A tour of the legendary battlefield site of Agincourt with historian and tour guide Gary Ashley had started with a brief overview of the Hundred Years War and a tour of the Battlefield Site of Crecy, a fight which had taken place some 80 years before Agincourt.
On the way to Agincourt, Gary who is an absolute mine of information, facts, figures and anecdotes pointed out the town of Blingel, a sleepy little place with amazing houses and a small cemetery. “That” he said “is where the real Sharpe” is buried, referring to the Bernard Cornwell stories of Richard Sharpe of his Majesty’s British Army in the 1800s. Of course we had to stop and look at this and you can read about Captain Matthew Latham, the real Sharpe here.
In Azincourt, surrounded by the green fields and quite country roads Gary starts to tell the story of the Battle of Agincourt and the legendary “super King” Henry V, a man who died several centuries ago but whom to this day is referred to in motivational talks based on his ethics.
Once again the French and the English were drawing up to do battle.
The French King Charles VI had deteriorated in to madness “he thought he was made of glass – never a good sign” says Gary drily.
The English King Henry V considered the weakness of the French Crown an excellent opportunity to attack and sailed with his army to Normandy where he took Harfleur and then decided to march to Calais which was under English rule.
Henry V was a stickler for discipline and despite his army being decimated by dysentery he insisted on order among the ranks, that they paid for what they took. It was a difficult march; they were thwarted by French resistance and took twists and turns in their journey to the northern tip of France and safety. Near modern day Azincourt, Henry realised that he was in serious trouble and decided that though it was not ideal he would have to stay and fight. The French had the advantage of big open fields but for some reason they moved on to ground that was less favourable. Nevertheless it is said that Henry V made contact with the French to see if he could buy his way out – he had 7000 men – the French had 30,000 men. Of course the French did not think they could lose – his offer was rejected.
25th October, 1415 – it was typical October weather, wet and not too cold – as far as campaigns went – it was very late in the season. It was the day of the Feast of St Crispin, a public holiday in England.
On the French side the men could be heard partying, laughing, gambling and getting drunk, rejoicing ahead of what was thought to be an inevitable victory.
On the English side, the army was miserable, cold, hungry. The Priests were walking amongst the men to help them make peace – they were prepared to meet their God.
Henry moved among his men, his scarred battle face making his one of their own, perhaps he made the speech that Shakespeare quotes, or something like it “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 accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
We stand in the middle of two fields where it all took place surrounded by rows of vegetables. A few simple cut out French knights on horses on one side of the road that divides the fields, a row of cut out English archers on the other defining the line of battle.
On the French side there was much excitement, a band of knights swore to kill Henry and thought that they hadsucceeded not realising it was his uncle the Duke of York causing much confusion on the French side. Later we went to a little chapel in Fressin where his innards are buried, the bones taken back to England; there was a group of men with the host whose responsibility it was to boil the bodies of the nobles (or those who could pay) to remove the bones for easier transport home.
On the day of battle the visibility was poor – the French had their visors raised so that they could see and hear the commands better, it was also a show of bravado. The ground was muddy and slippery and on the French side it quickly became clear that there were just too many men all getting in each other’s way, tripping each other up and hampering progress. As the first rows of French foot soldiers advancing on the English fell, their bodies piled up and made it even harder for the men following to continue on and they didn’t work as a team – miraculously the victory went to the English. (You can read a full account of the battle of Agincourt on Wikipedia).
Five minute video of the imagined Battle of Agincourt:
Gary points out the grave pit where French soldiers were possibly buried – nobody really knows how many losses there were on the French side – many thousands, whilst on the English side it is thought only 300 men lost their lives in battle. Many French nobles died at Agincourt – there were whole families fighting so great had been the confidence of a win. After battle there was much wrangling over who died first in families – inheritance law dictated who assets would go to according to whether a father or son died first; court cases went on for decades after.
Henry V held a dinner for his senior commanders after the battle, they were waited on by the captured French nobles before the English King went on his way and the story of the battle went into the annals of history as one of the greatest military victories against overwhelming odds and gave birth to the legend of Henry V.
Anecdote: It was believed among the English archers during the Hundred Years War that if captured the French would cut off their first and second right hand fingers to prevent them from using a bow. The archers raised those two fingers to the advancing French as a gesture of defiance – a gesture of insult still in use today in Britain.
There is a centre of information at Azincourt, a historic interpretation centre which aims to introduce visitors to an important period of French history in the region through everyday life and war. Suitable for children, the Medieval Historic Centre is also a good resource for anyone fascinated by the Middle Ages.