Yesterday was the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt. At the Telegraph, Bernard Cornwell, one of the finest living historical novelists, writes about the battle’s enduring significance. Here are a few excerpts:
The battle of Agincourt was fought on a muddy field in northern France 600 years ago on Sunday – St Crispin’s Day, October 25th 1415. Kings, princes, dukes and nobles abounded on either side. It became then and has remained ever since one of the most famous English victories.
Legend says Agincourt was won by arrows. It was not. It was won by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval hand-to-hand fighting. …
Henry V was an inspirational leader. He fought in the front rank and had a fleuret knocked off his crown. Eighteen Frenchmen had taken a solemn oath to kill him and all of them died at Henry’s feet, slaughtered either by the king or by his bodyguard. …
In the cold, wet dawn of October 25th, 1415, no one could have expected Henry’s army to survive the day. He had around 6,000 men, over 5,000 of them archers, while the French numbered at least 30,000 and were so confident that, before the battle was joined, they sent some newly arrived reinforcements away. By dusk on that St Crispin’s Day, the small English army had entered legend. …
The English, astonishingly, had been given time to reposition themselves, and now the archers began the battle by shooting a volley of arrows. At least five thousand arrows, most converging from the flanks, slashed into the French and it seems that the shock of that first arrow-strike prompted the French to attack. A handful of Frenchmen advanced on horseback, trying to get among the archers, but mud, stakes and arrows easily defeated those knights.
The French knew about English and Welsh archers. The longbow was capable of shooting an arrow over two hundred paces with an accuracy that would not be matched till the rifled gun-barrel was invented. … A good archer could easily shoot fifteen arrows a minute….
So why didn’t the French deploy thousands of their own bowmen? The issue wasn’t the bow, it was the archer:
Why did the French not deploy their own longbowmen? Because to shoot a longbow demanded two difficult skills; the first was an ability to draw an extraordinarily powerful bow (at least three times as powerful as a modern competition bow) and the second, because the string was drawn to the ear, the skill of offsetting the arrow’s aim. It took years for a man to develop the muscles and skill, and for reasons that have never been fully understood, such men emerged in Britain, but not on the continent.
The battle was about as one-sided a victory as Shakespeare portrayed it:
Perhaps as many as five thousand French died that day while English losses were in the hundreds, maybe not even as many as two hundred.
Agincourt was one of three famous victories–the others being Crecy and Poitiers–in a war that the English eventually lost. So what was its enduring significance?
The few had destroyed the many, and most of those few were archers. They were not lords and knights and gentry, but butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers from the shires. They were the ordinary men of England and Wales, and they had met the awesome power of France in hand-to-hand fighting and they had won.
The battle of Agincourt is part of the binding of England, the emergence of the common man as a vital part of the nation. Those common men returned to England with their stories and their pride, and these stories were told in taverns over and over, how a few hungry trapped men had gained an amazing victory. The story is still remembered, even six hundred years later, because it has such power. It is a tale of the common man achieving greatness.
Cornwell’s novel Agincourt offers an in-depth look at the battle and its surrounding history. I highly recommend it.
And once more–because, why not?–Kenneth Branagh delivers Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech: