Updated: Sep 7, 2019
On This Day In History
25 October 1415
King Henry V gained his greatest victory at the Battle of Agincourt
War between England & France was nothing new. Ever since the Duke of Normandy (later King William the Conqueror) invaded England, where he defeated the English king Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English kings had held lands in France.
In 1204 King John had lost the Duchy of Normandy. Although successive kings continued to hold lands in the south-west of France, inherited from Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of King Henry II.
These possessions generated centuries of conflict. Following the death of the French king Charles IV in 1328, his nearest male heir was king Edward III of England. The result of this was the Hundred Years War (a period of conflict between England & France stretching from 1337-1453). Apart from a brief period of peace in the 1360's, the kings of England claimed sovereignty over the French throne.
In 1415 it was King Henry V of England that invaded France with the intention of recovering lost rights by conquering the duchy of Normandy. Henry invaded France with the largest army ever raised in the late medieval period. The army included a huge component of English & Welsh archers, who contributed greatly to the battle's success.
The French were already in disarray, with much infighting, & led by a mentally unstable king which sparked a civil war. Henry V was keen to exploit France's vulnerability.
Henry V, was born in the tower above the gatehouse of Monmouth Castle in Wales, & for that reason was sometimes called Henry of Monmouth. was King of England from 1413 until his early death in 1422. He was the second English monarch of the House of Lancaster. Despite his short reign, Henry's outstanding military successes in the Hundred Years' War against France, most notably in his famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, made England one of the strongest military powers in Europe.
Immortalised in the plays of Shakespeare, Henry is known & celebrated as one of the great warrior kings of medieval England.
He was created prince of Wales at his father's coronation in 1399. His other titles were Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester & Duke of Aquitaine.
In his youth, during the reign of his father Henry IV ( King of England from 1399 to 1413), Henry gained military experience fighting the Welsh during the revolt of Owain Glyndŵr & against the powerful aristocratic Percy family of Northumberland at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The sixteen year old prince was in command of part of the English forces. He led his own army into Wales against Owain Glyndŵr & joined forces with his father to fight Henry "Hotspur" Percy.
During the Battle of Shrewsbury he was almost killed by an arrow that became stuck in his face. An ordinary soldier might have died from such a wound, but Henry had the benefit of the best possible care. To remove the embedded arrowhead, special tongs had to be designed, made & carefully inserted nearly six inches into the wound to grip & extract the metal. It took a further three weeks to cleanse & close up the hole & all this in the days before anaesthetics!
Between 1410-11 Henry acquired an increasing share in England's government due to the king's declining health, but disagreements between father & son led to political conflict between the two. After his father's death in 1413, Henry assumed control of the country & asserted the pending English claim to the French throne. He was crowned on 9 April 1413 at Westminster Abbey, London,
Henry was described as having been "very tall (6ft 3 in), slim, with dark hair cropped in a ring above the ears, & clean-shaven". His complexion was ruddy, the face lean with a prominent & pointed nose. Depending on his mood, his eyes "flashed from the mildness of a dove's to the brilliance of a lion's"
In 1415, Henry embarked on war with France in the ongoing Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between the two nations. His military successes culminated in his famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) & saw him come close to conquering France. Taking advantage of political divisions within France, he conquered large portions of the kingdom & Normandy became English for the first time in 200 years. After months of negotiation with Charles VI of France, the Treaty of Troyes (1420) recognised Henry V as regent & heir apparent to the French throne & he was subsequently married to Charles's daughter, Catherine of Valois in 1420. Her dowry, upon the agreement between the two kingdoms, was 600,000 crowns. Together the couple had one child, Henry.
The Treaty of Troyes was an agreement that King Henry V of England & his heirs would inherit the French crown upon the death of King Charles VI of France. It was signed in the French city of Troyes on 21 May 1420 in the aftermath of Henry's successful military campaign in France. It forms a part of the backdrop of the latter phase of the Hundred Years' War finally won by the French at the Battle of Castillon in 1453, and in which various English kings tried to establish their claims to the French throne.
Following this arrangement, everything seemed to point to the formation of a union between the kingdoms of France & England, in the person of King Henry.
Henry V died suddenly on 31 August 1422 at the Château de Vincennes. He was thought to have died from dysentery, supposedly contracted during the siege of Meaux. Sieges were dangerous places for both those inside & out: insanitary conditions & a shortage of fresh water frequently led to outbreaks of dysentery among the besieged & the besiegers, & it is likely that Henry contracted his final illness at the siege of Meaux – though it took some time to weaken him & claim his life. He was 36 years old & had reigned for nine years.
His body was brought back to England for burial, & after considerable ceremony he was laid to rest behind the altar in Westminster Abbey, close to his hero Edward the Confessor, & within yards of the tomb of Richard II. A magnificent chapel was erected around him, & a life-sized effigy placed on the tomb with a head of solid silver. Sadly the silver was stolen in the 16th century.
His sudden & unexpected death in France condemned England to the long & difficult minority of his infant son & successor, who reigned as Henry VI in England & Henry II in France. The unstable reign of Henry VI eventually led to the wars of the roses.
DID YOU KNOW? Henry V promoted the use of the English language in government, & was the first king to use English in his personal correspondence since the Norman conquest 350 years earlier
The Battle of Agincourt is well documented by at least seven contemporary accounts, three from eyewitnesses. Two come from Burgundian sources; Jean Le Fèvre de Saint-Remy who was present at the battle, & the other from Enguerrand de Monstrelet. The English eyewitness account comes from the anonymous Gesta Henrici Quinti, believed to be written by a chaplain in the King's household who would have been in the baggage train at the battle.
On 12 August 1415, Henry's army sailed for France on a reported 1500 ships, where his forces besieged the fortress at Harfleur, with an army of about 12,000, & up to 20,000 horses, capturing it on 22 September. The siege took longer than expected & the English army did not leave until 8 October. The English army had suffered many casualties through disease. Henry decided to march most of his army (now roughly 8,500) through Normandy to the port of Calais, the English stronghold in northern France.
On 25 October, on the plains near the village of Agincourt, a French army intercepted his route. Henry's army numbered around 1,500 men-at-arms & 7,000 longbowmen. Modern estimates of the French forces range from 12,000 to 36,000. About 10,000 knights & men-at-arms (of which about 1,200 were mounted), an unknown number of other infantry, crossbowmen & archers.
The French initiated negotiations as a delaying tactic, but Henry ordered his army to advance & to start a battle that. The English had very little food, had marched 260 miles (420 km) in two & a half weeks, were suffering from sickness such as dysentery, & faced much larger numbers of well-equipped French men at arms. The French army blocked Henry's way to the safety of Calais, however, & delaying battle would only further weaken his tired army & allow more French troops to arrive.
In front of the English position two forests approached the road from each side, leaving an area of muddy plough between them, insufficient for the French army to deploy with ease when every French knight of significance wished to be in the front with his retinue; the mass of knights & men-at-arms too compacted & unwieldy to manoeuvre or control.
The battle began when Henry gave the command “Forward banners” & the army advanced with trumpets blaring. Once in arrow range of the French Henry gave the command to halt & the divisions closed up, the archers setting their pointed staves in the ground forming a fence leaning outwards towards the French. Now within the confines of the two woods Henry directed parties of archers & men-at-arms to move through the trees nearer to the French.
On the king’s signal the English archers opened a devastating fire on the compact mass of French knights & men-at-arms. After the initial shock the front line of the French army moved forward to the charge. In the narrow confines of the muddy rain soaked ploughland the charge quickly reduced to a stumbling walk, impeded by the floundering men & horses shot down by the archers, the arrow storm from the front compounded by the fire of the English concealed in the woods on the flanks.
The battle raged over the stake fence along the English line, the archers abandoning their bows & joining the knights & men-at-arms in hand to hand combat with the French cavalry, much of it now dismounted; the soldiers from the woods attacking on the flanks.
Within two hours of the battle beginning it was clear that the English had won. While individual French soldiers fought hard, it was from desperation as the English knights, men-at-arms & archers overwhelmed the struggling mass, taking as prisoner those who might be worth a ransom & killing the rest.
The Duke D’Alençon bringing up his division to assist the first line was overcome & about to surrender to Henry himself when he was struck dead. The Constable of France, Charles D’Albret, was killed with numbers of other prominent French nobles.
The French third line hovered on the edge of the field uncertain whether to take the risk of joining the fight until Henry sent a herald to order them off the battlefield on pain of receiving no quarter. The third line melted away.
On the English side the Duke of York died, trampled into the mud, while Henry himself defended his wounded brother, the Duke of Gloucester, against a mob of Frenchmen.
The main battle was finished by noon, with the remaining French soldiers streaming away from the battlefield while the English rounded up their prisoners.
At this moment Henry received reports that his camp a mile to the rear was under attack. In reality, this was just a group of peasants out for plunder but, knowing that his small army could not fight on two fronts & guard the many prisoners, Henry ordered all French prisoners to be killed, an incident that marred the English victory.
The final act of the battle was to disperse the remnants of the third line & ransack the French camp.
An estimated 8,000 Frenchmen died in the battle, including many of the most senior nobles of France. English losses are thought to have been in the hundreds. The Duke of York died in the battle as did the Earl of Suffolk, whose father had died in the siege of Harfleur the month before.
King Henry continued his march to Calais & returned to England for the celebrations to mark the victory at Agincourt. His army stayed at Calais but it was too late in the season for further campaigning. Harfleur became an English town for the time being.
The French King Charles descended into a bout of insanity on hearing the terrible news of the defeat & France’s losses at Agincourt.
Popular legend: It was believed among the English archers during the Hundred Years War that the French intended to cut off the first & second right hand fingers of every captured archer to prevent him from again using a bow. The archers raised those two fingers to the advancing French as a gesture of defiance.
It is often argued that the French men-at-arms were bogged down in the muddy battlefield, soaked from the previous night of heavy rain, & that this hindered the French advance, allowing them to be sitting targets for the flanking English & Welsh archers. Most were simply hacked to death while completely stuck in the deep mud. Nevertheless, the victory is seen as Henry's greatest, ranking alongside the Battle of Crécy (1346) & the Battle of Poitiers (1356) as the greatest English victories of the Hundred Years' War.
The victorious conclusion of Agincourt, from the English viewpoint, was only the first step in the campaign to recover the French possessions that he felt belonged to the English crown. Agincourt also held out the promise that Henry's pretensions to the French throne might be realised.
Agincourt is one of England's most celebrated victories & was one of the most important English triumphs in the Hundred Years' War, along with the Battle of Crécy (1346) & Battle of Poitiers (1356). It forms the centrepiece of the play Henry V by William Shakespeare.
Literature & film;
The Battle was later immortalised by William Shakespeare in his play Henry V. In fact Henry appears in three of Shakespeare's plays; Henry IV, part I; Henry IV, part II & of course Henry V. The plays helped create Henry's image as a warrior king & hero, & have been introduced in the age of film, most notable Laurence Olivier's 1944 version, & Kenneth Branagh in 1989.
Laurence Olivier as Henry V (1944);
Kenneth Branagh version (1989);
Henry V has also featured in many television version, such as Tom Hiddleston in the BBC's The Hollow Crown series of television films including: Henry IV - Part 1, Henry IV - Part 2, & Henry V (2012).
Henry V play description;
Henry V is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written near 1599. It tells the story of King Henry V of England, focusing on events immediately before & after the Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years' War. In the First Quarto text, it was titled The Cronicle History of Henry the fift,:p.6 which became The Life of Henry the Fifth in the First Folio text.
The play is the final part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, & Henry IV, Part 2. The original audiences would thus have already been familiar with the title character, who was depicted in the Henry IV plays as a wild, undisciplined young man. In Henry V, the young prince has matured. He embarks on an expedition to France & , his army badly outnumbered, defeats the French at Agincourt.
Extract from Shakespeare's Henry V;
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness & humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang & jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild & wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth & stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath & bend up every spirit
To his full height.
On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war.
And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean & base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, & upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, & Saint George!'
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