Agincourt: what really happened

Agincourt is legendary as one of England’s finest moments, but historian Anne Curry says the facts do not substantiate our rosy view of this victory – and Henry V’s conduct may not have been quite as noble as chronicles suggest.

This article was first published in the July 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine

Battle of Agincourt, by J Smith. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Agincourt, Henry V’s famous victory over the French on 25 October 1415, is a fascinating battle not just because of what happened but also because of how its myth has developed ever since. Tudor re-invention, leading to the quintessential Shakespearean portrayal of “we happy few”, has been the most influential, but every century has made its own accretions.

Shortly after the First World War Battle of Mons in 1914, for instance, a journalist created the story that angelic English bowmen, the ghosts of Agincourt archers, appeared in the sky to assist the British. This particular myth-making takes us full circle back to the period itself since several English chronicles speak of St George being seen fighting for Henry’s army. In looking for explanations today, however, a historian must be more circumspect and apply the methods of a detective. The first task is to find as much evidence as possible, the second to assess it critically in search of the truth. Just like the detective, the historian has to be wary of dubious testimony and look for hard evidence. The researches I have conducted over the past decade suggest that commonly held assumptions about Agincourt simply cannot be substantiated.

Detectives are fortunate in being able to interview those involved in the event. The historian has to make do with eyewitness accounts written down in the years following the battle. All raise problems. John Hardyng claimed to have been on the campaign but the accounts he provided in his verse chronicles 40 years later are perfunctory and the captain he claimed to have served under was in Berwick-upon-Tweed during the period of the campaign. Hardyng was therefore himself an early creator of an Agincourt myth.

The anonymous Gesta Henrici Quinti (the deeds of Henry V), written by a cleric with Henry’s army, is the earliest eyewitness account and full of interesting detail. It is not unbiased, however, since it was written as a eulogy of the king, using the battle as manifestation of God’s approval for Henry. The killing of the prisoners, missing from many English accounts, is consciously constructed in the Gesta not to implicate the king at all: “But then, all at once, because of what wrathfulness on God’s part no one knows, a shout went up that the enemy’s mounted rearguard were re-establishing their position … and immediately … the prisoners … were killed by the swords either of their captors or of others following after”.

The Flemish chronicler, Jean de Waurin, tells us that he was 15 years old and with the French army at the battle. He says that he gained information from Jean Le Fèvre, king-of-arms of Duke Philip of Burgundy’s chivalric order of the Golden Fleece, who was “at the time of the battle 19 years old and in the company of the king of England in all the business of this time”. Although their texts are fascinating, they are almost identical with each other and with the well known chronicle of Enguerran de Monstrelet, another writer of Burgundian allegiance. All wrote many years afterwards, and hindsight can be a very dangerous thing in battle narratives.

A final eyewitness was Sir Guillebert de Lannoy who wrote an account of his own experiences in the battle. This is short but useful because he had been captured by the time Henry issued the order to kill the prisoners. Wounded in the knee and in the head, he tells that he was lying on the ground with the dead at the time the fighting stopped and the English came to search through the heaps. He was pulled out and taken to a nearby house with 10 to 12 other wounded prisoners. When the order came that each man should kill his prisoners, which Lannoy claims was occasioned by the arrival of Anthony, Duke of Brabant at the battle, the house was set on fire but he escaped, only to be recaptured and taken to England.

 

Examining the evidence

Other French writers, however, ascribe the responsibility for occasioning Henry’s murderous order to different French lords. This reminds us of a fundamental truth about the chronicles. All the accounts of battle were partisan. For the French, Agincourt was such a disaster that someone had to be to blame, but exactly who depended on the writer’s political affiliations. Their accounts were highly politicised in the context of on-going tension between Burgundian and Armagnac factions.

To cite but one example: Monstrelet, Waurin and Le Fèvre deliberately included the story that Duke Philip, at the time Count of Charolais, had “desired with his whole heart to be at the battle to fight the English” but that his father Duke John of Burgundy had instructed his governors to keep him in the castle of Aire near Ghent “as securely and secretly as they could so that he could not hear any news nor discover the intended day of the battle”. In this way, Duke Philip’s lifelong embarrassment at his absence could be explained away; Duke John was no longer alive to contradict.

Although the eyewitness accounts and the narratives in other chronicles are important in reconstructing the battle, we cannot simply accept what they say at face value any more than detectives should believe what witnesses and suspects tell them. In a desire to tell a good story, many modern writers on Agincourt have fallen into the trap of taking the best bits from each chronicle and stringing them together to produce a seamless narrative. Like a detective, a historian needs to compare the conflicting testimonies to establish possible scenarios. Other kinds of evidence need to be found which do not suffer from the subjectivity of the chroniclers.

We are fortunate to have the field itself to analyse as the scene of crime, but even more to have large quantities of administrative records. Urban records for the towns of northern France, for instance, can help us to be certain of the routes of the armies and on military preparations. But the sources which really enable us to make a breakthrough are the financial records produced by the English and French crowns because these provide totally reliable evidence on the crucial question of army sizes and even provide us with the names of individual soldiers. By this period, all soldiers were paid. Evidence for their service is therefore revealed in the records of the English Exchequer housed in the National Archives at Kew, and of the French chambre des comptes, to be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and various regional archives.

Agincourt: a timeline

1259: Treaty of Paris. Henry III (king of England 1216–72) gives up his claim to Normandy, Anjou and Maine and pays homage as Duke of Aquitaine to Louis IX.

1328: Death of King Charles IV. His cousin is crowned as Philip VI despite the claim of Edward III (king of England 1327–77) as the son of Charles’ sister, Isabella.

1337: Philip confiscates Edward’s lands in Aquitaine. The Hundred Years War begins. Three years later, Edward formally declares himself king of France.

1346: Edward invades Normandy and defeats the French at Crécy, subsequently taking Calais after a long siege.

1356: Edward, Prince of Wales, defeats the French at Poitiers and captures John II.

1360: The treaty of Brétigny gives Edward III full sovereignty in Aquitaine, Calais and Ponthieu in return for dropping the claim to the throne and releasing John II.

1369: Charles V restarts the war. Edward III reassumes the title King of France, and it is retained by his successor, Richard II (king of England 1377–99).

1399: Richard deposed by Henry IV (king of England 1399–1413). Over the next decade, civil war develops in France between the Armagnacs and Burgundians.

1415: Henry V (king of England 1413–22) launches the biggest invasion of France since 1359. Agincourt takes place on 25 October. Two years later he begins a systematic conquest of the whole of Normandy.

1419: John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, is assassinated by the Armagnacs, led by the Dauphin Charles in Paris.

1420: In the treaty of Troyes Henry V is recognised as heir to Charles VI, and a few days later marries Charles’s daughter Catherine. Henry dies a few weeks before his father-in-law in 1422.

1431: Henry VI (king of England 1422–61) is crowned king of France.

1450: The English are driven out of Normandy, and three years later, Aquitaine. Only Calais remains in English hands.

Analysing all of this evidence and putting it together with a critical, comparative study of the chronicles, what conclusions can we come to? Thanks to a document concerning the raising of taxes to pay the army, we have clear indication of the size of force that the French were proposing to raise – 6,000 men-at-arms and 3,000 archers. From the musters and payments we can trace the assembly of this army to the middle of September, although not early enough to rescue Harfleur from Henry.

This was the army which harried Henry’s march northwards from Harfleur and for which the French battle plan found in the British Library was devised. The French undoubtedly intended to bring Henry to battle either at the Somme or near Péronne but he moved his army away from any possible interaction. Once he had succeeding in crossing the Somme, the French had to act quickly if they were to intercept him before he reached Calais. Heralds were sent to him on 20 October challenging him to battle. It is possible that the chosen location was Aubigny just to the west of Arras. Henry initially moved in that direction but then turned towards the coast in the hope of eluding his enemy once more.

This meant that the French, hoping to be reinforced by the men of Picardy and the lands of the north-eastern frontier such as Bar and Brabant, now had to communicate the change of location. There is strong evidence that by the morning of 25 October not all of the additional troops had arrived at Agincourt. The Duke of Brabant certainly arrived late in the day, the Duke of Brittany only reached as far as Amiens. The Duke of Orleans may only have arrived on 24 October.

Charles, Duke of Orleans, image dated 1806. Orleans was wounded and captured by the English at the battle of Agincourt. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Furthermore, the decision that he should be present and should lead the army was also made late in the day at Rouen, when the King and Dauphin, fearful of the English threat and mindful of the disaster of Poitiers over 50 years earlier, were advised not to risk their presence in battle. Initially, because of concerns about the continuing quarrel between Orleans as leader of the Armagnac party and Duke John of Burgundy, both dukes were told to send troops but not to come in person. Although some troops had joined with the initial 9,000, the French army at Agincourt cannot have numbered more than 12,000. Virtually all the chroniclers tell us that the French delayed giving battle for as long as possible on the day in the hope that the missing troops would arrive in time.

 

The numbers game

What then of Henry’s army? We can easily trace the size of the army with which he left England. The Exchequer records show that he had entered into contracts with 320 men to provide troops. Adding in the 500 archers each from Lancashire and South Wales (North Wales was still seen as uncertain in loyalty in the aftermath of Glyn Dwr’s revolt), and likely 650 from Cheshire, we have an army of 11,850 or so. To this we can add men who indented but for whom no full record survives, as well as the carpenters, miners etc, although interestingly, the gunners were all recruited from the continent, suggesting that the English had lagged behind in the supposed “artillery revolution”.

Since those who provided troops submitted accounts to the Exchequer after the campaign with details of what had happened to their men, we can track how many died at Harfleur, how many were invalided home with dysentery, and how many were placed in garrison. The gunners, for instance, were left in Harfleur, proof that Henry did not intend to attempt any further conquests. Taking this evidence together, the army on the march and hence at the battle was around 9,000 strong.

The real contrast between the armies was their composition rather than their size. Of the 12,000 French, around 75 per cent were men-at-arms. The corresponding proportion for the English was 20 per cent, much as it had been at the start of the campaign. Knowledge that the English had such a small number of men-at-arms heartened the French and led to their placing more troops in the vanguard in anticipation of winning the day with a huge first clash. Ignorance, or a lack of understanding of the strength of the English archers, made them underestimate the danger that the latter posed.

At over 7,000, and defended by stakes and by the lie of the land, there were too many to knock out by a cavalry charge. The French do not seem to have deployed their own archers and crossbowmen in counter-actions even though we can show from pay records that such troops had been raised. As a result, the vanguard had little choice but to keep marching into the barrage of arrow fire, an experience for which there could be no prior training. Most were killed or wounded in the melee when they were already helpless, many by a swift dagger in the neck. Their fate dissuaded other French troops from entering the fray. Agincourt was therefore characterised by accusations of cowardice and treason as well as exceptionally high mortality rates for the French along with equally low rates for the English.


Henry V, taken from the book Old England's Worthies, London, c1850. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

Slaughter of the nobles

It is doubtful that the French death rates would have been so high had it not been for King Henry’s panic after he had stood his army down. Whether the threat of French regrouping was real or not – and there is no evidence at all that any attack was ever made – Henry’s response was to slaughter soldiers who had
already surrendered.

In the words of the chronicler Peter Basset, who himself served in later English campaigns, “that was the reason so many nobles were killed”. The number of prisoners who can be identified from the English royal records – since the crown had a right to a share in ransoms – is much smaller than the chroniclers claim. Henry’s reaction was symptomatic of his behaviour in the campaign as a whole. Whilst there is evidence of military skill, for instance in protecting the archers, overall he displayed a lack of confidence because he was afraid of failure. That was why he had avoided engagement until the French finally forced his hand.

It was Agincourt which transformed him and his kingship. He had invaded in 1415 as the son of a usurper and with his own title insecure. There was even a plot to depose him on 1 August, the very day he had chosen for embarkation from Southampton. He returned with confidence as God’s chosen king and warrior. No one could now challenge his royal title or his obsession with France. The English entered one of the most heavily taxed periods in their entire history as well as one of the most militarily demanding. In France, the Armagnacs were sullied by the defeat since their commanders had been captured, whilst the leading Burgundians had died a martyr’s death.

Anne Curry is the author of Agincourt: A New History (Tempus Publishing, 2005). This provides a narrative of the whole campaign and discussion of the battle. She has also written The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations (Boydell, 2000). This includes translations and discussions of the chronicles and literary sources as well as of the administrative records.

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