The Battle of Agincourt - Myths and Truth
The Battle of Agincourt, fought on October 25th, 1415, has gone down in history as one of the great victories of the English over the French. It only lasted 6 hours but has given rise to myths and legends. Most of these, for the English at least, come courtesy of Shakespeare whose play Henry V is a glorious evocation of bravery and chivalry of both the French and the English, though naturally the English come over as far more virtuous and powerful.
Whether true of false, many phrases and sayings from that play have passed into common usage. The battle raging, Henry spurs on his troops with:
'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead'
And how about: ‘Old men forget’, or even more famous:
‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ which continues
'For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne're so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.'
And many of us know the play through two great films, one with Laurence Olivier as director and Henry V and a more recent version with Kenneth Branagh as the young English King.
What a Great Story
The museum is aimed at families and gives a good impression of the life of soldiers. But it was opened 15 years ago and some of the facts in the videos you see are inventive at the best and plain inaccurate at worst. It doesn’t stop your enjoyment, but it does follow a much older version of history. Here’s a more modern version with a few myths exploded.
Part of the seemingly endless Hundred Years War between the English and the French (1337 to 1453), this particular conflict took place when the French King, Charles VI, known as Charles the Mad, presided over a weak and divided country. Two branches of the royal family, the Armagnacs who supported the mad King, and the rebel Burgundians, had been fighting each other since 1407 in what was effectively a civil war.
The young, new and as yet untried Lancastrian English King Henry V set sail for France on August 1, 1415. He landed with around 12,000 soldiers and successfully besieged Harfleur. The victory cost them a considerable number of men; around 9,000 Englishmen marched inland to meet the French army at Agincourt on 25th October. The French numbered a bit over 12,000 men so the numbers were not as heavily stacked against the English as popular myth claims.
The difference between the two armies was in their approach to the battle and the leadership of the forces. The disparate groups of French were led, not by their unfortunately insane king, but by the Constable of France, Charles d’Albret and various members of the Armagnac family. The English army, which was much more professionally run, were led by an ambitious, clever soldier-king.
The strategies of the two nations were also radically different. To the French, this was a battle fought on chivalric principles, with the cavalry heavily involved. Huge warhorses were to carry their armoured dukes and knights, marquesses and counts into battle. The English had however learnt from the battles of Crécy and Poitiers that charging cavalry, while they might strike fear into the enemy’s hearts, were unwieldy, and inflexible. Men-at-arms were equally as important to the French and the idea was to fight a set-piece battle. Finally the field was muddy, not ideal for heavy horses and armoured knights.
The English approach was very different. Around 20% of the French army was made up of archers compared to around 80% of the English. Many of the 7,000 English bowmen were peasants who had grown up learning how to make, arm, pull and fire the longbows made from English yew. The French archers mainly carried crossbows – fiendish weapons that had been developed to fight the infidel in the Crusades, not to fight your fellow Christians. Crossbows might have been powerful, but in the time it took to load, wind and fire a crossbow, the English archers could send between 7 and 10 arrows a minute into the air to rain down on their opponents.
The French had their cavalry in the first line, with their archers in the 3rd. When the battle started at 10am, the English began their winged assault. The French cavalry fell, horses thrashing around, knights unable to get up off the ground. Any mounted knights who did get within striking distance of the English faced sharp stakes hammered into the soft ground meaning that the second and third line of French had to clamber over this heaving mass of death to get to the English.
The English did not, as popular French legend has it, poison their arrows; they placed them in the ground in front of them so they could easily fire them one by one, inadvertently adding the poison of infection to the wounds they inflicted.
The battle continued until 4pm. Casualties on the French side were around 3,000 to 4,000 with 400 French nobles killed. The English casualties are now estimated to be between 600 and 1,000. The French lost around 400 nobles, the English just a handful, including the Duke of York who had saved his nephew, Henry V, from the Duke d’Alencon’s axe blows.
French Battle - Welsh Archers
I was in Brecon in Wales in the Brecon Beacons National Park and walked into the small cathedral. Welsh archers were some of the best and many came from Brecon where there's a stone used by the men to sharpen their arrows on the eve of the battle.
- Agincourt can be part of a great 3-day short break from the UK or Paris.
Agincourt Museum, Agincourt Battlefield and Gendarmes
The Museum is a mix of exhibits about both the English and the French, with the names of the main contestants displayed on walls as you walk in, alongside their images, coats-of-arms and shields. Extracts from the chroniclers of the times set the scene.
The most interesting display in the museum is a huge model of the battlefield. Tiny figurines, beautifully depicted and accurately painted in the right colors, show the positions of the armies on the eve of the battle – the English on the higher ground and protected by trees on both flanks; the French spread out in all their colorful glory on the other side.
The next section consists of three audiovisual exhibits, starting with two figures, Henry V and the French commander, giving their thoughts on the eve of the battle. The third is a room which explains a little about the battle itself, though it's not always correct.
Go upstairs to the section which is the best part for families and concentrating on the weapons, arms and armour of the soldiers. You can see the different weapon used, pick them up (they are remarkably heavy and unwieldy), discover how much force you need to pull back the string of a longbow and more.
The Gendarmes and the Battle of Agincourt
One unusual fact emphasized in this 600th anniversary year is the history of the gendarmerie. You’ll come across the gendarmes in their distinctive blue uniforms and hats if you drive through France; they are the ones policing the roads and the rural areas. But they are, strangely, a branch of the army and not the civil police.
The gendarmery began as the royal constabulary, the Maréchaussée de France, originally intended as military police, keeping soldiers in check and stopping them looting after battles.
They fought in the battle of Agincourt under their commander, the Prévôt des Maréchaux (Provost of the marshals), Gallois de Fougières. 60 years old when he fought and died at Agincourt, he had gone from his home region of Berry on a Crusade in 1396, then to Italy in 1410. Considered the first gendarme killed in combat, his skeleton was discovered in the nearby church of Auchy-lès-Hesdin along with other knights of the time including the Admiral of France. His skeleton was taken to Versailles and buried under the monument to the gendarmerie in Versailles.
The Battlefield of Agincourt
Today there are just ploughed fields where 600 years ago the French knights charged and the English longbowmen unleashed their deadly arrows. The Center will give you a map to drive around the various viewpoints but it takes a very large feat of the imagination to conjure up the scene.
There is a mass grave somewhere near the battlefield were thousands of bodies, most of them stripped completely naked by the local peasants in the night after the battle, lie buried. But the museum and the local authorities fear that if they release the exact location, the place will be overrun by enthusiastic searchers with metal detectors. So for now, the dead remain peacefully in the earth.
But like all sites, there is a certain feeling to the landscape; a sense that something momentous took place here in this rural part of France.
The Agincourt Museum, Surrounding Attractions and Hotels
Centre Historique Medieval
24 rue Charles VI
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 47 27 53
Open Apr-Oct daily 10am-6pm
Nov-March daily except Tuesdays 10am-5pm
Admission adult 7.50 euros; 5 to 16 years 5 euros; family tariff (2 adults + 2 children) 20 euros.
There are big plans to completely redo the museum with the projected timescale of closing in October 2016 and re-opening in spring 2017.
World War I in Nord-Pas de Calais
Getting to France by Ferry
For more information on crossing to Europe, check out my article on Ferries from the UK.