Henry V’s Agincourt Campaign – Part One

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On a wet and dank evening of the 24th October 1415, a small English Army of some 812 Men-at-arms and 3,073 foot and mounted archers tried to find what shelter they could and waited for battle the following day. The English Army was sick and exhausted after a long campaign, which included the protracted siege of Harfleur in Normandy. King Henry V had fought the campaign to recover what he believed to be rightly his, the Duchy of Normandy.

Henry’s Army was trying to reach the relative safety of Calais, but standing to block them was the French Army of 8,400 mounted Men-at-arms, 14,000 foot Men-at-arms and 2,000 crossbow men and archers. The French were confident that their army that outnumbered the English six-to-one would annihilate Henry’s small force. The two armies were drawn up close to the small, provincial castle of Agincourt, the French army astride the road to Calais and the English salvation.

The following day, a dysentery-ridden English army, outnumbered and short of supplies, comprehensively defeated and humiliated a vastly superior in size French army. It was a miracle, a divine intervention. It became one of the most famous examples of the English fighting against all the odds and defeating a vastly superior enemy force. The hell it was. French incompetence and hubris, the tactical genius of Henry V, the discipline and resolution of the English troops and the forgotten essentials of national pride and the willingness to endure, made the French defeat inevitable. The English didn’t win the Battle of Agincourt. The French lost it.

Henry V King of England

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A twelve-year-old Henry was knighted by Richard II in 1399, whilst participating in Richard’s campaign in Ireland. He was accompanying Richard as a hostage for his exiled father’s good behaviour. His father, Henry Bolingbroke, knighted him again on the eve of his coronation as Henry IV, after having deposed Richard II. The boy who would be king first saw military service against Scotland in 1400. Later as Prince of Wales he would be in action against Owen Glendwr, who also laid claim to the title. Henry was in nominal command of the powerful “Marcher” lords who really wielded the power, fighting a guerrilla war against the elusive Welsh. This would provide valuable experience of the grim realities and hardships of military campaigning.

Henry was tutored in his art of war by the Percy family, whom Henry would face in battle a year later, when the Percies wanted more control and recognition in their helping Henry IV to the throne. They made an alliance with Owen Glendwr and attempted to join him in 1403. Henry VI, with his son, made a forced march and intercepted the rebels at the Battle of Shrewsbury on the 21st July. It was a hard fought and bloody battle, young Henry leading the King’s left wing. The Royalists were forced to advance uphill, against a hail of archery from the best Cheshire bowmen in the country. Henry was wounded and disfigured by an arrow that hit his face. He fought on until the battle was won, showing determination despite the pain of his wound. The lesson of the effectiveness of the longbow wasn’t lost on Henry.

Henry became king when his father died in 1413. He had fought two major battles, had been wounded in action, commanded men in formal battle, endured the discomfort and tedium of campaigning, but above all, he understood the vital importance of attention to detail and meticulous planning required in all matters military. Henry V was a pious man and believed in the sanctity of the church and its property. He was a strict disciplinarian who enforced rigid campaign discipline. To the French he was arrogant, ruthless and cruel. He oversaw a massacre after the taking of Rouen in 1417 and refused food for the women and children expelled from Rouen and trapped between the closed city and the siege lines. He massacred the prisoners at Agincourt, a justifiable act according to the then laws of warfare, but an horrific act nonetheless. Warfare from an early age had brutalised Henry. He was a soldier king of his time. An effective and ruthless leader.

The French Leadership

The English were blessed to have such a ruthlessly efficient leader, while the French in contrast were in turmoil. King Charles VI was periodically insane and although unquestionably brave during periods of sanity, he was in no position to lead the French. His son the Dauphin was an effete, unmilitary youngster of nineteen. The weak state of the French leadership had almost led to civil war in which the Burgundian and Armagnac factions had vied for supremacy. Clear and unified leadership was impossible. The king and his advisors didn’t want to call upon John Duke of Burgundy, nor Charles Duke of Orleans because they were incapable of working together.

There were effective leaders on the French side who had won their spurs in earlier internecine wars or crusades, such as Charles d’ Albret who was an experienced and cautious warrior, who had held the post of Constable since 1402. John la Maingre known as Boucicault had a warrior’s reputation and was a stalwart crusader, who had defended Constantinople against the Ottomans in 1399. These measured and cautious fighters could have given the English a run for their money and worn the English down by attrition. However at Agincourt, they were overruled by the arrogant young dukes, the “Princes of the Blood.” D’ Albret and Boucicault had run the campaign efficiently up to the eve of battle, but for the battle itself, nobody on the French side was in overall command.

The Armies and their Equipment

Armies of the 15th Century were based on the Men-at-arms, which is a man in a composite suit of armour, trained to fight on horseback and on foot. If he possessed the social standing he would be a knight, but most were not. They were esquires, the rank below a knight, or ordinary soldiers who possessed some wealth, which was needed to purchase the equipment and horses to move them. While Men-at-arms were cavalrymen due to training and ethos, most battles were fought on foot. He would lead a “lance” a group of retainers who had enough wealth to afford horses and the equipment. There were light cavalry known as “hobilars,” but they played no part in the Agincourt Campaign.

Until the mid-13th Century armour had been primarily chain mail, augmented by steel plates to protect vulnerable parts of the body. By the 15th Century the suit of armour had reached its maturity and Men-at-arms were equipped cap-a-pied in armour. A padded jerkin known as an “akheton” was worn under the armour to prevent chafing and give added ballistic protection from blows and arrow strikes. The armour plate could be polished to reflect the heat of the sun and prevent heat exhaustion. It required a squire to help the Man-at-arms into his 60-80lbs of akheton and armour, but it was fully articulated and he could easily mount his horse without a crane and get up from the ground unless unconscious or stunned. Some specialist modern infantry go into battle carrying far bulkier and heavier equipment.

The heaviest and most cumbersome piece of equipment was the helmet with its solid neck-guard called a “gorget.” The face was protected by a visor or bascinet, the pointed version known as a “dog-faced-bascinet,” which could be hinged or slid open for better visibility or ventilation. Henry V wore a bucket-like “great helm” at Agincourt, a heavy and uncomfortable helmet, but it probably saved his life. Shields were becoming less used by Agincourt and richer knights wore their coat of arms embossed on their armour or a close fitting garment called a “cote d’ armes.” This was a valuable insurance policy and denoted that the wearer was worthy of ransom, as opposed to the inevitable slaughter the archers could expect.

The Man-at-arms could wield a lance or a sword. The lance was twelve feet long, made from ash. If fighting on foot it was shortened or a “poleaxe” was favoured, a double-headed axe and spear point mounted and braced on a six foot pole. The poleaxe could bludgeon, cleave or impale an opponent and was useful for disabling horses by cutting their leg tendons.

But the queen of the battlefield was still the sword. Made of the finest steel such as that from Bordeaux, three feet long, double-edged with a cross-guard and heavy pommel. Some were longer and had to be swung with both hands in a circulatory motion. Even a glancing blow could stun or incapacitate an opponent. Finally the Man-at-arms carried a dagger or “ballock” on his hip. It was not a primary combat weapon, but useful for dispatching the wounded or slipping through the visor of an incapacitated enemy. It goes without saying that Men-at-arms had to be incredibly tough, resilient and robust individuals, the cream of their society.

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White or polished armour from the 15th Century

The archer had to be flexible and mobile on the battlefield, so armoured protection was not his first concern. They wore padded jerkins or “brigandines,” which incorporated metal plates. Head protection was an open faced bascinet or a pot-helm not unlike the World War One Tommy helmet. Very few wore leg protection and many at Agincourt discarded their breeches because they were suffering from dysentery. Archers would form up behind a protective palisade of sharpened stakes driven into the ground at 45 degrees, facing the enemy.

The archer’s bow was a six foot stave of elm, ash or better still, yew. The back of the bow was flat with a rounded belly and it tapered to the “knocks” where the bowstring was fitted. The bowstring had to be kept dry and it could be taken off the bow and put under the archer’s hat in a few seconds if it started to rain. The “pull” of the bow, or its strength varied from 80 to 150lbs and archers could have physiologically overdeveloped bones and musculature, owing to the strength needed to pull the bow.

Archers trained from an early age and English kings had encouraged and compelled training throughout the land, giving a pool of well-trained archers. The French never followed the English in developing archery, mainly because the French nobility feared arming the lower orders, in case of rebellion. Personally, I would urge all stout English yeomanry to take up this noble art. You never know when it could be useful.

The range of the longbow was around 400 yards, with an effective killing zone of up to 200 yards. Effective combat usually took place at around 50 yards. Accuracy in a battle was not as important when firing at massed Men-at-arms on horseback and high-trajectory falling fire was used against massed formations of troops on horseback. An arrow storm could kill and terrify horses and the longbow’s rate of fire was ten to twelve arrows per minute. Each archer carried around four dozen arrows.

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The English archers generally used the Bodkin arrowhead against armoured targets. A bodkin point is a type of arrowhead. In its simplest form it is an uncomplicated squared metal spike, and was used extensively during the Middle Ages. The typical bodkin was a square-section arrowhead, generally up to 4.5 in long and 0.39 in thick at its widest point, tapered down behind this initial “punch” shape. Bodkin arrows complemented traditional broadhead arrows, which continued to be used, as the sharp, wide cutting surface of the broadhead caused more serious wounds and tissue damage than the bodkin. The name comes from the Old English word “bodkin” or “bodekin,” a type of sharp, pointed dagger. Arrows of the long bodkin type were used by the Vikings and continued to be used throughout the Middle Ages. The bodkin point eventually fell out of use during the 16th and 17th centuries, as armour largely ceased to be worn.

The archers were also armed with axes to prepare defensive palisades and short swords for melee fighting. A dagger was also carried for dispatching the wounded and those unworthy of ransom.

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An archer’s equipment. Note the bowl, mug and “racing spoon,” still in use today.

The French preferred to employ professional, mercenary crossbowmen rather than archers. They were mainly used in sieges, wore some armour and fought from behind a large shield when reloading. Their bascinets were hinged on the right-hand-side to enable the crossbow to be aimed. The heavy war crossbow was about three feet in length and the bow was a composite of laminated wood, bone and sinew. Crossbow quarrels or bolts were heavy, about eighteen inches long and fletched with wood or leather. About twelve quarrels were carried and they could outrange the longbow with a flatter trajectory. At short range they were devastating.

The main drawbacks were the slow rate of fire of two to three round per minute and the requirement of a mechanical “spanner” to reload the heavy crossbow. Heavier crossbowmen needed a second person to carry and set up the defensive shield and it is extremely unlikely that any opposition would sit back calmly and watch the crossbow teams get set up, without attempting to ruin their day.

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The English also used engineers and gunners during the siege of Harfluer. These men were truly professional and had a European-wide reputation in the use and transportation of the heavy siege guns. Hand gunners were starting to appear on the battlefield, although their use was still limited at the time of Agincourt. Gunners wore armour, mainly as protection from their own weapons. Many a gunner was “hoisted by his own petard” when his gun exploded and loss of fingers and eyes were common.

Part 2 will discuss Henry V’s claims in France, the organisation of the armies and the siege of Harfluer.
© Blown Periphery 2018
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