SIR JOHN PHELIP DIED TODAY, aged thirty-one. He was one of the household knights, the head of a company of thirty men-at-arms and ninety archers, and a trusted advisor – one of the men who had spied on Harfleur at the start of the year. When he travelled through the port then, little can he have imagined what a heap of rubble it would become, or that he would die there. His death is another reminder of the personal losses Henry was suffering. Phelip had been a witness of the king’s last will in July. His wife was Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, whom Henry would have remembered from the poet’s twilight years at the court of Richard II. In tribute to his friend, Henry ordered Sir John’s body to be boiled, and his bones sent back to England.1
In Paris, orders were issued to repair the walls and defences of the city. Not against the English but against John the Fearless, as the enthusiasm for his return was inflaming the people to riot.2 The very idea that John might return to the capital and seize control prevented the king and the dauphin from moving down the Seine, and taking control of the army, for their worries were focussed as much on the city as on the English. Parisian officers who showed Burgundian sympathies were replaced with Armagnac men. No city troops were to leave – not even to fight the English. They were required to defend Paris against the Burgundians. In effect, the French were fighting a two-front war within their own borders: a civil war and an invasion.
The civil war was not confined to France. In Constance John the Fearless’s principal representative, Martin Porée, bishop of Arras, was defending his lord’s reputation with every weapon at his disposal. Silver, wine and jewels had already been issued by the various ambassadors as bribes. Threats and violence had aided the duke’s cause. Bishop Porée had already forced the original condemnation of Jean Petit’s Justification to be reconsidered, and the duke himself had sought the reinvestigation of its supposed heresy by the University of Paris. Now it was Porée’s intellect that forced the council to cower at the duke’s name. For Porée was not just defending Jean Petit; he was attacking possible heresies in the works of the great man Gerson himself. The most influential theological thinker of the council was coming under attack.3 From this point forward Porée would prove himself to be a great advocate for his master, defending Jean Petit so ruthlessly that the nine charges originally laid against him by Gerson at the University of Paris, and repeated at Constance in June, were all called into question. Eventually, on 15 January 1416, the condemnation of Jean Petit by the bishop of Paris was annulled.4 In defiance of the king of France, the council only condemned tyrannicide in general terms: they refused to condemn the murder of the duke of Orléans and they passed no resolution directly condemning Jean Petit for writing his Justification of the duke of Burgundy.
The eight days Henry had told the dauphin he would wait at Harfleur were now up. It was time to act.
Of the 11,248 or more fighting men with whom Henry had landed on 14 August, he had approximately 9,600 left.5 Thus he did not have a great deal of flexibility as to how many men he should assign to the defence of Harfleur. He knew from his experiences in Wales that small garrisons proved costly in the long term, and so he had to leave enough men to make the town defensible; on the other hand he could not leave so many as to render the rest of his army weak.
He decided to leave 1,200 men, in his usual proportion of three archers to every man-at-arms. Thus nine hundred archers and three hundred men-at-arms (including about thirty knights) prepared to remain at Harfleur to defend it, along with the majority of the carpenters and masons. In charge of these, under the overall command of Thomas Beaufort, were a number of captains, including Lord Botreaux, Lord Clinton, Sir John Fastolf and Sir Edward Hastings.6 Everyone else would march to Calais. This would involve between ten and eleven thousand men: 1,500–1,600 men-at-arms, a similar number of pages, 6,600–7,000 archers, and a few dozen chaplains, clerks, surgeons and royal servants, plus any of the reinforcements who had arrived since 15 August.7 They would start to set out from the following Monday or Tuesday.
A storm was brewing in the Harfleur area. Although most of the English ships had by now departed, and the hired vessels had long since returned to Holland, there were still a number in the waters at the mouth of the Seine. Some were being loaded with cannon to return to England; others were shipping the last of the dysentery victims back home.8 Others were arriving, bringing grain and reinforcements. Perhaps some vessels owned by the fishermen of Dover and the Cinque Ports remained. All were now in danger, unable to take shelter in the ruined harbour at Harfleur. A number of them were dashed to pieces before the end of the day. As the chronicle of Ruisseauville has it, ‘the navy of England was partly or completely lost at sea by the exceptionally heavy rain that had fallen as a result of a storm’. Nor did all of the ships that survived the tempest make it back to their home ports: some were captured over the subsequent days by Breton pirates, laying in wait for the stragglers.9
At Westminster the duke of Bedford was doing his best to make good the shortfall in the numbers of troops in his brother’s army. He wrote to the sheriffs of London ordering them to proclaim to all the knights, men-at-arms and archers who wished to go to Normandy that they should present themselves to Chancellor Beaufort to claim their wages in advance.10 How many did so is not known. But none of those who did set out could have joined Henry’s army. Even if they had sailed immediately, they would not have arrived at Harfleur in time. The ten thousand men preparing to set out with Henry on the march could expect no further help.
The duke of Bedford’s efforts to help his brother did not just stop at trying to provide more men. Today he commissioned one John Fisher of Henley to provide corn for the sustenance of the king’s army in Normandy, and charged him with transporting it to Harfleur for the next six months.11 It might have helped sustain the garrison but not the army itself.
At Boulogne a messenger arrived from Abbeville, with news that Henry had placed a garrison at Harfleur and was now marching to Calais.12 Although it is certainly possible that the first troops began to leave Harfleur today – some exchequer accounts specifically state that they did – there is no way this information could have reached Boulogne the same day.13 It seems that it was circulated by the French, following William Bruges and Raoul de Gaucourt’s delivery of the challenge to the dauphin. Henry’s decision to announce his destination was likely to lead to more dangers than simply having a French army following on his tail.
Henry had despatched the experienced earl of Warwick to Calais by ship, to defend the town and to receive the prisoners whom he expected to arrive at Martinmas. Warwick had not yet arrived, however. In the meantime the town was under the command of Sir William Bardolph, who had been appointed as successor to Sir William Lisle. Thus it was Bardolph who wrote today in response to a request for news from the duke of Bedford.
To the most high and mighty prince and my most honourable and gracious lord … thanking you most humbly and often, as far as I am able, on my own behalf as well as that of all my companions in these Marches, that your noble lordship is pleased to have so dearly and so tenderly taken to heart the wellbeing, ease and prosperity of all of us and of the said Marches, as written not long ago in your honourable and most gracious letters.
Having sent to these parts the sheriff of Kent, the lieutenant of Dover Castle and the victualler of that town, your commissioners … to find out how things were and in what state, I have signified and reported to them the truth of this matter orally and to your lordship … in writing and otherwise.
Hearing from these esquires, it is well understood that it is your will that we make the hardest war that we can against the French, enemies of our most feared noble lord, in order to prevent those on the frontier crossing or advancing near to where he is now in person …
As for news of this area, may it please your lordship to know that several good friends who have come to this town and the Marches both from the areas of France and of Flanders, have told and reported to me clearly, without doubt, that our lord the king will do battle with his adversaries within fifteen days next coming at the very latest. And that also, along with the others, the duke of Lorraine will assemble very soon, according to what they say, with fifty thousand men; and that once they are all assembled they will be no less than one hundred thousand, or indeed, even more. Also they say for certain that a noble knight accompanied by five hundred lances has been ordered to wait on the frontier under the governance of the seigneur de la Biefville in defence of the Marches on the part of the enemy …14
Obviously the lieutenant of Calais had no idea how long it would actually be before Henry could do battle with the French. Calais is 144 miles from Harfleur, and the very fastest messengers would have taken at least three days to cover the distance. So if Bardolph’s knowledge about the battle plan had come from Henry it must have been sent before the 4th. This is not impossible for, although this letter states that the news about the planned battle came ‘from the areas of France and of Flanders’, Henry may have sent a message to Calais for three hundred men-at-arms to ride south to secure the ford over the Somme at Blanchetaque.15 Alternatively, Bardolph’s information could have been obtained from spies coming from Boulogne the previous day, or from Abbeville. It was probably from Flanders that he had heard about the duke of Lorraine’s mobilisation. News about this had most likely been fed back to Calais by Henry’s ambassador to John the Fearless, Philip Morgan, for the duke of Lorraine was a close ally of John the Fearless. Information from Morgan had certainly been carried back in recent days through Calais to England.16 His news that the duke of Lorraine was preparing to join the French king cannot have cheered the English.
At Vernon, the aged King Charles finally met up with his son, the dauphin. They had with them the Oriflamme. Troops were gathering downstream at Rouen. They would stay at Vernon for two more days and then set out, arriving in Rouen in five days’ time.17
Tuesday 8th: the Feast of St Denis,
Patron Saint of France
Upon landing, the English army had been divided into three battles. One had been led by the duke of Clarence, one by the duke of York, and one by Henry himself. These battles now served as the arrangement in which the army would march to Calais. One battle, the vanguard, would take the lead. The main battle would be in the centre; and the third battle would take up the rearguard.
The commanders of two of these battles are known. Henry himself led one, the main battle; and another was led by the duke of York. Henry had probably meant Clarence to lead the third, but his departure from Harfleur prevented it. It is not clear who took his place. Precedence would have pointed to the only remaining duke without a command: Humphrey, duke of Gloucester; but he was only twenty-one and inexperienced in war, so precedence was set aside. Humphrey was placed in the main battle, with the king. There were still four earls with the army – Huntingdon, Oxford, Salisbury and Suffolk – but the new earl of Suffolk was even younger and less experienced than Gloucester, and the earl of Huntingdon was with the king. Salisbury’s role is unknown.
The inconsistent and partial chroniclers’ accounts place the duke of York in charge of both the vanguard and the rearguard. One possible explanation is that York was in charge of the notional ‘rearguard’ while the army was at Harfleur; and that after Clarence’s departure he assumed control of the vanguard on the march itself. He was certainly in charge of the vanguard during the latter part of the march, supported by Sir John Cornwaille and Sir Gilbert Umphraville – two leaders from the ‘crack squadron’ that had led the initial reconnaissance after landing and led the assault on thePorte Leure on 16 September. York was also appointed constable and marshal of the army, because the previous constable, Thomas Beaufort, was going to stay at Harfleur.18 Command of the rearguard on the march was probably entrusted either to Sir Thomas, Lord Camoys (who commanded it at the battle), or to the earl of Oxford (who was later made a Knight of the Garter for his deeds on the campaign).19
The vanguard may have set off the previous day, or even as early as the 6th. Be this as it may, the main battle marched this morning, according to the author of the Gesta, who was with the king.20 Before setting out, Henry declared that the army could expect to march for eight days and they should take sufficient supplies (mainly dried beef and walnuts).21 As it was 144 miles to Calais, and most able-bodied men could easily ride or walk twenty miles a day, this was quite reasonable. In fact, it left the best part of a whole day in reserve. What he seems not to have told them was that the spare day was set aside to fight a pitched battle.
By dusk the English had suffered their first casualties. Although Henry ordered his men to skirt around the fortified towns and castles they came to, and kept his lines half a mile away from Montivilliers, there was a skirmish as they passed the town. Six men were taken prisoner by the town garrison and one was killed.22 It was a taste of the difficulties to come.
In line with Henry’s orders, the English army camped in the open. Not only did this enable him to keep control, it also allowed the captains to patrol the moral behaviour of the men, keeping them away from the temptations of theft and women. The military ordinances (first proclaimed on or about 17 August) were read for a second time before the army set out. The Gesta specifically mentions the repetition of instructions not to burn or lay waste, or to take anything except food and necessities for the march, or to capture any Frenchmen (other than those offering armed resistance). In addition it is evident that Henry sought to minimise the effect on the local population by enforcing the ordinance stipulating that no one should ride ahead of the army except messengers and herbergers (men seeking food and places to stay). There was a practical reason for this. Henry proposed to use his power to destroy French property as a bargaining position when he came to the towns and castles that lay between him and Calais. If his men were disciplined, he could offer not to burn the towns and villages in return for safe passage.
The bulk of the army travelled via Fauville. But those companies on the flanks of the army were travelling at a distance of several miles – presumably foraging for supplies. One of these attacked the partially deserted town of Fécamp, which had been the subject of a naval attack in July.23 The seigneur de Rambures had gathered many men in the abbey, having burnt the suburbs in anticipation of a fight. According to French sources, it was de Rambures’s men who took advantage of the townswomen there, who had crowded to the abbey for protection. One English man-at-arms, William Bramshulf, and two valets, Edward Legh and John Rede, were captured before the troops were steered away towards Dieppe.24
At Arundel Castle, Henry’s great friend Thomas Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, the treasurer of England, felt that he was drawing near the end of his life. He had been carried aboard ship at Harfleur on 28 September and had arrived back in Sussex a few days afterwards. Since landing he had been tenderly nursed by Elizabeth Ryman, the wife of one of his retainers.25 But although she was a good nurse, and although the earl had not been one of those who had felt the need to make a will before setting out, the time had now come for him to put his affairs in order.
Thomas asked to be buried in the choir of the collegiate church of the Holy Trinity in Arundel Castle, where he wanted a new tomb chest and effigy made for him. He also willed that a suitable monument be erected over the grave of his late father, Richard Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, who had been judicially murdered by Richard II. He allowed 200 marks for his funeral expenses, and made the following specific bequest:
in regard to a vow made by me to St John of Bridlington, when I was there with my lord the king (when he was prince of Wales), namely that I would once every year in person offer to that saint, or send the sum of 5 marks during my life, I will that my executors forthwith pay all the arrears thereof, beside the cost of the messenger sent for that purpose.26
His other last requests included that a chapel be built in the Mary Gate at Arundel, dedicated to the Virgin; and that ‘all those soldiers who were with me at Harfleur in France be paid all the arrears of their wages’.
At Oudenaarde, the nineteen-year-old Philip, count of Charolais, the son and heir of John the Fearless, wrote to officials at Lille:
Dearest and well-beloved, my father has recently informed me of his departure with all his power to advance against the English in the service of the king … and he wishes to have with him everyone in his lands who is accustomed to bear arms, including us ourselves, in person, and the knights and esquires of Flanders and Artois.27
At the same time the French royal council were reading letters from John the Fearless stating that, regardless of the dauphin’s request that he stay away from the royal army, he was planning to serve in person. The council decided by a majority vote to approve of his action. This cannot have been easy, for there was no saying what he would do when he had an army behind him. Letters of peace between John the Fearless and Henry V, negotiated by Philip Morgan and sealed with the duke’s own seal, arrived at Westminster this very day.28 The duke was playing off one side against the other – promising the French he would ride to help them against the English, and promising the English he would not impede their progress.
The English army converged on Arques, a small town and a castle four miles from Dieppe. Before the town was a river, the Béthune, crossed by narrow bridges. Henry ordered his men to draw up in their three battles, as if preparing to attack. The townsmen opened fire with their cannon, holding the English at bay.
Henry halted the advance. He ordered his heralds to remove their cote-armour, to address the townsmen in a friendly manner, and to present themselves at the main gate.29 He knew he was in a strong position, with ten thousand men behind him, so he proposed a deal. If the men of Arques would let the English pass through the town, and if the townsmen would provide them with a fixed quantity of bread and wine, then he would not harm the town or any of its suburbs, nor allow his men to burn the vicinity. The townspeople agreed. According to the Gesta, they gave up hostages to guarantee the safety of the English as they passed through the town.30
The tension must have been great when the English walked into Arques. As they did so, they saw the trunks of large trees that had been felled and dragged to the town in a rudimentary attempt to defend the gates. One imagines the frightened people of the town peeping out of their windows with their shutters ajar as the enemy troops passed, almost holding their breath as they watched them, hoping that the fragile agreement would hold.
It did hold. And when the English soldiers had passed through, they did not turn towards Dieppe, as Jean Bordiu had stated they would in his letter of 3 September. Nor did they turn towards Rouen, where he had said they would head next. In line with Henry’s original plan, and his clearly expressed desire to get to Calais within eight days, they kept on going – riding and marching north.
The king and dauphin could now join the troops gathering at Rouen and start to chase Henry out of the kingdom. They knew exactly which road he was taking – they too had history books to inform them. Messengers rode hard for Boulogne to inform them that Henry was following the path of his great-grandfather Edward III. The English were heading for the ford across the Somme, at Blanchetaque.31
And so were the French.
Arques had been a small town, only too ready to let the English pass by peacefully. Eu was a different matter. It was well defended by high walls and steep slopes, standing above the River Bresle, with a population of about a thousand.
Henry must have arrived in the evening.32 There were bodies on the ground before the walls. He heard that, as his outriders and scouts had approached, bearing the standards of the English, the garrison of Eu had made a sortie on horseback and ‘attacked them with much noise and aggression. There was loud battle on both sides but the French did not restrain the Englishmen for long, and being forced back to the gates, they defended themselves with arrows and missiles’.33 Both sides suffered fatalities. One of the French dead was Lancelot Pierre, ‘a valiant and much renowned man of war’ and a companion of the count of Eu. An Englishman had driven his lance through the plates of armour protecting Pierre’s stomach – but Pierre’s own lance had similarly gone right through his assailant’s body, killing him too.34 But individual acts of valour like these – although they impressed the chroniclers – could not hold up the approach of the English vanguard. Before long the French had withdrawn to defend the town.
Although the temptation to storm the town must have been great after the hostile reception, Henry decided to follow the same course of action as at Arques. He sent heralds to the gates to offer the inhabitants peace in return for food and drink. If they would supply bread and wine, and send hostages for the safe conduct of the garrison, Henry would not burn the town and the villages nearby. If on the other hand they refused, he would destroy everything.
While the men of Eu were considering this offer, the English made camp at a little distance. It was not an easy night. By this stage they had heard that a great army had gathered ahead, at Blanchetaque, the very crossing point to which Henry was heading. Frenchmen who had been taken captive were saying that there would be a battle the following day, or on Monday. The author of the Gesta was unsure what to think. Some of those with him thought that the French would be unlikely to come up from the interior of the country so quickly. After all, the French could not be sure that the duke of Burgundy would not attack Paris, or even join Henry. On the other hand, there were those who pointed out that the noble kingdom of France could not be expected to withstand the indignity and dishonour of an English army marching through Normandy and into Ponthieu. They were bound to attack.
What Henry himself thought is not known. He was probably placing his hopes in getting to Blanchetaque before the French. He knew the dauphin and the royal dukes were still a long way behind him. If he had to face an army, it would be composed of men gathering with Boucicaut and Charles d’Albret, the marshal and constable of France, on the north side of the river, and not the full array of the royal dukes.
As the sun went down over Eu, everything still seemed to be on course for a relatively safe passage for the English through to Calais. The chances of this were further enhanced when the men of Eu agreed to offer hostages and sustenance to the army.
It was eighteen miles to Blanchetaque. The English would get there the following day.
John the Fearless had spent the early part of October at Chalon. On the 10th, he had made his way to Germolles.35 From there he despatched an embassy to the French king, supporting what his son the count of Charolais had declared two days earlier – that he intended to mobilise his forces and join the king very soon.36
Despite this, he did not set out. He remained at Germolles for the next seven days. His vassals in Picardy, however, were responding to his summons. They were not joining the army at Rouen but the separate French army now gathering north of the Somme, under Boucicaut and d’Albret. The French king might have been mad and the dauphin inexperienced but Boucicaut and d’Albret knew what they were doing. The English would soon find themselves sandwiched between two armies – and forced to fight.
Other French magnates were riding to the aid of the French king. Today the old duke of Berry, the dauphin’s great uncle, arrived at Rouen, where he had mustered one thousand men-at-arms and five hundred archers.37 The king himself also arrived at Rouen today, accompanied by the dauphin. Other French lords were already there; so now the army had a direct chain of command. This was important, for it was being rumoured today that the duke of Clarence had landed at Calais with another large army.38 Which way were the French in Normandy to turn their attention? To Henry? To the defence of the towns? To the river crossings, to the Marches of Calais, or to the defence of Boulogne?
About this time, the newly gathered French royal family and the other members of the council drew up a battle plan, probably with the intention of stopping Henry at Blanchetaque. The vanguard was to be commanded by Boucicaut and Charles d’Albret. They would be followed by a second battle, under the duke of Alençon, the count of Eu, and other lords. On each wing of the army there would be a battle of foot soldiers, the one on the right commanded by the count of Richemont, and the one on the left by the count of Vendôme and Guichard Dauphin. David, seigneur de Rambures, would command a contingent of heavily armoured cavalry, with the mission to charge into and break up the ranks of English archers; and a separate squadron of several hundred mounted men-at-arms under Louis de Bosredon was given charge of attacking the English baggage.39The anticipated army would be composed of the troops gathering at Rouen as well as those waiting beyond the Somme, gathering at Abbeville and Péronne.40 Wherever the English positioned themselves – whether their backs were against the Somme or elsewhere – the French were prepared to attack.
Sunday 13th: the Feast of St Edward the Confessor
The feast of St Edward the Confessor had special significance for the Lancastrian dynasty. Not only was it the feast of the principal English royal saint; Henry’s father had been sent into exile on this day in 1398 by his cousin Richard II. Exactly one year later he had been crowned king of England, in Richard’s place. As a result Henry IV had built a chapel in Canterbury Cathedral dedicated to St Edward the Confessor. Henry V had shown himself to be no less fond of the English king-saint than his father: one of the banners he was carrying now bore the arms of St Edward.
The English army must have set out for Blanchetaque shortly after packing up their tents, at first light. Already there had been worrying reports from prisoners taken along the way that there was a huge French army waiting to intercept the English at the ford.41These reports received confirmation late this morning, when the army was still six miles away from the crossing point. According to Monstrelet, a Gascon gentleman serving in the company of Charles d’Albret was arrested. Waurin’s chronicle describes him as being mounted and armed; Monstrelet’s refers to him as a devil. As a Gascon it may be that he crossed the Somme and came to the English purposefully – out of a greater loyalty to Henry, as the duke of Aquitaine, than to his feudal lord (the d’Albret family having been once subjects of the English kings).
The man was taken before the duke of York, the leader of the vanguard, and questioned. He said that he had left Charles d’Albret at Abbeville. When asked about the ford at Blanchetaque, he told them it was very heavily guarded. Guichard Dauphin and Boucicaut were both there, with six thousand fighting men.42 If all this was true, it meant that the English were trapped between two armies: one under d’Albret and Boucicaut between Abbeville and Blanchetaque, and the ducal retinues gathering at Rouen.
The duke of York realised the significance of this information, and sent the Gascon to the king. There he was questioned again. Henry heard everything he had to say. Then he dismissed him, halted the advance, and called an immediate meeting of his council.
The meeting lasted two hours. We cannot know for certain what was said but it proved to be a turning point for Henry – a breaking point, even. Everything he had done all year had been carried out with the greatest resolution. There had been those who had said he should have cancelled the campaign when the earl of Cambridge’s plot had been revealed; he had ignored them and pressed on. The siege of Harfleur had hugely sapped the strength of his army, and there had been those who had said he should not have started on this march. Nevertheless he had ignored them and set out, determined to make his way to Calais. He was equally determined to meet the French in battle – even to the point of telling them exactly where he would be. And now he was being forced to acknowledge that he had been outmanoeuvred. His resolution to march on regardless, and to test his cause against God’s will, had only succeeded in endangering the tired and hungry survivors of the long siege. If at this point he tried to persuade his councillors otherwise, he failed to win them over. Their advice was that the army should find another crossing.
No doubt Henry had already sent scouts ahead to examine the conditions at the ford and they had probably come back with information that many French troops were stationed there. The number of six thousand men was probably not a huge exaggeration. If Boucicaut, d’Albret and the seigneur de Rambures had been joined by the duke of Alençon, as was likely, then there would have been at least four thousand fighting men north of the Somme.43 By now Henry may have learned that the three hundred men-at-arms who had left Calais to take control of the crossing had been annihilated by a Picard army.44 Henry’s strategy was falling apart. His council were sensible to put their faith in avoiding battle rather than deliberately seeking it.
It must have been a depressing meeting. It was not possible to advance by way of Blanchetaque. Retreat was out of the question. And if they marched inland, along the Somme, there was a good chance that the enemy troops north of the Somme and those gathering at Péronne would starve them in the field. It seemed that the French had indeed ‘enclosed them on every side like sheep in folds’, as several councillors had warned they would before they had set out. And the eight days’ rations were almost all used up – this was the seventh day of what was supposed to have been an eight-day march to Calais. The bread and wine the men had received at Arques and Eu had not gone far, and most men had been drinking unhealthy river water for the last week. Some of them were carrying festering wounds; others were still suffering from dysentery.
Henry probably considered advancing his men to the ford and trying to fight his way across. He knew that Edward III had done so in 1346 – and, on that occasion, as if by a miracle, the tide had come in after the last of the English were across and stopped the French from crossing. Surely God would work some similar miracle for him? But if he suggested this, the councillors would have countered that Edward’s army had fought a way across the Somme against no more than three thousand men. According to the Gascon informer, the ford was further defended now with sharpened stakes driven into the bed of the river, allowing the French crossbowmen to rip the English apart in midstream. Fighting against six thousand in these conditions, including crossbowmen, would be very difficult.
Thus it was, at this point, six miles short of the ford, that Henry abandoned his original plan. He ordered the army to head inland, following the banks of the Somme.
As they made their way along the river, looking for a crossing nearer Abbeville, the scouts reported that all the bridges had been be broken by the constable and marshal of France.45 So they proceeded until that night, cold, hungry and weary, they came to the villages of Mareuil and Bailleul-en-Vimeu, where they camped.46
In London, the mayor Thomas Falconer had come to the end of his eventful year in office. At the Guildhall, accompanied by many aldermen in their robes as well as the recorder and the two sheriffs of the city and ‘an immense number of the commonalty’, he presided over the election of his successor. This was Nicholas Wotton, a member of the Drapers Company. He would be sworn in on 28 October.47
At Arundel Castle, the earl of Arundel died.48 It was a sad end, considering his extraordinary career. After his father’s execution in 1397 he had been treated as a servant and regularly humiliated by his guardian, John Holland, duke of Exeter. Locked up in Reigate Castle, he escaped – although still only seventeen – and managed to get to the continent where he joined his uncle, the archbishop of Canterbury, in exile. Together they went to meet Henry’s father in Paris, and joined with him in his attempt to wrest the throne from Richard II. Thomas was thus the very first Lancastrian supporter, and had remained loyal to the dynasty thereafter – taking part in putting down the Epiphany Rising in 1400, fighting alongside Prince Henry in Wales after Glendower’s revolt, and taking action against Archbishop Scrope in 1405. By 1407 he was the prince’s principal retainer, and served on the prince’s council during the regency of 1409–11. He was sent by the prince to fight for John the Fearless at St-Cloud in 1411, and proved himself efficient in battle. As his will shows, he shared the prince’s devotion to the Holy Trinity and to the cult of St John of Bridlington; and very soon after Henry’s accession he was loaded with titles and honours: warden of the Cinque Ports, constable of Dover Castle and, most important of all, treasurer of England. Apart from Henry’s uncles and brothers, only Richard Beauchamp, the late Richard Courtenay, and the duke of York were as close to the king. Thomas now became the second of that number to die as a result of Henry’s will to fight a war in France.
The bridge at Pont Rémy was Henry’s next target, about four miles east-north-east of his camp. Seeing a large number of men drawn up on the opposite bank, he believed battle to be imminent, and dubbed a number of knights. Among these were Lord Ferrers of Groby, Ralph Greystoke, Peter Tempest, Christopher Moresby, Thomas Pickering, William Hodelston, John Hosbalton, John Mortimer, James Ormonde and Philip and William Halle.49 Knighting men was a good way to inspire them to feats of valour in the forthcoming battle, as they would seek to win glory and prove themselves worthy. As he approached the bridge, however, he saw that it was broken. So too were the causeways leading to it. The river here had a broad marsh on either side – hence the causeways – so no bridge-building was possible, even though Henry had specifically brought carpenters who were experienced in the craft.
It was at this point that the hearts of the English fell. They had run out of food. They had no way forward, no way back, and there were thousands of French troops on all sides tracking their movements, and hoping to kill them. The head of the Somme lay sixty miles away. They had no option but to march inland, deep into hostile territory. To desert at this stage would be certain death for any Englishman; otherwise many men would have simply run away. The words that the author of the Gesta used to describe the plight of the English at this moment were clearly heartfelt:
At that time we thought of nothing else but that, after the eight days assigned for the march had expired and our provisions had run out, the enemy, who had craftily hastened on ahead and were laying waste the countryside in advance, would force us – who were already hungry – to suffer a really dire need of food. And at the head of the river, if God did not provide otherwise, they would with their great and countless host and the engines of war and devices available to them, overwhelm us, for we were few in number, fainting with a great weariness, and weak from a lack of food.
I, the author of this, and many others in the army, looked up in bitterness to Heaven, seeking the clemency of Providence, and called upon the Glorious Virgin and St George, under whose protection the most invincible crown of England has flourished from of old, to intercede between God and his people, that the Supreme Judge, who foresees all things, might take pity on the grief all England would feel at the price we would pay with our blood, and in His infinite mercy, deliver from the swords of the French our king and us his people, who have sought not war but peace, and bring us to the honour and glory of His name, in triumph to Calais. Without any other hope but this, we hastened on from there in the direction of the head of the river …50
What the author of the Gesta does not say at this point is that Henry’s high-minded intentions not to lay waste ‘his’ kingdom of France were starting to wear thin. It was all very well for him to declare that no burning, raping or killing should take place; but the men were now hungry, and the scouts were taking matters into their own hands. Henry may or may not have condoned their actions, but the English burned and looted as they marched to Airaines.51
The Issue Rolls for this day record an interesting payment. It reads: ‘to Master Robert Benham sent to Calais with divers medicines ordered for the health of the king’s person and others in his army who went with him’.52 This obviously postdates the actual delivery of the medicines by some weeks; but it suggests that Henry had not escaped the siege of Harfleur totally unscathed. What he had been suffering from, and whether he was still afflicted, we can only guess. But the knowledge that he was ill, and had not yet reached Calais to benefit from the medicines in question, makes his leadership in the face of many adversities all the more striking.
The dejected English army approached the city of Amiens. Two days earlier, in the same town, the orders for the defence of the Somme had been read out. Charles d’Albret had chosen to concentrate the bulk of his forces at Abbeville, in an attempt to trap Henry against the river. The people of Amiens had been ordered to send reinforcements – large numbers of crossbowmen and all their artillery. This they had done, albeit very reluctantly, for it left them vulnerable. Now at Abbeville there were several thousand fighting men and twelve heavy cannon, more than two thousand cannon balls, and large stocks of saltpetre, sulphur, gunpowder, and various other machines of war.53 At Amiens there were no stockpiled munitions.
The people of Amiens were lucky. The English marched straight past, at a distance of about three miles. It is likely that the soldiers from Abbeville, who had been tracking them along the far bank, had bolstered the defences of the town. Also troops stationed upstream at Corbie and Péronne may have shifted to Amiens in response to the English advance. D’Albret’s plan was flexible enough to defend the inland towns. The dejected English had no option but to press on into the dangerous interior of France.
At first Henry’s progress had been fast – sixteen or seventeen miles per day – as fast as one could reasonably go with ten thousand men and several hundred carts and wagons. But since the council meeting six miles short of Blanchetaque, that speed had fallen off. From that moment to the end of today the army had covered between ten and eleven miles per day.
There were several reasons for their slowness. The main one was that they were desperate to find a way across the river. Although the army was travelling along a line of hills nearby, frequent forays had to be made down to the water to investigate every bridge and every possible ford, and every potential site for a new temporary bridge. Of course, the bridges were all broken, and the fords guarded. No doubt the consequent frustration led to the burning and looting along the way – another delaying factor. They had to find food as well; their supplies of dried beef and walnuts had all long since gone, so they had to forage for everything they ate and drank. The weather did not help. It rained hard and was windy, and the nights were very cold.54 Riding or marching for hours in such miserable conditions must have been difficult, especially when the men were starving, weak, and frightened.
Boves was a town in the overlordship of the duke of Burgundy, being held for him by the count of Vaudémont, brother of the duke of Lorraine. Although the count was with Boucicaut at the time, the question remained, would the townsmen fire on the English? Or would they hold to John the Fearless’s promise not to impede Henry in his quarrel with the king of France? It is perhaps significant that Thomas Elmham, writing three years later, notes that Henry ‘chose’ to stay at this town, perhaps seeing his reception by the garrison of the castle there as a test of John the Fearless’s loyalty. The garrison, situated on a well-defended rocky outcrop, fired no cannon, nor did they make a sortie and attack. Instead they negotiated with Henry for the safe passage of the army. They surrendered hostages, and under cover of night they sent out eight massive baskets of bread, each one carried by two men, to help sustain the army. Henry also asked the captain of the castle to look after two very sick knights in the army, directing the men in question to give up their horses as an advance payment of their ransoms.55
A number of low-status men, presumably archers, today broke into the vineyards and presses in the region around Boves, looking for wine. Not surprisingly they found it – in large quantities. When this was reported to Henry he was very angry. Some men asked why he had forbidden them to drink wine, asking to fill up their bottles with it, now they were here. Henry replied that
he was not troubled by the idea of bottles but that the problem was that many would have their stomachs as their bottles, and that was what bothered him, for he was worried they would get too drunk.56
No wine and no women. One does not imagine there was very much song either – apart from the pipes and drums of war. What with the lack of food and lack of comfort, campaigning with Henry V was a grim experience.
One man did get his reward today. Henry promised his esquire, William Hargrove, that when they returned to England he would make him the usher of the Order of the Garter, together with the house in Windsor Castle that went with the office, receiving the usual wages as his predecessor. This position carried the right to bear the black rod before the king and his heirs on feast days, and is today known after the symbol of the office: Black Rod.57
Henry left Boves this morning, making his way over the River Avre and setting out on the road towards Nesle. There was no saying where the next meal would come from. Nor when the rain would stop, and the wind let up. For his men, it was vital to keep going regardless of the soaked and stinking state of their clothes and bodies. The French were gathering all along the other bank of the Somme, moving from town to town, concentrating on potential crossing points. Today, as the English passed through the villages on the way to Nesle, the French made a sortie from Corbie and sent out a group of cavalry to attack the English archers passing the adjacent fields.
The sudden presence of cavalry at this point shows that a bridge or ford at Corbie – a walled town on the north side of the river – had not been destroyed. This in turn suggests that the English reluctance (or failure) to cross here was due to the numbers of French troops able to defend the place. The English archers responded swiftly to the sortie and put the men-at-arms to flight, taking two of them prisoner.58 But there was no attempt to cross.
This sudden cavalry attack seems to have warned Henry of the danger that a charge could break up his ranks of archers. With this in mind he gave instructions that every archer should cut himself a thick stake, six feet in length, sharpened at both ends. The idea was similar to that employed by the French at Blanchetaque, where stakes had been driven into the river bed to stop the English men-at-arms riding across. When the French horses tried to break the lines of archers, their horses would either be impaled or would take fright.59
A short while afterwards, as the army moved through the villages towards Nesle, looking for food, the cry went up that a gilt-copper pyx containing the Holy Eucharist had been stolen from a church. This was directly in contravention of the ordinances that Henry had proclaimed at the start of the march. It was also a very obvious affront to God – and, since Henry’s greatest source of inspiration was his confidence that God would favour him because ‘victory consists not in a multitude but with Him … who bestows victory upon whom He wills, whether they be many or few’, he had no option but to find the culprit and make an example of him. He stopped the army and ordered the captains to search all their men. An archer was found with the pyx concealed in his sleeve. Henry ordered that it be returned to the church. He then had the man hanged from a tree in the sight of the rest of the army, before ordering them to continue on their way.60
The duke of Bourbon joined the king, the dauphin, the duke of Berry and the other lords today at Rouen, adding his contingent to the army gathering there. Bourbon and Berry (Bourbon’s father-in-law) had both withdrawn from court earlier in the year due to their disgust at the dauphin’s behaviour. Now France was in danger, these old quarrels were being set aside. The duke of Orléans was still at Cléry, not far from Orléans, but he was about to ride north in haste. Even the duke of Brittany, who had recently renewed his agreement with Henry’s negotiators, was on his way from Falaise to Rouen, albeit slowly.61
There was one obvious exception to this collective unity against the English. John the Fearless was still two hundred miles away, making a leisurely trip between dinner at Chaigny and supper at Beaune.62 It seems he had decided to honour his agreements and letters of peace with Henry in a manner of speaking – he would not personally involve himself in the quarrel with the king of France. At the same time this allowed him to obey the order from the king of France not to join the host advancing against the English in person. His promises to attend the army in person were just bluster. By an extraordinary coincidence, the duplicitous duke’s mind had been made up for him by the fact that both the kings he was playing off against each other wanted him to stay away. So he decided he would.
The English army continued towards Nesle. Being further away from the river, they did not look for crossings and thus made faster progress. From leaving Boves yesterday morning and arriving this evening at Nesle, they covered between twenty-five and thirty-five miles, depending on whether they travelled via Corbie and Harbonnières or via Caix.63 It was a full moon today, so it is likely that the king ordered the army to march later into the evening, pressing on to his destination.
At Nesle they met an unwelcome sight. The townsfolk knew that a large French army under d’Albret and Boucicaut was gathering at Péronne, just sixteen miles away; so they hung red banners over the wall, signifying their refusal to surrender. Henry angrily gave orders that the villages around Nesle be ‘burned and utterly destroyed’ on the following day. As he had stationed his men in these same villages, the burning was presumably to be carried out as the army departed their quarters.64 It is a sign of the desperation into which Henry himself had now sunk – that he was prepared to issue orders for indiscriminate burning, contrary to his own ordinances.
But at this very moment, when he had already led his men 170 miles from Harfleur, he had a stroke of luck. Someone told him that there was an unguarded ford in the vicinity. It may have been someone from Nesle who informed him, hoping thereby to save the threatened villages. Or it might have been someone who had remained in one of the villages when the English had arrived. One chronicle states that the location of the crossing was revealed by some prisoners who were being dragged along with the army.65 Perhaps an English scout noticed for himself that a broken causeway led to a broken bridge that was still passable – another chronicle tells a story along these lines.66 Whatever the source, Henry’s scouts delivered the news either in the night or in the early morning. The ford lay near Bethencourt, about three miles away. The author of the Gesta reckoned it would save the English army eight days’ marching if they could cross there.
Henry sent an advance party of mounted men to investigate the ford at first light. He instructed them to test the conditions of the ford and the depth and speed of the water. They returned with good news. A mile short of the Somme was another very marshy little river, which the army would have to cross, and they would be in great danger if they were to be attacked at that point. But beyond it there were two long, narrow causeways leading up to two fords through the Somme itself. These had been broken in several places, so that one could barely pass in single file. Nevertheless, the river could be crossed. The depth in the middle was only a little higher than the belly of a horse.
Henry immediately gave the order to advance. Any delay would increase the risk of the French discovering the plan. Before leaving he ordered the villages where the army had sheltered overnight to be pulled apart so that doors, shutters, window-frames, stairs, structural timbers, straw and every other suitable commodity should be used to make good the causeways. After this, the remnants of the buildings in the villages were set alight, in accordance with his earlier order.67
Sir Gilbert Umphraville and Sir John Cornwaille led the crossing party, taking a number of men-at-arms and archers from the vanguard over the ruined causeways on foot, and then through the river, to set up a defensive position protecting the ford on the far side. When sufficient men were across, the doors and timbers from the villages were brought up and laid down, so the horses and carts could be drawn to the river and across. Henry ordered that one ford be used for the fighting men – whom he needed quickly on the other side – and the other for the horses and baggage. He himself stood by the entrance to the soldiers’ causeway, making sure that the men did not pack themselves in too tightly in their urgency to cross. In this way, quickly, Henry achieved a bridgehead on the far side of the water.
How come Henry had been able to cross at this point, despite the shadowing French scouts? The answer is that, in marching to Nesle, the English soldiers had moved several miles away from the river and so the French had lost track of them. It was fortunate, to say the least; Henry had only taken the route to cut off a bend in the river, near Péronne. But as a result of his unplanned and unpredictable troop movements, only now did the French scouts relocate the English army. They must have been aghast to see the English on the north bank, in the process of crossing. They hurriedly called up reinforcements and made as if to attack, but realised that they did not have enough men there to force the English back. For a while they remained at a distance, gauging whether to fight or not; but all the while the English force on the north bank grew stronger, and eventually the French scouts abandoned the place altogether.
According to the author of the Gesta, the army started to wade through the Somme about 1 p.m. and continued until an hour short of nightfall.68 According to the later Burgundian chroniclers, the attempt to make the crossing had started at 8 a.m. and continued until nightfall. If the advance guard went across earlier than the main battle, as soon as Henry ordered, then both accounts are probably correct. When all the men were across, they marched by moonlight to the villages to which the herbergers directed them.69 Henry himself was found a suitable house at Athies. Others were lodged at Monchy-Lagache.
The English troops were in higher spirits than they had been for days. ‘It was a cheerful night that we spent in those hamlets,’ wrote the author of the Gesta.70
Just ten miles from Bethencourt lay Péronne, where the leaders of the French army north of the Somme were meeting in council. The duke of Bourbon was apparently one of those present; he must have spent many hours in the saddle over the last two or three days, covering the 120 miles from Rouen. Also present were Charles d’Albret and Boucicaut, the duke of Alençon, the count of Richemont, the count of Eu, the count of Vendôme, Guichard Dauphin and Jean de Werchin, seneschal of Hainault.71 The duke of Bourbon declared that King Charles had resolved to do battle with Henry ‘in the coming week’ and that both the king and the dauphin were intending to be there at the battle in person. Probably as a result of Bourbon’s news, the other lords at Péronne joined him in writing a letter to the duke of Brabant at Louvain, requiring him also to participate in the forthcoming battle with his men-at-arms.72
Despite the explicit reference in this letter, the strategy of bringing the English to battle so soon did not originate in Rouen. King Charles himself did not yet know of it. Discussions regarding general strategy were still underway among the courtiers, and an important council meeting to settle the matter was scheduled for the following day. The decision for the army north of the Somme to do battle ‘in the coming week’ seems to have been a decision made by the duke of Bourbon, either by himself or in conjunction with those at Péronne. Bourbon may have hastened to Péronne specifically to encourage these moves to war. It was noted by one chronicler that Bourbon was particularly keen to attack the English.73 And the duke certainly had already shown an eagerness to fight. Only in January he had founded the Order of the Prisoner’s Shackle for the purpose of fighting Englishmen. It looked as though Bourbon was going to have his chance sooner rather than later.
Although Henry’s ploy of leading the French away from Harfleur by using himself as bait had worked brilliantly, allowing the garrison of 1,200 men to rebuild the defences without interruption or danger, the problems they faced within the town were far from over. The dysentery had infected the townsmen too during the siege, and had contributed to its surrender. Now those busy rebuilding the place were having to work in the same unsanitary conditions. They were also going down with the disease.
Lord Botreaux was one of those who fell seriously ill after the army departed. No doubt he had visions of the church at Cadbury where he had declared he wished to be buried, just three months earlier. Perhaps he recalled the bequests he had made to his wife Elizabeth and young daughters. He was sent back to Dover by ship today. But as things turned out, he was one of the lucky ones. His last will would remain in a chest at Cadbury for another forty-seven years before he finally passed away.74
The English soldiers rested in the villages where they had spent the night, finding food left by the villagers and the French scouts. No doubt Henry held another council meeting. His army was now on the same side of the Somme as the French, and they had an army waiting to intercept them.
Three French heralds came and presented themselves to the duke of York, leader of the vanguard, who sent them to the king. As if to pour scorn on their morality, an English chronicler noted that one of the heralds, Jacques de Heilly, had absconded from prison in England and had fled secretly to France ‘carrying a beautiful woman’.75 According to the French herald Gilles le Bouvier, the dukes of Bourbon and Bar and Charles d’Albret had met the count of Nevers (youngest brother of John the Fearless) at Corbie, and collectively they had sent the ambassadors to Henry, challenging him to battle. Le Bouvier added that they told Henry they would fight him at Aubigny in Artois on the following Thursday. Henry accepted the challenge, and gave de Heilly and his companions gifts.76
The author of the Gesta also stated that Henry accepted the challenge but added that he prepared to do battle the following day.77 The two accounts appear incompatible – until one remembers that the armies were in very close proximity to one another. Unless Henry had been ready to do battle immediately, he could easily have been surprised by the French. Hence he prepared to fight straight away.
At Rouen, the French king presided over a great council of thirty-five noblemen. The duke of Anjou had now joined the lords gathered there, and so had the duke of Brittany. The main item on the agenda was whether to attack the English army or not. There is no sign that they had any idea of the duke of Bourbon’s resolution to attack by the 26th.
Thirty of the thirty-five men present were for fighting. Of the five against, the most important was the duke of Brittany. He declared that ‘he would not make one step [towards the English] unless his cousin the duke of Burgundy were there’.78 His reference to Burgundy suggests that he and Burgundy knew of each other’s agreements with the king of England and that, through Brittany’s ambassadors in mid-August, the two dukes had decided they would act together. However, Brittany and the other four objectors at Rouen were heavily outnumbered. The other councillors claimed that the troops in the French army north of the Somme were already sufficient for the French to attack safely. If Brittany wanted to hold back or withdraw, his decision would have to be a personal one.
The council resolved to send word immediately to the constable, Charles d’Albret, telling him of the decision to fight. They also resolved to send orders throughout the kingdom requiring all the lords accustomed to bear arms to hasten to him, day and night, from wherever they were. But contrary to the duke of Bourbon’s assumption, neither the king nor the dauphin would join the army. The duke of Berry (whose father King John II had been captured by the English at Poitiers) put forward reasons of security in support of this, arguing that there was no point in risking losing the king or his son, and his argument was convincing. The dauphin was apparently much put out that he would not take part in the fight but he was forced to accept the council’s decision .79 It was also decided that two other dukes would not fight: the duke of Berry, who was too old; and the duke of Anjou, who was suffering from a bladder disease. Anjou’s six hundred men would be led to join the main army by the seigneur de Longny.80
The duke of Orléans was chosen to represent the royal family at the forthcoming battle. With this in mind – contrary to the earlier policy that both he and Burgundy should stay away – a new plan was formed by the council. Orléans was to have overall command and take charge of the main battle, along with Charles d’Albret and the dukes of Alençon and Brittany (despite the latter’s objections). The vanguard ahead of them was to be led by Boucicaut, the duke of Bourbon, and Guichard Dauphin. The rearguard was to be led by the duke of Bar and the counts of Nevers, Charolais, and Vaudémont. On the wings Tanneguy du Chastel and the count of Richemont were each to be in charge; and the seneschal of Hainault was to lead the specialist heavy cavalry needed to break the ranks of the archers.81
The English marched north from Athies and Monchy-Lagache this morning. Henry rode in armour, and ordered all his men-at-arms to do likewise.82 He may even have gone looking for a fight, for he led his troops straight to Péronne. But the army passed the town ‘a short distance away to our left’. A number of French men-at-arms approached at a gallop but a group of English men-at-arms responded immediately by riding forward to intercept them. Before they clashed, the French turned their horses and rode back into the town.
By the time the English passed Péronne, most of the French had already left. Nevertheless, looking at the mud churned up by many thousands of horses, deep fear caught the hearts of those in the English army. As the author of the Gesta put it, about a mile beyond Péronne,
we found the roads remarkably churned up by the French army, as if it had preceded ahead of us by the thousand. And the rest of the troops – to say nothing of the commanders – fearing that battle was imminent, raised our eyes and hearts to heaven, crying out, with voices expressing our inmost thoughts, that God would have pity on us and in His ineffable goodness, turn away from us the violence of the French.83
As the troops marched on towards the River Ancre, they were looking for a place to camp. They hoped the day’s march would be over quickly. ‘Their hearts were quaking with fear,’ Thomas Elmham wrote. Some skirmishing with the French took place, and at least one man-at-arms was captured.84 The fights were probably much more serious than this single statistic suggests, for any Frenchmen would have needed a considerable number of compatriots to warrant their attacking a group of armed English scouts. And these conflicts on the periphery of the army, which were now happening every day, cannot have done anything but make the English more despondent.
In line with the French council’s decision to attack, the duke of Brittany set out from Rouen with a large body of men – six thousand, according to Monstrelet. He must have been leading many soldiers besides his own contingent. But the English ambassadors, Dr John Hovingham and Simon Flete, had not yet departed from Brittany. As they had no doubt reminded him quite recently, the dangers to the duke of breaking his agreement with Henry, and fighting for the French against the English, would be calamitous – if Henry should win.
In his castle at Louvain this evening, at about eight o’clock, Duke Anthony of Brabant received the letter that the dukes of Bourbon and Alençon and the other lords had written to him on the 19th. The messenger must have ridden hard – the distance he had covered was about one hundred miles. If the duke of Brabant was going to respond in time to join a battle scheduled to take place before the 26th, he had no time to lose.
His response is very interesting. John the Fearless might have promised Henry that he would not hinder him in his war, but such an anti-French strategy did not affect his brothers’ loyalty. The youngest of the three brothers, the count of Nevers, had already taken the field. Now Anthony followed his lead. He ordered his secretaries to write letters to all his vassals requiring them to be in arms at Cambrai as soon as possible. And he sent an esquire to the city of Antwerp this same evening with similar orders.85
Duke Anthony went to the council chamber in the town of Louvain this morning. He asked the town council to give him men-at-arms, archers and crossbowmen to fight against the English. There was not much time; only a few men could be mustered before he departed for Cambrai, where he would gather his vassals.
Henry’s passage across the River Ancre may have been at Ancre itself, from which he would have marched in a direct line northwest through Forceville to Acheux, where the army camped tonight. Alternatively he may have crossed at Miraumont, and then turned westwards to Forceville. The latter route would explain why Gilles le Bouvier’s chronicle states that Henry turned away from the road towards Aubigny, where the French had told him they would fight him on Thursday. Other chronicles seem to support this view.86But why might Henry have changed course at this point, if he was so determined to fight the French?
One possible answer is food. Henry was not negotiating with any towns north of the Somme for safe passage; his men were simply grabbing what they could from the villages through which they passed. But the only reason to suppose that the villages on the way to Aubigny were very poorly provisioned is that the French had already looted them (French chroniclers repeatedly note that the French did more damage in looting than the English). Another explanation is fear. Not necessarily Henry’s own – but that of his men, certainly. Even many years afterwards, the chroniclers’ accounts reflect the terror of the English at this stage. They were marching straight to where they knew a larger French army was waiting for them, on ground that the French had chosen. One day’s rest had not been enough to refresh them. It would have been irresponsible of Henry to force his men along a road through villages where they could find no food on their way to what they believed would be a fatal battle. Accordingly he turned away, so he could reassure his commanders and his men that, if there was to be a battle, he would choose the site.
Once this point is realised, it becomes apparent that, even if we are wrong in supposing that Henry crossed at Miraumont and changed direction, and that really he crossed at Ancre, the same argument applies. If he rode constantly northwest after passing Péronne, then he had simply decided not to follow the French to Aubigny at an earlier point – when he saw the mud churned up by their horses’ hooves and cart wheels. In order to keep his men’s spirits up, he had to be seen to be taking the initiative himself, and not simply leading them despondently to their deaths at Aubigny.
Did Henry still hope to fight a battle? It is clear that the decision to march to Calais from Harfleur was originally his, and that he fully expected to fight a pitched battle on the way. But it is equally clear that he did not imagine being one hundred miles from Calais after two weeks. The failure to cross the Somme had cost him dearly, for now he was leading a starving, weak and dispirited army. His refusal to follow in the path of the French army to a designated battlefield does seem to suggest that the collective decision-making of the king and council had turned away from actively seeking an engagement. We have seen how the English refused to tackle the French in battle at Blanchetaque; now this deviation seems to indicate that the English were deliberately trying to avoid the French by moving as fast as they could along an alternative route to Calais, not stopping to parley with any towns for food. The question is thus a difficult one to answer; and the truth is that there were differing opinions within the English camp. Even if Henry personally still hoped to engage the enemy, very few of his council and his army shared that hope. And not even Henry was prepared to fight the French on ground that the French themselves had chosen.
Over the last two days Henry had kept the army moving at fifteen miles per day – almost as fast as he had been travelling when first setting out from Harfleur towards Blanchetaque. Now he pressed on harder than ever, making them go at least twenty miles. The troops rode or marched in their weary state in a straight line from Acheux to Thièvres. Here they crossed the River Authie, and then passed the next small river, the Grouche, between the walled town of Doullens and the castle of Lucheux. The main army encamped at Bonnières and the villages to the south of Frévent, while the duke of York pushed on to Frévent itself.87 There he led his men against the French men-at-arms in the town; and having put them to flight, set about repairing the broken bridge there, ready for the following morning.
The French army had probably marched from Péronne towards Aubigny after hearing back from the heralds on the 20th. It would have appeared to them best to arrive first, to choose their positions and rest, before doing battle. At some point their scouts must have reported that the English had turned away from Aubigny and were heading fast on the northwest road. On hearing this, the French commanders, knowing Henry’s men were tired and malnourished, probably imagined that Henry had decided to try to outmanoeuvre them and get to Calais without a fight. In order to bring the English to battle by the 26th, they had to position themselves between the English and the road to Calais. And they had to do so quickly.
Turning away from the road to Aubigny, the French made their way to St Pol on the River Ternoise. From there it was an easy march along the north bank of the river to cut off the English at Blangy. A letter was sent to the town of Mons (by which route the duke of Brabant was riding) declaring to the townsmen that the battle would take place on the 25th.
The English crossed the River Canche this morning and proceeded directly northwards, towards Blangy, where they could cross the River Ternoise. The duke of York and the whole of the vanguard was ahead, clearing a way for the English army. The French were in the same area. Advance English troops regularly came under attack from squadrons of French men-at-arms. Seven Lancashire archers were captured in one engagement.88 It was becoming clear that both sides were racing to the Ternoise, and if the French stopped them crossing, there would be a battle – with no safe retreat for the English. There was no time to go looking for food. Although most of the troops had not eaten properly for several days, and were growing weaker all the time, their hopes of survival rested on speed, and avoiding a pitched battle with the better-fed, better-equipped and more numerous French men-at-arms.
Henry himself was nervous, distracted. Along the route to Blangy he was told that his herbergers had identified a place in a particular village where he could eat and briefly rest. But he continued, ignorant of where the town was. When informed that he had ridden a mile and half past it, he refused to go back, explaining he was in his cote-armour and it would not do for him to turn up at a village when dressed for war. He could have added that he did not have time. So he rode on, taking the main battle of the army with him, and ordered the duke of York to lead the vanguard further ahead.89
When the duke of York came to the hill overlooking Blangy, he saw French troops desperately trying to destroy the bridge. Immediately he attacked, and fought the men-at-arms there, killing some and taking others prisoner. Having secured the bridge, he sent scouts up the hill on the far side. One returned ‘with a worried face and anxious gasping breath, and announced to the duke that a great countless multitude was approaching’.90 Another account states that the scout who first spotted the French
being astonished at the size of the French army, returned to the duke with a trembling heart, as fast as his horse would carry him. Almost out of breath he said ‘be prepared quickly for battle, for you are about to fight against such a huge host that it cannot be numbered’.91
Soon other scouts returned, and confirmed this sighting. The duke reported the locations to the king.
It was twelve miles to Blangy-sur-Ternoise, so the valley must have come in Henry’s sight about noon or a little later. The author of the Gesta notes that the main battle caught their first sight of the enemy here: they were emerging further up the valley, to the right. The English crossed the Ternoise and climbed rapidly up the hill on the far side. And when they reached the brow of the hill, they were suddenly confronted by the French army.
In describing the moment, the author of the Gesta uses the words ‘grim-looking’ to describe the French. It was not their expressions to which he was referring; he could not see their faces. ‘Their numbers were so great as not even to be comparable with ours … filling a very broad field like a swarm of countless locusts,’ he later wrote.92 It was a sentiment echoed by every writer on the English side, and very probably every man in Henry’s army.
This brings us to a most important question. As the army ascended the hill from Blangy to Maisoncelle, and looked for the first time across the field of Agincourt, what did they really see? How many men were there this afternoon? Were the English truly outnumbered thirty-to-one as the author of the Gesta relates? Or six-to-one, as Jean de Waurin claimed? Or three-to-one, as reported by the French chronicler Le Fèvre, who was actually in the English army at the time. Or ‘three or four-to-one’, as the French monk of St Denis stated? Or did the French outnumber the English just three-to-two, as the chronicle written by a Parisian cleric said?
As shown in Appendix Four, the actual ratio of Frenchmen to Englishmen at the battle cannot have been more than two to one. Indeed, it was probably slightly less than that: the English army of between eight and nine thousand fighting men found themselves facing between twelve and fifteen thousand Frenchmen. There simply is no evidence to support a larger French army. Those who have opted to maintain the vast disparity mentioned in chronicles like the Gesta have done so largely because of national pride and tradition, not because of a body of supporting evidence. On the other hand, those who have sought to correct such views have themselves failed to answer a crucial question arising from their revisionism: why were the English astonished as they climbed the hill above Blangy and saw the French army? Or, to put it another way, why do so many chronicles on both sides agree that the French hugely outnumbered the English?
The most likely answer – which has not been put forward before – lies in the different make-up of the two armies and the numbers of their respective non-combatants. English companies had thirty archers to every ten men-at-arms, and thus only ten pages: an extra 25% non-combatants. In the French army, for every thirty archers there were sixty men-at-arms, and thus sixty pages: an extra 66% non-combatants. Whereas the English had about 1,500 pages, the French had between eight and ten thousand. In addition, all the men-at-arms on both sides would have had spare horses, and the easiest and safest way to move these was to allow the pages to ride them. From a distance of three or four miles, it would have been very difficult to distinguish between the men-at-arms and the pages. So when the French looked at the English army they saw no more than eleven thousand men in total (eight to nine thousand fighting men, plus the pages and support staff). But when the English looked at the French army, they saw at least eighteen thousand mounted men – not including the four or five thousand archers and crossbowmen, and the extra infantry raised from the locality. If there were ten thousand men-at-arms, as the Burgundian chroniclers and Gilles le Bouvier suggest, then the English probably really did see an army about three times the size of their own fighting force.
From the point of view of the French, another factor has to be considered – the prejudice against low-status archers. French archers had won no major battles, and had contributed very little to French military prestige over the centuries. Crossbowmen employed in French wars were often mercenaries; and the French saw their archers as relatively insignificant. Also, crossbows were slow and weak in battle; it is unlikely that many Frenchmen knew how destructive a coordinated mass of English longbows could be – the most that any of them had faced in living memory was the thousand or so archers at St-Cloud in 1411. For the English, on the other hand, the archers were crucial. So, while eight thousand English soldiers came to terms with the prospect of fighting what appeared to be an army of 24,000 or more Frenchmen (three-to-one), the French saw that their own men-at-arms outnumbered the English men-at-arms six-to-one. The contemporary chronicler Edmond de Dyntner adopted this form of reckoning: ‘there were ten French nobles against one English,’ he stated, slightly exaggerating.93 The social prejudices of the French military elite, in addition to variations in the two kingdoms’ military traditions, meant that both sides thought the French army outnumbered the English heavily, whether three-to-one, or six-to-one.
The feeling the English had of being outnumbered three-to-one was exacerbated by the fact that they could not see the whole of the French force. They knew the size of their own army, of course, having marched in three battles and camped together for the last three weeks. But for them, the whole of the surrounding area might have been populated with French troops. The villages could not be presumed to be unoccupied; a large number of scouts had attacked French troops at villages and river crossings. The very character of the medieval landscape meant that coppices, barns and houses obscured the forces of the defending army.
On top of this, both sides would have been aware that not all the French troops had yet arrived. It seems the count of Nevers was not actually with the French army at this stage.94 It is possible that his men-at-arms had delayed at Corbie, and had been the cavalry whom the English had seen at Péronne on the 19th. Certainly his brother, the duke of Brabant, was still hurrying to the army, staying at Lens this evening, thirty miles away. The duke of Brittany was still at Amiens, although he had sent ahead his brother the count of Richemont with some of his men. The duke of Anjou’s six hundred men-at-arms also had not yet arrived, being led by the seigneur de Longny. The commander of the Parisian garrison, Tanneguy du Chastel, who was also in the battle plan, was also absent. Even the newly appointed overall commander of the French forces, the duke of Orléans, was not yet with the army. For the already-outnumbered English the prospect of becoming more heavily outnumbered on the following day can only have demoralised them further.
Henry’s reaction to the news that a huge army lay ahead of him was to set spurs to his horse and ride ahead to join the duke of York. Having seen the French army for himself, he returned to the main battle and ‘very calmly and quite heedless of danger, he gave encouragement to his army and drew them up in battles and wings, as if they were to fight immediately’.95
The troops began to make their confessions. They knelt and prayed.
According to some reports, it was at this juncture that Sir Walter Hungerford said to Henry that he wished they had another ten thousand of the finest archers in England. According to the Gesta Henry replied,
that is a foolish way to talk because, by the God in Heaven upon whose grace I have relied and in whom is my firm hope of victory, even if I could I would not have one man more than I do. For these men with me are God’s people, whom He deigns to let me have at this time. Do you not believe that the Almighty, with these his humble few, is able to overcome the opposing arrogance of the French who boast of their great number, and their own strength?96
Another source has Henry replying less lyrically to a request by Hungerford for just one thousand more archers:
Thus, foolish one, do you tempt God with evil? My hope does not wish for one man more. Victory is not seen to be given on the basis of numbers. God is all-powerful. My cause is put into His hands. Here he pressed us down with disease. Being merciful, He will not let us be killed by these enemies. Let pious prayers be offered to Him.97
Did such a conversation take place? Other chroniclers do mention it – but in very similar words. All the accounts might have been based on a story circulating in the wake of the Gesta. The authors were writing with the benefit of hindsight, and keen to expand on the religious virtues of the king. But even if the story is true, and verbatim, it was not wholly original. It has several precedents in biblical speeches attributed to Judas Maccabeus, the Old Testament king to whom Edward III had been compared, and with whom Henry’s father had associated himself.98 For example, in 1 Maccabees 3: 16–19, one reads:
When he reached the city of Beth-Horon, Judas went out to meet him with a few men; but when they saw the army coming against them, they said to Judas: how can we, few as we are, fight against such a mighty host as this? Besides we are weak today from fasting; but Judas said: it is easy for many to be overcome by a few; in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between deliverance by many or a few; for victory in war does not depend upon the size of the army but on the strength that comes from Heaven.
Other speeches are to be found in the various chronicles for the evening – but these too are of uncertain veracity, and written with the benefit of hindsight. Henry supposedly made a speech in which he declared that he would rather die than be taken by the enemy. He might have done, he might not. Similarly, some French chronicles state that Henry sent heralds to the French asking that the battle be put off until the following day. As not all the French had arrived, such a plan suited them well.99 If Henry did seek a short truce, he did not trust the answer. He kept his troops drawn up in battle formation until sunset, and for much of that time he made them kneel and pray.100 Only when it was clear that there would be no pitched battle did he tell them to take shelter for the night in the houses, gardens and orchards of Maisoncelle.
It was then that it began to rain.
The night of 24–25 October 1415 cannot have been easy for anyone anywhere near Agincourt, whether they were French or English. For the Englishmen camped in the tents in the orchards and gardens of Maisoncelle, and for their lords and masters in the houses and barns, there was the sheer nervous anticipation of the following day. Few could have slept well. Some were still suffering from dysentery.101 As they lay or sat there, listening to the pounding of the rain – if they were not actually feeling it soak through their clothes – most would have believed that on the following day they would die. Men who survived the battle but who were captured and could not afford to pay a ransom would be killed, normally with a knife through the windpipe or an axe blow through the skull. It was being said that the French were casting lots for which English lords they were going to take prisoner, such was their confidence. The rain was the least of their worries. Their lack of food, their tiredness and fear – tomorrow everything would be over, the whole hellish episode.
For the Frenchmen things cannot have been much easier. The rain was a bother. They had to go into the villages and take what straw and hay they could find to try to soak up the mud where they were camping. Many men had been billeted in villages until now, and so lacked any tents or other shelter, and so grew depressed as they sat waiting in the heavy rain. They were also tired, having tracked the English army for two weeks, and having had several hard days’ riding in order to cut off the English advance. They too were hungry and miserable. They had been forced to live off the land, and had had to requisition or steal food from their own people. Groups of them had regularly confronted the English and been wounded. Large portions of their army were absent. The duke of Orléans seems to have caught up with the rest of the army during the night, or first thing in the morning, so presumably he was riding through the dire weather.102 But that meant their overall commander was tired and unfamiliar with the territory as well as the troops. And where were the other ducal companies? Where was the duke of Brittany? Where were the duke of Anjou’s men? Where was the duke of Brabant? Where was the duke of Lorraine? Where were John the Fearless and his son, the count of Charolais?
Henry was lodged in a small house in Maisoncelle. His night was no doubt spent in prayer – in part at least. Everything he had worked for was to be put to the test on the morrow. Every decision he had made was likewise to be tested. But most of all, his faith was on trial. If God was not on his side after all, then tomorrow he would be a prisoner of the king of France, and in his absence his enjoyment of the throne of England would depend entirely on the loyalty of his brothers. How loyal would they be, after he had forsaken the advice of his brother and heir, Thomas, in undertaking this march across France? The very reason he was here in France was to prove his right to the throne of England by demonstrating it was God’s will that he should be king of France. If he lost this battle and many hundreds of men, he stood to lose not just his claim on the French throne but the security of his English title too. He had staked everything on victory. It was all or nothing.
In this light one has to give Henry credit for holding his nerve and providing such controlled leadership, especially in the wake of his own ill health. Few other men could have done it, in such appalling circumstances. But he did not let up for a moment. In line with his strict discipline on the march, he ordered that the whole camp was to remain silent throughout the night. Men-at-arms making a noise were to have their horses and armour confiscated. Archers and servants who were not silent were to have an ear cut off. This rule of silence served two purposes: it encouraged prayerfulness, and it permitted careful attention to the sounds of the night. Had the English been making a clamour, and with the rain falling so heavily, it would have been very easy for a French sortie to make a sudden night attack and cause confusion and panic throughout the English army. The two camps were no more than 1,200 yards apart; one source says their front lines were as close as 250 paces.103 Because of the danger, Henry also ordered his men to build bonfires by which to keep watch through the night.
The moon was now in its last quarter. With the rain clouds above, there was virtually no moonlight. Nevertheless it appears that the count of Richemont advanced to the English lines with two thousand men, and came close enough to be noticed and attacked by archers before he withdrew.104Henry also sent out men to reconnoitre the land. Despite the darkness and the rain, it was worth getting to know as much as possible about the site of the forthcoming battle.
Friday 25th: the Feast of
St Crispin and St Crispinian
It is unlikely that Henry slept. At the best of times he needed very little rest. In the hours before dawn he probably stayed in his house in Maisoncelle, discussing the battle ahead with members of his council, hearing reports of the attack of the count of Richemont, and waiting for the return of the scouts he had sent to spy out the land during the night.
Before dawn, wearing his armour, he attended his first Mass of the day, sung by the priests of the royal chapel. He heard two more Masses, then rose from his knees, and lifted his helmet and spurs. He ordered an esquire to take ten men-at-arms and twenty archers and to guard the horses and the baggage wagons, which would remain in Maisoncelle. They would also guard the high-status pages with the army and the sick who could not fight.105
Outside it was growing light. It was time for the army to move out.
Henry called for his horse – a small white one – and rode with his councillors through the mud of the village towards the battlefield. The sodden remains of the overnight bonfires were around them. Captains were raising and ordering the men who had sheltered in tents and in barns, in the gardens and orchards. Henry instructed his trumpeters to remain quiet; he did not want the French to hear the English, nor to break the solemn air about the camp. Just as the English had passed the night in disciplined silence, so now they grouped together to face the French without a sound.106
Further up the field, about three-quarters of a mile away, the French were also deploying their men. Like the English, few of them had slept. Some of the English soldiers had heard them talking and shouting through the night, as they re-organised themselves in the rain. Many were soaked and tired. Some remarked that their horses had not neighed all night, as if sensing some calamity would befall them. But the lords, who were dry, were far more positive. They had succeeded in trapping the king of England. Tomorrow they would lead him and the dukes of York and Gloucester to Paris and Rouen as prisoners of the king of France.
In arranging their forces, the French seem largely to have ignored the royal plan drawn up at Rouen a few days earlier. That had stated that the duke of Bourbon, the marshal of France (Boucicaut) and Guichard Dauphin were to lead the vanguard, and the main battle was to be led by the duke of Orléans, with the dukes of Brittany and Alençon, and the constable (d’Albret). The third battle, the rearguard, was to be led by the duke of Bar and the counts of Nevers, Charolais, and Vaudémont. Thus the original plan was for three battles, plus the two wings (led by Tanneguy du Chastel and the count of Richemont) and the special cavalry (to be led by the seneschal of Hainault). The plan had to be adapted to a certain extent, as the duke of Brittany, the count of Charolais and Tanneguy du Chastel had not yet arrived; but also there were lords there who were ardent for glory, and they did not want to be in the rearguard. Those at the front, in the vanguard, would see all the best action – and capture all the most valuable prisoners. Whoever managed to seize the king of England would not only become famous but very wealthy. Consequently, many of those in the rearguard and main battle asked to be in the vanguard. Most of them got their way.
The result was that the French started arranging themselves in just two proper battles: one huge vanguard of about 4,800–5,000 men-at-arms, and the main battle (as it was termed), consisting of about three thousand men-at-arms. Six hundred men-at-arms gathered on each wing, with their backs against the woods on each side. There may also have been men-at-arms in the rearguard; but if so, there were no more than six hundred of them.107 Some sources claim there were crossbowmen in the vanguard; but other chronicles indicate that the French lords’ eagerness to take prisoners meant that they placed their archers in the rearguard, just ahead of the infantry and pages, who were with the wagons and baggage. One source expressly notes that the four thousand crossbowmen who were originally intended to be at the front, to begin the battle, were ‘given permission to depart’ by the lords, as they would not be needed. Presumably they took up their position at the rear. The author of the Gesta notes that they shot from the back and wings of the French army, and their bolts did little damage.108
Not long after dawn, the French were ready. So many men were in the vanguard that the lines stretched right across the field and into the woods on both the Agincourt and Tramecourt sides. As a result, the six hundred men-at-arms on each wing had to stand forward of the vanguard, so they had enough room to charge without riding into the back of their fellow men. In order to make their lances more rigid, and easier to wield in a relatively confined space, they were told to cut the narrow end off the wooden lance and fix the steel head back on the sturdier shortened shaft. The lack of room may also have led to the decision to send the crossbowmen to the back of the army; they could not help but be charged down by the French knights if they were at the front. Besides, the French decided they would not need their crossbowmen to break up the English formation; they would do that with the heavy cavalry, as the Rouen plan had instructed.109
To what extent these decisions were those of the duke of Orléans, who was still a month short of his twenty-first birthday, is unclear. One has to presume that he listened to the advice of the experienced military men like Boucicaut and d’Albret, and weighed it up against the advice of the other royal dukes, Bourbon, Alençon and Bar. But this generalship by advisory committee was bound to lead to difficulties. It was probably the reason why so many men went into the vanguard. The young duke of Orléans no doubt thought that he should take a lead position in the vanguard, and so positioned himself at the front, rather than in the main battle; this was after all an opportunity for him to demonstrate to the absent duke of Burgundy that he and the Amargnacs would uphold the honour of France. Having thus broken the plan set at Rouen, it was difficult to prevent the other important lords from taking their places in the vanguard too, if they so wished. This was a great mistake, for it resulted in the crossbowmen being crowded out and sent to the back of the army, where they proved ineffective. Such errors indicate that there was no real generalship in the French army – there was only politics.
This advisory-committee form of generalship led to other problems. For example: when exactly should the fight begin? Although the count of Richemont had arrived with his Breton troops, his brother the duke of Brittany had not. Everyone expected that Brittany would arrive shortly, not knowing that he had no intention of turning up. In the meantime his absence raised the question of whether the French should attack straightaway or wait. The same question had been discussed the previous day, when the two sides had first faced each other. The duke of Bourbon and other courtiers were then all for attacking immediately. The experienced military men – most notably the constable and the marshal – were more wary and inclined to wait for the rest of the army.110 This was wise counsel, for the seigneur de Longny was still eighteen miles away, with the six hundred men-at-arms of the duke of Anjou. As for the duke of Brabant, he was still at Lens, thirty miles away. To be exact, at prime (about seven o’clock) he was attending Mass. At the moment he took Holy Communion, one Robert Daule hurried into the chapel to tell him that the battle with the English would take place before midday. Immediately, the duke told his companions to mark their clothes with the white cross, and set out to fight.111
Another failing which arose from the lack of generalship was the choice of battleground. The French might have succeeded in cutting off the English advance to Calais but in doing so they had placed themselves in a narrow confined space between two woods, and with ground sloping away on either side. Moreover, they were encamped in a ploughed field that had turned into a quagmire as a result of the recent heavy rain – and conditions were going to get worse, with thousands of horses churning up the mud. The ground between the two armies was no firmer, and dangerous for galloping horses. Orléans did not have the experience to order a change of location, and no one else had the authority to suggest they move. No doubt some lords said that it would be dishonourable to back away in order to find better ground, especially when they had six times as many men-at-arms as the English. Those aware of the danger might have found it difficult to suggest a better place to do battle. But the experienced military men could suggest nothing but waiting. The English were dispirited and hungry, and they relied on being attacked – responding to a French advance. The French could continue to starve them in the field. They had time on their side.
As Henry rode out of Maisoncelle on his small white horse and looked across the fields towards the French lines, he saw the undulations of the terrain, and realised how the ground fell away in the trees on either side. There was scope there for arranging an ambush to distract the charging French cavalry. His scouts would have informed him how soft the ground was, and how slippery; but now he would have seen the churned-up mud for himself. He also would have seen the lines of the French vanguard forming up ahead of him, ‘their spears like a forest’, and the wings of mounted cavalry extending towards him.112 The task facing him must have seemed daunting.
The English army began to form up in the same three battles as they had marched from Harfleur. The vanguard under the duke of York took the right-hand side of the field, the Tramecourt side. Henry himself would lead the main battle, which formed up in the centre. On the left-hand side of the field, the Agincourt side, the rearguard formed up, under the command of the old but experienced Sir Thomas, Lord Camoys. The archers hammered their sharpened wooden stakes into the ground before them, and presumably resharpened the points, hoping thereby to prevent a direct onslaught of the French cavalry.113 On their flanks were thorn bushes and hedges, and directly in front of them was a small depression in the ground, meaning that anyone riding against them would have a short but decidedly uphill struggle at the end, before hitting the sharpened stakes. This position was defensible, and the best to withstand a French charge.
As the hour approached prime the last arrangements were made to bring the army into a state of readiness. The archers were ordered to replace their bowstrings. On the right flank Henry sent an esquire with two hundred archers to skirt around the bushes and hedges and to hide in the woods on the Tramecourt side. On the left flank he sent a group of men-at-arms to conceal themselves in the woods on the Agincourt side.114 Those archers in the centre battle were placed to the sides of it, in two ‘wedge’ or triangular formations, close to the archers on the wings. This served to create a tapering corridor through which any French troops would have to charge directly to reach Henry; they would not be able to sweep across the field towards him, or come at the main battle from an angle, due to the stakes as well as the archers themselves. This was important, as Henry knew that the prime objective of the French was to capture or kill him. He had experienced a similar situation when fighting at Shrewsbury in 1403; on that occasion Henry’s father had employed the tactic of having two men-at-arms clothed in royal armour, so that the enemy could not tell which man was actually the king. Guillaume Gruel’s chronicle of the life of the count of Richemont asserts that Henry V employed this same tactic at Agincourt; this was probably an unfounded assertion, based on a later, malicious attempt to detract from Henry’s military reputation.115 Nevertheless, the idea it embodies – that the person of the king was all-important to the outcome of the battle – was undoubtedly true. Hence at the centre of the main battle was a concentrated mass of men-at-arms around the king. Here also were placed Henry’s five banners – representing the Trinity, the Virgin, St George, St Edward the Confessor and of course the royal arms of England – and the banners of the lords whose retinues were present.
There are many speeches recorded for Henry at this point. One chronicle, the Brut, has him asking what time it was; on being told that it was prime, he stated that it was a good time to be about to fight a battle on behalf of England, for many people in England would be at prayer at that hour. Several other chronicles echo this. One has Sir Walter Hungerford’s line about wishing for more men, together with Henry’s Maccabean response, attributing the outcome to God alone. Thomas Elmham’s chronicle has the king recalling the victories of Edward III and his eldest son, the Black Prince, which had been won with fewer men. Thomas Walsingham gave Henry patriotic lines culled from the Roman poet, Lucan. All the English writers, writing long after the event, felt obliged to give Henry suitably patriotic, stirring words – proving him an inspiring leader – even though any precise recollection so long after such a tumultuous event would have been impossible, even for those who had been present. Having said this, it is worth noting that le Fèvre, who was present in the English army, noted that Henry went along the battle line making many speeches, not just one. According to him, Henry told the archers how they could fight secure in the knowledge that the war was a just one, and that the throne of France was his rightful inheritance, and that they had all been born in England where their mothers, fathers, wives and children now were at that very moment, and that ‘the French had boasted that if any English archers were captured, they would cut off the three fingers of their right hand so that neither man nor horse would ever again be killed by their arrows’.116
While le Fèvre’s account of Henry’s speech has a ring of truth, and has a claim to authenticity, it is difficult to know what to make of the speeches attributed to him by the other French writers. For example, Juvénal des Ursins’ version of Henry’s speech has him outlining his claim to the throne of France and that it had fallen to him to make good that claim by conquest.
He had not come as a mortal enemy, for he had not consented to burning, ravaging, violating nor raping girls and women, as they [the French] had done at Soissons; but he wished to conquer gently all that belonged to him, not to cause any destruction at all.117
Quite how one could ‘conquer gently’ is an interesting question; but more importantly the reference to the attack on Soissons in 1414 – when a victorious French army had killed large numbers of Burgundians and raped many women, including nuns – shows that des Ursins’ main reason for making this point was a moral one, and not simply a historical reflection. It was part of the tide of French accusations and blame that immediately followed the battle. He went on to stress how Henry ordered his men to lay aside their personal animosities and embrace each other (implying that the French themselves should have done this), and promised his men the full value of any prisoners they took. He even went so far as to claim that Henry promised that all those fighting there that day would henceforth enjoy the same privileges as noblemen.
The fact is that most of the Englishmen present would not have heard the king’s speeches – only those near enough, as he rode up and down the lines. But the importance of Henry’s speech-making was not so much that he was heard by his men as that he wasseen by them. Just to know he was there was an inspiration to many. His appearance was noted by most of the chroniclers; one described him as
clad in safe and very bright armour: he wore on his head a splendid helmet, with a large crest, and encompassed with a crown of gold and jewels; and on his body a surcoat with the arms of England and France; from which a celestial splendour gleamed on the one side from three golden flowers planted in an azure field; on the other from three golden leopards sporting in a ruby field. Sitting on a noble horse as white as snow, having also horses in waiting royally decorated with the richest trappings, his army were much inspired to martial deeds.118
The king’s appearance was thus of importance to both sides. For the English it was important to know he was sharing their danger, and in control of the army. For the French, the dazzling spectacle of him in his surcoat, armour and crowned helmet was the bait that would draw them charging down the corridor of stakes and archers.
Henry was impatient, waiting for the French to attack. They had made no move for an hour at least. A small number of men-at-arms had ridden out from the French lines and had approached the English army at a gallop, but these had been warned off with a volley of arrows, at Henry’s order.119Now more riders were approaching – heralds.
The English army were jittery. The time for negotiation had passed. Still, if negotiators were seen to be pursuing a dialogue, Henry had to be seen to listen to them.
The chroniclers, writing about these negotiations at a later date, concealed the terms under layers of post-battle propaganda. Some French writers claimed that Henry had previously sent his heralds to the French army asking for safe passage to Calais, offering to cede Harfleur and the castles below Calais, to restore the prisoners he had taken, and to pay 100,000 crowns in recompense. Obviously none of the English writers mention such a shameful request.120
Negotiations of some description did take place, however. It appears most likely that the French sent negotiators to Henry.121 They may have offered him safe passage to Calais in return for significant concessions – including his renunciation of the throne of France.122 But the French were not serious; they were playing for time. Among the negotiators were Guichard Dauphin and Jacques de Heilly.123 When their terms had been formally presented to the English council, and dismissed, the heralds were told to depart. It would appear that de Heilly then offered to fight a personal duel with anyone in the English army who claimed he had escaped his custody in England against the laws of chivalry. Duels before a battle were not uncommon: it was a chance for a man-at-arms to win great prestige, fighting in front of a large crowd of soldiers. But on this occasion it was just another delaying tactic. The troops were anxious; by now it was probably past nine o’clock, and they had been standing still in their battle formations for the best part of three hours. So Henry tersely denied Jacques de Heilly his duel, and told him he could expect to be a prisoner of the English again later that same day.124
While these discussions were taking place the French were also growing restless. Some men received the honour of knighthood: it was said that five hundred French knights were dubbed before the battle. One of them was Philip, count of Nevers, who was knighted by Boucicaut.125 Eighteen men in the company of the seigneur de Croy swore an oath that, when the two sides came together, they would either knock the crown off Henry’s head or they would die trying.126
For Henry, the time wasting was a cause of concern. His men were eager to get the fight over and done with; they were starving. The author of the Gesta, sitting on a horse at the back of the army, thought the French were trying to defeat the English through hunger. Others in the ranks could not understand the reluctance of the French to do battle, considering they had so many men-at-arms. What were they doing? Perhaps this was where the rumour that the French were playing dice for the honour of imprisoning the great lords of England came from. Whatever the cause, the tension was threatening to break the discipline of the army. Henry therefore put the question to his council. What if the English were to do the unthinkable – and attack?
This strategy sounds entirely logical now but it was counter-intuitive to the English military mind of 1415. The textbook longbow victory was achieved by having archers on the flanks, in a defensive position – just as Henry had arranged them – and shooting at the charging enemy as they approached. That had been the secret of the first massed-longbow victory at Dupplin Moor in 1332, and Edward III had perfected the strategy at Halidon Hill in 1333 and Crécy in 1346. Henry was simply following a technique that had been tested over the last eighty years. But to attack with massed longbows was unusual. Henry would have known it could be done on a relatively small scale – he himself had probably used the tactic in Wales, and the late earl of Arundel had helped win the bridge at St-Cloud through an English longbow attack in 1411 – but it was a risky manoeuvre. For a start the English would have to abandon their defensive position and move forward, on foot, for a distance of seven or eight hundred yards – two-thirds of the distance between the two armies. They would have to remove the stakes and reposition them, while exposed to the risk of the French heavy cavalry. Shooting accurately and fast, and advancing quickly in formation, were incompatible.
The situation was best summed up by one English chronicler, in the following passage:
The king, considering that a great part of the short day was already past, and firmly believing that the French were not inclined to move from their position, consulted the most experienced officers of his army whether he should advance with his troops, in the order in which they stood, towards the enemy that was refusing to come towards him. Having fully considered the circumstances of such an important matter, they wisely decided that the king should march with his army towards the enemy, and attack them in the name of God. For they considered that the English army, very much wearied with hunger, illness and marching, was not likely to obtain any refreshment in the enemy’s country, and that the longer they remained there, the more they would suffer from weakness and exhaustion, whereas the enemy, being among friends, could easily obtain whatever they needed, and as a result of the delay, accumulated new and greater strength by the arrival of fresh troops. Therefore the king’s advisers finally concluded that further delay was damaging to the English but advantageous to the French. The king considered it would be difficult and dangerous to leave his position; yet to avoid greater dangers, with the greatest courage, he set his army an example of how they should march towards the enemy, preserving their current formation. He commanded that his own chaplains and all the priests of the army should start to pray, and that heralds should attend only to their own duties, and not take up arms.127
This account is convincing. Henry was frightened to leave his position but he did so anyway. We have noted that Henry was extremely cautious in his strategic moves to this point. He demonstrated a high degree of caution in his choice of landing place at Harfleur, he was very cautious in his attacks on the walls of that town, preferring to blast at them rather than risk sustained assaults. After leaving Harfleur he did not attack any other town and avoided confrontation wherever he could, at Blanchetaque and after leaving Péronne. So for him now to be reluctant to give up his defensive position was entirely in character and understandable. That he did so, and gave the order to advance banners, was a mark of outstanding courage. It proved to be the single most important decision of his life.
One struggles to imagine what went through the minds of the English archers when the word went around to advance. They – the few, hungry and fatigued – were going to advance against this seeming mass of French men-at-arms, their social and military superiors. In order for their bows to work effectively, they would certainly need to be within two hundred yards of the enemy, and preferably less than half that to shoot accurately. A charging mounted man-at-arms could cover a distance of one hundred yards in ten seconds; so the archers could be charged down before they came within effective killing range. The one advantage they had was that they could shoot rapidly. Crossbowmen in such a situation would have been helpless, because they could not shoot quickly enough; but archers could loose a dozen or more arrows a minute. Against a thousand charging knights on horseback, each weighing half a ton and travelling at six hundred yards per minute (twenty miles per hour), this was crucial, for only by bringing down enough horses, could they slow the charge. The question was: could the English archers get close enough to bring down enough horses?
When the order was given to prepare for the banners to advance, the English were terrified but ready. All the men-at-arms had dismounted, and were ready to run in their armour. Some of the archers were preparing to take their stakes with them; others just knew that they had to advance quickly, and decided to leave their stakes behind. Others were probably too scared to know what they should do.128 Many men were praying; many were bending down and putting a small piece of earth into their mouths, preparing for the moment of their death and the Last Judgment. Then, out in front of the massed army rode old Sir Thomas Erpingham with his complement of men-at-arms. At the back, seated on a horse was the author of the Gesta, with the other priests, all of them praying desperately, with their faces turned towards Heaven. ‘Remember us, O Lord, our enemies are gathered together and boast of their excellence. Destroy their strength and scatter them so that they may understand that there is none other that fights for us but You, our God … Have compassion upon us and upon the crown of England …’129
All eyes were fixed on Sir Thomas Erpingham. Those hidden in the woods on the flanks were watching him; the archers in each wing were watching him, and so too was the king. So were the men-at-arms in the main battle. And then, in full view of them all, he yelled out ‘Now Strike!’ and threw a white baton spinning high in the air, for all to see.
A huge shout went up across the English lines and men began moving forward. Everyone was running through the wet mud – archers, men-at-arms, knights and lords – even the king. Sir Thomas Erpingham and his men hurriedly dismounted and joined in the king’s battle, Sir Thomas running forward despite his advanced years. The archers were lightly armed, and were able to run much faster than the men-at-arms in the thick mud. But even they had a struggle; they had to get within range of the French front lines and start shooting arrows before the French cavalry charged into them, and broke their ranks. As they ran, they must have looked ahead and seen that the French had realised what was happening. Some Frenchmen were mounting their horses and beginning to move. Others were shouting to one another to take arms.
Henry’s decision to attack was a stroke of genius. The French were taken by surprise. Gilles le Bouvier noted that at the moment the French heard the English shout, ‘some had gone off to get warm, others to walk and feed their horses, not believing that the English would be so bold as to attack them’.130 Clignet de Brabant, who had been instructed to lead the Tramecourt-side wing in a charge to break up the archers, could only find 120 of the six hundred men he had for the purpose. He could not wait for them all, there was no time. He shouted to those who were ready and charged. The English trumpets sounded, and the archers stopped and loosed a first barrage of arrows at Clignet de Brabant and his cavalry, sending them one by one into the mud or making them crash into one another, leaving riderless horses to charge into the French vanguard, disrupting their advance. At the same time on the Agincourt side of the battlefield, only three hundred men could be found of the six hundred men to form the charge on that wing. They were met with a terrifying hail of arrows from the English and they too turned back, with the exception of Guillaume de Saveuses and two of his men, who charged on fearlessly to their deaths – when they came close enough for the arrows to penetrate their armour.131
A few minutes earlier the French commanders had been wholly confident of victory. Suddenly they had cause for grave concern as their sole means of breaking up the ranks of English archers had shattered on the hailstorm of arrows. The problem was the mud. It was so thick that the men-at-arms on the wings could not gallop. The lightly-armoured English archers were thus able to get close and send showers of steel-headed arrows at them while the French ponderously trudged through the churned-up sludge, slipping this way and that. The horses were terrified at the shouts and trumpets as well as their lack of footing in the quagmire of trodden ground. And it was even worse than they had imagined, for the untrodden land on to which they had charged was a newly ploughed field, with soft earth that had soaked up the rain and now gave way between the horses’ heavy hooves. The English archers were able to run forward again, and shoot for the weak points in the horses’ head and chest armour, and for their legs. If they got within thirty yards, close enough to puncture the steel armour, they could target the men-at-arms themselves, sending the riderless horses careering back terrified into the French vanguard.132
The French commanders could only look on with dismay and mounting consternation as the riders on the wings rode chaotically back into the vanguard. Even those who had not lost their horses, and who had clung on, had great difficulty controlling their steeds as they careered in panic away from the arrows. No horses could have been trained to face such an onslaught, and nor could their riders have expected their sudden inability to ride together in formation. There was only one option left open: to sound the trumpets commanding a full onslaught of all the troops, and to overwhelm the English through sheer force of numbers. To this end they followed what must have been a pre-arranged plan, dividing into three columns – one for each of the English battles. They charged together – men and steel spears aiming for the hearts of the English commanders, where the standards of the duke of York, the king and Lord Camoys were being held aloft.133
Few Englishmen can ever have seen a charge of eight thousand men-at-arms. None of the Englishmen at Agincourt that day had done. No one can have been confident that they would withstand such a colossal attack. But they all knew what they had to do. They were engaged in a fight for their lives. They had been facing death since leaving Harfleur, and it showed in their readiness to throw themselves into the fray. The French on the other hand had thought up until now that they were simply engaged in a quest for glory – it had not occurred to them that they might actually lose this battle. Their confidence had been rocked. And it was shaken even more as they charged, alarmed, and in confusion, for the two hundred English archers hidden in the woods on the Tramecourt side of the battlefield opened their shoulders and let fly a barrage of arrows. Turning to face them, the French on the duke of York’s side were distracted; and the next thing they knew, the duke of York’s archers ahead were advancing towards them. Between them, the English archers were shooting about a thousand arrows every second, penetrating their armour, killing the horses beneath them, and making them rise up and fall over. Barrages of arrows were loosed, the coordinated flights of steel points a testimony to Henry’s determination to bring his own self-doubt and all the questioning of his legitimacy to a final, deadly resolution.
At the back of the English army, the priests had thrown themselves on the ground at the first sign of the French advance, begging that God in His Mercy might ‘spare them from this iron furnace and terrible death’. If they had looked up at that moment, they would have seen the strange fruit that grew from the seed of the massed archers’ arrows: huge piles of dead and dying men and horses, higher than the height of a man – more than two spears’ height. It had been remarked on at the first great longbow victory, at Dupplin Moor: the charging men could not retreat, so they had to scramble over the dying men and horses in front of them. But at a rate of a thousand arrows a second, no one could escape for long – and those climbing were also shot, making the barrier higher. Those at the bottom were held immobile and crushed. Some suffocated. The French could not find a way around the dead and dying, as the woods on either side held them to the same small patch of ground. Those in the third rank of one column of the French vanguard were so tightly packed they could not use their swords. And they could see their heroes being struck down and turning in flight. For those near them, it was deeply disturbing to see men like Guichard Dauphin and the count of Vendôme yelling at their men to retreat.134
Such were the numbers of French men-at-arms clambering over the dying front ranks that it seemed to the English that God was holding their enemies helpless for them, presenting them to be slaughtered. But not all the English were finding it easy to pick off the men-at-arms. The column of Frenchmen that pressed hardest was that facing the duke of York. It was here that the fighting was fiercest. The archers may have run out of arrows, allowing the French the advantage as they came on. And wearing quilted leather, not steel armour, they were no match for the fully-armed men-at-arms. Their best hope in the hand-to-hand fighting was a previously unknown weapon: a weighted, sharp-pointed mallet designed for penetrating steel armour and helmets: a poleaxe.135 With these, and normal axes, the archers fought against the French knights and esquires, hacking and bludgeoning them with short, rapid sweeps. But the French men-at-arms were trained to deal with hand-to-hand warfare. Gradually they advanced on the duke of York’s standard. The battle was so furious, so bitter, that all thoughts of taking prisoners had long since vanished. Englishmen tried to use their poleaxes to crush the helmets of the attacking Frenchmen; the French wielded their swords to cut and kill the English archers. In the duke of York’s own retinue ninety men were killed as they fought to protect their lord.136 Despite their great struggle, the French managed to break through and strike the duke himself. Down went the king’s much-loved cousin into the mud, fighting to his death for his king. All his regrets about his brother’s treason died there in the mud with him.137
York was not the only English casualty. The young earl of Suffolk, eager to prove himself after his recent inheritance, was killed. So too was the recently dubbed knight, Sir John Mortimer of Worcestershire, and Sir Richard Kyghley of Lancashire, Sir John Skidmore of Herefordshire, Dafydd Gam of Breconshire, and many archers.138 At this stage of the battle the English began to sustain terrible wounds from the swords of the French. But even on the hard-pressed duke of York’s side, the lords who were second-in-command (probably Sir Gilbert Umphraville and Sir John Cornwaille) rallied the men so that the line did not break. And gradually the English became aware that they were actually holding the French and forcing them back. The French had no room for all their heavily armoured men. They could not retreat, due to the press of men behind them, nor advance, due to the strength of the English ahead. So the French onslaught turned into a supply chain of victims as each man fell and left room for another cumbersome man to wield his sword against the English poleaxes. The English, still in a state of terror, killed every Frenchman they could see in a few crazed minutes of frantic, panic-stricken killing. For these few minutes, as the men in the central French battle pressed forward, those in the column attacking the king were simply pushed towards the English men-at-arms, who slaughtered them bloodily in a kill-or-be-killed frenzy. Indeed, the word ‘kill’ is the operative one in most accounts of this stage of the battle. ‘No one was captured; many were killed,’ commented one chronicler, continuing ‘the English were increasingly eager to kill for it seemed there was no hope of safety except in victory. They killed those near them and then those who followed …’139 Thus the French were pushed to their ignominious, bloody deaths in the mud.
When the French did stop pushing forward, it was not because of a general’s command: the men at the rear were beginning to withdraw. This allowed the English men-at-arms with Henry to break through the central column of the vanguard. When that happened, all was suddenly confusion in the French army – there were no columns, no vanguard, no main battle, just a mass of desperate men fighting for their lives, or trying to surrender and being killed as they tried to give themselves up. Few Englishmen had time to take prisoners. It was at this point, when the English were making real advances into the French ranks that the intensity of the fighting around the king increased to an uncontrollable level. Some French knights – some French chronicles give the credit to the duke of Alençon – burst through and hacked their way towards the king. The king’s bodyguard came under attack, and fell back. The king’s brother, Humphrey, fell backwards under the force of the French onslaught, wounded in the groin, and was lying in a precarious position until Henry himself stepped forward and stood astride him, swinging his battle axe, fighting directly against the front rank of the enemy. In those long, exposed moments, while Henry fought in person, the French realised that the king of England was within their reach and redoubled their efforts to kill him. Someone – perhaps the duke of Alençon, or perhaps one of the eighteen men of the seigneur de Croy who had sworn to knock the crown from Henry’s helmet – managed to break through and bring an axe down on his head. But they only succeeded in hacking off a portion of the gold crown; and as soon as the blow had landed the protagonist was beaten back by the knights who came to Henry’s assistance, rescuing both the king and his brother in the same forward movement.140
This was the scene that confronted the duke of Brabant as he arrived now, about midday, having ridden hard from Lens, thirty miles away. He must have been exhausted. His horses must have been similarly exhausted. He stopped near a thicket and, seeing the dire situation in which the French army now found itself, realised that he had little time to prepare for battle. His armour, surcoats and accoutrements of war were all in his baggage many miles behind – so he had one of his chamberlains, Gobelet Vosken, take off his armour. He ordered one of his trumpeters to tear off the Brabant coat of arms hanging from his trumpet and, having made a hole in the material, put it over his head as a makeshift surcoat. Another trumpeter handed over the Brabant arms to serve as a flag for the duke’s lance. Then, together with the few companions who had been able to keep up with him on the road from Lens, he yelled his war cry, ‘Brabant! Brabant!’, and set his spurs to charge into the fray.141
One chronicler stated that the duke of Brabant arrived with very few men – just those of his household – ‘right at the point of defeat’.142 In one respect this was true; the balance had shifted. Many French were lying in the mud, bleeding to death, or trapped by their horses, or suffocating under a mass of bodies. Some were in flight. One of the duke’s own men, John de Grymberg, who had the hereditary right to carry the Brabant banner, took one look at the battlefield and galloped as fast as he could in the opposite direction.143 But according to the Burgundian writers, the rearguard – or some body of men-at-arms that amounted to a rearguard – was still mounted at this point. The French who had taken flight were regrouping in companies.144
In the confusion, few people could establish what was happening. This regrouping by the French seems to have coincided with an attack on the English baggage wagons. The way almost all the chroniclers describe this attack is as an opportunistic looting spree; but there are good reasons to believe it was a planned attack on the English, directed by a French commander. This would mean that the point at which the duke of Brabant arrived was not the end of the battle. It only appeared to be so with the benefit of hindsight.
When Henry had given the order to advance banners, he had also taken the precaution of ordering the baggage wagons to close up on the rear of the English army. Only ten men-at-arms and twenty archers had been guarding the baggage, so it fell to them and the carters to bring forward the wagons and the horses, and to help the sick and the injured, and to protect the pages stationed at the rear. They had only partially accomplished this task – if, indeed, they had started it. So the baggage and horses remained largely in and around the village of Maisoncelle. It was attacked here by Isambard d’Agincourt, Riflart de Clamance, Robinet de Bourneville and other men-at-arms, together with six hundred local men, mainly drawn from Hesdin.145 The fact that men-at-arms were involved suggests that this was not meant to be a self-seeking raiding party, even if it turned into one. Nor was it without organisation – an attack on the English baggage had been envisaged in the first battle plan, drawn up at Rouen on or about the 12th. The French were attempting to do what the Black Prince had done at Poitiers when the battle was turning against him. On that occasion the prince sent a small body of men to unfurl his banner at the rear of the French army, and to attack the king of France’s battle from behind; it only took a small number of troops on that occasion to cause confusion throughout the whole army. Such distractions could be decisive. But bringing them about was not easy. Hence local men, who knew the land, had been sent to find their way around to attack the English from behind. The problem was that they had taken too long. When they came across such rich plunder as the English horses and the king’s jewels, they delayed further, to help themselves. They found a sword set in a jewel-encrusted gold scabbard that was supposed to have belonged to King Arthur, and two crowns of gold, the orb, many precious stones and a gold cross containing a piece of the True Cross. This failure to bring the baggage forward was a huge piece of luck, for the raid did not distract the English at all, and they continued to hold the French onslaught.146
By the time the men of Hesdin attacking the baggage wagons had been driven off, it was too late. The French line of defence was breaking up. The army was in flight. Those still mounted probably got away quite easily, as their opponents could not chase them and the archers had run out of arrows. But many – probably the majority – had lost their horses. Hundreds were lying under the huge piles of dead men, their limbs broken, or bleeding heavily from arrow wounds, or simply unable to extricate themselves from the piles or from under their dead horses. Those in armour knew their part was done. They could await discovery, and would in due course agree a ransom. For them there was no danger. Any wounded infantry on the battlefield knew their fate would be quite different; those who could still walk were no doubt trying to flee, or hide themselves as well as they could.
In London, shocking news reached the capital today, ‘replete with sadness and cause of endless sorrow’: there had been a great battle in which the English army had been defeated.147 The particulars were shrouded in mystery; it was not even known whether the king had been killed or taken prisoner. No doubt Henry’s brother, the duke of Bedford, and his uncle, Chancellor Beaufort, enquired of the mayor-elect what he had heard from merchants coming from France. But no further information was available.
It was about one o’clock in the afternoon. Henry was still anxious, lest the many men-at-arms who had fled managed to regroup and launch another attack; but most of the French had dispersed. Attention now turned to the piles of dead and wounded. The English pulled corpses off the piles, looking for lords trapped alive underneath. They checked the men lying in the mud. Lords and men-at-arms were dragged to their feet and forced to relinquish their weapons, their gauntlets and helmets; then placed under guard, to be led away by their captors. In this way, the marshal of France, the great Boucicaut, was captured by a humble esquire called William Wolf, and the bellicose duke of Bourbon was taken prisoner by Ralph Fowne esquire. Sir John Gray took the count of Eu; Sir John Cornwaille captured the count of Vendôme. Ghillebert de Lannoy, chamberlain of the count of Charolais, was found amid a pile of dead men with a wound in his knee and another to his head. The duke of Orléans was pulled out from under a pile of dead men by Sir Richard Waller. The young count of Richemont had been covered in so much blood from the dying men on top of him that no one recognised the arms on his surcoat.148
These were the lucky ones. Those of no great value would have had their throats sliced open with a sword, or had a final vision of an axe suddenly coming down into their face. There were some exceptions. Two of the prisoners claimed by Lord Fitzhugh were a man-at-arms called Jean Garyn and his servant. The servant would normally have been despatched with a knife through his windpipe – but in this case his master was prepared to pay a ransom for him.149 Some men managed to escape from the battlefield despite their wounds. Even then they had to hide themselves: they were liable to be killed by the local men, who hated the Armagnac army on account of the pillaging and rapes they and their communities had endured. If they found a defenceless man-at-arms they killed him and stripped him of his clothes and possessions.150
Suddenly, while the English were occupied taking prisoners, there was a shout of alarm: the French were about to launch a new attack. The chronicle of Ruisseauville claimed that this was due to Clignet de Brabant having rallied the remaining French men-at-arms. Basset’s chronicle states the men had been rallied by Guillaume de Tybouville. Des Ursins’ account states the new threat was not a case of men being rallied but the appearance of a wholly new force, led by the duke of Brittany. While we know this last suggestion is wrong – for the duke was still at Amiens – it was quite credible at the time; indeed we know that the seigneur de Longny was just three miles from the battlefield with the duke of Anjou’s six hundred men-at-arms. Other writers assumed it was the arrival of the duke of Brabant that caused the alarm; and although the duke himself was probably already a prisoner, the rest of his men might have been spotted approaching the battlefield. What is certain is that the new threat was sufficient to cause Henry to panic. He ordered all the prisoners who were not of the royal blood to be killed immediately.151
Of all the events connected with Agincourt, this massacre is by far the most controversial. It causes anger and division among English and French historians even today.152 Some have suggested Henry’s order amounted to a war crime – and although the modern concept of war crimes did not exist in 1415, Henry’s order was against contemporary morality, against the law of chivalry (which demanded that one spare one’s prisoners), against Henry’s own ordinances of war, and against Christian teaching. These prisoners were, after all, unarmed, fellow Christians, and had given themselves up. On the other hand, many historians have wanted to stress that Henry had no choice; he had to ensure that he won the battle and protected his men. This self-defence argument has two dimensions: first, that Henry could not spare the men to guard the prisoners because he needed every hand to fight the enemy; second, if he had not killed the prisoners they could have started to fight for their fellow Frenchmen. For the majority of English historians, still wedded to the post-Shakespearian ‘great-man’ view of Henry, this is the only way of presenting him: he made a hard decision in the nick of time, and saved his army.
In determining which line to tread between these two extremes – or, indeed, whether to accept one of the extremes – a number of points need to be carefully considered. The first is that we may dismiss the often-repeated notion that it was the attack on the baggage wagons that caused Henry to order the massacre. Although this is to be found in some fifteenth-century chronicles, this reflects an attempt in later years to shift the blame for the massacre on to the French looters. The vast majority of early accounts point to a second or regrouped army as the cause of alarm.153 In addition, there is a logical point ruling it out. Ghillebert de Lannoy wrote a memoir in which he described being taken to a house with ten or twelve other prisoners, after being pulled out of one of the piles of dying men.154 There was thus a considerable delay between the taking of prisoners and the massacre: long enough to take the prisoners back to Maisoncelle to lock them up in houses. As the baggage wagons were also still in Maisoncelle, an attack by several hundred local men here cannot have occurred so late in the day without considerable fighting: there would have been enough armed Englishmen around to fight them off. Certainly Isambard d’Agincourt and his men would not have had unfettered access to the men-at-arms’ horses and the king’s jewels. The attack on the English baggage belongs to the earlier phase of the battle, while the main fight was still in progress, long before Henry ordered the massacre.
How significant was the new threat? Three years after the battle, Thomas Elmham wrote, ‘there was indeed a great throng of people. The English killed the French they had taken prisoner for the sake of protecting their rear. Praise was given to God.’155 Tito Livio Frulovisi, writing many years later, also referred to large numbers of new men, claiming that
Henry immediately prepared to fight another army of the enemy, no less than the first. Considering that the English were exhausted by so long and hard a fight, and because they saw that they held so many prisoners – so many that they came to the same number as themselves – they feared they might have to fight another battle against both the prisoners and the enemy. So they put many to death …’156
These English statements about the arrival of a substantial new army do not tally with the English and Burgundian eyewitness accounts. They also clash with the French accounts, which associate the massacre with the arrival of new forces. De Lannoy and Thomas Basin both mention the arrival of the duke of Brabant in person as the cause – though how much de Lannoy could have known, being locked in a house in Maisoncelle at the time, is doubtful. And as we have seen the duke of Brabant did not bring a numerous army; he had travelled too fast for more than a few dozen men to accompany him on his thirty-mile dash from Lens. It cannot have been the remainder of his men who were arriving, as they can hardly have travelled the thirty miles so quickly. However, even if it was the rest of the duke’s men, then we must remember that he had undertaken to bring a total of 1,400 men-at-arms and six hundred crossbowmen in total – and some of them had travelled with the duke and some were already at Agincourt. So the largest new force that can have been seen approaching must have been considerably less than two thousand men, accompanied by fewer than a thousand pages. As the English had lost no more than six hundred men, the ‘new army’ cannot have amounted to more than a third of the English army. The same argument applies to the men of the duke of Anjou. If Henry ordered the massacre because of intelligence that the seigneur de Longny had a force of six hundred men-at-arms three miles away, then his decision was clearly an over-reaction. To constitute an imminent threat, the French ‘new army’ would have had to be both substantial and visible; but if any large, new force actually appeared on the battlefield, the majority of chroniclers would have noted its appearance. Not one does. Thus we may be confident that any ‘new army’ was distant from, as well as much smaller than, the English force, and did not push Henry into ordering the massacre.
The majority of accounts, including those of eyewitnesses, state that it was the regrouping of French men-at-arms that caused Henry to kill the prisoners. This is a far more credible explanation. A large body of men gathering on the actual battlefield would have constituted an immediate and serious threat. That it was a snap decision – albeit one taken in conjunction with leading members of the council – is made clear by the fact that it eventually proved an unnecessary precaution. In the end there was no second French attack. Nor can the massacre itself be said to have prevented that second attack, as it took place out of sight of the regrouping Frenchmen, in and around Maisoncelle.157 It was thus a decision made suddenly, and unfortunately, in the face of a perceived imminent risk.
According to the author of the Gesta, the order to kill the prisoners was made as a result of the French ‘rearguard’ re-establishing their position and line of battle in order to attack. The official French chronicle, written by a monk of St Denis, vaguely parallels this, stating that a group of warriors on the edge of the vanguard made a movement to the rear to withdraw from the blind fury of the fighting, and that their withdrawal triggered the massacre. Clearly this does not fit with the time needed to take prisoners like de Lannoy from under the piles of dead and remove them to a house to lock them up; but it tallies in referring to a regrouping of men-at-arms at the rear of the French army. If the Ruisseauville chronicler was correct in stating that it was Clignet de Brabant who organised the regrouping, then this also tallies with the official chronicle, as Clignet had led one of the first attacks on the archers and must have withdrawn to re-organise his men. Finally, and most crucially, the two Burgundian eyewitnesses, le Fèvre and Waurin, state that the rearguard and ‘centre division’, which had previously been put to flight by Henry’s main battle, regrouped and showed signs of wanting to fight: ‘marching forward in battle order’.158
In this last statement we have a version of events that is both supported by the eyewitness accounts and consistent with the chronology of events and the scale of imminent threat necessary to provoke a sudden and (as it turned out) unnecessary massacre. But if the above analysis leads us to an understanding of the circumstances in which Henry made his decision – reacting to a large number of men marching towards him across the battlefield, not a small second army three miles away – it still does not allow us to say it was wholly justified. How many men had regrouped? How many prisoners were there? How real was this threat?
The key word in the account of Waurin and le Fèvre is ‘marching’. The French could no longer use their horses due to the large piles of dead and dying men and horses that littered the battlefield. The narrow shape of the field prevented the regrouped men from riding around the piles of the dead in formation. One might add that, if the regrouped men had been able to charge, there would have been no time for the killing of the prisoners to be carried out. Thus we may be sure that the regrouped force was on foot. It must have been numerous too, to consider attacking the English again – at least as many men-at-arms as the 1,500 on the English side. But many French men-at-arms were dead, many had been taken prisoner, and many had fled (the seigneur de Longny encountered some of the latter, and they persuaded him also to flee). The best-informed French chronicles mostly agree with the number of fatalities around the four thousand mark – a figure that includes the prisoners now killed by the English. Even if three thousand men-at-arms had actually fled, this still left two or three thousand men-at-arms possibly rallying, and perhaps they still had some vestiges of the infantry and crossbowmen with them. Although the English had lost relatively few men – the chronicles of Ruisseauville and Monstrelet suggest six hundred English fatalities, and only le Fèvre and Waurin give a higher number (1,600) – they had run out of arrows. Hence, the advance of two or three thousand men-at-arms was a very serious matter.
The problems with this line of argument are the manner and scale of the killing. According to le Fèvre and Waurin, the Englishmen at first did not want to kill their prisoners, as that would render them worthless. This would be in line with English military tradition. At St-Cloud, when John the Fearless ordered all the prisoners to be executed for treason, the English had refused, saying that ‘they had not come as butchers, to kill the folk in market or in fair’ but to ransom them.159 However, the very reluctance of the Englishmen to kill their prisoners at Agincourt suggests that a number were not convinced of the danger. As some of the prisoners were locked up in houses, like de Lannoy, this is not surprising. But when Henry realised his men had lost focus, and were more mindful of profit than their strategic position, he assigned the task to an esquire and two hundred archers, who set about cutting the prisoners’ throats. Two hundred: if the action had to be done hastily, then two hundred men could not have quickly cut the throats of a much larger number of men in armour without risking being overpowered. That the matter was indeed a matter of urgency is clear from the account of de Lannoy – the house in which he and his companions were being held was simply set alight, so his fellow prisoners were burnt alive.160 If, say, a thousand prisoners had been divided to be killed separately or in small groups, this itself would have taken time; in which case the two hundred archers might as well have guarded the prisoners as killed them. Unless le Fèvre and Waurin were completely wrong in their estimate of two hundred archers being assigned to the job, then it is simply not credible that there were more than three or four hundred prisoners at this stage of the battle – at the very most. The suggestion that there were thousands massacred is not only without direct evidence, it conflicts with the eyewitness evidence that we do have. In all probability, the majority of the four thousand dead Frenchmen were lying in the mud on the battlefield, and were not slaughtered in cold blood by the English; and lying there among them were the majority of the prisoners who were later found alive and eventually ransomed.
On this basis we can start to evaluate the second of the key strategic decisions that Henry made during this battle (the first being the order to advance). A mass withdrawal by the French men-at-arms took place, allowing the English tentatively to think they had won the day, and to start to take prisoners. They had gathered a few hundred French men-at-arms, who were disarmed and taken back to Maisoncelles – a process that must have taken at least half-an-hour, if not longer. The English were thus taken by surprise when the French, who had been regrouping on the far side of the field, perhaps in the vicinity of their camp, began to advance on foot in formation towards them. Realising the sudden danger, and probably aware that other French armies were in the vicinity, Henry had the task of bringing his arrowless archers to order, and found they were more mindful of profit than strategy. When they failed to respond to his immediate order to put the prisoners to the sword, Henry delegated the task to an esquire and two hundred men, while having the trumpets sound for the remainder to form up once more. The esquire and his men did their duty as quickly as possible, going to Maisoncelle and burning some men alive and cutting other men’s throats. While the killing was in progress, it seems that Henry sent heralds to the advancing army asking them whether they meant to fight or whether they would leave the field.161 It is likely that Henry told the advancing French that he had killed the prisoners, thereby removing one profound reason for them to renew the fighting, for many of the men-at-arms would have felt obliged to try to rescue their fellow men. As it was, they were too few in number to overwhelm the regrouping English, and lost the element of surprise in their long march over the fields. When told of the deaths of the prisoners, their resolution to continue the fight must have dissolved, and they dispersed.
The above allows us to understand the closing phase of the battle, and why Henry gave the order to kill the prisoners. It was not that there were so many he feared they might constitute a second front; it was because the regrouping French took him by surprise and he suddenly needed his men to concentrate once more on the battle, not on the value of their prisoners. There was also a strategic advantage in killing them. But although we may thus understand his decision, and why he made it, there can be no getting away from the fact that it was made in haste and was to his everlasting shame. If telling the advancing French that he had killed the prisoners was of strategic advantage, then he could have told them this without actually killing them. Better still he could have threatened to kill them. By all the standards of the time, the killing was an ungodly act, and no way to win the love or respect of the people whom he sought to rule as king.
The battle was over. According to Monstrelet, Henry summoned the French heralds to him, to ask them to whom the day belonged. The French and English heralds agreed that it was an English victory. Henry then delivered a speech, thanking God, and asking the name of the castle nearby. On being told it was Agincourt, he named the battle after the site – a scene famously repeated in Shakespeare’s play. However, this dialogue was probably a literary device. The herald le Fèvre, in his account of the naming of the battle, fails to mention the presence of any heralds, French or English. He states Henry asked his fellow lords for the name of the castle, and named the battle after it. And even this detail is open to question. Henry would have known the name of the castle – he had been controlling the movements of thousands of men in the immediate area for the last twenty-four hours. Had he not known the name of the only visible castle, the most significant landmark near the battlefield, that would not have filled his commanders with confidence.
How long had the battle taken? Sources on the whole are keen to stress how little time it took. One chronicle – Ruisseauville – states that it was all over in half an hour; another, that of the count of Richemont, suggests less than an hour.162 The author of theGesta, who had been watching the whole battle from the back of the English lines, stated that it took two or three hours for the English to put the vanguard to flight.163 The arrival of the duke of Brabant ahead of his men is perhaps the best indicator. Having heard about the battle at prime, and ridden thirty miles at the fastest speed possible, with men in armour along muddy roads, he cannot have arrived much before noon, even if he and his men had a change of horses. If the English advance took place at ten o’clock, and the vanguard had not quite been put to flight at noon, then probably another few minutes passed before the French were in flight, and it was not until one o’clock at the earliest that the regrouped French advanced and Henry gave the order for the prisoners to be killed.
It then began to rain again.164
Still Henry held his men in formation. Probably not until four o’clock did he return to Maisoncelle to dine.165 His reason for holding his men there, in the rain, was not just defensive. He wanted them to be silent, and to reflect on the day, and to listen to him. He gave a speech – or again, more probably several speeches – in which he thanked them for their courage, and encouraged them to remember that day as a sure sign of the justice of his cause, and of the efforts he was making to recover the lands of his ancestors. He also told them not to be blinded by pride, or to attribute the victory to their own strengths but to acknowledge that all the credit for the victory belonged to God, who had given their small number victory over a larger army and laid low the French lords in their pride. Finally he urged them to be grateful that they had lost so few men.166 He ordered that the bodies of the duke of York and the earl of Suffolk be boiled that evening, and their bones sent home to England to be buried in the places specified in their wills – York at Fotheringay and Suffolk at Wingfield. As for the rest of the English dead, which probably numbered six hundred, he ordered their bodies to be gathered and placed in houses and barns in Maisoncelle, and there burnt.167 The army would march towards Calais in the morning. He did not have time to give the few hundred Englishmen who had died in his cause a Christian burial.
After Henry returned to Maisoncelle, and the army was told to stand down, archers crossed the battlefield stripping corpses of their armour. Where living men of rank were found, they were hauled back to the village as prisoners. In this way, although the soldiers had lost their first few hundred ransoms, they replaced those with almost everyone they could find alive. Contemporary English estimates of the total number of prisoners taken were between seven and eight hundred. The names of nearly three hundred prisoners are known.168
As they searched for prisoners, they found the bodies of the French lords, their ostentatious armour covered in mud, rivulets of rain running over the metal and their cold limbs. The most impressive suits of armour were the first to be looted. Very soon the corpses of the great lords of France were lying almost naked, in nothing but their linen underwear, soiled with mud and the contents of their bowels. Here lay the duke of Bar and his brother John; there the duke of Alençon. Here lay the counts of Vaudémont and Roucy; there lay the count of Marle and the seigneur of Grandpré. The archbishop of Sens had taken arms and fought with the secular lords: he too lay lifeless in the mud. The constable of France, Charles d’Albret, lay dead, and the seigneur de Bacqueville. So too did the seneschal of Hainault. The duke of Brabant lay some distance away from the battlefield, stripped of the armour borrowed from Gobelet Vosken. No one had recognised him; wearing a torn trumpet banner as a surcoat had made him appear most unlike a duke. Vosken too was dead. The duke’s younger brother, Philip, count of Nevers, was also dead. All eighteen of the men of the seigneur de Croy who had sworn to knock the crown from Henry’s head had died in the attempt. David de Rambures was dead, lying near the corpses of his three sons. Oudart, the seigneur de Renty, lay dead with two of his brothers. Four sons of Enguerrand de Gribauval were dead. Four thousand men were being stripped of their armour, their clothes and their dignity, and left naked in the mud. About 1,400–1,500 of them were lords, knights and esquires, including one hundred knights banneret. Probably half the French men-at-arms who fought in the battle did not leave it alive or were led away as prisoners of the English.169
At supper that evening, Henry directed that he should be waited on by the captured French princes. According to the chronicle of Ruisseauville, he asked them how the situation appeared to them. They had no option but to admit it constituted an English victory. On which note Henry began to preach about it not being an English victory but the work of God and the Virgin Mary, and of St George, because of the sins of the French, who had gone to war proudly, and raped both married women and young girls in the process, and stolen from the countryfolk and robbed churches. ‘Look at my men,’ declared Henry, ‘they never mounted on women, nor robbed men or the Church’.170 Another account has him saying that it was a great wonder that the French had not fared worse because
it was evil and sin to which they had abandoned themselves. They had not kept faith or loyalty with any living soul in their marriages or in other matters. They had committed sacrilege in robbing and violating churches. They had taken by force all kinds of people, nuns and others. They had robbed the whole population and had destroyed them without cause …171
In the course of the evening some emissaries came to him from the French who had not been captured. They asked for permission to go among the dead and look for their lords and friends. Henry said that, because of the late hour, they could not; but they might the following day. According to the Ruisseauville chronicle, when this answer had been given, Henry ordered five hundred men to go among the dead with axes, to kill anyone who remained alive and to remove what armour they could.172 This latter point may well be propaganda; for le Fèvre states that Henry, when told that his archers were taking the armour from the battlefield, ordered that no one should take more than he needed. The rest was to be placed in a barn with the collected bodies of the English dead, and burnt.173
Quite what the dukes of Orléans and Bourbon thought of this, as they waited on Henry at his table, stretches the imagination. That morning they had been preparing for a straightforward clearing up of the weakened English forces. The duke of Bourbon had been looking forward to this fight all year. The duke of Orléans had been appointed commander of the army. Then they had seen their army crushed, they had seen their friends, family and companions killed and the laws of chivalry flouted in a massacre of unarmed men. They had heard Henry lecture them on the morality of the French troops – as if he was doing God’s work in invading the kingdom of France, destroying Harfleur, sending diseases throughout his own army, killing Frenchmen and leading his own people into battle in pursuit of a claim that they did not believe was justified. And on top of all this they must have wondered, why them? Where was the duke of Brittany? Where was the duke of Burgundy and his son the count of Charolais? Where were the king and the dauphin? Where was Tanneguy du Chastel? All of these men had purposely avoided the battle. The count of Charolais had been taken to Aire on his father’s orders, and prevented from fighting. For the young duke of Orléans in particular it must have been a very bitter pill. The defeat would be portrayed by John the Fearless as an Armagnac failure. He would be blamed. The rift in the kingdom of France, which had opened with John the Fearless’s murder of Orléans’ father eight years earlier, had culminated in a disaster of such magnitude that reconciliation was now impossible.
For Henry, the message of the day was a confirmation that God approved of him. If the French had died because of the mud, then it was so because God had made it rain, so he could show favour to Henry and punish the lustful, greedy, proud French. And although the army had not been exactly a royal one – the king of France had not been present, nor the dauphin – God had delivered him the victory over many members of the French royal family, Burgundians as well as Armagnacs. It served to justify his claim to the throne of France. Thus the day marked a turning point in his life for he was able to portray his victory as a miracle. It was later said that St George was seen at the height of the battle, fighting on the English side.174 Men who were too weak to draw their bows before the battle miraculously found themselves able to draw and shoot with ease.175 Chroniclers were encouraged to exaggerate the size of the French army and the numbers of dead, and to minimise the size of the English army. No English chronicler wrote about the hundreds of English dead – most state that fewer than forty Englishmen died. Their numbers were downplayed to enhance the miraculous dimension of the victory, and the names of many of those killed – even some of the knights – were erased in order to enhance the miraculous nature of the victory. So sure was Henry that the victory represented the benevolence of God that he ordered that the names of St Crispin and St Crispinian should be repeated to him in a Mass every day for the rest of his life.176
But when at the end of this long day, he finally slept, something essential had changed. Henry had demonstrated to his contemporaries that he had God’s blessing in ruling by the sword. His divinely sanctioned victory meant that to carry on fighting was not only justifiable, it was God’s work. He had to do it. He was God’s instrument.
This morning Henry was up very early. He walked across the battlefield, looking at all the corpses. Where his men found Frenchmen alive, they either took them prisoner or killed them. Many Englishmen were amazed that so many of the corpses had already been stripped of all their armour and clothing. Between the pilfering of the local people and the looting of the English, the nobility of France had been left ‘naked just like those newly born’ in the mud.177
After the battlefield had been scoured for any more French lords who had survived the night, and who could be taken prisoner and ransomed, the battlefield was abandoned, and the naked bodies left where they were. Henry ordered the army to move out. It was forty-five miles to Calais. The loss of a large number of horses during the raid by Isambard d’Agincourt and the men of Hesdin meant that many men had to walk. Many of the lesser prisoners also had to walk. For those on foot, it was a three-day journey to Calais.
After the battle the servants and friends of the Frenchmen who had been killed returned to the scene. The duke of Brabant’s body was found some way from the battlefield. It was naked and showed he had been wounded in the face and neck. He was one of the prisoners killed when the French had regrouped. Those who found the body were amazed that such an important man could be butchered in such a fashion. It seemed like an unchivalric, godless act. Sorrowfully they lifted his body and took it to Saint-Pol, where it was embalmed, ready for transportation to Brussels, to be buried.178
News of the defeat reached the king and dauphin at Rouen. The old king, despite his illness, must have recognised instantly that this was the most terrible news of his thirty-five years on the throne. He asked who had died. Seven royal cousins, he was told. The duke of Bar and his brother, the duke of Brabant and his brother, the duke of Alençon, the count of Marle and Charles d’Albret. One can imagine the silent moment of disbelief that followed, as each man came to the king’s mind and then was acknowledged as dead. The messengers then told him the full extent of the tragedies – the deaths of the seigneur de Bacqueville, bearer of the Oriflamme, and Guichard Dauphin. The messengers went on to describe the particularly heavy casualties among the men of Hainault. The total of the French dead, they told him, was four thousand men-at-arms, including 1,400 knights and esquires.179
Then they told him about the captured dukes of Orléans and Bourbon, and the counts of Vendôme and Richemont, and all the royal and noble prisoners.
In London, news about Agincourt had yet to arrive. It was still believed that the English had been defeated, and the fate of the king was as yet unknown. Thus it was in a solemn mood that the people of London prepared to swear in their new mayor, Nicholas Wotton.
The campaign looked to have been a disaster. It had been costly and had succeeded only in taking one town, which could be expected soon to be retaken by the French. Many men had fallen ill. The earl of Arundel was not the only one to have died since being sent home sick. Sir John Daubridgecourt, a Knight of the Garter and a close friend of Henry’s, who had attended the siege of Harfleur in the company of the incapacitated duke of Clarence, had also died.180 If this news about an English defeat was true, and the king was dead, what was it all for? Henry had gambled with the legitimacy of his entire dynasty – everything his father and the Lancastrian family’s retainers and supporters had risked their lives for – and lost. The thought must have occurred to many people at Westminster that, if the king had been killed in battle, it was to be expected that the Southampton plot would be praised and the earl of Cambridge seen as a martyr. In time someone else would try to rid England of its dubious dynasty.
Henry arrived at Guines, the English-held castle to the south of Calais, and there took up his quarters with his close companions and the most noble French prisoners. Here he held a council meeting to determine whether he should press on and try to extend the war. It occurred to him that, as he had a fully mobilised army with him, he might use it to attack the town of Ardres, which was not far away. There were other French-held forts in the Marches of Calais too; these perhaps were now vulnerable? But his councillors strongly advised him to desist from any further warfare. They told him that such victories as he had received, miraculous as they were, should suffice for his honour for the time being.181
Early this morning a messenger arrived in the city of London, tired after riding all night from Dover. He had come from the English army. Far from being defeated, Henry had won a great victory over the French. Countless French men-at-arms lay dead, and the king was marching triumphantly, gloriously, through Northern France to Calais.
This amazing news – an incredible turn-around after the dismal news of four days earlier – was a cause for exultation. It was proclaimed publicly on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral that same morning. Chancellor Beaufort himself preached in the cathedral on the theme of the king’s safe delivery. Throughout the city the bells were rung. Joyously the new mayor and aldermen, together with an immense number of the freemen of the city of London, went in procession on foot to Westminster, as if in a great pilgrimage, to give thanks at the tomb of St Edward the Confessor for the safe delivery of the king and the great victory he had won.182
Queen Joan, who attended the Westminster service, must have been torn. Her stepson the king had won a glorious victory; but her own sons, the duke of Brittany and the count of Richemont, had been on the opposing side. So too had her cousins, the duke of Brabant and the count of Nevers, and the dukes of Orléans and Anjou. What of them? She cannot have known whether her eldest son, the duke of Brittany, had observed the terms of his agreement with Henry and stayed away from the battle. Nor whether her younger son, the count of Richemont, had fought. So many of her French and Burgundian cousins had died, she was now told, as the bells rang out joyfully over Westminster.
The people of Calais had come a long way out of the town to greet Henry, so great was their joy at his victory. The priests and clerks of the town processed behind him as he approached the gates, singing We praise you, O Lord. The streets were filled with women and children as well as the men of the town, all shouting ‘Welcome, our sovereign lord!’ as he passed them with his councillors, leading the captured great lords of France.
Few of his men received such a cheerful reception. The archers were barred entry. The fear was that they would not pay for their food in Calais, and start looting. So they were forced to camp outside the walls. They were desperate for food. Those who had taken prisoners, hoping to ransom them for large sums, were forced to sell them to the men of the town or their social superiors in return for nourishment. Otherwise they could not find enough sustenance to keep themselves alive, let alone their prisoners. It was a bitter stage of the journey for ‘the few’ who had helped Henry to his victory.183
In Bordeaux, the news of the victory was still far off: it would be another three weeks before they heard. The mayor and jurats of the city were still considering Henry’s request for siege engines and cannon, contained in a letter he had sent them in June, which they had received on 20 August.184It is probable that they had only recently heard of the fall of Harfleur, and so were rethinking their decision to send the guns. After due deliberation, they decided that it was now too late in the season for them to respond helpfully, since the winter would soon be upon them and Henry’s campaign would be halted for the winter months.185
The archers starving outside the walls of Calais were not the only unfortunate English victims of Henry’s success. Recently a payment had been made for arresting and bringing John Foxholes (former chaplain of Lord Scrope), Thomas Blase (formerly Scrope’s steward) and other men who had served in the household of the late Lord Scrope to Westminster.186 Today they were led before the king’s council to be questioned regarding the goods of the executed traitor. Henry’s miraculous victory only heightened the sinful context of Scrope’s actions in June. If some of the goods described in Scrope’s will had been disposed of in accordance with Scrope’s instructions, and not delivered to the king, then the lord’s crime of treason had been compounded by his servants’ disobedience.
The bishop of Durham and Chancellor Beaufort demanded to know from Foxholes and Blase into whose hands the goods and chattels of their late master had come. They said on oath that they knew nothing of the goods. They said that John Bliton wrote the late lord’s will, and that he was now a clerk in the kitchen of the duchess of York. But they did not know what the will said or even where it was. The two bishops continued to interrogate them, knowing that men in Lord Scrope’s service had concealed portions of his wealth from the royal coroner. They asked Thomas Blase how many vessels of silver Scrope had possessed. Six dozen and no more, he replied. Another man, Robert Newton, a canon of the king’s chapel at Westminster who had previously served in Lord Scrope’s chapel, was brought in and questioned as to how many copes Scrope had possessed. One hundred and twenty, he replied.187
The upshot of these interrogations is not known. Some of Scrope’s possessions were later located at Pontefract Castle, and an order for them to be confiscated issued three weeks later.188 Others had been found in London by yeomen of the king’s chamber at the time of his arrest and handed over to the mayor.189 But the difficulty in tracking the rest of Scrope’s possessions suggests that some of his household servants kept their master’s belongings, or disposed of them in their own way, rather than render them to the king. Later an enquiry would be made in Yorkshire as to the whereabouts of goods concealed from the king’s officers.190
In Paris it was said that John the Fearless was pleased by the English victory at Agincourt, for this was a defeat for the Armagnacs.191 The reality was nowhere near so straightforward. He had tried to play the kings of England and France off against each other and in one sense had succeeded: the Armagnacs had been defeated and humiliated in the most public way possible. But in another sense he had lost terribly, for he had lost both of his brothers: the duke of Brabant and the count of Nevers. Only five days earlier he had attended the christening of the count of Nevers’ son. Many more Burgundians, including his vassals from Picardy and Flanders, lay dead in the mud at Agincourt.
Those who saw Agincourt as the work of God must have suspected that the deaths of both of John’s brothers was divine retribution for John’s murder of the old duke of Orléans in 1407. Medieval chroniclers and moralists liked to trace such full turns of the wheel of fortune. It was an obvious conclusion. It had been that killing that had started the whole civil war and had left France without clear leadership and vulnerable to Henry’s ambitions. We have no way of knowing what Jacquette Griffart – the woman who had witnessed the murder – thought of the news of the battle and the deaths, but, if she was still alive these eight years later, the whole period probably struck her as a protracted and sickening bloody mess.