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An Analysis of the causes of the Wars and the course which they took.

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 19: King Henry V's campaigns in France - 1415


The siege of Harfleur - August/September 1415

The fleet sailed from Southampton and, after an uneventful voyage, dropped anchor on 13th August 1415 in the estuary of the River Seine where the port of Le Havre now stands. The Army was landed without opposition from the French and immediately marched the 3 miles to Harfleur to begin the siege of that city.

There were several reasons for choosing Harfleur as the first objective. It was a prosperous city with strong fortifications in an excellent position to act as a base for the conquest of France, being the most natural bridgehead on the French side of the Channel to Southampton on the English. Paris, Rouen and Orleans lay within easy reach, and its central position on France's North coast made it easy to journey to any part of the Norman countryside. The River Seine wound its way into France to the capital itself, and would serve as a reliable line of communication. King Henry V had plans to colonise the town, and after its capture he allowed a few of the rich merchants to stay provided they took an oath of allegiance to him. The poor were turned out with a few shillings in their pockets to seek their fortunes elsewhere in order to make room for English colonists. A great bonfire was made of their title deeds in the market place. Although initially slow to succumb to their King's blandishments, some 10, 000 English settled in the city in the next few years. The only drawback was that the city was fighting a losing battle with the sea; like Rye and Winchelsea, the port was silting up. Doubtless however it would serve its immediate purpose before it became unusable. There were other reasons beyond those of turning Harfleaur into a rival to Calais. Harfleur was a notorious nest of pirates who were long overdue for some positive attention to protect lawful trade. It was thought to be one of the best protected French cities, almost impregnable in fact, and if the English army could prove its competence by capturing it, its prestige would be that much higher.

We have some indication of what King Henry V's intentions were in a letter written on 3rd September 1415,  in which he expressed satisfaction with the progress of the siege and confidence that Harfleur would fall within another eight days,  Thereafter he intended to march on Paris by way of Montvilliers, Dieppe and Rouen, and then march to Guienne. This letter was written to give good news to those at home, and to encourage them to believe that some most dramatic military operations were in train, but it did not reveal the many difficulties which the prolonged siege now posed to the English army. It may have been necessary to give encouraging news to the 'Home Front', and the thought of the English Army marching the length and breadth of France in spite of all the French could do to prevent it would certainly appeal to the contemptuous English view of the French. This apart, it does seem a strange proposal that the English army should head for the South of France when all the action had to be in the North, and stranger still that the French should be allowed to lie across the English land-line of communications, and depend solely on the sea-lines and the port of Bordeaux. These points would not have been forgotten by a sound strategist such as Henry, and it may be doubted if the letter's contents revealed his true intentions on the date it was written.

These may have been his original intentions when he landed in Normandy in mid-August 1415. He could have intended a quick capture of Harfleur, and then from a secure base on the French shore, to attack and threaten French cities, although these were strongly fortified, with the object of forcing the French army to give battle and then to destroy it. It would have to be a very big battle, but such was his confidence in his own troops, he saw no reason to be fearful of this. It would not have mattered if a second battle had been necessary, because he would have held the initiative, and there was plenty of room to manoeuvre in the open Normandy country-side. With a well disciplined and compliant army, he could be reasonably confident that he could chose the battlefields.

His army however would need to be more than well disciplined and compliant; it would have to be strong,  healthy, vigorous and confident, not one which had been decimated by the casualties and sickness which were inseparable from a prolonged medieval siege. The best laid plans go awry, and Henry began to find that, with Harfleur taking far longer to capture than he had hoped, time began to run against him. The town was most stoutly defended behind its walls and moat by two redoubtable warriors, Jean d'Estouteville and Lionnet de Braquemont, with a garrison which was never strong enough for the purpose, although Raoul de Gaucourt had managed to slip in with a welcome reinforcement before the investiture was completed. The garrison was much frightened by the English guns which kept up a bombardment by day and by night. The mangonals and the trebuckets added their share of destruction by flinging huge stones against the walls and into the town. Still the garrison fought on with the heroism which was the hallmark of the individual French soldier during the 1415 campaign, hoping for relief from the main French army which never came. The English mining was not very successful during the early stages, because the French counter-mined with great skill, and some ferocious fights took place in the inky darkness below ground. The heat was terrific, and the knights suffered greatly in their armour. Dysentery and the"bloody flux"made their usual and unwelcome appearance on both sides, and the English army was much reduced by sickness. Many succumbed, among them the King's old friends Thomas, Earl of Arundel, Michael de La Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Thomas Courtenay, Bishop of Norwich who died in the King's arms. Others, among them Thomas, Duke of Clarence, and Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, were so ill they had to be sent home.

Still Henry persisted, and in mid-September the English sappers had better success. Their mine brought the gate and a section of the wall crashing down and the guns concentrated on this point. The moat had been filled in with fascines, and on 17th September Henry ordered a general assault for the following day. It never took place, in spite of the colourful picture painted by Shakespeare. The bombardment during the night was intense, and in the morning the town offered to surrender if help had not reached it by the 22nd. Frantic messages had been sent to the Dauphin, a fat and lazy youth more given to the pursuit of music and the ladies of the Court than he was to fighting, and he had no time to spare for Harfleur. Following the conventions of the time, the town duly surrendered and King Henry V was in possession of his first French city.

What was next to be done? Much time had been taken to capture Harfleur, and it was now late in the season to follow any original plans of bringing the French army to a decisive battle on a battlefield of Henry's choosing in Normandy. Besides, the English had lost at least a third of their effectiveness through death disease and desertion, and many were still sick; the army was no longer in good heart. The original plan could not be followed, and Henry's councillors recommended a return to England. After such a massive preparation, Henry could scarcely do this with only one town, however important, to show for all the effort. Besides, the French might well recapture it after the English had sailed away. He answered his Council thus:-

"I have a great desire to see my lands and places that should be mine by right. Let them assemble their great armies, there is hope in God they will hurt neither my army nor me. I will not suffer them, puffed up with pride, to rejoice in misdeeds, nor unjustly, against God, to possess my goods. They would say through fear I had fled away, acknowledging the injustice of my cause. But I have a mind, my brave men, to encounter all dangers, rather than let them brand your King with word of ill-will. With the favour of God, we will go unhurt and inviolate, and, if they attempt to stay us, victorious and triumphant in all glory."

This passage tells us as much about King Henry V as can anything else. He was resolved on the march to Calais, and nothing would deflect him.

It was still a very risky undertaking, and one which reckoned that the French, ridden as they were with their political differences, would be as indifferent to his march as they had proved to be to the fate of Harfleur. The 160 miles to Calais should have been covered in 8 days, as the artillery and heavy baggage would be left behind. Only personal weapons would be taken with enough rations to feed the force, which by now numbered no more than 900 men-at-arms and perhaps 6, 000 archers, many still weakened by sickness.

The Agincourt campaign - 1415

Although the Battle of Agincourt belongs to a period outside the Wars of the Roses, it is still instructive to study it in some detail. Agincourt was a dazzling victory, and one of the greatest feats of arms in the long history of these Islands which made all Englishmen walk several stories tall. Was not one Englishman worth three Frenchmen, or was it four or five? Were not the despised French to be beaten whenever the English took up arms? Was it not further proof, if proof was needed, of the superiority of English arms over those of the despised foreigner? Was it not a continuation of the glorious victories of Crecy and Poictiers? It only needed an English force to appear for disaster to overwhelm the French, because the English were in every way superior to this second rate race. The battle of Agincourt cast a long and malign shadow over the later years of the 15th-century, and made every suggestion of peace with the French something akin to treason. We shall see that in later years good sense should have dictated a change of policy from everlasting war, which the English were in no position to sustain, to reaching a settlement even if on terms which represented less, perhaps far less, than the original proposal. To too many, giving up any part of the French conquests was a betrayal of their hero warrior King. It thus played a fatal part in the upheavals which led to the Wars of the Roses.

Of course none of this chauvinism had any basis of truth. In no way were the French, man for man, inferior as soldiers to the English. The truth for the victory of Agincourt lies elsewhere. The English army may have been much inferior in numbers,  ragged, half-starved, sick,  constantly soaked to the skin by the constant rain, tired and worn out by their exertions, and generally in a condition which was far short of the ideal. The French made all sorts of mistakes which they were not to repeat in the campaigns in the middle of the century when they were to drive the English out of France. It all began with that essential to any military force, discipline.

Discipline has at least two sides to it, personal behaviour and team work, and each is the complement of the other. It does not merely consist of requiring people to do things which they would not otherwise want to do. Discipline is also method, a commonly adopted principle on which everyone, from the highest to the lowest, acts in concert as a team. It depends on a good chain of command which tells everyone what they must know, and gives directions which everyone can obey with confidence in the knowledge that all others are being given similar directions which are complementary to their own. Discipline so far as personal behaviour was concerned was strict in Henry's army. In the camp before Harfleur, soldiers were forbidden to go wandering off in search of plunder and swearing and other profanities was forbidden. To these unheard of restrictions in a medieval army was added a prohibition on prostitutes; any girl found within three miles of the camp had her left arm broken because everybody must keep his mind on the job in hand. Discipline on the line of march to Calais was similarly strict. There was to be no plundering and looting, and the inhabitants were not to be molested. They were after all the King's subjects, even if some of them seemed reluctant to accept that fact. The behaviour of the English soldiers was, by medieval standards, remarkable and compared well with that of the French, but there were lapses. Henry could turn a blind eye to his hungry men seizing food, but what happened in Boves was too much. The soldiers had found a large quantity of wine and were making merry. Henry intervened in person to quell the resulting uproar. One of his staff told him the men were filling their wine bottles."Their bottles!"snorted the angry King"they are making great bottles of their bellies and getting drunk. It must stop at once." Rather sheepishly, the men returned to their duties.

On the other side of discipline, the English chain of command was excellent. The King, who insisted on absolute obedience from all of whatever rank, gave his orders and these were conveyed by the knights on his staff (whenever Henry did not give them in person) to the Commanding Officers of the three divisions of his army. These officers then gave them practical effect by their own orders to their subordinate captains who saw to it that their men complied. If an individual soldier was told to fall into line for the march, or to stand in battle-line and prepare to fight, he did exactly what was required of him, secure in the knowledge that he was doing what the King wanted him to do, and that every other soldier in the army was receiving orders which were part of the King's design and that he too would obey them. It was easy for every man to see and to know what was going on, and what was his part in the immediate task. They were not professional soldiers as we would use the term, but they had all volunteered for the campaign, and had now been together for some time. They worked as a team, something which poorly motivated conscripts might have been reluctant to do, and with such a team, even though it was suffering great personal hardships, great things could be done.

The French position was however very different. Their army was assembled under the old feudal rules, and was little better than a rabble. The individual lords and knights did not lack courage, indeed their personal valour was of a high order, and there were a great number of them. Their ill-disciplined, badly armed and poorly motivated followers were of little use on the battlefield and could be described as a positive hindrance. The French did not lack experienced leaders of competence in Marshal Beaucicault and the Constable of France, Charles d'Albret, to whom could be added many other wise and experienced heads. They were quite unable to pursue a cautious policy which would have made sense of shadowing the English and attacking them in open country where the great preponderance of their numbers would have been decisive, and where they could have used them to full effect. The"young bloods"of the aristocracy would not take orders from those they considered socially inferior, and neither would they give place to others of a similarly lowly status, such as the artillery- and cross-bow men even though they carried arms which could have made a marked difference. They were mere artisans however, and as such were simply brushed aside to play no part in any battle. The choice of the battlefield lay with the French, and their choice could scarcely have been worse. The woods on either side of the battle-field of Agincourt merely funnelled their attack onto a narrow front, where only part of their army could have been engaged at any one time, and where the other parts could not have supported it except by joining in the melee and making things worse. Added to this, much of the ground had been ploughed up, and the whole area was sodden by the incessant rain. A horse would slip and slither, and a dismounted man in full armour would have the greatest difficulty in the quagmire that could be expected where so many others had passed before. It would have been better to have retired into open country, of which there was a great deal, and have attacked the English there whilst on their march to Calais. The French High Command was quite unable to enforce any sensible wishes to do this. The young bloods wanted to do daring deeds and capture a King to bring him back in chains to Rouen and Paris. The despised yeomen, who made up such a large part of the English army, were held to be of no account; if they did not run away when faced by so much chivalry, then they could be slaughtered without difficulty. Years were to pass before the French were to engage professional fighting men to fight their wars and to teach them to become professionals themselves. Then, armed with battlefield artillery which the French understood so much better than the English, they swept the last remnants of the English out of France by 1453.

All this lay far in the future. The English army, with great difficulty, crossed the River Somme and continued its march on Calais. There were soon disturbing signs that a great host had recently passed that way, and that the French were ahead of them. On 24th October 1415, a frightened scout reported to Henry that he had seen the French army in great force and that it was placed to bar the march.Soon heralds came and went between the two armies. Henry, by now a little shaken, offered to restore Harfleur and to pay for the damage he had done,  His offer was refused. It was now quite clear that there would be a great battle on the morrow. Sir Thomas Hungerford was heard to say that he wished they had 10, 000 more archers. Henry rounded on him fiercely in a way that betrays the strain he was under:-

"Thou speakest as a fool! By the God of Heaven, on whose Grace I lean, I would not have one more even if I could. This people is God's people. He has entrusted them to me today and He can bring down the pride of these Frenchmen who boast of their numbers and their strength"

Reference to the map [page ]will show the respective positions of the two armies around the hamlets of Agincourt, Tramecourt and Maisoncelles. The outposts were in places so close on the night before the battle that they could hear each others conversation. The mood in the French camp was boisterous and noisy in the confident expectation of an easy victory. That in the English camp was by contrast sombre and subdued. Quite apart from their dismal prospects, Henry had enjoined strict silence under penalty of a gentleman losing his horse and a yeoman his ear. The only sounds to be heard were the murmurings of the priests giving absolution and the hammering of the armourers, straightening weapons and adjusting armour in preparation of the coming battle. Every man checked his weapons once again before flinging himself down on the hard ground to get what sleep he could under the relentless rain.

Henry rose at first light on 25th October, and marshalled his army to occupy the line shown as the English first position about 700 metres from where the French army was forming up. The line between the woods was about 1, 000 metres long, and it needed the entire English force to hold it. There was nobody to spare for a reserve. Most of the 900 men-at-arms who had left Harfleur with him were still present as were the 6, 000 archers. [There is still great controversy over the English army's dispositions and tactics during the battle - see Supplement to this Chapter] In the centre of each of the three divisions of the army, the men- at-arms, supplemented by those knights and nobles who did not hold some command, formed a nucleus of armoured men. The Archers of each division formed up on either side of this nucleus in lines which stretched diagonally forwards, so that the effect was something like 'v's with their points towards the enemy. Where each division bordered on its neighbour the effect, as seen from above, was a harrow formation, or a number of 'w's with their points towards the enemy. At the Duke of York's suggestion, each archer planted a wooden stake in front of the archers positions; pointing diagonally at the enemy and with its point sharpened, it would help to prevent the archers nightmare, being ridden down by the enemies cavalry. Henry himself commanded the centre division. He chose older men for the vital commands irrespective of rank or position. Edward, Duke of York, who was 42 years old, commanded the right division, whilst Lord Camoys, a most experienced soldier who had first seen service in the 1370s, commanded the left. Sir Thomas Erpingham, who was 58, was the Marshal of the Army and was responsible under Henry as overall commander for seeing that it kept its position and executed the manoeuvres which the King commanded. Apart from Henry himself and such of his officers who had to move quickly about the battlefield,   everybody, from the highest to the lowest, was dismounted and fought on foot. Again in marked contrast to the French, the chain of command was well settled and remained intact from start to finish.

Henry himself, clad in a suit of shining armour with his crown mounted on his helm, and wearing a jupon with the arms of England and France emblazoned upon it, moved among his troops exhorting them to remember the victories of Crecy and Poictiers won by their forefathers as the French were seen to be forming up. There is no reliable figure of the French numbers, and estimates vary between three and five times the English force. Judging by the difficulties they had in finding places for everybody who was present, it is possible to accept some figure between 20, 000 and 30, 000 men. The French Army formed up in three main divisions, one behind the other, so that it was impossible for one to support the other except from behind where it was likely to be least effective. The first two divisions consisted of dismounted knights and men-at-arms in full armour, with a group of archers and crossbowmen, put where they could do the least possible good, posted between them. Only the third, and rearmost, division remained mounted, presumably to chase and hunt down the broken and fleeing English. There were small bodies of cavalry on each wing, with a force of artillery on the right wing; again this was placed behind its own cavalry and was unable to engage the enemy. The same chronic indiscipline prevailed, with the young bloods, even including the Constable himself, leaving their allotted posts and jostling for a place in the front line, the place of honour. From the start the French denied themselves an effective chain of command, and also failed to use their guns, archers and crossbowmen to provoke the English into some rash act as they could easily have done.

For some four hours until mid-morning, the two armies stood facing each other, neither making a move. Short of provisions as he was, time was not on Henry's side. At about 11 o'clock, he gave the order for the line to advance within bowshot of the French, or some 300 metres from the enemy. Each man knelt and kissed the ground, and some even placed morsels of earth between their lips as a token that they intended to stand and if necessary to die where they stood. As soon as the archers had pulled their stakes out of the sodden ground and slung them over their shoulders, the whole line advanced with a mighty shout of "St George" to the new position indicated by Sir Thomas Erpingham. There the archers drove their stakes into the ground once more and began to shoot arrows into the French host.

It was too long a range for the arrows to penetrate the French armour, but the manoeuvre had the effect of goading the French into action. With shouts of "Montjoie" and "St Dennis" the French cavalry on the wings charged and the first division surged forward to the attack. In place of the first few desultory missiles, every archer now shot so that the air was made black with their arrows. The cavalry, slipping and floundering on the wet ground, was soon repelled. The horses would not face the arrows and bolted with their riders through the French first division, breaking up the line and knocking many over. Once down, the knights could not rise again. Their armour was intended for use on horseback, and it was too much for a man on foot to carry very far. Still, with superb courage, the first division pressed on. The ground soon became a quagmire, with men sinking to their ankles and even their calves with every step so that they must have been exhausted by the time they reached the English line. All the time the pitiless hail of arrows continued. Soon, the range was short enough for the arrows to penetrate the armour, for, apart from the finest Italian and German armour, which few had, there was no armour yet made which was fully proof against the English archer. Many fell, and in the press caused others to fall, so that there were mounds of men suffocating and drowning in the mud. Bunching up to escape the murderous arrows, the survivors hit the English men-at-arms with such force that they forced them back a few paces. The press was such that many could not raise their arms. The archers then threw aside their bows, and fell upon the almost helpless mass with swords, maces, bills and clubs. Lithe nimble men, many barefoot to get a better foothold in the mud, they only had to knock the enemy knights over to render them defenceless. Soon there was the horror of mounds of suffocating and drowning men as the French first division, and also the second which had advanced to its support, was no more than heaps of dead and dying men, unable to fight or to defend themselves, or even to get to their feet once they had fallen. Thus the worst dreams of the French once more returned, those of their vaunted chivalry being laid low by the social inferiors they despised, just as it had been at Crecy and Poictiers and in countless other smaller engagements during the 100 years war.

The losses were not all on the French side. Edward,  Duke of York, who was extremely fat, fell and suffered the same dreadful fate of suffocation as had many others. Thus came to an end the life of one of the shiftiest and least trusted of all the English nobles, who had survived thus far by turning his coat with consummate success with every change of the political wind. Michael de La Pole, the young Earl of Suffolk also died, he who had only been the earl for a few short weeks after the death of his father, also Michael,  before Harfleur. [The title now went to his younger brother William, who was to play a big part in the War in France, and in the early stages of the Wars of the Roses] Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was badly wounded, as those who disliked him reported with some relish'in the hams', and his life was only saved by the King himself, who had performed prodigies of valour, standing over him and cutting down all who came near.

The French attack had been defeated, and a lull fell on that dreadful field. The hideous noise of battle died away, and the only sounds now were the cries of those whom the English soldiers were pulling out of the mounds of the fallen and were dispatching because they were not worth a ransom. Those that were were sent to the rear as prisoners, and soon a large number of captives were assembled. The position of the English Army was however, still critical. The French third division was still intact, and Henry could be excused for thinking that it alone could have overwhelmed the English if it had made a determined charge. Had it done so, then his position could have been desperate with a superior French force in front and a large number of prisoners, all prime fighting men, to his rear. He gave the order to kill the prisoners, only excepting his own Royal prisoners who alone were to be spared. A wail of protest went up, and Henry in a fury ordered the archers of his bodyguard to perform this dreadful work, threatening to hang any man who held back. Knowing that the King was a man of his word in such matters, the archers did as they were told. Soon there were heaps of corpses to the rear of the English army to supplement those already in front.

In fact, the French third division were not too keen to become involved. If they attacked on horseback, they would have shared the earlier fate of their cavalry. They had seen what had happened to the dismounted men, and this was not encouraging. The young Duke of Brabant, the brother of the Duke of Burgundy, for not all the Burgundians could stomach an English invasion, arrived late on the field, and made tremendous exertions to persuade them to charge. In the end, he charged the English virtually alone and was killed with such companions as he could induce to follow him. Two Counts, Marle and Fauqueaubergues, had no better fortune with the 600 men they could muster, and they too were repulsed by the archers without much difficulty.

So the Battle of Agincourt came to an end. The true losses of the French will never be known, but they were clearly very heavy. Among those known to have been killed were the Constable, Charles d'Albret, the Admiral Dampierre, the Grand Master of the Crossbows, de Rambures, the Ducs des Brabant, Alencon and Bar, the Comptes des Nevers (another brother of the Duke of Burgundy), Marle, Vaudemont,  Blamont, Grandpre, Roussy and Fauqueaubergues. There were huge numbers of knights and others of lesser degree. Among those taken prisoner were Marshal Boucicault, the Duc de Bourbon and Charles, Duc de Orleans, who was not to regain his liberty until 1440, and the Comptes des Eu and Vendome. Also among their number was Arthur of Brittany. The English loss was trifling. Apart from the Duke of York and the Earl of Suffolk,  Sir Richard Kyghley and Davy Gam, a renowned Welsh Captain, fell in the Battle as did about 100 others. The pious King attributed the victory to God alone, and the English Army marched off the stricken field to the lovely strains of Non Nobis Domine - Not unto us Oh Lord - and Te Deum.

There is not much more to tell. The English completed their march to Calais whence they took ship to England. They met with a rapturous reception. Two things are worthy of note however. The King's careful brother, John, Duke of Bedford,  took advantage of the public euphoria to wring some generous taxation out of Parliament. Whilst in Calais, the King's Council had the very greatest difficulty in dissuading him from embarking upon another campaign. With men like these at his back, what could stop him?

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003