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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Battle of Agincourt

Apparently one of the starter scenarios in the BattleLore game will be the Battle of Agincourt. Let’s have a look at this defining conflict of the Hundred Years’ War.

The Battle of Agincourt was fought on 25 October 1415, Saint Crispin’s Day, between the English army of King Henry V and the French army of Charles VI (commanded by the Constable Charles d’Albret and various Armagnac noblemen).

After the successful siege of Harfleur, Henry planned to march directly to Calais and sail back to England. The English marched 260 miles in 17 days, and the army was exhausted, hungry and suffering from dysentery and disease (and down to only 900 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers from the original 9,000 total) when they found their way to Calais blocked by d’Albret’s army.

AgincourtAt dawn, the forces were laid out roughly a mile apart. The battlefield was a freshly plowed field between the villages of Agincourt and Tramecourt, and it had been raining continuously for days. It was to become so muddy that many deaths (including that of the Duke of York) were caused by drowning.

The French formed two lines of armoured men-at-arms with crossbowmen and some ineffectual bombards (cannon) between. 2,200 mounted knights, including 12 princes of royal blood, guarded the flanks and formed a reserve in the rear. In traditional fashion, the men-at-arms in the English army were flanked by wedges of archers, positioned forward from the rest of the troops to give covering fire along the main front. An innovation was the use of large pointed stakes set at an angle in front of the archers, called palings, to discourage a cavalry charge. Altogether, there were 20-30,000 Frenchmen compared to 5,900 Englishmen.

After three hours of stalemate, Henry ordered his troops to move the line forward to within extreme longbow range (400 yards). The first volley of arrows goaded the French into attacking, and the mounted French knights attempted to overrun the longbowmen protecting the English flanks. They were decimated and driven back in confusion. Contrary to popular opinion, an English arrow could not normally penetrate a knight’s plate armour, but their horses could not carry enough armour to stop the arrows. Wounded horses threw their riders and churned up the mud in front of the English positions.

The main French attack was from the first line of men-at-arms. The French force was not an army however, but a group of knights who had come together at the behest of the King, so it was dangerously undisciplined. Everybody tried to push their way into the first line to display their banners, and as they marched toward the English their line was squeezed together by the narrowing field, until they were so close together they couldn’t use their weapons effectively. However, even with the mud and the crowding, the French men-at-arms began to throw the English back.

Despite some intense fighting, the English line held. While normally quite mobile, the combination of the mud and the crowding disabled and disordered the armoured men-at-arms, and now the English archers joined the melee with hatchets and swords. The English had merely to knock them down, where they drowned in the mud or suffocated under fallen bodies.

The second line of men-at-arms followed the first. Now, however, there was the added complication that the English positions were blocked by a wall of bodies. The second line had no better luck against the arrows, mud, and English men-at-arms than the first.

The only French success of the battle was a sally by a group of French knights who cut through the woods and attacked the English camp. In Shakespeare, the raid on the camp was Henry’s reason for ordering his prisoners killed; though it was possibly a later justification.

Total English losses were put at thirteen men-at-arms (including Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, a grandson of Edward III) and about a hundred of the foot soldiers. The French lost 5,000 soldiers.

Agincourt is remembered particularly for the English longbow destroying the ‘flower of French chivalry’. It is most famously portrayed by Shakespeare in his play Henry V, though Shakespeare did change some historical facts. A recent theory states that the English were not as outnumbered as previously thought, and in fact the figures were exaggerated to build up Henry’s reputation.

Sources: Wikipedia entry Computing, Agincourt Computing, The Great Battles