Force and Order Battle of Agincourt
The Hundred Years’ War is a misnomer not only because the hostilities between England and France lasted from 1337 to 1453, but also because, as with much medieval warfare, engaged fighting was comparatively infrequent during this period. Major battles usually lasted less than two weeks, commonly with less than 3,000 people on each side, siege being a far more common form of achieving victory. Cause for war began mounting when the French king Charles IV died in 1328 with no heir. Edward III, his nephew, had a good claim to the throne, but the French peers chose Charles’s cousin, Philip VI of Valois. In May 1337 Philip VI confiscated Edward’s duchy of Gascony in southwestern France, and in October Edward laid claim to the French throne. The war would not close until England’s alliance with Burgundy ended in 1435 and the English lost their last foothold in France, Castillon, in 1453. Henry V’s expedition through northwestern France began in August 1415 with a protracted siege on the town of Harfleur at the mouth of the Seine. In October Henry decided to lead the remains of his army to Calais instead of immediately departing by sea for England. The French, sensing an easy victory, finally encountered the English at Agincourt in the afternoon of October 24.
English and French chronicles state different numbers of forces on the two sides that prepared for battle that evening, but the ratio seems to have been eight French to one Englishman. The Gesta Henrici Quinti estimates a slightly greater disparity, with 60,000 French to 6,000 English. After a night in the open air and rain, the English amassed in three groups of men-at-arms, each group flanked by archers. When the two forces finally encountered each other, the archers created havoc on the thick of the French horses and armed men, who were already weighed down by armor in the mud of a freshly ploughed field. The English forces were then able to move in and counter-attack on horseback and foot. The anonymous royal chaplain and writer of the Gesta claims – and is generally agreed – to have been an eyewitness to several events he relates in the prose chronicle: the king’s suppression of the 1414 Lollard uprising, the English army’s expedition in France, Henry’s triumphant return to London in November of the same year (see “Processions,” p. 209), and the 1416 meeting between the king and Emperor Sigismund. The writer’s descriptions of Henry V, of the intervention of divine grace, and of Emperor Sigismund signal that the Gesta is not only a reliable and important account, but that it was also intended to be politically persuasive. Henry is characterized as a devout king, who succeeds in the face of immediate adversity and who desires peace but has been forced into war by the intransigent French. God intercedes at crucial points in the king’s attempts to reclaim his rights to France, and all successes are due to God’s perception of the just nature of Henry’s cause. While the audience is not definitively known, the Gesta circulated quickly after its composition. Its most important effect may have been on parliament and religious leaders, garnering financial and spiritual support for the king’s next expedition to France, for which Henry was preparing during the time of the chronicle’s writing.
It was also probably intended for Sigismund in order to combat French hostility at the Council of Constance (see “The English and England,” p. 50).And then, when the enemy were nearly ready to attack, the French cavalry posted on the flanks made charges against those of our archers who were on both sides of our army. But soon, by God’s will, they were forced to fall back under showers of arrows and to flee to their rearguard, save for a very few who, although not without losses in dead and wounded, rode through between the archers and the woodlands, and save, too, of course, for the many who were stopped by the stakes driven into the ground and prevented from fleeing very far by the stinging hail of missiles shot at both horses and riders in their flight. And the enemy catapults, which were at the back of the men-at-arms and on the flanks, after a first but over-hasty volley by which they did injury to very few, withdrew for fear of our bows.
And when the men-at-arms had from each side advanced towards one another over roughly the same distance, the flanks of both battle-lines, ours, that is, and the enemy’s, extended into the woodlands, which were on both sides of the armies. But the French nobility, who had previously advanced in line abreast and had all but come to grips with us, either from fear of the missiles, which by their very force pierced the sides and visors of their helmets, or in order the sooner to break through our strongest points and reach the standards, divided into three columns, attacking our line of battle at the three places where the standards were. And in the mêlée of spears which then followed, they hurled themselves against our men in such a fierce charge as to force them to fall back almost a spear’s length. And then we who have been assigned to the clerical militia and were watching, fell upon our faces in prayer before the great mercy-seat of God, crying out aloud in bitterness of spirit that God might even yet remember us and the crown of England and, by the grace of his supreme bounty, deliver us from this iron furnace and the terrible death which menaced us. Nor was God unmindful of the multitude of prayers and supplications being made in England, by which, as it is devoutly believed, our men soon regained their strength and, valiantly resisting, pushed back the enemy until they had recovered the ground that had been lost. And then the battle raged at its fiercest, and our archers notched their sharp-pointed arrows and loosed them into the enemy’s flanks, keeping up the fight without pause. And when their arrows were all used up, seizing axes, stakes and swords, and spear-heads that were lying about, they struck down, hacked, and stabbed the enemy.
For the Almighty and Merciful God, who is ever marvellous in his works and whose will it was to deal mercifully with us, and whom also it pleased that, under our gracious king, his own soldier, and with that little band, the crown of England should remain invincible as of old, did, as soon as the lines of battle had so come to grips and the fighting had begun, increase the strength of our men, which dire want of food had previously weakened and wasted, took away from them their fear, and gave them dauntless hearts. Nor, it seemed to our older men, had Englishmen ever fallen upon their enemies more boldly and fearlessly or with a better will. And the same just judge, whose intention it was to strike with the thunderbolt of his vengeance the proud host of the enemy, turned his face away from them and broke their strength – the bow, the shield, the sword, and the battle.1 Nor, in any former times, which chronicle or history records, does it ever appear that so many of the very pick and most sturdy of warriors had offered opposition so lacking in vigour, and so confused and faint-hearted, or so unmanly. Indeed, fear and trembling seized them, for, so it was said among the army, there were some of them, even of their more nobly born, who that day surrendered themselves more than ten times.
No one, however, had time to take them prisoner, but almost all, without distinction of person, were, as soon as they were struck down, put to death without respite, either by those who had laid them low or by others following after, by what secret judgement of God is not known. God, indeed, had also smitten them with another great blow from which there could be no recovery. For when some of them, killed when battle was first joined, fell at the front, so great was the undisciplined violence and pressure of the mass of men behind that the living fell on top of the dead, and others falling on top of the living were killed as well, with the result that, in each of the three places where the strong contingents guarding our standards were, such a great heap grew of the slain and of those lying crushed in between that our men climbed up those heaps, which had risen above a man’s height, and butchered their enemies down below with swords, axes, and other weapons. And when at long last, after two or three hours, their vanguard had been riddled through and through, and broken up, and the rest were being put to flight, our men began to pull those heaps apart and to separate the living from the dead, intending to hold them as prisoners for ransom.
But then, all at once, because of what wrathfulness on God’s part no one knows, a shout went up that the enemy’s mounted rearguard (in incomparable number and still fresh) were re-establishing their position and line of battle in order to launch an attack on us, few and weary as we were. And immediately, regardless of distinction of person, the prisoners, save for the dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, certain other illustrious men who were in the king’s “battle,” and a very few others, were killed by the swords either of their captors or of others following after, lest they should involve us in utter disaster in the fighting that would ensue. After but a short time, however, the enemy ranks, having experienced the bitter taste of our missiles and with our king advancing towards them, by God’s will abandoned to us that field of blood together with their wagons and other baggage-carts, many of these loaded with provisions and missiles, spears, and bows. And when, at God’s behest, the strength of that people had been thus utterly wasted and the rigours of battled had ended, we, who had gained the victory, came back through the masses, the mounds, and the heaps of the slain and, seeing them, reflected (though not without grief and tears on the part of many) upon the fact that so great a number of warriors, famous and most valiant had only God been with them, should have sought their own deaths in such a manner at our hands, quite contrary to any wish of ours, and should thus have effaced and destroyed, all to no avail, the glory and honour of their own country. And if that sight gave rise to compunction and pity in us, strangers passing by, how much more was it a cause of grief and mourning to their own people, awaiting expectantly the warriors of their country and then seeing them so crushed and made defenseless.
And, as I truly believe, there is not a man with heart of flesh or even of stone who, had he seen and pondered on the horrible deaths and bitter wounds of so many Christian men, would not have dissolved into tears, time and again, for grief. Indeed, having previously been despoiled by English pillagers, none of them, however illustrious or distinguished, possessed at our departure any more covering, save only to conceal his nature, than that with which nature had endowed him when first he saw the light.