Six hundred years ago to the day, King Henry V of England led his army to victory against the French troops in the Battle of Agincourt. Fought on the morning of the 25th of October 1415, the battle proved to be a crippling defeat for the French, and a major victory for the English in the ongoing Hundred Years War. The story of Agincourt was popularised through Shakespeare’s Henry V, and its subsequent adaptations for television and the big screen, but there is still much that we do not know about the epic battle. So, to mark the 600th anniversary of one of the most significant events in English history, here are six facts about the Battle of Agincourt:
1. King Henry had to pawn his Crown Jewels to fund the campaign to France.
When Henry V ascended the throne, he received the legacy of his great-grandfather – a claim to the French crown. King Edward III had started the war against France in 1337, and the decades of fighting had substantially depleted England’s resources. So by the time it was King Henry’s turn to cross the Channel with his forces, he found himself wanting for money. He planned to lead an army of 11,000 men to Normandy, and the expedition would require ships, horses, armour and weaponry, all of which were extremely expensive. To finance the invasion, the King persuaded Parliament to increase the taxes, and also appealed to wealthy English citizens to lend him money. The people of London alone loaned him a sum equivalent to around £3.5 million today. Among them was Sir Richard Whittington, upon whom the children’s story character Dick Whittington is based.
However, the people’s money proved to be insufficient, and Henry had to pawn off some royal jewels, including a ruby and diamond-encrusted crown belonging to King Richard II and a gold collar called “Pusan d’Or”, as security for repayment.
2. A majority of the English troops were lost before the Battle had even begun.
In August 1415, King Henry and his army crossed from Southampton to the coast of Normandy. Immediately after landing, the men encountered the Harfleur, a small port city located at the mouth of the Seine. The King chose to stay and besiege the town, as he wanted to start the campaign off with a victory, and he expected Harfleur to fall within a few days. Unfortunately, he could not have been more wrong. The Siege of Harfleur lasted for five long weeks, during which a third of Henry’s men either died fighting or succumbed to dysentery that had begun to spread due to the unsanitary conditions in the English camp.
When Harfleur finally fell, King Henry was forced to leave some of his more able fighters behind to guard the captured city, and the troops that embarked on the long and grueling march towards Calais were exhausted, starving and sickly.
3. The Battle was fought on Saint Crispin’s Day.
At the beginning of 1415, Soissons, a small town in Northern France, was occupied by an English garrison. However, one day the French arrived in the town out of the blue and tortured and killed hundreds of English archers. When the news of the Siege reached King Henry, he was horrified. Before the Battle of Agincourt took place, he noted that the Soissons was dedicated to the martyred Saints Crispin and Crispinian and vowed to avenge their honour at the when he combated against the French forces on October 25, which happened to be Saint Crispin’s Day.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, The King rouses the troops into battle with an encouraging speech, in which he often mentions the two Saints. The speech itself has come to be known as the Saint Crispin’s Day Speech.
4. The English bowmen were instrumental in their country’s victory.
Although the victory at Agincourt is commonly attributed to King Henry’s military genius, the battle was won by the English archers. Only around 1,500 of the 9,000-strong English army were men-at-arms and knights – the rest were archers, who were armed with their longbows and, occasionally, knives or poleaxes. A many great archers came from Wales, and, having fought against Henry’s father at Shrewsbury, had decided to switch loyalties. When the French cavalry charged, the bowmen began to shoot their arrows from behind makeshift barricades made of wooden stakes. Hundreds upon hundreds of long shafts flew through the air, hitting their target and wreaking havoc among the French army. Many rows of Frenchmen were killed before they could even reach the English while the English lost only a few men in the struggle. Once their arrows were exhausted, the archers charged at the men with their weapons and joined the knights in hand-to-hand combat.
5. Most of the French army suffocated to death.
The bowmen were not the only ones responsible for England’s victory – mud played a significant role too. The days leading up to the Battle of Agincourt had been rainy, and the fields were soggy and covered with slush. So when the French knights, complacent about the size of their army and eager to vanquish the English, charged across the battlefield, they found themselves being weighed down by their heavy armour, which was causing them to sink in the mud. It made them easy targets for the English bowmen, and as more and more Frenchmen died, their bodies began to pile up. As additional troops pushed in from the back, thousands of men were caught in the human crush, and were either trampled to death or suffocated as they lay among their fallen compatriots. Once wounded, a French soldier had next to no chance of getting up again and was more often than not crushed under the weight of the men coming from behind.
Since most of the Englishmen had little or no armour, they were quickly able to navigate the mud and cut down the French troops with devastating ease. Had the French chosen to wait for and attack from the English rather than advancing of their accord, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
6. Treatment of Prisoners of War.
After the rout of the first French force by the English, the survivors were taken prisoner by King Henry and tied up amongst the trees in the English camp. Over 2,000 men-at-arms had been taken as prisoners, and, in an unprecedented occurrence, they outnumbered their captors (the English had only 1,500 knights). However, they were unarmed and battle weary, and the English were confident in their victory.
Things took a drastic turn when word reached the King that the French were gearing up for a second attack. Even though the English had lost less than a thousand men in the first assault, they were still vastly outnumbered by the French, and would need all the help they could get. Included and ready for the next onslaught were the men who were guarding the prisoners of war. Henry was worried that the many Frenchmen might take advantage of their enemy’s absence to rally together and attack the English from behind. In a move that many historians have labeled as an early example of a war crime, King Henry ordered the death of all the French prisoners. Although this went against the rules of war and chivalry, Henry could see no alternative, and, save for a few dukes and other men close to the French King, all the Frenchmen were executed.
In a way, this cemented the English victory. Once they heard of King Henry’s treatment of the prisoners of war, the French troops grew frightened and called off the second assault. The Battle of Agincourt had been won, and King Henry V of England marched on to Calais, triumphant.
Photo credit: AJ LEON via Flickr