In the early 1400s, Anglo-French relations were in a pretty bad place. New English King Henry V – who succeeded his father Henry IV in 1413 – faced mounting pressure to stabilize his own kingdom and settle issues of succession with the French crown. Henry claimed ownership of the French throne; he didn’t actually want it, but suggested the French pay a massive “inheritance” to him (to cover the costs of internal wars). Negotiations broke down, and Henry perceived that he was being mocked by French negotiators. What today seems like a petty disagreement was, in 1415, legitimate cause for war, and in April of that year Henry decided to invade France – yet another chapter in the so-called Hundred Years War. The ensuing conflict resulted in a brutal showdown at the Battle of Agincourt.
ASAP: Boy-king Henry V trapped the French knights in the mud and beat them with clubs, arrows and pure English savagery.Read on for details!
Henry and his army of 12,000 men sailed to Northern France and landed on August 13th. Moving inland, they besieged Harfleur Castle; the siege took far too long and resulted in many diseases spreading throughout the British camp. Pressured to return to England for the winter, Henry decided to press on to Calais; his (now 9,000) men were blocked at the Somme River by French troops led by the Charles d’Albret, Duke of Orléans. Henry marched his exhausted men 420 km (260 miles) south over the next two weeks, desperate to find a crossing; eventually, his army forded the Somme and bumped into the French army in a forest near Tramecourt woods and Azincourt village.
Lead-up to Battle
By now, Henry had 5,700 exhausted and starving men: 4,950 archers and 750 “men-at-arms”, or knights in armour. The British were experts at defensive war. Their archers – equipped with longbows and capable of killing an enemy at nearly 300 metres – were the best at their trade, and were primarily used to fire massive barrages of arrows at the enemy from a distance. The French vowed to kill them on site after encountering them earlier at Crecy. The men-at-arms were slow and exposed in their heavy suits of armour and chain mail; they typically closed the distance with the enemy and beat them to death with maces and hammers. Medieval combat was far from glamorous and often devolved into exhausted, heavily-armoured men flailing around on the ground and desperately trying to stab one another through slits in their armoured plating.
D’Albret, in comparison, had had some success in raising an army and faced Henry with roughly 25,000 men. He possessed 3,000 crossbowmen – whose weapons were inferior to the British longbow in range and accuracy – 7,000 knights on horseback, and about 15,000 dismounted men-at-arms. His men were well-fed and would be fighting on familiar soil. They knew the British were expert bowman, and d’Albret planned to destroy the archers quickly with aggressive flanking attacks.
The French were encamped at the top of a hill in a large clearing in the Tramecourt woods. The tiny British force faced them from the bottom; they could not afford to retreat and were probably quite unhappy as D’Albret’s massive force shouted French insults at them from their advantageous position. The woods narrowed to a small gap between the French and English lines, and the recently-plowed ground – churned up by the recent rain – was thick with mud. Every hour that Henry waited, thousands more French reinforcements arrived. So, on October 15th, he was forced to attack the French or risk being further outnumbered. After an apparently rousing speech and prayer, Henry formed his men up for battle, knowing full well that he was at a massive disadvantage.
The main body of English men-at-arms advanced slowly up the hill through the thick mud. Their creaking suits of armour made a deafening sound that didn’t quite drown out the French war cries from on the hill. Meanwhile, archers advanced on the left and right flanks, partially protected by the treeline. When in position, they drove sharpened stakes into the ground to protect themselves from the French horsemen. At mid-morning, the the archers began firing massive volleys of arrows at the French on the hill. With no way to respond – the French crossbowmen were placed uselessly, at the far rear of d’Albret’s position – the French men-at-arms began marching down the hill towards the tiny British force.
The narrow frontage of the French attack – compressed by the woods on either sides – meant that a only small number of d’Albret’s men could attack Henry’s men at once. French horsemen ploughed through the thick mud, churning it up and in many cases falling from their horses. As they smashed into the English line, Henry’s knights grabbed and stabbed at the horses and riders and pulled them into the mud, where they were set upon and murdered en masse. Knights drowned in the mud or were stabbed by English archers and men-at-arms. Henry – fighting with little or no armour – slashed his way towards the Duke of Gloucester and saved him from a group of French knights. Part of his crown was slashed off, but the young king managed to stay in the fight. Two thirds of the French force had already pressed their advantage, and been cut down in the mud. As the battle wore on, Henry’s men gradually killed many of d’Albret’s men and the tide began to turn in favour of the English.
D’Albret was killed in the mud. Seeing this, the French panicked. Henry rallied his men and collected several thousand prisoners. Still in a vulnerable position – the English were outnumbered by the remaining French atop the hill, and even by their prisoners – Henry sent a message to the French suggesting surrender or death. English king then ordered his men to murder their prisoners for fear they would realize their advantage and counter-attack; it’s unclear what exactly followed, but most likely he took back his order when many prisoners fled into the treeline. As the assorted French troops withdrew from the hill, they left behind over 6,000 men dead in the mud of Agincourt. Henry’s force was quite worn out, and still desperately low on supplies – but he had lost less than 1,000 men, and was able to continue his advance on Calais, where he would make his demands of the French monarchy.
Despite his best wishes, the ambitious English king was unable to chase and defeat the remaining French armies and beat them. He simply did not have the strength after Agincourt. Forced to abruptly return to England, Henry’s troops were met as heroes; the victory at Agincourt is seen (perhaps to an excessive extent) as a great unifying moment in English history that came just as the country was on the verge of outright rebellion. In France, frustration at the massive defeat led to civil war, and soon fighting had broken out in Paris.
In a modern context, Agincourt is more complex. In 2010, Henry V was posthumously tried in a “mock trial” in the United States, where he was found guilty of war crimes for his assumed slaughter of French prisoners. It’s difficult – and perhaps pointless – to judge characters of the past by modern standards of ethics, especially when much of the evidence used in the trial was taken from Shakespeare’s Henry V. The Battle of Agincourt was certainly an important part of English mythology, and is significant for its demonstration of how superior tactics can beat out a superior force. In the context of the World Wars and further conflict in the 20th century, however, it’s hard to see much justification for the battle beyond an English desire to save face.
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- Who? 5,700 English men under King Henry V; they faced 25,000 French men under Constable Charles d’Albret.
- Where? At Agincourt, a clearing in the woods of Tramecourt near the village of Azincourt (the exact location is unknown).
- When? October 25th, 1415 – near the end of the Hundred Years’ War.
- What? A small English force attacked a much larger French force (who occupied a good position atop a hill). The French counter-attacked, forced into a narrow frontage by the surrounding treeline; as heavily armoured knights engaged one another in the mud, English longbowmen devastated French horsemen from the flanks. Eventually, the French forces were beaten and the remainder fled; some prisoners were executed by the English.
- Why? Henry V felt pressured into declaring war on France to save face. After his forces were worn down during engagements throughout Northern France, he decided he needed to decisively beat his enemy before continuing on. Agincourt proved to be the perfect spot for battle as it allowed Henry to take full advantage of his excellent archers and the naturally-confined battlefield.
- Result: Decisive English victory. Henry V returned to England and was hailed as a hero. France descended into civil war.
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- What were d’Albret’s biggest mistakes? How did Henry exploit them?
- Was the invasion of France actually justified?
- What was life like for the average soldier or civilian affected by the battle and the campaign?
- Is there any point judging historical characters by modern standards?
- How has Agincourt’s portrayal in popular English culture changed over the centuries?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- Phillpotts, Christopher. “The French Plan of Battle during the Agincourt Campaign.” The English Historical Review 99, no. 390 (1984): 59-66.
- Jones, Michael K. 2005. Agincourt 1415: battlefield guide. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military.
- Curry, Anne. 2000. Agincourt 1415: Henry V, Sir Thomas Erpingham and the triumph of English archers. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus.
- “I. A Letter to King Henry the Fifth from One of His Chaplains, Immediately after the Battle of Agincourt.” Camden Old Series 86 (1863): 1–6.
- Todd, D. K. C. 1985. Shakespeare’s Agincourt. Durham, England: New Century Press.