Saint Crispin’s Day and the Battle of Agincourt
Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, taking place in 1415 (605 years ago) between the forces of France and her various allies and the invading English forces under the command of King Henry V. Shakespeare, by having his character Henry V repeatedly refer to the day of the battle as St. Crispin’s Day, otherwise saved this obscure saint from being lost, save for experts in hagiography, to the mist of history.
Agincourt was the third of a trio of famous battles in the course of the 100 Years War; the other two were Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). The English won all three of these battles. In the end they lost the war. If you should want a comprehensive review of the 100 Years War, the four volume treatment by Jonathan Sumption (The Hundred Years War I – Trial by Battle; The Hundred YearsWar II – Trial by Fire; The Hundred Years War III – Divided Houses; and The Hundred Years War IV – Cursed Kings) is authoritative.
The English forces, likely numbering in the range of 7,000, were compelled to do battle with a numerically superior French force likely numbering in excess of 20,000. All else being equal, the English force should have expected to be annihilated. As is typical in the case of significant historical events, however, all things were not equal. The French and their allies were disorganized, and overall command of the battlefield was never achieved. Rather, individual nobles led their own contingents forward in a disorganized and sometimes conflicting manner. The terrain favored the English in several ways. The French “artillery,” crossbowmen (largely Pisan mercenaries) were not effectively deployed, and they had the unenviable task of shooting uphill. That same terrain required the French forces, both mounted and on foot, to attack uphill over a recently plowed field that, consequent to the recent rain, was more mud than dirt. The French knights and men at arms, slogging their way uphill, were a “target rich environment” for the rain of arrows let loose by the English longbows; assuming Henry’s forces numbered 7,000, likely 5,800 were longbowmen, each releasing four to six arrows a minute.
Another factor was that the very size of the French force worked to its disadvantage in that those behind continued pressing forward, hoping for their moment of glory, even while those at the front were being slaughtered. It was not quite the situation suffered by the Romans at the hands of Hannibal at Cannae, but then likely it was not hugely better.
While comparative casualty figures are effectively impossible to ascertain, it is clear that the French were badly mauled with significantly more casualties than the English. Further, a significant number of French nobles fell in contrast to only two English nobles. Also, a significant number of French knights who has been captured in anticipation of being ransomed were executed. The validity of the execution order, given by Henry V, is to this day debated.
For an excellent review of the battle, see Juliet Barker's Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England. It is also covered in volume four of Sumption’s treatise.
As invented by Shakespeare in Henry V, Scene iii, the St. Crispin’s Day speech would immortalize Henry V:
WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
HERE IS A LINK to Kenneth Branagh’s masterful rendition.
Not recited in the list of nobles who were part of the battle was Edward of Norwich, the Duke of York (a grandson of Edward III) He was killed while defending the king.
In 1420 Isabeau of Bavaria, queen to the incapacitated Charles VI, signed the Treaty of Troyes, granting the French Crown to Henry V and his heirs in place of her son. Further to that treaty, Henry V married Catherine of Valois; she would be the mother of Henry VI with the Valois inherited mental instability that would contribute to the Cousins War (a/k/a the War of the Roses); HERE IS A LINK to a discussion of that situation. Henry V died in 1422. Joan of Arc would join the fray in 1429; while she would be in the field was than a year and a half she helped turn the tide, and the 100 Years War would end with England holding only the region of Calais. It would be lost in the reign of Mary (a/k/a Bloody Mary).