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Baldry makes speech to commemorate the Battle of Agincourt

30 September 2015

The last letter that Henry V sent to Charles VI of France before he launched the Agincourt campaign was an ultimatum.

“To the Most Serene Prince Charles our Cousin and adversary of France, Henry, by the Grace of God, King of England and France” and the letter went to state that Henry had done everything in his power to procure peace between the two countries. He did not lack the courage to fight to the death for justice for his just rights and inheritances that had been seized from him by violence and withheld for too long and it was his duty to recover.

And since he could not obtain justice by peaceful means, he would have to resort to force of arms.

And he concluded

“By the bowels of Jesus Christ – Friend, render what you owe”.

The marriage in 1152 of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine created a huge Angevin empire which covered almost half of modern France as well as England and Wales.

Henry II’s realm encompassed Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou. Maine, Touraine and Poitou.

In fact, almost all of western France, apart from Brittany.

In due course, Edward III assumed the arms and title of King of France as his own and adopted the motto “Dieu et mon Droit” – for God and my Right – the Right being Edward III’s claim to the French Crown.

A move that transformed a relatively small scale feudal conflict into a major dynastic dispute.

Edward III claimed the French Throne by right of inheritance from his grandfather Philip IV of France.

Edward III’s decision to enforce his claim by force of arms launched the 100 Years War – a conflict that would last for five generations.

As a consequence of Edward III’s spectacular victories at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, and Poitiers in 1356, the French agreed to the Treaty of Bretigny.

Only later to renege on its terms, with the lawyers arguing that the Treaty’s terms were null and void.

It was as against this background that Edward III’s great grandson, Henry V, asserted his claim to the French Throne.

When, in 1413, Henry IV died in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey, his eldest son and heir, Henry V was just 26 years old.

Henry launched a diplomatic effort to invoke Edward III’s claim to the Throne of France and to see the implementation of the unfulfilled terms of the Treaty of Bretigny.

To which the Dauphin, himself not much older than Henry, is reputed to have responded by sending Henry V tennis balls to imply that he considered Henry would be better occupied playing games such as tennis, rather than thinking about acts of war.

His diplomatic efforts thwarted, Henry did indeed prepare for war.

Henry sent notice around the kingdom via the Sheriffs to summon men to war.

Every Writ he issued was to be read aloud in the County Court, and in the Marketplaces.

Each Writ was prefaced with the phrase that was both an explanation and a rallying call:

“Because as you well know we with God’s help are about to go overseas to recover and regain the inheritances and just rights of our Crown, which everyone agrees have long been unjustly withheld”.

Richard Whittington, known later to generations of us as Dick Whittington of pantomime fame, and who was to serve three times as Lord Mayor of London, lent £700.

In Henry’s army the archers outnumbered the Men at Arms by 3:1.

A proportion that was uniquely high and unique to England and would in due course decide the day at Agincourt.

On 11th August 1415 Henry V launched the invasion of France.

1,500 ships, a fleet twelve times the size of the Spanish Armada, weighed anchor, hoisted sail and made their way to France.

There were ships of every size and shape.

In due course, the fleet arrived at Harfleur, now long since swallowed up into the present French day port of Le Havre.

A long siege ensued to take Harfleur.

Too long.

During the siege, Henry’s forces were struck with dysentery.

There were literally thousands of sick and dying.

And the decision to send them home to England was itself a major logistical problem.

It is estimated that some 5,000 of Henry’s men were invalided home from Harfleur.

The need to garrison Harfleur was a further drain on manpower, with 300 Men at Arms, and 900 archers having to remain behind to safeguard Harfleur’s defences.

Common sense should suggest that Henry should have abandoned any further campaigning after Harfleur’s surrender.

Its capture wasted precious time and the necessity of garrisoning Harfleur took still more men from Henry’s army so that by the time the English launched their foray into France, only about half their army was able to march.

Yet Henry marched.

He set his small sickly army the task of marching from Harfleur to Calais.

He intended to “cock a snook” at the French.

The whole of August and September and early October had been wasted at Harfleur.

On Tuesday 8th October, the King, with 500 Men at Arms and 5,000 archers and numbers of assorted civilians, including Royal Surgeons, Minstrels, Heralds and Chaplains, set out from Harfleur .

The army was divided into three parts.

The vanguard.

The main body of the army, led by the King himself and lastly, the rear-guard.

The army had planned to take eight days to reach Calais, and by eight days they had run out of food.

Every ford and crossing over the Somme was staked and guarded.

The French had destroyed bridges, and a French army shadowed Henry V’s forces.

Henry’s laughably small army met its enemy on the plateau of Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day 1415.

The English were effectively trapped and knew that only a miracle could save them from death.

They were determined to sell themselves dearly.

For almost three weeks they had marched across hostile enemy territory.

Their supplies of food and drink dwindling away to nothing.

Unable to wash or shave, their armour tarnished, and their surcoats and banners grimy and tattered by the constant exposure to the elements.

Stomachs and bowels already churning with dysentery and starvation were now turned to water by fear.

Many of the archers were reduced to cutting off their soiled breeches and undergarments in an attempt to allow nature to take its course more readily.

Grim though the sight of these archers must have been, the smell of them was probably worse.

On the eve of battle, many of the English archers who arrived at the battlefield were themselves suffering from dysentery.

The English had endured days on end of filthy, wet and windy weather.

On the eve of the battle, it rained incessantly and in torrents.

It was impossible to get warm or dry.

The heavy woollen cloaks of even the richest Knight would have been no proof against such weather, and must have become saturated as the night progressed.

The day of Agincourt was the Feast Day of St. Crispin and St. Crispinian.

The French army was vast, and England’s army was small.

The French had at least four or five men for every Englishman.

The Heralds reckoned that there were 30,000 Frenchmen to 6,000 in Henry’s army.

900 English Men at Arms and 5,000 English and Welsh archers came to the field of Agincourt in the dawn, and across from them, in the deeply ploughed furrows, that had been ploughed in anticipation of winter wheat, 30,000 Frenchmen waited to do battle on St. Crispin’s Day.

The heavy rain that had fallen throughout almost the whole of the night gave way to a chilly, damp and pale watery dawn.

The morning of the 25th October 1415.

A day celebrated in the Church Calendar as the Feast of St. Crispin and St. Crispian.

Every archer was instructed to cut and carry a long oak stake.

To any who protested about the inequality of the size of the respective armies, Henry V countered by “relying on Divine Grace and the justice of his cause”, piously reflecting that “victory consists not in a multitude, but with him for whom it is not impossible to enclose the many and the hand of the few and who bestows victory upon whom he wills whether they be many or few”.

Henry believed that the justness of his cause would ensure that he had the support of God, and he also believed that “bravery is of more value than numbers”.
In view of the shortness of numbers, Henry V drew up a single line of battle, placing his vanguard as a wing on the right, and the rearguard as a wing on the left, and he positioned “wedges” of his archers in between each battle group and then had them drive in their stakes in front of them in case of cavalry charges.

In short, Henry’s troops were standing side by side in a single line.

He could not even afford to keep a reserve as was standard practice.

The list of the nobility of the French army at Agincourt read like a roll-call of the Chivalry of France.

All the great military officials of France were also there.

They had come in the anticipation that they would humiliate Henry.

However, one of the strengths of the English army was that everyone lived and fought within the company and under the leadership of the man who had raised their retinue.

By the time it came to battle, they had bonded into tightly knit units and there was a sense of fighting spirit that gave them a fighting edge.

Every soldier knew his place within his own retinue, and within the chain of command that led ultimately to the King himself.

A system of organisation of the British army that was to continue through the centuries, through the militia, through the Yeomanry, through county regiments and Pals regiments even to the Great War.

Sir Thomas Erpingham started the battle with the words “ Now strike”.

5,000 archers then raised their longbows and loosed a volley of arrows so dense, so fast and so furious that the sky literally darkened over as though a cloud had passed before the face of the sun.

Everyone stood listening to the reverberations from the bowstrings, and the whistling of the flights of arrows as they sped through the sky.

Followed after a few heart-stopping moments by the thud of bodkin arrowheads striking through plate metal armour and tearing into flesh and the screams of the wounded and the dying.

Terrified French horses, maddened by the pain of arrows, plunged, reared and fell, throwing off their riders beneath their flailing hooves and into the suffocating mud.

But those French horses that got as far as the front line were either impaled on the stakes or wheeled around to avoid them and fled out of control.

Very few managed to escape into the neighbouring woodland, but most were either struck down by the deadly hail of arrows, or galloped back straight into their own advancing front lines, scattering them and trampling them down in their headlong flight.

Three of the French cavalry leaders were killed in the first assault. All suffered the same fate – their horses were brought down by the stakes causing them to fall among the English archers, who promptly despatched them.

A good archer could shoot fifteen accurate arrows in a minute but assuming that the archers at Agincourt averaged a mere twelve a minute and that there were 5,000 bowmen, that means in one minute, 60,000 arrows struck the French.

1,000 arrows a second.

It also means that in ten seconds the archers would have shot 600,000 arrows and that they would have run out of arrows fairly quickly.

But what this storm of arrows achieved was to drive the flanks of the disordered French advance inwards on to the waiting English Men at Arms.

Very quickly the French Men at Arms were weary, disordered and mud-crippled.

Their leading ranks went down quickly and so formed a barrier to the men behind who in turn were being pushed on to that barrier by the rearmost men.

So the French stumbled into the English weapons and the English, Welsh and a few Gascons had more freedom to fight and kill.

Henry V undoubtedly fought in the front rank of the English and all eighteen Frenchmen who had sworn an Oath of Brotherhood to kill him, were killed instead themselves.

The French Knights as they rode through the churned up mud and tried to avoid being trampled by fleeing horses, were at the mercy of the English archers who bombarded them with volley after deadly volley.

The French nobility, clad head to toe in suits of plate armour, were literally bogged down by the treacherous terrain.

The French soldiers and Knights were as used to wearing their armour as their civilian clothes.

However, at Agincourt the quagmire created by the hooves of hundreds of horses that had charged over the newly ploughed, rain-soaked earth, was literally a death trap for the French Knights.

Sweating and overheated, in the confines of their clothes fitting metal prisons, the French Men at Arms were exhausted by the sheer labour of having to put one foot in front of the other.
The plate armour that marked them out as gentlemen of rank and wealth in other circumstances would have made them virtually invincible, now became their greatest liability.

The battlefield at Agincourt had narrow confines.

The French ranks were densely packed and the Men at Arms so hemmed in on all sides that they found it difficult to wield their weapons effectively.

Worse still, those in the front ranks retreating in the face of the English rally, then came up against those behind them, who were arriving to engage with the enemy.

The French were pushed over and crushed underfoot.

The living fell among the dead.

Many of the wounded and those who simply lost their footing in the crush were suffocated under the weight of their compatriots, or unable to remove their helmets, drowned in the mud.

For three long hours, the slaughter continued as the English hacked and stabbed their way through the vanguard and the main body of the French army.

At the end the flower of the French chivalry and nobility lay dead on the field.

At the end of the battle, the French Heralds declared that Henry had won. Henry asked the name of the castle that stood close to the battlefield, and was told it was called “Agincourt”, so Henry decreed that the battle would ever hence be known as the Battle of Agincourt.

There is no doubt that the skill of the archers opened up the way to success.

Something quite remarkable happened on the 25th October 1415.

For years afterwards the French called the 25th October “La Malheureuse Journée” – the unfortunate day.

The scale of the French defeat was huge.

Thousands of Frenchmen lay dead on the field of Agincourt.

French losses were in the thousands and might well have been as high as 5,000 whilst English losses appeared to be as small as 200.
It is not possible to confirm that the British two-fingered salute began at Agincourt to taunt the defeated French to demonstrate the archers still possessed their two string fingers, despite French threats to sever them, but it seems a probable tale.

Henry returned to England and to London in triumph to be met at the gates of the City by bells ringing, crowds cheering.

Henry V and everyone in London firmly believed the few of Henry’s army had won at Agincourt because Henry’s cause was just and approved by God.

The Battle of Agincourt was won with the English longbow.

The English longbow was a simple weapon.

A stave of yew, a little longer than the height of a man, and usually cut from yew trees in lands close to the Mediterranean.

The bowyer would take the stave and shape it, keeping the dense heartwood on one side, and the springy sapwood on the other.

He would then paint it to keep the moisture trapped in the bow.

Cap it with two tips of horn that held the cord, which was woven from hemp fibres.

The English longbow was a peasant’s weapon of yew, hemp and horn, shooting an arrow made from ash, hornbeam or birch, tipped with a steel point and fledged with feathers taken from the wing of a goose, and always taken from the same wing so that the feather curved in the same direction.

The English longbow was cheap and it was lethal.

It was a war bow.

English archers hauled the bowstring back to their ears, and could do it sixteen or seventeen times a minute.

They had muscles like iron on their backs.

Broad chests, and thick arms.

The English and Welsh archers at Agincourt had begun training as children. They practised to shoot, and shoot, and shoot until they no longer had to think about where the arrow would go, but would simply loose it in the knowledge that the arrow would speed where it was intended.

In 1410 Henry IV had reissued Edward III’s act of 1363 which made archery practice compulsory for all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60.

Every Sunday and every Feast Day they were to go to the Archery Butts to “learn and practise the art of shooting . . . whence by God’s help came forth honour to the Kingdom and advantage to the King in his actions of war”.

English bows and English arrows involved many English skills.

Foresters cut ash shafts.

Blacksmiths forged bodkins and broadhead arrows and fletchers bound on goose feathers.

Arrows were produced in sheaths of 24.

Each archer was normally armed with between 60 and 72 arrows carrying two sheaths in his canvas quiver and the rest stuck in his belt for immediate action.

Additional supplies were carried on wagons and boys were employed to act as runners to bring more to the archers on demand.

An archer who could not fire ten aimed arrows per minute was not considered fit for military service.

The arrows an archer carried were only enough to keep him supplied for a seven minute bombardment at most.

The scale of the demand and the sheer logistics involved in providing the archers for an entire military campaign were enormous, hence the need to begin stockpiling early and so long before Henry’s foray into France, the Keeper of the King’s Arrows in the Tower was being kept busy, as too was the King’s Bowyer, who was empowered to acquire anything belonging to the Bowyers’ trade.

Archers would put their drawstrings to keep them dry on their heads under their helmets – a habit that gave rise to the expression “Keep it under your hat”.

The victory at Agincourt soon became part of English folklore and then became immortalised by Shakespeare in his play “Henry V”.

Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, like the Battle of Agincourt itself, has become synonymous with English patriotism.

A dashing young King, achieving a stunning military victory, against all odds, stirring his men to impossible valour, through sheer force of personality and leadership.

Shakespeare’s lines have become legendary.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”

“Cry God for Harry, England and St. George”

And

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”

No other Shakespeare play, perhaps, had such a simple plot.

It was the victory of the few against all the odds that made Agincourt memorable.
Shakespeare’s Henry V, as indeed all the evidence demonstrates is the real Henry V, is of a King and a military Commander leading from the front by example.

There was as a consequence to be throughout history a sense that the English could prevail against all the odds.

So, not surprisingly, many a General since has reached the St. Crispin’s Day speech in preparing his men to go into battle.

Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film, dedicated to the British, American and other Allied Troops who were liberating Europe from the Nazis, is only the most renowned of the frequent military appropriations of the play.

Apparently Winston Churchill insisted that Laurence Olivier cut the scene with the three traitors. It was clearly felt that such a critical moment in our history that there had to be unity in the Allied ranks.

Even the most hardened cynic must have found themselves patriotic when Henry V addresses his band of brothers in Olivier’s film, especially in a film where the words are further pumped up by sweeping camera action and rousing music.

It was the spirit of the bowmen and the yeomen that prevailed at the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres.

It was the spirit of the few that brought victory at the Battle of Britain when our nation was the only thing in the world standing against Nazi tyranny, and that is what is so important about Agincourt. It was not only the victory and daring leadership of a young King, but the courage and unbowed bravery of his soldiers who took on an army on their own ground, against enormous odds, and won.

Rt. Hon. Sir Tony Baldry
September 2015