*painting by Enguerrand de Monstrelet
Matthew Beyer has begun a “Moments In History” series to raise awareness of important historical events. Each post will also have book recommendations about the moment in history, using our extensive history collection in the library.
October 25th, 1415
The Battle of Agincourt
The conflict that would come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War had been raging for seventy-eight years up to this fateful day in late October. It began as a dynastic dispute of who would inherit the kingdom of France when its king Charles IV died leaving no male heirs. While the last three French kings had six daughters, the French nobility ruled out allowing women to inherit their husband’s title and lands. The King of England, Edward III, was the son of Isabella of France and grandson of the former French King Philip IV. The French aristocracy did not want an English monarch to sit on the throne of France, so they chose a distant cousin further down the line and elected Philip VI as King. Things were for the moment settled; however, there were still proxy wars and the seizure of English-held Duchy of Aquitaine in 1337.
Fast forward nearly eight decades later and the war began to reach its fever pitch, with the only pauses due to the horrific nature of the Black Death having ravaged France and England in the middle of this struggle. A new, vibrant English King Henry V had invaded France with the hopes of either wining the crown or restoring previously held Aquitaine. After landing in France and taking the port town of Harfleur, the English army found itself racked by sickness during the siege (predominately dysentery). Losing several thousand men prompted Henry to attempt to return to the English held port of Calais; however, the French had gotten ahead of him, cutting off his escape path to the channel.
On October 24th both armies made preparations for battle. For the English, the situation was grim weeks of marching nearly 300 miles. Disease had taken its toll on the army, leaving barely 8,000 men to fight. The overwhelming majority of the men left were English longbow men with a small contingent of dismounted knights and men-at-arms and no cavalry. Arrayed against them was the flower of French Nobility: anywhere from 15-20 thousand men many of whom were knights on horseback. The French were confident that they would simply ride down and smash the English in one thunderous charge. The site of the battle was chosen by King Henry, as it provided a narrow gap of pastureland surrounded by thick forest and marshes that would prevent the French from bringing their full numbers to bear and outflank the smaller English force. The English pounded large sharp wooden stakes in front of their archers to act as a hedgehog of spears to counter the French heavy cavalry.
This next moment would become immortalized a century later by William Shakespeare in his play Henry V. The English King gave an arousing speech and sought to inspire his men, raising their morale for the daunting task that awaited them:
From this day to the ending of the world,
we in it shall be remembered
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.
The French nobles, confident of victory and fearing the battle would be over before they got a chance to claim their share of spoils, foolishly began a general advance and charged at the front of their men across the muddy fields. The English then began to shower thousands of arrows down upon the advancing French cavalry. The hail of arrows pierced the horses and any gap or opening in the knights’ armor. Those few French knights that made it to the English line ran straight into the prepared stakes and spikes as well as waiting English Infantry armed with pikes and polearms, all the while longbow men shot arrows at near point-blank range. Nevertheless, the French infantry, unaware of their comrades’ plight, advanced headlong down the field attempting to break the English line. They were hampered by the sodden ground already torn up by the rush of the French cavalry, which slowed their charge to a trot. Hemmed in by the narrow muddy terrain and unable to retreat or properly advance under the constant rain of arrows. The French found themselves stuck among their wounded countrymen and the corpses of the dead and dying horses. After close to three hours of intense and brutal combat in which Henry V was nearly killed in the fighting, the French army collapsed and fell back towards their camp.
The English were seemingly victorious; still, it looked as though the French were regrouping for another assault. As a result of this, the English had a terrible decision to make. They had taken thousands of French knights and men-at-arms prisoner in the hours of fighting. The code of chivalry demanded that men of aristocratic birth be awarded the privilege of ransom back to their families. Henry soon discovered that the number of prisoners taken nearly exceeded his own men. In a panic Henry made the decision to execute all but the most valuable prisoners, an act that would taint and haunt his reign for all his days to come. At the end of the day, close to 8,000 French lay dead or were subsequently executed for the cost of a few hundred Englishmen. This proved to be one of the most disproportionate victories in all medieval warfare. As much as 40% of the French Nobility were killed off in a single battle. Many agree this was the turning point in which the age of chivalry began to die.
If this topic interests you, and you would like to learn more on this fascinating event in history, the Union University Library is happy to provide you with the resources to do just that with links down below: