25 October 1415

British actor Laurence Olivier took on the title role of Henry V in the 1944 film version of the Shakespeare play. Shakespeare depicted Henry in Henry IV as the headstrong Prince Hal. In Henry V, he has grown to become a decisive leader.

Iimmortalized by Shakespeare in The Life of Henry the Fifth, the Battle of Agincourt has retained its reputation as one of the greatest feats of arms of any English army. Yet it could so easily have ended in disaster. The armies mustered by the French king, Charles VI, despite the often tense relations between the powerful nobles who commanded them, numbered an estimated 60,000 soldiers and camp followers with a core of 12–15,000 men-at-arms – trained soldiers, armoured and heavily armed, who would do most of the fighting. The English king, Henry V crowned in 1413 at the age of twenty-five, had a mixed force of perhaps fewer than 6,000 English, Welsh and Gascon soldiers, one-fifth of them armed and mounted men-at-arms, four-fifths of them longbowmen, with little armour. They had marched hundreds of miles on little food. On paper, the gap between the two sides was vast. ‘That’s a valiant flea,’ Shakespeare has one of the French commanders utter, ‘that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.’

Henry and his army arrived on the Normandy coast, near present-day Le Havre, in the middle of August 1415 in a vast armada of small boats. He was the leader of a bold but risky invasion for which he was completely responsible. He was related to the French royal family and wanted to mark his assumption of the English throne by claiming France as his kingdom too, and the French people as his subjects. Having experienced English depredations on many occasions in what eventually became known as the Hundred Years War, the French king wanted to negotiate, even to make concessions. But Henry was determined to exercise his claim, which meant invasion. The story goes that the French court sent him a box of tennis balls with the implication that he should confine himself to harmless games; whether true or not, Henry became determined on war at all costs, little understanding just how limited were his military means compared with the vast resources and experience of the French.

An early fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript from the Chroniques of the French historian Enguerrand de Monstrelet (c.1400–53) shows two armies using the deadly longbow that proved such a decisive weapon at the Battle of Agincourt.

Everything went wrong for the English army. It began by investing the small city of Harfleur on the Norman coast, which refused to submit and had to be subjected to a destructive siege. The besieging army was short of food and soon ravaged by dysentery. Some 2,000 of an already small force died or had to be shipped home. The town garrison suffered even more and on 22 September Harfleur was surrendered. Henry had initially imagined a triumphant march on Paris, but with his army now down to barely half its initial strength and many of the troops ill, his commanders would consent to nothing more than a forced march to the English enclave at Calais, whence they could return home. With the guns and siege equipment left behind at Harfleur, the king set out to cross the River Somme and on to Calais. By this time, the French had amassed a huge army and when the English approached their chosen ford across the river, they found it guarded by 6,000 men under Marshal Boucicaut. With men forced to march up to 30 kilometres (20 miles) a day and rapidly running out of food, the king gambled on finding a crossing further south. As luck would have it, two small crossings were still unguarded, though their causeways were destroyed. On 19 October, the army reached the east bank of the Somme and began a forced march towards Calais. The French army, commanded by the Dukes of Bourbon and Orléans, shadowed them and on 20 October sent a challenge to engage in battle. Since the French could easily block the route to Calais, Henry accepted.

No attack came, and the English continued north. But at the small town of Blangy, still far short of their destination, scouts spotted vast columns of French troops, like ‘an innumerable host of locusts’ crossing to block their path. In almost continuous rain, which churned the ground into treacherous mud, the two armies approached each other. On the eve of St Crispin’s Day, the English stopped at the village of Maisoncelle, while the French halted some distance to the north, flanked on each side by a thick wood. The French army had numerous knights, but a small number of archers armed with crossbows. Mounted knights were on the flanks, supported by the French guns. Behind was a motley rabble of footmen and servants. In the centre were two dense rows of dismounted men-at-arms. The French commanders were no doubt overconfident that their large host would soon dispatch Henry’s force, which was outnumbered by more than two to one, so that little thought was given to the nature of the battlefield. Henry, on the other hand, had to gamble everything on the way he set out his forces. He divided the dismounted men-at-arms into three groups, four deep, divided by parties of longbowmen, and with more archers on each side in a curved flanking position, so that arrows could be rained down both from the front and the side. The longbow could be shot with deadly effect from 300 metres (1,000 feet). To protect the archers, Henry ordered them to fix pointed wooden stakes, which he had made them cut and carry days beforehand, and which were now set at an angle to impale oncoming horsemen. Though tired and hungry, his troops rallied to Henry’s confident faith that God would favour them.

The French strategy proved to be disastrous. Drawn up in tight ranks with a narrowing slope in front of them, bordered by two woods, they had little room for manoeuvre, while the knights jostled and argued to find a place in the front rank on the mud-soaked field. They stood where they were for three hours waiting for the English to attack. At 11 a.m., Henry decided his tired and hungry men could wait no longer. He marched them forward to within 300 metres (1,000 feet) of the enemy, the states were fixed and then the order went out to the archers, ‘Nestroque!’ (‘Now strike!’). The famous scene of the dark cloud of arrows, spectacularly replicated in the 1944 film Henry V, was almost certainly the truth. Stung by the deadly rain, the French moved forward. Their ill-conceived deployment soon became apparent. The gun crews became ensnared with the horsemen, who plunged through the heavy mud, only to become impaled on the stakes and tormented with the arrows. The men-at-arms on foot found themselves struggling through piles of armoured figures on the ground and dead or dying horses. Knights who turned back became hopelessly entangled with those coming forward; hampered by heavy armour and clinging mud, the front line was pushed over by those behind. Hundreds suffocated in the scrum. Like the Persian ships at Salamis, an abundance of numbers was no advantage in a constricted space. The archers alternated between their deadly salvos and murderous forays against knights who could not easily move or escape and who were axed or stabbed to death where they stood or lay. As the French dead piled up, two or three high, those behind were forced to fight at a growing disadvantage against the smaller numbers of English men-at-arms who still had the space to move. Seeing the massacre, the third line of mounted French hesitated to move forward. English soldiers and archers pulled the wounded or immobilized enemy into their own ranks, disarmed them and kept those whose value was evident in order to ransom them after the battle.

It was at this point that Henry ordered his men to kill the prisoners in cold blood. He was uncertain about what the rest of the French army would do, and worried lest the numerous prisoners seize arms and attack from the rear. His men obeyed reluctantly, since they were destroying a source of future wealth for them all. The prisoners were stabbed or battered to death, or had their throats slit.

The third line never attacked. The disaster was clear for all to see and the French king’s herald arrived to concede the battle. Henry wanted a name for it; the herald told him the nearby castle was called Agincourt, and the battle has carried the title ever since. The three hours of combat were gory and uncompromising. Though weak and hungry, Henry’s troops were tough and brutal, neither giving nor expecting quarter. The wounded were killed off or brought in to the English camp for ransom. The bodies were stripped of anything the troops could carry, leaving a muddy field littered with blood-soaked, naked corpses, including much of the flower of the French aristocracy. Figures of the French dead vary, though around 7,000 is generally accepted. Some 5,800 were finally placed in three large pits and covered over. The rest were collected for burial by their families or servants. For the French, the battle was a catastrophic defeat against an enemy that they had underrated and for whose defeat they had made inadequate preparations. Nevertheless, the English army executed a model operation given their small numbers. English casualties have been estimated at little more than 500 dead and wounded. Henry returned to a triumphant welcome in London and a legendary place in British history books.