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The battle of Agincourt - 25th October 1415

King Henry V had embarked on an armed raid intended to take him across Normandy to English-held Calais. It had all gone disastrously wrong. He had besieged Harfleur too long and too expensively and his way across the River Somme towards Calais was blocked by the French. Eventually, Henry got his men across the river some distance upstream from his intended crossing point. He was beset by foul weather and a French "scorched earth" policy. His men were soaked, starving and riddled with dysentery. Henry moved as fast as he could under these conditions but was brought to bay at Agincourt.

Fortunately for him, the French nobles in the field were jealous of each other. While they argued, Henry moved into a strong defensive position. between some woods. He had a modest force: 900 men-at-arms, each of whom had two retainers, and 5,000 longbowmen. They faced a French army estimated at 20,000.

Henry placed his 900 armoured men in the centre. They were flanked by the longbowmen, who stood behind a forest of stakes that they had driven into the ground which had been softened by the heavy rain.

Although the original French plan had been to use cavalry to attack the longbowmen at the flanks, the restricted size of the battlefield and the sheer weight of French numbers meant that the attack had to be frontal. Only minor success was achieved, and that only where the stakes had fallen over in the sodden earth. France's greatest lords, led the first French "battle" of 8,000 men. Having dismounted, they advanced through the heavy ground towards the English. As they advanced they suffered not only the expected storm of arrows but were also thrown into disorder by their own cavalry passing through their lines. Nevertheless, the English were forced back.

Fighting was extremely bitter. the longbowmen joined in with daggers and mallets. Slowly, the French fell back. As they did so, they found their way blocked by their own second echelon. They were packed so tightly that they could hardly use their weapons, but they fought on. Henry was wounded and his cousin one removed, the Duke of York killed before the French started to flee.

Huge numbers of prisoners were taken. The total loss of the English is stated at thirteen men-at-arms and about 100 of the foot soldiers. The French lost 5000 of noble birth killed, including the constable, 3 dukes, 5 counts and 90 barons. One thousand more were taken prisoner, amongst them the duke of Orléans (the Charles d'Orléans of literature).

Recent experiments at Agincourt and elsewhere suggest that the English archers may have inflicted relatively little damage on the heavily armoured French knights and men-at-arms with their arrows because of the then recent adoption of steel (rather than iron) for armour. It is likely then that most of the casualties of the archery were the less-armoured horses, causing the mounted fighters to be thrown down onto the muddy ground, from which they had difficulty rising. In addition, the French troops were exhausted by struggling through the quagmire which they were churning up on the battlefield and so they arrived piecemeal at the English line of battle.

A second feature contributing to the French defeat was the funnel-shaped battlefield that caused the French forces to converge as they approached the English lines. As they moved forward, they jostled each other and tripped over the bodies of the fallen horses and men. It is possible that many actually suffocated as they were trampled into the mud by the following soldiers and knights. This suggestion has been supported by computer models and video footage used to study crowd disasters at football grounds and music concerts.

Into this chaos the lightly armoured archers moved much more nimbly than the heavily armoured French. They were able to inflict severe damage on the enemy with their short swords, knives, mallets, and other tools. This suggests that the archers did considerably more damage as infantry than as archers.

It is only a theory. Nothing can take away the fact that the longbowmen at Agincourt were a key component in a stunning victory - one of the greatest in all of English history.

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