Sunday, 25 October 2015

“Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint George!" – The Battle of Agincourt


25 October 1415, on Saint Crispin’s Day in northern France, the Battle of Agincourt was fought.

“This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.“ (William Shakespeare “Henry V”)


Sir John Gilbert: “Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415“ (1884)


Shopworn historical claims can do wonders to propagandistic justifications for going to war. Like, for instance, being the actual King of France. Thus, when Henry V was crowned in 1413 and the dynastic troubles back home were over for a spell, he decided to renew his great grandfather Edward III’s demands on the French throne, made some rather impossible suggestions in regards to a peaceful settlement and finally shipped his recently recruited small but highly professional army over to the continent to rekindle the conflict later known as the Hundred Years’ War. With the major players in feudal France locked in a bloody power struggle over influence in Mad King Charles VI’s kingdom and preoccupied with themselves, Henry was free to take his first campaign objective, the rich Norman seaport of Harfleur, once more into the breach and all that, without an interfering French relief force. However, the local warlords were well aware of Henry’s presence and while not quite the entire might of France marched towards the Somme in September 1415, since they’d rather go at each others’ throats than at the English, a considerable force, far larger than Henry’s, was on its way to cut him off and bring him to bay. To brush off the dust off his claims Henry had decided to march north to Calais along the river to show the locals that he was present and the actual potentates could do nothing about it, pretty much like his great uncle the Black Prince did in the South two generation before, albeit without his ancestor’s infamous raiding. The show of force to impress the natives was close to become a disaster for Henry, though. Spoiled shellfish consumed in Harfleur resulting in a dysentery epidemic in Henry’s army had achieved what French arms couldn’t. The English lost one third of their army on the march to Calais to disease and fatigue and when Henry, down to probably 6,000 men, most of them archers, finally crossed the river, the might of France did show in force, more than 12,000 knights and men-at-arms, fresh, well provisioned, superiorly equipped and finally ready to give battle.


John Gilbert: "King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt"


Jean Le Maingre called Boucicaut, marshal of France and nominal leader of the French army was careful, though. The English had won under similar circumstances before and he devised a reasonable plan including a quick pincer movement of his noble, knightly elite cavalry into the flanks of the English that would basically deny them to shoot a head-on charge to pieces with their feared longbows like they did at Crecy and elsewhere. The rest would be a mopping-up action. Unlike Henry, Boucicaut was commander of the army in name only and while the English spent the night before the battle in prayer, all wet in the rain without suitable camping equipment in a recently ploughed up wheat field and one Welshman named Harry Le Roi tried to boost fighting morale, the French were carousing and celebrated their coming victory on the next day. A bit prematurely. On the next day, the French lines were drawn up and did exactly nothing, forcing Henry to abandon his position and move forward to bring his longbows in range. Whether he actually made his famous speech or just said “Let’s go”, like some sources claim, he moved between two pieces of woodland that simply denied any idea of outflanking him Boucicaut might have conceived. Planting their stakes, veritable horse-killers and good cover in close combat, carried to the field all the way from Harfleur, deep into the mud, with his dismounted knights and men-at-arms to hold the centre and his archers half-covered by the woods on either side, looking over one long stretch of sludge. Then the archers, commoners all, gave the French nobles the two-finger salute since they had allegedly threatened to cut off these two fingers if they captured an archer to prevent him from ever drawing a bow again, and shot a few salvoes into the French line for good measure. Boucicaut could do nothing to prevent his nobles from charging into the English right away, head-on and straight into disaster. The attack got stuck in the mire, showered by thousands of deadly arrows and those who reached the archers’ lines had their big warhorses impaled on the stakes and were slaughtered in close combat. Boucicaut ordered his dismounted knights and men-at-arms to follow up as quickly as possible to keep at least the momentum, they were trampled by fleeing chargers, got stuck in the mud knee-deep, still showered by arrows and those who made it to the English lines were on the brink of exhaustion. Still they fought on in a deadly embrace of the two armies in the mud, the archers closing in after they had shot their last arrows and Henry V had won the Battle of Agincourt against impossible odds.



Harry Paine: "King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt" (1915)


In contrast to the custom of the day, few prisoners were taken until the battle was almost over. Noble prisoners meant rich ransoms that could set up a man for life. Those whose surrender was acknowledged were brought to the baggage train with the few men Henry could spare to guard them and when French stragglers made a sally there, he ordered the prisoners killed. A war crime, even by the standards back then. However, Henry could by no means be sure of his victory at this point and, pragmatic as he was, chose cruel necessity before honour and had not to worry about rearmed French prisoners at his back. Only when night fell at Agincourt, the magnitude of his victory became evident. Still 1,500 French nobles, from dukes to bannerets, were captured and more than 7,000 lay dead in the mud of Agincourt in contrast to 400 English and Welsh casualties, one noble, the Duke of York, among them. Henry marched on to Calais in triumph and became a myth already during his lifetime. He died just 7 years later, while on campaign, apparently of dysentery, at the age of 35, leaving a one-year old son to rule his domains of England and France, a host of aggressive nobility that would tear the country apart during the Wars of the Roses and the national Myth of Agincourt, a historical claim of winning against the odds, a bit shopworn these days, but still powerful.

And more about the Battle of Agincourt on: