Battle of Agincourt 25th October 1415

Lancastrian War 1415-29

In 1399 Henry of Bolingbroke usurped and succeeded Richard II as Henry IV. During the period of the truce a French civil war started between Burgundy and Armagnac in 1407 and both sides sought English help. The Prince of Wales sent troops to Burgundy in 1411 and in 1412 the king’s second son, the Duke of Clarence, provided similar assistance to Armagnac. When Henry IV died in 1413 his son had the Scots, Welsh and Lollards under control at home and recognised the weakness of France as the warring factions sought more assistance. Henry V was able to make heavy demands which included the return of all territories agreed at Brétigny, and more, Charles VI’s daughter in marriage with a huge dowry and recognition of English entitlement to the French crown through the female line. English preparations for war continued and the French envoys went home being blamed for the forthcoming conflict.

Portsmouth harbour, with Portchester Castle centre left

A strong expedition of over 12,000 men raised and organised by King Henry assembled at Portchester Castle and sailed to France in 1,500 ships on 11th August 1415. This force included 8,000 archers, 2,000 men-at-arms, lancers, knifemen and gunners with heavy cannons of 24 inch calibre. They landed near Harfleur on the Seine estuary with the intention of taking the town and Normandy before advancing upstream to Paris.

 

The town was surprisingly tough to take and their siege continued until 22nd September when it surrendered. Henry lost about a third of his force during the siege due to disease from poor food, water and heat or killed in the operation. On 8th October he led a chevauchée north-east to England’s base at Calais, travelling light, leaving the artillery and baggage train behind and not expecting to meet any enemy in the field. He planned to refit and reinforce his army there prior to further operations.

Just a reminder at Tramecourt

By the time Henry’s men reached the River Somme they began to realise that the French were in the field as they found increasing opposition defending all the crossings. They were forced to march upstream to cross at Béthencourt and Voyennes, south of Péronne. The Dauphin had formed a large army under able commanders and was determined to intercept the English. On 20th October French envoys took a challenge to Henry who dismissed them, generously, but realised that he would have to stand and fight eventually. His force pressed on towards Calais in atrocious weather until the enemy was seen on 24th October marching on a collision course. Led by the Constable of France, Charles d’Albret, they were an impressive sight with about 10,000 knights, mounted men-at-arms and thousands of other infantry, crossbowmen and archers. Accepted estimates for the battle are about 30,000 men, but ranging up to 50,000. Similarly, English troops are estimated at about 8,500 including 5,000 archers.

The battle was fought on open ground between woods of the villages Agincourt (now Azincourt) and Tramecourt. The English advanced through Maisoncelle and both sides camped nearby overnight with the French blocking the Calais road running north-west between the two woods. Henry V selected a defensive position on a ridge between these woods where the gap was about 750 yards. He commanded the centre division with the Duke of York commanding the right and Lord Camoys the left. About 1,500 men-at-arms stood almost shoulder to shoulder in four ranks across the gap with archers on each flank protected against cavalry by sharpened wooden stakes. The land had been ploughed and coupled with the heavy rain it meant that the mud, knee deep in places would make very heavy going for the French to advance on foot in armour weighing about 60 pounds.

 

Sources vary on deployment details and strengths but it is believed the French formed two or three divisions, the first led by the Constable and other senior nobles, with cavalry on each wing. The second division was similar and the third slightly smaller or non-existent depending on different sources. Strengths vary with up to 15,000 men in the first and second divisions. The French also had artillery sited on their flanks but with limited scope. Despite a weak command structure French morale was high and all ranks were keen to avenge the defeats at Crécy and Poitiers. English morale was low in view of the circumstances but faith in the king remained strong.

The English view from the road at Maisoncelle; Agincourt on the left, Tramecourt on the right

The French view of the battlefield with Tramecourt on the left

The original French plan was for crossbowmen and archers to be in front of the men-at-arms with cavalry in the rear to swoop and destroy the English archers. In the event the men-at-arms were placed in front, possibly in hopeful expectation of an English assault as although the large number of French men-at-arms on foot gave them an advantage of more than 3 to 1 they would have a long approach march to close with the English. Apart from the heavy going to reach their objective they would also be exposed to massive salvoes of arrows and then have little room to swing their weapons on a crowded front. A further reason for the men-at-arms being in front could have been because the room to manoeuvre one formation through another was too restricted.

Viewing point at Maisoncelle

The deployments on the battlefield

Henry may also have spotted that the French cavalry was not ready and although some did charge the boundary woods prevented outflanking movements and the stakes protected the archers. This attack broke up under withering shooting and bolting horses and retreating mounted men-at-arms churned the mud and scattered the advancing foot soldiers. These men, led by the Constable, suffered terribly as they crossed the difficult terrain under a constant hail of arrows. When they succeeded in reaching the English lines they were almost too exhausted to fight. As the English archers used up their arrows they set to with swords, axes, clubs, knives and their deadly lead covered mallets[1]. Not wearing armour they were far more agile than their slow moving enemy. The French second division reached the English lines and in three hours of fighting men died in their thousands or were taken prisoner.

 

At this stage it appeared that the French were regrouping on their third division, the rearguard, to renew the attack. Henry ordered the prisoners to be killed and as they died the threat dissolved and the remaining French soldiers fled the battlefield.

 

Casualty figures are also uncertain and range from 4,000 – 11,000 French dead and from 100 – 1,600 English dead. Amongst the French were many noblemen, royal office holders and civil authorities. The estimates of valuable prisoners held for ransom are from 700 – 2,200.

 

[1] The verbalised noun to mallet, meaning to kill, is still used by soldiers today.

The stylish Visitors Centre in Azincourt is a good starting point with comprehensive detail but it is closed on Tuesdays. Signs will lead you to the Maisoncelle viewing point at and beware that the mud on the battlefield is as sticky as it was 600 years ago.

Henry returned to England on 16th November as a conquering hero, the legitimacy of the Lancastrians was established and he gained approval to pursue his rights and privileges in France. The Armagnacs suffered most and were blamed for the defeat and the Burgundians marched on Paris on 4th November.

 

Further unrest in France enabled Henry to prepare and renew the offensive. A series of campaigns led to significant victories, including amongst others a naval battle in the mouth of the Seine in 1416, taking Caen and Alençon in 1417, the Cherbourg Peninsula, Rouen and the rest of Upper Normandy in 1418. English troops garrisoned key points, land was distributed and with an Anglo-Burgundian alliance in place the Treaty of Troyes in May 1420 recognised him as the regent and heir to the French throne. Dauphin Charles was disinherited and Henry’s marriage to the daughter of Charles VI, Catherine of Valois, sealed his success.