Azincourt – La malheureuse journée
One of the very few days in many years now that I have felt any great peace of mind was the day when I stepped off the plane at a certain French provincial airport, clad in my monk’s robes, topped off with my Panama hat and a cool set of shades. I had come to meet Madame Raccoon and some other contributors to the blog.
It being France, and I being of both holy and regal aspect on the day, I was treated with appropriate deference by customs – so much so that they missed the fact that my passport was actually a few weeks out of date. Result!
Thereafter being driven through the rolling fields of vines, or pottering through the ancient streets of the local village to medieval church I felt that thing which is hard to describe, but which perhaps you may recognise; that sense of feeling relief, or relaxation or…Aaaaah, this feels like I am home. It is a curious fact that I have a strong sense of affinity with the culture of provincial medieval France. I can’t account for it but I do. This Friday last was 25th October. St Crispin’s and St Crispinian’s Day. The anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, or Azincourt, in French. It was also the birthday of my dear and beloved friend, Dr P, who is French with a touch of Norman noble blood to boot.
Agincourt, with the assistance of Shakespeare, has become renowned as one of the greatest English (and Welsh) victories in battle. I have a passing interest in that it is just possible, though not at all certain, that I had a relative in the English ranks. It was a victory for the English and Welsh indeed, but not perhaps quite as glorious as one might think. Perhaps that is a matter of perspective. As I get older my sensibilities about the violence man meets out to fellow man – and animals too – is becoming much more acute. Perhaps that is natural and proper. Perhaps I am getting soft in my old age. Let me try and explain.
Henry V, King of England, was young, tough (he had taken an arrow in the face in a battle at Shrewsbury and had it pulled or cut out, but lived to tell the tale), smart, energetic and had a gift for man management. He was also fanatically pious by our perspectives, and had, I think, the total belief that if his cause was just, he would have God fighting on his side then he would prevail. And he had, I think, a fanatical belief that he was indeed entitled to the French throne and his cause was just. Curiously, I have developed a slight dislike for Henry. Men of that ilk cause death. For them, the end justifies whatever means that they believe in their fanatical way. I am not particularly convinced about his claim to the French throne either. But his talent for war and leadership was not in doubt.
In the summer of 1415 Henry had landed near and with the intent of taking the walled city of Harfleur, and thus using it as a base from which to pursue his further campaign. He landed in a France which was split by civil war between the Armagnac and Burgundian factions, into which the English has actually been sticking their noses, just to keep the pot boiling, largely on the Burgundian side, I believe.
France was thus dangerously divided. The French King, Charles VI, was mad as a hat stand, and his heir, “the Dauphin”, was just 18 and considered not up to command of a united French army.
But the walled city of Harfleur had proved obdurate in defence, and taking it delayed him considerably. Worse, illness had ravaged the English army. Like all good tourists, the English and Welsh troops gorged themselves on the local shellfish delicacies from a lagoon adjacent to the city. What they did not know or understand was that the city’s sewers fed into the lagoon. And so, like all good English tourists today, they soon developed what we might call Delhi Belly, or the Harfleur Two Step. In fact, dysentery ran amok, fatally so, killing about two thousand of the men – about twenty per cent of the fighting force – and weakening many others.
Meanwhile the French nobility had actually started to rally at the presence of the insult of invasion by an English King. The Oriflamme, the impossibly glamorous and sacred banner of France, was taken from the Abbey of St Denis. The display of the Oriflamme was an important symbol – it meant that no quarter would be given in battle. It is worthwhile emphasizing that the warrior class in medieval France at this time was almost exclusively drawn from the nobility. The profession of arms was a pursuit of the aristocracy, major and minor. Arming the peasants and the common man was not really considered safe or the done thing, and the concepts of nobility, courage, honour and bravery in battle all converged. War was to be conducted on chivalric terms, with codes of conduct. I don’t think the English saw the matter in quite the same way.
By October Harfleur had finally fallen but the campaigning season was drawing to a close. Henry could have left for England from Harfleur, but that might have looked suspiciously like a failed campaign, and determined to march his men to the then British held Calais. This may have been to try to publicly humiliate the French and the French king, and he may have calculated that the French, who had shown no inclination to raise the siege of Harfleur, would not want to take him on. But whatever the reason, that strategy went wrong. The French army was swelling by the day – astonishingly and fatally so immediately prior to the battle itself – and the key crossings of the Somme had been broken and defended. The English army trudged along and started to be harassed by the elements of the French vanguard. They also began to run out of food. By the evening of 24th October it was clear that a huge French army blocked his passage to Calais, and there was no option but to fight. Significantly, it was raining heavily.
Much has been written about the battle, and the exact dispositions and size of the armies are still disputed. There are many uncertainties because of the differing accounts of the primary sources. There were seven contemporaneous accounts including three from eye witnesses and on some points they are in conflict or not clear.
I have three principle sources for my understanding of the battle. First, Juliet Barker’s superb and scholarly book simply called “Agincourt” which is an exhaustively detailed examination of the campaign and the battle and the aftermath. Second, the writing of noted author Bernard Cornwell, whose excellent novel of the same name brings the campaign to life – particularly the brutality of the battle. Third, a number of feature documentaries from the usual suspects (BBC’s “Timewatch” for example) which can be found via the internet. In particular, there was an excellent one from the series “Battle Field Detectives” which took a scientific look at the arms, armour and – critically – geography and topography of the battlefield.
Putting all of these together, in brief, this is what happened.
The English army was about 6,000 – 6,500 strong. 5,000 were archers, common men but highly trained in their work since youth and many were probably physically heavily developed in the upper body. There is clear evidence that the bows were very powerful and long training required produced very heavy muscles and increased bone density in the torso. The rest were the heavily armoured men at arms, either of noble rank or part of the noble’s retinue.
Much greater controversy surrounds the French number and disposition of the French, but the best guess is somewhere around thirty to forty thousand, around six to one. One contemporary has the figure at 50,000 but even if that is true it is unlikely all these troops were on the battle field.
The French army had swelled rapidly in the run up to the battle. This force was comprised essentially of the male nobility, greater and lesser, of northern France. On the evening of 24th October the two armies faced each other in a stand off. The fields across which they looked were newly ploughed sowed, and the soil was the thick clay of the Somme. Also significantly, it had been raining.
Military tactics of the day stressed that it was rash to attack and make the first move, and the two armies stood in their battle formations until the French decided that there was to be no combat that day and started to break ranks to find food and shelter for the night. Henry ordered his men to stay in their formation, ever mindful of the French numbers and capacity to attack, until it was truly dark. Again perhaps mindful of the threat of a sudden French attack, he ordered his men to maintain complete silence over night on pain of severe punishment. As the French sat by their bonfires eating and drinking, within ear shot of the English army, the English sat in relative silence apart from the hearing of muttered confessions.
It continued to rain very heavily.
During the night there was probably a skirmish with some eager French knights who made a bid for glory in the darkness. Arrows were exchanged and it is possible that half a dozen or so English archers were captured.
Also in the night Henry continued to plan, sending out a trusted group of men at arms to scout the battlefield. Henry would have known that the rain and the ploughed soil would slow down any charge by men or horses, giving his archers more time to shoot.
Before dawn, the pious Henry celebrated his customary three masses, and at first light the two armies resumed their battle formations. After weeks of campaign and then forced march the army would have been bedraggled to say the least, the armour of the men at arms and knights dull and suffering from rust and clothes filthy. The English were weakened by hunger, dysentery and the forced march, They must have been unkempt, unshaven, and there are reports that before the battle of the archers cutting off their leather trousers and their undergarments as the effect of hunger, dysentery and no doubt the fear of the mighty, glittering French force in front of them and they let nature take its course at their battle stations. As Barker points out in her book, the English army probably smelled even more terrible than it looked.
Not so king Henry, who appeared amongst his men in the clever mix of royalty and the common touch. He rode to and about his men not on a great war horse but a small gray horse, but his regality was made clear. He wore glittering armour, over which his surcoat bore the arms of both England and France, a gleaming bascinet helmet (one of those with a snout that makes the wearer look rather like a pig or a dog) with a golden crown and upon that, in a deliberate symbolic statement of provocation, was topped by jeweled Fleurs De Lys. He would have stood out a mile as a rallying point and inspiring figure for his men, and a target for the French. He would have known that both were true.
Then Henry made what is recorded as a superb speech, rallying and inspiring his troops with a common touch and shrewd psychology. It is recorded that it was Henry who told them that the French intended to cut the two forefingers off any captured archer, but it seems this was probably clever propaganda, because it is more likely the French would have simply killed the archers, who were both feared and hated because of their effectiveness, their low birth and their lack of chivalry.
The English formation provokes great debate but I think the probable one is the generally accepted one. The main force of some 1,000 – 1,500 heavily armoured men at arms stretched along three or four deep with the archers on the wings. On Henry’s orders the archers had previously each cut sharpened staves of wood 6 feet long which they hammered into the ground as protection against the cavalry.
The French were arranged before them. This from the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia:
“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.
These “battles” or battalions were rectangular blocks of men. The first two probably consisted of about 8,000 men each, with the third and largest group making up the bulk of the French men at arms. The French must have looked magnificent in packed close ranks with glittering armour, swords, axes and shortened lances and typically wearing the snout like bascinet helmets.
One of the issues about the French order of battle is: where was the cavalry? I think it is likely that the main French cavalry force was at the rear. This was the part of the initial battle plan which has now been found, and which I comment on below, and explains a why the French missed an opportunity to attack the English at their most exposed.
For some hours the two armies stood still. The French had no particular reason to attack. All they had to do was block the way to Calais. Fear and hunger would do the rest.
Perhaps around 11 am, Henry made a move to break the deadlock. According to some chroniclers he made a fine speech full of rhetoric as he ordered his army forward. But one contemporary says he just gave a shout of “Come on, fellows!” It sounds rather more likely to me.
With that the archers unstuck their wooden stakes, and the whole force marched in line forward across the muddy ground until it was within bow shot range of about 200 yards and – whether by accident or design – at the narrowest part of the battlefield, with the woods of Azincourt on the English left and Tramecourt on the right. There the archers replanted their stakes. According to some they tempted the French to attack by waving a two fingered salute. More likely, it was a volley or volleys of arrows. The French reacted with a cavalry charge, of which more below, and the battle began.
The French force was so overwhelming in number that the question can rightly be posed not “how did the English win?” but “how did the French manage to lose?”
In fact the French had a fine plan of attack crafted devised by or with the help of the highly capable Marshal Boucicault. It recognised the danger of the English archers, and the idea was that an elite force of the army’s best horses and riders about 1,500 strong would flank and attack the archers from the side, whilst a lesser force would attack the baggage train and horses at the rear to prevent the English knights escaping. And at the same time the French’s own archers would lay down what today we would call suppressing fire. In a coordinated attack the main force of men at arms would then roll forward and crush the English. It was a perfectly sensible plan. What went wrong?
There are a number of reasons. .
The first is the problem of leadership and the nobility. The English had a superb and astute leader in Henry, but just as importantly they had a very clear chain of command under him that went right down to the common bowmen. The French had a problem in two ways. Since the French king was mad and the Dauphin considered too inexperienced and too valuable to be risked on the field of battle there was no clear outright commander. The senior commander on the field was the estimable Marshal Boucicault, but he did not have the formal status of outright commander in chief. He also has a problem in as much as his family were not from the traditional noble class. As the hundreds of magnates and powerful nobles of high status began to arrive with their retinue, it was probably difficult for him to exercise the control he would have wanted. And all these knights steeped in the chivalric code, all wanted and demanded the same thing – glory and honour. The English were there for the taking. All the important nobles wanted to claim the honour of striking at the English King and being in the forefront of the action. Who, then, was to go in the vanguard? Who would have the less glorious task of being in the second battalion, or worse still the third while others won the anticipated glory in battle? In the end as Barker observes in her book, they reached a compromise that was fair, but disastrous. The senior nobility agreed that they would all lead, and they would all be in the vanguard.
This had consequences in many ways. One was the battlefield was too small to accommodate all these men on foot, so other compromises had to be made. It seems that the French had about 4,000 of their own archers and cross bow men. In the initial battle plan they were supposed to give covering fire and harass and suppress the English archers. But with so many important noble men on the field all vying to be at the front there was no room for them at the front of the army. It appears that they were simply sent away, or at least to the back where they could take no effective action.
Next the size of the force and the lack of overall command also must have slowed decisive acts and communication. The English, for example had few banners but it made for very clear communication about who was where and who was doing what. They had a clear structure of command with the king at the top, his key nobles and their retained men; men who were local to each other and had bonds of loyalty and trust – hence the “band of brothers” epithet. The French army did not work in that way, and there were countless rivalries and feuds amongst rival nobles. Unlike the sparse banners of the English the French army was festooned with banners announcing chivalric heritage, so many so that some had to be ordered to take them down because no one could see clearly what was going on.
When the English archers uprooted their wooden stakes and moved forward they were vulnerable to attack, particularly cavalry attack, but there was no response at all from the French. It seems likely that this was because the cavalry were at the back, and had never thought the English might go on the offensive. Many riders had wandered off assuming there would be no start to the battle unless the French decided to move. There were also Armagnac versus Burgundian rivalries and splits within the main cavalry force, and personal rivalries too. Two of the main commanders had been involved in a feud over the hand of a lady and hated each other. When the English started to pelt the French lines with arrows, a charge was hastily organised, but it could not outflank the English archers as intended because of the woods on either side. And it seems that when it was launched only part of the cavalry responded, less than 500 men. And they were to ride straight into the face of the English. And thus the great tragedy of Agincourt began.
There is still great debate about the effectiveness of the English arrows. Research for the “Battlefield Detective” programme suggested that wickedly effective and powerful though the English bodkin arrow could be, the latest steel plate armour worn by many if not most of the of the French nobility who essentially made up the army by the time of Agincourt was in fact an adequate defence against them. The bodkin was a smooth, needle or bullet shape, and proved hugely destructive against earlier, less robust armour that had been in use at previous battles such as Crecy and Poiters, but the better quality steel in use by the French by the time of Agincourt appeared to be able to withstand penetration. The science is still debated but I think it is likely that the men at arms were better protected than their forefathers. If that had not been right I am not sure the French men at arms would ever have reached the English line at all; they would have been annihilated before they got there. However, that said, not every part of a man at arms was protected by armour plate, and they must have taken casualties.
More, what the plate armour could not protect was the horses of the knights in the charge, and it upsets me terribly to consider the damage the hail of arrows must have done. I will not dwell on that save to say that the charge was a disaster and must have served only to churn up the already muddy field. Those very few brave French knights who actually made it to the English archers were dragged down amongst the wooden stakes and finished off in short order. As many before me have observed, the English archers had no counterpart to a chivalric code. And they knew that if they lost they would be worthless and not ransomed, but simply killed.
The French vanguard trundled forward in good order at first, but wounded and panic stricken horses hurtled back into them. It is now time to talk about mud. Research for the Battlefield Detectives programme proved the huge amount of suction the wet clay like soil of the battle field would have exerted on a man wearing smooth plate armour boots and leg guards – as the French noble men at arms all did. They were sinking in up as far as the knee, and facing a terrible trial to simply move through the glutinous substance. But press on they did, under a hail of arrows which, even if it did not pierce the plate armour, forced visors to be closed and heads down. It would have been a hellish rain before the arrows ran out. According to author Bernard Cornwell, a good archer could loose 15 arrows a minute. So, 5,000 archers could have loosed 75,000 arrows in one minute. 10 a minute is perhaps more likely, but even so the effect must have been awful. And even if the arrows were not able to pierce the new plate armour, as once believed, they must have caused considerable casualties and the sheer force of a blow would be enough to rock a man back or knock him over.
Still they struggled on through the sucking mud. Behind them, the second huge battalion of French men at arms began the long trudge too, the sodden field ever more churned up.
It is clear that the French did reach the English lines, but I am bound to wonder in what state. If we assume that the English and French were 200 metres apart, then some say that it must have taken four minutes to close with the English. From what I have seen of the sucking effect of the muddy soil, I agree with Bernard Cornwell who thinks it would have been longer. In any event they must have been totally exhausted. It appears that they were also extremely densely packed – too densely packed to use there weapons properly, and they were a prey to the English men at arms. This was partly because of numbers, and I also have the suspicion that the French obsession with nobility and chivalry had a part to play because all the French wanted to have the glory and honour of striking down the English king and the nobles of the highest rank. There may have been a natural tendency to all try to converge in the centre where the king was. Indeed, it is recounted that one group of 18 Burgundians formed themselves into an impromptu home made chivalric order dedicated to striking down Henry or dying in the attempt. One got close enough to land a blow which cut off one of the jewels on Henry’s helmet, but at the end of the battle all 18 lay cut down by the King and his bodyguards. One of these was bodyguards Davy Gam, a bruising former rebel, criminal and general psychopath who had been a killer all his life. He was fatally wounded, supposedly saving the king’s life and posthumously knighted on the field. Such were the men of Henry’s army. He was nothing if not pragmatic in war.
But there was also one last nasty trick the battlefield itself had to play. As the research for the Battle Field Detectives programme reveals, there is a subtle topography about the battle field which is not immediately apparent. It meant that that the French were advancing not only in the narrowest part of the battlefield, but what in effect was a natural funnel. Close as the serried ranks were as they set out to trudge towards the English lines, they grew naturally closer and closer, being compacted together as they moved forward.
Worse, the mud was a killer. A knight in plate armour who fell in the glutinous mud would have been stuck, sucked down as if by magnets because of the suction on his army. If he couldn’t get his helmet off he would have drowned or suffocated. Men at arms must have been slipping and falling all over the field. In his novel, as I recall, as the French finally make it to the English lines and launch themselves at them, the English are given the order to step back a few paces, and thus results in many of the front ranks of the press of men falling over. Whether that happened or not I cannot say, but I think there was a collapse, and a wall of stranded French men at arms, and as the thousands behind pressed on the tragic barrier grew. All across the line piles of dead and dying start to build up in the press, with men being crushed and asphyxiated in the chaos.
It was, in short, it was what experts in “crowd dynamic” call the very recipe for disaster, the perfect storm. Less a battle than colossal crowd disaster as the men in the vanguard slipped and fell and tripped over, and the endless press of men kept coming from behind. Men fell and were crushed by the relentless press and great heaps of men built up.
Amongst these the archers, having loosed their arrows, fell upon them like demons, knowing that they were fighting for their lives. They were not encumbered by the suction of the soil as were the knights – being without shoes of in canvass or leather boots did not generate anything like the same effect as the French armour. They could move easily. There was no chivalric code for them. It was a battle for survival, kill or be killed. They finished off the stricken and helpless French with daggers, war hammers and the lead hammers they had used to hammer in their staves. Without saying too much about the brutality with which they did this, this partly explains why it proved so difficult to identify many of the dead knights once they had been stripped of their chivalric emblems. Their faces were smashed. There is also the matter of the fact that towards the end of the battle the Henry gave given the order to massacre all but there must important prisoners there was the rumour of a possible second wave of attack from the French. This the English archers did with alacrity. Some suggest 2000 men met their fate in this way.
Agincourt, then, is not simply of a battle, but in a way of a catastrophic accident. For Henry it was proof he had the righteous cause and God’s support. According to The French simply referred to it back in the French of those days as “La Malheureuse Journée” – the unhappy day.
The cost? It is as ever difficult because the sources differ. The English probably lost no more than 400 men. As for the French, it is difficult to know. Author Bernard Cornwell suggests 5,000 but my sense of the catastrophe is greater. It cut a swathe of death through the nobility of northern France, and wiped out very many of the Armagnac leaders. Hardly a family was untouched and some lost fathers sons and cousins. Many wives and mothers waited for months without news of the fate of their loved ones, before reluctantly concluding that they had been slain in the battle.
The English can indeed celebrate Agincourt as an extraordinary victory against all odds. And yet I am bound to say I look on it with a touch of sadness rather than triumph. Unlike a battle like Trafalgar where I can see the point, I can’t really see that it achieved much at all, and the terrible death toll of man and beast seems to my now middle aged perspective a tragedy as much as a triumph. I would rather advance on my French counterpart armed with a glass of vin de pays and some fine cheese than a war hammer.
Such is the perspective of the older.
Meanwhile, for those disposed to it, here is a beautiful and fascinating medieval French lament which matches what is a forbidding autumnal day as I await predicted storm.
Gildas the Monk