Post-classical history

Appendix 4

Numbers at the Battle of Agincourt

As made clear in the main text, there is a serious question hanging over the relative numbers of men who were at the battle of Agincourt. Historians have long since recognised that the Gesta is wildly inaccurate in stating that the French had thirty times as many men as the 5,900 fighting men that that chronicle attributes to the English. However, they have been able to reconcile the three-to-one and four-to-one ratios of the monk of St Denis, and even the six-to-one of the Burgundian chroniclers. They have done this by choosing to accept the Gesta’s low estimate of the number of Englishmen, and contrasting it with the high estimates of the number of Frenchmen in other chronicles. By arguing that the French fielded between twenty-five and thirty-five thousand men, and the English had just six thousand, the huge discrepancy which forms an important part of the English patriotic story has been maintained. However, to argue this way is to fall into the mistake of accepting a piece of post-Agincourt English propaganda.1 The author of the Gesta was deliberately underestimating the number of Englishmen present because his work was written to stress the ‘miracle’ that was Agincourt. French chroniclers’ claims that the English had ten, twelve, thirteen, fourteen or eighteen thousand archers, and thus as many men as the French, would have resulted in the battle appearing a much smaller ‘miracle’.

As we have seen, records of contract and pay exist which allow us to be certain that, when the English army set out from Harfleur, it included 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. With regard to the numbers of fighting men – men-at-arms and archers – the total was at least 8,100.2 Depending on the number of reinforcements from England (an indeterminate number), the actual number sent home sick (possibly five hundred fewer, meaning there were five hundred more in the army), and the actual number of Cheshire archers who set out on the campaign (possibly four hundred more), there may have been several hundred more men than this figure of 8,100. Most English chronicles support this, stating that there were between eight and eleven thousand Englishmen at Agincourt.3 Despite the trials of the march, Henry had lost very few men to illness and death; and we have independent testimony that no more than 160 had been captured on the way.4 If we conclude that Henry had between eight and nine thousand fighting men with him, we cannot be far wrong. He certainly had considerably more than the 5,900 men that the author of the Gesta claims in his hagiographical account of Henry.

The critical question is one of how many French troops there were gathering between Agincourt and Tramecourt, to the south of Ruisseauville. Unfortunately the chronicle of Ruisseauville itself, which accurately states that there were between eight and nine thousand English fighting men, does not give a figure for the French army. The Burgundian writers claim there were eight thousand men-at-arms and four thousand archers, plus 1,500 crossbowmen in the vanguard, and another 1,400 (or 2,400) men-at-arms on the wings.5 Although we have no pay records, these numbers do correspond roughly with the ten thousand men-at-arms recorded by the duke of Berry’s herald, Gilles le Bouvier; and since this was written from the Armagnac perspective it is thus a counterbalance to the Burgundian chroniclers’ accounts.6

In taking these observations a stage further, Anne Curry assessed the numbers of men in the French companies as indicated in these sources and then compared them to the sizes of companies which were ordered to be mustered, and made allowances for the additional retinues brought to the battle from individual lords with lands in the north of France.7 This method, which is the most refined yet employed, suggests that there were about eight or nine thousand men-at-arms gathering around the spot where the constable had set his banners. Most companies had been instructed to raise half as many crossbowmen and archers as men-at-arms, so it would be reasonable to assume there were four or five thousand archers and crossbowmen too. Professor Curry suggests this proportion was not achieved, and that the total number of French fighting men was about 12,000.8 If itwas achieved – and the presence of many local men and men from the Marches of Boulogne suggests there were other contingents which we should consider – there may have been fourteen or fifteen thousand fighting men, as the Burgundian chronicles suggest.9 But there were nowhere near the sixty thousand fighting men which the English claim; and this figure is the lowest given for the French army in any English chronicle – some estimates being as high as 160,000.

Professor Curry concluded that the two armies were far more closely matched than most historians assume: twelve thousand fighting Frenchmen against nine thousand fighting Englishmen, a ratio of four-to-three. Although her method minimises French numbers (by limiting her figures to those in the basic army and a few specific additional companies) and maximises English numbers (by assuming the numbers sent home from Harfleur were no greater than the sick lists), her work is a robust challenge to anyone familiar with the old school of Agincourt history (in which six thousand Englishmen defeated twenty-five or thirty thousand Frenchmen). There simply is no evidence that there were that many troops on the French side – except in the pages of chroniclers whose ability to gauge what thirty thousand men looked like must be questioned, even if they were present on the day. It needs to be borne in mind that their main precedent for describing the size of an army in a battle was the Old Testament – which regularly mentions armies of tens or hundreds of thousands of men. The figures preferred in this study incorporate room for error, allowing for more Frenchmen and slightly fewer Englishmen than Professor Curry does, but the most extreme imbalance which is credible is fifteen thousand French troops against 8,100 English: a ratio of about two-to-one.

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