Scott Farrell Comments:
In the second part of this article, as in his latest novel Azincourt Cornwell paints a stark and brutal picture of Agincourt. Yet, despite the folly and callousness demonstrated at times by both sides in this battle, the day did not result in “the death of chivalry,” as some pragmatic historians might like to claim. Instead, Agincourt might better be described as “the transformation of chivalry” … from an ideal that applied only to an elite and aristocratic few, to one that every man, “no matter how vile” (in the words of Shakespeare) could achieve.
The English army at Agincourt was one in which peasant and knight stood side-by-side in the mud — it might have brought the knights low, but it also let those humble English yeomen feel a bit of the chivalric glow that had previously illuminated the knightly class alone. This was a moment — perhaps one of the first in all of history — when an everyman could imagine himself as a knight in shining armor.
Armour technology had advanced and the French plate armour was mostly good enough to resist the English arrow-heads. And how good were those heads?
Arrow-making was an industrial-scale activity in England, yet few men understood what happened when iron was hardened into steel and many of the English arrows crumpled on contact with the enemy’s armour. So the many reached the few, but the many were exhausted by mud, some were wounded and the English, enjoying the luxury of raised visors, cut them down.
What seems to have happened was that the front rank of the French, exhausted by slogging through the mud, battered and wounded by arrows, disorganised by panicked horses and by stumbling over wounded men, became easy victims for the English men-at-arms.
There would have been the ghastly sound of hammers crushing helmets, the screams of men falling, and suddenly the leading French rank being chopped down and its fallen men becoming an obstacle to those behind who, being thrust forward by the rearmost ranks, tripped on the newly fallen bodies and so became victims themselves. One witness claimed that the pile of dead and dying was as tall as a man, an obvious exaggeration, but undoubtedly the first French casualties made a rampart to protect the English men-at-arms.
The French had attacked the centre of the English line where the King, the nobles and the gentry stood. Their aim had been to take prisoners and so become rich from ransoms, but now that centre was a killing ground and, to escape it, the French widened their attack to assault the archers who had probably exhausted their arrows.
Yet the archers had been equipped with poleaxes and other handweapons, and they fought back.
The bowmen wore little armour, and in the glutinous mud they were far more mobile than their plate-armoured opponents.
Any man capable of hauling a warbow’s string was hugely strong and a battle-axe in his hands would be a ghastly weapon. So the archers joined the hand-to-hand fight and the tired French were killed in their hundreds.
The second French line, another 8,000 men on foot, tried to support their beleaguered colleagues, but they too were cut down and the rest of the French melted away. The extraordinary, awful battle was over. The field was now groaning with horribly wounded men; men lying in piles, men suffocating in mud, dead men, blood-drenched men.
Perhaps as many as 5,000 French died that day, while English losses were in the hundreds, maybe not even as many as 200. The few had gained their extraordinary triumph.
There were other victories, like Poitiers in 1356, that were more decisive, and it is arguable that Agincourt achieved very little; it would take another five years of warfare before Henry won the concessions he wanted from the French and even then his premature death proved those gains worthless.
Shakespeare’s heart-stirring Henry V helped ensure the battle’s place in English folklore, but Shakespeare was playing to an audience that already knew the tale and wanted to hear it again.
Agincourt was well-known long before Shakespeare made it immortal, yet even so there were those other great triumphs like Poitiers and Crecy, so why Agincourt?
It must have started with the stories told by survivors. They had expected annihilation and gained victory. It might even be true that the archers, when the battle was over, taunted the French by holding up the two string-fingers that the enemy had threatened to slice off every captured bowman – the V- sign that is common parlance today.
The men in Henry’s army must have believed they had been part of a miracle. The few had destroyed the many, and most of those few were archers.
They were not lords and knights and gentry, but butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers from the shires. They were the ordinary men of England and Wales. They had met the awesome power of France in hand-to-hand fighting and they had won.
The battle is part of the binding of England, the emergence of the common man as a vital part of the nation, and those common men returned to England with their tales, their plunder and their pride.
The stories were told in taverns over and over, how a few hungry, trapped men had gained an amazing victory. The story is still told because it has such power. It is a tale of the common man achieving greatness. It is an English tale for the ages, an inspiration and – far from being ashamed of so-called ‘war crimes’ – we can be proud of it.