History’s original Band of Brothers, the army of England’s King Henry V, won its stunning victory against an overwhelmingly larger French force on a flat piece of plowed ground only slightly larger than a dozen football fields. The Battle of Agincourt was one of many clashes between England and France over the course of the Hundred Years’ War (which actually lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453). Fueling that conflict were complex, interlocking feudal relationships between the two royal dynasties involving English claims to French lands and to the French throne itself.
On August 15, 1415, the 26-year-old English king landed in France on the Seine estuary near Harfleur. Henry intended to take the port and then march upriver on Paris. The siege, however, took a month, far longer than Henry had calculated, and cost him nearly a third of his army. Marching on Paris was now out of the question, but Henry could not bring himself to load up the boats and sail back to England. He decided instead to demonstrate that his army could move about France at will by marching 120 miles to the English-held enclave at Calais and sailing home from there. The French had other ideas.
Henry and his army of 900 men-at-arms and 5,000 longbowmen set off on October 8 with only about 10 days’ provisions. Charles d’Albert, the constable of France, managed to block and divert Henry’s movements: Sixteen days and 200 miles later the exhausted English found themselves in the fields outside Agincourt facing a huge French army of some 7,000 mounted knights, 15,000 dismounted men-at-arms and 3,000 crossbowmen.
If one of those medieval warriors returned to the battlefield today, he would recognize it instantly. The open, plowed fields still run roughly north-south, flanked on either side by a village nestled into a long wood line. The road that connects Agincourt on the west with Tramcourt on the east marked the initial English front line. At that point the open ground was at its narrowest, with little more than 300 yards separating the two wood lines. Recent heavy rains had turned the plowed fields into a quagmire. If you go there on a rainy day, the setting looks—eerily—as it must have in 1415.
The night before the battle, the French were in a party mood. Knights from almost every noble house had assembled in hopes of winning martial glory, and capturing and holding English noblemen for lucrative ransoms. The English troops were weary, hungry, suffering from dysentery and woefully outnumbered. As dawn broke on October 25, Henry rode his horse along the English line, rallying his troops. No one knows exactly what he said that day, but William Shakespeare’s version of his St. Crispin’s Day speech is one of the most stirring passages in the English language:
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.…
Whatever he said that day, it worked. But while Henry’s troops were vastly outnumbered, they did possess one of the most effective weapons of the Middle Ages—the dreaded English longbow, with far greater range, rate of fire and penetrating power than the crossbow primarily used by the French. And it wasn’t as if the French didn’t know just how deadly that weapon was. They had learned that lesson at Crecy in 1346.
Henry deployed his force in a single line with no reserve, men-at-arms in the center and archers on both flanks. The French were deployed in three lines, with heavy cavalry in the third line. With numbers in their favor, the French were content to wait for the English to attack. After several hours of glaring at each other, Henry realized that time was not on his side and he would have to provoke the French into attacking. He advanced his line to within 250 yards of the French, but they still didn’t react. The English took advantage of the delay to prepare their new position, driving sharpened stakes into the ground to their immediate front.
Once ready, Henry ordered his bowmen to open fire. The initial salvo did little damage at that range, but it did provoke the anticipated charge. Instead of holding formation, many mounted French knights poured around either flank and charged the English line across the muddy field. The English archers opened fire, and the heavily armored knights went down in droves, many drowning in the mud. The remaining French lines blindly pressed the attack. As they advanced, the converging woods on their flanks drove them closer together, concentrating them for the archers. Trapped in a kill zone, the attackers were massacred. The French lost some 8,000 to 12,000 men that day, including one-third of the nobility of France. The English suffered only about 200 dead, but Henry’s army was too weak to exploit the victory. It limped away to the safety of Calais.
Today, apart from an excellent museum and visitor center in the modern-day village of Agincourt, the landscape remains nearly unchanged. In a copse of trees on the Tramcourt side of the field, a 19th century monument marks the site of mass grave pits, the final resting place for thousands of French knights and a reminder of the sudden slaughter that exploded on that long-past St. Crispin’s Day.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.