These words, spoken by Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, reflected the pride the English took in the memory of a glorious victory and, by connecting the Battle of Agincourt with a holy day, helped reinforce the popular belief that Providence played a role in England’s fortunes during that historic battle. The ensuing bloody and chaotic clash seemed proof enough of divine intervention, because Henry’s troops rose up to defeat a French army almost four times as large.
This rousing truimph during the Hundred Years War ranks alongside the rout of the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Britain as one of England’s “Finest Hours,” but it was not quite the miraculous event that Shakespeare and his contemporaries related. Henry’s army posed a much more formidable threat to the French than simple numbers suggest. Given the circumstances, a British victory was nearly inevitable. The Hundred Years War, fought intermittently from 1337 to 1453, erupted over the Plantagenet kings’ rather weak claim to the French throne, which they based on Edward II’s marriage to Isabella, daughter of France’s King Philip IV.
Although that claim had grown rather stale by the time Henry V rose to power, he pressed it through force of arms. In a series of brilliant military campaigns, he conquered much of France, and married Catherine, daughter of the French King, Charles VI. The most prominent and decisive of Henry’s battles occurred at Agincourt, where the French army attempted to halt Henry’s advance. After a hard rain the previous night, the morning of 25th October, 1415, dawned wet and cold.
Both the English and French took up positions in a clearing between the woods of Tremecourt and Agincourt–a gap that spanned about three-quarters of a mile at its widest point. Both armies were in a miserable state. Henry’s small force had marched 270 miles since arriving in France, averaging about 20 miles a day, and had already nearly exhausted itself in attacking and capturing the town of Harfleur. Food was running low and a number of men were sick with dysentery. It had rained almost continuously throughout their march. As for the French, they were trying to cope, none too successfully, with the soggy fields between the two woods.
Mud covered everything, and most of the soldiers had gotten little sleep the night before as they laboured to keep their armour clean and dry. Military discipline began to break down even before the battle had begun, and by 11. 00 the army was completely disorganized. The French had come to Agincourt with an overdose of confidence, sure of their ability to crush the small English army. Poor leadership, however, completely negated their advantage in numbers and morale. When things began to go bad, French leaders were more concerned with avoiding responsibility than with restoring order.
Henry noticed the confusion in the French ranks and decided to make the first move. English archers fired once, provoking a chaotic, spontaneous charge from the French, in complete disregard for their leaders’ commands. When this happened, the size of the French army actually worked against them. The woods of Tremecourt and Agincourt hemmed them into such a narrow front that the majority of the French troops bunched up in the rear, unable to get into the fight. In their eagerness to engage the English, foot soldiers fell and trampled each other.
Cavalry horses became mired in the soggy ground, and knights in their heavy armour sank into the mud and suffocated. By contrast, Henry’s small army could easily deploy, allowing it to fight at full strength. And Henry had the perfect weapon to use against thickly massed enemy soldiers–one that more than made up for his numerical disadvantage. Agincourt became famous as the greatest victory of British archers. The Welsh had introduced the longbow roughly 600 years before the Battle of Agincourt, but the weapon had been neglected and often misused in battle.
Prior to Agincourt, most archers held their bows horizontally while drawing the arrows back to the waist. This method greatly reduced the bow’s range and effectiveness. At Agincourt, Henry’s archers employed the superior technique of holding their bows vertically and drawing the arrows back to their ears. The English bowmen could shoot nine arrows per minute and hit targets at 400 yards. Their proficiency took the French completely by surprise. While the archers decimated the French ranks, Henry’s army completely neutralized the enemy’s most dangerous weapon–its powerful cavalry.
In anticipation of the battle, the English prepared sharpened wooden stakes, which they planted into the ground at an angle, facing the French. Many charging French soldiers and horses impaled themselves on these obstacles, behind which Henry’s bowmen could do their work unhindered. By noon, the battle was over, with the remnant of the French army standing in defeat. Henry’s army suffered only about 500 casualties, while the French had lost nearly half their forces in a single hour. The English won the day through a combination of advantages, both strategic and natural.
Against these, the French superiority in numbers mattered little. Shakespeare’s “band of brothers” stood united on Saint Crispin’s Day, and with the French army so heavily defeated at Agincourt, Henry V and his army pressed onward through France, closing the book on Agincourt and opening up another chapter in the Hundred Years War . Cruel Henry? One of the most controversial elements of the Battle of Agincourt was King Henry’s decision to execute his French prisoners during the fighting. At the time, such blatantly brutal practice was unheard of. Henry has borne the harsh judgment of history for his actions.
In the heat of battle, Henry noticed that one segment of his army had been caught off-guard and was in serious danger. The only soldiers available to reinforce his line were those guarding prisoners. To reassign them meant risking the prisoners’ escape, or worse, having them turn on their captors. Henry chose the more ruthless but less risky course and ordered the prisoners to be executed. It was a decision borne of necessity during battle, rather than personal malice, but one which nevertheless inflamed the French to greater resistance and set the stage for further rounds of slaughter in the seemingly endless Anglo-French wars.