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Original Essays | December 18, 2013 0 comments
I recently heard someone say that if a writer doesn't investigate uncomfortable places within himself, why would he bother writing? All great books... Continue »
Agincourtby Bernard Cornwell
The legend is simply summarized: a small army of tired, hungry, and sick Englishmen was trapped by a massive French army, but the English archers, wielding their fearsome longbows, destroyed the overconfident enemy. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," outnumbered six to one, triumphed. It is a classic case of the few beating the many.
In truth, Agincourt was won by brutal men using all the ghastly paraphernalia of mediaeval hand-to-hand fighting. It was fought on a field knee-deep in mud, and it was more of a massacre than a battle. Olivier's famous film shows French knights charging on horseback, but very few men were mounted. The French came on foot, and the battle was reduced to men battering other armoured men with lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls, and falcon's beaks. It is not a tale of chivalry. At the battle's height, when Henry V expected an attack on his rear that never materialised, he ordered the newly captured prisoners killed. They were murdered. Agincourt was filthy, horrible, and merciless, and it is still celebrated as a golden moment in England's history.
Much of the legend is true. Most of the English army were archers and their arrows caused huge damage. Henry V fought in the front rank and was an inspirational leader. And, despite the recent academic controversy, it seems certain that the English were outnumbered. Henry had around 6,000 men, over 5,000 of them archers, while the French numbered at least 30,000 and were so confident that, before the battle, they sent some newly arrived reinforcements away. Yet by dusk on that Saint Crispin's Day, October 25, 1415, the small English army had entered legend.
The English should never have been at Agincourt. Henry had invaded Normandy in hopes of making a quick conquest of Harfleur, a strategic port, but the town's stubborn defence delayed him and, by the siege's end, his army had been struck by dysentery. Sensible advice suggested that Henry should cut his losses and sail back to England, but going home looked suspiciously like defeat. Instead he decided to march to Calais with probably nothing more in mind than cocking a snook at the French who, though they had gathered an army, had done nothing to relieve the brave defenders of Harfleur. Henry wanted to humiliate the French by flaunting his banners, but I doubt he truly wanted to face that large French army with his own depleted numbers.
The French had been supine all summer, but now, suddenly, they woke and moved to block Henry's path. Henry tried to avoid them. A march meant to last eight days stretched to 16. The English exhausted their food, and they were sick with dysentery and soaked from the unending autumn rains. They were driven far inland in search of a place to cross the Somme and then trudged north to discover the French army waiting for them on a muddy field beside the village of Agincourt. The English were trapped.
The French were barring the English road home, so Henry had to attack them. He began with a volley of arrows. At least 5,000 arrows slashed into the French and it seems that the shock of that first arrow-strike prompted the French to counterattack. A handful of Frenchmen advanced on horseback, trying to get among the archers, but mud and arrows easily defeated those knights. Some of the horses, maddened by pain, galloped back through the French men-at-arms, tearing their ranks into chaos.
Some 8,000 French men-at-arms were advancing on foot. They were wading through mud made treacherous by deeply ploughed furrows and churned to quagmire by horses's hooves. And they were being struck by arrows so that they were forced to close their helmets's visors. They can see very little through the tiny eye-slits, their breathing is stifled, and still the arrows come. The conventional verdict suggests that the French were cut down by those arrow-storms, but the chief effect of the arrows was to delay and, by forcing them to close their visors, half-blind the attackers.
The French knew about English and Welsh archers. The longbow was capable of shooting an arrow over 200 paces with an accuracy that would not be matched till the rifled gun-barrel was invented. A good archer could easily shoot 15 arrows a minute, so 5,000 archers could loose 75,000 arrows in one minute; over 1,000 a second! Why did the French not deploy their own longbowmen? Because to shoot a longbow demanded two difficult skills: the first was an ability to draw an extraordinarily powerful bow (at least three times as powerful as a modern competition bow); and the second, because the string was drawn to the ear, the skill of offsetting the arrow's aim. It took years for a man to develop the muscles and skill, and for reasons that have never been fully understood, such men emerged in Britain, but not on the continent.
So as the first French line advances it is being struck by about 1,000 arrows every second. If the advance took four minutes (and I suspect it took longer), then something like 300,000 arrows would have been shot at the 8,000 men. Even if the English were short of arrows and cut their shooting rate to one third, then they would still have driven 100,000 arrows against the struggling 8,000, and if the legend is correct, then not one of those Frenchmen should have survived.
Yet they did survive, and most of them reached the English line. The French had been delayed and hurt by the arrows, but technology had advanced and plate armour was mostly good enough to resist the English arrowheads. Arrow making was an industrial-scale activity in England, yet few men understood exactly what happened when iron was hardened into steel (the usual technique was to add bones to the furnace, thus increasing the carbon content), and doubtless many of the English arrows simply crumpled on contact with the enemy's armour.
So the many reached the few. What seems to have happened next was that the front rank of the French, exhausted by slogging through mud, became easy victims for the English men-at-arms. There would have been the ghastly sound of hammers crushing helmets, the screams of men falling, and suddenly the leading French rank is chopped down and becomes an obstacle to those behind. One eyewitness claimed that the pile of dead and dying was as tall as a man, an obvious exaggeration, but undoubtedly the first French casualties made a rampart to protect the English men-at-arms.
The French had attacked the centre of the English line, where the king, the nobles, and the gentry stood. Their aim had been to take prisoners, and so become rich from ransoms, but now that centre was a killing ground and, to escape it, the French widened their attack to assault the archers who had probably exhausted their arrows. Yet the archers had been equipped with poleaxes, and they fought back. The bowmen wore little armour and were far more mobile than their plate-armoured opponents, and any man capable of hauling a war-bow's string was hugely strong, and a battle-axe in his hands would be a ghastly weapon. And so the archers joined the hand-to-hand fight, and the tired French were killed in their hundreds.
The second French line, another 8,000 men on foot, tried to support their colleagues, but they too were cut down, and the remainder of the French simply melted away. The extraordinary, awful battle was over. Perhaps as many as 5,000 French died that day while English losses were in the hundreds, maybe not even as many as 200. The few had gained their extraordinary triumph.
Why do the English remember it? Shakespeare helped, but Shakespeare was playing to an audience that already knew the tale. I think the battle's fame began with the stories the survivors told. They had expected annihilation and gained victory. The men in Henry's army must have believed they had been part of a miracle, and most of those men were not lords and knights, but butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers from the shires. They had met the awesome power of France in hand-to-hand fighting and they had won. The battle is part of the binding of England, the emergence of the common man as a vital part of the nation, and the story still has power. It might not have happened quite as legend says, but it is still a most extraordinary tale.
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