1415: French prisoners at the Battle of Agincourt

This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home,
Will stand o’ tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

Henry V, Act 4, Scene 3

In the world of Henry V, the Battle of Agincourt is a source of bursting pride for the English, a wellspring of superiority over the French and proof of the soul of those from the Isle. In spite of the inspiring speeches, the battle has passed into history as one of the enduring examples of a well-positioned army besting a much larger force.

Were it not for the story of the triumphant underdog, Agincourt would have fallen into international obscurity with much of the Hundred Years’ War, a simmering conflict for the French throne that spanned from 1337 to 1453. The notoriety of the Hundred Years’ War comes not from its intensity but from its longevity and breadth: an international conflict that swept up hundreds of wealthy European houses, it featured the first significant post-Roman standing armies, organized cavalry, and formative nationalism in both France and England.

The interminable war centered around the English crown’s claim to succession of the French throne — a claim events had overtaken by the end of the conflict in 1453 — and had already been going off and on for nearly eighty years as we lay our scene in 1415, with King Henry V of England initiating what would be known as the Lancastrian War.

Henry’s English and Welsh forces battered the French port of Harfleur starting in August 1415, which was the first holding to fall to the invading army. Almost immediately after taking control in late September of that year, the English king made a curious decision to march across Northern France from Harfleur to Calais, approximately 100 miles away.

As he tromped northeast, French troops shadowed his movements, and Henry made several attempts to shake them. After passing through Frévent, Henry turned his men north. He crossed the last major tributary of the Canche River south of Maisoncelle, hopeful that the exhausting trip was nearly through. His scouts, however, had hairy news for their king: the French force had cut the corner and was amassing north of their position. The way was blocked.

Archer? I Hardly Knew Her!

Agincourt (now spelled Azincourt) lay across a ploughed field from Tramecourt, making for a narrow defile not suited to maximizing the French force’s advantage in numbers and heavy cavalry.

Nevertheless, that advantage was considerable, or at least has conventionally been thought so, and it was in the face of desperately dwindling supplies that Henry was forced to initiate battle. The opposing French forces, ostensibly commanded by Constable Charles d’Albret, Comte de Dreux, and Marshal Boucicaut, Jean Le Maingre, allegedly outnumbered the British by at least 2 to 1 (estimates range as high as 6 to 1*).

The English drew up longbowmen in a wedge along the woods adjacent the field (map), and it was these positions that provided the decisive turn.

When the Gallic banners advanced, the English archers moved into firing range and dug in palings they had hastily manufactured from the local forest; this made a direct assault problematic while the woods prevented a flanking maneuver. French cavalry attempted to dislodge them with a concerted assault, but the defensive postures held, and the cavalry was turned away. All the while, the hail of arrows mowed down the flower of French chivalry, whose lines crumbled in panic and disorder.

As one contemporaneous account states**:

Before, however, the general attack commenced, numbers of the French were slain and severely wounded by the English bowmen. At length the English gained on them so much, and were so close, that excepting the front line, and such as had shortened their lances, the enemy could not raise their hands against them. The division under sir Clugnet de Brabant, of eight hundred men-at-arms, who were intended to break through the English archers, were reduced to seven score, who vainly attempted it. True it is, that sir William de Saveuses, who had been also ordered on this service, quitted his troop, thinking they would follow him, to attack the English, but he was shot dead from off his horse. The others had their horses so severely handled by the archers, that, smarting from pain, they galloped on the van division and threw it into the utmost confusion, breaking the line in many places. The horses were become unmanageable, so that horses and riders were tumbling on the ground, and the whole army was thrown into disorder, and forced back on some lands that had been just sown with corn. Others, from fear of death, fled; and this caused so universal a panic in the army that great part followed the example.

A confused chain of command in the French camp (the English, of course, were personally commanded by their sovereign) facilitated the rout.

Despite their military status, d’Albret and Boucicaut were outranked by several of the nobles heading the lines behind them, said nobles being prone to glory-seeking freelance charges as chivalrous as they were tactically unavailing. The Constable led the front line, followed by the Duke of Bar and the Duke of d’Alençon.

After the disastrous first charge, what remained of the second line moved in to join the fray. The French peasantry was massacred during the fight, and Constable d’Albret and the Duke of d’Alençon, along with the Duke of Orleans and Duke of Barant, along with several other nobles, fell during the assault, further disorganizing the French. (The highest-ranking English casualty was the Duke of York.)

With thousands of French dead, the third line, headed by the Count of Merle and Count of Falconberg, fell away before they entered the battle. While England’s longbows dominated the field, France’s bowmen never even participated in the battle, squeezed to the back by too many bluebloods demanding the right to charge.

Only 100-200 English are thought to have died this day; the death toll for the French was in the thousands, with hundreds more taken prisoner.


Uh-oh.

It is a portion of this lot summarily executed during the battle who offer this blog an excuse to survey the battlefield.

After a successful raid on the English supply van — the signal French achievement in the battle, and one that briefly threatened to knock out the monarch himself and turn the tide — Henry got worried that his oversized contingent of French prisoners was liable to get loose and wreak havoc in his rear. He issued the expedient but decidedly unseemly order to put his captives to death.†

Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of this documentary, which among other things unpacks the longbow’s actual role in the victory, given that English arrows could not penetrate French knights’ plate armor.

The Battle of Agincourt has inspired innumerable interpreters, from Shakespeare to Star Trek.

Shakespeare’s classic Henry V is frequently staged, and has hit the silver screen multiply — here’s Laurence Olivier’s version of the stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech followed by the start of battle from the 1944 production addressed to the martial fervor of World War II.

There are plans to adapt Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt to film as well.

In the nonfiction world, Lt. Col Alfred Burne’s The Agincourt War focuses on the military side of the battle while Juliet Barker’s Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle and Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England.

The year after Agincourt, Henry V claimed all of Normandy, and in subsequent years forced the French to sign the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which established the line of succession for Henry’s heirs to unify the crowns of the adversaries. Henry’s grand plan was foiled by his untimely death just two months after the death of King Charles VI of France, which left Henry VI — then less than a year old — as the heir to both English and French thrones.

The Dauphin Charles of France, officially disinherited by Troyes but still widely supported in France, swooped in to claim power in France, but internal dissent made his rule difficult; 30 years later (and after the intervention of Joan of Arc), Charles finally expelled the English from Aquitaine, and brought all France together not under the House of Lancaster but under the House of Valois.

* Accounts are sketchy in this regard. Some modern analysis puts the values at 4:3 for the French. However, contemporaneous accounts suggest a much heavier French advantage. Of course, people are notoriously bad at crowd estimation.

** Translation by Thomas Johnes.

† Shakespeare covers this notorious massacre as well, in Act 4, Scene 6 (the next scene opens with Englishmen horrified at the order, but the matter drops as they realize they’ve won the battle)

Alarum
But, hark! what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scatter’d men:
Then every soldier kill his prisoners:
Give the word through.

Part of the Daily Double: Agincourt.

4 thoughts on “1415: French prisoners at the Battle of Agincourt”

  1. john keegans The Face of Battle has a close look at the battle, particularly on killing of prisoners. excellent work, also looks at waterloo and a ww1 battle.

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