The Battle of the English Archers
Soon after his accession Henry V. of England, seeking outlet for the energies of his knights (fearing, no doubt, that inactivity would breed discontent), egged France on to war. His method of procedure was crafty. France was convulsed with civil war, and, taking advantage of this, Henry sent embassies demanding the surrender of the French crown to himself. Naturally, the modest request was refused—refused, that is, by silence, for no answer was returned.
Henry, nothing abashed, preferred a new claim. In 1360 the treaty of Bretigny was made, by which England renounced all claims to the French crown, Maine, Anjou, Normandy, and Touraine; France on her part surrendering Gascony, Guienne, Poitou, Saintange, Périgord, Limoges, Montreuil, and Calais, paying 3,000,000 gold crowns, and receiving back her King John, who had been taken prisoner by Edward III. at the battle of Poitiers. Henry now demanded that the territories which had thus fallen to England should be forthwith handed over, together with several other provinces, and 1,600,000 gold crowns, the arrears of King John's ransom. As if this was not sufficient to cause the French government to laugh up its sleeve, Henry wound up by asking for the daughter of the French king to be given to him in marriage, with a dowry of 2,000,000 crowns.
To this France replied that the King would be willing to give 600,000 crowns with his daughter, and the duchy of Aquitaine.
Henry's reply was to summon Parliament and receive supply for war; but he also sent to France another embassy with moderated demands. The final result of all these negotiations was that Henry was able to do just what he wanted—declare war.
The only thing that stood in Henry's way was that his treasury was almost empty. But what did this matter? There were the crown jewels—they could be pawned; there were people willing—or people who could be made to appear willing—to lend money; from these loans were raised.
Then at the head of an army of 30,000 men, including 6,000 cavalry, Henry embarked from Southampton and sailed across the Channel to the mouth of the Seine, where he arrived on August 15th, 1415.
Henry immediately landed his army, laid siege to the fortress of Harfleur, which surrendered on September 22nd, garrisoned it with English, and then struck off across country toward Calais, a journey of one hundred miles. It was a foolhardy adventure, but Henry swore that rather than the French should think he was afraid of them, he would get to Calais, despite the hundred thousand men who were marching to intercept him.
Henry's route lay through Picardy, where the Constable of France, with over fifty thousand men, awaited his coming; through Rouen, where the King and Dauphin lay with another army almost as large. Food was scarce, guides were not to be found, and the enemy dogged them all the way, cutting off stragglers, but refusing to be enticed into a general engagement.
By October 12th, four days after leaving Harfleur, Henry had reached the Somme. On the opposite bank of the river D'Albret and his main army appeared; the fords were impassable, and though Henry spent five days in trying to force a way through the river, every attempt was unsuccessful, for at each place where a passage was sought D'Albret appeared. At last, on the 19th, Henry cutmarched D'Albret, reached Voyenne, found it undefended, dashed across the river, and marched on to Monchy-la-Gauche, D'Albret falling back on St. Paul, and finally on Agincourt and Ruisseauville, directly in the path of Henry's route to Calais. Henry wavered not one whit from his purpose, and eventually it became evident that the day of battle had arrived.
Henry's army, consisting mainly of archers, now numbered about fifteen thousand men; the French force totaled some fifty thousand or more.
The night before the battle, the 24th, was dark and rainy, and was spent by the English in getting what rest they could, for their long forced march had wrought havoc with them; sick, many of them, hungry all, they flinched not from the coming battle. Wills were made and confessions; the King visited every part of his army and sent out spies to examine the ground.
Then came the dawn, prayers were said, and the army was led into the field. Like the bold warrior that he was, Henry kept to the fore. Clad from head to toe in bright, shining armour, emblazoned with the arms of England and France, with a rich golden crown surmounting his helmet, the young King presented a fine appearance.
Henry's sturdy archers, on whom he relied with the confidence that was to be so greatly justified, were posted in advance of his men-at-arms, four deep, and wedge shaped, a formidable front. These men had laurels of which to be proud; battle after battle had they won for England against their arch-enemies the French, and to-day, gaunt and haggard though they looked from their arduous march across country, the very sight of them struck terror into the hearts of the opposing army. "Many of them," according to a reliable authority, "had stripped themselves naked; others had bared their arms and breasts, that they might exercise their limbs with more ease and execution."
Every man of them was also armed with battle-axe and sword, and before him had planted obliquely a stout iron-tipped stake, forming a formidable rampart to the French cavalry.
Despite the brave show made by the English force some of the captains had not the same confidence of victory as had Henry, who later, during his tour of inspection and exhortation, heard one of them say:
"Would that some of the good knights who are idle in England might by a miracle be transported to the field of battle!
Like a flash, Henry had turned upon him, crying:
"No, I would not have a single man more! If God gives us the victory, it will be plain that we owe it to His goodness. If He do not, the fewer we are will be the less loss to England. But fight with your usual courage, and God and the justice of our cause shall protect us."
And the opposing army? D'Albret had drawn his men up in a formation very similar to that of Henry, but so overwhelmingly did they outnumber the English that their line was thirty-nine deep as against four. D'Albret himself commanded the first division, the Dukes of Alençon and Bar the second; the Lords of Marie and Fallconberg the third. D'Albret, intent upon presenting a firm front to the English, made the mistake of crowding his troops into a narrow field between two woods, where it was impossible to deploy, or use their weapons with the ease of the English archers.
For some time the two armies faced each other, seated upon the ground, their weapons before them, waiting for the word that should send them forth into the fray. During this prelude, Henry quietly moved forward two detachments, one to set fire to some houses in the enemy's rear as soon as the engagement began, and so deceive them into thinking that they were out-flanked; the second to lie in ambush in a wood on their left flank.
While Henry was executing this manuvre, D'Albret, who, despite his overwhelmingly superior force, felt by no means sure of victory, and little relished the prospect of the battle, endeavoured to gain time in the hope that he would receive some reinforcements he was hourly expecting. To this intent he dispatched three knights to Henry, offering him safe passage to Calais on condition that he surrendered Harfleur and gave up all claim to the French crown. Henry dismissed the proposition with disdain, and refused to enter into any negotiations whatever except on the conditions which he had originally laid down.
Thus foiled of their purpose, the three knights tried another plan. One of them, the Sire de Helly, Maréchal of France, who had been a prisoner in England, and had been accused of breaking his parole, challenged to mortal combat, in front of the two armies, any man who was brave enough to repeat that accusation.
"Sir knight," answered the King, "this is not a time for single combat. Go tell your countrymen to prepare for battle; and doubt not that for the violation of your word, you shall a second time forfeit your liberty, if not your life."
"Sire," the Maréchal retorted, "I will receive no orders from you. Charles is our sovereign; him we obey, and for him will we fight against you whenever we think proper."
"Away, then," cried Henry, "and take care we are not before you!"
Then, before the French knights had time to turn, the King stepped forward, raised his sword, and called out to his men:
Immediately out stepped brave old Sir Thomas Erpingham, who, throwing his warder into the air, cried:
As one man the English moved forward, the archers carrying their iron-tipped stakes. Within a bow-shot of the French they halted, cast themselves upon the ground and kissed it, the priest elevating the Host in front of them. Then, with a loud ringing cheer of defiance, they once more drove their stakes into the ground, fixed their bows, stepped in front of their rampart, let fly a cloud of arrows, and retired a pace. This first flight did terrible execution amongst the closely packed French army, and D'Albret, well knowing the dexterity of the archers, and having few himself, immediately determined to endeavour to break their ranks.
To this end he gave the word of command, and a company of twelve hundred cavalry moved forward at the charge. Before them, immobile and unafraid, stood the English archers, once more in front of their stakes. Shower after shower of arrows came hurtling through the air, and then the archers retreated behind their rampart to await the onset of the thundering cavalry. These, with cries of "Montjoye! St. Denis!" dashed over the intervening ground, horses slipping hopelessly, men falling, armour and visors pierced through and through by the well-aimed arrows sent on their death-dealing way by strong English arms. On, on, they came, these prototypes of the glorious Light Brigade. Floundering amidst the clayey soil, reeling and stumbling against each other, heads turned aside to escape the unerring arrows, they soon fell into greatest confusion. A thousand of them never reached the iron-tipped stockade, and riderless horses, panic-stricken, turned about and galloped back into the ranks of the French army, causing disorder and confusion amongst the first division. The remainder gallantly rode on, reached the stockade, only to be met by a fierce onset of the English archers, who, slinging their bows behind them, grasped battle-axe and sword and dashed out upon them. Back were the French driven, back on their own ranks. These steel-clad horsemen were no match for the fierce infantry from England, who with their hatchets wrought terrible execution, chasing the flying cavalry into their own lines.
At the same moment the men in ambush fell upon the French flank, and there began one of those conflicts for which the battles of olden times were renowned. Plunging horses, maddened by sword-thrusts and quivering arrows; hacking and stabbing men, fighting for life and country, for glory and for king, combined to make up a hideous tragic episode in a great and dreadful battle. Nothing could quench the valour of the attacking English, nothing could turn them back; and in a short time D'Albret's first division was scattered, its commander and most of his officers slain. It was a triumph for the rugged archers, unaided by the men-at-arms.
The fleeing French, pursued by the archers, moved back on the second division, which in its turn was thrown into confusion, and must also have been driven back at once had it not been for the fact that at that moment the Duke of Brabant, in the vanguard of the expected reinforcements, charged at the head of his cavalry. Nothing daunted, the men of the bow and battle-axe kept on their way, bringing horses and men to the ground. Brabant suffered a similar defeat to that sustained by the previous squadron, and in a short while the archers had reached the second division.
Here another fierce conflict raged; the French horses had sunk to their girths in the mud, the men-at-arms, weighed down by their armour, were up to their knees in it. Yet all stood their ground, fighting like grim death to turn back the lithe, untrammeled, leaping English.
Meanwhile Henry, at the head of his men-at-arms, had come up, intending to charge, but seeing the state of the ground, and knowing that to advance meant being in as bad a plight as the French, held off and rallied his bowmen for another concentrated attack. By this time the King had dismounted from his charger and led his men into the thick of the battle. In his glittering armour and golden crown, he presented a conspicuous mark for the French, among whom were many, including the Duke of Alençon, who had vowed to kill or capture him.
Henry gave the word, and the battle began afresh, this time with renewed vigour. The archers led as before, and, with Henry at their head, attempted to pierce the French lines. The King's fearlessness and valour brought him into many dangers. Fighting side by side with the Duke of Clarence, the latter was brought to the ground by the battle-axe of a knight. Leaving the knight with whom he was engaged, Henry rushed to the assistance of Clarence. Striding the body of the fallen duke he met the onslaught of the knight, slew him and held off other assailants who crowded in upon him, until the duke was carried off to safety.
At this instant the knights who had vowed to kill Henry, eighteen in number, hurled themselves upon him. One of them struck him a terrific blow with his battle-axe, bringing him to his knees, but, seeing the plight of their King, a number of his followers closed round him and slew the whole of the attackers. Then did the Duke of Alençon advance. Fighting his way with glorious courage through Henry's bodyguard, he struck the Duke of York to the ground, killing him instantly; then turning his attention to Henry, cleft the crown on the royal helmet. Staggering from the impact of the blow, Henry yet faced his foe, and with one stroke of his sword brought him to the ground, turned and slew two attendants, and would then have slain the duke had he not cried out;
"Hold! I yield! I am Alençon!"
Henry immediately held forth his hand, but he was too late. His devoted followers, seeing the King's danger, had rushed upon Alençon and slain him.
Meanwhile in other parts of the field the battle had been going strongly in favour of the English, and the French second division, seeing their commander fall, lost heart and began to fly in all directions, despite all that D'Albret did to incite them to return to the fray. The third division, fresh and in good condition, might still have turned the fortune of the battle, had they but then fallen upon the English, who, wearied by long fighting, would probably have been forced to retire, if only for a while to regain their strength. As it was, the French, seeing their comrades of the first and second divisions scattered like chaff before a wind, began to give way without striking a blow, especially as they saw coming towards them at the charge four hundred English horsemen who had until then remained in ambush.
The second division still continued to fight, though it was but a hopeless effort, for so disheartened were they that the English found it easy to kill and capture. Fourteen thousand prisoners were made, and their arms taken from them.
While this work was proceeding, Henry, seeing that the third division had not yet left the field, although they were slowly retreating, dispatched a herald warning them to retire at once on pain of receiving no quarter from the victorious English. The French needed no second bidding; the half-doubtful retreat turned into a headlong rush.
But the blood of the French had not ceased to flow. Suddenly at the rear of Henry's triumphant army there arose a loud tumult, and word was brought him that the French had reformed, or that reinforcements had arrived, and were falling upon his rear. Believing that the battle was about to recommence, and wishing to guard against the prisoners turning upon him during the fray, Henry ordered all except those of rank to be put to the sword.
Then began a terrible carnage; weaponless, defenseless men were slaughtered by the thousand, some without resistance, others making a brave show although unarmed; and ere Henry discovered that the tumult at the rear was caused by a few hundred fugitives endeavouring to pillage the camp, fourteen thousand French soldiers had been put to death. Henry immediately stopped the slaughter, though the mistake might have cost the English dear, for the third division, deceived into believing that their reinforcements had arrived, took fresh courage and seemed about to begin the battle again. When, however, they too discovered the reason of the tumult, they once more turned and left the field.
Little remains to be told. Henry, realising that his troops were by this time needful of rest, gave orders that the pursuit of the flying French was to stop, had the wounded tended, and surveyed the field of battle.
While this was being done there came a French herald, Montjoye, seeking permission to bury the dead. To him Henry turned and said:
"We have not made this slaughter, but the Almighty, we believe, for the sins of France. To whom does this victory belong?"
"To you, sire, the King of England, and not to the King of France," replied Montjoye sadly.
"And what castle is that which we can perceive in the distance?" asked Henry.
"It is called the castle of Agincourt," answered the herald.
"Then since all battles ought to be named after the nearest castle, let this henceforth and lastingly be called the battle of Agincourt."
Thus ended the battle, and after holding a service of thanksgiving and giving his men the needed rest, Henry marched on his way to Calais, no more molested by the French, who in the conflict had lost some thousands of men, including seven princes of the blood, D'Albret, Brabant, Alençon, and Bar, and a whole host of her gallant knights; besides having had about fourteen thousand men of all ranks captured, while England had lost but sixteen hundred men.
Henry and his archers had triumphed; France had been humbled.