Once More Unto the Breach

2015 is rich in significant anniversaries, and one notable example is the Battle of Agincourt, fought between England and France in 1415, 600 years ago.

Throughout the medieval period, the kings of England (who originally came from what is now France) were having to return there to defend their lands and castles from incursions by neighbouring rulers.  Kings of England even claimed sovereignty over France up until the 18th century.

One such king was Henry V (1413-1422), Henry Vwho launched an invasion in 1414, landing near the town of Harfleur.  He was able to capture the surrounding towns and move quite far inland before being intercepted by the French army near a village called Agincourt.  The stage was set for a major land battle typical of the Hundred Years War.

Henry’s army was outnumbered by about 3 to 1: Henry’s 8,500 men faced almost 22,000 French knights, footsoldiers and crossbowmen.   In particular, the French had overwhelming superiority in mounted knights.  The English, however, had a weapon of mass destruction: 7,000 skilled archers carrying longbows.

Aware of his numerical disadvantage, Henry chose the battlefield well.  It was narrow, flanked on both sides by dense woodland.  French troops were arrayed in three deep divisions, with the rearguard unable to play an active role in the fighting due to their distance from the front line.  Thousands of French crossbowmen were hardly used, as they had been deployed too far away to be effective.

As the battle started the French vanguard began to advance on foot over ploughed earth made wet by recent rain.  raining arrowsProgress in full armour was slow and left the French exposed to the a hail of arrows from the English longbowmen.  A six-foot-long English longbow could fire a metal-tipped arrow through chain mail and light armour.

Rate of fire was critical.  In battle, archers would prepare their arrows by planting them point first in the ground in front of them.  An skilled English longbowman could maintain a firing rate of up to 6 per minute.   In the case of Agincourt, imagine the effect of 7,000 archers firing 6 arrows per minute.  The sky would grow dark as 40,000 arrows screamed out of the heavens on to you, followed the next minute by another 40,000.

Advancing though heavy mud, in a crush of fellow soldiers, wearing 60 lbs of armour and with visors down to protect them against a hail of arrows, the French quickly became exhausted and barely able to stand, let alone use their weapons.

The French cavalry, denied the width in which to fight effectively, and seeing the slaughter of their comrades, fled the field before the battle was over.  Estimates of the losses on both sides vary widely, but all agree that the ratio of French deaths to English was about 9 to 1.  The French lost 4,000-6,000 with the English figure being around 450. 

The Battle of Agincourt forms the centrepiece of William Shakespeare’s play Henry the Fifth, and several speeches exemplify the glory and heroism of Henry’s expedition to France.  At the climax of the battle, Henry shouts:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start.
 The game’s afoot;
Follow your spirit: and upon this charge,
Cry — God for Harry! England and Saint George!


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