Battle of Agincourt

25 October, 1415

On the 25th day of October, 1415, an English army under the young, vigorous King Henry V, met a hugely superior French army led by Charles VI at Agincourt, in the northern French region of Normandy. Henry landed at Harfleur with 12,000 men, with the aim of enforcing his claim to the French throne. He lost men at the siege of Harfleur,  and still more to that dreaded scourge of medieval armies; dysentery. He left 1200 men to hold Harfleur, and marched on with a force now numbering around 9,000 men.

With Harfleur taken, Henry advanced towards Calais. Charles VI mustered an army as quickly as he could, and sent heralds to challenge Henry to meet him in battle. Henry initially turned back towards the coast, perhaps hoping to evade the French army. The French, for their part, desperately tried to delay the conflict, hoping for reinforcements from Picardy to arrive.

The English force still numbered about 9000 men, while the French could call on somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 troops. (These numbers are at odds with later English accounts, which played up the scale of victory by inflating the size of the French army to as many as 150,000 men). Whatever the exact numbers, it should still have been no contest, but several factors tipped the balance of the conflict surprisingly towards the English.

The English army had only 2000 men at arms, but fully 7000 archers. The French, for their part, had over 75% men at arms. The bulk of these were placed to the fore, and they pinned their hopes for victory on a heavy onslaught, hoping to crush the English with their superior force of arms .

But the constricted layout of the battlefield meant that the French had to advance through a narrow channel towards the English, rather than bring their full force to bear. More importantly, the English relied on their expertise with the deadly longbow, and it was this experience that eventually won the day. The English bowmen cut down the massed ranks of French troops and horsemen before they could get close enough to engage the outnumbered English soldiers.

However, the English archers were able to inflict massive casualties on the advancing French foot soldiers, long before the French could get close enough to engage ion hand to hand combat. When the French finally reached the English lines, they were so tightly massed that many could not raise their weapons to strike a blow, and they were quickly killed by the English soldiers. The French troops further back in the ranks could see the fate befalling their fellows, and many refused to advance.

Despite the large disparity in numbers, it was the English who won the day, decimating the French army. Over 1600 English were killed on the field, but the French lost 6000 men. The English victory greatly strengthened Henry's claim to the French throne, and paved the way for his eventual capture of Paris and marriage to Katherine of France (see Shakespeare's play, Henry V). In the short term, Henry's victory meant that he returned home as a national hero, and Agincourt cemented his own shaky claim to the English throne.

Agincourt was one of the turning points in the long, seemingly endless series of conflicts between France and England that we know today as the Hundred Years War, and the battle remains to this day one of the most famous English military victories.

Time period(s): Medieval

Tags: Agincourt   Henry V   Hundred Years War  

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