“Gentlemen of England shall think themselves accursed they were not here”
— Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3
By Anne Curry
WHY DOES THE Battle of Agincourt, fought in northern France on Oct. 25, 1415, still mean so much in the English-speaking world, even today as we commemorate the 600th anniversary of the battle? How has Agincourt come to symbolise not only British pride in the military achievements of the past but also the triumph of the ‘little man’ of history — the English (and Welsh) archer?
The simple reason is that Shakespeare’s Agincourt, as depicted in Henry V (1599), created such a vibrant and enduring image of the young warrior king and his ‘happy few’. Ironically, there are no archers in the Bard’s immortal play.
They do appear in the work of that other pillar of the British literary past, Charles Dickens. In his A Child’s History of England (1853), he contrasts the ‘good stout archers, not gentlemen by any means’, with the proud and wicked French nobility who dragged their country to destruction.
Even in the late 18th Century, it was argued that Agincourt was a manifestation of the ‘radical fortitude’ of the British.
Closer to our own times, a short story written by Arthur Machen in the early months of the First World War saw British troops inspired by visions of Agincourt archers fighting alongside them against the Germans.
Later, a lecture script sent out to accompany Lawrence Olivier’s patriotic 1944 film adaptation of Henry V, which was shown in wartime schools and factories, brought to mind the ‘Tommy Atkins’ of the 15th Century who had broken the charge of the French knights at the battle.
Even today, the myth of Agincourt as the origin of the obscene V-sign gesture persists. The story goes that the French had threatened to cut off the fingers of any archers they captured. After their great victory Henry’s long bowmen supposedly raised their two digits to show they still had them — a great story but an invention of the 20th Century.
Yet no one studying the actual events of Agincourt can ignore just how significant the archers were to Henry’s victory, combined of course, with his own exceptional leadership.
The 28-year-old Henry crossed the Channel in the late summer of 1415 to press England’s long-standing claims to the French throne. Although he knew his small force had no chance of conquering France, he still hoped to make a big showing while he was there.
Archers, which cost him 6d per day (roughly half as much as a man-at-arms), proved to be an inexpensive means of filling out the ranks of his army.
Bowmen were also useful for sieges, as well as raiding parties and, of course, invaluable in pitched battles. At Agincourt, Henry had at least 7,000 of them at his disposal.
And the English king knew first-hand the damage that arrows could inflict, having had a barb from one penetrate his own cheek at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. In fact, the young Henry needed a skilful surgeon and a specially devised screw gadget to remove it.
After successfully sacking the French town of Harfleur in September, Henry brazenly marched his rag-tag army across northern France. By October, his force was growing increasingly weary and illness was thinning his numbers.
In the days leading up to the the fateful battle, Henry learned of a French plan to ambush his precious archers using cavalry. On Oct. 17, while marching his men along the south bank of the River Somme in search of a place to cross, he first got wind of the enemy’s scheme. Henry immediately ordered each of his bowmen to prepare a six-foot-long stake. If attacked his soldiers were to thrust the poles into the ground pointing out at an angle towards the enemy, thereby creating a hedge effect through which the French horses would be unwilling to charge.
Henry tried to avoid battle, and sought to reach Calais (and eventually England) as quickly as he could. He was intercepted at Azincourt.
With vastly superior numbers, the French were confident of an easy victory; but they weren’t counting on masses of English archers.
With the enemy gathering for an attack, Henry deployed his bows on the flanks as well as in front of his three divisions of men-at-arms. The wooden stakes protected his missile troops against the cavalry charge.
The rain of English arrows quickly whittled down the enemy assault. Indeed, the French could not even find enough horsemen willing to join the charge. Next, the torrent of projectiles decimated the French infantry. Faced with such a barrage, the attacking men-at-arms crowded in on each other. In fact, the French became so closely packed they could not even swing their swords. Those not trampled beneath the feet of their own comrades were easily cut down by English soldiers. Subsequently, the lightly armed archers were free to climb upon the heaps of wounded to finish them off. Still, many survivors were pulled from the mud and tangle of bodies and captured. But as the ranks of prisoners swelled behind the English line, Henry grew fearful of being overwhelmed and famously ordered the captives slaughtered by the hundreds.
Despite the bloodbath, the archers were among those who benefited from the windfall of plunder.
No wonder even today the word ‘Agincourt’ should still be chosen by businesses as epitomising a positive approach bound to generate success.
‘Agincourt Solutions’ says it all!
Anne Curry is the author of Great Battles: Agincourt published by Oxford University Press. She is a professor of medieval history, the dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton and an authority on the Battle of Agincourt and the Hundred Years War.