598 Years Since Agincourt

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We are in God’s hand, brother, not in theirs.

King Henry V

The anniversary of the long ago battle of Saint Crispin’s Day gives us yet another opportunity to recall the immortal “Band of Borthers Speech” that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Henry V, a speech that could put fight into a dog dead three days, or, mirabile dictu, even a live Congress Critter:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here

    But one ten thousand of those men in England      

That do no work to-day!

  KING. What’s he that wishes so?

    My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;      

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

    To do our country loss; and if to live,

    The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

    God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

    By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,      

 Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

    It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

    Such outward things dwell not in my desires.      

 But if it be a sin to covet honour,      

I am the most offending soul alive.

    No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.      

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour

    As one man more methinks would share from me

    For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!     

  Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,     

  That he which hath no stomach to this fight,      

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

    And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

    We would not die in that man’s company

    That fears his fellowship to die with us.      

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.

    He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

    Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,

    And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

    He that shall live this day, and see old age,

    Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

    And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’

    Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,      

And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’

    Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

    But he’ll remember, with advantages,

    What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

    Familiar in his mouth as household words-      

 Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

    Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-

    Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.

    This story shall the good man teach his son;      

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

    From this day to the ending of the world,      

 But we in it shall be remembered-      

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

    Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,      

This day shall gentle his condition;     

  And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 

October 25, 1415 was an amazing day for the English.  The English longbow had long proved in the Hundred Years War to be a devastating weapon in the hands of skilled archers, but rarely had the English faced such long odds as they did at Agincourt.  Approximately 6,000 English, exhausted and worn from their march, faced approximately 30,000 French.  About five out of six of the English were archers with the remainder men-at-arms, knights and nobility.  The French had about 10,000 men-at-arms, knights and nobility, and 20,000 archers, crossbowmen and miscellaneous infantry.

The English established their battle line between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt, which offered excellent protection to both of their flanks.  The English archers made up the front line with stakes set in the ground before them to impale charging horses.  Archers were also placed in the woods to provide flanking fire against advancing French.  The men at arms and knights and nobility, were divided into three forces behind the archers.  They fought on foot.

The terrain between the woods that the French would have to cross in their attack of the English consisted of newly ploughed, and very muddy, fields.  Having walked through muddy fields on several occasions in rural Illinois, I can attest that simply getting from point A to point B in such terrain can be exhausting, let alone fighting at the end of the tramp through the morass.

For three hours there was no fighting, the French waiting for reinforcements.  King Henry tiring of this had his army advance to put pressure on the French to attack.  Alarmed by this offensive movement by the English, the French finally attacked.

The French advanced in three battles, or lines, one behind the other.  The mounted French, only about 1200 men, were in the first line.  All the other French fought afoot.

The charge of the mounted French was a complete disaster  and set the tone for the entire battle.  Due to the woods, the English archers could not be outflanked, and their blizzard of arrows wreaked havoc with the horses of the French as they made their frontal charge.  The French cavalry fell back on the advancing dismounted French men-at-arms.  These advanced against heavy fire from the longbowmen, who fired into the French men-at-arms until they ran out of arrows, and then joined in the melee with the English men-at-arms.  The French initially succeeded in forcing back the English line.  However, their success was short-lived.  Exhaustion set in among the French after their trek through the muddy fields, and the English longbowmen, wearing no armor and therefore much more agile than their adversaries in the mud, attacked with surprising success, aiming their blows at unarmored portions of the bodies of the French men-at-arms.  The fighting lasted about three hours before the French withdrew in defeat.  The stunned English slowly realized that they had won one of the most incredible against the odds victory in military history.

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8 Comments

  1. If Henry V John had not had such an untimely death, I wonder if he could have held everything together. Probably just as well for England that he did not have the opportunity. I can’t help but think that an Anglo-French kingdom would have ended up with England getting the short end of such a dual monarchy.

  2. Could the English have ultimately won the Hundred Years War?

    France is a very large country to occupy and hold and it would have meant maintaining both the intrinsically unstable Burgundian alliance and the treaty made with James I of Scotland. Neither, I believe was very likely.

    The ultimate loss of the Hundred Years War ended in catastrophe for the English – and an English defeat was morally certain after the raising of the siege of Orléans on 8 May 1429, the Loire Campaign, the victory of Patay and the anointing of the Dauphin at Rheims with the oil of Clovis as Charles VII, roi très-chrétien in the summer of that year.

    Andrew Lang, Scottish and thus impartial, has described the aftermath: “They were all lost. The curse of their cruelty did not depart from them. Driven by the French and Scots from province to province, and from town to town, the English returned home, tore and rent each other; murdering their princes and nobles on the scaffold, and slaying them as prisoners of war on the field; and stabbing and smothering them in chambers of the Tower; York and Lancaster devouring each other; the mad Henry VI was driven from home to wander by the waves at St. Andrews, before he wandered back to England and the dagger stroke—these things were the reward the English won, after they had burned a Saint. They ate the bread and drank the cup of their own greed and cruelty all through the Wars of the Roses. They brought shame upon their name which Time can never wash away; they did the Devil’s work, and took the Devil’s wages. Soon Henry VIII was butchering his wives and burning Catholics and Protestants, now one, now the other, as the humour seized him.”

  3. Auld Alliance or no, after the Scots’ defeat at the Battle of the Herrings, Beaufort had secured a non-aggression pact with James I, with the help of some well-paid lobbyists among the nobles and, I am sorry to say, churchmen, at the Scottish court.

    The Scottish free companies fought on, of course. When the Dauphin refused to give the Maid money to pay them, after the raising of the siege of Orléans, it was one of their leaders, Sir Anthony Kennedy, who told her, with a guffaw, that they did no need paying to fight the English. I am sure Lang would have approved.

    Kennedy’s descendants are neighbours of mine in Ayrshire and still use the arms granted them by Charles VII.

    http://tinyurl.com/on6zqpa

    To persuade an old freebooter like Kennedy to do anything for nothing really was one of the Maid’s miracles.

  4. King Henry’s speech is fit to commemorate for another October 25th military anniversary, namely that of the 1944 naval action off Samar (in the Phillipines), in which a small force of destroyers and destroyer escorts fended off an attack by Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers with such ferocity that the attacking force — believing they were being opposed by heavy units — withdrew without proceeding to their final objective, which was the invasion beachhead at Leyte. American losses were destroyers Johnston and Hoel, destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts, and escort carrier Gambier Bay.

    (The entire incident is chronicled in Hornfischer’s _Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors_. A recent addition to the literature on this action is _For Crew and Country_, which focuses on the role of USS Samuel B. Roberts.)

  5. The Hundred Years War established two things.

    1. It was against God’s will that the same man be both King of England and King of France.

    2. England had a right to occupy large parts of France – during World War II, not five hundred years before.

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