The Battle of Agincourt


The orca-class Cosfor vessel the Agincourt is named after the famous medieval battle.

The battle of Agincourt was fought on 25 October 1415, just outside the village of the same name (now Azincourt), between the armies of the French and the English. The English army was led by Henry V. The French King, Charles VI was, through ill health, unable to command his army. In the further absence of several other French nobles the actual leadership of the army may be debated but two of the most senior figures present were Charles d'Albert, the constable of France and Marshal Boucicaut.


Agincourt was one of the battles of the Hundred Years War. Central to this conflict was the claim of the Kings of England, asserted by Edward III in 1337, to the Crown of France.

Despite the name, the Hundred Years War featured long intervals without conflict, notably in the reigns of Richard II of England and Henry IV of England (the father of Henry V). However, hostilities were renewed in the reign of Henry V. Attempts at a political and diplomatic solution had failed and on 11 August 1415 the English fleet sailed from Southampton for France. Henry's first target was the port of Harfleur.

The seige of Harfleur was protracted and capturing the town proved more difficult than Henry had anticipated. The loss of troops in his army was compounded by the dysentery which afflicted the soldiers as they were camped in the marshy lands around the town.

Although the English prevailed the taking of Harfleur did not occur until 22 September. With Winter approaching and the dauphin of France having declined Henry's proposal of trial by battle to resolve the dispute, the English were faced with a decision as to how to continue their campaign in the absence of any clear strategy beyond consolidating their position in Harfleur, returning to England and resuming the campaign in the Spring.

Henry's council of advisors favoured the cautious approach of consolidation, sailing for Calais and avoiding battle in a foreign country in Winter. However, Henry decided to embark on a chevauchee (a form of march) through France to Calais, as a show of strength.

Central to Henry's plans was to cross the river Somme at the ford at Blance Taque, as his great-grandfather, Edward III, had once previously. However, the French were alert to the possibility and had destroyed the ford, forcing Henry to march inland to attempt to locate an alternative crossing.

With their supplies exhausted the English were compelled to scavenge food from the countryside. The season, coupled with the endeavours of the French to strip the land of resources which might resupply the English, left meagre food. With many of the English soldiers riven by dysentery, the health of the English soldiers was poor. Their morale was no better for it was apparent to the English that a French army, much larger than what remained of the English, lay between them and Calais, assuming that the English could ford the Somme.

The geography of the Somme allowed the English to reach the ford of Bethencourt before the French army, in sufficient time to repair the causeway and cross before they could be intercepted by the French.

Having negotiated the Somme, the English were now faced with the spectre of meeting the French army in battle. On 24 October, the routes marched by the armies brought them to the crisis point and battle was inevitable in the morning.

The Battle

Agincourt is distinguished as a military victory by the odds which were overcome by the English to achieve it.

In numerical terms the English were greatly outnumbered. The sizes of the two armies are disputed but the ratio of approximately five to one in favour of the French, as cited in Shakespeare's Henry V ('That's five to one. Besides, they're all fresh') is generally accepted. In absolute terms, the English army was around 5000-6000 and the French perhaps 35000 men.

The challenge facing Henry's army was not merely numerical. The English soldiers wer in poor physical health, racked by starvation and dysentery and their morale was low. Most were ordinary men who would fetch no ransom and could expect not to see another day if they were defeated. By contrast the French were in good health and excellent spirits, anticipating a victory in the morning and the capture of the English King.

Anticipating a cavalry charge, Henry had previously ordered his archers, who constituted the bulk of his arm, to equip themselves with a stake six feet in length. On the morning of the battle, the archers drove these stakes into the ground and waited across the battlefield from the huge French army.

Neither side advanced. The French could afford to bide their time and the English lacked the numbers to make the first move. However, as hours passed, the morale of the English dropped even further and Henry had to act. He ordered the archers to pull out the stakes and for the army to advance.

Woods were present on either side of the battlefield and Henry ordered his soldiers to halt between them, thus guarding the flanks from a cavalry charge. The stakes were hammered in again.

Crucically, the English army was now within longbow range of the French army. The longbow was a formidable weapon which, in expert hands, could fire an arrow five hundred metres and pierce armour at over one hundred metres.

As well as using the tactical opportunities provided by the woods, Henry had also had the field of battle scouted during the night and had established that the heavy rains had made it soft and heavy underfoot.

Being within range of the English archers, the French now had no choice but to charge. Mounted knights and men-at-arms on foot charged across the boggy ground and into a hail of arrows from the English archers. An experienced archer could fire ten arrows per minute and with approximately five thousand archers still in the English army that equated to around fifty thousand arrows per minute falling on the charging French.

Arrows struck horses and maddened the animals, causing disarray in the charge yet it continue to bear down on the English line of men-at-arms. Somehow, when the soldiers first clashed, the small number of English troops was able to hold without falling back. This resilience was crucial because it caused the latter ranks of the French charge to push up against their own frontline and those behind them, in their eagerness to join the battle, to press up behind them in turn, compressing the French army and limiting their room to move.

Situated on the flanks of the army, the English archers were now able to pour arrow fire into the flanks of the French army. Amid the crush, French soldiers fell over in the mud and were either crushed to death or drowned in the mire. Those at the front were unable to manoeuvre due to the pressure at their backs and were cut down by the English men-at-arms.

Their supplies of arrows beginning to become exhausted, the archers entered the hand-to-hand battle. Although unarmoured they were still more than able to wield swords and knives against the disorganised French troops.

By the end of the slaughter, the French army was decimated and the English casualties were miracuously low.

During the battle, Henry had eschewed the strategy of having soldiers dressed as decoys. Instead, he wore prominent armour marking him alone as the king, perhaps to draw the French army onto him and further exacerbate the risk of compression of the French lines.

Having won a remarkable victory, the English were at liberty to proceed to Calais and thence England, although it has been suggested that just possibly Paris itself lay at Henry's mercy for its defenders were cut down on the field of Agincourt.

The return of Henry's army to London was met with scences of celebration and triumph yet Henry himself was noted to have a sombre demeanour as he was welcomed into the city.