The Background to the Campaign
The Duchy of Normandy had last been in English hands two hundred years before the Agincourt campaign. King John who was a vassal of the French king, handed the territory to the French, because he was unable to prevent the determined military and legal assault by Phillip II. The French overran Normandy in 1204, which led to the Treaty of Paris in 1259, by which Henry III gave up his rights to Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony. In the years that followed the English crown in Edward II was fighting a resurgent Scotland and the War of Saint Sardos in France 1324-25, named after the town.
Edward III was fifteen when he gained the English throne and the following year, the French King Charles IV died leaving no male heir. Edward had a legitimate claim to the French throne through his mother, who was Charles IV’s sister. The French were determined not to allow an English king to inherit the French crown and invoked Salic Law, an ancient law that said the crown should not be passed on through the female line. Charles’s cousin Philip of Valois became the French king.
With every new reign the French king required homage to be paid for the English crown’s French possessions, and the French eyes were on the English possession of Gascony. This was one of the factors leading to the One Hundred Years’ War, although there were many more factors at play, which could and have filled hundreds of books on the subject. To his credit, Richard II did wish for peace in the Truce of Bruges, but his overthrowing by Henry of Lancaster in 1399 changed the political situation yet again. French raids on southern English ports resumed and the English responded with campaigns in France during 1405, 1410 and 1412. They were neither large-scale, nor particularly effective.
There were three major factors that prompted Henry V’s gamble of 1415. The English were undoubtedly superior in battle, the English archers were recognised as one of the finest fighting units throughout Europe. Secondly, Henry was an outstanding military commander and the French knew it. Thirdly the French king was insane and two groups of rivals, the Burgundians and Armagnacs vied for control, meaning the French had no clear leadership.
The Organisation of the English Army
Henry relied on the “Indenture System” and the king dealt with contractors to raise an army, the contractors were feudal vassals, great lords, knights and esquires, but they served for pay. For example, the king’s brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was contracted to raise 200 lances, comprising of himself, six knights, 193 esquires and 600 mounted archers. At the lowest end of the scale, Lewis Robbesard Esquire reported for duty with himself and three foot archers.
The retinue was the building block of the army or “host.” The army was then divided into vanguard, centre and rear-guard and men fought under the banner of their lord, who in turn looked to the commander for direction. Command and control was weak, there was no standardisation of how oral commands were relayed and movement orders were given by shouting the battle cry, then moving the standards in the required direction. Manoeuvre on the battlefield was by necessity slow and cautious, to prevent formations falling into disarray and confusion.
The Organisation of the French Army
The French used a similar system to the English known as the “Lettres de Retenue” to raise and maintain troops. However, the system was not as formalised as the English system, as the French generally fought defensively in their own territories. Troops were provided by towns for cash payment, for example Paris provided 6,000 crossbowmen and “pavisiers” (shield carriers) for the 1415 campaign. But the French tended to favour quantity over quality and large hosts were difficult to command and control.
Experienced soldiers such as Marshal Boucicault preferred smaller, better equipped and disciplined forces, rather than the rabble the French tended to field. The French command and control on the battlefield was supposed to be similar to that of the English, but at Agincourt, it broke down completely.
Order of Battle English Agincourt Campaign
Men at Arms: 80 knights and 1,200 esquires
Mounted Archers: 4,128
Foot Archers: 3,771
Sir John Grendon’s miners: 120
Chaplains and clergy: 450
The Siege of Harfleur
Henry V had considered invading France as soon as he acceded to the throne, but made overtures to marry Charles VI’s daughter Katherine. He conducted diplomacy to settle English claims in France that would suit both sides and attempted to make a military alliance with the Duke of Burgundy. But in parallel he made plans for war, casting new cannon and building ships to transport his army. The number of ships used in the invasion has been chronicled as 1,500 ships, which seems rather large. A more realistic figure is around 500 vessels, which is still ten times the figure of Henry’s standing navy.
Henry mustered his army at Southampton in July 1415, but there was a delay while he dealt with an attempted coup d’état by disaffected members of his court. The fleet set sail on 11th August, Henry in his flagship, the Trinite Royale, a vessel of 500 tons and the largest in the fleet. Henry had chosen Harfleur as a second “Calais,” from which he could launch his Normandy campaign. It was the key to Normandy and its capture would give the English access to the heart of the Duchy of Normandy.
Harfleur was a well defended town, both geographically and militarily. Its strong walls were topped with twenty-six towers and the defenders had destroyed the sluices, to flood the surrounding area with water. Its three gates were guarded by barbicans and as two gates were surrounded by water, only the south-western gate was a possibility to assault, the Leure Gate. There was a channel leading into the town and its port, but this was blocked with a chain and wooden stakes. The commander of the French defence was John, Lord of Estuteville and although he only had 200 Men-at-arms and soldiers, he was confident the town’s defences would hold.
The English took two days to disembark and Henry set up his camp opposite the Leure Gate, while the Duke of Clarence set up with half of the army to the northeast. Unfortunately he was unable to intercept reinforcements under Ralph, son of the Lord of Gaucourt, who slipped into Harfleur with 300 additional men. Henry issued standards of behaviour for the campaign, stating there would be no looting, burning or rapine of the civilian population and all his soldiers were to identify themselves with the red cross of St George. Since Henry was supposed to be recovering his own lands, it would be bad form for his troops to do what troops tended to do whilst on campaigns. Any transgressions would be dealt with by summary hanging.
Henry’s engineers were not optimistic that the siege would be over with quickly. The flooding and countermining made tunnelling difficult, so the artillery bore the brunt of the siege operations. The cast iron and banded siege guns could hurl a stone of a quarter of a ton against Harfleur’s walls and barbicans, but the French defenders overlooked the siege lines and regularly sallied out to attack the gunners. And the siege lines were under constant attack from crossbows fired from the city walls. Surprisingly, the French made no concerted effort to relieve the siege which dragged on into September.
The English soon faced another danger, that of disease. Foul water and the shellfish collected from the estuary of the Seine were the probable causes and rank, position and title spared no one from the “Bloody Flux” as the disease, probably dysentery was called. On 16th September the French sallied out and burned a siege tower, but the following day, John Holland led a charge on the main bastion and captured it. Now the English could bring the siege guns in close to batter a breach in the walls. The French negotiated and agreed the terms of a surrender and with no aid coming from the rest of France, the town finally surrendered on 23rd September. The siege had lasted for five weeks. The English had lost over 2,000 to dysentery, including the Earl of Suffolk and a further 2,000 were sent home to recuperate.
Henry left a garrison of 500 Men-at-arms and 1,000 archers under the Earl of Dorset and he now had insufficient men to continue the campaign for the Duchy of Normandy. He had planned to move south to Bordeaux, but this was now impossible. He challenged the Dauphin by letter to settle the issue of the Duchy of Normandy in personal combat, an offer that the sickly and unmilitary Dauphin was bound to decline. Against the advice of his war council, Henry decided to march with his army and standard to Calais. He hoped that from the more established base, he could muster more troops from across the Channel. On 8th of October 1415, Henry and his small army left Harfleur and headed for Calais with a week’s rations for the 100 mile march. He was marching from a Phyrric victory to an uncertain future and where were the French?
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