Agincourt Part 1: Where Chivalry Died In The Mud

Scott Farrell Comments:

The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 is a watershed moment in the history of chivalry and knighthood. It was an event when the army of France, which consisted primarily of knights armed with the finest “high tech” military equipment of the day, was defeated by a much smaller English force, comprised primarily of yeomen and peasant archers.

Agincourt thus became symbolic of the triumph of the “commoner” over the knightly nobility; of grit and determination over chivalry and gallantry. But there is another side to the imagery of Agincourt — that of a small, courageous band of brothers standing against all odds and emerging victorious not only by force of arms but also by strength of character and virtue. Songs were written about the English King Henry V immediately after the battle saying his victory was won, “by grace and might of chivalry.”

But recent scholarly investigations into the Battle of Agincourt are beginning to remold our image of this historic event — and these updated images of the campaign, the battle and the men who fought it (on both sides) have been incorporated into the recent novel Azincourt (the medieval spelling) by acclaimed historical novelist Bernard Cornwell.

But if our image of the Battle of Agincourt – the arrogant French knights, the valiant English king, the stalwart bowmen – is being repainted, what does that do to the concept of chivalry? Was Agincourt an excoriation of an outdated notion of aristocratic privilege? Or an atrocity against the very concept of ethics on the battlefield?

This article, written by Bernard Cornwell himself and published in the Oct. 28, 2008 edition of The Daily Mail, may shed some light on just how the concept of chivalry emerged from the muddy battlefield at Agincourt.

Legend says the Battle of Agincourt was won by stalwart English archers. It was not. In the end it was won by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval hand-to-hand fighting. It was fought on a field knee-deep in mud and it was more of a massacre than a battle.

The romantic image of Shakespeare’s Henry V (played here by Sir Lawrence Olivier) maybe inspirational, but it also appears in stark contrast to the authentic image of the king and his army who fought at Agincourt.

Laurence Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s Henry V shows French knights charging on horseback, but very few men were mounted at Agincourt.

The French came on foot and the battle was reduced to men hitting other armoured men with hammers, maces and axes.

A sword would not penetrate armour and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, but a poleaxe (a long-handled axe or hammer, topped with a fearsome spike) would fell him fast, and then it was easy to raise the victim’s visor and slide a knife through an eye. That was how hundreds of men died; their last sight on earth a dagger’s point.

It is not a tale of chivalry, but rather of armoured men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls. At the battle’s height, when Henry V expected an attack on his rear that never materialised, he ordered the newly captured French prisoners to be killed. They were murdered.

(Recently) during a conference at the Medieval History Museum in Agincourt, French academics met to declare that English soldiers acted like ‘war criminals’ during the battle, setting fire to prisoners and killing French noblemen who had surrendered. The French ‘were met with barbarism by the English’, said the museum’s director Christophe Gilliot.

The French pronouncement smacks of bias, but what is certain is that Agincourt was filthy, horrible and merciless. Yet it is still celebrated as a golden moment in England’s history.

Why do we remember it? Why has this battle galvanised English hearts over the centuries? These are questions I came to ask as I researched my new novel Azincourt – spelled as it is in France – and discovered just what an extraordinary event it was.

Part of the legend about the archers is certainly true. Most of the English army were archers and their arrows caused huge damage, although they never delivered the knock-out blow it is claimed.

Henry V was also an inspirational leader. He fought in the front rank and part of his crown was knocked off. Eighteen Frenchmen had taken an oath to kill him and all of them died at Henry’s feet, slaughtered by the King or by his bodyguard. And, despite recent claims to the contrary, it seems the English were horribly outnumbered.

In the cold, wet dawn of October 25, 1415, no one could have expected Henry’s army to survive the day. He had about 6,000 men, more than 5,000 of them archers, while the French numbered at least 30,000 and were so confident that, before the battle was joined, they sent away some newly arrived reinforcements. By dusk on that Saint Crispin’s Day, Henry’s small army had entered legend.

But the English should never have been at Agincourt, which lies 25 miles south of Calais. England was in the thick of the 100 Years’ War with France, and Henry had invaded Normandy in the hope of making a quick conquest of Harfleur, a strategic port. Yet the town’s stubborn defence delayed him and by the siege’s end his army had been struck by dysentery.

Sick men were dying and the campaign season was ending as winter drew in. Sensible advice suggested that Henry cut his losses and sail back to England. But he had borrowed huge amounts of money to invade France and all he had to show for it was one gun-battered port. Going home looked suspiciously like defeat.

He instead marched north to Calais with probably nothing more in mind than cocking a snook at the French who, though they had gathered an army, had done nothing to relieve the brave defenders of Harfleur.

Henry wanted to humiliate the French by flaunting his banners, yet I doubt he truly wanted to face that large French army with his own depleted numbers.

The French had been supine all summer, but now, suddenly, they woke and moved to block Henry’s path. Henry tried to go round them. A march meant to last eight days stretched to 16. The English exhausted their food, they were ill with dysentery and soaked from the continual autumn rains.

They were driven far inland in search of a place to cross the River Somme and then trudged north, only to discover the French army waiting for them on a muddy field between the woods of Azincourt and Tramecourt. The English were trapped.

The French were barring the English road home, so Henry had to fight. He hoped the French would attack him and he ordered his archers to protect themselves from knights on horseback by making a thicket of sharpened stakes to impale the stallions’ chests.

But the French remained motionless, so Henry was forced to advance on them. Did he really say ‘Let’s go, fellows!’ as one contemporary claimed? It seems so, yet whatever his words, the English plucked up their stakes and waded through the mud to get close to the French line.

And the French, even though they must have seen that the English were in disarray, did nothing. They let Henry’s men come to within extreme bowshot distance where, once again, the stakes were hammered into the ground and the battle line was reformed on a newly ploughed field that had been soaked by constant rain. If I had to suggest one cause for the French defeat, it would be mud.

The two sides were now little more than a couple of hundred paces apart. The English, astonishingly, had been given time to reposition themselves, and now the archers began the battle by shooting a volley of arrows.

At least 5,000 of them, most converging from the flanks, slashed into the French, and it seems that the shock of that first arrow strike prompted the French to attack.

A handful of Frenchmen advanced on horseback, trying to get among the archers, but mud, stakes and arrows easily defeated those knights. Some of the horses, maddened by pain, galloped back through the French men-at-arms, tearing their ranks into chaos.

Some 8,000 Frenchmen were now advancing on foot. No one knows how long it took them to cover the 200 or more paces which separated them from Henry’s men-at-arms, but it was not a quick approach.

They were wading through mud made treacherous by deeply ploughed furrows and churned to quagmire by horses’ hooves. And they were being struck by arrows so that they were forced to close their helmets’ visors.

They could see little through the tiny eye- slits, their breathing was stifled and still the arrows came. The conventional verdict suggests that the French were cut down by those arrow storms, but the chief effect of the arrows was to delay and, by forcing them to close their visors, half-blind the attackers.

The French knew about English and Welsh archers. The longbow could shoot an arrow more than 200 paces with an accuracy that was unmatched till the rifled gun barrel was invented.

At Agincourt some barbed broadhead arrows (which were designed to cause maximum damage and could fell cavalry) would have been shot at those few horses that attacked the English line. But most were bodkins, long and slender arrowheads without barbs that were made to pierce armour.

A good archer could easily shoot 15 arrows a minute, so 5,000 archers could loose 75,000 arrows in one minute; more than 1,000 a second.

Why did the French not deploy their own longbowmen? Because to shoot a longbow demanded great strength (they were at least three times as powerful as a modern competition bow) and considerable skill. It took years for a man to develop the muscles and technique, and for reasons that have never been understood, such men emerged in Britain, but not on the Continent.

So as the first French line advanced it was being struck repeatedly by arrows, and even if a bodkin did not penetrate plate armour its strike was sufficient to knock a man backwards.

If the advance took four minutes (and I suspect it took longer), then about 300,000 arrows would have been shot at the 8,000 men.

Even if the English were short of arrows and cut their shooting rate to one-third, then they would still have driven 100,000 arrows against the struggling 8,000, and if the legend is correct, then not one of those Frenchmen should have survived.

Yet they did survive, and most of them reached the English line and started fighting with shortened lances, poleaxes and war-hammers.

The fight became a struggle of hacking and thrusting, slaughter in the mud.

But if so many arrows had been shot, how did the French survive to reach the English and start that murderous brawl? The answer probably lies in the eternal arms race …

Learn More: Shakespeare’s Famous Band Of Brothers

The famous St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, delivered here by Lawrence Olivier in a 1944 motion picture, creates a stirring and romantic image of chivalry at Agincourt. Is it an image of a king, an army and a code of honor built on literary grandeur rather than historical reality?

Also in Agincourt

  1. Agincourt Part 2: Where A New Crop Of Chivalry Was Planted
  2. Agincourt Part 1: Where Chivalry Died In The Mud

View the entire series

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