Writer’s Deep Dive: The Battle of Agincourt
If you’re writing a battle scene for your book, it pays to study historical engagements. Learning the tactics and progression of actual battles can go a long way in making your fictional ones more realistic. Today I will cover a battle in which the underdog won.
Now, let’s dive in!
The battle of Agincourt was fought in France as part of the Hundred Years’ War. The war was a dispute between France and England and lasted from 1337 to 1453. This was the same conflict in which Joan of Arc rose to prominence. If you would like to learn more about her, please read my Writer’s Deep Dive: Joan of Arc.
King Henry V of England invaded France with an army of 12,000 men on August 13th, 1415, to gain the French throne, which he claimed through his great-grandfather, Edward III of England. He besieged the port of Harfleur, but the city didn’t surrender until September 22nd, longer than he had expected.  The English army didn’t leave until October 8th. By that point, the campaign season was ending, and winter was approaching. The army had dwindled to 9,000 men between deaths in battle and disease. Henry marched his army through Normandy, the land he was claiming, to the English held port of Calais.  It was also an insult to the dauphin, who had ignored his challenge to personal combat at Harfleur.  The French army failed to prevent the English from crossing the River Somme and shadowed them while they waited for reinforcements. Finally, Henry forced a fight before more French forces could arrive. 
The armies faced each other on a narrow field between two stands of woods near the village of Agincourt. It had heavily rained the day before and the ground was newly plowed. 
Henry was at a disadvantage. His army numbered between 6,000 and 8,100 men, 80% of which were archers. Bowmen were not effective at close-range fighting and were more lightly armored than men-at-arms or knights. Most were lower or middle class. As well, they were battling hunger and dysentery.
The French numbered between 15,000 to 25,000 men, including 10,000 knights.  They were better equipped and better rested than the English.
The battle began, after a delay, as the French waited for reinforcements, with a charge by the French cavalry. The English archers began firing arching volleys of what a French monk of Saint Denis called “a terrifying hail of arrow shot.” A skilled archer during this period could fire twelve arrows in a minute, meaning that the roughly 6,000 English archers were firing 72,000 arrows a minute!
Most of the French knights wore plate armor, and the main body pieces, such as the breastplate, were practically impervious to arrows. An archer would have to penetrate the limb armor or find a gap such as the eye slit to damage the knight. The knights’ horses, however, were much less armored and many were hit with arrow fire, which caused them to spook, throw their riders, and run into each other.  The charge also churned up the already boggy ground. As well, the French didn’t realize that the field narrowed approaching the English line, forcing the knights into each other, and causing what we now call a “crowd disaster.”
Very few French knights reached the English line while still on their horses. Most were thrown by an injured mount or had their horse shot out from underneath them. They had to slog their way through the mud, keeping their heads down to protect from arrows while walking around or over fallen comrades and in danger from being run over by a panicked horse.  Many went down in the mud and could not get up again, and there are accounts of knights drowning in their helmets.  The weight of their protective plate mail caused the French knights to be exhausted by the time they reached the English lines, and they were being pressed from behind their comrades.  The archers, who had kept up a steady rate of fire, were now loosing at point-blank range. The English men-at-arms fought them in melee combat. The archers joined with their axes, knives, and mallets when they exhausted their supply of arrows and moved much easier through the mud in their lighter armor. Thousands of Frenchmen were killed or taken prisoner.
The only French victory was an attack on the English baggage train. Henry ordered the execution of the French prisoners, fearing it was a counterattack that put them in real danger. Eventually, it was driven off. 
The French defeat was catastrophic, with roughly 6,000 men killed. This included many political and military leaders, among them three dukes, nine counts, an archbishop, France’s constable, an admiral, the Master of Crossbowmen, the Master of the Royal Household, and 3,069 knights and squires.  There were noble families that had their male line wiped out, bringing an end to their house.  The English, however, suffered only 600 dead.
The Write Angle
The battle of Agincourt shows how an outnumbered and disadvantaged force can still triumph. The English choose the battlefield wisely, using the terrain to their advantage. The most brilliant part of their choice was that the French didn’t realize how much the battlefield put them at a disadvantage and literally charged into a trap.
The other advantage the English had was the longbow, a formidable weapon that allowed them to cause a large amount of damage to the French before they even got close. There was a law in England that required all men between the ages of 15 and 60 to own a bow and practice for two hours every Sunday. England had a large pool of skilled archers to call upon in times of war.
Henry V was not afraid to make the hard calls, including those that went against the chivalric expectations of his time. There are accounts that several men resisted his orders, and he had to threaten them with hanging.
The English, under the command of a shrewd tactician, could pull out an impossible victory against a larger force.
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Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.
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