The Battle of Agincourt: The Muddy Massacre of the Hundred Years’ War
The Battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415 and is one of the most famous battles of the Hundred Years’ War . During the battle, the English won an unexpected victory over the French, who are recorded to have outnumbered their enemy. The English victory at Agincourt dealt a significant military blow to France, raised English morale and prestige, and led to further English successes and conquests in the years that followed.
The Battle of Agincourt is arguably one of the most celebrated victories in England. The battle was immortalized by William Shakespeare in his play Henry V. Apart from that, the Battle of Agincourt has been commemorated in other media, including songs, paintings, and films.
The Battle of Agincourt – A Fight Between Houses
The Battle of Agincourt took place on the 25th of October 1415, near Azincourt, a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department of northern France. The battle was part of the Hundred Years’ War, which began as a feud between the English House of Plantagenet and the French House of Valois .
This conflict began in 1337 and lasted for a total of 116 years, ending only in 1453. The Hundred Years’ War, however, was not a continuous war, but a series of intermittent conflicts that may be split into several ‘phases’.
By the time the Battle of Agincourt was fought, the war had entered its final phase, which has been called the ‘Lancastrian Phase / War’, since the English king who renewed the conflict with France, Henry V, belonged to the House of Lancaster. This phase lasted from 1415, when the English invaded Normandy (or 1413, when Henry became king of England), to 1453, when they were expelled from Bordeaux.
King Henry V, at the Battle of Agincourt, wears the Royal Arms of England, quartered with the Fleur de Lys of France as a symbol of his claim to the throne of France. (Richard Cœur de Lion / Public Domain )
This phase is sometimes divided into two parts, the first lasting from 1415 to 1428 and the second from 1428 to 1453. During the first phase, the English dominated the war. During the second phase, however, English domination in France gradually declined, and by the end of the war, they had lost all their territory on the continent (except the Pale of Calais) to the French.
Prior to the start of the Lancastrian Phase of the Hundred Years’ War, there was a period of relative peace between the two sides. Towards the end of the 14th century, relations between England (under Richard II ) and France (under Charles VI ) had become friendly enough that the hopes of a final peace treaty could be entertained.
In 1399, however, Richard, the last Plantagenet ruler of England, was deposed, and replaced by Henry IV, the first king of England from the House of Lancaster. Although the new king adopted Edward III’s (his grandfather’s) claim to the French throne, he had to first consolidate his position in England, and therefore could take little action against the French.
In 1407, France was plunged into a civil war. Both factions, the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, sought the aid of the English. In 1412, for instance, the Armagnacs, offered Henry the restitution of Aquitaine in exchange for English aid. Henry, however, died in March the following year.
Henry was succeeded by his son, Henry V, who was much more determined to assert his claim on the French throne. Although there were two incidents at the beginning of Henry’s reign that threatened his position, he was forewarned about them and crushed them mercilessly. Once these threats were dealt with, Henry turned his attention to France.
The king continued the negotiations with France, which had begun during Richard’s reign. The demands made by Henry, however, were preposterous, as they included the surrender of parts of France that had never been in English hands. It seems that Henry was convinced that his demands were just, and that they were not a mere excuse for the renewal of war.
In any case, if negotiations did not succeed, Henry was prepared to press his claims by force. Naturally enough, the French rejected Henry’s demands and negotiations came to an end in June 1415.
Even before the failure of diplomacy, the English were already making preparations for war, and so in August 1415, Henry was able to invade France with an army. On the 10th of August 1415, the English landed at Le Chef-de-Caux, on the estuary of the River Seine, and on the 18th they besieged Harfleur.
The Siege of Harfleur was a prelude to the Battle of Agincourt. (British Library Board / Public Domain )
The defenders resisted longer than expected and only surrendered on the 22nd of September. Although the French lost Harfleur, the prolonged siege reduced the number of Henry’s men significantly. It is estimated that several thousand English soldiers lost their lives during the siege, primarily as a result of disease. As a consequence, Henry decided to sail back to England.
Heading for the Battle of Agincourt
On the 8th of October, Henry and his men left Harfleur. Their destination was the port city of Calais where the English fleet was waiting for them. At that point in time, the English army consisted of about 1,500 knights and men-at-arms, as well as 6,000 archers. Henry was forced to take a detour inland in order to cross the river Somme, as he was prevented from crossing the river downstream by French defenses.
This gave the French some time to assemble a large army, which was placed under the command of Charles d’Albret, the Constable of France, and Jean II le Meingre, a marshal of France. Although it is clear that the French had numerical superiority over their English opponent, it is unclear as to exact size of the French army. According to some estimates, the French-English ratio was 6 to 1, while more recent scholarship places it at 4 to 3.
By the 24th of October, the English army was within 30 miles (48 kilometers) of their destination, Calais. As Henry and his army entered the valley beyond the town of Frévent, his scouts rode back with news that the road ahead was blocked by a large French army. The French had intended to intercept the English before they reached Calais and succeeded in doing so.
Map of the Battle of Agincourt. (AndreyKva / Public Domain )
Although we know that the battle took place near Azincourt, the precise location of the battlefield has been lost to history. Although the battle could have been fought on the 24th of October, the French declined, as they were hoping for the arrival of reinforcements. Therefore, both armies set up camp and prepared to fight the next day.
Although the English were outnumbered by the French, Henry made a wise decision in terms of the site of battle. Henry positioned his army on a newly ploughed field which was flanked on both sides by dense woodland.
As a result of heavy rains prior to the battle, the field was muddy, which made it difficult for heavily armed soldiers to march across. The dense woodlands also benefited the English, as it narrowed the front, thereby countering the numerical superiority of the French, and prevented the French army from making maneuvers that could allow them to envelope the English.
Henry placed his knights and men-at-arms in the center, while the archers were deployed in edges of their flanks. These archers were armed with longbows, which have an effective range of up to 250 yards (229 meters). In addition, a well-trained longbowman could fire up to 10 arrows per minute.
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Longbowmen at the Battle of Agincourt. (The real Marcoman / Public Domain )
Furthermore, the archers drove sharpened stakes into the ground at an angle, so as to protect them from the French cavalry. This was a new innovation, which had not been used by the English in previous battles against the French, such as the Battle of Crécy (1346) and the Battle of Poitiers (1356). The French, on the other hand, deployed their army into three battle lines, each consisting of heavily armed knights and men-at-arms.
The Muddy Massacre Known as the Battle of Agincourt
At sunrise, both armies held their respective positions, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Nothing happened in the three hours that followed and Henry was forced to take a gamble.
The king began to advance his men, which was a risky move, as it meant that he had to uproot the stakes that were protecting his archers. Henry’s gamble, however, paid off, as the French were now within range of his archers.
The morning of the Battle of Agincourt. (Hohum / Public Domain )
The French were taken by surprise when Henry’s archers began firing at them. It has been speculated that the French were expecting the English to launch a frontal assault, and therefore did not do anything when Henry advanced his army.
Alternatively, it has been suggested that the French did not react fast enough to Henry’s move. Had the French cavalry attacked the English while they were moving, the outcome of the battle would have been much different.
When the French realized what was going on, they reacted by sending their first battle line against the English. Henry’s archers continued firing volley upon volley of arrows against the advancing French. Men and horses were either killed or injured by the arrows, weakening the intended charge.
The muddy ground further impeded the movement of the French knights, turning the charge into a walk. The knights who dismounted and the men-at-arms did not fare much better either. Their heavy armor caused them to be bogged down in the mud and made it extremely difficult for them to approach the English.
The dead and injured who were lying in the mud further hampered the French advance. Interestingly, according to the French, the failure of their charge was due to the lack of men who participated in it. It seems that prior to the charge, some of the French knights had gone off to warm themselves or to walk or feed their horses.
Once the archers had used up their arrows, they joined the rest of the English army in hand to hand combat with the French. It was a massacre, as the French who were stuck in the mud could not offer effective resistance. Although the French sent their second battle line to aid the first one, this too was defeated.
Seeing the massacre before their eyes, the third battle line hesitated in joining battle. Henry sent a herald offering the remaining French two options – leave the battlefield or prepare to be slaughtered without mercy.
The third battle line chose the former and left the field of battle. By noon, the main battle was over.
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King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt. (Mathiasrex / Public Domain )
There was, however, one small but significant incident that occurred after the main battle. As the remaining French were leaving the battlefield, two local nobles, Isambart d’Agincourt and Robert de Bournonville, used their local knowledge to march around the forests. With a small force, they attacked the English at Maisoncelles.
When Henry heard the news, he was afraid that the French would launch an attack on his rear and therefore ordered the execution of the French prisoners they had captured. As a consequence, the English lost a considerable sum of money that they could have obtained by ransoming the prisoners.
This was an even greater blow to the French as they lost even more of their nobles. The French are estimated to have lost between 4,000 and 10,000 men, including many elite. English losses, on the other hand, are thought to have been between 100 and 1,500. Following the battle, Henry reached Calais and returned to England.
Henry’s victory at Agincourt strengthened his position, and that of his dynasty, in England. He left the kingdom as the son of a usurper but returned as a conquering hero. In the years that followed, the English made gains in France.
In 1419, for instance, Normandy was subjugated, while the Treaty of Troyes was signed in the following year. Under this treaty, Henry married Catherine of Valois, the daughter of the French king. In addition, Charles agreed that upon his death, Henry and his heirs would inherit the French throne.
The Battle of Agincourt is undoubtedly one of the most famous victories in English history and has therefore been remembered by the English long after it is was fought. Shakespeare’s play Henry V, which immortalized the battle, for instance, was written in 1599.
The memory of the Battle of Agincourt is relevant even in more recent times. Shortly after the Battle of Mons (the first major battle of the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War) in 1914, for instance, a journalist weaved the tale that angelic archers, the ghosts of the English longbowmen at Agincourt, appeared in the sky to assist the British. The French, unsurprisingly, prefer to forget this battle.
Top image: The Battle of Agincourt was fought between France and England in 1415. Source: Fxquadro / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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