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'Drunk on defeat': Did France magnify Agincourt debacle?

Wikimedia creative commons | Wooden bowmen line Henry V street in the village of Azincourt, in northern France, recalling the English king's famous victory over the French 600 years ago.

It is commonly assumed that most French would gladly forget about the Battle of Agincourt, their humbling by the English exactly 600 years ago – and indeed many have. But others say it is a lesson worth remembering.


2015 has been a bumper year for history buffs. From Elba to Waterloo, tens of thousands gathered to reenact the heady 100 Days that led to Napoleon’s final capitulation two centuries ago.

On June 18, even as British “Red Coats” and French grenadiers restaged Bonaparte’s swansong on the fields of Belgium, many in France preferred to mark 75 years since General Charles de Gaulle’s famous call to resist Nazi occupation.

One month later, a smaller crowd of around 350 medieval enthusiasts gathered in northern France to reenact the Battle of Agincourt, the most famous engagement of the Hundred Years War between England and France – which actually took place on October 25, 1415.

They would have been hard put to match the battle’s real figures, if only because they are still the subject of considerable speculation and debate.

In fact much of what is commonly said about Henry V’s famous victory is probably inaccurate, starting with the battle’s English name, a misspelling of the nearby village of Azincourt. 

‘Happy few’

The quintessential underdog’s triumph, the Battle of Agincourt is the stuff of legend. It saw Henry V’s exhausted, famished and diseased army of “commoners” stage an almighty upset against a vastly superior force uniting the “flower of French chivalry”.

The “happy few” phrase immortalized by Shakespeare in his play, “Henry V”, has been rolled out every time the British faced overwhelming odds, from the mighty German army of 1914 to the invading Luftwaffe in 1940.

The Bard’s description of the ragged English army as a “Band of Brothers” even inspired an American TV series by Steven Spielberg about US troops liberating Normandy in 1944.

When it comes to Agincourt, it is often hard to separate fact from fiction. The battle is shrouded in myth, as with the oft-quoted and unfounded tale according to which the French had vowed to cut off English bowmen’s middle and index fingers to prevent them from drawing arrows, only to get a two-fingered response upon losing the battle – and thereby inventing the "V-sign".

“Agincourt was long deemed so famous that few people bothered to study what actually happened,” said historian Olivier Bouzy, a co-director of the Joan of Arc Centre in Orléans, noting that while British and American historians have amassed a considerable literature on the subject, their French counterparts have been less inclined to dwell on the ignominious defeat.

But it wasn’t always the case. Much of what we know – or think we know – about the battle is based on French accounts written shortly after it took place.

Surprisingly, the hosts did not belittle their defeat – on the contrary. Bouzy said French chroniclers over the years were seemingly “drunk on defeat, inflating figures that had been given by earlier chroniclers who may simply have made them up”.

Indeed French accounts supplied some of the wildest numbers, including the improbable claim made by Jean de Wavrin, who witnessed the battle from the losing side, that some 50,000 Frenchmen had taken part in the historic rout – making the odds 6 to 1 in France’s favour.

Modern-day historians have significantly narrowed down the gap, with most estimating English numbers at between 6,000 and 8,000 (most of them bowmen), and the French at 12,000-15,000 (most of them heavily-armed knights and men-at-arms).

God’s will

Admittedly, Wavrin and the other Burgundians who wrote about the battle could be accused of a pro-English bias, the Duke of Burgundy having at times supported England against the French king. They might have been tempted to see France’s defeat as vindication of the duke’s order not to take part in the battle – an order flouted by two of his brothers, who perished in the bloodbath.

“But across France the debacle was perceived by many as evidence of God’s will,” said Bouzy, as if divine intervention had backed Henry V’s claim to the French throne, and punished sinful French kings and their vain, squabbling vassals.

French chroniclers may also have inflated casualty figures – sometimes estimating them in the tens of thousands – to suggest that Frenchmen fought to the bitter end, and thereby rule out the unchivalrous hypothesis that some might have shunned the fight.

“In fact a large part of the French army probably took no part in the battle,” said Bouzy – some because they arrived too late, others because of the chaos that followed the death of their commanders in the frontline, and others still because of the battleground’s layout.

Henry V's choice of a narrow battlefield proved decisive in offsetting his opponents' vast numerical advantage.
Henry V's choice of a narrow battlefield proved decisive in offsetting his opponents' vast numerical advantage.

It is widely agreed that the French had lost home advantage by allowing Henry V to choose the battlefield, which Bouzy described as "a shooting range" tailor-made for English bowmen.

The narrow stretch of land hemmed in between two woods effectively prevented the French from deploying their much larger army and encircling the enemy. It made the initial cavalry charge an easy target for English arrows, which sent panicked horses darting back into the French lines.

Anticipating this risk, most French noblemen had agreed to fight on foot. Still, the heavily-armoured knights had to run up a slope, which incessant rain had turned into a deadly quagmire, while keeping their heads down to deflect the hail of arrows fired by English bowmen at a relentless rate of ten volleys per minute.

By the time they reached the English lines the French knights were exhausted and buried knee-down in sticky mud. Many died suffocating or trampled by their own troops who pressed from behind. Others were finished off by light-footed English archers who roamed the battlefield armed with daggers and mallets.

French accounts written in the aftermath of the battle said France’s noblemen had been defeated by their own arrogance and their contempt for the “vile peasants” who formed the bulk of England’s army. They pointed to the refusal to use French army’s crossbow units as evidence of stubbornness and complacency.

But Bouzy suggests the decision to put French knights in full armour at the front may also have been dictated by common sense – and not merely by overconfidence. “They were the only ones who could resist English arrows; anyone else would have died within minutes,” he said. Modern forensic studies have shown that the best steel plates would generally have repelled English arrows, unlike wrought-iron armour.

While France’s mounted chevaliers once again failed to devise a strategy against England’s archers, just as they had at the battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), Bouzy dismisses the notion that Agincourt signaled the final demise of France’s heavy cavalry.

“The heavy cavalry was traditionally France’s main strength,” he said. “And cavalry units continued to play a role in the French military right up to 1914”.

A first French Resistance?

Surprisingly, Henry V’s notorious decision to slaughter French prisoners in the heat of the battle has been the subject of greater scrutiny in England than in France.

The unusual move, probably prompted by fears of a French counter-attack in the heat of the battle, has been widely debated by English commentators, from Shakespeare to modern-day historians, and even prompted a mock trial by US Supreme Court judges in 2010 at which the English king was posthumously found guilty of war crimes.

"There is no doubt the English are more uncomfortable with this episode, which is seen as a stain on the record of an otherwise widely acclaimed king," said historian Valérie Toureille of the University of Cergy-Pontoise.

Toureille has focused her research on the battle’s aftermath. She says the devastating defeat, and the ensuing treaty that united the kingdoms of France and England under Henry V, marked a crucial step in French nation-building.

“Out of the depths of despair a newfound spirit of resistance emerged among the people of France,” she said, pointing to the examples of Joan of Arc and the peasant guerrilla fighters that emerged in Normandy.

In depleting the ranks of France’s military and political elite, the Battle of Agincourt also paved the way for much-needed reform. The feudal army of bickering barons was gradually transformed into a permanent army under a new king, Charles VII, who challenged England’s Henry VI for the French crown.

Meanwhile, the development of artillery, made possible by technological improvements and France’s greater financial power, finally succeeded where cavalry had failed time and time again: defeating English archers.

The French monarchy had faced extinction. Instead, “it rebuilt itself and became stronger than ever,” said Toureille. By the end of the century, the English had been routed, while the unruly Bretons and Burgundians were firmly in the French fold.

Toureille says it is a shame Agincourt has been “removed from the nation’s memory, unlike Waterloo, which was also a defeat”. She added: “Today the French associate the Resistance with the 20th century alone – but there was another one long before.”

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