Post-classical history

Appendix 3

Casualties at the Siege of Harfleur

As noted in entries for September and early October, a number of important individuals died at Harfleur. It follows that if a number of significant individuals died, then insignificant ones must have died too. Furthermore, many men were sent home. The Burgundian chronicler, Monstrelet, wrote that upwards of two thousand Englishmen died of dysentery at Harfleur.1 The eyewitness author of the Gesta wrote that five thousand men were invalided back to England from Harfleur – this figure does not include those who died at the siege or ran away.2 If true, this would have had a significant impact on the size of Henry’s army, and it would justify the most extreme underestimates of the size of the English army at Agincourt. Therefore the question of how many men died and were incapacitated at Harfleur deserves close attention.

The starting point has to be the number of men who landed with Henry on 14 August. As noted under that date, presuming there were just 247 Cheshire archers, Henry had a minimum of 11,248 fighting men, of whom 2,266 were men-at-arms. In addition there were the servants, pages and other support staff, resulting in at least 15,000 men with the king, excluding mariners.

One way of proceeding is to establish how many men in each company were sick and to apply the average proportion to the whole army. For example, the earl of Arundel sailed with one hundred men-at-arms and three hundred archers. Of these, two men-at-arms and thirteen archers died at Harfleur, and at least fourteen men-at-arms and sixty-eight archers were sent home sick (including the earl himself, with five fit men-at-arms to help him).3 Thus a quarter of the earl’s four hundred fighting men were incapacitated or died at Harfleur. Sir John Harrington’s retinue of thirty men-at-arms and ninety archers also saw a quarter incapacitated: ten men-at-arms (including Sir John himself) and twenty archers. The Earl Marshal’s company was the worst hit of all. He contracted to provide fifty men-at-arms and 150 archers but in the end served with forty-eight men-at-arms and 171 archers.4 These totals were reduced by three dead and thirteen sick men-at-arms (including the earl himself), and forty-five sick archers.5 This amounts to a sick rate of 28% of the company. On the strength of these figures it would be reasonable to speculate that maybe a quarter of the army – a total of 3,750 men, including 2,812 combatants – was either sent home with dysentery or died at Harfleur.6 This might be said to accord with Monstrelet’s figure of ‘upwards of two thousand’ English dead. If two thousand men died, and 1,700 were shipped home, then the proportions are satisfied.

The problem here is obvious. Not all the companies experienced the same levels of sickness. The ground around Harfleur was uneven: it rose on the western side to Mont Lecomte and Graville, and on the opposite side it rose to Mont Cabert. Between the two hills was a slowly draining, polluted, flooded valley, full of dead animal carcasses and an effluent-producing town. It would be foolish to presume that 15,000 men, spread across this landscape, all used equally dangerous sources of water. Some would have used wells on high ground, some wells on lower ground, some perhaps drew water from the dammed Lézarde; others may have drawn water from the Seine. With a long detour around the flooded area necessary to get from the king’s camp to that of the duke of Clarence, we should expect very different levels of contamination, and thus different levels of sickness in the various parts of the camp. As is clear from some of the deaths which had already occurred before this day, the greatest area of infection was around the king’s camp. Bishop Courtenay’s death is one example of an infected man being in very close proximity to the king for sustained periods – he often shared the king’s tent at night. The infection of the earl of Arundel and his men is another sign of the dangerous nature of the water supply used in the area of the king’s camp. Another is the heavy losses sustained by the king’s own household: a large number of royal servants had to be sent home.7 The proportion-based methodology used above to ascertain how many people died and suffered from dysentery is thus somewhat misleading. Although the worst-hit areas saw casualty rates around 25%, the camp as a whole was not as badly affected and large sections of it might have gone entirely unscathed. The earl of Oxford had indented to provide forty men-at-arms and one hundred archers; he returned with thirty-nine men-at-arms and eighty-four archers (12% infected). The duke of York’s company of four hundred fighting men was even more disease-free: it suffered just twenty-four casualties (6%), presumably having been stationed some way away from those under the king’s direct command.

Recognising this problem, Anne Curry sought a different methodology in her 2005 study, Agincourt: a New History. Consulting the original accounts, made after the campaign, she observed that Henry kept a good record of those who had been sent back to England with dysentery, for the very good reason that he did not wish to continue paying men who did not serve. Two documents alone record 1,693 names of those sent home sick.8 Professor Curry noted that not all of those listed were combatants; servants and pages were included. She also pointed out that more troops were arriving all the time, as we have seen from Jean Bordiu’s comments in his letter of 3 September. And these reinforcements kept coming, taking the place of their sick counterparts. The earl of Arundel’s retinue was almost entirely replenished, all of the sick and deceased archers being replaced by the end of the campaign, and all but six of the men-at-arms.9

Professor Curry placed a high degree of confidence in the hypothesis that the list of 1,693 represented practically all those sent home.10 She found records of fewer than forty deaths at the siege itself and identified 1,330 of the 1,693 named sick as being combatants.11 She concluded that the English army was depleted by about 1,370 fighting men as a result of the siege, and these were replaced by an unknown number of reinforcements. On this basis she claimed that ‘we can prove’ the minimum number of men Henry had with him after the siege.12 Most historians would not agree that her methodology amounts to proof. One of the two lists of the sick is damaged and incomplete. It is also possible that additional, similar lists have disappeared over the centuries. As for her point about reinforcements, it is noticeable that men moved around between companies, so the number of men who fell ill in one company might be ‘reinforced’ by others from other companies, whose captains had died, without there being any increase in the army’s size. But although the evidence does not allow us to say anything is proven, Professor Curry’s method does allow us to revisit all the evidence – the chronicle sources as well as the lists and accounts – with an open mind.

One thing is certain: there is no evidence supporting Monstrelet’s assertion that two thousand Englishmen died at Harfleur. None of the English sources – not even the Gesta – supports this figure, for the Gesta refers to ‘about five thousand men’ – a third of the entire force – being shipped back to England, not commenting on the number who died at Harfleur itself. No source on either side describes a death pit, and no other source speaks of such a large number of deaths at Harfleur. Adam Usk states that ‘thousands’ were sent home or deserted but, like the author of the Gesta, he does not mention large numbers of deaths. Le Fèvre and Waurin note that Henry ‘lost’ five or six hundred men-at-arms during the siege, plus others who had died of dysentery. Also it should be noted that Monstrelet does not mention any English troops being sent home at all, and goes on to state that the number of men remaining included two thousand men-at-arms and 13,000 archers. It therefore seems highly likely that, as he was writing some thirty years later, he was confusing two thousand sick with two thousand dead, and presuming that those ‘lost’ at Harfleur all died there. If his testimony is set aside as a result, then the question of how many died at Harfleur is answered in a relative way: not enough to draw the attention of the contemporary chroniclers, and not enough to be a significant factor in the surviving campaign accounts. The evidence shows at least thirty-seven did die, but if there were more than this then there were not many more. Probably fewer than fifty Englishmen perished at Harfleur.

Despite the small number of deaths, we can be certain that dysentery was rife in the English camp. The figures of at least 1,693 men sent back to England and thirty-seven dead mean that at least 11% of the entire army was infected, including non-combatants. We can be sure the duke of Clarence’s side of the town was also infected, for the duke himself fell ill and so did about two hundred of the 1,044 soldiers in his retinue.13 On the basis that the companies which experienced the most disease were those around the king’s pavilion, the highest casualty rate in this part of the army (25%) must be a maximum. The duke of Clarence’s company seems to have suffered losses of about 20%, the duke of York’s about 6%. If we assume that the army was divided between these three battles – men commanded by the king, Clarence and York, as Henry had arranged on 17 August – and that the respective maximum casualty rates in each case were 25%, 20% and 6%, then we might conclude that about 17% of the army was incapacitated by sickness. Although this is still a rough estimate, it takes into consideration the possible lacunae in the lists of the sick. Thus we might estimate that the total number of men sent home was between 1,693 and 2,550, of whom between 1,330 and 1,900 were fighting men. This would go some way to explaining why several English chroniclers note that ‘thousands’ fell ill at Harfleur, and where Monstrelet got his figure of two thousand casualties from. Lastly, the high casualty rate in the area of the king’s camp would explain why the eyewitness author of the Gesta stated that five thousand men were sent home. From where he was based – in the royal chapel, close to the worst-affected area – it did seem that very large numbers were sick or dying.

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