The Battle of Agincourt
“The Triumph of the Long Bow”
October 25, 2015
(Edited by Richard J. Garfunkel)
The Battle of Agincourt is well documented by at least seven contemporary accounts, three of them eyewitnesses. The approximate location of the battle has never been in dispute and the place remains relatively unaltered even after 600 years. Immediately after the battle, Henry summoned the heralds of the two armies who had watched the battle together, and with the principal French herald, Montjoie, settled on the name of the battle as Azincourt, after the nearest fortified place.
Henry V (King of England) invaded France following the failure of negotiations with the French. He claimed the title of King of France through his great-grandfather Edward III, although in practice the English kings were generally prepared to renounce this claim if the French would acknowledge the English claim on Aquitaine and other French lands (the terms of the Treaty of Bretagne). Early on the 25th, Henry deployed his army (approximately 1,500 men-at-arms and 7,000 long bowmen) across a 750-yard (690 m) part of the defile. The army was organized into three “battles” or divisions: the vanguard, led by the Duke of York; the main battle led by Henry himself; and the rearguard, led by Lord Camoys. In addition, Sir Thomas Erpingham, one of Henry’s most experienced household knights, had a role in marshalling the archers. It is likely that the English adopted their usual battle line of longbow men on either flank, with men-at-arms and knights in the center. They may also have deployed some archers in the center of the line. The English men-at-arms in plate and mail were placed shoulder to shoulder four deep. The English and Welsh archers on the flanks drove pointed wooden stakes, or palings, into the ground at an angle to force cavalry to veer off. This use of stakes may have been inspired by the Battle of Nicopolis of 1396, where forces of the Ottoman Empire used the tactic against French cavalry. Henry, worried about the enemy launching surprise raids, and wanting his troops to remain focused, ordered all his men to spend the night before the battle in silence, on pain of having an ear cut off. He told his men that he would rather die in the coming battle than be captured and ransomed.
The French force was not only larger than that of the English, their noble men-at-arms would have considered themselves superior to the large number of archers in the English army, whom the French (based on their experience in recent memory of using and facing archers) considered relatively insignificant. For example, the chronicler Edmond de Dyntner stated that there were “ten French nobles against one English”, ignoring the archers completely. Several French accounts emphasize that the French leaders were so eager to defeat the English (and win the ransoms of the English men-at-arms) that they insisted on being in the first line; as one of the contemporary accounts put it: “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 or “battles”. The first line was led by Constable d’Albret, Marshal Boucicault, and the Dukes of Orléans and Bourbon, with attached cavalry wings under the Count of Vendôme and Sir Clignet de Brebant. The second line was commanded by the Dukes of Bar and Alençon and the Count of Nevers. The third line was under the Counts of Dammartin and Fauconberg. The Burgundian chronicler, Jean de Wavrin, writes that 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 Herald of Berry uses somewhat different figures of 4,800 men-at-arms in the first line, 3,000 men in the second line, with two “wings” containing 600 mounted men-at-arms each, and a total of “10,000 men-at-arms”, but does not mention a third line.
The French cavalry, despite being somewhat disorganized and not at full numbers, charged towards the longbow men, but it was a disaster, with the French knights unable to outflank the longbow men (because of the encroaching woodland) and unable to charge through the forest of sharpened stakes that protected the archers. John Keegan argues that the longbows’ main influence on the battle at this point was injuries to horses: armored only on the head, many horses would have become dangerously out of control when struck in the back or flank from the high-elevation long range shots used as the charge started. The mounted charge and subsequent retreat churned up the already muddy terrain between the French and the English. Juliet Barker quotes a contemporary account by a monk of St. Denis who reports how the wounded and panicking horses galloped through the advancing infantry, scattering them and trampling them down in their headlong flight from the battlefield.
The plate armor of the French men-at-arms allowed them to close the 300 yards or so to the English lines while being under what the French monk of Saint Denis described as “a terrifying hail of arrow shot”. A complete coat of plate was considered such good protection that shields were generally not used, although the Burgundian contemporary sources specifically distinguish between Frenchmen who used shields and those who did not, and Rogers has suggested that the front elements of the French force may have used axes and shields. Modern historians are somewhat divided on how effective the longbow fire would have been against plate armor of the time, with some modern texts suggesting that arrows could not penetrate, especially the better quality steel armor, but others suggesting arrows could penetrate, especially the poorer quality wrought iron armor. Rogers suggests that the longbow could penetrate a wrought iron breastplate at short range and penetrate the thinner armor on the limbs even at 220 yards (200 m). He considers a knight in the best quality steel armor would have been more or less invulnerable to an arrow on the breastplate or top of the helmet, but would still have been vulnerable to shots hitting the limbs, particularly at close range. In any case, to protect themselves as much as possible from the arrows, the French had to lower their visors and bend their helmeted heads to avoid being shot in the face—the eye and air-holes in their helmets were among the weakest points in the armor. This head lowered position restricted both their breathing and their vision. Then they had to walk a few hundred yards through thick mud, a press of comrades and wearing armor weighing 50–60 pounds, gathering sticky clay all the way. Increasingly they had to walk around or over fallen comrades.
The surviving French men-at-arms reached the front of the English line and pushed it back, with the longbow men on the flanks continuing to shoot at point-blank range. When the archers ran out of arrows, they dropped their bows and using hatchets, swords and the mallets they had used to drive their stakes in, attacked the now disordered, fatigued and wounded French men-at-arms massed in front of them. The French could not cope with the thousands of lightly armored longbow men assailants (who were much less hindered by the mud and weight of their armor) combined with the English men-at-arms. The impact of thousands of arrows, combined with the slog in heavy armor through the mud, the heat and lack of oxygen in plate armor with the visor down, and the crush of their numbers meant the French men-at-arms could “scarcely lift their weapons” when they finally engaged the English line. The exhausted French men-at-arms are described as being knocked to the ground by the English and then unable to get back up. As the mêlée developed, the French second line also joined the attack, but they too were swallowed up, with the narrow terrain meaning the extra numbers could not be used effectively. Rogers suggests that the French at the back of their deep formation would have been attempting to push forward and quite literally add their weight to the advance, without realizing that they were hindering the ability of those at the front to maneuver and fight, actually pushing them into the English formation of lance points. After the initial wave, the French would have had to fight over and on the bodies of those who had fallen before them. In such a “press” of thousands of men, Rogers finds it plausible that a significant number could have suffocated in their armor, as is described by several sources, and is also known to have happened in other battles.
The French men-at-arms were taken prisoner or killed in the thousands. The fighting lasted about three hours, but eventually the leaders of the second line were killed or captured, as those of the first line had been. The English Gesta Henrici describes three great heaps of the slain around the three main English standards. According to contemporary English accounts, Henry was directly involved in the hand-to-hand fighting. Upon hearing that his youngest brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester had been wounded in the groin, Henry took his household guard and stood over his brother, in the front rank of the fighting, until Humphrey could be dragged to safety. The king received an axe blow to the head, which knocked off a piece of the crown that formed part of his helmet.
Thousands of troops appear to have been in the rearguard, containing servants and commoners whom the French were either unable or unwilling to deploy. Wavrin gives the total French army size as 50,000: “They had plenty of archers and crossbowmen but nobody wanted to let them fire [sic]. The reason for this was that the site was so narrow that there was only enough room for the men-at-arms. A different source says that the French did not even deploy 4,000 of the best crossbowmen “on the pretext they had no need of their help.”
The lack of reliable sources makes it impossible to give a precise figure for the French and English casualties (dead, wounded, taken prisoner). However, it is clear that though the English were outnumbered, their losses were far lower than those of the French. The French sources all give 4,000–10,000 French dead, with up to 1,600 English dead. The lowest ratio in these French sources has the French losing six times more men than the English. The English sources vary between about 1,500 and 11,000 for the French dead, with English dead put at no more than 100. Barker identifies from the available records “at least” 112 Englishmen killed in the fighting, including Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, a grandson of Edward III.
One widely used estimate puts the English casualties at 450, not an insignificant number in an army of about 8,500, but far fewer than the thousands the French lost, nearly all of whom were killed or captured. Using the lowest French estimate of their own dead of 4,000 would imply a ratio of nearly 9 to 1 in favor of the English, or over 10 to 1 if the prisoners are included.
The French suffered heavily. Three dukes, at least eight counts, a viscount, and an archbishop died, along with numerous other nobles. Of the great royal office holders, France lost her Constable, Admiral, Master of the Crossbowmen and provost of the marshals. The heads of nine major northern towns were killed, often along with their sons, relatives and supporters. In the words of Juliet Barker, the battle “cut a great swath through the natural leaders of French society in Artois, Ponthieu, Normandy, Picardy.” Estimates of the number of prisoners vary between 700 and 2,200, amongst them the Duke of Orleans (the famous poet Charles of Orleans) and Jean Le Maingre (known as Boucicault) Marshal of France. Although the victory had been militarily decisive, its impact was complex. It did not lead to further English conquests immediately as Henry’s priority was to return to England, which he did on 16 November, to be received in triumph in London on the 23rd. Henry returned a conquering hero, in the eyes of his subjects and European powers outside France, blessed by God. It established the legitimacy of the Lancastrian monarchy and the future campaigns of Henry to pursue his “rights and privileges” in France. Other benefits to the English were longer term. Very quickly after the battle, the fragile truce between
The English longbow, also called the Welsh longbow, is a powerful type of medieval longbow (a tall bow for archery) about 6 feet long used by the English and Welsh for hunting and as a weapon in medieval warfare. English use of longbows was effective against the French during the Hundred Years’ War, particularly at the start of the war in the battles of Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), and Poitiers(1356), and perhaps most famously at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). They were less successful after this, with longbow men having their lines broken at the Battle of Verneuil (1424), and being completely routed at the Battle of Patay (1429) when they were charged before they had set up their defensive position.
The earliest longbow known from England, found at Ashcott Heath, Somerset, is dated to 2665 BC, but no longbows survive from the period when the longbow was dominant (c. 1250–1450 AD), probably because bows became weaker, broke and were replaced, rather than being handed down through generations. More than 130 bows survive from the Renaissance period, however. More than 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered from the Mary Rose, a ship of Henry VIII‘s navy that sank at Portsmouth in 1545.
As for the longbow- The longbow decided many medieval battles fought by the English and Welsh, the most significant of which were the Battle of Crécy (1346) and the Battle of Agincourt (1415), during the Hundred Years’ War and followed earlier successes, notably at the Battle of Falkirk (1298) and the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333) during the Wars of Scottish Independence.
The longbow was also used against the English by their Welsh neighbors. The Welsh used the longbow mostly in a different manner than the English. In many early period English campaigns, the Welsh used the longbow in ambushes, often at point blank range that allowed their missiles to penetrate armor and generally do a lot of damage.
Although longbows were much faster and more accurate than the black-powder weapons which replaced them, longbow men always took a long time to train because of the years of practice necessary before a war longbow could be used effectively (examples of longbows from the Mary Rose typically had draws greater than 637 N (143 lbf)). In an era in which warfare was usually seasonal, and non-noble soldiers spent part of the year working at farms, the year-round training required for the effective use of the longbow was a challenge. A standing army was an expensive proposition to a medieval ruler. Mainland European armies seldom trained a significant longbow corps. Due to their specialized training, English longbow men were sought as mercenaries in other European countries, most notably in the Italian city-states and in Spain. The White Company comprising men-at-arms and longbow men and commanded by Sir John Hawkwood, is the best known English Free Company of the 14th century. The powerful Hungarian king, Louis the Great, is an example of someone who used longbow men in his Italian campaigns.
Sources regarding the history of warfare can be found in the writings of:
Bernard Law Montgomery, Viscount of Alamein