On 25 October 1415 a small and exhausted English army won a miraculous victory against the French in one of the most famous battles in British history. Though the enduring popular image of the battle is that of the humbly English archer staving off French knights, it was actually decided by a vicious melee as the French reached the English lines.
Henry’s initial foray
The Hundred Years War, despite its name, was not a continuous conflict, and in fact in the months before Henry’s campaign the opposing nations had been trying hard to reach a diplomatic compromise which would suit them both.
Negotiations broke down however, and Henry was furious at the French delegation’s haughty treatment of him, launching an expedition into France in retaliation.
Henry’s army of 12,000 besieged the coastal town of Harfleur. This was not expected to take long, but the defenders were well-lead and motivated, and the siege continued for well over a month. As it dragged on, the English army was ravaged by dysentery and thousands died in miserable agony.
By the time the town fell on the 22nd September, campaigning season was almost over, as winter presented serious problems for the supply lines of medieval armies.
Though his army was too small to fight the French directly again, Henry wanted to march from Harfleur in Normandy to the English-held town of Calais in a display of impudence.
The French counter-attack
However, the French had gathered a vast army around the town of Rouen in the meantime. A contemporary source gives the size of the their force as 50,000, though it was probably slightly fewer, and on their way north to Calais, the English army found its way barred by a vast host of Frenchmen.
The differences between the two armies went beyond size. The English was largely comprised of longbowmen, largely lower class men, skilled with the English longbow. Few men around today could draw the weapon, which required years of training to use.
Longbowmen possessed astonishing strength, which meant that they were also deadly in a melee despite their almost complete lack of armour. Some were so beset by dysentery that they had to fight without trousers on.
The French, on the other hand, were far more aristocratic, and one source even claims that the French turned down the use of 4000 crossbowmen because they believed that they would not need the help of such a cowardly weapon.
The only thing that the English had in their favour was the battlefield itself, near the castle of Agincourt. The battlefield was narrow, muddy, and hemmed in by thick woodland. This was bad terrain for horsemen, and a critical factor, as many French nobles liked to fight mounted as a sign of status.
The French knights launched a furious charge at their enemy, but volleys of arrows combined with the mud and angled stakes, placed in the ground by the longbowmen, ensured that they got nowhere near the English lines. Adopting a different approach, the heavily armoured French men-at-arms then advanced on foot.
A hundred years prior, at Crecy, English arrows had been able to pierce through plate armour, but now advances in the design meant that only a lucky strike or close-range hit would do any serious damage. As a result, despite hails of arrows the French were able to close with the English line and then begin furious close-quarters fighting.
Though the English arrows had not killed many Frenchmen outright, by the time they reached the English lines they were utterly exhausted.
Fresh and unencumbered by heavy armour, the longbowmen were able to dance around their richer opponents and hammer them to death using hatchets, swords and the mallets they had used to drive their stakes in.
Henry was in the thick of the fighting himself and suffered an axe blow to his head which knocked half of the crown off the King’s helmet.
French commander Charles d’Albret poured more men into the fight, but the narrow terrain meant that they could not use these numbers to their advantage, and more and more died in the crush. D’Albret was killed, joining many thousands of his men.
Henry’s army made it back to Calais. The prisoners they took at the battle had almost outnumbered the English, but with many Frenchmen still lurking nearby the King had them all killed – much to the disgust of his men, who had hoped to sell them back to their families for large sums.
Shellshocked by the scale of the defeat, the ailing French King Charles VI declared Henry his heir in 1420. England had won.
Then Henry V died young, in 1422, and the French went back on their promise. Eventually they forced all Englishmen out of their country and won the war in 1453.
The Battle of Agincourt, immortalised by William Shakespeare, has come to represent an important part of British national identity.