Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Farmer Who Lost Agincourt

Funny thing. On 23 August, 1914, the British Expeditionary Force fought its first major battle of the First World War. Since it happened at Mons, it was called the Battle of Mons. This tiny army of expert shooters stood firm against a swarm of German army corps and, unbelievably, they won, briefly stopping the German juggernaut in its tracks. Within days, romantic pamphlets hit the streets trumpeting "divine intervention," as the ghosts of the archers of Agincourt rose from the grave to aid the BEF. The Angels of Mons briefly became a popular subject for Romantic artwork.

It's fascinating the way history gets mythologised into The Theme Park Version, and few battles in history have been mythologised as much as Agincourt. It forms the centrepiece of Shakespeare's Henry V, and became very fond cultural memory once the age of nationalism dawned, the image of the longbow-wielding commoners overcoming the great houses of France to valuable for any propagandist to ignore. But is the story we've heard - a huge army of French knights charged and got turned into pincushions by a couple of thousand English longbowmen, boil the kettle, Rule Britannia, pip pip and tallyho, let's have a spot o' tea - is that what really happened? Or is could it be that it was really a French civil war, the battle was decided by an unknown peasant days before it happened, and the MVPs weren't the famous longbows themselves, but the men who wielded them?

The Campaign
The Kings of England and France were 76 years into the French succession crisis history calls the  Hundred Years' War. It had quieted down for most of the last decade, thanks in large part to the Treaty of Bretigny, by which the English king would renounce his claim to the throne of France in return for keeping Aquitaine and other bits and pieces of his traditional lands on the Continent. By 1413, however, this compromise wasn't enough. King Henry IV had died and the English throne passed to his son, imaginatively called Henry V.

At 26, young 'ennery was an aggressive bastard, and looking across the channel he saw a France ripe and ready for some foreign intervention, completely hamstrung by its ruler, King Charles VI (aka Charles the Beloved, Charles the Mad, Charles the I-Just-Get-These-Headaches). In 1414 Henry demanded the hand of Princess Catherine, Charles' daughter, to solidify his claim to the French throne; to back up that demand, he asked for enough cash from the Great Council to pay for a little war. They asked him to tone it down first, forcing him to lower his demands to the outstanding 1.6 million écu ransom for John II (captured at Poitiers in 1356, never collected), in return for which he'd drop his claim to the French throne. The French responded with a much more reasonable offer of a marriage to Catherine, a 600,000-écu dowry, and an enlarged Aquitaine. By Spring 1415 negotiations had broken down to insults, hair-pulling and name-calling, and it was on like Donkey Kong. On 19 April Henry again asked for enough money to go to war, and this time the lords agreed, granting him a "double subsidy" (i.e. a tax at twice the normal rate). Even so, Henry had to pawn the crown jewels to pay for his army.

This was not a true "feudal" army, as most of the men were being paid for their time. Mostly raised in Kent, Cheshire and the Welsh marches, they were the spare sons of England, third sons of tradies, merchants and farmers with little hope to inherit their father's land or business - and also highly-skilled archers, trained experts who'd spent every Sunday afternoon since childhood at the butts, building up the warped skeleton and outsized shoulder muscles needed to draw a medieval longbow. As soldiers they were not full-time professionals, but with at least hundreds of hours of practice each, they were not precisely amateurs either; by modern standards we'd probably call them reservists. They came because war was a chance for loot, the ransom of captured nobles and - let's face it, they were young men - whole villages of implied consent.

They formed the spear-shaft of English military strength: the tip of the spear was the men-at-arms, men from noble households who bore titles and could afford a good set of armour (the cost of the entire armoury of an English knight in 1374 has been reckoned at over £16. This was equivalent to about five to eight years of rent for a London merchant's house, or over three years' worth of wages for a skilled laborer - so, roughly the same as a really nice car today). They were a true feudal levy, coming at no cost to the king and bringing their own support staff, motivated mostly by the opportunity to ransom their opposite numbers from the French nobility. They weren't professional soldiers either, but given their high-quality equipment and loose discipline, they can probably be compared to mercenaries.

Henry landed near the mouth of the Seine and, needing a base of operations, started reducing Harfleur on 18 August, which was then the main seaport of northern France (the "fleur" part of its name referring not to flowers, but a corruption of an Old Norse word for "estuary" and related to the modern word "fjord." The Seine had a bad habit of silting the harbour up so, 200 years later, the French built La Havre as a replacement. Now Harfleur is just an outer suburb of La Havre. C'est la vie).

But they say no plan survives first contact with the enemy (also, quite a few guys in the front rank), and it had taken from April to August just to get the army marshalled and across the Channel. Sieges refuse to be rushed, and it was already late summer and time was pressing. Sir John Fastolf - the inspiration for Shakespeare's villain Falstaff - bragged that he was first into action at the Siege of Harfleur, and we can take him at his word, because he was invalided home straight after. While he kicked his heels in England the whole siege camp came down with dysentery, or "the bloody flux" or - to call a spade a bloody shovel - everyone started shitting black water and blood. All you could do about dysentery in those days was try and stay hydrated, one of nature's cruel jokes when, given nobody had invented hygiene yet, that was probably how you'd caught it in the first place. I don't imagine clean drinking water was easy to come by outside a seedy port town with surrounded by 10,000 guys with the squirts.

So I imagine nobody was really in the mood for the traditional siege operations - blowing a hole in the town wall with cannons so you could charge in with a frontal assault ("Once more into the breach, dear friends..."), the first rank usually a highly-expendable suicide squad in later ages called the Forlorn Hope. In a move that seems weird today the town officials called a parley with Henry and negotiated rules, actual rules, for the siege, like it was a poker tournament or something. Their compromise wasn't five card stud and no bluffing, it was that if a French relief column hadn't arrived by 23 September, they would surrender. Makes sense in a feudal context, I suppose - Valois, Lancaster, what's the difference? They all send armoured goons if you don't pay their taxes, and if you cut a deal you might avoid expensive damage to your house and, oh yes, your family.

Henry kept up the siege and the town surrendered on 22 September, by which time the end of the campaigning season was fast approaching and winter snows were soon to close the portcullis on military manoeuvres. At the same time, the French barons had put aside their bickering and were uniting to enround him; even the Duke of Burgundy, normally an English ally, had sent a detachment to the French army. With no time, no health and no morale, Henry left a small garrison in Harfleur and struck out for Calais, hoping he could sail back to England and spend a comfortable winter somewhere he needn't worry about getting stabbed in his sleep.

One of the big questions historians ask today is why he didn't just sail back to Calais. He'd sailed into Harfleur, so presumably he could've sail out of it again if he wanted, and thumb his nose at the French all the while. A rectal extraction postulate suggests maybe the fall of Harfleur hadn't netted nearly enough booty to pay for the expedition, so Henry was hoping he could sack a city or two en route - Dieppe maybe, or Boulogne - pay out his army, and end the campaign in the black. His behaviour certainly didn't suggest he was hankering for a fight; with dysentery stalking the camp they were in no condition for a war anyway, and Henry consistently refused a battle until he was backed into a corner. Either way, so began the march back to Calais - not with banners flying, but with tails between their legs, stinking of shit and hoping against hope they wouldn't run into a French army.

The Battle

The French had tried to get a relief army together for Harfleur, but couldn't muster the needed 9,000 men-at-arms in time. This army, gathered at Rouen, followed Henry north and spent the next three weeks shadowing him, blocking his way across the River Somme and forcing him to march ever further southeast, deeper and deeper into France. Henry probed his way south, hoping to find an unguarded crossing, but always the French paced him - until he cut straight across a bow in the Somme, getting far enough ahead to ford it at Béthencourt. Able to resume the march back north, Henry was nevertheless still shadowed by the French army, who knew time was on their side. Winter would strand Henry in hostile territory, and meanwhile they were putting out a call for every noble in the region able to swing a sword. Since the prize was the English pretender himself, an opportunity to win, literally, a king's ransom, they came running. Fabian tactics ruled.

On 24 October Henry's army marched through the Picardy town of Frévent, only 50km from Calais and safety - when suddenly the scouts came running, telling of a huge army blocking the way. Somehow the French had got in front of them. They couldn't flee: they had marched 420km in less than three weeks, with little food, precious little rest, and many still nursing dysentery. They had nothing left to give. To flee now would be to rout and melt away into the countryside, where they would be hunted down and destroyed piecemeal. Bowing to the inevitable, Henry started looking around for a good place to give battle, and found one atop a low hill between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt, near the village of Azincourt. His eye for the ground was immaculate: here was a spot that would give the archers a good shooting gallery, one that would force the French to come at them up a narrow hill while the woods guarded their flanks (amazingly, if you check it out on Google Maps, you find the spot looks almost exactly the same today as it did 600 years ago).

Henry formed up his army with men-at-arms in the centre and archers on the flanks, busy hammering sharpened stakes (called "palings") into the ground in front of their positions to deter cavalry. Having set the field better than Alastair Cook, Henry hoped to provoke a decisive battle that day but, having seen how well the field was set, the French declined. October the 24th ended bloodlessly, and both armies retired to their camps for night best described by FDChief in his write-up of the Battle of Tours (732):
Both sides probably spent a pretty restless night, the sort of night that soldiers have spent since the first australopithecene hunting parties went looking for each other in the African savannah; the old sweats roll up and get some sleep, while the young guys fret and start up at every odd noise, there's one guy who's snoring like a band saw, another working off his nervous energy having a nightmare, or just laying staring up at the dark...
That night Henry crept around the camp and had a quiet word with his soldiers. Shakespeare took this little detail and made sweet love to it, resulting in the St Crispin's Day speech, but in truth if there was ever a moment for Henry to make a magnificent speech, it was now. I don't know about you, but if I was half-starved, aching feet, bowels turned to water even before I saw the French host, it'd take more than Viggo Mortensen on a prancing horse to make me fight. It would take, as Terry Pratchett wrote: "Something with bite, something with edge, something like a drink of brandy to a dying man; no logic, no explanation, just words that would reach right down through a tired man's brain and pull him to his feet by his testicles."

But that's the thing: Henry probably could have made a fine speech to his army. Since the Norman conquest the court of the King of England had been wine-swilling, snail-gobbling, cheese-eating, lovemaking, warmongering Frenchmen who smoked cigarettes even thinner than their thin mustaches. That meant they spoke French, and a variant pretty close to modern French too, all vowels like you had peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth; "English" by comparison was just the dialect of backwoods hicks, partly explaining the modern language's tendency to have two words for everything, why something grand is more prestigious than something merely big, and why meat isn't named after the animal it comes from (the flesh of swine isn't sweinefleisch, it's porc. And delicious). Under the strain of war and needing to get the commoners behind him, Henry IV had made history by becoming the first post-Norman king to suffer English spoken in his court - Middle English, the language of Wycliffe's Bible and The Canterbury Tales.

There were colossal local variations, and the accent probably sounded like a drunk Hagrid, but for the first time in 350 years the king spoke the same language as his people, a novel arrangement that did him a lot of good. So although Henry might not have been able to declaim something as magnificent as the St Crispin's Day speech, what he did have to say was just as extraordinary: he told them he'd rather die in the coming battle than be captured and ransomed.

That was, in the parlance of our times, a bombshell. Most of the men-at-arms could be damn-near certain that would never die on a battlefield - they were just worth too much alive. That went several times over for the King. But the archers were just commoners, nobodies who would fetch no ransom and so could expect to be killed outright if the battle was lost. Maybe Henry just preferred death to facing his creditors, but either way, Henry had thrown his lot in with the commoners. No more class warfare.

The next morning, October the 25th, was of course St Crispin's Day, one of the many, many feast days on the Catholic calendar (I know, it's weird to think of a Catholic England, but keen students of Roman numerals will have noticed that Henry V comes before Henry VIII, so all that was in the future). Feast days were sort of medieval RDOs, which is why I can't take Shakespeare's nonsense about "we happy few" with a straight face. That must've been the final cherry on the top of the men's mood - it was bad enough you had to fight tired and hungry with a bad case of the runs, against a vastly superior enemy force, without having to do it on your freaking day off. But, grumbling, the English got out of bed, donned their armour, strung their bows and took up position. Henry organised his men-at-arms into three units of about five hundred men, confusingly called battles, although nowadays we call a formation that big a battalion so I guess the language hasn't shifted too much. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder four deep with archers on either flank and forming a thin skirmish line in front of them. It was about 9 o'clock in the morning.

From their hilltop, they beheld... well, we're not sure what they beheld, exactly. Basic troop numbers are anyone's guess in medieval battles, and that goes triple for a battle like Agincourt, where the numbers really matter. Historian Anne Curry says the English were outnumbered only 4:3, with 9,000 English and 12,000 French, but then again Anne can't pronounce "Agincourt" so maybe she's talking about a different battle. Estimates range from her conservative 4:3 to a propagandistic 30:1, with 4:1 being a fairly popular compromise. Chronicler Edmond de Dyntner said there were "ten French nobles against one English," not even counting the longbowmen, whom they dismissed as irrelevant due to recent experience (Crécy was 69 years in the past, after all, as distant as WWII to us). This would place an absolute upper limit of 15,000 French men-at-arms on the field, but estimates from eyewitnesses may have been dragged upwards by the disproportionate number of men-at-arms in the French host, each of whom would have brought a noncombatant page wearing armour and riding a spare horse, and easily mistaken for another warrior. Ergo the English might've seen an army vastly bigger than theirs without realising those teeming masses didn't translate to more combat power.

That said, this is one of the few battles where more men on the field makes the French defeat more understandable, not less. But most historians agree that there were between 8,000 and 10,000 French men-at-arms, plus another 4,000 "archers" and 1,500 crossbowmen in the rearguard - who didn't even get deployed, because the men-at-arms were sure they wouldn't need their help.

Who were these guys? In French they were gens d'armes, literally, "men-at-arms," though it gets confusing because, since the French Revolution, that word means "policeman." They were the immediate precursors to the permanent standing armies Charles VII would be setting up in a couple of decades, men of property fighting because they were paid to rather than out of feudal obligation. They would eventually be organised into 15 companies of gens d'armes, each company comprised of 100 "lances" and each lance, in turn, comprised of six men: a nobleman in full armour fighting on horseback, a light combatant called a coutillier (sort of Robin to his Batman), a non-combatant page, and three "archers" operating as mounted infantry, travelling by horse but fighting on foot. This system wouldn't be fully in place until 1434, but the bones of it were probably already in operation: the raw materials for this kind of army were probably what faced King Henry at Agincourt.

We've already seen, however, that in this army the gens d'armes heavily outnumbered the other services, and all of them were straining at the leash to be in the vanguard where they'd have the best chance to ransom themselves some English noble. Accordingly, they formed up in three waves (they were too undisciplined to be called battles or anything else, this was just a human wave attack), with some 8,000 gens d'armes in the first wave, another 3,000 or so in the second wave, and all the archers and crossbowmen in the third, where they would play no part in the fighting (the boys in charge made damn sure of that).

Henry's army waited for the French to attack, a smart move for an outnumbered army that relied on shooting, but it didn't happen. Either there wasn't enough command authority for anyone to take charge, or they were waiting for yet more reinforcements. Finally, Henry sighed and gave the "forward banners" command: his men knelt and kissed the ground, a symbolic admission that dust they were and to dust they might soon return, and at last battle was joined.

Henry's opening move was - what else? - a barrage of arrows at extreme range. He moved his whole army forward until the first wave of gens d'armes were in range, about 270 metres away. The archers set their sharpened palings in the ground to form a fence leaning outwards, and started shooting. Which means at last we get to the meat of it: were the English longbows really able to turn the French gens d'armes into pincushions, or not?

Getting a solid answer to this is quite a slog. For the longest time all testing was done with Victorian-era longbows, thinking they were the same thing. Then in 1982 we found and raised the Tudor warship Mary Rose, and collectively shat a brick when we realised the Victorian longbow, by then a Saturday-afternoon distraction for Jane Austen characters, bore the same relationship to the medieval version as a handbag-dwelling Pomeranian to a pack of grey wolves.

Longbows were made from high-altitude yew grown in Italy or Spain (not, ironically, in England. English yew was too moist). They were made from a section of the tree where the dead heartwood met the still-growing sapwood; since the heartwood resisted compression and the sapwood performed better under tension, it formed a naturally-occurring compound bow that greatly increased the possible energy storage. They were big, up to seven feet long and very stout, with solid oval or caravel cross-sections. They maintained this stoutness almost to the very tips, where they were finished off with bone nocks. Unlike the Victorian bows, they didn't only flex at the ends, but "came compass" and flexed all the way along the length, even the part you were holding onto, making them much trickier to aim but explaining the old phrase, "shooting in the longbow" - from the side, it would indeed look like you were standing inside the bow.

But it was the draw-weights that really floored everyone: most longbow tests had assumed the same 15-30kg draw as the type promoted by the British Longbow Society (the average archery hobbyist today has trouble drawing anything much over 35kg): those from the Mary Rose blew them out of the water, with draw weights ranging from 35 to a monstrous 80kg, with most in the 60kg range. By modern standards they were awful to use, the resistance increasing with every inch drawn, unlike modern bows that use pulleys with specialised cams to even out the resistance until it drops away to nothing at full draw, allowing the archer to hold it steady for a precise aim. On a medieval battlefield most archers were probably forced to draw and release in the same motion, so it seems pinpoint accuracy was out of the question (but then again, the "spray and pray" technique is much easier to get a frightened man to do). The power and range, however, was out of sight, Mary Rose replicas easily shooting 250m and shedding light on ranges from the 1500s that had targets set as far as 365m away. Put it all together and it seems clear: the longbow was not a 14th Century sniper rifle, it was light artillery.

Testing the capabilities of such a bow needed someone very special. Building replica bows was easy; finding someone capable of drawing and firing it was not. Enter Mark Streeton of Leicestershire, a blacksmith for 20 years and - not coincidentally - an archery enthusiast from the age of six. Streeton's build matched the distorted skeletons of medieval longbowmen, short arms and wide shoulders.

Arrows were usually supplied in sheaves of 24 and the shafts were made of ash, beech or hazel. Most of us are familiar with the triangular blade-like arrow tip called a broadhead; designed to cut a nice bleedy wound in the target, these were ideal against unarmoured foes (or game; medieval nobles weren't clear on the distinction), but largely useless against armour because they spread the energy out too far instead of concentrating it in one spot. To do that, you needed a bodkin, which looked less like an arrow-head and more like a Phillips head screwdriver that had been filed down to a nice needle point. Crucially however, due to economic factors, they were only made of iron.

The data Streeton produced was fascinating and detailed, but in summary? Mail and light armour plate 1.0 to 1.5mm thick were nothing, a bodkin would go through them like a summer breeze. From 2.0 to 3.0mm however the story was different. Even armour-piercing bodkins were unable to punch a hole in that kind of steel (which was well-made and of an extremely high quality, thank you very much), the iron tending to deform and mushroom, compounding the problem until all the energy was spent. Interestingly, this seemed to render draw-weights above 60kg wasted, since anything heavier just mushroomed faster, unable to transfer the extra energy through the point. In Henry's day stiff penalties existed for blacksmiths who forged soft arrow heads, but even so it seems with only iron to work with they were too soft. Even a bodkin arrow launched from a mighty English war bow had to find a weak spot, such as a joint between plates or an eye socket, or simply a section of thin steel, to have a hope of piercing plate. Account for factors like the armour being deliberately shaped so any hit was a glancing blow, and it seems unlikely many arrows got through. So, simple answer: could longbows pierce plate armour?

But, as the girls have always told us, penetration ain't everything. One of the truly frightening results of Streeton's shooting was the sheer amount of energy delivered to the target - depending on the head, up to 120 joules, the equivalent of a hit with a sledgehammer and far, far beyond the piffling 35 joules of earlier tests. It turns out launching arrows with an air cannon isn't quite the same as using a bow. The velocity might be right, but the spin, the Archer's Paradox, the in-flight wobble, all were factors in the physics of killing. Said Dr Whetham in his report:
Despite the possibility of a non-lethal arrow strike on a thick breastplate, a heavily armoured solider brought to the ground by a nonlethal arrow impact in a muddy, chaotic battlefield would find his chances of survival severely impaired. Additionally, the energy carried by the arrows tested is so significant that even a non-penetrating impact in the right place might be sufficient to cause death by blunt trauma due to internal injuries.
Yes, even transferring that energy through the armour rather than directly to flesh, a shot from a longbow could wind, stun, break ribs, cause internal injuries, or just knock you out cold. How many people have the gumption to ignore a maniac hitting them repeatedly with a sledgehammer until they've marched right up to their enemies and stuck a sword through their guts? Not many. Even if they didn't kill right away, with thousands of arrows raining down like the hail of Beelzebub himself, I imagine longbows would put your enemy in a negotiating mood very quickly.

This is what the French knights were walking into on St Crispin's Day.

And "walking" is the operative term. Although the French responded with an opening cavalry charge - just their way of saying bonjour, really - there were only about 600 of them and they were swiftly seen off by the palings, fleeing through the advancing ranks of gens d'armes. The rest of them had elected to go on foot because, duh, horses were a huge target for the longbowmen - Crécy had taught them some lessons, after all. With everybody suited up and in the game, the French did what they did best, and charged.

But the charge was soon reduced to a stumbling walk, and then a laborious trudge. The ground they were marching over was ordinary farmland, and joy of joys, it had just been ploughed. Even worse, it had rained overnight and churned up by cavalry just minutes ago, turning the whole field into a vast swampy goop. That mattered, because despite what some of us have heard, plate armour was actually fairly easy to wear. It was light, weighing at most 25kg, or less than a fireman with oxygen gear. It was a lot less restrictive than older mail types, which surprised the hell out of the Deadliest Warrior crew when they pitched William the Conqueror against Joan of Arc. Because the plates were stiff and the weight was evenly-distributed, a man-at-arms had absolutely no problem climbing onto his horse, doing a handstand, dancing the can-can or playing the cups song. The famous French knight Jean de Maingre was even documented climbing up the underside of a ladder using only his hands.

But mud, now, mud changed everything. This was good French mud, gooey, sticky and well-manured. Walking through it in shoes would've been bad enough, so trying to walk through it in anything made with a nice smooth surface amenable to strong vacuums would've been a really bad idea. You didn't want to try it in something like, oh I don't know, plate steel?

The gens d'armes had boots of steel. Also, balls. They already knew they were in trouble: the front ranks found the mud was already knee deep, slowing them down to a crawl, and the arrows were coming thick and fast - six shots a minute times six thousand longbowmen adding up to nearly 40,000 arrows a minute. All were tilting their helmets down to keep their eye slits away from the arrows, making it hard to breathe. Many were probably already walking ghosts, bleeding internally from blunt force trauma and not yet realising it. Others were swiftly exhausting themselves in the mud: the French monk of St. Denis described the French troops as "marching through the middle of the mud where they sank up to their knees. So they were already overcome with fatigue even before they advanced against the enemy." Barker said that some knights, unable to find enough purchase to get back up, actually drowned in their helmets. But they kept coming. In fact, if you want a summary of the Hundred Years' War, or of French history in general, it's those three words: They Kept Coming.

They kept coming until they'd made a serious problem for themselves. To the difficult terrain they'd now added crowding. I don't know if you've ever been in a really dense crowd, but I have, most memorably while going through tunnels exiting a Grand Prix. The crush can be remarkable. Everyone is very polite, sure, doing their best to respect each other's space, but it can still get hard to breathe, and after a while you simply can't move: you're packed in like sardines, no daylight between you, simply immobile, waiting for someone at the front to make room. I can't imagine it's any easier in a steel tuxedo. So as the first wave of 8,000 Frenchmen - the contents of a medium-sized soccer stadium - funnelled up the hill, they got slower and more closely packed. If anyone stumbled, they'd cause a huge backup in the ranks behind, if they weren't just trampled and forgotten. And as that Battlefield Detectives episode stated, once they reached a density of four men per square metre, they wouldn't even have been able to take full steps, reducing the speed of the advance by 70%.

So although the French reached the English line and started pushing them back, the crush rendered that triumph completely worthless. The French monk of St. Denis said: "Their vanguard, composed of about 5,000 men, found itself at first so tightly packed that those who were in the third rank could scarcely use their swords." This was the early days of the longsword, best visualised by the ridiculously huge sword Aragorn carried in Return of the King, which was so long Mortensen said he couldn't even draw it when wearing the scabbard.

These long blades could be wielded two-handed on foot or one-handed from the back of a horse, but they needed plenty of swinging room - and now they had less swinging room than an agoraphobe in Tokyo. There was simply no room to fight, turning the finest assembly of warriors in the occident into a harmless pack of muscle, steel and French expletives. And then, the longbowmen attacked.

If you need proof the battle was won not by longbows, but by longbowmen, just look at the numbers: it was reported to last just over two hours, from the third hour after dawn until midday. A sheaf of 24 arrows wouldn't last that long. There are always those guys who wait for a good shot, save their arrows, take their time, sure. And perhaps they had a resupply system in place, or gave each archer multiple sheaves. Okay, so just arbitrarily double that allocation, triple it even, fine by me - you still end up with a shooting time measured in minutes. If arrows were the main instruments of death on the field that day, we'd be talking about Six Minutes at Agincourt. But we don't. What we have is a two-hour slog.

And that's because, out of arrows, the longbowmen waded in and started hacking. They were tired, they were starving, they stank of shit, and with death or victory their only options, they were desperate. They were also the only men on the field not wearing steel boots, and that gave them a huge advantage in the mud. They had mobility while the gens d'armes were as helpless as a beached turtle, allowing them to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, or just slit their hamstrings with a cheap pocket knife. Although - apart from daggers and the odd sword - the main weapon they seem to've had were the hammers they'd used to drive in the palings. Which wasn't a bad deal, actually: history shows as armour got heavier, swords were given up in favour of warhammers and, well, you know all those polearms that had all different bits on the end? Well, most of them had a hook for dragging a knight off his horse, a pointy bit for skewering bad guys, and a nice solid warhammer or war axe somewhere, because that's what you want for putting some pain on a guy in armour.

After two hours it was clear that the English had won. While individual French soldiers had fought hard, the mud had told in the end. The Duc d’Alençon was about to surrender to Henry himself when he was struck dead, joining the Ducs d’Orleans and de Brabant as well as the Constable of France, Charles d’Albret, in taking a dirt nap. Marshal Boucicaut, the commander of the first wave a man who seemed to've had an actual plan for the battle that the lunkheads around him had spoiled, was taken prisoner and ended his days in Yorkshire. Seeing so many of their lords wiped out the French third wave hovered on the edge of the field, uncertain whether to join the fight or not, until Henry sent a herald to order them off the battlefield on pain of receiving no quarter. Probably thinking he'd be their king by tomorrow, they obeyed: the third wave melted away.

The death toll was staggering. Some 8,000 Frenchmen had 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 trampled into the mud, as did the Earl of Suffolk, whose father had died in the siege of Harfleur the month before. Henry himself defended his wounded brother, the Duke of Gloucester, against a mob of ambitious Frenchmen.

The English started rounding up prisoners to see who would be worth a few francs (and who could be killed without regret), when a small French force, led by local nobles Isambart d’Agincourt and Robert de Bournonville, used their local knowledge to march around the forests and fall on the English baggage train at Maisoncelles. The English were standing in the middle of a field of French prisoners that actually outnumbered their English captors, still in armour with weapons lying all over the place. Seeing where this could go, Henry ordered that the prisoners executed on the spot.

His army baulked - he'd effectively just asked them to burn a winning lottery ticket - but Henry feared losing a rematch more than losing the cash. He repeated the order, this time enforced by the threat of hanging, and this time his army complied. Another couple of thousand gens d'armes - all that were left, save the really, really valuable ones - were butchered at Henry's word - a war crime, to be sure, but not a senseless one. The English reformed to face the baggage raid, which was swiftly repulsed, and resumed the march to Calais - impossible a few hours ago, now triumphantly easy.

Strategic Outcome
Despite the bloodshed, there was almost none. Henry returned to England on November 16, a triumphing hero blessed by God who'd added immeasurably to the legitimacy of the Lancaster line. His army stayed in Calais, but it was too late in the season for further campaigning. Meanwhile the French army, "the flower of French chivalry," was worm food, gutted for years to come, news of which drove Charles VI into a fresh bout of insanity that earned him his second name. Harfleur became an English town for a while, and Henry was able to marry Catherine of Valois like he'd wanted, securing the rights to the throne of France upon Charles' death.

Unfortunately, all that was rendered moot when it was Henry who died first, by just two months, aged only 35. His death deprived England of a king who, despite his ruthlessness, was seemingly quite capable in both politics and on the battlefield, but he never got to be King of France. Technically, his infant son Henry VI inherited, but the Dauphin (the future Charles VII) was also staking his claim, and had enough barons and ducs and chevaliers - and some peasant girl who heard voices in her head - supporting him that disputing it would require another war. So, we ended up right where we started, with a French succession crisis that was sure to get messy. But in the end, after the Black Plague had reduced the population of northern France by a third, and England by half, after all the marching and stabbing and shooting and besieging was over, England lost the Hundred Years' War. And that makes Agincourt look like a brief hiccup in a long, slow defeat. The English monarchy would not relinquish its claim on the French throne, however, until 1802 - by which time, France had been a republic for ten years.

My question is: who was the French peasant assigned to work that field at Agincourt? If he'd only procrastinated a little, put off ploughing until for a week or so, the English army might've been annihilated in a battle so catastrophic they wouldn't have got a dirty limerick out of it, never mind the Agincourt Carol. Did Charles know enough to string the poor bastard up? Because although the wet work fell to others, he is undoubtedly the farmer who lost the Battle of Agincourt.

But hey, at least we got that St Crispin's Day speech.


  1. While you are perfectly right on the kinetic energy of an arrow thing you forget about momentum. Meele weapons and slow moving projectiles such as bolts and arrows need a lot of momentum to be effective. Being punched with a sledgehammer is not the best thing you can have in armour but if someone manages then you fucked up, while getting shot with an arrow is an annoyance at max because it rings on the armour while being deflected. Comparing weight an arrow is 100 gramms give or take usually heavier than that a sledgehammer is a tool used for quarrying can be anywhere from 20-100 times heavier. The arrow travelling at 50 m/s which is pretty standard for longbows will have 125 J of energy and around 5 Ns of momentum.

    Now a hit from an 8 kg sledgehammer is let's say with the same energy which will travel around 5,6 m/s (which is mighty slow if I tell you when it comes to meele combat) will have a momentum of 44,8 Ns, which is almost 9 times higher.

    Shoot an arrow at stone, nothing will happen swing a slegdehammer at it, stone will break.

  2. I could argue with you about the definition of momentum - I have the citation for the equivalence of sledgehammers and arrow around here somewhere - but I'm too stoked that you care enough to take exception.

    Shooting an arrow at stone, though? There's a demonstration I'd love to see.