Saint Crispin’s day

September 5, 2012

Two crowns, one king.

On August 11th  1415, Henry of Lancaster- Henry V,  King of England- sails in arms  from Southampton and three days after, on 14th , he lands on the French soil. When he was prince, Henry had lived a wild and dissolute life. With the crown on his head, he is a different man: brave, wise, prudent, studious. And also  shrewd into the bargain. A strawberry- as the Poet will write- grown beneath the nettle. His cousin, the Dauphin of France,  to tease him, sends  him a barrel of tennis balls : he does not know the Henry’s change or, if he is aware of it, he does not believe in it. The Henry’s answer chill him: those balls will soon turn into  cannon balls.

But why is Henry in France on the eve of his 28th birthday and, in addition, at the head of an army? The answer is easy: the two Countries ( or, better, their Kings) are at war. Since a long time. Since Edward, third in this name, had claimed for himself the throne of France. Charles IV le Bel had died(1328) without male heirs. When was appointed king of France  a descendant of a cadet branch – that one of Valois – Edward, who was Charles cousin, felt himself deprived of his well-deserved rights and got down to business: he contested some measures taken by the new king,  Philippe VI , and declared war on him.
During the following war, France had  at first the worst, and she was compelled to sign the humiliating treaty  of Bretigny(5/9/1360), whereby she was deprived of wide areas of her territory( in compensation, Edward gave up his claim to the French throne). In the following years, thanks to a clever King ( Charles V)  and to a smart military commander( Bernard Duguesclin), France took again the most part of what she had lost at Bretigny, but the issue was always open .
So, ascended the throne, Henry claims for himself the French crown(at that time on the head of an ill-minded king, Charles VI) but he makes understand  he would  be satisfied to have again Poitou, Gascony  Limousin, according to the Bretigny treaty. The French aristocracy denies and Henry must choose: or  pretending nothing or taking arms. French are not united and Henry is aware of it; the Duke of Burgundy, Jean sans Peur (John Without  Fear) ,  seems to be on his side: perhaps he could have succeeded in his goal.

The King has got a plan. In his opinion, it is useless running through the French land far and wide if  you have no foothold. Without it, you expose yourself to the enemy counterattacks, you suffer the guerrilla, and you might  be defeated. So , before fighting, it is necessary counting upon a solid stronghold, from which to start and to which to come back in case of danger during the campaign.
Harfleur, here is the ideal stronghold. It is situated not far from England,  it is easily reachable and it is an enviable strategic position. Thus, once in France, the first step will be the capture of Harfleur( not far from the modern Le Havre), then we will see.
At first, Henry takes time: he sends some ambassadors to the French court; he claims, as a descendant of Edward III, his rights; he threats and cajoles. In the meanwhile, he gathers his army.

Henry’s army is a small army( ten thousand combatants,  more  or less), but, in particular, in the Henry’s army,  the armoured knights ( or men-at arms) are relatively few. In truth, they are knights in a manner of speaking. Before the battle, for instance, a lot of them  dismount and advance in compact ranks like a kind of armoured infantry. And this happens both in the French army and  in the English army.
And then there are the archers. Eight thousand . Everyone of them has got a bow – called longbow or strongbow-  able to shoot arrows  till two hundred and fifty, two hundred and seventy yards ( around 250 metres). With these forces, Henry can not conduct a long campaign. Once conquered Harfleur, the King thinks to head towards  Paris for a demonstrative expedition( a kind of “ show of force”), and then he intends to reach or Bordeaux or Calais, both English strongholds.

Towards Calais.

On August 18th , Henry is ahead of Harfleur. He counts to conquer it in few time. But things go soon for the worst. Harfleur withstands and more the days go by , more it seems difficult conquer the town. The English have  the first casualties: those ones caused by the enemy, and those ones caused by a terrible dysentery. This war is a war made of attacks and counterattacks, of mines and of counter-mines, of  small victories and defeats. Never decisive. And in the meanwhile time goes by , weather turns in worse, many English soldiers have   a low morale, it begins to be cold, it often rains and Harfleur is always in the enemy hands.
Far from Harfleur, in the meanwhile, the French do not stay idly by. In Rouen, under command of the Constable of France, Charles d’Albreth ( Delabreth for Shakespeare), they are gathering a formidable army: twenty five thousand men, for the most part armoured knights and infantrymen; then crossbowmen, sappers, support units.
The King of France has spoken clear:

Go down upon him, you have power enough,
And in a captive chariot into Rouen
Bring him our prisoner!

A new trouble for Henry. And what a trouble!

On September 22nd , after continuous attacks, Harfleur falls. According to Shakespeare this happens because the governor of the city, terrified by English power, surrenders; in actual fact, because of a stroke of luck. In any case, the first step has been done.
It has been necessary more than a month, however, and that month has been dearly paid  in terms of time ( lost) and of soldiers debilitated and weakened by the fights and by the diseases. Now Henry has to choose. Marching towards Paris? It could be  dangerous, not only because of the health conditions of his soldiers, not only because of the poor  weather, but, above all, because d’Albreth and his army have left Rouen and are marching to meet him.
But Henry is still a king. If he soon embarked and came back to England or reached by ship Calais, he would admit  his defeat; but if , heading towards a sure harbour, he walked the French lands , taking symbolically possession of them, his honour would be satisfied. They discuss, but that is a pro forma discussion: the King has taken his decision: the army will stay on the French land and will try to reach Calais.

King Henry’s march towards Calais. Click on the map to enlarge it.

Reaching the harbour of Calais is not easy. Firstly because it is far from Harfleur two hundred and fifty kilometres; secondly because it is necessary crossing a lot of natural obstacles, the most important of them is the river Somme; thirdly, because the soldiers are tired and they have little to eat ; finally because the French army has begun the hunting.
But the willing of a king is always the willing of a king and so the English tired and starving soldiers begin to march, under the rain, northward. Every English archer, in addition to his longbow, his arrows and the individual weapons, brings also a wooden stake. This stake is around one meter and half long and it is sharp-pointed at both ends. The King himself has given off this order. If the French  attack during the march, every man will have to sink his stake before himself and tilt  it towards the enemy in order to break any possible cavalry charge.
At the beginning it seems everything go without a hitch. A couple of not very deep rivers are forded, the march goes speedy enough. But it does not last long. A French strong contingent of six- seven thousand men blocks the ford on river Somme towards which Henry is heading. It is necessary finding another one. So pursued by the French, Henry goes south, spaces out the enemy, reaches an unguarded ford and makes go through his men on the other bank. Then he goes forward: two or three stages and everything will be ended. But d’Albreth reaches him and cuts to him the road to Calais.
Therefore one will have to fight.

Thus, on October 24th, during the night, Henry moves his army in the nearness of  the village of Maisoncelles and encamps in the southern side of a plain which is large around one kilometre. This plain is still more narrow there where two woods – that one of Agincourt and that one of Tramecourt-  take away space to it, the first in the west side, the latter in the east side. Henry orders to sink the stakes with their ends towards the enemy. It is raining, it is cold, the field recently has been ploughed, the French army is close, terribly close. And also terribly numerous.

The waiting

It is the night before the battle. The French are looking forward to begin. They are feeling strong. Will it never be morning? the Duke of Orleans wonders  impatient. And the Dauphin, for his part: What a long night is this!  And Rambures: Who will go to hazard with me for twenty prisoners? The Shakespeare’s verses convey well the sensation of certainty and strength , spread amid the French. And waiting for the triumph, they drink and go on a spree.

The confident and over-lusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice;
And chide the cripple tardy-gaited night
Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp
So tediously away

d’Albreth says:

Alas, poor Harry of England! he longs not for
the dawning as we do.

And, in effect, on the other hand, the situation is different. The English soldiers are tired, few, starving; their clothes are ragged; they look like  ghosts. But they have also a point of reference: their King. Henry is here, on the battlefield, soldier amid soldiers; he talks with everyone, he prays with them, he encourages them, he even jokes. His soldiers are less afraid. Will this be enough?
Who knows what the King will have really thought that night, while, alone with God, he heard Mass ( three times) or, according to some different versions, he wandered unknown through the camp. Who knows what were his thoughts, his sensations, his fears. Who knows if being few, so happy few, instead making him proud, will have taken off to him every hope; who knows if he will have regretted the lack of ten thousand of those gentlemen in England now a-bed, useless to themselves, useless to him, to aggregate to that band of brothers, to those brave soldiers , but  few, too few. Who knows if he will have given up hope, if he will have thought: “Will I , will we come back we honoured in England?”

The stake and the longbow.

At last, the dawn comes. The dawn of October 25th , 1415, Friday, day sacred to Saint Crispin.

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother ..

the King declares  in the Shakespeare’s pages. And he goes on:

be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

But there, on the battlefield, there where, at the crack of dawn, the French soldiers are competing for the positions on the front line, the young King, perhaps, is less confident in himself; perhaps, as a man, he feels lost, but he is still a king; he must seem hopeful  and calm.

Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.

But freshly looks and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:

Did it  go really in this way?

It was medieval custom to negotiate before the battle, in order to avoid the fighting. During his march towards Calais,  Henry probably received the visit of some French heralds or ambassadors with proposals or ultimatums ( exemplified in Shakespeare’s play, for instance, by the French herald Montjoy, who  proposes to the King to define by himself  his own ransom …). And Henry would have given up to something,  provided the honour was satisfied. But giving up to French crown was beyond argument. Perhaps this was what made fail the negotiations: the French demanded this renunciation, Henry could not satisfy them.

“La canaille aux pieds nus.”(Rabble with bare feet)

The two armies are, therefore,  faced one another. Henry has deployed his soldiers on a sole line of battle. The men-at arms  are in the centre, on three spaced out groups. Henry has filled those empty spaces with a lot of archers and has deployed the remainder of the archers on both sides. The English deployment looks, vaguely, like a crescent. Hundreds of pointed stakes  are protruding out from the English positions. The English soldiers have knelt and kissed the ground, symbolically.
Charles d’Albreth has deployed his soldiers in three lines called “ battles”. On the first two he has arrayed, in compact ranks, armoured infantrymen( foot-soldiers); on the third line and on the flanks, he has deployed armoured horsemen. At first sight,  it seems a defensive deployment.
And, in effect, the French do not move. They do not move towards the enemy, but they do not stand still at all : as we have seen, they are competing for the most prestigious positions, those ones on the front line. The armoured infantrymen are the most active: they do not want to see the crossbowmen on the advanced positions , they consider them unworthy to occupy the front line. Someone leave the ranks and challenge Henry to a single combat.

The waiting is  lengthening. The French are scuffling, but they do not move still towards the enemy. Are they waiting for reinforcements? In their opinion, however,  that canaille aux pieds nus is doomed: if it advances, it will be overwhelmed; if it withdraws, it will be pursued. Otherwise , who has to reach Calais? Every hour that goes by  strengths them, weakens Henry.

King Henry’s army moves forward.

The two armies stand still for hours. And this is a very sad situation, in particular for the English. Almost all of them, in fact,  are suffering from dysentery and that waiting is for them a full-scale torment.
Then, suddenly, something moves. The archers take away their stakes from the ground and the whole Henry’s army, keeping its crescent deployment, advances towards the enemy, going around two hundred and fifty metres from it. From that distance, the longbows can hurt. Advancing, the archers deployed on the flanks reach the woods of Tramecourt and Agincourt, occupy them, making impossible every outflank manoeuvre by the French. Every longbowman, probably turning his back on the enemy, sinks again his stake on the ground and, once sunk it, take out the arrows from his quiver, puts them near himself and, covering the stake with his body, gets ready to enter in action.

The time, at first unmoving, now hastens. After few minutes, Henry orders his longbowmen to shoot their arrows against the enemy. And soon a volley of arrows, shot by the archers deployed on the flanks, beat down on the French  men-at-arms on the first line  and on the knights who are on their sides. Those arrows, in truth, do not make big damage. The English archers are at maximum  useful range and, in addition, they have to curve the trajectory, decreasing the strength of their shoot.
But the psychological effect is huge. The metallic sound produced by thousands of arrows on the armours and on the helmets of the French armoured infantrymen and knights, mixed with the neighs of the scared horses, is horrifying. As is unacceptable, for the French, standing  still, bended down trying to limit the damage of the arrows, instead taking the initiative.
And so, at a certain point, the cavalry leaves the flanks of the deployment for charging  the Henry’s archers. The men-at-arms on the first line do not want to be outdone and march straight towards the centre of the English array. ” Charging” is perhaps a unsuitable word. The harness is heavy, the horseman is  a  rock , the terrain is muddy: the  horses , certainly,  do not run speedy. But a cavalry charge, although slow, is able to sweep away soldiers without armour. But who has ordered the attack? According to some, d’Albreth; according to  others, the commanders of the single units; according to a few ,  nobody. As if  , suddenly, the collective willing to attack, had forced the French to move as one man.

Out from the ground a new  obstacle emerges. Unexpected. Or underestimated. When the French knights are closer, the English archers take a step back,  revealing to the attackers a wood of sharp stakes. Behind those stakes, the longbowmen  shelter continuing to shoot their arrows. And from that distance those arrows begin to be deadly.
Well, there are two possibilities: or the French were convinced to sweep away the English despite the obstacle represented by the stakes( probable), or they were no aware of it ( possible) . If a man , in conditions of poor visibility, sinks a wooden stake turning his back on the enemy( and as we have seen, it seems to have been this the manoeuvre done by the English) it is possible that the obstacle does not be immediately seen. If is added also the hurry, almost the frenzy to attack, the hypothesis becomes plausible. In short, the French were feeling too strong and they did not see or they did not want to see those obstacles. Or, because of the speedy succession of the events, they did not have time to assess the tactical implications of those obstacles.

Before the stakes, the horses swerve( almost none of them creep on the  fence),  and come back. The charge has failed and now the knights are withdrawing, under a rain of deadly arrows. Someone has fallen and, weighted down by his armour, is not able to get up again; the others, withdrawing, meet on their way the armoured infantrymen who are advancing from the front line. The latter are advancing in compact ranks. But they have to move over, in order to make pass the withdrawing knights. They do it ( or, at least, they try to do it), but they are advancing too thick and for these reason, they clash one against another. And a curious “skittle effect ” spreads amid the French ranks: the first man bangs into the second man, the second bangs into the third, the third into the fourth  and so on. The ranks lose their allignment.  Many fighters  lose their balance and fall down on the ground: they won’t stand up anymore.

The English longbowmen have got few arrows. At this point, many of them go out of their positions and in groups of three or four, spring at the isolated fallen down on the ground and kill them by their swords and maces. On the centre, got over with difficulty the consequences of the “skittle effect” about which we have told, the French are able to compact themselves and to come in contact with the English armoured men(men-at-arms). At first, they seem to have the better: the English, who are outnumbered, withdraw. But this situation lasts  for a short time. The French are tired, they are not breathing well because of their too narrow helmets, their armour makes slow their movements. In addition,  for a strange matter of pride, the French have shortened their spears: if the spear is shorter,  the enemy is closer; if the enemy is closer,  the bravery is greater…The English, on the contrary, have not shortened theirs and soon they counterattack. Also Henry is unsparing in his efforts to combat : a sword-stroke dents  his helm. Some year after, that helm will be placed, as a perpetual memory of the King’s bravery,  upon his tomb in Westminster.

In the meanwhile, the English archers, armed with swords, maces and daggers collected on the battlefield,  penetrate, more and more numerous, into the ranks of the French who are advancing. First they spring at the men immobilized  on the ground, then they attack the others. They have no armour, are nimble  and they can move free on the battlefield. On the contrary, the French are weighed down by their armours and are too crowded. Their number, their strength of which they were so proud when they were “playing at dice” the life of the English, now becomes their main weakness.
It is a massacre. A chronicler of those time, exaggerating, writes that on the battlefield  one could see  heaps of corpses as high as a man.

D’Albreth tries to remedy and makes advance the second line. It is a big mistake. The  men-at-arms of the second line crowds still more the battlefield. Thus, the French have no space for manoeuvring, while the English archers, free in their movements,  slip into the lines,  attack from the flanks causing heavy casualties. D’Albret himself is killed.
At this point, the French flee the battlefield, withdraw and reach the starting point where they form  a third line of knights. Thus, the battle is not still over.  Also because a  French nobleman who has reached  later the battlefield after having attended a baptism ceremony, perhaps wanting to take his part of glory, perhaps unaware about what had happened, leads an attack – immediately countered- against the English positions. In addiction, some local inhabitants , taking advantage of the mess, attack the baggage train, kill the guards and take away all that they are able to take away, included some objects taken away from the King’s tent.

But, hark! what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scatter’d men:
Then every soldier kill his prisoners:
Give the word through.

Exactly: the King, at this point, orders to put to the sword all the French prisoners. It is not poetic licence, it is the terrible realty. Why does he give this order? In Shakespeare’s verses there is a little of  historical truth. The French have not gone away, on the contrary. They are still numerous, they are still fearful, they are reorganizing. They could attack again.
Does the killing of the prisoners have the goal to persuade the French to surrender? Possible. Ordering to kill the prisoners, Henry seems say to the French: ” Come forward. But remember: we will give you no quarter. As you can see, I am not interested on the money of the ransoms. Ours will be a fight to the death. Until now, for you  things have gone wrong, but if you attack us again,  they could go to the worst.   This could be an explanation.
Or, perhaps, the King exaggerates the  real extent of the attack led by the nobleman arrived later on the battlefield; perhaps, in the mess of those moments, he puts the blame of the attack to the baggage train not on a band of cutthroats, but on  French soldiers, perhaps on the prisoners themselves.  They could overcome the guards, collect the weapons strewn about the battlefield and attack his army behind. Also this one could be an explanation. Surely, it was a  morally condemnable act. But  here, on the battlefield of Agincourt, here on St Crispin’s day, Henry does not want to lose the handy victory. At any cost.

His soldiers, however, do not take kindly the King’s order and refuse to fulfil it. Not because of moral qualms ( or, at least, non  only): simply they do not want to lose the possibility to gain money. Usually, the prisoners — in particular  the noble prisoners — were ransomed by ready money. Why throwing out of the window that money?
Henry, however, does not listen to reason . Thus, two hundred  longbowmen  begin to execute the prisoners. A couple of them are burnt alive inside a hut where they had taken shelter. A dreadful, cruel and inglorious  moment.
Lasted a little, fortunately. The French, perhaps demoralized because of the defeat, perhaps disgusted because of the Henry’s behaviour, flee the battlefield. And, immediately, the King orders to suspend the prisoners’ execution.

Now it is time for heralds. Who won the victory? Who lost the battle? Montjoy enters. ” What do you want?” the King asks him” Are you here to fix the price of my ransom?” he adds sardonic. ” No, I am not here for this reason, Montjoy answers. I am here to ask the permission

That we may wander o’er this bloody field
To look our dead, and then to bury them.

King Henry would enjoy giving  him the permission, but how could he do it? He does not know who won or who lost. ” You have won”, admits Montjoy. Henry thanks God and then asks:

What is this castle call’d that stands hard by?

They call it Agincourt , Montjoy answers.

Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus.

King’s word.


After the battle of Agincourt, Henry reaches Calais and comes back to England, where he is received in triumph. Two years after, he is in France again: he wants Normandy. The diplomacy engages, the Emperor of Sacred Roman Empire mediates, is signed a peace- the Treaty of Troyes- which is favourable to Henry: the king will marry Catherine, Charles VI’s daughter, and at the Charles’  death, he will become King of France.
All in order? Forget it! When Henry dies ( 1422), the French take up arms again. They are led and inflamed by a maiden who claims to speak with God and with the angels.
Her name is Jean D’Arc.

Suggested reading:

Juliet Barker, Agincourt. The King, the campaign , the battle,  Brown Little,  2005
Alfred Higgins Burne, The war of Agincourt,  a military history of the latter part of The Hundred Years War from 1369 to 1453, Wordsworth, 1999
John Keegan, The face of Battle, Penguin, 1978
Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War, Atheum, 1978
William Shakespeare , King Henry V, Oxford University Press, 2003

Site of the maps: Arsbellica

In the following video, Marianne Faithful sings the battle:

This is an automatic translation from Italian. Excuse the mistakes.