On this the anniversary of the Battle of Azincourt (Agincourt for all the English-speakers) I have no doubt the internet will be flooded with a million flavours of how the battle was won. So I thought I would endeavour to bring you something a little different.
Now we all know the story. The Hundred Years’ War consisted of a series of battles spread out over 116 years, between 1337 and 1453 between the houses of Plantagenet and Valois for control of France. So, even though it was erroneously named, it gave rise to more than one legend, and eclipsed the lives of several notable figures historically; Edward the Black Prince at Crecy, Joan of Arc, and Henry V himself all made unforgettable names for themselves.
I won’t bore you with the details of Agincourt, as no doubt there are other articles, each telling the story much better than I could, each saying the same thing. Instead a quick synopsis.
Following an arduous and over-long siege at Harfleur between August and the end of September, culminating in the capitulation and surrender of the French forces, Henry V marched his army for days, heading for Calais and home. His intent had only to have been to take advantage of the rift between Louis of Orleans and John the Fearless, brother and cousin respectively of the by now quite mad Charles VI, who were each fighting to gain control of France during Charles’ descent into mental infirmity, and had each appealed to England to assist their cause. Henry had only recently inherited the English throne following his father’s demise in 1413.
Using the rift, he demanded his territorial rights to France, and the hand of Catherine, Charles’ daughter. Refusal was the response, and off to France did Henry go. So anyway, success at Harfleur and head for home… except it didn’t happen as planned.
30 miles from Calais, Charles’ forces gathered to block his route to the sea, north of the Somme, forcing Henry’s tired, hungry troops to give battle. Many of them were suffering from dysentery, and they were allegedly heavily out-numbered, or not, depending on which historian’s camp you fall into. Around 5000 English long-bowmen backed up by small but enthusiastic cavalry and foot, took on the might of the French and trounced them soundly. Stuff of legends. Henry managed to decimate around 40% of the French nobility in the action, and unusually, ordered the execution of the French prisoners, who numbered quite substantially. The reasoning behind his order, being that they were vastly outnumbered by their prisoners, tired and the French had possible reinforcements at the rear.
Should the battle have continued, the English faced easy defeat, particularly with a high number of their men mixed in with the French, it would have been difficult for the archers to hit the French and miss their comrades. Arguably, Henry’s order was more of a threat to the remaining French, and the English troops found the task distasteful and unchivalrous, killing only a small number comparatively before the rest of the French fled. Henry succeeded on the day, historically a magnificent victory, although in the grand scheme of things, nothing much changed. He scored the hand of Catherine of Valois, and negotiated the Treaty of Troyes with Charles but a few years later, his tale of victory being a major part of the opening of Parliament for many years, undoubtedly embellished, before dying suddenly, leaving Catherine a widow after only two years of marriage, with an infant son, Henry VI…. And we all know what happened there!
So, Agincourt. What do we know of it aside from the legend? Well, despite the tales of thousands of dead, whose bodies appear to have vanished into the ether, no archaeological evidence has been uncovered in the area claimed as the battle site. Not a sausage. No artefacts save for one dubious arrow-head is all that has been unearthed. Many reasons have been given for this peculiar anomaly from the scouring of the battlefield by survivors for souvenirs, and anything worth recycling or selling to repeated ploughing in the following 600 years. The ugly question of whether the battle actually took place in the claimed spot has been raised on several occasions. I’m going to jump on this one and say “I highly doubt it” but I’m no expert.
According to the find-a-grave website, Henry allegedly piled all the bodies of the English dead in a barn and burned it to the ground. As for the French, the Count, Charles of Albret and around 13 other nobles were taken to a monastery at Hesdin and interred there, and subsequently this was destroyed in 1558. Several of the dead were taken away by families and retinue for private burial, and three mass graves were filled with 5800 dead on the eastern edge of the field and the ground walled in and consecrated. A memorial remains to this day. How true this is, we can only speculate. Digs have failed to unearth anything and I believe that access to the “graves” was either denied or failed to produce any remains.
The field in question nestles neatly between four villages, in the Pas-de-Calais; the two main ones being Azincourt and Tramecourt, but there appear to be other contenders, hints being given to the various alternative names given by the French in the aftermath, Ruisseauville, Rollencourt, Maisoncelle to name but a few. I looked up the history of Agincourt, prior to the battle. It didn’t take long, there doesn’t appear to be one. Apparently the place descended out of the heavens just in time for the battle, and remains its only claim to fame. There once was a castle in the vicinity, it was allegedly torn down in the 16th century. Not really much other information about that. So the village, the battlefield and the lovely little museum, architecturally designed to represent the long curved bows of the English archers, and the arrows as they are drawn back is all that we have. So on that basis I say, let them keep it. It’s probably just another legend, with little basis in fact, but until we find evidence to the contrary it may as well sit in the box marked “incorrectly placed battlefields”, alongside Bosworth and Hastings to give examples. Well done Agincourt.
Trivia time? Ok, there is the legend that Charles stated that he was going to remove the fingers of all the archers he captured, leading to the birth of the “flagging off” symbol, where the archers held up two fingers to the French to show they still had them… how much truth you place in that story again is entirely up to you. Another good story is that the end of the Battle of Loos, in the Great War took place on the 500th anniversary of Agincourt (true!) and as the British retreated, they were defended by the ghosts of long-dead English Archers against the chasing Germans (possibly not so true) leading to the further legend of the Angel of Mons. Awwwww
Oh and Agincourt is twinned with Middleham… home of the Nevilles, and Richard III.
That’s all I’ve got.