This vivid account of one of the most famous battles of the late Middle Ages brings the story of the Hundred Years War seventy years onward from Crécy. In the intervening period, the English had won another famous victory at Poitiers (1356), conducted a vicious guerrilla campaign in the interior which provoked a successful French counter-offensive, and eventually entered into a truce which it was agreed at the Treaty of Paris (1396) was to last for thirty years. Ensuing civil war in France, however, prompted the young and vigorous Henry V of England to intervene on the side of the faction challenging the authority of King Charles VI of France. Henry landed in Normandy in August 1415, but became involved in the siege of the port of Harfleur, which delayed his advance. Deciding after the capture of the city that the approach of winter precluded continuing the campaign, he set off on an overland march towards the port of Calais, from which he planned to return to England by the short sea route. Charles VI had, however, gathered an army to cut off his escape and on 24 October Henry found his path barred at the village of Agincourt, just short of his objective. The two armies spent a wet and miserable night in the open and next morning prepared for battle. The field was bordered on each side by thick belts of woodland. In the gap between, the English archers hammered a barricade of pointed stakes into the ground, while the knights armed for combat. The French, who outnumbered the English by 30,000 to 9,000, were confident of victory and had spent much of the night drinking. The English, in sober mood, prayed for divine assistance in their desperate straits. Henry heard Mass three times while he awaited the clash of arms. Then he led his army forward, on foot. What followed was to prove one of the most extraordinary reversals of fortune in the history of hand-to-hand fighting with edged weapons.
Then on the morning of the next day, that is to say, Friday, St Crispin’s Day, the 25th of October 1415, the Constable and all the other officers of the King of France, the Dukes of Orléans, Bourbon, Bar, and Alençon, the Counts of Eu, Richemont, Vendôme, Marle, Vaudemont, Blaumont, Salines, Grampré, Roussy, Dampmartin, and generally all the other nobles and warriors armed themselves and issued from their bivouac; and then it was ordered by the Constable and marshals of the King of France that three battalions should be formed ...
When the battalions of the French were thus formed, it was grand to see them; and as far as one could judge by the eye, they were in number fully six times as many as the English. And when this was done the French sat down by companies around their banners, waiting the approach of the English, and making their peace with one another; and then were laid aside many old aversions conceived long ago; some kissed and embraced each other, which it was affecting to witness; so that all quarrels and discords which they had had in time past were changed to great and perfect love. And there were some who breakfasted on what they had. And these Frenchmen remained thus till nine or ten o’clock in the morning, feeling quite assured that, considering their great force, the English could not escape them; however, there were at least some of the wisest who greatly feared a fight with them in open battle. Among the arrangements made on the part of the French, as I have since heard related by eminent knights, it happened that, under the banner of the Lord of Croy, eighteen gentlemen banded themselves together of their own choice, and swore that when the two parties should come to meet they would strive with all their might to get so near the King of England that they would beat down the crown from his head, or they would die, as they did; but before this they got so near the said King that one of them with the lance which he held struck him such a blow on his helmet that he knocked off one of the ornaments of his crown. But not long afterwards it only remained that the eighteen gentlemen were all dead and cut to pieces; which was a great pity; for if every one of the French had been willing thus to exert himself, it is to be believed that their affairs would have gone better on this day. And the leaders of these gentlemen were Louvelet de Massinguehem and Garnot de Bornouille ...
The French had arranged their battalions between two small thickets, one lying close to Agincourt, and the other to Tramecourt. The place was narrow, and very advantageous for the English, and, on the contrary, very ruinous for the French, for the said French had been all night on horseback, and it rained, and the pages, grooms, and others, in leading about the horses, had broken up the ground, which was so soft that the horses could only with difficulty step out of the soil. And also the said French were so loaded with armour that they could not support themselves or move forward. In the first place they were armed with long coats of steel, reaching to the knees or lower, and very heavy, over the leg harness, and besides plate armour also most of them had hooded helmets; wherefore this weight of armour, with the softness of the wet ground, as has been said, kept them as if immovable, so that they could raise their clubs only with great difficulty, and with all these mischiefs there was this, that most of them were troubled with hunger and want of sleep. There was a marvellous number of banners, and it was ordered that some of them should be furled. Also it was settled among the said French that every one should shorten his lance, in order that they might be stiffer when it came to fighting at close quarters. They had archers and crossbowmen enough, but they would not let them shoot, for the plain was so narrow that there was no room except for the men-at-arms.
Now let us return to the English. After the parley between the two armies was finished and the delegates had returned, each to their own people, the King of England, who had appointed a knight called Sir Thomas Erpingham to place his archers in front in two wings, trusted entirely to him, and Sir Thomas, to do his part, exhorted every one to do well in the name of the King, begging them to fight vigorously against the French in order to secure and save their own lives. And thus the knight, who rode with two others only in front of the battalion, seeing that the hour was come, for all things were well arranged, threw up a baton which he held in his hand, saying ‘Nestrocq’ [‘Now strike’], which was the signal for attack; then dismounted and joined the King, who was also on foot in the midst of his men, with his banner before him. Then the English, seeing this signal, began suddenly to march, uttering a very loud cry, which greatly surprised the French. And when the English saw that the French did not approach them, they marched dashingly towards them in very fine order, and again raised a loud cry as they stopped to take breath.
Then the English archers, who, as I have said, were in the wings, saw that they were near enough, and began to send their arrows on the French with great vigour. The said archers were for the most part in their doublets, without armour, their stockings rolled up to their knees, and having hatchets and battleaxes or great swords hanging at their girdles; some were barefooted and bareheaded, others had caps of boiled leather, and others of osier, covered with harpoy or leather.
Then the French, seeing the English come towards them in this fashion, placed themselves in order, everyone under his banner, their helmets on their heads. The Constable, the Marshal, the admirals, and the other princes earnestly exhorted their men to fight the English well and bravely; and when it came to the approach the trumpets and clarions resounded everywhere; but the French began to hold down their heads, especially those who had no bucklers, for the impetuosity of the English arrows, which fell so heavily that no one durst uncover or look up. Thus they went forward a little, then made a little retreat, but before they could come to close quarters, many of the French were disabled and wounded by the arrows; and when they came quite up to the English, they were, as has been said, so closely pressed one against another that none of them could lift their arms to strike their enemies, except some that were in front, and these fiercely pricked with the lances which they had shortened to be more stiff, and to get nearer their enemies.
The French had formed a plan which I will describe, that is to say, the Constable and Marshal had chosen ten or twelve hundred men-at-arms, of whom one party was to go by the Agincourt side and the other on that of Tramecourt, to break the two wings of the English archers; but when it came to close quarters there were but six score left of the band of Sir Clugnet de Brabant, who had the charge of the undertaking on the Tramecourt side. Sir William de Saveuse, a very brave knight, took the Agincourt side, with about three hundred lances; and with two others only he advanced before the rest, who all followed, and struck into these English archers, who had their stakes fixed in front of them, but these had little hold in such soft ground. So the said Sir William and his two companions pressed on boldly; but their horses stumbled among the stakes, and they were speedily slain by the archers, which was a great pity. And most of the rest, through fear, gave way and fell back into their vanguard, to whom they were a great hindrance; and they opened their ranks in several places, and made them fall back and lose their footing in some land newly sown; for their horses had been so wounded by the arrows that the men could no longer manage them. Thus, by these principally and by this adventure, the vanguard of the French was thrown into disorder, and men-at-arms without number began to fall; and their horses feeling the arrows coming upon them took to flight before the enemy, and following their example many of the French turned and fled. Soon afterwards the English archers, seeing the vanguard thus shaken, issued from behind their stockade, threw away their bows and quivers, then took their swords, hatchets, mallets, axes, falcon-beaks and other weapons, and, pushing into the places where they saw these breaches, struck down and killed these Frenchmen without mercy, and never ceased to kill till the said vanguard which had fought little or not at all was completely overwhelmed, and these went on striking right and left till they came upon the second battalion, which was behind the advance guard, and there the King personally threw himself into the fight with his men-at-arms. And there came suddenly Duke Anthony of Brabant, who had been summoned by the King of France, and had so hastened for fear of being late, that his people could not follow him, for he would not wait for them, but took a banner from his trumpeters, made a hole in the middle of it, and dressed himself as if in armour; but he was soon killed by the English. Then was renewed the struggle and great slaughter of the French, who offered little defence; for, because of their cavalry above mentioned, their order of battle was broken; and then the English got among them more and more, breaking up the two first battalions in many places, beating down and slaying cruelly and without mercy; but some rose again by the help of their grooms, who led them out of the mêlée; for the English, who were intent on killing and making prisoners, pursued nobody.
And then all the rearguard, being still on horseback, and seeing the condition of the first two battalions, turned and fled, except some of the chiefs and leaders of these routed ones. And it is to be told that while the battalion was in rout, the English had taken some good French prisoners.
And there came tidings to the King of England that the French were attacking his people at the rear, and that they had already taken his sumpters [pack animals] and other baggage, which enterprise was conducted by an esquire named Robert de Bornouille, with whom were Rifflart de Plamasse, Yzembart d’Agincourt, and some other men-at-arms, accompanied by about six hundred peasants, who carried off the said baggage and many horses of the English while their keepers were occupied in the fight, about which robbery the King was greatly troubled; nevertheless he ceased not to pursue his victory, and his people took many good prisoners, by whom they expected all to become rich, and they took from them nothing but their head armour.
At the hour when the English feared the least there befell them a perilous adventure, for a great gathering of the rearguard and centre division of the French, in which were many Bretons, Gascons, and Poitevins, rallied with some standards and ensigns, and returned in good order, and marched vigorously against the conquerors of the field. When the King of England perceived them coming thus he caused it to be published that every one that had a prisoner should immediately kill him, which those who had any were unwilling to do, for they expected to get great ransoms for them. But when the King was informed of this he appointed a gentleman with two hundred archers whom he commanded to go through the host and kill all the prisoners, whoever they might be. This esquire, without delay or objection, fulfilled the command of his sovereign lord, which was a most pitiable thing, for in cold blood all the nobility of France was beheaded and inhumanly cut to pieces, and all through this accursed company, a sorry set compared with the noble captive chivalry, who when they saw that the English were ready to receive them, all immediately turned and fled, each to save his own life. Many of the cavalry escaped; but of those on foot there were many among the dead.
When the King of England saw that he was master of the field and had got the better of his enemies he humbly thanked the Giver of victory, and he had good cause, for of his people there died on the spot only about sixteen hundred men of all ranks, among whom was the Duke of York, his great-uncle, about whom he was very sorry. Then the King collected on that place some of those most intimate with him, and inquired the name of a castle which he perceived to be the nearest; and they said, ‘Agincourt.’ ‘It is right then,’ said he, ‘that this our victory should for ever bear the name of Agincourt, for every battle ought to be named after the fortress nearest to the place where it was fought.’
When the King of England and his army had been there a good while, waiting on the field, and guarding the honour of the victory more than four hours, and no one whatever, French or other, appeared to do them injury, seeing that it rained and evening was drawing on, he returned to his quarters at Maisoncelles. And the English archers busied themselves in turning over the dead, under whom they found some good prisoners still alive, of whom the Duke of Orléans was one; and they carried the armour of the dead by horse loads to their quarters. And they found on the field the Duke of York and the Earl of Oxford, whom they carried into their camp; and the French did little injury to the said English, except in the matter of these two.
When evening came the King of England, being informed that there was so much baggage accumulated at the lodging places, caused it to be proclaimed everywhere with sound of trumpet that no one should load himself with more armour than was necessary for his own body, because they were not yet wholly out of danger from the King of France. And this night the corpses of the two English princes, that is to say, the Duke of York and the Earl of Oxford, were boiled, in order to separate the bones and carry them to England; and this being done, the King further ordered that all the armour that was over and above what his people were wearing, with all the dead bodies on their side, should be carried into a barn or house, and there burned altogether; and it was done according to the King’s command.
Next day, which was Saturday, the King of England and his whole army turned out from Maisoncelles, and passed through the scene of slaughter, where they killed all the French that they found still living, except some that they took prisoners; and King Henry stood there, looking on the pitiable condition of those dead bodies, which were quite naked, for during the night they had been stripped as well by the English as by the peasantry.