Agincourt (or Azincourt as it is in French) has entered English folklore, largely aided by William Shakespeare’s play Henry V but also because the outcome of the battle that took place there on Friday 25th October, 1415, between the English and the French, just wasn’t meant to happen.
A small army of tired, ill, desperate English and Welsh archers and soldiers triumphed after a short but dramatic battle against a French army that had around four times as many men, maybe more. The French were confident, young and fresh to fight. In England it was St Crispin’s Day and most of the men fighting for Henry of England must have thought of their families and loved ones back home, enjoying what was a rare public holiday. It is said that before battle commenced, many of them kissed the earth of this corner of Pas de Calais in northern France, believing they would be buried in it later that day.
Henry V heard Mass, not just once, but three times and, according to Shakespeare made stirring speeches. The invaders seemed doomed and must have known it.
But, the English army had a secret weapon – their archers, many of whom were from Wales. As the battle commenced and the French rushed to what they were sure must be certain victory, they were totally unprepared to be met by a barrage of thousands of arrows that hissed malevolently through the air. Unleashed from the innovative longbows of their enemy, with a range of 250 yards, the armour piercing arrows were a devastating repellent.
On the day, it was King Henry V of England against the Constable of France, Charles d’Albret, Comte de Dreux in yet another round of the Hundred Years War between these two close neighbours. The battle started around 10h and was all over by 16h. The French soldiers, weighted down with heavy armour, positioned at the bottom of a sloping battlefield, became bogged down early on in the mud on that wet, cold October morning and never recovered the lead. England prevailed though France would go on to eventually win the war. It is thought French losses numbered between 4000 and 10,000 men, the ranks of aristocracy were devastated. Henry, fired up by battle or perhaps unable to cope with the sheer number of prisoners he found himself with and panicked, broke the traditions of chivalry and put many of them to death. It was for the French a terrible tragedy and for the invaders an unexpected victory that became the stuff of legend.
Go to Agincourt today and you won’t find much to remind you of that bloody battle 6 centuries ago. The fields and woods are just as lush and green as they were, pretty little villages are plentiful and there is a rue des Archers. There is at the edge of a field where the battle took place, an area marking a mass grave of the French soldiers. A few wooden cutouts mark the line that separated the two armies, now a narrow road.
There is also a museum that commemorates the events that is well worth a visit for its models, artefacts and historic representations. For the 600th anniversary the museum has partnered with the National Gendarmerie of France because of the symbolic value this battle has for the history of the gendarmes. It was on that fateful day that Gallois de Fougières, a Marshall of France was killed during the battle, effectively, he is the first recorded gendarme to have died in the line of duty. By the way, “Gendarme” is simply a derivative of “gens d’armes”, people with arms (weapons), hence the English language expression “to take up arms” – to do battle.
The Gendarmerie of today, is the direct descendant of the Marshalcy of the ancien regime, more commonly known by its French title, the Maréchaussée which had the responsibility of military policing. For hundreds of years they kept the peace and patrolled streets and countryside. During the French Revolution, the commanders of the Maréchaussée sided with reformers and not the King and were renamed the “Gendarmerie”.
In 2015, the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt will commemorate not just the battle but the figurative birth of the Gendarmerie with a series of events, culminating on Saturday 25th October with a remembrance event at Agincourt. Riders from the Republican Guard, a parachute drop and military show will take place from 10h-18h in Agincourt.
Weird Fact: It was believed among the English archers during the Hundred Years War that the French intended to cut off the first and second right hand fingers of every captured archer to prevent him from using a bow again. The archers raised those two fingers to the advancing French as a gesture of defiance. To this day it is gesture used by the British as a gesture of insult.
Where to stay/eat: La Cour de Remi is a charming hotel and restaurant close to Agincourt. With its quirky tree house, beautiful chateau and gardens, and delicious, seasonal home prepared food, it’s a perfect place to relax and enjoy the beautiful northern French countryside, just an hour from Calais.
More information about Agincourt, the museum and events: www.azincourt1415.fr