Six hundred years ago this weekend, a wet and battered English army was fleeing France. King Henry V of England had invaded, hoping to press a claim to the French throne — a weak claim that was made stronger by the French king’s being insane: Charles VI believed, at times, that he was made of glass, and lived in deathly fear that someone would break him. Henry believed this made it a good time to undo England’s failure to capture France during during act 1 of the Hundred Years’ War.
In August of 1415, Henry invaded Normandy and attacked the fortified city of Harfleur; he won, but the fight had taken a month and a half and cost Henry a third of his army. With a bitter, rainy autumn already giving way to winter, Henry decided that discretion would be the better part of valor. The last English possession on the continent, Calais, was a ten-day march away; that was where Henry and his army of 6,000 headed.
Scouts soon reported that the English were being shadowed by the French army, which — after failing to assemble in time to reinforce Harfleur — was bent on revenge. The French force outnumbered Henry’s four or five to one, and blocked his way home. Henry had two choices: first, to offer himself to France as a captive for ransom, or, second, to fight a battle he was almost certain to lose. Henry sent his decision though a French herald named Montjoy: “Go bid thy master well advise himself: If we may pass, we will. If we be hindered, we shall your tawny ground with your red blood discolor . . . The sum of all our answer is but this: We would not seek a battle, as we are. Nor as we are, we say we will not shun it.”
At least, that’s what he said according to Shakespeare. See, Henry was not only marching to one of the most important battles in European history, he was marching toward one of the defining moments in the English language: the Battle of Agincourt, and the Band of Brothers speech.
The English army had walked 200 miles and was totally exhausted. Henry’s thousand knights had virtually no food left; his 5,000 archers were living off foraged berries. They were two days from Calais, but a French army of (a best-guessed) 25,000 men had camped ahead of them on the road. That night, Henry confessed his sins and heard Mass. The next morning — October 25, 1415 — he and his men lined up for battle a thousand yards in front of the French.
The French herald, Montjoy, was a real person. It’s entirely possible that, as he does in Shakespeare’s play, Montjoy approached Henry again, as the armies took position, and repeated the offer of peace in exchange for the King’s surrendering himself for ransom.
“I pray thee, bear my former answer back:” says Henry. “Bid them [defeat] me and then sell my bones. Good God! Why should they mock poor fellows thus? . . . We are but warriors for the working-day; our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched with rainy marching in the painful field — but by the mass, our hearts are in the trim!”
Hearts-in-trim was about all Henry could claim. Historically speaking, the English had a single line of men-at-arms — that is, knights and other professional, armor-wearing soldiers — flanked by archers. The French had three lines, each one larger than Henry’s, backed up by cavalry. Defeat seemed certain. Four men who witnessed the battle wrote accounts of it; they agree on all the major points, leaving historians in little doubt as to what happened. Nonetheless, what happened seems inexplicable.
The French were well fed and well rested. Henry hoped to fight from a defensive position, but the French knew they had time and food on their side, and refused to budge. Henry relented, and marched his men to within two or three hundred yards of the French — close enough for his archers to begin firing, in hopes of provoking a French attack.
According to the great military historian John Keegan, the English archers’ volleys couldn’t have had much physical effect on the French knights, who were heavily armored in steel. But, as Henry had hoped, it was enough to goad them into a cavalry charge — directly into a line of sharpened pikes the English archers had driven into the ground. “A horse, in the normal course of events, will not gallop at an obstacle it cannot jump or see a way through,” says Keegan. “Even less will it go at the sort of obviously dangerous obstacles which the archers’ stakes presented.” But that’s exactly what happened: For an unknown reason (could they not see what they were riding toward?) the horses were driven by their riders into the spiked defenses. Many of the horses were killed; many others had their riders knocked to the ground. The de-horsed men were killed where they lay. The rest retreated — either because of frightened men or frightened horses — and crashed directly into the approaching first line of French infantry.
The oncoming line broke, trying to dodge the escaping cavalry, and was thrown into chaos. Nonetheless, buoyed by its overwhelming manpower advantage, it continued toward the English line: men-at-arms flanked by the archers. The English men-at-arms were outnumbered roughly eight to one by each of the three French lines — but soon, according to several eyewitness accounts, the French dead were piled in heaps six feet high.
“Six feet high” is probably an exaggeration. Historians assure us it’s not possible to pile bodies more than two or three feet high, without rigor mortis having set in. Nonetheless, within minutes, thousands and thousands of French had been killed, with hardly a single casualty on the English side. The witnesses don’t explain exactly what happened; what’s guessed to have happened is this:
The French had shortened their lances for dismounted fighting; the English had not. With longer lances, the English were able to begin stabbing the French before the French could stab them back. The French line was so deep that the men in the rear couldn’t see what was going on; they pushed the men in front of them forward, like the jerks in an airport security line. What the men in front were being pushed into was, more or less, a meat grinder.
Meanwhile, the second line of French infantry arrived and began to push the first, likewise unaware what was happening at the front. The crush of French soldiers was so great that the men actually doing the fighting had difficulty moving their arms, let alone themselves. Seeing the foundering French, the English archers — who were out of arrows anyway — ran to join the fight, attacking the French flanks with weapons they scooped up from the piles of corpses.
In the space of a half-hour, six or eight thousand Frenchmen had been killed, and two or so thousand more had been taken prisoner. Fearing a second attack from the remaining French cavalry, Henry — in a famous act of savagery — ordered the execution of all French prisoners. The order was savage, but not illogical: There were more French knights who had been taken prisoner than there were English knights in total; Henry feared they would re-arm themselves, as his archers had, and attack from his rear. When he issued the execution order, though, he was rebuffed: His knights refused to kill the unarmed prisoners. So Henry ordered his archers to do the job instead; they weren’t bound by the code of chivalry. (Keegan argues that it’s unlikely many prisoners were actually killed; he suggests the execution order was more of a show to frighten the POWs than an actual call to massacre: “some [prisoners] would have been killed in the process, and quite deliberately, but we need not reckon their number in the thousands, perhaps not even in the hundreds.” Still, legendary or not, the incident is a quintessential violation of the rules of war.)
According to Shakespeare’s play, the English had lost just 30 men. In reality, the English dead probably numbered between one and two hundred; still, it was an astounding ratio.
According to Shakespeare’s play, the English had lost just 30 men. In reality, the English dead probably numbered between one and two hundred; still, it was an astounding ratio: Every dead Englishman had taken scores of Frenchmen with him. France’s military leadership had been decimated: The constable of France — the French army’s commander-in-chief — had been killed; so had the admiral of France, the master of crossbowmen, and the master of the royal household. France’s aristocracy had fared even worse: Three dukes were dead, along with eight counts and 90 lower-ranked nobles. The marshal of France, two more dukes, and two more counts had been taken prisoner.
Soon, the French would sign a surrender; Henry V would take control of France, marry King Charles’s daughter, and unite the French and English monarchies. Keegan sums up the Battle of Agincourt as “a victory of the weak over the strong, of the common soldier over the mounted knight, of resolution over bombast, of the desperate, cornered and far from home, over the proprietorial and cocksure.” In his play, Shakespeare apologizes for having tried to sum it up at all, with his “rough and all-unable pen.”
He may have been selling himself short. As the weary English prepare for battle, Shakespeare shows Henry’s nobles fearing inevitable defeat. Henry overhears the earl of Westmoreland wish the English had 10,000 soldiers more: Then maybe it would be a fair fight. Henry accosts him: “What’s he that wishes so, my cousin Westmoreland? . . . If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss — and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honor. God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more. . . . Rather, proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host, that he which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart. His passport shall be made, and crowns for convoy put into his purse — we would not die in that man’s company that fears his fellowship to die with us!
“This day is called the feast of Crispian. He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when this day is named . . . strip his sleeve and show his scars and say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day!’ Old men forget — yet all shall be forgot, but he’ll remember with advantages what feats he did that day . . . And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; 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!”
(Author’s Note: This piece was written just moments after the Mets clinched an NLDS victory — a victory greater, more astounding, and more remarkable than any since Agincourt.)