Sunday, October 25, 2020

Once Upon St. Crispin’s Day

The Battle of Agincourt as depicted in the French manuscript Recueil des croniques d’Engleterre by Jean of Wavrin circa 1480.  

The Battle of Agincourt, which was fought on October 25, 1415, is usually found on one of those lists of the most important battles in world history that intrigue the kind of military history geeks who haunted the History Channel before it turned into a freak show of ancient aliens and conspiracy theories.  This is due almost entirely to the Anglo-centrism of the historians and publicity by one William Shakespeare who made a hero out of English King Henry V and put in his mouth a glorious speech which took on a special significance as a rallying cry for the British in the darkest days of another war more than 500 years later.

The battle was a decisive English victory over a much larger French army and is interesting on a number of points, but in the long run did little to change the course of history.  It was a part of the series of conflicts known at the Hundred Years War fought from 1337 and 1453 between the Valois and Anjou (the English House of Plantagenet) claimants to the French throne.  Here is the Cliff Notes version of what happened.

Henry V was the second of the Lancastrian kings of the Plantagenet dynasty, a branch of the French House of Anjou which had ruled England since 1154.  His father, Henry IV had successfully usurped the throne from Richard II and established a new line of succession.  Young Henry V acceded to the throne in 1413 at the age of 27.  As Prince of Wales he was already a seasoned military commander when he led armies against a Welsh rebellion in his principality. 

                        English King Henry V was fighting for his claim to be heir to the French Crown.

He was an ambitious and aggressive monarch.  He began his reign with many reforms, including restoring the lands and titles of most the heirs and loyalists of Richard II to gain their support.  He also decreed for the first time the English, rather than French, was the official language of the kingdom.  His court was the first to use English and he wrote predominately in it.  But that did not mean he was not interested in France.

The young monarch, seeing France was in dynastic turmoil, decided to reinstate his claim to the title of King of France, which was based on connections through Richard II.  He also wanted to reclaim and expand large claims of land on the Continent, most of which had been lost over the preceding two hundred years.  He demanded of the French to be accepted as the legitimate Heir to the throne and in addition to ancestral Anjou and Normandy demanded Aquitaine, Touraine, Brittany, and Flanders and marriage to the daughter of the Valois claimant to the French crown to cement his own.  After two years of negotiations Henry received the permission of Parliament to declare war and impose a doubled tax rate to finance a campaign.

With the revenues, Henry raised an army composed not only of the noble knights and men at arms, but primarily of hired yeomen most of whom were armed with the longbows.  His army of about 12,000 arrived in France in August of 1415 and immediately laid siege to the port of Harfleur.  Due to a lack of proper siege equipment, the capture of the city took until well into September, which gave the divided French time to unite and gather a large army at Roen under Charles d’Albret, the Constable of France.

Because the campaign season was drawing to a close, Henry decided to try to avoid a battle with the main French army, and to march north to the English port of Calais to resupply over the winter.  His force was already reduced to about 9,000 by disease and was soon in hunger as they could not forage enough provisions as they marched.  The French army began to shadow them, but waited to gain strength as more troops joined. 

At the River Somme the French got ahead of Henry and blocked the most direct route to Calais, forcing him to move south, away from the city to find a ford.  He finally crossed south of PĂ©ronne.  Resuming his march north again, Henry found the whole French army blocking his path near Agincourt on October 24.  The 250 mile march over two and a half weeks had left his army in wretched condition, but Henry knew that the French were still receiving reinforcements and had to come to battle before they arrived.

The chosen battleground could not have been worse for the much larger French army pressing them into a narrow front flanked by heavy woods.  It was a lethal trap.

As was the custom the two sides met and agreed on the battle field.  It could not have been a more disastrous choice for the French who out-numbered the English by as many as 6 to 1.  The battle was to be fought on a recently harvested open field only 750 yard wide closed in between two heavy stands of woods.  The night before the battle heavy rains had turned the field into a sea of mud, which would only become more encumbering as it was roiled by men and horses. 

Henry deployed his forces across the narrowest point on the southern end of the field, divided into three sections with himself personally on the field in command of the center.  These forces totaled about 1,500 heavily armed knights and men-at-arms mostly dismounted.  Along both flanks, and backed against the woods, he deployed his 7,000 longbow men protected from the cavalry attack by hastily erected abattoirs, hastily erected abatises, sharpened logs dug into the ground at an angle.

The French had to advance several hundred yards across the muddy ground to reach the English line.  The French deployed 10,000 heavily armored knights and men at arms in two or three divisions, with about 1,200 knights mounted as cavalry.  To the rear were thousands more men including archers, crossbowmen, and levies of ill-trained, lightly armed infantry which the French evidently did not even plan to deploy, so sure were they about the power of the “cream of French nobility” to carry the day against the vastly outnumbered English.

It turned out the most effective force on the field were the English yeomen longbowmen.

The action began with a successful raid against Henry’s baggage train to the rear, which made him nervous all day of being surrounded.  Then, as the heavy infantry began their slog across the field, the cavalry charged the two flanks of archers.  The longbow men let fly with volley after volley of high arching shots that fell on the knights wounding and maddening their horses, many of which broke away and began wildly running across the field.  The surviving horsemen came up against the sharpened stakes and could not break through suffering heavy casualties.  They and the maddened horses churned the muddy ground badly then crashed into their own lines of advancing men on foot.

The archers turned their attention to the men at arms that were advancing slowly and with great difficulty over the muddy ground.  Their many flights of arrows did not injure many due to heavy armor, but the incessant rain of missiles made them march with their helmet visors down to prevent injury to the face, which restricted their vision and their breathing.  Soon the French were bogged down in knee deep muck as the rear ranks continued to push forward.  By the time that they finally reached the English line they were exhausted and only the very front ranks could even swing their broadswords because they were pressed so tightly together.  The French did push the English line back, but were soon engaged in furious hand to hand combat.  Many of the French fell unwounded but were unable to get up in the deep mud with the heavy weight of their armor.  Many drowned in the mud, others were trampled by their own men.  With only the front ranks effectively able to engage, they suffered heavy losses and soon the ground was covered by the French.

Then, the English longbow men, having exhausted their arrows, surged from behind their stakes swinging axes, short swords, weapons picked up on the field and attacked the dense mass of French on the flanks.  Unarmored except for helmets and light mail, they were speedy and agile and slaughtered the exhausted French.

King Henry fought on foot in command of the English center.  Nervous that hundreds of captured French knight might seize weapons and turn on their captors, Henry ordered the flower of French nobility hacked to death where they lay helpless in the muck of the field.

The English knights began taking prisoners among the survivors in hopes of exchanging them for ransom, as was the custom.  But Henry, fighting at the front of his troops thought he saw movement in the French rear and feared a second attack.  He also began to worry that the many prisoners might take advantage of the chaos of the battlefield to seize weapons and turn on their captors.  Henry ordered his knights to execute their hostages.  Most refused because they wanted the ransom money and because they feared that if they did so, they would receive the same treatment if later captured themselves.  Frustrated, the King sent his most trusted aide at the head of a force of 150 non-noble yeoman infantry to hack the prisoners to death with axes and broadswords.

Whatever the intention of the French secondary had been, the sight of the Nobles of France being hacked to death sent the remaining forces into a panicked retreat.  They ran into, and became ensnared with the great number of unused archers, crossbow men, and light infantry, who might have saved the day, had not the knights been too proud to deploy them.

The battle was a disaster for France.  French losses were estimated to be between 7,000 and 10,000, almost all of them killed.  About 1,500 nobles survived the slaughter as prisoners.  The English lost a documented 112 men on the day of the battle and probably hundreds more of wounds, disease, or exhaustion within days.  The best guess for total English casualties is about 450 dead and wounded.

Henry did not follow up, as he could have, with an attack on Paris to take the crown.  Instead he returned to England to receive a hero’s welcome and re-arm for another season of campaigning.  He returned to France in 1417.  After years of fighting the 1420 Treaty of Troyes gave him nearly everything he wanted.  He was recognized as heir and Regent of France until the death of King Charles VI.  He married Charles’s daughter Catherine of Valois to secure his dynastic claim.

In 1422 Henry was campaigning in France against hold-outs not recognizing his claim when he died of dysentery.  Charles VI died within a month, making Henry’s infant son Henry VI King of France. 

The younger Henry grew into his crowns, but battled depression and some say bouts of madness.  He was deposed as English King once, returned to the throne, and lost it again to the House of York in the War of the Roses.  But he retained the disputed throne of France until his death 1453.  The same year the Hundred Year War finally ended with England expelled from France except for Calais and accession of Charles VII to the throne, resuming the Valois dynasty.

The lasting impact of the battle of Agincourt was to begin a revolution in military theory and practice.  It was the swansong of chivalry and semi-feudal armies built around the war lord castes of nobility.  Heavy knights were shown to be vulnerable to both the long bow and to lighter forces fighting behind and from field fortifications.  As the Hundred Year War dragged on the addition of fire arms and artillery only accelerated the development.  The fall of reliance on knighthood, also reduced the influence of the nobility and raised the power of a monarch who could hire armies.  By 16th Century large professional armies helped lead to the creation of the nation state as we know it.

The French and English went on being the best of enemies through future conflicts that would including 18 wars before the virtual world wars—The Seven Years War (in America the French and Indian Wars), the Anglo-French War of 1779-1783 (including France’s participation in the American Revolution), and the Napoleonic Wars.

Only later in the 19th Century did changing European political realitiescertain common colonial interests and the unification and militarization of Germany—finally brought the two old rivals together as sometimes wary and suspicious allies

With World War II raging, Laurence Olivier mounted his screen production of the Bard's Henry V mostly as a set piece for the rousing St. Crispin's Day Speech, meant to inspire the current generation.  The patriotic ode to England is surely the oddest speech to attribute to a man waging a war to claim the French crown.

Despite all of that history, what most people remember are the words never spoken by Henry but put in his mouth by William Shakespeare in his history play, Henry V:

              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.

                 —William Shakespeare

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