The glowing sun rose over a field in France. It had rained heavily the night before, and mud caked the field. Little did the outnumbered soldiers, cold, wet, miserable, hungry, and suffering from dysentery, know that the blasted mud would be one of their best friends throughout the hard action of the day.
The other would be their king. And though they could not have imagined it, nervous and apprehensive as they were on that morning, exactly 600 years ago today, he, and they, were soon to become immortal. They would achieve kleos and be celebrated by the chroniclers for all time. Gentlemen in England indeed were accursed for not being there.
The little village nearby was called Agincourt, and the English army, under the command of Henry V, reached it the previous night after a long, demoralizing march in which it was increasingly hemmed in by the significantly larger French force. Seeking a retreat to England at Calais, Henry was left with very few options in his present position. He was close to the coast, and the French army would only get larger if he did not make a stand on that fateful day of Saint Crispin’s.
For Henry and his men, it was a do or die moment, where they must sink into despair or become the most triumphant people in Europe. Yet, the most remarkable thing is that the situation was unfolding at all.
The future Henry V was born on August 9th, 1387, into a prominent noble English family. As the great-grandson of Edward III, Henry had a claim to the throne, yet still, he was far down the normal line of succession, and was not expected to become king.
His early life was luxurious but also turbulent. His father, Henry Bolingbroke, was exiled in 1398, yet Henry was taken into King Richard II’s household and got his first taste of the military life on campaign with him in Ireland. But if Richard II was trying to preserve Henry’s loyalty, it seems not to have worked, as he was overthrown in 1399 by forces which crowned Henry Bolingbroke king.
Henry’s father, now Henry IV, had a very dubious claim to the throne, as upon the death or abdication of Richard II with no heirs, the throne should have been passed to the descendants of Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp. Henry IV, instead, was the son of John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son. In trying to justify himself, he used the Salic Law as in France, claiming that he descended from Edward III in a direct male line, whereas the claimants to the throne through Lionel of Antwerp did not. England at the time allowed for inheritances through the female line, but not for a female monarch. Henry overturned this.
Seem confusing? It was to the people at the time too, and it eventually exploded into the Wars of the Roses.
But things remained stable in England for the time being, and Henry (our Henry) was now heir apparent and created Prince of Wales. His military life continued and picked up in pace.
Yet it was also during this time that Henry had his first brush with death – and saw the power of the longbow all too personally. On campaign to suppress a rebellion in Wales, Henry was shot in the face by a Welsh longbowman. This wound was likely a fatal one, and indeed it would have been for anyone else, who would not have received the intense care that Henry did. Even so, he is lucky that he did not succumb to an infection.
He would survive to take on a new challenge. Henry IV became ill in 1410, and the Prince of Wales became effective governor of the land. This situation did not last long, but Henry must have gained valuable experience during the period of his father’s illness. In 1413, when Henry IV died, the now-King Henry V already had invaluable military and political experience, and he was just 25 years old.
Making an Impact:
Henry V established himself as a powerful ruler in England during the first two years of his reign, but it was foreign affairs that occupied his mind. He decided to renew the Hundred Years’ War with France, which had supported the rebellions in Wales during his father’s reign, among other offenses.
Henry also probably wanted to prove himself, making his mark by successfully navigating a real challenge. The traditional way for a king to do this was through war. Henry landed in France relatively late in the campaigning season, in August, just after his 28th birthday. There, he sacked the city of Harfleur after an eight week siege. Yet, Henry was now at a disadvantage. The siege gave the French time to mobilize forces, which then marched to attack the upstart English king. In addition, as supplies ran low during the time elapsed, Henry’s men took to eating the local seafood, and many of them caught dysentery in the unsanitary conditions it was kept in.
Late in the campaigning season by now, low on supplies, and with a sick and diminished army, Henry V made what can only be described as a foolish error. He engaged in a chevauchee – a plundering expedition to show the people that God was on his side and that the French king could not protect them. On this raid, he marched north, toward Calais, where he and his men would eventually sail to Dover. However, as we saw earlier, this gave the French, under the command of the Constable Charles d’Albret, time to respond. They hounded him at every turn, repeatedly blocking his path across the Somme, and eventually forced him to give battle under unfavorable conditions, anticipating perfectly where he would cross the river.
Nevertheless, Henry V intended to make the most of his situation. His plan, like his great grandfather Edward III before him, was to fight defensively and make maximum use of the rapid rate of fire of the longbow. The same weapon that had given Henry a brush with death, he was now counting on to save his life and the lives of his men.
The numbers involved are the subject of some debate. Some estimates are that the English were outnumbered by as many as 6 to 1, while others say it was as little as 2 to 1. Whatever the final tally, the French felt confident in their numerical superiority, and the fact that most of the English army was composed of lowly archers, while the flower of French chivalry had gathered under their country’s banner.
The French had apparently not learned the lessons of the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers. That was the English army’s first major advantage. The second advantage would be the rain the previous night that had added to their misery.
The third major advantage of the English would be their king.
The Battle of Agincourt:
The preparation and leadup to the battle has gone down in legend. One contemporary account by Enguerrand de Monstrelet, the governor of Cambrai, describes the mental state of the English:
They were much fatigued and oppressed by cold, hunger, and other discomforts, they made their peace with God, by confessing their sins with tears, and numbers of them taking the sacrament; for, as it was related by some prisoners, they looked for certain death on the morrow.
Monstrelet seems to have been mistaken on his account of the French though (I suspect this was written some time later to fit neatly in line with the religious symbolism surrounding the medieval view of the battlefield as the judgment of God.). They were noisy, boisterous, and again, confident. They seemed to party all through the night, blazing in bonfires, as if they were at a wedding rather than preparing for battle.
The English, we know, were demoralized, and probably didn’t make many sounds.
Although it is overdone, and although it is indeed doubtful that Henry V uttered these words, I must quote them here, as I truly believe they are the greatest words ever written in the English language:
What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Whether these words are true or not is irrelevant. They are evocative of what a king and leader should do. These words instill confidence in the men who are being led into danger, assure them of of their own glorious place in history, and of their elevated social status due to their courage. They instill the notion that “we’re simply better because we’re Henry’s men.” These words also demonstrate another crucial aspect of leadership: they show that the king is above the men, establishing his authority, but also part of the men. He would fight and suffer just as they would, and indeed, in real life, he did. The real Henry would also take double the risk – the risk of fighting and also being the visible leader of this fighting force.
The real Henry V stood at the center of the English line, put a helmet with a crown welded to it on his head, instantly singling him out for every French soldier on the field, and prepared to do battle just like his men. He would indeed bleed among them. He was dismounted, just as were the rest of his knights, to fight as heavy infantry, standing shoulder to shoulder with the peasant archers, some of whom were criminals fighting for a pardon. Aside from the differences in their armor or coats of arms, they were very much alike. An observer from another part of the world would probably think of them as equals. King, noble, peasant, and even vagrant were hard to distinguish from one another on a field of battle like Agincourt to the untrained eye.
Truly, Henry V and all his men had been made a band of brothers. He was ready to show that by his own actions.
Eager to get the battle underway, Henry moved his position a few hundred yards forward unmolested by the French (which also conveniently placed Henry on the narrowest part of the battlefield where he could not be outflanked), planted his defensive stakes in the ground, and began to unleash a volley of arrows. This spurred a charge. The Battle of Agincourt was on.
Protected as they were with full plate armor, which had been perfected by this time, an individual longbow shot would not do much damage to a knight at first. Contrary to popular belief, the longbow, even equipped with an “armor piercing” bodkin point, could not penetrate articulated plate armor at significant range. Longbows (as well as crossbows) could only pierce armor at short range.
Still, the sheer volume of fire that the English archers poured upon the French told with terrible effect, wounding horses and causing maximum chaos and confusion in the French lines:
Before, however, the general attack commenced, numbers of the French were slain and severely wounded by the English bowmen. At length the English gained on them so much, and were so close, that excepting the front line, and such as had shortened their lances, the enemy could not raise their hands against them. The division under sir Clugnet de Brabant, of eight hundred men-at-arms, who were intended to break through the English archers, were reduced to seven score, who vainly attempted it. True it is, that sir William de Saveuses, who had been also ordered on this service, quitted his troop, thinking they would follow him, to attack the English, but he was shot dead from off his horse. The others had their horses so severely handled by the archers, that, smarting from pain, they galloped on the van division and threw it into the utmost confusion, breaking the line in many places. The horses were become unmanageable, so that horses and riders were tumbling on the ground, and the whole army was thrown into disorder, and forced back on some lands that had been just sown with corn. Others, from fear of death, fled; and this caused so universal a panic in the army that great part followed the example.
As the combat continued at a closer range, it should be noted that the English archers were also equipped to fight at such a distance with swords known as falchions. Monstrelet describes their equipment:
Their archers, amounting to at least thirteen thousand, let off a shower of arrows with all their might, and as high as possible, so as not to lose their effect: they were, for the most part, without any armour, and in jackets, with their hose loose, and hatchets or swords hanging to their girdles; some indeed were barefooted and without hats.
The archers and dismounted knights met the French attack valiantly, not giving an inch of ground:
The English took instant advantage of the disorder in the van division, and, throwing down their bows, fought lustily with swords, hatchets, mallets, and bill-hooks, slaying all before them. Thus they came to the second battalion that had been posted in the rear of the first; and the archers followed close king Henry and his men-at-arms. Duke Anthony of Brabant, who had just arrived in obedience to the summons of the king of France, threw himself with a small company (for, to make greater haste, he had pushed forward, leaving the main body of his men behind), between the wreck of the van and the second division; but he was instantly killed by the English, who kept advancing and slaying, without mercy, all that opposed them, and thus destroyed the main battalion as they had done the first. They were, from time to time, relieved by their varlets, who carried off the prisoners; for the English were so intent on victory, that they never attended to making prisoners, nor pursuing such as fled. The whole rear division being on horseback, witnessing the defeat of the two others, began to fly, excepting some of its principal chiefs.
During the chaos, the king still stood in the center, swinging his sword and fighting right alongside his men. The target of every chivalric soldier of France, Henry V came close to getting killed. One of the jewels of his crown was hacked off. His life was saved by a loyal bodyguard who would die for his actions.
Heedless of danger, Henry fought on. In the melee, the king’s brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was wounded. As the French were dragging him away to capture, Henry V planted one foot on his brother’s chest and swung at the French attackers ferocously. Conspicuous in his crowned helmet, his message was incredibly clear: you’re not taking my brother. And they did not. The valor of the king must have been deeply inspiring for everyone on the field, only encouraging them to fight that much harder.
And it did make a difference. The English did not give any ground as the French continued to attack. In fact, it was here that their numerical superiority, combined with the mud created by the previous evening’s rain, did them a massive disservice. Slogging through the mud in their heavy armor, the French were very easy targets. The French, who had a battle plan to scatter the archers with a cavalry charge and follow it up with an infantry assault in the center (Knights: In History and Legend, pg. 225), ignored it as the battle commenced, charging headlong into defeat as the stout English, in arms with their stout king, refused to give ground, though the French certainly made headway numerous times, but to no avail.
The French, trapped in the mud, could not maneuver as their comrades behind kept pushing them forward. Those who fell down in the mud could not get up. Many of them must have died of asphyxiation. Those that did not were easy targets for the English archers and dismounted knights. Throats were cut and eyeballs were stabbed through.
The French assault was a complete disaster, and the English were victorious.
It was here that the most controversial part of the episode followed, and it remains so even to this day. Some have said that it was the exclamation point on the symbolic death of chivalry that the Battle of Agincourt heralded. Aside from the casualties of the battle itself, which included the constable, the English army had captured hundreds of noble French knights. Customarily these men were to be held and ransomed back to their families for a tidy sum.
This was not what happened at Agincourt. Henry ordered many of the prisoners to be put to death. This is one reason why the battle has been seen as so bloody.
People have ever since debated the morality of Henry V’s decision. It is true that Henry’s army was overburdened and scarcely in condition to care for prisoners. It was also true that letting them go would simply provide the enemy with more manpower, especially as a French detachment was then in the midst of attacking the English baggage train.
With these facts, Henry decided to do what he did. I won’t press the issue further. Judging him in such a situation is akin to engaging in Monday morning quarterbacking.
Henry V and his army had become immortal. They returned to England in triumph, and doubtlessly, there were many men who were jealous, now seething at the fact that they had not been one of those “happy few.” It is only through facing ordeals like Agincourt that a man can truly achieve his best self, and Henry V put it on display in spades. That is why we remember him today, as we do those who fought with him.
Henry V continued to campaign in France with great success, proving that Agincourt was not a one-time fluke. Indeed, to medieval people, the will of God was truly with the English king, as he continued to defeat the French and show the people of France that their king could not protect them. As Henry became the master of northern France, along with the traditional English territory of Aquitaine in the south, he effectively had better control over France than the King of France, Charles VI did. This led to the Treaty of Troyes, in which Henry married Charles’ daughter, Catherine of Valois, who was said by contemporaries to have been quite physically pleasing. Henry certainly seemed to think so. Score one for Henry V.
In addition, Henry was recognized as Charles’ heir, even over his own son (also named Charles, the future Charles VII). No other person came so close to uniting the crowns of England and France, and had it happened, history would have been radically different. Henry V would loom much larger, large as he is, than he does today. He would not only be a great soldier and leader of men, but one of the pivotal figures of history. That he is not shows us that as good as our deeds are, Fortune is a fickle thing, which may ultimately care not for your victories in life, great as they are.
So what turn did Fortune take? Henry V died of dysentery, a common disease of the soldier, while on campaign in 1422. In his death as in his life, this king of England shared the life, the hardships, and the fate of so many of those who fought under him. Truly they were brothers borne of hardship and experience, which go far further in meaning than simple relations of blood.
Charles died within months of Henry. Now it was expected that Henry’s infant son, Henry VI, would inherit the thrones of both England and France. Yet he was obviously in no position to govern either realm, and it was an opening that French patriots would take advantage of. Up to now, these French patriots, who were equal in valor to their English opponents, had simply lacked competent leadership. They certainly had no one that could inflame the hearts of men as did Henry V with his words and deeds. That would soon change, and the change would come from a most unexpected source, a simple peasant girl who was at that moment beginning to come of age and would in a few short years hear her first “voices.”
Though that is another long story.
Lessons from Henry V:
- Morale is the most important aspect of leadership. Men in a state of high morale can do things they never thought they could. Your job is to encourage and maintain it.
- Elevate yourself above your followers but also show that you are partial to their cause. Be their unmistakable leader but emphasize the bond you share by common experience.
- A leader does these things partially by assuming double the risk. Get down in the trenches and stand out with a crown on your head.
- Nothing beats hard training and experience.
- Don’t go on if the fundamentals are not in your favor, as Henry did after Harfleur. For all his great leadership abilities, the campaign could have ended in disaster in other circumstances because of Henry’s impetuousness.
- Fortune can often care less for strength – your own or your enemies’. Fight on anyway.
- Read Lives of the Luminaries to put these lessons (plus 5,000 years more of them) into practice and create your own band of brothers.