Bad Decisions in History: featuring Agincourt

Agincourt is probably one of the most well-known battles of the Hundred Years’ War, marking a major victory for England, and an unexpected one, given that the English were vastly outnumbered by the French.

The Hundred Years’ War, as one might expect from a century-long conflict, is complicated and not easily summarized in brief, but I’m going to try, in order for the context of the Battle of Agincourt. Lasting from 1337 to 1453 – actually longer than a century – the Hundred Years’ War was fought primarily for two reasons. First, the duchy of Aquitaine (or Guyenne) belonged at the time to the kings of England, but as a fief of the French crown, and the English monarchy wanted independent control. Second, when Charles IV of France died in 1328, he left no male heir. This interruption of the direct male line of Capetian rule left an opening for the kings of England from 1337 to claim a right to the crown of France, as the closest relatives of the last direct Capetian king.

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See the English kings descended from Charles IV?

The Hundred Years’ War was really a series of conflicts, which are generally divided into three eras: The Edwardian Era from 1337 – 1360, the Caroline War from 1369 – 1389, and the Lancastrian War from 1415-1453. Agincourt took place in 1415, during the Lancastrian period, named for the House of Lancaster, which the King of England, Henry V, belonged to.

Now that we have a bare-bones summary of the root cause of the Hundred Years War, onto the battle of Agincourt more specifically…

Bad Decision: Relying on hierarchy and tradition at the expense of streamlined battle tactics, unstable leadership, complacency.

The battle of Agincourt took place on October 25, 1415. The English King, Henry V, had 6000-9000 men under his command. Of these, 1,000-1,500 were dismounted (not on horses) knights and men-at-arms in heavy armour. The remaining 5,000-7,500 men were skilled longbow archers. The English longbow had greater accuracy and range than a crossbow, and could be reloaded much faster. With practise, a bowman could fire anywhere from 6 to 12 arrows per minute with a longbow, up to four times as many arrows as compared to using a crossbow. (I realize the difference between 6 and 12 arrows in a minute is fairly significant, but I found data for both. I’d guess it’s probably closer to 6 than 12 on average). The English had also started using ‘bodkin’ arrowheads, which could pierce through thick armour plate at a range of 300 yards.

bodkin arrow

In contrast, the French forces fought under the command of Charles d’Albret, The Constable of France. The French King, Charles VI, was mentally unstable and not fit for command, so d’Albret was in charge of the French forces, which numbered between 12,000 and 36,000 men – even higher estimates are sometimes recorded. Approximately 10,000 were knights and men-at-arms, 1,200 of which were mounted on horses, leaving the rest as other infantry, including crossbowmen and archers. You’ll note that this is a lot more mounted soldiers and knights than the English army had.

It had been raining in the region in the weeks leading up to the battle, and it rained the night before, as well. The two armies met on a narrow, very muddy field. While the mud created an obstacle for both sides, it had a more detrimental effect on the French troops. The heavy plate armour that the French knights wore could weigh up to 50kg (about 110 lbs). This burden gave them a movement disadvantage against the less-heavily armed English soldiers, and also meant that they expended greater energy maneuvering through the swampy conditions before the battle even began.

The narrowness of the field also kept the vast French troops crowded together. As the battle continued, they became so closely packed that some of their crossbows and cannons couldn’t be fired. Some men didn’t even have room to swing their swords. Worse, as soldiers fell under the hail of well-timed English longbow arrows or struggled with the mud, the men located at the back of the troops continued to rush forward, knocking some of their comrades into the mud to suffocate or be trampled. The horses panicked under the relentless flight of English arrows, tossing riders and stamping through the crush of men.

agincourt

Trapped close together and swamped in by mud, the French had a further problem: lack of discipline.  D’Albret, the Constable of France and the commander of the army at Agincourt, was an experienced soldier, but he held only the relatively minor title of Comte de Dreux. As such, the nobles among the troops didn’t consider this rank high enough to deserve their respect. They didn’t take his commands as seriously as they should have. Dukes didn’t want to listen to a mere count. This adherence to traditional hierarchy of nobility, even in the midst of a life and death situation, weakened the French army. The resulting poor organisation among the French troops contributed to the deadly jumble of soldiers in the mud.

In contrast, the English army was well-paid and highly trained. Henry V is often considered to be a charismatic leader, and he had the respect and therefore command of his troops. They seem to have treated battle like a business, one they were paid for. On the eve before the battle, the French troops were complacent and overconfident, allegedly celebrated their upcoming victory, taunting the English, who remained quiet and prepared for the hard day ahead.

The battle at Agincourt began in the morning, and was over by midday. Approximately 8,000 French soldiers were killed, while only several hundred of the English men lost their lives. It was a brutal defeat for the French.

Outcome: In spite of far out-numbering the opposing English forces, the French army sustained high-casualties and were decisively defeated by the English. Under Henry V’s capable command, the English longbow proved itself as a deadly, efficient weapon. With its range, rapid fire, and the bodkin arrowhead’s ability to pierce armour, even the mounted, heavily armed knights fell victim to its shots.

Further Reading:

Battle of Agincourt: Ten Reasons Why the French Lost

Battle of Agincourt 

 

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