Henry V and the Battle That Made England


By Juliet Barker

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From a master historian comes an astonishing chronicle of life in medieval Europe and the battle that altered the course of an empire.

Although almost six centuries old, the Battle of Agincourt still captivates the imaginations of men and women on both sides of the Atlantic.

It has been immortalized in high culture (Shakespeare’s Henry V) and low (the New York Post prints Henry’s battle cry on its editorial page each Memorial Day). It is the classic underdog story in the history of warfare, and generations have wondered how the English — outnumbered by the French six to one — could have succeeded so bravely and brilliantly.

Drawing upon a wide range of sources, eminent scholar Juliet Barker casts aside the legend and shows us that the truth behind Agincourt is just as exciting, just as fascinating, and far more significant. She paints a gripping narrative of the October 1415 clash between outnumbered English archers and heavily armored French knights. But she also takes us beyond the battlefield into palaces and common cottages to bring into vivid focus an entire medieval world in flux. Populated with chivalrous heroes, dastardly spies, and a ferocious and bold king, Agincourt is as earthshaking as its subject — and confirms Juliet Barker’s status as both a historian and a storyteller of the first rank.


The Brontës: Selected Poems
The Tournament in England 1100-1400
Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages (with Richard Barber)
The Brontë Yearbook
The Brontës
The Brontës: A Life in Letters
Charlotte Brontë: Juvenilia 1829-35
Wordsworth: A Life
Wordsworth: A Life in Letters

Hachette Digital

Published by Hachette Digital 2010
Copyright © Juliet Barker 2005
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eISBN : 978 0 7481 2219 6
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For Maurice Hugh Keen
Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford

As first light dawned on the morning of 25 October 1415, two armies faced each other across a plateau in an obscure corner of north-eastern France which was about to become one of the most famous battlefields in European history. The contrast between them could not have been greater. On one side stood the bedraggled remnants of an English army that had invaded Normandy ten weeks earlier and, in a major blow to French pride, captured the strategically important town and port of Harfleur. The siege had taken its toll, however, and of the twelve thousand fighting men who had embarked on the expedition, only half that number were now assembled on the field of Agincourt. Of these, only nine hundred were men-at-arms, the human tanks of their day, clad from head to toe in plate armour and universally regarded as the elite of the military world. The rest were English and Welsh archers, who wore only the minimum of defensive armour and carried the longbow, a weapon virtually unique to their island. Many of them were suffering from the dysentery that had incapacitated their comrades: all were exhausted and half-starved after a gruelling eighteen-day march through almost two hundred and fifty miles of hostile terrain, during which they had been constantly harassed, attacked and deflected from their course by the enemy. Even the weather had been against them, biting winds and constant heavy rain adding to their misery as they trudged from Harfleur towards the safety of English-held Calais.
Facing them - and blocking their route to Calais - was a French army that outnumbered them by at least four to one and possibly as much as six to one. Galvanised by the desire to revenge the loss of Harfleur, the chivalry of France had turned up in their thousands from every part of northern France and some from even further afield. So many men-at-arms had answered the call that it was decided to dispense with the services of some of the less well-equipped city militiamen and crossbowmen, but reinforcements continued to arrive even after the battle had begun. With a few notable exceptions, every princeling with a trace of royal blood in his veins was present, together with all the greatest military officers of France. Well rested, well fed, well armed, fighting on their own territory on a site that they had chosen themselves, this army could be forgiven for thinking that the result of the battle was a foregone conclusion.
Yet some four hours later, in defiance of all logic and the received military wisdom of the time, the English were victorious and the fields of Agincourt were covered with what one observer graphically described as 'the masses, the mounds, and the heaps of the slain'.1 Perhaps most astonishing of all was the fact that virtually all the dead were French: 'almost the whole nobility among the soldiery of France' had been killed,2 including the dukes of Alençon, Bar and Brabant, eight counts, a viscount and an archbishop, together with the constable, admiral, master of the crossbowmen and prévôt of marshals of the French army. Several hundred more, among them the dukes of Orléans and Bourbon, the counts of Richemont, Eu and Vendôme, and the celebrated chivalric hero Marshal Boucicaut, were prisoners in English hands. The English, by contrast, had lost only two noblemen, Edward, duke of York, and Michael, earl of Suffolk, a handful of men-at-arms and perhaps a hundred archers.
The English victory was so unexpected and so overwhelming in its scale that contemporaries could only ascribe it to God. For Henry V, however, the battle of Agincourt was not just a divine affirmation of the justice of his cause. It was also the culmination of a carefully planned campaign, preceded by years of meticulous preparation. To see the battle in this context is to understand the determination and single-mindedness of the principal human architect of the victory and the reason why, against all the odds, he was victorious.
For these reasons, therefore, this book is not merely a study of the battle, or even of the military campaign to which it was the dramatic denouement. Agincourt also aims to set the scene in which such a conflict was possible and to explain why, given the character of Henry V, it was almost inevitable. The book falls into three parts. The first deals with the inexorable countdown to war as Henry stamped his authority on his own kingdom, exploited the internal divisions caused by the French civil wars to his own advantage and engaged in diplomacy to ensure that France's traditional allies did not come to her aid when he attacked her. Even when he was talking peace, he was preparing for war, building ships, stockpiling weapons and raising the largest army the country had seen since the beginning of the Hundred Years War seventy years earlier. The second part of the book follows the campaign itself, from the moment Henry gave the signal that launched the invasion, through the siege and fall of Harfleur, the increasingly desperate march to Calais, the battle and, finally, the formal concession of defeat by the French heralds. The third part examines the impact of the battle on the victors, on the families of those who lost their lives and on the prisoners, some of whom were to endure years in foreign captivity. It also looks briefly at the wider historical consequences of Agincourt and at the literature that this spectacular victory has inspired over the last six hundred years.
It is no coincidence that many authors have been prompted to write about Agincourt in times of war. When national morale is low and victory seems uncertain or far off, it is useful to be reminded that resourcefulness and determination can sometimes be more important than sheer weight of numbers. On the other hand, writing in such circumstances makes it easy to fall into the propaganda trap and much of the historical and literary response to Agincourt has been one-sided, politically motivated or simply jingoistic, portraying the battle as a victory of stout-hearted, no-nonsense English commoners over lily-livered, unmanly, foppish French aristocrats. Writing in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the Americans, the British and their allies, it is impossible not to be struck by the echoes from six centuries ago. Human nature does not change, but the circumstances in which we live and fight our wars do, and it would be wrong to draw too close analogies between the past and the present.
In writing this book, I hope to have done something towards creating a more balanced view of the battle and the events leading up to it. Inevitably, the fact that English administrative, financial and family records have been preserved in far greater numbers than similar ones in France (where most were destroyed during the French Revolution) means that greater emphasis is placed on the English experience, though this is not necessarily inappropriate, given that Henry V was the aggressor. The fascination of the English material is its detail: we learn of the young earl marshal's purchase of new armour and equipment (including a pavilion to stable his horses and a new seat for his latrine) for his first military campaign; of the vast household, including everyone from heralds and minstrels to scullery servants and torchbearers, which accompanied the king himself; of the unprecedented expenditure in hiring armourers, fletchers and, most significantly, foreign gunners to operate Henry's huge train of cannon and artillery.
What we can piece together from the French sources makes it clear that, contrary to popular belief, there was a brave and concerted effort on the part of many of those living in northern France to resist the English invasion. The extraordinary story of the unsung hero Raoul, sire de Gaucourt,a is a case in point. If he is remembered at all, even in his own country, it is only as the friend and companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc. Yet a host of scattered references reveal that this former crusader succeeded in getting a relief force into Harfleur under the nose of Henry V and conducted a long and gallant defence of the town which foiled the king's plans for the next stage of his invasion. His subsequent treatment by Henry V and his own sense of knightly duty, which obliged him to surrender himself into English custody because he had given his word to do so, make him a figure of compelling interest. The cult of chivalry has often been misunderstood, misinterpreted and derided as hopelessly romantic by historians, but Raoul de Gaucourt was a living example of the way that it informed and determined the conduct of medieval men-at-arms. And he was not alone. The great tragedy of Agincourt for the French was not just that so many of them were killed, but that so many of them had altruistically put aside bitter personal and political differences to unite in defence of their country and lost their lives as a result.
Military historians, rightly, have an exhaustive interest in battle formations, positions and tactics but sometimes seem to forget that the chess pieces on the board are human beings, each with their own distinctive character and history, even if the future is not always theirs. All too often medieval men-at-arms are depicted as little more than brutal thugs, unthinking killing machines, motivated solely by lust for blood and plunder. Yet on the field of Agincourt we find many highly intelligent, literate and sensitive men: Edward, duke of York, and Thomas Morstede wrote the standard fifteenth-century treatises in English on hunting and surgery respectively; Charles, duke of Orléans, was a gifted writer of courtly love lyrics; Jean le Févre de St Remy and Jehan Waurin became the chivalric historians and chroniclers of their age; Ghillebert de Lannoy a celebrated traveller, diplomat and moralist. And who could forget the anonymous English chaplain, author of the most vivid, detailed and personal account of the campaign, who sat trembling with fear in the baggage train as the battle raged around him?
At an altogether different level, we can occasionally catch a poignant insight into the impact of war on less notable people: an esquire desperately trying to raise money on the eve of the expedition by pawning his possessions; two Welshmen performing a pilgrimage 'in fulfilment of vows made on the battlefield'; the unfortunate Frenchman left without heirs because his four sons were all killed at Agincourt; the mother of seven children who, six months after the battle, had no income and did not know whether she was a wife or a widow because her husband's body could not be found. It is the personal stories of individuals such as these which make Agincourt live again for me.

In order to make the quotations from contemporary sources more easily understood, I have translated those in medieval French and Latin into English and modernised archaic English passages. For authenticity's sake, however, I have kept the pre-decimal references to pounds, shillings and pence. In the fifteenth century, one pound sterling (£1) was divided not just into twenty shillings (20s), or two hundred and forty pence (240d), but also into six parts: one sixth (3s 4d) was known as a crown, a third (6s 8d) as a noble and two thirds (13s 4d) as a mark. To give the reader a rough idea of the current values of these sums, I have used figures supplied by the Office for National Statistics, which equate £1 in 1415 with £414 in 1999.

Aquitaine (English Gascony)
Table 1: The French royal succession and Edwards III's claim to the throne of France
Table 2: The English royal line from Edward III
Table 3: The French royal line: the House of Valois

Just rights and inheritances
The last letter that Henry V sent to Charles VI of France before he launched the Agincourt campaign was an ultimatum. Its opening lines, which in most medieval correspondence were an opportunity for flowery compliments, were characteristically abrupt and to the point. 'To the most serene prince Charles, our cousin and adversary of France, Henry by the grace of God king of England and France. To give to each that which is his own is a work of inspiration and of wise counsel.' The letter continued in similarly stern vein. Henry had done everything in his power to procure peace between the two realms, he declared, but he did not lack the courage to fight to the death for justice. His just rights and inheritances had been seized from him by violence and withheld for too long: it was his duty to recover them. Since he could not obtain justice by peaceable means, he would have to resort to force of arms. 'By the bowels of Jesus Christ', he pleaded, 'Friend, render what you owe'.1
Henry V was undoubtedly an opportunist, in the sense that he was remarkably clever at identifying the chance to turn something to his own advantage. Was he also an opportunist in the more negative sense of the word, a man prepared to put expediency before principle? Had he really been deprived of his 'just rights and inheritances'? If so, what were they and was it necessary for him to go to war to win them back? To answer those questions, we have to go back almost exactly 350 years before the Agincourt campaign, to another, even more momentous invasion.
In 1066 the Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England and crowned their duke, William the Conqueror, as king of England. Though the kingdom continued to be governed separately and independently from Normandy, socially, culturally and, to a much lesser extent, politically, England effectively became part of the continent for the next one and a half centuries. The king-duke and his Anglo-Norman aristocracy held lands and office on both sides of the Channel and were equally at home in either place. French became the dominant language in England, though Latin remained the choice of official documents and the Church, and Anglo-Saxon lingered on in vernacular speech, particularly among the illiterate. Cathedrals and castles were built as the visible symbols of a newly powerful and dynamic system of lordship in Church and state.
The new technique of fighting which had won the battle of Hastings for the Normans was also adopted in England; instead of standing or riding and hurling the lance overarm, these new warriors, the knights, charged on horseback with the lance tucked beneath the arm, so that the weight of both horse and rider was behind the blow and the weapon was reusable. Though it required discipline and training, giving rise to the birth of tournaments and the cult of chivalry, a charge by massed ranks of knights with their lances couched in this way was irresistible. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess who witnessed its devastating effect during the First Crusade, claimed that it could 'make a hole in the wall of Babylon'.2
Intimately connected with these military developments was the equally significant rise of the feudal system of land tenure, which provided the knights to do the fighting by creating a chain of dependent lordships with the king at its head. Again, it was William the Conqueror who introduced feudalism to England from France. Immediately beneath him in the hierarchy were his tenants-in-chief, each of whom had to perform a personal act of homage, acknowledging that he was the king's vassal, or liege man, and that he owed him certain services. The most important of these was the obligation to provide a certain number of knights for the royal army whenever called upon to do so. In order to fulfil this duty, the tenants-in-chief granted parcels of their own land to dependent knights upon the same conditions, so that a further relationship of lord and vassal was created. Though it quickly became the accepted practice that the eldest son of a tenant succeeded his father, this was not an automatic right and it had to be paid for by a fine. If the heir was under age, the lands returned to the lord for the period of his minority, but a vassal of any age could be deprived of his lands permanently if he committed an act contrary to his lord's interests. The feudal system underpinned the entire structure of Anglo-Norman society, just as it did in France, but if abused it could cause serious tension.
As far as England and France were concerned, the cracks took some time to show. Pressure began to build in the twelfth century. The marriage in 1152 of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine created a huge Angevin empire, which covered almost half of modern France as well as England and Wales. It encompassed Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Poitou - in fact, virtually all of western France apart from Brittany. Such an extensive, wealthy and powerful lordship was a threat, politically and militarily, to the authority and prestige of an increasingly ambitious French monarchy, which launched a series of invasions and conquests. Over time, virtually all of the Angevin inheritance was lost, including Normandy itself in 1204. All that then remained in English hands was the duchy of Aquitaine, a narrow strip of sparsely populated, wine-producing land on the western seaboard of France. Otherwise known as Gascony, or Guienne, it had no exceptional value, except for the strategic importance of its principal ports of Bordeaux and Bayonne, but it was a constant source of friction between the French and English monarchies.3
The status of the duchy increasingly became the subject of dispute. The French claimed that the duke of Aquitaine was a peer of France, that he held his duchy as a vassal of the French crown and that he therefore had to pay personal homage for it to the king of France - in other words, that a classic feudal relationship existed, binding the English king-duke by ties of loyalty to serve the French king in times of war and, more importantly, establishing a superior lordship to which his Gascon subjects could appeal over his head. This was unacceptable to the dignity of the kings of England, who counter-claimed that they held the duchy in full sovereignty and recognised no superior authority but that of God. The Gascons, not unnaturally, exploited the situation to their own advantage, relying on their duke to defend them against repeated French invasions and yet appealing against him to the ultimate court of France, the Paris Parlement, whenever they felt threatened by his authority.4
A situation that had long been smouldering burst into flame in 1337 when Philippe VI of France exercised his feudal authority to declare that Edward III was a disobedient vassal and that Aquitaine was duly confiscated. This had happened twice before, in 1294 and 1324, resulting each time in a brief and inconclusive war. The difference this time was that Edward III's response was to challenge the legitimacy not of the king's decision, but of the king himself. He assumed the arms and title of king of France as his own and adopted the motto 'Dieu et mon droit', for God and my right, the right being his claim to the French crown. It was a move that transformed a relatively small-scale feudal conflict into a major dynastic dispute.5
Edward III was able to claim the throne by right of inheritance from his grandfather, Philippe IV of France, but he owed it to a Templar curse. Philippe IV was ambitious, quarrelsome and always chronically short of money. Expedients such as expelling the Jews from France and confiscating their debts made temporary contributions towards replenishing his coffers and whetted his appetite for bigger game. His choice of his next victim was as bold as his action was ruthless. The Knights Templar was the oldest military order in Christendom, founded in 1119 to defend the fledgling Crusader states in the Holy Land. It was also one of the richest of all religious orders; the generosity of the pious had enabled it to amass enormous wealth in lands, property and goods throughout Europe, but especially in France. The raison d'être for these powerful monk-knights had disappeared, however, when the city of Acre, the last Christian outpost in the Holy Land, fell to the Saracens in 1291. Despite their years of experience fighting in the east, the Templars were unprepared for the ferocity of the onslaught that was about to befall them in France.
Philippe acted swiftly and without warning: on a single night he seized the Temple treasury in Paris and ordered the arrest of every Templar in the country. With the aid of a reluctant but compliant pope (a French puppet whom he had installed under his thumb at Avignon), he set about the total destruction of the order. Its members were accused individually and collectively of sorcery, heresy, blasphemy and sexual perversion. As there was no evidence to support the charges, proof was obtained by confession extorted from the hapless Templars by the tortures of the Inquisition. Many died as they were tortured; some committed suicide; more than half of the 122 who admitted their supposed crimes later courageously withdrew their confessions and were burnt alive as relapsed heretics. Among this last group was Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the order, who was burnt at the stake before the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in March 1314. As the flames consumed him, de Molay's last act was to defy his persecutors. He proclaimed the innocence of the Templars, cursed the king and his descendants to the thirteenth generation and prophesied that king and pope would join him before the throne of judgement within a year. The prophecy was spectacularly fulfilled. Eight months later, both Philippe IV (aged forty-six) and his tool Clement V (aged fifty) were indeed dead, and within fourteen years so were the three sons and grandson who each successively succeeded Philippe. The ancient line of Capetian monarchs died with them.6
In 1328, therefore, the throne of France stood empty and there was no obvious candidate to succeed. Those with the strongest claim, because they were Philippe IV's direct descendants, were his grandchildren Jeanne, the daughter of his eldest son, and Edward III, the son of his daughter Isabelle. In practice, however, neither was acceptable to the French: Jeanne because she was a woman and Edward because he was king of England. The unfortunate Jeanne had been deprived of her inheritance once before. When her brother had died, she had been only four years old and her uncle had seized the throne; ironically, a few years later, exactly the same fate would befall his own young daughters. Since no one wanted a minor sovereign, let alone a female one, the precedent set by these usurpations of 1316 and 1321 was later justified and legitimised by the invention of the Salic Law, which declared that women could not succeed to the crown of France. Nicely dressed up with an entirely spurious ancestry dating back to Carolingian times, the new law was applied retrospectively. It therefore excluded Jeanne permanently, but it made no mention of whether the right to succeed could be passed down through the female line. Edward III could therefore still legitimately claim to be the rightful heir.
In 1328 his rights were purely academic. At the age of sixteen, he was not only a minor but also a powerless pawn in the hands of his mother, Queen Isabelle, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, a notorious pair who had compelled his father, Edward II, to abdicate and then procured his murder. Edward III was not in a position to enforce his claim to the French throne, but he was, in any case, pre-empted by yet another coup. Philippe IV's nephew, the preferred candidate of the French, seized the moment and was crowned Philippe VI. It was the Valois dynasty, not the Plantagenets, who replaced the Capetians as kings of France.
There was nothing unusual in this sequence of events. It was a drama that had been played out all over Europe many times before and one on which the curtain would rise many times again. But on this particular occasion, the consequences were to extend far beyond anything that any of those immediately involved could have imagined. Edward III's decision to enforce his claim by force of arms launched the Hundred Years War, a conflict that would last for five generations, cause untold deaths and destruction, and embroil France, England and most of their neighbours as well. Even if Edward III's claim to the French throne was only revived as a cynical counter-ploy for the confiscation of his duchy of Aquitaine, it was sufficiently valid to convince many Frenchmen, as well as Englishmen, of the justice of his cause. Undoubtedly some of them were 'persuaded' purely out of self-interest. Political intrigue, or even rebellion, could be justified by denouncing the Valois regime as illegitimate and inviting the king of England to take up his rightful inheritance in France.7


On Sale
Aug 23, 2007
Page Count
464 pages
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Juliet Barker

About the Author

Juliet Barker is the distinguished biographer of Wordsworth and the Brontë sisters. She is also a noted medievalist and lives with her family in the UK.

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