25th October 1415 is one of the great dates in English history, because it was on this day that King Henry V defeated a much larger French army at Agincourt and gave inspiration (albeit some 180 years later) to William Shakespeare to write some of his greatest speeches to put into the mouth of King Henry (“Once more unto the breach” and so on).
The Battle of Agincourt
Henry V (reigned 1413-22) laid claim to parts of what is now France, as a result of his Angevin ancestry. He saw an opportunity soon after coming to the throne, due to France being in a very weak state under the rule of King Charles VI, whose mental state was always “delicate” to put it mildly. In what might be regarded as a reversal of the Norman invasion of 1066 (which was also in support of a dubious territorial claim) Henry landed in France in August 1415 and soon captured the fortress at Harfleur (near present day Le Havre).
However, his army had been reduced to around 6,000 men due to battle casualties and disease, and Henry decided that, rather than advance further into France, his best bet would be to proceed along the French coast towards Calais, which had long been in English hands.
The French response was to send an army of between 20,000 and 30,000 men to intercept Henry’s troops. They met at Agincourt, a village (spelled Azincourt today) about halfway between Boulognes-sur-Mer and Arras.
The English defended a narrow front, only about 1,000 yards wide, between two areas of thick forest. This meant that the French could not bring their full force to bear on the English and neither could their knights mount a cavalry charge. Instead, the knights fought on foot in full armour on land that soon became a mud-bath.
The English archers and light infantry soon gained the upper hand and the battle was all over in half an hour as the French retreated, having lost many of their best fighting men and leading noblemen.
Henry’s actions after the battle were nothing like as noble as Shakespeare might lead one to believe, in that he ordered the killing of all the French prisoners taken during the battle. The massacre had to be done by members of Henry’s personal guard because the ordinary soldiers refused to obey the order.
Henry’s activities in France led to a treaty being signed (the Treaty of Troyes) by which he would inherit the French throne on the death of King Charles. However, Henry made the mistake of dying two months before Charles so his dream was never realised.
© John Welford