The New Fortune Theatre Company has opened its doors with an outstanding production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The play describes one of England’s most illustrious victories: the Battle of Agincourt against the French army, October 25, 1415. The production, which opened 599 years to the day, must close this Sunday.
The Bard and his sources inflate the odds: Henry’s right-hand man Exeter says they’re “five to one.” Plus, the French are “all fresh.” Henry has about 5000 soldiers and archers, the French, 60,000 troops and mercenaries. The actual numbers remain in dispute. But the fact persists: King Henry V led a tired, famished, and dysentery-riddled “band of brothers” against a much larger, more heavily-armored opponent and won the field on St. Crispin’s Day.
Henry didn’t want a confrontation. He lost almost half of his 11,000 men to battle and disease at the five-week siege of Harfleur. The “campaign season” was nearing an end, so he marched his army toward Calais, 100 miles away, in hopes of sailing home before winter.
When he came within 30 miles of Calais, scouts said an “immense force” had amassed in a large valley between Agincourt and Tramecourt.
David Gambe, a Welsh man-at-arms told his King “there are enough to kill, enough to capture, and enough to run away.”
The English were trapped. Running low on supplies, many too ill to stand, they couldn’t turn back.
On the eve of the battle, it began to rain. And then it rained and rained some more. It soaked the valley, much of which was a recently plowed field. The muddy battleground gave his army — Henry would say later — a heaven-sent advantage.
The terrain was another. Thick woods flanked the field on both sides. They bunched even closer toward the middle. At dawn, the English force’s three divisions assembled on a slight rise. The archers, protected by sharp pikes sticking from the ground, took positions on the wings. Across the road to Calais, the French army grew larger and larger. They were surprised when their tawdry opponent taunted them.
For the next three hours, neither side moved.
The French were waiting for more troops to arrive, thousands more, word had it, enough to make the English surrender by sheer numbers.
At 10:00, Henry — bored, antsy, angry? – shouted “forward banners,” and his army advanced toward the French. Then he commanded a halt. The archers replanted their pikes. In those days an expert English long-bowman could fire up to six arrows a minute and be accurate up to 250 yards. They were almost within range.
The French cavalry charged. Their horses had only a strip of armor on their heads. The hooves churned the rain-drenched field into a lake of slop. Arrows clouded the sky. Horses panicked or fell. Their riders tried to continue on foot. But they were waist-deep in the mire and easy targets. Those still able turned and fled. On the way, they rode through the advancing infantry, “scattering them and trampling them down in their headlong flight from the battlefield” (the account of a monk named St. Denis).
The French infantry tried to charge up the muddy slope. Their heavy armor slowed them down. The woods on either side hemmed them in. English archers snuck behind trees, and the three-sided assault unleashed “a terrifying hail of arrow show” (Denis) at point blank range. The damage was devastating.
Then King Henry, wearing a polished, plumed helmet with a gold crown on top, ordered the attack. His three divisions surged forward. The archers dropped their longbows. As they raced into the fray, they gathered up swords, spears, and axes from the dead.
Henry fought hand-to-hand, his crown a glittering bulls-eye. At one point he defended his wounded brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, at the front until cohorts could drag him off the field.
By noon the outcome was clear. But the battle wasn’t over.
The English knights, men-at-arms, and bowmen took the wealthier French prisoners off the field, to be ransomed later.
A small French group, led by local nobles, circled around the woods and attacked the English supply wagons at Maisoncelles. They slaughtered the young stable boys, cooks, and gros valets guarding the wagons.
Around this time Henry ordered all French prisoners killed.
Here’s where history forks. Anti-English historians contend that Henry made the command before the supply train was assaulted, because he didn’t have enough men to guard the prisoners. Some say he did it on a whim. Jehan de Wavrin (Chronicles, 1399-1422): “A most pitiable thing, for in cold blood all the nobility of France was beheaded and inhumanely cut to pieces, a sorry set when compared with the noble captive chivalry.” Thousands died.
Pro-English scholars say Henry thought the battle had begun anew. John Keegan (The Face of Battle): “Such an event would have posed a mortal risk to the still-outnumbered English and could have easily turned a stunning victory into a mutually-destructive defeat, as the English forces were now largely intermingled with the French and would have suffered grievously from the arrows of their own long-bowmen had they resumed shooting.”
In Henry V (Act four, scene six), Henry gives the order because “The French have reinforced their scattered men. Then every soldier kill his prisoners.”
In the next scene, Fuellen announces that the French killed the boys “and the luggage…wherefore the King, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat. O, ‘tis a gallant king!”
The battle took less than three hours. The battle over what actually happened has waged ever since. In 2009 at a scholarly conference, most agreed that the muddy terrain, the way the field narrowed (which wouldn’t permit the French to attack en masse), and the expert English archers were major factors.
As to the size of the armies, a West Point historian says Henry had about 6000 in total, and the ratio was four-to-one. A sort of consensus says two-to-one, if you don’t count all the non-combatants.
French historians say that national strife and the plague had weakened their forces. And the expected reserves never arrived.