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

Michael D. Miller

Chapter 19 Supplement: Controversy about the English dispositions and tactics at the battle of Agincourt 1415

 

There has long been controversy on these subjects, and in March 1995, this came to a head between Doctor Stephen Partington, an expert on medieval armies, and the actor Mr Robert Hardy, whose expertise lies in the 6-foot longbow.

A meeting was held in the Tower of London to argue the differing views, but no agreement was possible.

It is suggested by the author that the key to understanding the initial dispositions of the English army and the tactics that it must have used during the battle lay in the views taken by King Henry V and Sir Thomas Erpingham of the archers. They seem to have been very much the same as those taken by the Duke of Wellington of the Light Division during the Peninsular War (1808-1814). In each case, the archers and the Light Division were considered to be very essential supports to the main body of the army, the armoured knights and the men-at-arms in the 15th-century, and the massed infantry and cavalry in the 19th. Each could move very quickly to where they were most needed, indeed far more quickly than could the main body, and the special weapons with which they were armed allowed very versatile employment.

The initial deployment of the English army must surely have followed the usual formation of the time when an enemy cavalry charge was expected. The men-at-arms of each division, supplemented by such of the armoured knights who did not hold some command, formed up on foot into a solid phalanx and constituted the nucleus of each division, each nucleus being in line with its fellows to the right and the left, but with gaps in between. When fighting a defensive battle, it was the responsibility of each nucleus to repel an enemy attack in whatever form it came. The division's archers were posted on its wings in lines which stretched forwards diagonally towards the enemy, and they had the effect of filling in the gaps, each division's archers rubbing shoulders with those of the neighbouring division. The resulting formation of the army, as seen on a plan, resembled a harrow, or a number of 'w's with their points towards the enemy. The archers task was to break up and drive away an enemy cavalry charge with flights of arrows; if this was not possible, then their arrows must so decimate the enemy that by the time they reached the line of men-at-arms, their all-important impetus would have been lost. In the event, the archers alone repelled the charges of the French cavalry which never reached the English lines.

The advance of the first French division on foot, later supported by the second division, posed a new tactical problem. It would have been desirable to close the gaps between the nucleus of each division to prevent any chance of their being exploited by the French. It is suggested that the men-at-arms in Lord Camoys's and the Duke of York's divisions would have dressed up to those of the King's division, and so formed one solid phalanx instead of three.

It would have made no sense to require the archers to stand their ground. They were far too lightly armoured to risk a hand-to-hand encounter with the French armoured knights, and in a tight scrummage they could not have drawn their bows. They could however be withdrawn to the wings where they would have had three obvious tasks; to shoot into the wings of the advancing French and so decimate them that there was no danger of their out-flanking the English line and taking it in the rear, possibly even surrounding it; to shoot into the French centre, and so reduce it that if it reached the English line its impact would be greatly reduced; to prevent any attempt by the French to infiltrate through the woods. Once the range had lessened so that the arrows could pierce the French armour, they would cause havoc. From the French side, the rapid rate of shooting from 6, 000 bows must have seemed like a solid wall, and a lethal one at that, being shot into their faces. They had no effective answer until they could come to grips with the archers and use the sweep of their great swords.

It was probably never intended by either the King or Erpingham that the archers should join in the melee as they did when the French attack was seen to fail. Fat ransoms beckoned, and the English Command was probably unable to prevent them from doing so. The most their officers could achieve was to prevent them chasing their prey so far that they would endanger themselves and the army.

Manoeuvring on a medieval battle field was rare, but was not completely unknown. [Chapter ] The English re-deployment once the French were seen to be advancing on foot would have taken only a few minutes to effect, and seems such an obvious course that it is hard to imagine that any other would be adopted. In any event, an English victory would only have been possible by considering the English men-at-arms and archers as complementary to one another and employing them accordingly. Any idea that they were separate arms so that never the twain should meet would, in the circumstances, have surely resulted in defeat.

Copyright Michael D. Miller 2003