Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Archer's Tale - Part 4: Band of Brothers


"Owre Kynge went forth to Normandy
With grace and myght of chyvalry
Ther God for hym wrought mervelusly;
Wherefore Englonde may call and cry
Deo gratias!
Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria!"
-First stanza of the "Agincourt Carol," 15th Century

After the Treaty of Brétigny ended the first phase of the Hundred Years War, the great powers of England and France slipped back into the slow routine of their internal affairs, punctuated now and again by minor proxy fighting with eachother and the occasional chevauchée.  The archers who had been responsible for England's successes knew of no such lull however and found an abundance of employment and adventure throughout Christendom and beyond, as detailed in the previous post of this series.  As far as the war at large, though, things stayed quiet until about 1413AD - when a chain of fortuitous events would produce a battle that would win the English archer a permanent place in the annals of history.

Upon the death of the great warrior-king, Edward III, England faced a troublesome situation in regards to the throne.  Edward's mighty son and heir, the Black Prince - who embodied all the best of his father's martial prowess and leadership - had died of dysentery the year prior.  He left behind a ten year old son, Richard, who was crowned King upon the death of his grandfather.  It would be an understatement to say that Richard II was not like his father and grandfather.  Once he had achieved the age to rule in his own right, Richard displayed none of the militarist tendencies of his forebears and was remarkably pacifist in his rule.  Some in our own times might acclaim such non-aggressive tendencies, but in the 14th Century - when warfare and mortality in general were such intimately familiar events - such actions hardly did anything tho endear one to the people he ruled.  Richard's fate was sealed when he inexplicably banished Henry Bolingbroke, the eldest son and heir to Edward III's younger son and Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt.  Henry won favor with certain key noble families and returned to England as a rival claimant to the throne.  Nobles and commoners alike supported the young energetic Henry and soon, the hapless Richard was deposed and would die years later in prison.  Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV, establishing the House of Lancaster and setting the stage for a future succession crisis that would cause some of the bloodiest struggles in English history.  At the time of his ascension, Henry had a young son - another Henry - who was destined to lead his country into perhaps its most defining battle.  In 1403, this young Prince Harry would earn his battlefield credibility by leading his father's right flank against the forces of the rebel Welsh prince Owain Glyndŵr and his Marcher Lord ally, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Late 15th Century woodcut depicting the defeat of the Percys at Shrewsbury - note the longbows on either side.
The Battle of Shrewsbury was an important event for more reasons than being the venue by which a young Henry V won his spurs.  The rebellion began when a native Welsh lord and heir to the old royal houses of Powys and Deheubarth, Owain Glyndŵr, rallied armies in the last bid for Welsh independence from the English Crown.  Unexpectedly for Henry IV, certain key English lords dissatisfied with their prospects after the deposition of Richard II, joined the Welsh rebel - making the situation far more dangerous for Henry's delicate claim to the throne than that posed by mere Welsh rebels.  Another key aspect of Shrewsbury was that it marked the first time when warbow faced warbow on the field - providing a grim foreshadowing of the horrific battles that would define the War of the Roses several generations later.  During the rebellion, many archers of Welsh descent defected to support their countryman, whereas thousands of English archers were called up to defend Henry's royal cause.  Shrewsbury became the stage for the largest battle of the conflict, and it proved as deadly as one might imagine.  Thousands on both sides were slain by the arrowstorm and a young Henry V nearly died after suffering a Welsh cloth-arrow to the face.  Although he was saved by the skill of his surgeons, he bore the scar for the remainder of his life.  When the dust settled on Shrewsbury field, Hotspur Percy lay slain (another victim of the cloth-arrows) and Owain Glyndŵr fled back to Wales and vanished into the mountains of Snowdonia, never to be seen again by mortal eyes.  Henry Bolingbroke spent the last years of his reign finally solidifying his royal claim, passing on a firmly held throne to his battle-hardened son in 1413AD.

Only extant portrait of Henry V from life.  Most likely taken from the side not scarred by his wound from Shrewsbury.
During this time, France was experiencing internal struggles of its own.  The English situation had stagnated and the lands held under the Treaty of Brétigny were only loosely held and defended by a motley mix of Gascons, Normans, Bretons, and professional soldiers under contract from England.  On the throne in Paris sat Charles VI - known to history as Charles "the Mad" - who, as his nickname suggests, suffered from debilitating mental instability.  A challenger to his throne arose in the person of Duke John "the Fearless" of Burgundy, who, in 1407AD, allied himself to England in return for military assistance in his rebellion.  Several companies of archers and men-at-arms flocked into Burgundy, seeking the same sort of opportunities their forefathers had.  As such, tensions mounted rapidly between the two thrones once again and negotiations became ever more heated between the aggressive Henry and his French counterparts.  In 1414AD, England and her young king received word that French royal forces and taken the Burgundian city of Soissons and inflicted a dreadful massacre of its inhabitants.  Among the victims were 300 English archers who were singled out by the French and horrifically tortured to death as a token of the low regard the French aristocracy possessed for these low-born warriors.  This proved to be the final straw for Henry.

In a show of furious energy, Henry resurrected his great-grandfather's claim to the throne of France and resolved this time to actually follow through on it.  In the early months of 1415AD, Henry raised an army of about 12,000 and landed in Normandy in August.  His first target was the key port-city of Harfleur.  However, Harfleur resisted far longer than expected and Henry's army was slowly whittled down by combat, disease, and desertion.  When Harfleur finally fell in late September, Henry was left with only about 8,000 of his original force.  Knowing this was far too few with which to successfully seize the throne of France, he took his council's advice to return to England to refit.  However, in a surprise decision, the ambitious king resolved to march his small force nearly 134 miles across French royal territory from Harfleur to English-held Calais.  This tactic was more symbolic than strategic - by brazenly marching across French lands in such fashion, Henry hoped to demonstrate his right to the French and the rest of Christendom.  However, as men continued to succumb to illness in one of the coldest and wettest Autumns on record, such a move was a risky gamble, one that many of Henry's closest advisers privately doubted.  But, the young King was, if nothing else, a proven leader and his army began the long march to Calais.

The French nobility, nominally led by the Royal heir, the Dauphin, leapt at the opportunity to finally crush this insolent pretender and his band of commoners.  This was not just seen in the context of immediate strategic needs - the French saw this as a chance to finally avenge the horrific defeats inflicted on their fathers and grandfathers and to demolish the reputation of the upstart English peasant-soldiers that had played such a prominent role in their country's humiliation.  In a matter of weeks, an enormous royal army was assembled to pursue Henry and intercept him before he could reach Calais.  However, the French were hampered by one major internal flaw.  Due to King Charles' insanity, leadership of the army was delegated to a collection of aristocrats headed (in name only) by Duke Charles d'Albret.  Many of these nobles had long-standing rivalries with one another and d'Albret found that exercising effective command and control over his force of nearly 25,000 to 36,000 (scholars are in disagreement to this day about the exact size of the French army that faced Henry) was next to impossible.  Due to this, the French advanced towards Henry at a painfully slow rate, failing to prevent him from crossing the Somme River as was intended.



Although the English were able to stay one step ahead of their French pursuers  Henry knew that he would have to turn and face d'Albret.  The attrition from disease and the elements had only gotten worse - the English army now numbered around 6,000 - and, if the French were to catch them on the move, there would be a distinct possibility he and his small force would be wiped out.  On October 24th, taking a move from his great-grandfather's playbook, Henry stopped his army atop the higher end of a long narrow field bordered on either side by thick woods near the small hamlet of Azincourt.  The French arrived that same day and camped on the opposite end, fully confident they had trapped the young king right where they wanted him.  The French nobles and men-at-arms spent the night drinking and gambling, no doubt betting on who would have better success the next day, whereas in Henry's camp, the English men-at-arms and archers maintained a quiet - if restless - vigil.

The Azincourt battlefield as it appears today, taken looking Northwest towards what would have been the French end of the field.
When the French awoke on an undoubtedly chilly morning of October 25th (the feast day of King Henry's personal patrons, Ss. Crispan and Crispian), they saw the English already drawn up for battle on the far side.  The field on which they faced eachother was especially chosen by Henry for several reasons.  The woods on either side became narrower as one went closer to the French-held side, forming a tight bottleneck a few hundred yards from the French position.  Also, the field had been plowed just a few days before and, with the past several weeks of wet weather, what had been a field in some places was now a quagmire of knee-deep mud.  Henry intended to use all this to his advantage - as he would need every one he could get to even the odds against his enemies that vastly outnumbered him.  As in so many battles before, the French army was again primarily composed of heavy armored cavalry, supported by unknown numbers of peasant levies and mercenary footmen.  The English this time were entirely on foot, even the handful of nobles that formed the King's retinue, and archers formed the majority by far.  Henry deployed his men in the classic English formation - infantry in the center with archers on the wings, this time placing large sharpened stakes in front of them to protect against cavalry charges.  As the morning cold was subsiding, King Henry stepped out in front of his tired, hungry army and delivered a speech.  To this day, no one knows what was really said, but whatever it was, his words must have been effective enough to steel his men for the desperate fight that faced them.   For several hours, the French and English sat on either end, facing each other, neither one making the first move.  The French undoubtedly remembered their former defeats at the hands of English armies in the defense and refused to move against Henry's position.  If battle were to be joined, the English would have to make the first move.

In perhaps one his most recklessly bold moves, Henry ordered his army to advance towards the French just to where his archers could reach them at their maximum range (about 300 yards).  The archers picked up their stakes and the entire English line moved forward.  Whether d'Albret was unaware of this or failed to organize his own forces in time, the French never moved during what could have been their one golden opportunity to annihilate the exposed and defenseless English.  Henry halted his line at the appointed distance and the archers replanted their stakes.  At the command of Sir Thomas Erpingham, the noble in command of all archers, the first volley was launched at the still immobile French lines.  A sudden clatter of steel impacting steel rippled across the front ranks of the French and cries of struck men and horses could be heard amidst shouts and curses.  This proved too much for the impetuous French nobles, many of whom had grown weary of waiting.  The first lines of cavalry spurred on towards the English, each noble and knight trying to outstrip the other and keeping no formation whatsoever as they thundered towards their foes and into the arrowstorm that awaited them.

The English archers were now back in the position that suited them best.  Firing at will at a rate of 12-15 arrows per minute, they plastered the charging French with intersecting crossfire.  While at farther distances, the plate armor worn by many of the knights and nobles would have deflected many of the arrows, their horses were not so lucky.  Many knights were thrown from their mounts or had them slain beneath them and those that survived slogged through the muddy morass on foot.  Once within 20-30 yards of the English lines, they provided ideal targets for the archers, whose bodkin tipped cloth-arrows could pierce even the finest Milanese plate armor at that range.  The few riders that were able to ride the whole way up to the lines were confronted by the bristling hedge of stakes, forcing them to stop and expose themselves even more.  The first wave of French collapsed entirely and many of the highest ranking nobles of France lay dying in the mud.

The French charge collapses.
d'Albret, still not totally aware of what was happening in the field below, ordered the rest of his forces to advance.  This time, thousands of footmen and dismounted knights poured into the narrow muddy field, crushing in on one another to the point where many could not move at all.  Along with taking casualties from the continuing arrow fire, many French footmen were trampled to death by their own men - chroniclers speak of knights falling and being pushed into the deep mud where they drowned in their own armor.  However, due to sheer numbers and the gradual exhaustion of English arrow ammunition, successive French waves were able to reach English lines.  On Henry's side, his dismounted infantry braced for the French that made their way to them.  Every English leader present personally fought with distinction in the furious melee that commenced - King Henry himself had a portion of his crowned helm hacked off as he covered his stricken younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, by standing over him.  As archers ran out of ammunition, they too fell in on the attacking French from the flanks and did fairly well in close quarters combat - no doubt due to their light armor and quickness against the heavy and slow French knights bogged down in the mud.

Things truly became desperate for Henry and his army when word reached him of a French attack on his baggage train in the rear.  Thinking that a portion of the French army had circumvented his position and was now closing in from behind, the King issued a grim order - to execute all but the highest ranking French prisoners and prevent them from taking up arms again.  Many of the English knights and nobles refused the order as unchivalrous, but the common archers had no such qualms and descended upon the helpless prisoners.  As troublesome as Henry's decision might appear to the modern mind, one must realize the circumstances that forced this decision.  Until a battle was concluded, prisoners on a Medieval battlefield could still very much become combatants again if the opportunity arose.  With the massive amounts of prisoners present at that stage in the battle, Henry and his men could have faced annihilation had they risen up and taken arms again.  A Medieval commander's first and foremost concern was for the preservation of his own men.  It turned out that the attack had merely been a raid conducted by some locals from nearby Azincourt and would have posed no real threat to Henry, but in the confusion and desperate melee of the moment, there is no way Henry could have known that.  Even many of the French chroniclers from the time did not condemn Henry for his decision - it was a desperate call brought on by desperate circumstances.

At this point, the situation for the French was lost.  With nearly all their leaders killed or captured (to include d'Albret), the remaining French forces yielded the field.  What had begun as a confident march to victory had turned into yet another devastating defeat.  On the English side, the exhausted Henry ordered an end to the fighting and proclaimed that the Te Deum be sung in gratitude for a victory he believed could have only been miraculous.  When the sun set that night, it did so over an estimated 10,000 French slain.  Among the English, only about 112 casualties were recorded, to include the King's young cousin, Edward Duke of York.  Henry continued his march to Calais and returned to jubilant celebrations in England.  It seemed that the victorious days of Edward III and the Black Prince had returned and the realm rallied behind their young charismatic King Harry.  Veterans of Agincourt (as it was pronounced in English) became overnight national heroes and the English archer was finally enshrined as one of the everlasting symbols of the English nation.

Flags bearing the Cross of St. George, England's national symbol, in modern times -  first worn by English archers in France since the time of Richard II.
In 1416AD, Henry returned to France with larger armies and continued his campaigns of conquest.  Organized French resistance was all but gone and Henry shifted English strategy from one of raiding and chevauchées to one of actual seizure and garrisoning of territory.  In 1420AD, the remaining French leadership, pressured by the additional internal threat of the pro-English Duke John of Burgundy, sued for peace.  Henry negotiated the Treaty of Troyes with the feeble King Charles and secured the title of heir to the throne of France along with the hand of Charles' daughter, Catherine de Valois, in marriage.  At long last, the English and French thrones were united.  Sadly, Henry V never saw himself on the throne as he suddenly died a mere two years later, contracting that ubiquitous scourge of Englishmen in France, dysentery, while on campaign.  He left behind an infant son, Henry VI, who would live to be the only English monarch to ever actually hold the title of King of France.  The reign of Henry VI, however, would be a sad one for his nation - one that would see her greatest warriors diminished abroad and turn on one another at home.  Despite this, though, the legacy of Agincourt would continue on long after the warbow that had secured its victory became a relic of the past.  This is in many ways due to the stirring portrayal of the battle and the men who won it by the one writer most responsible for the English identity as it is known today, William Shakespeare.  Although the Bard wrote his play, Henry V, many generations after the last Agincourt veterans had died, it is without question that he accurately captured the esprit de corps that was undoubtedly shared by all the men present there, from the King himself down to the lowliest archer.  That sense of brotherhood in the face of overwhelming adversity would continue to inspire generations of men in the English-speaking world long after the warbow had disappeared from the battlefield, as I will elaborate on further in this series.

Cross erected on the Azincourt battlefield in memory of the slain on both sides.


Sources referenced:

Robert Hardy, Longbow - A Social and Military History, Haynes Publishing, 2012.
Paul Knight, Henry V and the Conquest of France 1416-1453, Osprey Publishing, 1998.
Richard Wadge, Arrowstorm - The World of the Archer in the Hundred Years War, The History Press, 1997.

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