feudal practices of offering mercy, capturing, and then  ransoming lords and knights. Perhaps hundreds died when peasants attacked Henry’s baggage train triggering a mass slaughter of those Frenchman taken prisoner late in the battle.

King Henry on the attack

Knights had their throats slit, or were “brained” by lowly archers carrying axes, or had daggers run through their helmet visors in a most gruesome death. Still others were lucky enough to be captured for the benefit of their ransom for the King himself because many high status nobles had been killed in battle or executed, therefore Henry would ransom them for his benefit since his campaign was such a failure. Later that evening these same noble captains waited table on King Henry and his war council as they drank and feasted. [6]

The English inflicted perhaps 10,000 is not more casualties on the French force that day at Agincourt, massacring many nobles and peasants alike, making for an unnecessarily bloody battle according to the chivalric customs practiced in the previous one hundred years or more up until the conclusion of the Battle of Agincourt. [7]

The Pious and Martial King Henry V and the legacy of the Lancastrian Kings 1399-1471

The almost mystical qualities ascribed to the victory at Agincourt in past and contemporary histories seem to reinforce Henry’s own beliefs that he was God’s vassal on earth, fighting to smite the French kingdom, vanquishing the king and the dauphin, capturing France once and for all for England.King Henry made further gains in his campaign of 1417-1420, capturing lower Normandy, returning again in 1421 after his brother Clarence had been killed in battle by a Franco-Scottish force, leading to the king's untimely death due to dysentery most likely.

As Royle argues in his book on the Wars of the Roses, Lancaster Against York, the religious and perhaps deeper personal convictions of Henry V inspired the overt militaristic tendencies and fanatical stance taken towards conquering France during his brief but most celebrated reign. Had the young king lived past 1422 to win many more exploits and crown of of France itself, eventually returning to Westminster as a proud warrior-king to live out his days ensuring the peaceful transition of power to his heir then the reign of the Lancastrians may have survived the Wars of the Roses and lasted until the Renaissance and beyond.


[1]  Royle, Trevor pgs. 71-72
[2] Grafton, Richard Chronicle of the History England Vol. I (London)
[3] Seward, Desmond The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453 (Penguin, 1978) pgs. 159-161
[4] Allmand, Christopher Henry V (University California Press, Berkeley, LA)
[5] Allmand
[6] Seward pgs. 165-166
[7] Trevor Royle pgs. 80-87

2 comments:

  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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