“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;” – William Shakespeare from Henry V
In 1414, Henry V swore over the body of his late father to assert his claim to the crown of France. As night fell in Picardy on Thursday October 24, 1415, Henry V and his English troops, exhausted by their long march after the taking of Harfleur and sick from dysentery, could not have imagined that the battle the next day would give them one of the most complete victories ever won. The battle would be hard fought and devastating for the French and lead to decades of misery for the the nation of France.
5. Prisoners of War
After the French forces were routed by the English, the prisoners were tied to trees in the English camp. 2,000 men-at-arms had been taken prisoner, and oddly enough, they outnumbered their English victors (the English had only 1,500 knights).
When King Henry V received word that the French were planning a second attack, he knew he would be greatly outnumbered. Henry needed every man he could muster including the ones guarding the French prisoners of war. Henry was concerned that the many French prisoners may take advantage of their enemy’s absence to rally and attack the English from behind. In light of this, King Henry ordered the death of all the French prisoners even though this went against the rules of war and chivalry at that time. Henry spared a few dukes and other men close to the French King and the rest were executed.
His knights refused to kill the unarmed prisoners. So Henry ordered 200 archers to cut their throats since they weren’t bound by the code of chivalry. According to one account by a French knight, a group of a dozen prisoners was locked inside a house that was then set ablaze. Once the French heard of King Henry’s execution of the prisoners of war, the French became apprehensive and called off the second assault. The Battle of Agincourt had been won.
4. Many of the French Knights Suffocated
The days leading up to the Battle of Agincourt had been rainy, and the fields were soggy and bogged down with mud. This severely slowed the French advance. Feeling confident in the size of their army, the French knights charged towards the enemy. The French, weighed down by their heavy armor, began to sink down to their knees in the mud. The English archers were able to pick them off steadily. As more and more French troops continued to advance, thousands of men were trapped and unable to move. Many were trampled to death or suffocated as they lay amongst their fallen men.
Once wounded, a French soldier had next to no chance of getting up again and was more often than not crushed under the weight of the men coming from behind. Horribly wounded horses, running amok, became a cruel part of the bloody mayhem at the battle. Many of the French were slaughtered at point-blank range, falling on the bodies of their comrades. A well trained English archer could fire 10 arrows a minute. When the archers ran out of arrows, they turned to axes, swords and even mallets against the helpless mass of French cavalry wallowing in the mud.
3. The Impact of the English Archers
Henry V had approximately 1,000 to 2,000 men-at-arms and knights with heavy armor. The rest were English and Welsh archers armed with the English longbow, a weapon known for its deadly range of fire. Henry deployed his archers on the flanks of his line behind a protective wall of sharpened wooden stakes. As the French approached, the archers let loose with a hail of arrows so thick that it reportedly darkened the sun. Hundreds of arrows flew through the air and wreaked havoc among the charging French knights. Many were cut down before they got anywhere near the English position. French nobles and knights went down in droves, many of them hit by multiple arrows fired with enough force to penetrate armor. Once the French force became panicked and bunched together, the English archers traded their bows for poleaxes and mallets and joined the English knights in a counterattack. The resulting massacre left between 6,000 and 10,000 French troops dead. The English lost only a few hundred men.
2. The English were vastly outnumbered
In many ways the Battle of Agincourt displayed the superiority of tactics, topography and archery over just heavy armor – factors that were rare during the early 15th century. The battle consisted of approximately 6,000 to 9,000 English soldiers (with 5/6th of them being archers) against 20,000 to 30,000 French forces, who had 10,000 heavy armored knights and men-at-arms. The extremely confident mindset of the French nobility participating in the battle was described by the chronicler Edmond de Dyntner’s statement – “ten French nobles against one English”, which discounted the military value of the English archers.
The lack of accurate information makes it impossible to give an exact figure for the French and English casualties (dead, wounded, taken prisoner). However, it is clear that even though the English were outnumbered, their losses were far fewer than those of the French. The French sources all give 4,000–10,000 French dead. The English sources put the English dead at no more than 100. The consensus puts the English casualties at 450. Using the lowest French estimate of their own dead of 4,000 would imply a ratio of nearly 9 to 1 in favor of the English.
The French suffered heavily. Three dukes, eight counts, a viscount, and an archbishop were killed, including numerous other nobles. France lost her Constable, Admiral, Master of the Crossbowmen and prévôt of the marshals. According to the chronicler Juliet Barker, the battle “cut a great swath through the natural leaders of French society in Artois, Ponthieu, Normandy, Picardy.”
1. Henry V won the battle but lost the war
Despite Henry V winning the Battle of Agincourt and being named regent and heir to the French throne, something he had spent much of his adult life trying to accomplish, he died before he could be crowned and his successors proceeded to quickly lose both the throne and much of the territory he had gained in France.
While Agincourt ranks as one of the most one-sided victories in history, it didn’t have major implications for the outcome of the Hundred Years’ War. The English sailed home after the battle and didn’t return to France until 1417, when Henry V launched a successful campaign that ended with a treaty establishing him as the successor to the French King Charles VI. Henry died suddenly on August 31, 1422 from dysentery, which he contracted during the siege of Meaux. He was 36 years old and had reigned for just nine years.
The Hundred Years’ War devastated France as a land, but it also awakened French nationalism. It accelerated the process of transforming France from a feudal monarchy to a centralized state. In 1436 the English lost Paris and by 1450 the French had recovered Normandy. In 1451 the French overran Aquitaine and took Bordeaux, which had been in English hands for three hundred years. Bordeaux surrendered in October, 1453 and marked the end of the long and bloody war.