Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.
Exactly 600 years ago today, on October 25th 1415 one of the medieval world’s most famous battles was fought. The subject of folklore, theatre, poetry and prose the clamour of the melee at Agincourt still echoes down the ages.
It was on October 25th 1415 during the Hundred Years War (which actually lasted 116 years from 1337-1453) between England and France that Henry V led his army to victory at Agincourt against the forces of the French ruler Charles VI. Fought for the pride and property of monarchs (aren’t all conflicts prosecuted for the benefit of the wealthy?) thousands of knights, yeomanry, archers and peasants joined in combat on the bloody field of Agincourt. And thousands died there. At least we think they did.
There’s just one problem with the accounts of losses at Agincourt. There aren’t any bodies – well there aren’t nearly enough to demonstrate the six and a half thousand losses in such a significant battle during a conflict that spanned the generations. Nobody doubts that the battle took place. The question is precisely where and it’s a question that really matters.
Much of what we know about medieval history comes from on-site archaeology. Our understanding of life, of custom, of costume and diet, even of population movements and affiliations is derived from the bones and artefacts that have been uncovered from historical sites. Successful excavations of contemporary battlefields such as Towton (1461) have much to tell us but we can only learn from them if we know where they are. We do know a lot though.
We know that Henry V was actually in retreat at the time. Following a successful five week siege of Harfleur half of the English King’s men were dead from disease or battle. The remaining five or six thousand were on their way back to Calais and then to England, stricken by dysentery and in no state to fight anyone when they were confronted by a French army of four times their number. The depleted homeward-bound force could go no further unless something could be done about the 20,000 Frenchmen blocking their path.
What King Henry had on his side was the English longbow and no shortage of archers skilled in its use. They devastated the French cavalry who, try as they might were unable to get past the sharpened wooden stakes protecting them. Hindered further by the muddy terrain (it was late October after all) the mounted knights found it difficult to advance in good order and were beaten back, straight into the body of French infantry who were bringing up the rear. The muddy terrain, the result of two full weeks of rain also hampered the French infantry who dressed in much heavier armour than their English enemies were close to exhaustion by the time they reached their foes in hand to hand combat. The much more lightly armoured English army had the advantage of increased mobility and speed which proved decisive in the slippery conditions.
Henry’s archers on the French flank added to the confusion and the Battlefield soon became a jumbled morass of mud, blood, horses and men. The English longbow or ‘War bow’ was capable of much more rapid discharge than the French crossbow. Whereas the English could fire off 12 arrows a minute with relative ease their French opponents were lucky to manage 3 crossbow bolts in reply. The English arrows, powered by the immensely strong War Bows bore bodkin heads which were perfectly suited for piercing the plate armour of the day.
The French were effectively trapped in a natural bottleneck by the uneven terrain where they represented easy pickings for the English force despite their vastly superior numbers. The beauty of containing the enemy in a bottleneck is that no matter how great their number, those in the centre of their ranks have no opportunity to fight and no choice but to wait passively until their turn to fight comes (following the death of their fellows in the outer ranks). This strategy of containment had allowed Spartacus’ ancient slave army to defeat a much larger Roman force centuries before and it helped Henry V destroy the greater French army too. Contemporary reports had it that many of the French suffocated or were trampled by their fellows in the centre of the crushing mass of men. Those that survived the press itself were picked off by arrows as they waited helplessly for their chance to fight.
Taking advantage of the confusion and enforced non-combatant status within the French ranks the English knights took to the field, supported by their own infantry. Even the archers eventually abandoned their bows, using swords, axes and their dreaded ‘bollock knives’ to find the joints in French armour, bringing down Knights and yeomen alike.
Henry’s was an unusual army for the period. It was made up of well paid, well fed and well-disciplined professional soldiers (most of whom were longbowmen) and who understood and respected the chain of command. This was in stark contrast with the French forces who were essentially amateurs led by noble deputies for King Charles whose authority wasn’t always expected. At least some of the French disarray seems to have resulted from indiscipline and premature charges in direct defiance of orders to the contrary.
The battle was a rout resulting in between 6 and 8,000 French losses to a mere 400 on the English side. Not only that it signalled the beginning of the end for the French King, Charles and by 1420 Henry was recognised as Regent of France and heir to the French throne itself. Such was the power of the English longbow and the strength and skill of the dedicated men who trained almost from infancy to know how to use it and to develop the immense upper body strength necessary to do so.
And yet – for all the tales of glory that surround the battle of Agincourt the fact remains that this was carnage on a massive scale. As ever, ordinary men lost their lives in a conflict fought for the greed and pride of the super-privileged. The resulting ‘victory’ changed little about the everyday lives of ordinary people beyond which murderous monarch they paid their subsequent taxes too.
The result for the common man was always guaranteed no matter which King came out on top – they continued to be exploited by the monarch and they continued to be bullied into perpetual submission by a parasitic nobility.
When will humanity learn?