1415 – The Battle of Agincourt

Posted on Friday 23rd October 2015

Co-author and presenter of Battlefield History TV’s full length documentary on Agincourt, Tim Saunders, describes the 1415 Campaign in France, which culminated in the decisive battle fought in the fields astride the road to Calais near the village of Azincourt. His views and insight into the battle are the result of years of study as a part of a dedicated group of British and French soldier/historians and battlefield guides.

The great battles of Crecy in 1346 and ten years later Poitiers had brought vast swathes of French territory under the English crown but years of semi-peace with France, the distraction of dynastic squabbles at home and the social legacy of the Black Death meant that most of the King’s lands in France had been lost by 1415. In addition Henry V was far from secure on his throne, being the son of a usurper in many of his people’s eyes.

As his Grandfather the great soldier king Edward III had done, Henry assembled his army at Porchester but even here plotters were active. Having dealt with them and with the wind set fair for France, the English Fleet sailed for their first objective Harfleur.

Harfleur had long been a thorn in England’s side, as the base from which increasingly regular raids were mounted on the south coast and its ports. Capturing Harfleur would reduce the threat of raiding and would be ‘another Calais’, which had been held by the English since 1347 and would be another base for mounting operations into France.

After landing his army just down the coast the Henry advanced on Harfleur, arriving just in time to see the French knight Raoul de Gaucourt march into the town. Though a small retinue of men-at-arms, the presence of these professional soldiers stiffened the resolve of the citizens despite privations, battering and disease.

See Map 1, right.

The French closed sluice gates to inundate the valley above the town. In the August heat this increasingly stagnant and fouled water was a breeding ground for disease and as the siege dragged on the bloody flux or dysentery ravaged the English Army. Inside the largely destroyed Harfleur, the brave and determined Raoul de Gaucourt awaited relief by the French army, which was controversially not to come. By the time the Burgers surrendered the town, after a siege of five weeks, Henry’s army was sickly and reduced in strength by a third.

The Battle of Agincourt.

The King was counselled to garrison the remains of Harfleur and return to England but this would not deliver the level of victory or statement of authority Henry needed to secure his throne. Also this course of action would not cover the borrowing for the campaign. Abandoning grander aims, Henry planned an eight day mounted march to Calais, demonstrating that he could move with impunity across the lands he claimed were his.

Starting out on 11 October the march met mounting resistance as the slowly gathering French Army closed in, intending to trap and destroy English west of the River Somme. The ford at Blanctaque used by Edward III to escape destruction before Crecy was strongly held by the French, who clearly also remembered their military history. As a result Henry was force to march up stream getting further and further away from Calais and safety. After eight days was perilously short of food and his men still suffering from dysentery were suffering.

See Map 2, right.

A ford on the Somme was eventually found south of Peron but relief amongst the English at getting away was short lived, when it became apparent that the French Army had already crossed and was now somewhere ahead of them. The French were, however, reluctant to come to battle as their forces were still growing and a game of manoeuvre and counter manoeuvre was played out until on the afternoon of 24 October the English came across a huge French Army deployed across the road to Calais. For the remainder of the day the two armies stood to arms facing each other.

The night before the battle, captured so eloquently by Shakespeare, was miserable for the cold and hungry English, who were to maintain absolute silence on pain of mutilation. In contrast the noisy, enthusiastic French camp was bathed in light, as meals were eaten and boasts of the morrow were exchanged. As dawn rose on 25 October, Saint Crispin’s day, the two armies stood facing each other and there they stayed each waiting for the other side to make the first move.

The size of the armies is still hotly debated, with the French outnumbering the English army of 6,000 – 9,000 men at arms and large proportion of archers, anywhere between 4 to 3 and 6 to 1. So numerous were their men at arms that the French archers and crossbowmen were pushed off to the flanks, from where they were unable to play a worthwhile role in the battle.

Both armies main divisions fought on foot but the French had two squadrons each of up to 600 heavily armoured men at arms, who were to ride down the English archers. This element of the plan to deal with the threat posed by the long bow had, however, been leaked to the English some time before and Henry ordered his archers to furnish themselves with six foot stakes sharpened at both ends.

Despite the nobles who predominantly made up the leading French division being coiled like springs in their anticipation of la gloire, the stand-off lasted for three hours. The contemporary military wisdom being that the side that initiated battle lost! Eventually, to get the battle moving Henry resorted to two measures. Firstly, he deployed 200 mounted archers through the Tramecourt Woods and around to a flank. They were to open a galling fire on the French when ordered. They were also to shout ‘Haie hai, haie hai’; a hunting call; an implied insult to the French nobility by ‘the lowborn’. Secondly, Henry moved his army first. Not though to attack but just far enough to break the French discipline that had so far held their enthusiasm for battle in check. To achieve this the Army would only have to move a relatively short distance, far less than is often shown on maps, because, of course, the English would need to allow time for the archers to properly place their stakes before the charge of the mounted French knights. It would also have been to Henry’s advantage for the French men at arms to have floundered across half a mile of sodden fields and, in the process, have used up significant energy reserves before coming into contact.

The plan worked better than anticipated. Caught unawares by the precipitate move of the first French division a significant parts of the mounted squadrons were away at the baggage train or exercising their horses to keep them warm. Those that were in position and ready to go were too few to make an impact on the English Army’s archers.

As the leading French division came within range (less than 300 yards) the English and Welsh archers opened fire with their heavy war arrows. Some would have targeted the front rank of nobles with aimed fire while other let loose that famous storm of arrows, which plunged into the following ranks. French knights and men at arms fell, others slipped or tripped and were trampled by the press of men coming up behind. In a matter of minutes the first division was defeated.

Falling back survivors ran into the second division disordering them but ultimately being carried forward again. The second attack foundered in exactly the same way as the first, with the added impediment of a pile of dead, wounded and trapped Frenchmen. Only then were valuable prisoners extracted from the mud by the English and brought in, while arrows were collected.

It seemed that the battle was over but the third French Division started to move forward and with a mass of prisoners immediately behind his line the Henry ordered them to be killed. The third French attack never amounted to much, and indeed they were blamed for precipitating the killing of the prisoners by starting an attack when the battle was clearly already lost. Controversial today, to the medieval mind, however, Henry’s dispatch of the prisoners was entirely understandable.

The actual fighting had been over in a remarkably short time. About 450 members of the English Army were killed or wounded but a conservative estimate is that the French lost approximately 4,000 men, plus prisoners, a mark of the intensity of the arrow storm that felled them.

100 Years war – agincourt 1415 trailer

At 100 minutes long, the DVD Agincourt 1415 produced by Pen and Sword Digital and Battlefield History TV and shot on location in the campaign area and the battlefield itself, contains the usual mix of story and analysis, all illustrated with maps and vignettes of weapons and equipment of the early 15th Century.

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Henry V. He was probably painted in profile because of a disfiguring facial wound.

Map 1.

Map 2.

A near contemporary illustration of the battle.

Harfleur, the first objective.

Every English soldier, no matter what his rank or station, was ordered to bear the cross of Saint George.


Taking it Further

100 Years War: Agincourt 1415
ISBN: 5060247620329

Only £9.99 RRP £16.99

On the 25th October 1415 Henry Vs small and dispirited Anglo/Welsh Army destroyed a vast French Army at Azincourt. This programme looks at not just this iconic battle immortalised by Shakespeare and many other authors but the campaign that led up to this final great English victory of the 100 Years War when the Yeoman of England reigned supreme on the field of battle.

Unlike the Crecy campaign of his great grandfather Edward III this campaign nearly ended in disaster. England had been weakened by civil war…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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