Military history

Chapter 2

Agincourt, October 25th, 1415

AGINCOURT IS ONE of the most instantly and vividly visualized of all epic passages in English history, and one of the most satisfactory to contemplate. It is a victory of the weak over the strong, of the common soldier over the mounted knight, of resolution over bombast, of the desperate, cornered and far from home, over the proprietorial and cocksure. Visually it is a pre-Raphaelite, perhaps better a Medici Gallery print battle – a composition of strong verticals and horizontals and a conflict of rich dark reds and Lincoln greens against fishscale greys and arctic blues. It is a school outing to the Old Vic, Shakespeare is fun, son-et-lumière, blank verse, Laurence Olivier-in-armour battle: it is an episode to quicken the interest of any schoolboy ever bored by a history lesson, a set-piece demonstration of English moral superiority and a cherished ingredient of a fading national myth. It is also a story of slaughter-yard behaviour and of outright atrocity.

The Campaign

The events of the Agincourt campaign are, for the military historian, gratifyingly straightforward to relate. For, as medieval battles go, it is surprisingly well-documented: the chronology can be fixed with considerable accuracy, the exact location of the culminating battle has never been in dispute, its topography has altered little over five hundred years, and there is less than the usual wild uncertainty over the numbers engaged on either side.

In the late summer of 1415 Henry V, twenty-seven years old and two years King of England, embarked on an invasion of France. He came to renew by force the claims of his house to the lands it had both won and lost during the previous century in the course of what we now call the Hundred Years War. England had not, of course, lost all her French possessions. She retained Calais and its hinterland and Bordeaux, together with a large enclave behind it and along the coast to the South: it is an area now represented by all or parts of the departments of the Landes, Basses-Pyrénées, Gironde, Dordogne, Charente and Charente-Maritime. But the possessions to which she had been given title in 1360 at the Treaty of Bretigny, which concluded Edward III’s campaign of conquest, were very much wider, embracing in Poitou and Aquitaine north and east of Bordeaux almost a third of the territory of France. It was these lands which Henry V was bent upon repossessing, though he was also prepared to revive, it would appear, English claims to the Duchy of Normandy, of which King John had been disinherited in 1204.

What military strategy he had in mind for the campaign can only be reconstructed by conjecture. The contracts struck with the leaders of the major contingents accompanying him alluded to operations both in northern and southern France but it seems unlikely that he intended to strike deep into the heart of France at the immediate outset. Long-distance offensives of that sort had worn the heart and strength out of several English armies during the last thirty years of the previous century and allowed the French, who had deliberately and persistently refused battle during the period now called the Duguesclin war (after the Constable of France whose Fabian policy this was), to reduce piecemeal the extensive network of walled towns and castles through which England held her French dominions. Henry’s plan seems to have been the exact contrary of that of John of Gaunt and the Black Prince. He would embark on mobile operations only after he secured a firm base, and he would seek to establish that base at the end of the shortest possible sea-route. This decision limited his choice of disembarkment place to the coasts of Normandy, Picardy, Artois or Flanders. Much the same set of considerations would cause the British and American planners of the D-Day landings to plump in their case for Normandy. Henry chose the Bay of the Seine and the port of Harfleur.

The army embarked in the second week of August at Portsmouth and set sail on August 11th. It had been gathering since April, while Henry conducted deliberately inconclusive negotiations with Charles VI, and now numbered about ten thousand in all, eight thousand archers and two thousand men-at-arms, exclusive of camp followers. A good deal of the space in the ships, of which there were about 1,500, was given over to impedimenta and a great deal to the expedition’s horses: at least one for each man-at-arms, and others for the baggage train and wagon teams. The crossing took a little over two days and on the morning of August 14th the army began to disembark, unopposed by the French, on a beach three miles west of Harfleur. Three days were taken to pitch camp and on August 18th the investment of the town began. It was not strongly garrisoned but its man-made and natural defences were strong, the Seine, the River Lezarde and a belt of marshes protecting it on the south, north and east. An attempt at mining under the moat on the western front was checked by French counter-mines so the small siege train, which contained at least three heavy guns, undertook a bombardment of that section of the walls. It lasted for nearly a month, until the collapse of an important gate-defence, the repulse of a succession of sorties and the failure of a French relieving army to appear, convinced the garrison that they must surrender. After parleys, the town opened its gates to Henry on Sunday, September 22nd.

He now had his base, but was left with neither time nor force enough to develop much of a campaign that year; at least a third of his army was dead or disabled, chiefly through disease, and the autumnal rains were due. Earlier in September he had set to paper his intention of marching down the Seine to Paris and thence to Bordeaux as soon as Harfleur fell; that had clearly become unfeasible, but honour demanded that he should not leave France without making a traverse, however much more circumspect, of the lands he claimed. At a long Council of War, held on October 5th, he convinced his followers that they could both appear to seek battle with the French armies which were known to be gathering and yet safely out-distance them by a march to the haven of Calais. On October 8th he led the army out.

His direct route was about 120 miles and lay across a succession of rivers, of which only the Somme formed a major obstacle. He began following the coast as far as the Béthune, which he crossed on October 11th, revictualling his army at Arques. The following day he crossed the Bresle, near Eu, having made eighty miles in five days, and on October 13th swung inland to cross the Somme above its estuary. On approaching, however, he got his first news of the enemy and it was grave; the nearest crossing was blocked and defended by a force of six thousand. After discussion, he rejected a retreat and turned south-east to follow the line of the river until he found an unguarded ford. For the next five days, while his army grew hungrier, the French kept pace with him on the northern bank until on the sixth, by a forced march across the plain of the Santerre (scene of the great British tank battle on August 8th, 1918) he got ahead of them and found a pair of unguarded though damaged causeways at Bethencourt and Voyennes. Some hasty sappering made them fit for traffic and that evening, October 19th, the army slept on the far bank. Henry declared October 20th a day of rest, which his men badly needed, having marched over two hundred miles in twelve days, but the arrival of French heralds with a challenge to fight was a reminder that they could not linger. On October 21st they marched eighteen miles, crossing the tracks of a major French army and, during the three following days, another fifty-three. They were now within two, at most three, marches of safety. All were aware, however, that the French had caught up and were keeping pace on their right flank. And late in the day of October 24th scouts came back with word that the enemy had crossed their path and were deploying for battle ahead of them. Henry ordered his men to deploy also but, as darkness was near, the French eventually stood down and withdrew a little to the north where they camped astride the road to Calais.


The English army found what shelter it could for the night in and around the village of Maisoncelles, ate its skimpy rations, confessed its sins, heard Mass and armed for battle. At first light knights and archers marched out and took up their positions between two woods. The French army, composed almost exclusively of mounted and dismounted men-at-arms, had deployed to meet them and was in similar positions about a thousand yards distant. For four hours both armies held their ground. Henry apparently hoped that the French would attack him; they, who knew that sooner or later he would have to move – either to the attack, which suited their book, or to retreat, which suited them even better – stood or sat idle, eating their breakfasts and calling about cheerfully to one another. Eventually Henry decided to up sticks (literally: his archers had been carrying pointed stakes to defend their lines for the last week) and advance on the French line. Arrived within three hundred yards – extreme bowshot – of the army, the English archers replanted their stakes and loosed off their first flights of arrows. The French, provoked by these arrow strikes, as Henry intended, into attacking, launched charges by the mounted men-at-arms from the wings of the main body. Before they had crossed the intervening space they were followed by the dismounted men-at-arms who, like them, were wearing full armour. The cavalry failed to break the English line, suffered losses from the fire of the archers and turned about. Heading back for their own lines, many riders and loose horses crashed into the advancing line of dismounted men-at-arms. They, though shaken, continued to crowd forward and to mass their attack against the English men-at-arms, who were drawn up in three groups, with archers between them and on the right and left flank. Apparently disdaining battle with the archers, although they were suffering losses from their fire, the French quickened their steps over the last few yards and crashed into the middle of the English line. For a moment it gave way. But the French were so tightly bunched that they could not use their weapons to widen the breach they had made. The English men-at-arms recovered their balance, struck back and were now joined by numbers of the archers who, dropping their bows, ran against the French with axes, mallets and swords, or with weapons abandoned by the French they picked up from the ground. There followed a short but very bloody episode of hand-to-hand combat, in which freedom of action lay almost wholly with the English. Many of the French armoured infantrymen lost their footing and were killed as they lay sprawling; others who remained upright could not defend themselves and were killed by thrusts between their armour-joints or stunned by hammer-blows. The French second line which came up, got embroiled in this fighting without being able to turn the advantage to their side, despite the addition they brought to the very great superiority of numbers the French already enjoyed. Eventually, those Frenchmen who could disentangle themselves from the mêlée made their way back to where the rest of their army, composed of a third line of mounted men-at-arms, stood watching. The English who faced them did so in several places, over heaps of dead, dying or disabled French men-at-arms, heaps said by one chronicler to be taller than a man’s height. Others were rounding up disarmed or lightly wounded Frenchmen and leading them to the rear, where they were collected under guard.

While this went on, a French nobleman, the Duke of Brabant, who had arrived late for the battle from a christening party, led forward an improvised charge; but it was broken up without denting the English line, which was still drawn up. Henry had prudently kept it under arms because the French third line – of mounted men – had not dispersed and he must presumably have feared that it would ride down on them if the whole English army gave itself up to taking and looting prisoners. At some time in the afternoon, there were detected signs that the French were nerving themselves to charge anyhow; and more or less simultaneously, a body of armed peasants, led by three mounted knights, suddenly appeared at the baggage park, inflicted some loss of life and stole some objects of value, including one of the King’s crowns, before being driven off.

Either that incident, or the continued menace of the French third line, now prompted Henry to order that all the prisoners instantly be killed. The order was not at once obeyed, and for comprehensible reasons. Even discounting any moral or physical repugnance on the part of their captors, or a misunderstanding of the reason behind the order – that the prisoners might attack the English from the rear with weapons retrieved from the ground if the French cavalry were suddenly to attack their front – the poorer English soldiers, and perhaps not only the poorer, would have been very reluctant to pass up the prospects of ransom which killing the prisoners would entail. Henry was nevertheless adamant, detailed an esquire and two hundred archers to set about the execution, and stopped them only when it became clear that the French third line was packing up and withdrawing from the field. Meantime very many of the French had been killed; some of the English apparently even incinerated wounded prisoners in cottages where they had been taken for shelter.

The noblest and richest of the prisoners were, nevertheless, spared and dined that evening with the King at Maisoncelles, his base of the previous evening, to which he now returned. En route he summoned the heralds of the two armies who had watched the battle together from a vantage point, and settled with the principal French herald a name for the battle: Agincourt, after the nearest fortified place. Next morning, after collecting the army, marshalling the prisoners and distributing the wounded and the loads of loot among the transport, he marched the army off across the battlefield towards Calais. Numbers of the French wounded had made their way or been helped from the field during the night; those still living, unless thought ransomable, were now killed. On October 29th, the English, with two thousand prisoners, reached Calais. The King left for England at once, to be escorted into London by an enormous party of rejoicing citizens.

These are the bare outlines of the battle, as recorded by seven or eight chroniclers, who do not materially disagree over the sequence, character or significance of events. Of course, even though three of them were present at the scene, none was an eyewitness of everything, or even of very much, that happened. An army on the morrow of a battle, particularly an army as small as that of Agincourt, must, nevertheless, be a fairly efficient clearing-house of information, and it seems probable that a broadly accurate view of what had happened – though not necessarily why and how it had happened – would quickly crystallize in the mind of any diligent interrogator, while a popularly agreed version, not dissimilar from it, would soon circulate within, and outside, the ranks. It would seem reasonable therefore to believe that the narrative of Agincourt handed down to us is a good one; it would in any case be profitless to look for a better.

The Battle

What we almost completely lack, though, is the sort of picture and understanding of the practicalities of the fighting and of the mood, outlook and skills of the fighters which were themselves part of the eye-witness chroniclers’ vision. We simply cannot visualize, as they were able to do, what the Agincourt arrow-cloud can have looked, or sounded, like; what the armoured men-at-arms sought to do to each other at the moment of the first clash; at what speed and in what density the French cavalry charged down; how the mêlée – the densely packed mass of men in hand-to-hand combat – can have appeared to a detached onlooker, say to men in the French third line; what level the noise of the battle can have reached and how the leaders made themselves heard – if they did so – above it. These questions lead on to less tangible inquiries: how did leadership operate once the fighting had been joined: by exhortation or by example? Or did concerted action depend upon previously rehearsed tactics and corporate feeling alone? Or was there, in fact, no leadership, merely every man – or every brave man – for himself? Less tangible still, what did ‘bravery’ mean in the context of a medieval fight? How did men mentally order the risks which they faced, as we know it is human to do? Were the foot more likely to be frightened of the horses, or of the men on them? Were the armoured men-at-arms more or less frightened of the arrows than of meeting their similarly clad opponents at a weapon’s length? Did it seem safer to go on fighting once hard pressed than to surrender? Was running away more hazardous than staying within the press of the fighting?

The answer to some of these questions must be highly conjectural, interesting though that conjecture may be. But to others, we can certainly offer answers which fall within a fairly narrow bracket of probability, because the parameters of the questions are technical. Where speed of movement, density of formations, effect of weapons, for example, are concerned, we can test our suppositions against the known defensive qualities of armour plate, penetrative power of arrows, dimensions and capacities of the human body, carrying power and speed of the horse. And from reasonable probabilities about these military mechanics, we may be able to leap towards an understanding of the dynamics of the battle itself and the spirit of the armies which fought it.

Let us, to begin with, and however artificially, break the battle down into a sequence of separate events. It opened, as we know, with the armies forming up in the light of early morning: whether that meant just after first light, or at the rather later hour of dawn itself – about 6.40 a.m. – is a point of detail over which we cannot expect the chroniclers to meet Staff College standards of precision. Nor do they. They are even more imprecise about numbers, particularly as they concern the French. For though there is agreement, supported by other evidence, that Harry’s army had dwindled to about five or six thousand archers and a thousand men-at-arms, the French are variously counted between 10,000 and 200,000. Colonel Burne convincingly reconciles the differences to produce a figure of 25,000, a very large proportion of which represented armoured men-at-arms. Of these, about a thousand brought their horses to the battlefield; the rest were to fight on foot.

The two armies initially formed up at a distance of some thousand yards from each other; at either end of a long, open and almost flat expanse of ploughland, bordered on each side by woodland. The width of the field, which had recently been sown with winter wheat, was about twelve hundred yards at the French end. The woods converged slightly on the English and, at the point where the armies were eventually to meet, stood about nine hundred to a thousand yards apart. (These measurements suppose – as seems reasonable, field boundaries remaining remarkably stable over centuries – that the outlines of the woods have not much changed.)

The English men-at-arms, most of whom were on foot, took station in three blocks, under the command of the Duke of York, to the right, the King, in the centre, and Lord Camoys, on the left. The archers were disposed between them and also on the flanks; the whole line was about four or five deep. The archer flanks may have been thrown a little forward, and the archers of the two inner groups may have adopted a wedge-like formation. This would have made it appear as if the men-at-arms were deployed a little to their rear. Opposite them, the French were drawn up in three lines, of which the third was mounted, as were two groups, each about five hundred strong, on the flanks. The two forward lines, with a filling of crossbow-men between and some ineffectual cannon on the flanks were each, perhaps, eight thousand strong, and so ranked some eight deep. On both sides, the leaders of the various contingents – nobles, bannerets and knights – displayed armorial banners, under which they and their men would fight, and among the French there was a great deal of tiresome struggling, during the period of deployment, to get these banners into the leading rank.

Deployed, the armies were ready for the battle, which, as we have seen, resolved itself into twelve main episodes; a period of waiting; an English advance; an English arrow strike; a French cavalry charge; a French infantry advance; a mêlée between the French and English men-at-arms; an intervention in the mêlée by the English archers; the flight of the French survivors from the scene of the mêlée; a second period of waiting, during which the French third line threatened, and a small party delivered, another charge; a French raid on the baggage park; a massacre of the French prisoners; finally, mutual departure from the battlefield. What was each of these episodes like, and what impetus did it give to the course of events?

The period of waiting – three or four hours long, and so lasting probably from about seven to eleven o’clock – must have been very trying. Two chroniclers mention that the soldiers in the front ranks sat down and ate and drank and that there was a good deal of shouting, chaffing and noisy reconciliation of old quarrels among the French. But that was after they had settled, by pushing and shoving, who was to stand in the forward rank; not a real argument, one may surmise, but a process which put the grander and the braver in front of the more humble and timid. There is no mention of the English imitating them, but given their very real predicament, and their much thinner line of battle, they can have felt little need to dispute the place of honour among themselves. It is also improbable that they did much eating or drinking for the army had been short of food for nine days and the archers are said to have been subsisting on nuts and berries on the last marches. Waiting, certainly for the English, must then have been a cold, miserable and squalid business. It had been raining, the ground was recently ploughed, air temperature was probably in the forties or low fifties Fahrenheit and many in the army were suffering from diarrhoea. Since none would presumably have been allowed to leave the ranks while the army was deployed for action, sufferers would have had to relieve themselves where they stood. For any afflicted man-at-arms wearing mail leggings laced to his plate armour, even that may not have been possible.

The King’s order to advance, which he gave after the veterans had endorsed his guess that the French would not be drawn, may therefore have been generally and genuinely welcome. Movement at least meant an opportunity to generate body heat, of which the metal-clad men-at-arms would have dissipated an unnatural amount during the morning. Not, however, when the moment came, that they would have moved forward very fast. An advance in line, particularly by men unequally equipped and burdened, has to be taken slowly if order is to be preserved. The manœuvre, moreover, was a change of position, not a charge, and the King and his subordinate leaders would presumably have recognized the additional danger of losing cohesion in the face of the enemy who, if alert, would seize on the eventuality as an opportune moment to launch an attack. Several chroniclers indeed mention that on the King’s orders a knight, Sir Thomas Erpingham, inspected the archers before they marched off in order to ‘check their dressing’, as a modern drill sergeant would put it, and to ensure that they had their bows strung. The much smaller groups of men-at-arms would have moved as did the banners of their lords, which in turn would have followed the King’s.

The army had about seven hundred yards of rain-soaked ploughland to cover. At a slow walk (no medieval army marched in step, and no modern army would have done over such ground – the ‘cadenced pace’ followed from the hardening and smoothing of the surface of roads), with halts to correct dressing, it would have reached its new position in ten minutes or so, though one may guess that the pace slackened a good deal as they drew nearer the French army and the leaders made mental reckoning of the range. ‘Extreme bowshot’, which is the distance at which Henry presumably planned to take ground, is traditionally calculated at three hundred yards. That is a tremendous carry for a bow, however, and two hundred and fifty yards would be a more realistic judgment of the distance at which he finally halted his line from the French. If, however, his archer flanks were thrown a little forward, his centre would have been farther away; and if, as one chronicler suggests, he had infiltrated parties of bowmen into the woods, the gap between the two armies might have been greater still. Something between two hundred and fifty and three hundred yards is a reasonable bracket therefore.

There must now have ensued another pause, even though a short one. For the archers, who had each been carrying a stout double-pointed wooden stake since the tenth day of the march, had now to hammer these into the ground, at an angle calculated to catch a warhorse in the chest. Once hammered, moreover, the points would have had to be hastily resharpened. Henry had ordered these stakes to be cut as a precaution against the army being surprised by cavalry on the line of march. But it was a sensible improvisation to have them planted on the pitched battlefield, even if not a wholly original one. The Scots at Bannockburn, the English themselves at Crécy and the Flemings at Courtrai had narrowed their fronts by digging patterns of holes which would break the leg of a charging horse; the principle was the same as that which underlay the planting of the Agincourt archers’ fence. Though it is not, indeed, possible to guess whether a fence was what the archers constructed. If they hammered their stakes to form a single row, it supposes them standing for some time on the wrong side of it with their backs to the enemy. Is it not more probable that each drove his in where he stood, so forming a kind of thicket, too dangerous for horses to penetrate but roomy enough for the defenders to move about within? That would explain the chronicler Monstrelet’s otherwise puzzling statement that ‘each archer placed before himself a stake’. It would also make sense of the rough mathematics we can apply to the problem. Colonel Burne, whose appreciation has not been challenged, estimates the width of the English position at 950 yards. Given that there were a thousand men-at-arms in the line of battle, ranked shoulder to shoulder four deep, they would have occupied, at a yard of front per man, 250 yards. If the five thousand archers, on the remaining seven hundred yards, planted their stakes side by side, they would have formed a fence at five-inch intervals. That obstacle would have been impenetrable to the French – but also to the English archers;1 and their freedom of movement was, as we shall see, latterly an essential element in the winning of the battle. If we want to picture the formation the archers adopted, therefore, it would be most realistic to think of them standing a yard apart, in six or seven rows, with a yard between them, also disposed chequerboard fashion so that the men could see and shoot more easily over the heads of those in front: the whole forming a loose belt twenty or thirty feet deep, with the stakes standing obliquely among them.

What we do not know – and it leaves a serious gap in our understanding of the mechanics of the battle – is how the archers were commanded. The men-at-arms stood beneath the banners of their leaders, who had anyhow mustered them and brought them to the war, and the larger retinues, those of noblemen like the Earl of Suffolk, also contained knighted men-at-arms, who must have acted as subordinate leaders. There is thus no difficulty in visualizing how command was exercised within these fairly small and compact groups – providing one makes allowances for what a modern officer would regard as the unsoldierly habit in the man-at-arms of seeking to engage in ‘single combat’ and of otherwise drawing attention to his individual prowess and skill-at-arms. But if the ‘officer class’, even though the expression has a very doubtful meaning in the medieval military context, was wholly committed to the leadership of a single component of the army, who led the rest? For it is not naïve, indeed quite the contrary, to suppose some sort of control over and discipline within the archers’ ranks. Had the groupings into twenties under a double-pay ‘vintenar’ and of the twenties into hundreds, under a mounted and armoured ‘centenar’, which we know prevailed in the reign of Edward I, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, persisted into the fifteenth? That would be probable. But we cannot tell to whom the ‘centenars’ were immediately answerable, nor how the chain of command led to the King. We can only feel sure that it did.

Archers versus Infantry and Cavalry

The archers were now in position to open fire (an inappropriate expression, belonging to the gunpowder age, which was barely beginning). Each man disposed his arrows as convenient. He would have had a sheaf, perhaps two, of twenty-four arrows and probably struck them point down into the ground by his feet. The men in the front two ranks would have a clear view of the enemy, those behind only sporadic glimpses: there must therefore have been some sort of ranging order passed by word of mouth. For the archers’ task at this opening moment of the battle was to provoke the French into attacking, and it was therefore essential that their arrows should ‘group’ as closely as possible on the target. To translate their purpose into modern artillery language, they had to achieve a very narrow 100° zone (i.e. that belt of territory into which all missiles fell) and a Time on Target effect (i.e. all their missiles had to arrive simultaneously).

To speculate about their feelings at this moment is otiose. They were experienced soldiers in a desperate spot; and their fire, moreover, was to be ‘indirect’, in that their arrows would not depart straight into the enemy’s faces but at a fairly steeply angled trajectory. They need have had no sense of initiating an act of killing, therefore; it was probably their technical and professional sense which was most actively engaged, in an activity which was still preliminary to any ‘real’ fighting that might come.

They must have received at least two orders: the first to draw their bows, the second to loose their strings. How the orders were synchronized between different groups of archers is an unanswerable question, but when the shout went up or the banner down, four clouds of arrows would have streaked out of the English line to reach a height of a hundred feet before turning in flight to plunge at a steeper angle on and among the French men-at-arms opposite. These arrows cannot, however, given their terminal velocity and angle of impact, have done a great deal of harm, at least to the men-at-arms. For armour, by the early fifteenth century, was composed almost completely of steel sheet, in place of the iron mail which had been worn on the body until fifty years before but now only covered the awkward points of movement around the shoulder and groin. It was deliberately designed, moreover, to offer a glancing surface, and the contemporary helmet, a wide-brimmed ‘bascinet’, was particularly adapted to deflect blows away from the head and the shoulders. We can suppose that the armour served its purpose effectively in this, the opening moment of Agincourt. But one should not dismiss the moral effect of the arrow strike. The singing of the arrows would not have moved ahead of their flight, but the sound of their impact must have been extraordinarily cacophonous, a weird clanking and banging on the bowed heads and backs of the French men-at-arms. If any of the horses in the flanking squadrons were hit, they were likely to have been hurt, however, even at this extreme range, for they were armoured only on their faces and chests, and the chisel-pointed head of the clothyard arrow would have penetrated the padded cloth hangings which covered the rest of their bodies. Animal cries of pain and fear would have risen above the metallic clatter.

Cavalry versus Infantry

We can also imagine oaths and shouted threats from the French. For the arrow strike achieved its object. How quickly, the chroniclers do not tell us; but as a trained archer could loose a shaft every ten seconds we can guess that it took at most a few minutes to trigger the French attack. The French, as we know, were certain of victory. What they had been waiting for was a tactical pretext: either that of the Englishmen showing them their backs or, on the contrary, cocking a snook. One or two volleys would have been insult enough. On the arrival of the first arrows the two large squadrons of horse on either flank mounted – or had they mounted when the English line advanced?—walked their horses clear of the line and broke into a charge.

A charge at what? The two chroniclers who are specific about this point make it clear that the two groups of cavalry, each five or six hundred strong, of which that on the left hand was led by Clignet de Brébant and Guillaume de Saveuse, made the Englisharcher flanks their target. Their aim, doubtless, was to clear these, the largest blocks of the enemy which immediately threatened them, off the field, leaving the numerically much inferior centre of English men-at-arms, with the smaller groups of their attendant archers, to be overwhelmed by the French infantry. It was nevertheless a strange and dangerous decision, unless, that is, we work on the supposition that the archers had planted their stakes among their own ranks, so concealing that array of obstacles from the French. We may then visualize the French bearing down on the archers in ignorance of the hedgehog their ranks concealed; and of the English giving ground just before the moment of impact, to reveal it.

For ‘the moment of impact’ otherwise begs an important, indeed a vital question. It is not difficult to picture the beginning of the charge: the horsemen spurring their mounts to form line, probably two or three rows deep, so that, riding knee to knee, they would have presented a front of two or three hundred lances, more or less equalling in width the line of the archers opposite, say three hundred yards. We can imagine them setting off, sitting (really standing) ‘long’ in their high-backed, padded saddles, legs straight and thrust forward, toes down in the heavy stirrups, lance under right arm, left free to manage the reins (wearing plate armour obviated the need to carry a shield); and we can see them in motion, riding at a pace which took them across all but the last fifty of the two or three hundred yards they had to cover in forty seconds or so and then spurring their horses to ride down on the archers at the best speed they could manage – twelve or fifteen miles an hour.2

So far so good. The distance between horses and archers narrows. The archers, who have delivered three or four volleys at the bowed heads and shoulders of their attackers, get off one more flight. More horses – some have already gone down or broken back with screams of pain – stumble and fall, tripping their neighbours, but the mass drive on and … and what? It is at this moment that we have to make a judgment about the difference between what happens in a battle and what happens in a violent accident. A horse, in the normal course of events, will not gallop at an obstacle it cannot jump or see a way through, and it cannot jump or see a way through a solid line of men. Even less will it go at the sort of obviously dangerous obstacle which the archers’ stakes presented. Equally, a man will not stand in the path of a running horse: he will run himself, or seek shelter, and only if exceptionally strong-nerved and knowing in its ways, stand his ground. Nevertheless, accidents happen. Men, miscalculating or slow-footed, and horses, confused or maddened, do collide, with results almost exclusively unpleasant for the man. We cannot therefore say, however unnatural and exceptional we recognize collisions between man and horse to be, that nothing of that nature occurred between the archers and the French cavalry at Agincourt. For the archers were trained to ‘receive cavalry’, the horses trained to charge home, while it was the principal function of the riders to insist on the horses doing that against which their nature rebelled. Moreover, two of the eye-witness chroniclers, St Remy and the Priest of the Cottonian MS, are adamant that some of the French cavalry did get in among the archers.

The two opposed ‘weapon principles’ which military theorists recognize had, in short, both failed: the ‘missile’ principle, personified by the archers, had failed to stop or drive off the cavalry; they, embodying the ‘shock’ principle, had failed to crush the infantry – or, more particularly, to make them run away, for the ‘shock’ which cavalry seek to inflict is really moral, not physical in character. It was the stakes which must have effected the compromise. The French, coming on fast, and in great numbers over a short distance, had escaped the deaths and falls which should have toppled their charge over on itself; the English, emboldened by the physical security the hedgehog of stakes lent their formation, had given ground only a little before the onset; the horses had then found themselves on top of the stakes too late to refuse the obstacle; and a short, violent and noisy collision had resulted.

Some of the men-at-arms’ horses ‘ran out’ round the flanks of the archers and into the woods. Those in the rear ranks turned their horses, or were turned by them, and rode back. But three at least, including Guillaume de Saveuse, had their horses impaled on the stakes, thumped to the ground and were killed where they lay, either by mallet blows or by stabs between their armour-joints. The charge, momentarily terrifying for the English, from many of whom French men-at-arms, twice their height from the ground, and moving at ten or fifteen miles an hour on steel-shod and grotesquely caparisoned war-horses, had stopped only a few feet distant, had been a disaster for the enemy. And as they rode off, the archers, with all the violent anger that comes with release from sudden danger, bent their bows and sent fresh flights of arrows after them, bringing down more horses and maddening others into uncontrolled flight.

Infantry versus Infantry

But the results of the rout went beyond the demoralization of the survivors. For, as their horses galloped back, they met the first division of dismounted men-at-arms marching out to attack the English centre. Perhaps eight thousand strong, and filling the space between the woods eight or ten deep, they could not easily or quickly open their ranks to let the fugitives through. Of what happened in consequence we can get a clear idea, curiously, from a cinema newsreel of the Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam war in 1968. There, a frightened police horse, fleeing the demonstrators, charged a line of constables on foot. Those directly in its path, barging sideways and backwards to open a gap and seizing their neighbours, set up a curious and violent ripple which ran along the ranks on each side, reaching policemen some good distance away who, tightly packed, clutched at each other for support, and stumbled clumsily backwards and then forwards to keep their balance. The sensations of that ripple are known to anyone who has been a member of a dense, mobile and boisterous crowd and it was certainly what was felt, to a sudden and exaggerated degree, by the French men-at-arms in the face of that involuntary cavalry charge. As in that which had just failed against the archers, many of the horses would have shied off at the moment of impact. But those that barged in, an occurrence to which the chroniclers testify, broke up the rhythm of the advance and knocked some men to the ground, an unpleasant experience when the soil is wet and trampled and one is wearing sixty or seventy pounds of sheet metal on the body.

This interruption in an advance which should have brought the French first division to within weapon’s length of the English in three or four minutes at most gave Henry’s men-at-arms ample time to brace themselves for the encounter. It also gave the archers, both those in the large groups on the wings and the two smaller groups in the central wedges, the chance to prolong their volleying of arrows into the French ranks. The range was progressively shortened by the advance, and the arrows, coming in on a flat trajectory in sheets of five thousand at ten-second intervals, must have begun to cause casualties among the French foot. For though they bowed their heads and hunched their shoulders, presenting a continuous front of deflecting surface (bascinet top, breastplate, ‘taces’ – the overlapping bands across the stomach and genitals – and leg-pieces) to the storm, some of the arrows must have found the weak spots in the visor and at the shoulders and, as the range dropped right down, might even have penetrated armour itself. The ‘bodkin-point’ was designed to do so, and its terminal velocity, sufficient to drive it through an inch of oak from a short distance, could also, at the right angle of impact, make a hole in sheet steel.

The archers failed nevertheless to halt the French advance. But they succeeded in channelling it – or helping to channel it – on to a narrower front of attack. For the French foot, unlike the cavalry, apparently did not make the archers’ positions their objective. As their great mass came on, their front ranks ‘either from fear of the arrows … or that they might more speedily penetrate our ranks to the banners (of the King, the Duke of York and Lord Camoys) … divided themselves into three … charging our lines in the three places where the banners were.’ We may also presume that the return of their own cavalry on the flanks would have helped to compress the infantry mass towards the centre, a tendency perhaps reinforced (we really cannot judge) by the alleged unwillingness of men-at-arms to cross weapons with archers, their social inferiors, when the chance to win glory, and prisoners, in combat with other men-at-arms presented itself. Whatever the play of forces at work on the movement of the French first division, several narrators testify to the outcome. The leading ranks bunched into three assaulting columns and drove into what Colonel Burne, in a topographical analogy, calls the three ‘re-entrants’ of the English line, where the men-at-arms were massed a little in rear of the archers’ staked-out enclosures.

Their charge won an initial success, for before it the English men-at-arms fell back ‘a spear’s length’. What distance the chronicler means by that traditional phrase we cannot judge, and all the less because the French had cut down their lances in anticipation of fighting on foot. It probably implies ‘just enough to take the impetus out of the onset of the French’, for we must imagine them, although puffed by the effort of a jostling tramp across three hundred yards of wet ploughland, accelerating over the last few feet into a run calculated to drive the points of their spears hard on to the enemy’s chests and stomachs. The object would have been to knock over as many of them as possible, and so to open gaps in the ranks and isolate individuals who could then be killed or forced back on to the weapons of their own comrades; ‘sowing disorder’ is a short-hand description of the aim. To avoid its achievement, the English, had they been more numerous, might have started forward to meet the French before they developed impulsion; since they were so outnumbered, it was individually prudent and tactically sound for the men most exposed to trot backwards before the French spearpoints, thus ‘wrong-footing’ their opponents (a spearman times his thrust to coincide with the forward step of his left foot) and setting up those surges and undulations along the face of the French mass which momentarily rob a crowd’s onrush of its full impact. The English, at the same time, would have been thrusting their spears at the French and, as movement died out of the two hosts, we can visualize them divided, at a distance of ten or fifteen feet, by a horizontal fence of waving and stabbing spear shafts, the noise of their clattering like that of a bully-off at hockey magnified several hundred times.

In this fashion the clash of the men-at-arms might have petered out, as it did on so many medieval battlefields, without a great deal more hurt to either side – though the French would have continued to suffer casualties from the fire of the archers, as long as they remained within range and the English had arrows to shoot at them (the evidence implies they must now have been running short). We can guess that three factors deterred the antagonists from drawing off from each other. One was the English fear of quitting their solid position between the woods and behind the archers’ stakes for the greater dangers of the open field; the second was the French certainty of victory; the third was their enormous press of numbers. For if we accept that they had now divided into three ad hoc columns and that the head of each matched in width that of the English opposite – say eighty yards – with intervals between of about the same distance, we are compelled to visualize, taking a bird’s-eye viewpoint, a roughly trident-shaped formation, the Frenchmen in the prongs ranking twenty deep and numbering some five thousand in all, those in the base a shapeless and unordered mass amounting to, perhaps, another three thousand – and all of them, except for the seven or eight hundred in the leading ranks, unable to see or hear what was happening, yet certain that the English were done for, and anxious to take a hand in finishing them off.

No one, moreover, had overall authority in this press, nor a chain of command through which to impose it. The consequence was inevitable: the development of an unrelenting pressure from the rear on the backs of those in the line of battle, driving them steadily into the weapon-strokes of the English, or at least denying them that margin of room for individual manœuvre which is essential if men are to defend themselves – or attack – effectively. This was disastrous, for it is vital to recognize, if we are to understand Agincourt, that all infantry actions, even those fought in the closest of close order, are not, in the last resort, combats of mass against mass, but the sum of many combats of individuals – one against one, one against two, three against five. This must be so, for the very simple reason that the weapons which individuals wield are of very limited range and effect, as they remain even since missile weapons have become the universal equipment of the infantryman. At Agincourt, where the man-at-arms bore lance, sword, dagger, mace or battleaxe,3 his ability to kill or wound was restricted to the circle centred on his own body, within which his reach allowed him to club, slash or stab. Prevented by the throng at their backs from dodging, side-stepping or retreating from the blows and thrusts directed at them by their English opponents, the individual French men-at-arms must shortly have begun to lose their man-to-man fights, collecting blows on the head or limbs which, even through armour, were sufficiently bruising or stunning to make them drop their weapons or lose their balance or footing. Within minutes, perhaps seconds, of hand-to-hand fighting being joined, some of them would have fallen, their bodies lying at the feet of their comrades, further impeding the movement of individuals and thus offering an obstacle to the advance of the whole column.

This was the crucial factor in the development of the battle. Had most of the French first line kept their feet, the crowd pressure of their vastly superior numbers, transmitted through their levelled lances, would shortly have forced the English back. Once men began to go down, however – and perhaps also because the French had shortened their lances, while the English had apparently not – those in the next rank would have found that they could get within reach of the English only by stepping over or on to the bodies of the fallen. Supposing continuing pressure from the rear, moreover, they would have had no choice but to do so; yet in so doing, would have rendered themselves even more vulnerable to a tumble than those already felled, a human body making either an unstable fighting platform or a very effective stumbling block to the heels of a man trying to defend himself from a savage attack to his front. In short, once the French column had become stationary, its front impeded by fallen bodies and its ranks animated by heavy pressure from the rear, the ‘tumbling effect’ along its forward edge would have become cumulative.

Cumulative, but sudden and of short duration: for pressure of numbers and desperation must eventually have caused the French to spill out from their columns and lumber down upon the archers who, it appears, were now beginning to run short of arrows. They could almost certainly not have withstood a charge by armoured men-at-arms, would have broken and, running, have left their own men-at-arms to be surrounded and hacked down. That did not happen. The chroniclers are specific that, on the contrary, it was the archers who moved to the attack. Seeing the French falling at the heads of the columns, while those on the flanks still flinched away from the final flights of arrows, the archers seized the chance that confusion and irresolution offered. Drawing swords, swinging heavier weapons – axes, bills or the mallets they used to hammer in their stakes – they left their staked-out positions and ran down to assault the men in armour.

This is a very difficult episode to visualize convincingly. They cannot have attacked the heads of the French columns, for it was there that the English men-at-arms stood, leaving no room for reinforcements to join in. On the flanks, however, the French cannot yet have suffered many casualties, would have had fairly unencumbered ground to fight on and ought to have had no difficulty in dealing with any unarmoured man foolish enough to come within reach of their weapons. The observation offered by two chroniclers that they were too tightly packed to raise their arms, though very probably true of those in the heart of the crowd, cannot apply to those on its fringes. If the archers did inflict injury on the men-at-arms, and there is unanimous evidence that they did, it must have been in some other way than by direct assault on the close-ordered ranks of the columns.

The most likely explanation is that small groups of archers began by attacking individual men-at-arms, infantry isolated by the scattering of the French first line in the ‘reverse charge’ of their own cavalry or riders unhorsed in the charge itself. The charges had occurred on either flank; so that in front of the main bodies of archers and at a distance of between fifty and two hundred yards from them, must have been seen, in the two or three minutes after the cavalry had ridden back, numbers of Frenchmen, prone, supine, half-risen or shakily upright, who were plainly in no state to offer concerted resistance and scarcely able to defend themselves individually. Those who were down would indeed have had difficulty getting up again from slithery ground under the weight of sixty or seventy pounds of armour; and the same hindrances would have slowed those who regained or had kept their feet in getting back to the protection of the closed columns. Certainly they could not have outdistanced the archers if, as we may surmise, and St Remy, a combatant, implies, some of the latter now took the risk of running forward from their stakes to set about them.4

‘Setting about them’ probably meant two or three against one, so that while an archer swung or lunged at a man-at-arms’ front, another dodged his sword-arm to land him a mallet-blow on the back of the head or an axe-stroke behind the knee. Either would have toppled him and, once sprawling, he would have been helpless; a thrust into his face, if he were wearing a bascinet, into the slits of his visor, if he were wearing a closed helmet, or through the mail of his armpit or groin, would have killed him outright or left him to bleed to death. Each act of execution need have taken only a few seconds; time enough for a flurry of thrusts clumsily parried, a fall, two or three figures to kneel over another on the ground, a few butcher’s blows, a cry in extremis. ‘Two thousand pounds of education drops to a ten rupee …’ (Kipling, ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’). Little scenes of this sort must have been happening all over the two narrow tracts between the woods and the fringes of the French main body within the first minutes of the main battle being joined. The only way for stranded Frenchmen to avoid such a death at the hands of the archers was to ask for quarter, which at this early stage they may not have been willing to grant, despite prospects of ransom. A surrendered enemy, to be put hors de combat, had to be escorted off the field, a waste of time and manpower the English could not afford when still at such an apparent disadvantage.

But the check in the front line and the butchery on the flanks appear fairly quickly to have swung the advantage in their favour. The ‘return charge’ of the French cavalry had, according to St Remy, caused some of the French to retreat in panic, and it is possible that panic now broke out again along the flanks and at the front.5 If that were so – and it is difficult otherwise to make sense of subsequent events – we must imagine a new tide of movement within the French mass: continued forward pressure from those at the back who could not see, a rearward drift along the flanks of the columns by those who had seen all too clearly what work the archers were at, and a reverse pressure by men-at-arms in the front line seeking, if not escape, at least room to fight without fear of falling, or being pushed, over the bodies of those who had already gone down. These movements would have altered the shape of the French mass, widening the gaps between its flanks and the woods, and so offering the archers room to make an ‘enveloping’ attack. Emboldened by the easy killings achieved by some of their number, we must now imagine the rest, perhaps at the King’s command, perhaps by spontaneous decision, massing outside their stakes and then running down in formation to attack the French flanks.

‘Flank’, of course, is only the military word for ‘side’ (in French, from which we take it, the distinction does not exist) and the advantage attackers enjoy in a flank attack is precisely that of hitting at men half turned away from them. But presumably the state in which the archers found the French flanks was even more to their advantage than that. On the edge of the crowd, men-at-arms were walking or running to the rear. As they went, accelerating no doubt at the sight of the English charging down on them, they exposed men deeper within the crowd who would not until then have had sight of the archers, who were not indeed expecting yet to use their arms and whose attention was wholly directed towards the banging and shouting from their front, where they anticipated doing their fighting. Assaulted suddenly at their right or left shoulders, they can have had little chance to face front and point their weapons before some of them, like those already killed by the English men-at-arms, were struck down at the feet of their neighbours.

If the archers were now able to reproduce along the flanks of the French mass the same ‘tumbling effect’ which had encumbered its front, its destruction must have been imminent. For most death in battle takes place within well defined and fairly narrow ‘killing zones’, of which the ‘no-man’s-land’ of trench warfare is the best known and most comprehensible example. The depth of the killing zone is determined by the effective range of the most prevalent weapon, which, in infantry battles, is always comparatively short, and, in hand-to-hand fighting, very short – only a few feet. That being so, the longer the winning side can make the killing zone, the more casualties can it inflict. If the English were now able to extend the killing zone from along the face to down the sides of the French mass (an ‘enveloping’ attack), they threatened to kill very large numbers of Frenchmen indeed.

Given the horror of their situation, the sense of which must now have been transmitted to the whole mass, the French ought at this point to have broken and run. That they did not was the consequence, once again, of their own superiority of numbers. For heretofore it had only been the first division of their army which had been engaged. The second and the third had stood passive, but as the first began to give way, its collapse heralded by the return of fugitives from the flanks, the second walked forward across the wet and trampled ground to lend it support. This was exactly notthe help needed at that moment. Had the cavalry, in third line, been brought forward to make a second charge against the archers, now that they were outside the protection of their stakes and without their bows, they might well have achieved a rescue. But they were left where they were, for reasons impossible to reconstruct.6 Instead, the second division of infantrymen arrived and, thrusting against the backs of their tired and desperate compatriots, held them firmly in place to suffer further butchery.

From what the chroniclers say, we can suppose most of those in the French first line now to be either dead, wounded, prisoner or ready to surrender, if they could not escape. Many had made their surrender (the priest of the Cottonian MS cattily reports that ‘some, even of the more noble … that day surrendered themselves more than ten times’); some had not had it accepted: the Duke of Agençon, finding himself cut off and surrounded in a dash to attack the Duke of Gloucester, shouted his submission over the heads of his attackers to the King, who was coming to his brother’s rescue, but was killed before Henry could extricate him. Nevertheless, very large numbers of Frenchmen had, on promise of ransom, been taken captive, presumably from the moment when the English sensed that the battle was going their way. Their removal from the field, the deaths of others, and the moral and by now no doubt incipient physical collapse of those left had opened up sufficient space for the English to abandon their close order and penetrate their enemy’s ranks.

This advance brought them eventually – we are talking of an elapsed time of perhaps only half an hour since the first blows were exchanged – into contact with the second line. They must themselves have been tiring by this time. For the excitement, fear and physical exertion of fighting hand-to-hand with heavy weapons in plate armour quickly drained the body of its energy, despite the surge of energy released under stress by glandular activity. Even so, they were not repulsed by the onset of the second line. Indeed, its intervention seems to have made no appreciable impact on the fighting. There is a modern military cliché, ‘Never reinforce failure,’ which means broadly that to thrust reinforcements in among soldiers who have failed in an attack, feel themselves beaten and are trying to run away is merely to waste the newcomers’ energies in a struggle against the thrust of the crowd and to risk infecting them with its despair. And it was indeed in congestion and desperation that the second line appear to have met the English. The chroniclers do not specify exactly what passed between them, presumably because it was so similar to what had gone on before during the defeat of the first line. Though we may guess that a large number of the second line, as soon as they became aware of the disaster, turned their backs and ran off the way they had come; some were dragged out by their pages or servants.

What facts the chroniclers do provide about this, the culmination of the hand-to-hand phase, are difficult to reconcile. The English appear to have had considerable freedom of movement, for they were taking hundreds prisoner and the King and his entourage are reported to have cut their way into the second line (it may have been then that he took the blow which dented the helmet which is still to be seen above his tomb in Westminster Abbey). And yet in at least three places, suggested by the priest’s narrative to have been where the enemy columns initially charged the English men-at-arms, the bodies of the French lay piled ‘higher than a man’. Indeed the English are said to have climbed these heaps ‘and butchered the adversaries below with swords, axes and other weapons’.

This ‘building of the wall of dead’ is perhaps the best known incident of the battle. If it had occurred, however, we cannot accept that the King and his armoured followers were able to range freely about the field in the latter stages, since the heaps would have confined them within their own positions. Brief reflection will, moreover, demonstrate that the ‘heap higher than a man’ is a chronicler’s exaggeration. Human bodies, even when pushed about by bulldozers, do not, as one can observe if able to keep one’s eyes open during film of the mass-burials at Belsen, pile into walls, but lie in shapeless sprawling hummocks. When stiffened by rigor mortis, they can be laid in stacks, as one can see in film of the burial parties of a French regiment carting its dead from the field after an attack in the Second Battle of Champagne (September, 1915). But men falling to weapon-strokes in the front line, or tripping over those already down, will lie at most two or three deep. For the heaps to rise higher, they must be climbed by the next victims: and the ‘six foot heaps’ of Agincourt could have been topped-out only if men on either side had been ready and able to duel together while balancing on the corpses of twenty or thirty others. The notion is ludicrous rather than grisly.

The dead undoubtedly lay thick at Agincourt, and quite probably, at the three places where fighting had been heaviest, in piles. But what probably happened at those spots, as we have seen, is that men-at-arms and archers achieved an envelopment of the heads of the French columns, hemmed in and perhaps completely surrounded groups of the enemy, toppled them over on top of each other with lance thrusts and killed them on the ground. The mounds thus raised were big and hideous enough to justify some priestly rhetoric – but not to deny the English entry into the French positions.

The Killing of the Prisoners

Indeed, soon after midday, the English men were ‘in possession of the field’ – by which soldiers would understand that they were able to move freely over the ground earlier occupied by the French, of whom only dead, wounded and fugitives were now to be seen. Fugitives too slow-footed to reach hiding in the woods, or sanctuary among the cavalry of the still uncommitted third division, were chased and tackled by bounty-hunters; others, greedy for ransom, were sorting through the recumbent bodies and pulling ‘down the heaps … to separate the living from the dead, proposing to keep the living as slaves, to be ransomed’. At the back of the battlefield the most valuable prisoners were massed together under guard. They were still wearing their armour but had surrendered their right gauntlets to their captors, as a token of submission (and subsequent re-identification), and taken off their helmets, without which they could not fight.

Henry could not allow each captor individually to sequester his prisoners because of the need to keep the army together as long as the French third division threatened a charge. So while small parties, acting both on their own behalf and that of others still in the ranks, reaped the rewards of the fight, the main bodies of men-at-arms and archers stood their ground – now about two or three hundred yards forward of the line on which they had received the French charge. Henry’s caution was justified. Soon after midday, the Duke of Brabant, arriving late, half-equipped, and with a tiny following, charged into these ranks. He was overpowered and led to the rear. But this gallant intervention inspired at least two French noblemen in the third division, the Counts of Masle and Fauquemberghes, to marshal some six hundred of their followers for a concerted charge. They could clearly be seen massing, two or three hundred yards from the English line, and their intentions were obvious. At about the same time, moreover, shouting from the rear informed the English of a raid by the enemy on the baggage park, which had been left almost unguarded.

It was these events which precipitated Henry’s notorious order to kill the prisoners. As it turned out, the charge was not delivered and the raid was later revealed to have been a mere rampage by the local peasantry, under the Lord of Agincourt. The signs were enough, however, to convince Henry that his victory, in which he can scarcely have yet believed, was about to be snatched from him. For if the French third division attacked the English where they stood, the archers without arrows or stakes, the men-at-arms weary after a morning of hacking and banging in full armour, all of them hungry, cold and depressed by the reaction from the intense fears and elations of combat, they might easily have been swept from the field. They could certainly not have withstood the simultaneous assault on their rear, to which, with so many inadequately guarded French prisoners standing about behind them on ground littered with discarded weapons, they were likely also to have been subjected. In these circumstances, his order is comprehensible.

Comprehensible in harsh tactical logic; in ethical, human and practical terms much more difficult to understand. Henry, a Christian king, was also an experienced soldier and versed in the elaborate code of international law governing relations between a prisoner and his captor. Its most important provision was that which guaranteed the prisoner his life – the only return, after all, for which he would enter into anything so costly and humiliating as a ransom bargain. And while his treachery broke that immunity, the mere suspicion, even if well-founded, that he was about to commit treason could not justify his killing. At a more fundamental level, moreover, the prisoner’s life was guaranteed by the Christian commandment against murder, however much more loosely that commandment was interpreted in the fifteenth century. If Henry could give the order and, as he did, subsequently escape the reproval of his peers, of the Church and of the chroniclers, we must presume it was because the battlefield itself was still regarded as a sort of moral no-man’s-land and the hour of battle as a legal dies non.

His subordinates nevertheless refused to obey. Was this because they felt a more tender conscience? The notion is usually dismissed by medieval specialists, who insist that, at best, the captors objected to the King’s interference in what was a personal relationship, the prisoners being not the King’s or the army’s but the vassals of those who had accepted their surrender; that, at worst, they refused to forgo the prospect of so much ransom money (there being almost no way for a man of the times to make a quick fortune except on the battlefield). But it is significant that the King eventually got his order obeyed only by detailing two hundred archers, under the command of an esquire, to carry out the task. This may suggest that, among the captors, the men-at-arms at any rate felt something more than a financially-motivated reluctance. There is, after all, an important difference between fighting with lethal weapons, even if it ends in killing, and mere butchery, and we may expect it to have been all the stronger when the act of fighting was as glorified as it was in the Middle Ages. To meet a similarly equipped opponent was the occasion for which the armoured soldier trained perhaps every day of his life from the onset of manhood. To meet and beat him was a triumph, the highest form which self-expression could take in the medieval nobleman’s way of life. The events of the late morning at Agincourt, when men had leapt and grunted and hacked at each other’s bodies, behaving in a way which seems grotesque and horrifying to us, was for them, therefore, a sort of apotheosis, giving point to their existence, and perhaps assuring them of commemoration after death (since most chroniclers were principally concerned to celebrate individual feats of arms). But there was certainly no honour to be won in killing one’s social equal after he had surrendered and been disarmed. On the contrary, there was a considerable risk of incurring dishonour, which may alone have been strong enough to deter the men-at-arms from obeying Henry’s order.

Archers stood outside the chivalric system; nor is there much to the idea that they personified the yeoman virtues. The bowmen of Henry’s army were not only tough professional soldiers. There is also evidence that many had enlisted in the first place to avoid punishment for civil acts of violence, including murder. The chroniclers also make clear that, in the heat of combat, and during the more leisurely taking of prisoners after the rout of the French second division, there had been a good deal of killing, principally by the archers, of those too poor or too badly hurt to be worth keeping captive. The question of how more or less reluctant they were to carry out the King’s command need not therefore delay us.

But the mechanics of the execution do demand a pause. Between one and two thousand prisoners accompanied Henry to England after the battle, of whom most must have been captured before he issued his order to kill. The chroniclers record that the killers spared the most valuable prisoners and were called off as soon as Henry assured himself that the French third division was not going to attack after all. We may take it therefore that the two hundred archers whom he detailed were heavily outnumbered by their victims, probably by about ten to one. The reason for wanting them killed, however, was that they were liable to re-arm themselves from the jetsam of battle if it were renewed. Why did they not do so when they saw themselves threatened with death, for the announcement of the King’s order ‘by trumpet’ and the refusal of their captors to carry it out can have left them in no doubt of the fate he planned for them? And how were the archers able to offer them a match? It may have been that they were roughly pinioned (some contemporary pictures of battle show prisoners being led away with their hands bound); but in that case they offered no proper – or a very much reduced – menace to the army’s rear, which in turn diminishes the justification for Henry’s order. And even if they were tied, their actual killing is an operation difficult to depict for oneself. The act of surrender is notably accompanied by the onset of lassitude and self-reproach. Is it realistic to imagine, however, these proud and warlike men passively awaiting the arrival of a gang of their social inferiors to do them to death – standing like cattle in groups of ten for a single archer to break their skulls with an axe?

It does seem very improbable, and all the more because what we know of twentieth-century mass-killing suggests that it is very difficult for small numbers of executioners, even when armed with machine-guns, to kill people much more defenceless than armoured knights quickly and in large numbers. What seems altogether more likely, therefore, is that Henry’s order, rather than bring about the prisoners’ massacre, was intended by its threat to terrorize them into abject inactivity. We may imagine something much less clinical than a Sonderkommando at work: the captors loudly announcing their refusal to obey the proclamation and perhaps assuring their prisoners that they would see them come to no harm; argument and even scuffling between them and members of the execution squad; and then a noisy and bloody cattle-drive to the rear, the archers harrying round the flanks of the crowd of armoured Frenchmen as they stumbled away from the scene of fighting and its dangerous debris to a spot nearer the baggage park, whence they could offer no serious threat at all. Some would have been killed in the process, and quite deliberately, but we need not reckon their number in thousands, perhaps not even in hundreds.

The killing, moreover, had a definite term, for Henry ordered it to end when he saw the French third division abandon their attack formation and begin to leave the battlefield. The time was about three o’clock in the afternoon, leaving some two hours more of daylight. The English began at once to spread out over the field looking for prisoners and spoil in places not yet visited. The King made a circuit and, on turning back for his quarters at Maisoncelles, summoned to him the French and English heralds.

The Wounded

The heralds had watched the battle in a group together and, though the French army had left, the French heralds had not yet followed them. For the heralds belonged not to the armies but to the international corporation of experts who regulated civilized warfare. Henry was anxious to hear their verdict on the day’s fighting and to fix a name for the battle, so that its outcome and the army’s exploits could be readily identified when chroniclers came to record it. Montrose, the principal French herald, confirmed that the English were the victors and provided Henry with the name of the nearest castle – Agincourt – to serve as eponym.

That decision ended the battle as a military and historical episode. The English drove their prisoners and carried their own wounded back to Maisoncelles for the night, where the twenty surgeons of the army set to work. English casualties had been few: the Duke of York, who was pulled from under a heap of corpses, dead either from suffocation or a heart-attack, and the Earl of Suffolk were the only notable fatalities. The wounded numbered only some hundreds. What were their prospects? In the main, probably quite good. The English had not undergone an arrow attack, so most of the wounds would have been lacerations rather than penetrations, clean even if deep cuts which, if bound up and left, would heal quickly. There would also have been some fractures; depressed fractures of the skull could not be treated – the secret of trepanning awaited rediscovery – but breaks of the arm and lower leg could have been successfully set and splinted. The French wounded enjoyed a much graver prognosis. Many would have suffered penetrating wounds, either from arrows or from thrusts through the weak spots of their armour. Those which had pierced the intestines, emptying its contents into the abdomen, were fatal: peritonitis was inevitable. Penetrations of the chest cavity, which had probably carried in fragments of dirty clothing, were almost as certain to lead to sepsis. Many of the French would have suffered depressed fractures of the skull, and there would have been broken backs caused by falls from horses in armour at speed. Almost all of these injuries we may regard as fatal, the contemporary surgeons being unable to treat them. Many of the French, of course, had not been collected from the battlefield and, if they did not bleed to death, would have succumbed to the combined effects of exposure and shock during the night, when temperatures might have descended into the middle-30s Fahrenheit. It was, therefore, not arbitrary brutality when, in crossing the battlefield next morning, the English killed those whom they found alive. They were almost certain to have died, in any case, when their bodies would have gone to join those which the local peasants, under the supervision of the Bishop of Arras, dug into pits on the site. They are said to have buried about six thousand altogether.

The Will to Combat

What sustained men in a combat like Agincourt, when the penalty of defeat, or of one’s own lack of skill or nimbleness was so final and unpleasant? Some factors, either general to battle – as will appear – or more or less particular to this one are relatively easy to isolate. Of the general factors, drink is the most obvious to mention. The English, who were on short rations, presumably had less to drink than the French, but there was drinking in the ranks on both sides during the period of waiting and it is quite probable that many soldiers in both armies went into the mêlée less than sober, if not indeed fighting drunk. For the English, the presence of the King would also have provided what present-day soldiers call a ‘moral factor’ of great importance. The personal bond between leader and follower lies at the root of all explanations of what does and does not happen in battle: and that bond is always strongest in martial societies, of which fifteenth-century England is one type and the warrior states of India, which the British harnessed so successfully to their imperial purpose, are another. The nature of the bond is more complex, and certainly more materialistic than modern ethologists would like to have us believe. But its importance must not be underestimated. And though the late-medieval soldier’s immediate loyalty lay towards his captain, the presence on the field of his own and his captain’s anointed king, visible to all and ostentatiously risking his life in the heart of the mêlée, must have greatly strengthened his resolve.

Serving to strengthen it further was the endorsement of religion. The morality of killing is not something with which the professional soldier is usually thought to trouble himself, but the Christian knight, whether we mean by that the ideal type as seen by the chroniclers or some at least of the historical figures of whom we have knowledge, was nevertheless exercised by it. What constituted unlawful killing in time of war was well-defined, and carried penalties under civil, military and religious law. Lawful killing, on the other hand, was an act which religious precept specifically endorsed, within the circumscription of the just war; and however dimly or marginally religious doctrine impinged on the consciousness of the simple soldier or more unthinking knight, the religious preparations which all in the English army underwent before Agincourt must be counted among the most important factors affecting its mood. Henry himself heard Mass three times in succession before the battle, and took Communion, as presumably did most of his followers; there was a small army of priests in the expedition. The soldiers ritually entreated blessing before entering the ranks, going down on their knees, making the sign of the cross and taking earth into their mouths as a symbolic gesture of the death and burial they were thereby accepting.

Drink and prayer must be seen, however, as last-minute and short-term reinforcements of the medieval soldier’s (though, as we shall see, not only his) will to combat. Far more important, and, given the disparity of their stations, more important still for the common soldier than the man-at-arms, was the prospect of enrichment. Medieval warfare, like all warfare, was about many things, but medieval battle, at the personal level, was about only three: victory first, of course, because the personal consequences of defeat could be so disagreeable; personal distinction in single combat – something of which the man-at-arms would think a great deal more than the bowman; but, ultimately and most important, ransom and loot. Agincourt was untypical of medieval battle in yielding, and then snatching back from the victors the bonanza of wealth that it did; but it is the gold-strike and gold-fever character of medieval battle which we should keep foremost in mind when seeking to understand it.

We should balance it, at the same time, against two other factors. The first of these is the pressure of compulsion. The role which physical coercion or force of unavoidable circumstance plays in bringing men into, and often through, the ordeal of battle is one which almost all military historians consistently underplay, or ignore. Yet we can clearly see that the force of unavoidable circumstances was among the most powerful of the drives to combat at work on the field of Agincourt. The English had sought by every means to avoid battle throughout their long march from Harfleur and, though accepting it on October 25th as a necessary alternative to capitulation and perhaps lifelong captivity, were finally driven to attack by the pains of hunger and cold. The French had also hoped to avoid bringing their confrontation with the English to a fight; and we may convincingly surmise that many of those who went down under the swords or mallet-blows of the English had been drawn into the battle with all the free-will of a man who finds himself going the wrong way on a moving-staircase.

The second factor confounds the former just examined. It concerns the commonplace character of violence in medieval life. What went on at Agincourt appals and horrifies the modern imagination which, vicariously accustomed though it is to the idea of violence, rarely encounters it in actuality and is outraged when it does. The sense of outrage was no doubt as keenly felt by the individual victim of violence five hundred years ago. But the victim of assault, in a world where the rights of lordship were imposed and the quarrels of neighbours settled by sword or knife as a matter of course, was likely to have been a good deal less surprised by it when it occurred. As the language of English law, which we owe to the Middle Ages, reveals, through its references to ‘putting in fear’, ‘making an affray’ and ‘keeping the Queen’s peace’, the medieval world was one in which the distinction between private, civil and foreign war, though recognized, could only be irregularly enforced. Thus battle, though an extreme on the spectrum of experience, was not something unimaginable, something wholly beyond the peace-loving individual’s ken. It offered the soldier risk in a particularly concentrated form; but it was a treatment to which his upbringing and experience would already have partially inured him.

1 Indeed, they could not have got back behind it after they had driven their stakes in.

2 The horses were probably a big hunter type, not the carthorse of popular belief, and the weight they had to carry some 250lbs (man 150lbs, armour 60lbs, saddle and trappings 40lbs).

3 A category which includes glaive, bill, and similar weapons.

4 ‘Soon afterwards, the English archers perceiving this disorder of the advance guard … and hastening to the place where the fugitives came from, killed and disabled the French.’ (Author’s italics.) Nicolas, The History of the Battle of Agincourt (1833) P. 268.

5 The sight of archers killing men-at-arms might either have provoked a counter-attack from the Frenchmen on the flanks or persuaded them individually that Agincourt had become no sort of battle to get killed in. There was no reputation to be won in fighting archers.

6 But probably having to do a) with the lack of effective overall command in the French army, b) with the difficulty of seeing from the third line (c. 500 yards from the ‘killing zone’) what was happening at the front.

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