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The Battle of Agincourt, from a 16th-century French Manuscript of Monstrelet's Chronicles

The Battle of Agincourt (25 Oct 1415)

BATTLE OF AGINCOURT (October 25, 1415)
The English army had been for a month investing Harfleur before the French government was roused from its inactivity. On the 10th of September, the king of France [Charles VI] took the Oriflamme at St. Denis, and departed for Normandy. He had arrived at Rouen with his son, when the news of the fall of Harfleur reached the court. He was soon surrounded by princes and great lords with their men-at-arms. It was known that the constable of France was watching the passages of the Somme; and that the English, in ascending the left bank, were sustaining great privations. The weather was wet and tempestuous. The princes and nobles believed they had now nothing to dread from the presumption of king Henry.

The citizens of Paris offered to send six thousand men well armed. The old duke de Berri, who had fought at Poitiers sixty years before, urged the acceptance of the offer. The duke of Alençon and the young chivalry would have nothing to do with these common people—"What do we want of these shopkeepers? We have already three times the number of the English." The princes sent to Henry three officers of arms, to tell him that, being resolved to fight him, they desired him to name a day and a place for the battle. The king of England replied that, having set out from his town of Harfleur, he was on his way to England; and that, resting in no town or fortress, they might find him any day and hour in the open field.*

Map: Henry V's Route to Agincourt

Onward marched Henry by Peronne, the roads being found trodden "as if the French had gone before him in many thousands." On the 24th,—the fourth day after they had crossed the Somme,—the English army arrived at Blangy, in perfect discipline. A branch of the Canche, the Ternoise, was here crossed without difficulty. The French army was on the rising ground about a league distant. From Blangy there is a gentle ascent towards the village of Maisoncelles. "When we reached the top of the hill," says the priest,1 "we saw three columns of the French emerge from the upper part of the valley, about a mile from us; who at length being formed into battalions, companies, and troops, in multitudes compared with us, halted a little more than half a mile opposite to us, filling a very wide field, as if with an innumerable host of locusts,—a moderate sized valley being betwixt us and them"—the plain of Agincourt.

When Henry had crossed the river and ascended the hill, he expected instant battle. He formed his troops, and went about exhorting them to do their duty. Walter Hungerford, according to our good priest's account, regretted that they had not with them ten thousand English archers. The solemn answer of the king, relying upon God for victory, has been given by the priest.2 Other burning words,—the version of the poet3—have superseded the dialogue of the chroniclers. The sun was setting; and there was no attack. At Maisoncelles, about a mile and a half from Blangy, the king took up his quarters for the night. In the gloomy twilight "a white way" had been found to this village. The noise of the French was heard as they took up their quarters, each vociferating for his servant or his comrade. Henry commanded the strictest silence. It was a night of dread to those who knew how many thousand enemies were close at hand. There was little sleep. The armourers were at work; the priests were confessing their penitents. In the French camp the confident knights played at dice, the stakes being the ransoms of their expected prisoners.

Map: The Battle of Agincourt, 1415

The route to Calais lay through the plain of Agincourt. The village of Maisoncelles is about a mile from this field. Henry rose with the dawn on that 25th of October, the feast of St. Crispin; and he heard three masses. He was fully armed; and he wore a crown on his head of extraordinary magnificence. He mounted a small gray horse, and drew up his men upon the open ground near Maisoncelles, then covered with young corn. His little band was formed in one line, the men-at-arms in the centre, with wings on the left and right, the archers being posted between the wings, with their stakes fixed before them. A party that went into the village of Agincourt found no armed men there. Another party of archers were concealed in the village of Tramecourt.

The French army was in three lines, completely covering the route to Calais. The advanced guard of about eight thousand knights and esquires, and five thousand five hundred archers and cross-bowmen, was composed of the greater part of the French nobility. The main body was crowded in prodigious numbers, the lines, according to the lowest estimate, being twenty men in depth. The men-at-arms wore coats of steel reaching to their knees, and heavy leg-armour, with other encumbering panoply. The contemporary chroniclers, both French and English, differ greatly as to the number of the French army. The lowest estimate is fifty thousand fighting men; the highest, one hundred and fifty thousand. The probability is that they were ten times as many as the English. Their position was between the two woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt, in a space much too confined for the movements of such a vast body... the position was a disadvantageous one.

Map: The Battle of Agincourt, 1415

The two armies passed several hours without a movement on either side. According to Monstrelet, Sir Thomas Erpingham, a knight grown gray with age and honour, at last flung his truncheon in the air, and called "Nestrocque!" ("now strike!") and then dismounted, as the king and others had done. The English then knelt down, invoking the protection of God; and each man put a small piece of earth into his mouth, in remembrance that they were formed of dust, and to dust should return. Shouting the national "hurrah!" they kept advancing. The archers, without armour, in jackets and loose hose, some even barefoot, went boldly on to meet the mailed chivalry. Their bow-strings were drawn. The French stooped as the deadly shafts flew amongst them. Many were slain. Onward rushed the thousands of horsemen to break the line of the hardy yeomen. The sharpened stakes were planted in the earth; and the archers shrank not from the charge. The arrows again flew; and the horses becoming unmanageable from their wounds, the knights were driven back upon the van, which they threw into confusion. The king now advanced with his main body. A deadly conflict ensued. The archers threw away their bows, and fought with sword and bill.

The Battle of Agincourt, from the St. Albans Chronicle

The second French line was soon reached; and here again the contest became more a slaughter than a battle. The enormous numbers of the French were the chief cause of their destruction. Their heavy armour was an incumbrance instead of a defence. The rear division, after the overthrow of the first and second division, took to flight. In three hours this terrible fight was over. The priest, who was "sitting on horseback among the baggage, in the rear of the battle," thus describes the slaughter of the French on this day of Agincourt: "When some of them in the engagement had been killed, and fell in the front, so great was the undisciplined violence and pressure of the multitude behind, that the living fell over the dead, and others also, falling on the living, were slain; so that, in three places, where the force and host of our standards were, so great grew the heap of the slain, and of those who were overthrown among them, that our people ascended the very heaps, which had increased higher than a man, and butchered the adversaries below with swords, axes, and other weapons. And when at length, in two or three hours, that front battle was perforated and broken up, Battle of Agincourt from a 15th-century manuscript and the rest were driven to flight, our men began to pull down the heaps, and to separate the living from the dead, proposing to keep the living as slaves, to be ransomed." Few were left alive for ransom.

A clamour arose that the French, collecting in various parts of the field, were coming upon the wearied victors. The baggage, according to Monstrelet, was being plundered. In the momentary alarm, Henry commanded a massacre of all the prisoners. The French chroniclers mention this horrible circumstance in terms of sorrow rather than of blame. The hasty instinct of self-preservation dictated the order. The day before the battle the king had discharged, upon their parole, all the prisoners he had brought with him. His nature was not cruel. He stopped the carnage when he found that the danger was imaginary.

On the part of the English, the duke of York and the earl of Oxford4 were slain, with some hundreds of inferior degree. The estimates of this loss are very conflicting. Our own chronicles make it absurdly small. Monstrelet says the loss of the English was sixteen hundred; and so St. Remy, another French historian. Of the chivalry of France, the flower perished. Seven of the princes of the blood had fallen. With the duke of Alençon Henry had fought in person, and was beaten down, having a portion of his crown struck off. The king could not save his gallant enemy, who fell before Henry's guards. Eight thousand gentlemen of France perished in that field of carnage, of whom a hundred and twenty were nobles bearing banners.

The herald of France was taken in the battle. "Montjoie," said Henry, "to whom is the victory—to me or to the king of France?" "To you, and not to him," said Montjoie. "And how is this castle called?" "The castle of Agincourt." "Well," said the king, "they will long speak of the battle of Agincourt." They will speak of it, as long as England's history endures, as one of the most wonderful examples of bravery, and fortitude, and heroic daring, of which a people may be justly proud. But they will also speak of it as a fearful sacrifice of human life to a false ambition, which had no object beyond the assertion of an indomitable will, and no permanent results beyond the perpetuation of hatred and jealousy between nation and nation.

* See Barante, tom. iii.

[AJ Notes:

1. An anonymous priest who was present at Agincourt, who subsequently wrote the Gesta Henrici Quinti, the earliest chronicle of Henry's French campaigns.

2. From the Gesta Henrici Quinti: "'That is a foolish way to talk', the king said to him, 'because, by the God in Heaven upon Whose grace I have relied and in Whom is my firm hope of victory, I would not, even if I could, have a single man more than I do. For these I have here with me are God's people, whom He deigns to let me have at this time.'"

3. See Shakespeare's Henry V, the St. Crispin's Day speech.

4. This is incorrect. Richard de Vere, earl of Oxford, survived Agincourt and lived another 2 years, dying in 1417. The author perhaps confused him with the Earl of Suffolk, who did perish at Agincourt.]

      Excerpted from:

      Knight, Charles. The Popular History of England. Vol II.
      London: Bradbury and Evans, 1857. 60-64.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Allmand, Christopher. The Hundred Years War: England and France at War.
           Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Barker, Juliet. Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England.
           Back Bay Books; Repr. Ed. 2007.

Curry, Anne, and Malcolm Mercer, eds. The Battle of Agincourt: The Illustrated Companion.
           Yale University Press; Repr. ed., 2017.

Mortimer, Ian. 1415: Henry V's Year of Glory.
           Vintage Books; 2013.

Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453.
           Penguin, 1999.

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