This weekend it will be 600 years since Henry V triumphed at Agincourt. Author Juliet Barker talks to Chris Bond about the importance of this historic battle.
ON Sunday, it will be exactly 600 years since a small English army lined up against their French foes in a muddy field in northern France.
All that divided the two sides was a narrow patch of saturated ground and although the French had three times more men, better armour and more horses, by the end of the battle they had been routed by the English archers.
The battle in question took place at Agincourt (now Azincourt), a name that has since become synonymous with English bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.
It ranks among the greatest victories in British military history, alongside Trafalgar, Waterloo and the Battle of Britain. It confirmed Henry V’s claim to be the rightful King of England and was the inspiration behind William Shakespeare’s famous “band of brothers” speech in his play Henry V.
It is the most famous battle of the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English, a conflict that stretched from 1337 until 1453.
Historian and biographer Juliet Barker, who lives in North Yorkshire, has written about Henry and the battle in her brilliant book Agincourt. “In one sense it didn’t really achieve anything, we didn’t gain any land as a result and it didn’t end a war,” she says.
Yet it had far-reaching consequences. “Henry’s victory at Agincourt against all the odds showed the world that he was a great military leader and that he must have had God on his side – it also meant that he was seen as the legitimate king.”
However, its significance stretches far beyond just one man. “The Battle of Agincourt has come to embody the idea of plucky English courage, something that Shakespeare helped to plant firmly in the nation’s consciousness.”
What makes the English victory so remarkable is the fact it was so unlikely. During the summer of 1415 Henry’s force had besieged the port of Harfleur, but this took its toll and he lost around a third of his army to dysentery by the time his men, who were cold, tired and hungry, reached Agincourt at the end of October.
It is not known exactly how may soldiers were on both sides but having conducted her own painstaking study of various sources, Barker estimates that Henry had around 6,000 men while the French had something in the region of 18,000.
Henry’s army included more than 5,000 archers but just 900 men-at-arms, what Barker calls “human tanks.” The French army, on the other hand, consisted mostly of heavily armoured soldiers as well as 1,200 cavalry.
There was an initial stand-off but when the French cavalry dispersed to allow their horses to be watered and fed, Henry seized his chance and moved forward so the enemy were in range of his deadly archers. “The English archers could fire at least 10 arrows a minute and some could fire 20,” says Barker.
The French were hit by an arrow storm – between them the English archers fired around 1,000 arrows a second – and their heavy armour, rather than helping them, led to their doom as they became bogged down in the mud. “Most of them suffocated or were crushed to death, rather than being killed by the arrow storm,” says Barker.
By the end of the battle the French army was utterly defeated, paving the way for Henry to extend his influence in France.
But six centuries on, what is the battle’s significance? “It is still taught to army officers as an example of inspirational leadership,” says Barker.
“It’s an inspirational story and it is significant that Winston Churchill persuaded Laurence Olivier to make his film version of Henry V in time for the D-Day landings, because he knew it would boost morale. It shows how ordinary men can change the course of history and overcome insuperable odds – that’s a message worth remembering.”