The battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415, could not be described as one of the world’s great decisive battles. Nor was it a strategic victory. While much of its fame now forms part of the national psyche, a fire stoked by Shakespeare and by films of his great play, its value to military history lies in its lesson as a model of the effectiveness of maverick command.
Size of the Armies at Agincourt
As we know, the English army led by Henry V was making an impoverished form of chevauchée between Harfleur and Calais when it was compelled to confront a French army of superior numbers. With a force of about 1000-1500 knights and men-at-arms and about 5-7000 longbowmen, Henry was confronted by a force estimated variously at between 12,000 and 25,000 men, including a significant force of French archers and crossbowmen, known as gens de trait.
The French army was significantly stronger than the English, not just in terms of men but also the health and wellbeing of the army as a whole. The English were weakened by dysentery and lack of food. They had also been on the march for some time – longer than the week’s supplies they had come with to enable them to reach Calais..
The French plan at Agincourt
The French commanders, under Marshal Boucicaut and Charles d’Albret, constable of France, were not only experienced warriors, they also had a plan to defeat the English. They fully understood conventional English tactics (dismounted knights and men-at-arms, flanked by archers) and had devised a co-ordinated plan whereby mounted knights would destroy the archers on the flanks while the gens de trait and then dismounted knights would obliterate the central force of 1-1500 knights and men-at-arms.
Unfortunately for the French, Henry was aware of this plan. Despite last minute negotiations between the two armies on 24th October, they prepared for battle the following morning. Henry must have been confident of his tactics for what followed was a strategy of Nelsonian bravado.
The English tactics at Agincourt
Sandwiched between two woods, the English army was protected on its flanks from attack. However, the French army was wary of this and, confident of victory, held its ground – a ground which, overnight, had been churned up by the exercise of their horses.
This is where Henry acted in a manner now famous: he had instructed his archers to defend themselves with wooden stakes which could be moved at a moment’s notice. Seeing the French hold their position, he ordered his army to move en masse, and in close order, to within long range of the French army; re-positioning their stakes quickly.
Now, he instructed his archers to open fire, an act which provoked the French to attack and, crucially, to abandon their plan. Henry's use of stakes in this fashion was the first time they had been used in such a way; his tactics were novel - and crucial.
The failure of the French plan
For some reason, the gens de trait were left to the rear of the army, the cavalry attacks on the English wings were under-resourced and ineffective; the leader of one of these, Sir William de Saveuse, charged ahead of his force and was killed quickly by the English archers.
With the failed cavalry assaults, the bulk of the army, advancing under heavy clouds of arrows, crushed in on itself to avoid the drubbing shafts. This, combined with horses from the failed cavalry attacks running amok, led to chaotic scenes and many men simply being crushed to death or drowned in the mud.
Bitter hand-to-hand fighting
Of course, hand-to-hand fighting did occur as their arrows ran out and the armies met but the difficulties for the French lay then in the dead and dying on the field and the reluctance of late-comers to join the fray.
Notwithstanding, they outnumbered the English knights by perhaps four to one and succeeded in pushing them back; Henry’s cousin, the Duke of York, was killed and his own brother had to be rescued. Part of Henry’s own helmet was damaged, as can still be seen today.
In the end, however, with the failure of their reinforcements to join battle (a fact condemned by contemporary accounts) and with their own knights exhausted as a consequence of battle, climbing through their own men and marching across a churned up field, the French knights surrendered in droves.
A controversial feature of the battle, Henry’s instruction to kill the prisoners taken in this melee, must not go unrecorded. Yet, even here, it seems he was aware that the original French plan included an attack on his rear (where the prisoners were being kept). Although a small attack by the French here may have been misinterpreted too rashly by Henry, contemporary chroniclers are accepting of his decision. Indeed, on the ground and in the thick of battle, Henry had to make decisions quickly. He could not risk the prisoners suddenly turning on him from the rear with fresh reinforcements.
With the loss of many of their leading figures in the battle, and with more killed in the attack on the prisoners, the French realised they were beaten. The battle of Agincourt was lost; Henry proceeded on his route to Calais.
Agincourt Greetings Cards available!
The images in this article (in the gallery below) are available as a set of greetings cards with envelopes offered as a pledge reward for crowdfunding patrons of my new translation of King Arthur's Death (the Alliterative Morte Arthure) which was written in Middle English c.1400. The particular pledge reward offers 16 cards (2 of each design) as well as a signed copy of the book, when published, plus your name printed in the back as a patron (just like my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - now available).
Two separate packs of 10 cards are available featuring English longbowmen:
Agincourt archer shooting at the volley - order here
Agincourt archer shooting at point blank range - order here