Edward iii., King of England, had, as you remember, conquered a large part of France. Before his death, however, many of the towns and provinces he had won were retaken by the French, while during the reigns of Richard ii. and Henry iv. England lost all that was left of her possessions in France save Calais.
Henry v., who in 1413 became King of England, determined to win back these French possessions.
He disliked the dauphin, who, shortly after Henry had become king, had sent him a present of tennis balls, with a message that it would be well for him to stay at home and amuse himself with these, rather than seek to win a kingdom in France. Henry also knew that France was so weakened by the quarrels of her nobles among themselves, that she had little strength to resist a foreign foe.
The King of England therefore sent to France to ask for the hand of Catherine, daughter of Charles vi. , and to demand as her dowry the three important provinces of Normandy, Maine, and Anjou, as well as a large sum of money. Henry intended, if his demand was granted, to keep peace with France; if it was not granted, he meant to declare war. But crushed as the French were by the struggles of their nobles, they were not so crushed as to agree to Henry's proposals. The king therefore proclaimed war against France, and in August 1415 he sailed up the Seine and landed at Harfleur, which he at once besieged.
For five weeks the town held out, thinking each day that the royal army, which was now commanded by the Constable d'Albret, would come to its aid. But as no help came, the town was forced to surrender to the English, who themselves were more worn out by the siege than the French suspected. Many of Henry's soldiers had indeed gone back to England ill, many more had died from fever, while those who were left were in no fit state to fight.
Henry, however, would neither stay in Harfleur nor return to England. With his army, which was now a small one, he made up his mind to march through Normandy, as English kings had done before. When he reached Calais he would take his soldiers back to England.
So the men set out on their dreary march, and each day they became more tired and weak, for it was impossible to get food. The French had burned all the farms in the district, and carried off all the stores of food and wine that they could find. Yet tired and hungry as they were, the English struggled on, wet to the skin by the heavy rains of autumn, for it was already the month of October. The country through which they marched seemed utterly deserted; not a sign of the French army was to be seen.
But the French had been roused by the fall of Harfleur, and they had assembled a large army, nearly five times as large as the English.
Charles vi. , who was less mad than usual, wished to march with his army, but the Duke of Berri would allow neither the king nor the dauphin to be on the battlefield.
"Better lose the battle," he said, "than lose the battle and the king." For the duke had been at the battle of Poitiers in 1856, and remembered how on that terrible day King John had been taken prisoner.
Meanwhile, Henry was within forty miles of Calais, having only once caught sight of the French in the distance. Now, on October 24, 1415, he found that the army in all its strength had taken up its position between him and Calais. It was plain that, tired and hungry as the English were, a battle would have to be fought before they could reach their haven.
The constable sent a messenger to the English king to
ask him when, and at what
place, he would be willing to engage in battle.
"Tell your master," said the king to the constable's messenger, "I do not shut myself up in walled towns. I shall be found at any time and anywhere ready to fight if any attempt is made to cut off my march."
On October 25, 1415, the battle accordingly took place, near the little village of Agincourt.
The evening before the battle the French created five hundred new knights. These spent the long hours until dawn on horseback, in their heavy armour, while the rain fell in torrents, soaking the ground around them. In the morning the new-made knights were as tired as though they had already fought a battle.
As the rain beat down upon the English camp, the soldiers rolled up the banners to keep them dry, the archers carefully put new cords to their bows, while stakes were driven into the marshy ground to check the first attack of the French cavalry. Then the soldiers confessed their sins, and after praying to God, lay down to rest on beds of straw. Not a sound was heard in the English camp for the king had ordered silence. A knight if he disobeyed would lose his horse, a soldier his right ear.
With the dawn the English could see the great numbers of the French army, and one knight said to another, "It were well if we had ten thousand archers from merry England with us to-day." "Nay," said the king, who had heard the knight's words, "I would not have one more. It is God who hath appointed our number." While to the officer who came to tell him the exact number of the foe. Henry with his indomitable spirit answered only, "There are enough to be killed, enough to be taken prisoners, and enough to flee."
As the day grew light, the French cavalry was ordered to attack the English archers. They dashed forward bravely, but their horses soon stuck fast in the muddy ground. Making desperate efforts to struggle on, the poor beasts but sunk the deeper in the mire. And all the while the English archers were pouring in upon them an unceasing shower of arrows.
At length a portion of the French cavalry reached the enemy's lines, only to find their horses driven upon the stakes which had been fixed in the ground by the English soldiers.
Wounded by the stakes, pierced by the arrows, the frightened animals turned and plunged madly back among the French foot-soldiers, throwing them into utter confusion.
Then down upon the surging mass of wounded men and frightened beasts came the English, armed with axes, clubs, swords. At the sight a panic overtook the French army, and in complete dismay all who could fled from the field.
Never did a more complete defeat overtake the French than on the field of Agincourt. Little quarter was given, yet the number of prisoners was great. As the battle drew to a close, a report spread that the Duke of Brittany, with a large force, had come to the help of the French.
King Henry, fearing that his prisoners would be in the way, then gave orders that these hapless, unarmed soldiers should at once be killed. And this cruel order has ever been a blot upon the fair fame of Henry v. King of England.
On the battlefield lay slain, their banners by their sides, many of the nobles of France. The constable also had perished, while among the prisoners of high birth were the Duke of Orleans and the Duke of Bourbon.
Henry was now free to march on toward Calais with the brave army that had wellnigh forgotten its weariness in the joy of victory.
On the way a halt was called, and the king sent bread and wine to his prisoner, the Duke of Orleans. But the duke, though wounded and faint, refused to eat or drink. Then Henry himself went to see him, and begged him to eat, but still the prisoner refused, saying he wished to fast.
"Cousin," said the king, "make good cheer. If God has granted me grace to gain the victory, I know it is not owing to my deserts. I believe that God wished to punish the French. And if all I have heard is true, it is no wonder, for, they say, never were seen disorders and sins like what are going on in France just now. Surely God did well to be angry."
A little later King Henry reached Calais and sailed for England, where he and his victorious army were greeted with great joy by the citizens of London.