This Story Shall The Good Man Teach His Son …

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d

— Henry V, IV:iii

Thus did William Shakespeare ensure that the astounding victory by the English forces led by King Henry V over the flower of French knighthood would indeed be remembered even nearly 600 years later.

It was on 25 October 1415 that the renowned battle of Agincourt took place in northern France. The day was the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispianus, the patrons of cobblers and leather workers. (The two saints with almost identical names makes it rather hard to follow some of the lines in Shakespeare’s wonderful play, such as that quoted above.) Some 5,500 English fighters met more than 20,000 French knights and soldiers.

The French, being on familiar home turf, having good lines of supply, and being fresh and well-rested, were supremely confident of victory in light of their overwhelming numbers. The English, sick, exhausted, and vastly outnumbered, knew that they had small hope of surviving the day. Yet they were forced to fight, for the French army had cut the English off from their base in Calais. And fight they did.

Henry V was a surprisingly skilled general. He positioned his soldiers on a narrow field bordered by thick forests, which greatly reduced the advantage of the heavily armored French knights because it provided no room for massed cavalry maneuver. Henry had his men up most of the night cutting stakes which they planted in the ground projecting sharp points to stall a cavalry charge. Shortly before dawn, a brief but intense rain fell, turning the field into a quagmire, further hampering heavy cavalry.

Behind the light and hastily erected palisade, Henry positioned his most powerful weapon: Welsh and English Longbowmen.

As had happened at both Crecy in 1346, and at Poitiers ten years later, the massed fusillades of the “clothyard shafts” of English arrows broke the French cavalry charges. The longbow was a formidable piece of artillery; it could shoot an iron-pointed arrow, accurately, over two hundred yards. The heavy English arrows rained down in incredible mass, killing the French horses and wounding the knights despite their heavy armor. Without their mounts, and weighted down by 40 to 50 pounds of armor, the French knights were almost helpless in the mud.

Once the supply of arrows had been used up, the longbowmen surged forward as foot soldiers. With daggers and axes and other improvised weaponry, they made quick dispatch of the struggling French knights. The result was slaughter, pure and simple.

As Shakespeare tells it, there were “ten thousand French That in the field lie slain.” And he places the English losses at “But five and twenty.” The battle was indeed a masterful and overwhelmingly one-sided victory for the undoubted underdog, but most historians make somewhat more plausible estimates of the actual numbers (there are surprisingly good records from those days.) The Encyclopedia of Military History uses the generally agreed upon figures of some 6,000 French killed versus about 400 English.

The Battle of Agincourt stands to this day as one of the most brilliant of military achievements, and one of the most lopsided victories for an underdog in the long history of human conflict. It is perhaps most well-remembered because of Shakespeare’s matchless, dramatic retelling of the story, especially his rendition of King Henry’s “pep-talk” before the battle, which has been even been broadcast at the start of Super Bowl coverage (in 1996.) But it would remain an important part of any study of battles and tactics even without Shakespeare.

One interesting footnote about this battle is of interest to students of the development of modern English. Henry sent his dispatches home to England to spread the news of his great victory. In a departure from tradition, he sent the dispatches in English rather than in French. This was basically a sensible propaganda decision, but it had a far-reaching impact, at last elevating English into the daily speech of Kings.

It is worth noting, however, that this famous victory would not be much remembered if it had no distinct tactical interest. It was all a waste. For this ferocious devastation had no real strategic importance, and it made relatively insignificant long-term impact upon the histories of France or England. Before a decade had passed, all that Henry had striven for was lost. But for an immortal victory, Henry V left no enduring legacy. A battle won is a battle won, but history is also formed by what takes place after the triumph.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

— Henry V, IV:iii

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