As part of our 600th commemoration of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique temporary collection of arms, armour, art, music and manuscripts at the Tower of London (pictured above).To accompany the exhibition, the Royal Armouries has produced a catalogue with Yale University Press, edited by our Curator of Tower History and Tower Special Collections Malcolm Mercer and trustee Professor Anne Curry. Here, one of the contributors of the publication, Matthew Bennett, writes on the battle itself and what happened on that fateful day.
The English march from Harfleur to Calais was a piece of bravado by Henry which his senior commanders advised against. It should have taken one week, but the French had blocked all the crossing of the River Somme, forcing the English to make a long detour which trebled the length of their intended journey. The French commanders’ policy was to avoid combat until the English forces were depleted, in part owing to the state of civil war in France which made coordination difficult. Certainly the English believed themselves outnumbered, and when, after crossing the Somme, they saw the churned-up tracks of what appeared to be huge army, they were highly alarmed and feared imminent attack. However, the French marched parallel on the route north for the next few days and only turned across the English advance where the road went between the villages of Azincourt and Tramecourt, in a narrow gap between two woods.
Even then battle was not inevitable. The official French commanders, Marshal Boucicault and Charles I Lord of d’Albret (pictured below), feared the English archers and had devised a plan to neutralise them, by charging them with cavalry on armoured horses. Since the archers were normally deployed as ‘wings’ on either side of the dismounted men-at-arms, these took the form of flank attacks.
Meanwhile, in imitation of the English the French nobles and knights also dismounted in an attempt to overwhelm them by numbers. Professor Anne Curry, trustee of the Royal Armouries, has pointed out that despite all the stories of being hugely outnumbered it is likely that the English had a superiority on the day, with perhaps 8,000 archers and 1,800 men-at-arms (although not all authorities agree on this) against a French force with a core of 6,000 men-at-arms and other supporting troops. The French sources talk of an equal number of arches and crossbowmen; but even if present, they were brushed aside by the nobles, confident in their 3:1 advantage in the men who mattered – the nobility. They were so enthusiastic that they crowded into the front rank keen to have the honour of capturing Henry.
As a result, no-one followed the plan: the cavalry wings were undermanned and shot down by the archers, protected by their stakes. The horsemen then bolted back into the mass of dismounted men slowly ploughing their way through the mud towards the English line. Chaos ensued, made worse by the rain of arrows which the archers delivered. It used to be thought that these killed many of the knights, but since they were well-protected this is unlikely; however, they certainly caused more disruption. By the time the French reached the English line their superiority in numbers had become a disadvantage, as the men in front were attempting to retreat and those at the back pressed them forwards.
The fighting was tough, if brief, with Henry himself threatened. So desperate was the situation that the lightly-equipped archers joined in the fray, mobbing the enemy knights who were well-armoured but bogged down. Soon the French began to surrender, expecting under the laws of ransom to be protected. Initially, they were, but two events sealed their fate. One was an attack on the English baggage camp and the other a renewed assault (or the expectation of one) by those French arriving late at the battle. Fearing that he would be overwhelmed by these new threats, Henry ordered the killing of the prisoners. Initially, the English captors refused, the knights by reason of honour the archers for fear of losing their windfall; but the king formed an execution squad, which went around stabbing the prisoners in the face, (they having removed their helmets), armpits and groin, the only vulnerable places for a fully-armoured knight at the time. This may seem like a war crime today, but at the time it was the French who were held culpable for challenging a victory already ordained by God, and Henry was not blamed for this brutal necessity.
Casualties on the French side were high: claimed as 1,500 knights and nobles and another 5-6,000 of the lesser sort (it was a very class divided society), the English just a few hundred, mostly from the Duke York’s division (who was himself killed). Henry left for Calais the next morning, which suggest that he still feared attack, even though the main French force had been so stunningly defeated.