Agincourt 600: An introduction to the battle

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Battle of Agincourt (1415) Chroniques. d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century) – H. W. Koch: Illustrierte Geschichte der Kriegszüge im Mittelalter, S. 133,

The battle of Agincourt took place on St Crispin’s day, Friday 25 October 1415, between the armies of King Henry V of England and King Charles VI of France. For the 600th anniversary of the battle, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique collection of arms, armour, objets d’art, and manuscripts at the Tower of London, as well staging a family events programme and publishing a book commemorating the battle in association with Yale Books.

To introduce you to this battle and the Hundred Years War period, we’ll have to take you through some family history of Henry V.

The background

Henry V was the son of Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV of England). Edward III was Henry V’s great-grandfather;his grandfather was Edward’s third son John of Gaunt (1st Duke of Lancaster). Henry V inherited the ‘Hundred Years War’ from his great-grandfather after Edward III challenged Phillip VI’s right to the French crown.

When Charles IV, the French King, died in 1328 he left no male heir. His nearest male relative was his nephew Edward III;Charles IV’s sister Isabella was Edward’s mother.The French nobility did not want to be ruled by an English King, and there was already recognition that femailes could not succeed to the throne. Therefore they agreed that the heir would be Phillip of Valois, Charles IV’s first cousin. Despite this Edward III argued that although a woman was unable to inherit , it did not  prevent inheritance through the female line – which formed the basis of his claim.

100 years war family tree

There were many other factors that contributed to  outbreak of  the Hundred Years War: including England’s relationship with Scotland, France’s disruption of the English wool trade, and England’s complicated land ownership history of Gascony and Aquitaine (regions of South West France) – but it was his claim to the French throne that Edward III’s campaigns, and those  of his descendants, would be later justified.

The Battle

Agincourt was one of three major land battles of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), which in fact lasted 116 years. On 26 August 1346 Edward III defeated Philip VI at Crécy. On 16 July 1356 Edward’s eldest son, Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) captured Philip VI’s successor John II at the battle of Poitiers. He was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London. Yet it is hard to imagine national celebrations of these battles or a major exhibition devoted to them.

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Battle of Crécy, 1346. Copiste inconnu – Grandes Chroniques de France, British Library Cotton MS Nero E. II pt.2, f.152v
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Battle of Poitiers, 1356 (miniature from the Chronicles of Froissart).

Agincourt is a well-documented battle. 1415 was the first occasion since 1359 that an English king had invaded France in person. It was also the largest army taken to France since the battle of Crécy 69 years previously. His preparations indicated that Henry V was planning to conquer the kingdom in what would be a long campaign. Despite this, Agincourt was a swift victory; one chronicler suggesting it was over in half an hour, while others suggest that it lasted between two and three hours.

Henry V set sail for France on 11th August, landing near Le Havre on the 13th. He then laid siege to Harfleur from  17th August until the 22nd September when the town surrendered. Despite his intention to conqueror France, this would be Henry’s one and only capture of his campaign.

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A map of Henry V’s campaign route

On the morning of Friday 25th October both English and French armies met in battle at Agincourt.  In the early afternoon, fearing a renewed French attack, Henry famously ordered the French prisoners to be killed. This has generated controversy in more recent times, even to the extent of asking whether Henry V should be deemed a war criminal. Contemporaries, however, saw the battle as distinctive primarily for the high number of French casualties and prisoners, and for the exceptionally low number of English casualties.

There was no ‘standing army’ (a permanent, often professional, army composed of full-time soldiers that is not  disbanded in times of peace) in either France or England in 1415. Troops were raised on a campaign-by-campaign basis. There were many similarities between the armies in terms of their recruitment, armour and equipment, but one crucial difference: the English brought relatively few men- at- arms on campaign (soldiers who wore full plate armour in battle) but a much greater proportion of archers. The significance of archers in the battle was noted at the time. Their ‘arrowstorm’ disrupted  the French advance, thereby undermining  their numerical superiority. Henry’s deployment of his archers has been a contested area in modern historical work, alongside the sometimes heated debate on the size of the armies.

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Images of the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt diorama, made by model maker David Marshall and Perry Miniatures, which forms part of the exhibition at the Tower of London. To find out more about how the model was made, please click this link.

This takes us to the nub of historical study of the battle. Despite pioneering work in the mid nineteenth century by Sir Joseph Hunter, one of the founders of the Public Record Office, and the extensive but antiquarian narrative of the campaign in James Wylie’s Reign of Henry the Fifth (1914), there was no full- scale study of the financial records of Henry’s army until Professor Anne Curry (trustee of the Royal Armouries) published ‘The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations’. There are many documents to draw on, especially the muster lists which provide names and details of pay. Records for the French army also exist but are less extensive and await fuller analysis.

Narrative sources are numerous, as Curry’s study outlines. The most well-known English sources include the Gesta Henrici Quinti (‘Deeds of Henry V’) written by an English priest present on the campaign, plus battle narratives in two eulogistic Latin lives of Henry V written in the late 1430s, and insights into ‘popular’ views through English poems and chronicles – especially the vernacular chronicle known as the Brut. On the French side, the most influential account has been that of Enguerrand de Monstrelet, who sought to continue the earlier chronicling begun by Jean Froissart in the late fourteenth century, but there are many others – testimony to the impact of the battle on the French. Many studies of the battle have drawn on the sixteenth- century English histories of Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, which informed Shakespeare, rather than on narratives written closer to the period.

The battle’s legacy

Why should there be so much interest in commemorating this battle today? Agincourt was not a decisive battle. The French suffered heavy losses in terms of dead and captured but politically these were not significant enough to force the French to the negotiating table. Henry’s victory made his later conquest of Normandy easier, as the French were reluctant to meet him in battle again. But his final triumph in May 1420 – acceptance as heir and regent of France by the treaty of Troyes – was the result of political divisions in France rather than simply military success.

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Title page of Q1 The Chronicle History of Henry Fift (1600)

The simplest explanation for the special place of Agincourt is Shakespeare. His Henry V (1599), probably the first play performed at the Globe Theatre, provides the image of a charismatic individual and his great victory that still predominates today. Had Shakespeare’s involvement in the writing of the play Edward III (1590–94) been greater, we might have been celebrating Crécy and Poitiers too, but its language comes nowhere near the memorable and inspirational speeches of Henry V (for more on this topic please see this link). Over the centuries Shakespeare’s Henry V has come to stand for Englishness and for triumph in the face of adversity Nowhere is this more evident than in Laurence Olivier’s famous film of the play released in 1944, dedicated to the commandos and airborne troops who made D- Day possible.

Poster of Henry V. British Film Institute.
Poster of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, 1944. British Film Institute.

The dominance of Shakespeare explains why we have included the play, the Olivier film and the musical legacy in this exhibition. The Agincourt Carol, which may have been composed only weeks after the battle for Henry V’s triumphal entry to London, was used to good effect by William Walton in his film score. It was also played when the announcement was made that London had pipped Paris to the 2012 Olympic Games. A fifteenth century manuscript of the Agincourt Carol is included in our exhibition at the Tower of London.


Performance of the Agincourt Carol by the Alamire.

The frequency of conflict with France until the Entente Cordiale (peace treaty between England and France) of 1904 helped to keep Agincourt in the public gaze. It is not surprising that families, from the sixteenth century onwards, have been keen to find (or invent) ancestors who distinguished themselves at the battle, or that objects should be forged to provide a tangible link with the glorious victory.

The first serious study of the battle by Harris Nicolas in 1827 was coloured by the Napoleonic Wars. Even though it publicised important sources it also perpetuated myths, including the notion that we did not know the names of the archers in Henry V’s army. Excavations at Azincourt in 1818, initiated by Lt- Col. John Woodford – who commanded the army of observation in the region after Waterloo, clouded rather than extended knowledge of the battlefield. Current efforts to apply modern standards of battlefield archaeology are starting to advance our understanding, but as yet the location has not been confirmed.

The aim of the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt exhibition, events programme, and publication, is to set the battle in context as well as to explore the event itself. The aim is to enhance understanding of the proceedings leading up to the battle, including the military preparations made by each side, the immediate consequences of Henry V’s victory, and finally the influence that Agincourt has exerted on historical and cultural memory in the centuries following the battle. The Tower of London provides an ideal starting point since it played a crucial role in preparations for the campaign as well as its aftermath. The Royal Armouries were not formally established until 1984, but as the successor body to the Tower Armouries and, before that, the Ordnance Office, we have enjoyed a continuous presence at the Tower of London since the establishment of the privy wardrobe in the early fourteenth century. The privy wardrobe managed the supply and logistical requirements for the military campaigns of English kings from the reign of Edward III onwards. The 1415 campaign was no exception.

The Royal Armouries Agincourt exhibition will run at at the Tower of London from 23 October 2015 until 31 January 2016, please visit our website to find out about the objects on display and our half term events programme. Further posts on the content of our ‘Agincourt’ catalogue, in association with Yale University Press, can be found as they are published via this link.

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