On this day, 25 October 1415, King Henry V of England, and his tiny army of nobles, men-at-arms and English and Welsh longbowmen, left the Flower of French Chivalry laying face down in a muddy field in Northern France, near the village of Agincourt.
At Agincourt Henry Monmouth - King Henry V, England's greatest warrior monarch - deployed his troops against a larger French army on a muddy field near Agincourt, in northern France. Henry personally led his troops into battle and actually participated in hand-to-hand combat. The French were commanded by Constable Charles d'Albret and various prominent French noblemen of the Armagnac party.
This famous battle is notable for the use of the English longbow, which Henry used in very large numbers, with English and Welsh longbowmen forming the vast majority of his army. The Battle of Agincourt has been celebrated in literature, song and film ever since; it is quite possibly the most significant English victory in that tiny island country's glorious history.
King of England, Prince Regent of France; Lord of Ireland, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Lancaster
Prelude to Combat
Henry's army had landed in northern France on 13 August 1415 and besieged the port of Harfleur with an army of about 12,000. The siege took longer than expected - the town did not capitulate until 22 September, and the English army did not leave until 8 October, by which the English had suffered many casualties through disease.
The campaign season coming to an end, Henry decided to move most of his army (roughly 7,000) to the port of Calais, the English stronghold in northern France, where they could re-equip over the winter.
During the siege, the French had raised an army which assembled around Rouen. This was not a feudal 'serf' army, but rather an army of paid professionals very similar to the English. The French hoped to raise 9,000 troops, but the army was not ready in time to relieve Harfleur. When Henry V marched to the north, the French moved to blockade them along the River Somme. They were successful for a time, forcing Henry to move south, away from Calais, to find a ford.
The English finally crossed the Somme south of Péronne, at Béthencourt and Voyennes and resumed marching north. Without the river protection, the French were hesitant to force a battle. They shadowed Henry's army while calling a semonce des nobles, calling on local nobles to join the army. By October 24 both armies faced each other for battle, but the French declined, hoping for the arrival of more troops.
The next day the French initiated negotiations as a delaying tactic, but Henry ordered his army to advance and to start a battle that, given the state of his army, he would have preferred to avoid. The English had very little food, had marched 260 miles in two-and-a-half weeks, were suffering from sickness such as dysentery, and faced much larger numbers of well-equipped French men-at-arms.
However Henry understood that his longbowmen greatly outclassed the French crossbowmen and he needed to get to the safety of Calais. He knew that if he waited, the French would get more reinforcements.
The lack of reliable and consistent sources makes it very difficult to estimate accurately the numbers on both sides. Modern estimates have the French forces at Agincourt numbering between 12,000-15,000, the English at approximately 9,000.
It is estimated that the French army consisted of about 2,250 crossbowmen, and 11,250 heavily-armored, dismounted knights who were "immobile and poorly equipped for the muddy terrain".
English effectiveness and readiness was questionable as a result of their prior 20-day march across 250 miles of hostile territory under constant harassment. They were suffering from dysentery and exhaustion. However, the English and Welsh longbowmen (approximately 6,000) were extremely adept at firing deadly volleys over long distances, and were believed to have outclassed the 1,000 French crossbowmen they faced.
Both sides were hampered by inclement weather, which contributed to the muddy terrain which provided a decisive advantage for the nimble and lightly-armed English versus the heavily-armored and immobile French.
The battle was fought in the narrow strip of open land formed between the woods of Tramecourt and Agincourt (close to the modern village of Azincourt). The French army was positioned by d'Albret at the northern exit so as to bar the way to Calais. The night of 24-25 October was spent by the two armies on open ground.
Early on the 25th, Henry deployed his army (approximately 3000 men-at-arms and 6,000 longbowmen) across a 750-yard part of the defile. It is likely that the English adopted their usual battle line of longbowmen on either flank, men-at-arms and knights in the center, and at the very center roughly 200 archers. The English men-at-arms in plate and mail armor were placed shoulder-to-shoulder four deep. The English and Welsh archers on the flanks drove pointed wooden stakes into the ground at an angle to force cavalry to veer off.
The English may have feared that they would not escape alive. One English account describes the day before the battle as a day of remorse in which all soldiers cleansed themselves of their sins to avoid Hell.
By contrast, the French were confident that they would prevail and were eager to fight. The French believed they would triumph over the English not only because their force was somewhat larger, fresher and better equipped, but also because the large number of noble men-at-arms would have considered themselves superior to the large number of commoners (such as the longbowmen) in the English army. The English army contained approximately 2,000 men-at-arms.
Provided they could close with the English army, the French may have been confident that their somewhat larger number of heavily armored troops would prevail in hand-to-hand fighting, were it not for the deep mud into which they were marching. Many French troops had fathers and grandfathers who had been humiliated in previous battles such as Crécy and Poitiers, and the French nobility were determined to get revenge. Several French accounts emphasize that the French leaders were so eager to defeat the English that they insisted on being in the first line; "All the lords wanted to be in the vanguard, against the opinion of the constable and the experienced knights".
The French were arrayed in three lines called "battles". Although modern research suggests the following accounts of the size of the French army are greatly exaggerated, Chronicler Jehan de Waurin says there were 8,000 men-at-arms, 4,000 archers and 1,500 crossbowmen in the vanguard, with two wings of 600 and 800 mounted men-at-arms, and the main battle having "as many knights, esquires and archers as in the vanguard", with the rearguard containing "all of the rest of the men-at-arms".
The French appear to have had thousands of troops in the rearguard, containing commoners who the French were either unable or unwilling to deploy. Many French archers and crossbowmen were unable to deploy as the site was so narrow that there was only enough room for the men-at-arms. A historian known as the Monk of Saint-Denis wrote: "Four thousand of their best crossbowmen who ought to have marched in the front and begun the attack were found to not be at their post and it seems that they had been given permission to depart by the lords of the army on the pretext that they had no need of their help."
The rearguard played little or no part in the battle; English and French accounts agree that many of the French army fled after seeing so many French nobles killed and captured in the fighting.
French accounts state that prior to battle, Henry V gave a speech reassuring his nobles that if the French prevailed, the English nobles would be spared, to be captured and ransomed; however, the common soldiers would have no such luck, and he told them that they had better fight for their lives.
Shakespeare gives us a better account; the great St. Crispin's Day Speech, given by King Henry V on the morning of battle:
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
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.
The French suffered a catastrophic defeat at Agincourt, not just in terms of the sheer numbers killed, but also because of the number of high-ranking nobles lost. After several years more campaigning, Henry was able to fulfill all his objectives and was ultimately recognized by the French in the Treaty of Troyes (1420) as Regent and heir to the French throne; this was cemented by his marriage to Catherine of Valois, the daughter of King Charles VI.