Stories From English History: II - Alfred J. Church


I have already told how Edward III. claimed to be King of France, and how he won great victories by sea and land in seeking to make good this claim. But the whole country he could never conquer. Afterwards all that the English had won was lost again. For King Edward grew weak and foolish in his old age, and the Black Prince died before his father after long sickness. When Richard, the Black Prince's son, became king, he was but a boy, and the great English nobles were too much taken up with quarrels to care much for other things; nor did Richard do any better when he took the power into his own hands. The end of it was, that when Richard died only the town of Calais was left to the English. King Henry IV. was too busy keeping himself upon his throne, and putting down the nobles who rebelled against him, to have any time for conquest abroad. But Henry V. felt himself able to do what his father could not. First he claimed that certain provinces of France should be given up to him, and that he should have for his wife the daughter of the French king, the Princess Katharine, with a dowry of two million crowns. Something the French were willing to give, two or three provinces, but not all that Henry asked, and the Princess, but not with so much money. For a while ambassadors went to and fro, but they could come to no agreement, and on August 11, 1415, King Henry set sail from Southampton. He had about 30,000 men, who were carried in more than 1500 vessels.

He landed at Harfleur, and spent more than a month in besieging that place. When at last he took the town, he found that his army was much weakened. Some soldiers had been killed; many had died of disease, for the season was very wet and unhealthy. The safest and easiest thing for him to do was to sail back at once. This he did not like to do. It would disgrace him, he thought, to have taken so much trouble for the sake of a single town, even though Harfleur was an important place, from which French ships used to come out to plunder the English coast. So he made up his mind to march across Normandy to Calais. This was a sort of defiance to the French King. Having done this he could go back to England with more credit. So he sent back the sick and wounded to England, and leaving a garrison in Harfleur, began his march. He had perhaps 2000 men-at-arms and 10,000 archers with him, and he had 150 miles to go through an enemy's country. About half the march he made without any one trying to hinder him; it was when he had to cross the river Somme that his real difficulties began. Sixty-nine years before his great-grandfather Edward III. had been in just the same position. He had to cross the same river, with the fords and bridges guarded, and an enemy's army much stronger than his own on the other side. King Edward had found a ford by bribing a Norman peasant; King Henry was able to cross the river at a place which the people of St. Quentin, whose business it was to keep it, had left unguarded. Half his army had crossed before the enemy came in sight; even then they were not strong enough to attack him, and he made the passage without any loss. But he had had to go very much out of his way, and in fact was not much nearer Calais than when he started. But though the French had a much stronger army, they fell back before him, and it was not till he was within forty miles of his journey's end that they made a stand. On October 24 he reached a little village called Blangy. Crossing a stream at a place where a mill now stands, he marched up to a high table-land which lies above the valley, and there found the French army, so placed as to block the road to Calais. Their leaders had not taken the trouble to make their position as strong as they might have made it. There were two villages a little in front of their two wings; they let the English occupy them. There were woods near, in which they ought to have posted troops. They did not do so. All they did was to put their huge mass of soldiers—a hundred thousand men at the least—between the English and the place which King Henry was trying to reach. They seemed to think that it would be quite sufficient to stand still and let these few thousands of men, who were scarcely a tenth part of their number, dash themselves against them. There were three lines of the French, one behind another. In the first were 20,000 men, armed with coats of mail and helmets. Bodies of cavalry stood on either side ready to charge when they were wanted. The second line was made up in much the same way; the third consisted chiefly of cavalry.

Battle of Agincourt


The English were drawn up in one line, with the archers on either side, the men-at-arms in the middle, but with some archers among them. Each of these had a stake shod with iron which he had carried with him on his march. These were to be fixed into the ground to make a hedge when the cavalry should charge. There were archers also in the two villages which the French had not taken the trouble to occupy. The baggage was left some way behind with a few men to guard it.

King Henry rode along the line on a small grey horse putting his men in order, and bidding them be of good courage. He wore over his armour a coat embroidered with the leopards of England and the lilies of France, worked in their proper colours. Round his helmet was a crown of gold. Every one was to know that he was the King, and the King, as he said, both of France and England. When he had passed from one end of the line to the other, he sent his horse away, and took his stand on foot in front of his army, with the royal standard waving over his head. His post was in the middle of the line. On the right the Duke of York was in command; on the left Lord Camoys.

Which side was to move first? Had the French kept to their plan of standing still and letting the little English army dash itself in vain upon them, the battle might have had another end. Happily for us they did not, and it seems to have been King Henry's boldness and skill that made them move. By his command, Sir Thomas Erpyngham, one of the oldest knights in the army, gave the signal to charge by throwing his truncheon into the air. All the line advanced; and then the French, in their turn, began to move. It roused them to anger to see this little company of men, ragged and worn with marching, daring to attack them. Their huge, unwieldy host began to advance. Then the English halted. The archers set up their hedge of stakes, and so sheltered sent a shower of arrows into the midst of the enemy. For a time the English line was borne backward. But the archers went on shooting, and the men-at-arms fought with desperate valour. When the French horsemen tried to charge, they found themselves stopped by the hedge of stakes. Besides, it was only a few that could charge. The army was so crowded together that it could hardly move; only those in front could raise their hands to strike. And then the heavy ground was against them. It was now late in the autumn, and there had been much rain during the last two months. The English had suffered from it while they lay outside the walls of Harfleur, or marched backwards and forwards along the banks of the Somme; now it served them. The horsemen and heavy-armed foot-soldiers could not move for the mire. And all the while the terrible shower of arrows went on falling among them and striking them down. The French have always been better at charging than at standing still, and they began to lose courage, to waver, to fall back.

Yet there was at least one brave effort to change the fortune of the day. The Duke d'Alenšon gathered round him a number of knights and men-at-arms, and made for the place where King Henry was fighting in front of his army. If he could be killed, thought the Duke, the battle might yet be won. The Duke struck the King's brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, to the ground with a dangerous wound, and dealt the King himself a great blow which dinted his helmet, and brought him to his knees. But he could do no more. He was over-powered and slain. In vain did the King try to save his life.

The first line of the French was now broken; the second seems to have fled almost without resistance. Some brave nobles and knights did, indeed, charge the English, but they could do nothing; every man among them was either killed or made prisoner.

And now there happened a dreadful thing, for which the King has often been blamed. He was told that the French had attacked the rear of his army, that they were setting the prisoners free (for many prisoners had been taken by this time), had plundered the baggage, and were now about to charge him from behind. He gave orders to kill all the prisoners that had not been sent to the rear. When the nobles and knights refused to obey, for they hoped to get ransom for those whom they had taken, and so pay themselves back for the money which they had spent, the King sent a squire with a number of archers to execute his orders. Many had been killed, when it was found out that the news was a false alarm. A knight who lived in the neighbourhood had indeed gone with a number of men to the rear of the English army and plundered the baggage. But there was no such danger as Henry had feared. And yet there might have been. Even then the French were in numbers far stronger than he was. If they had taken courage, and had found a brave and skilful man to lead them, they might still have destroyed him and his little army. And the prisoners, if set free, would of course have been very dangerous.

The battle over, the King rode over the field of battle. "To whom does the victory belong?" he said to the chief of the French heralds. "To you, sire," the man answered. Turning round, Henry saw the turrets of a castle, and asked its name. "The Castle of Agincourt," was the answer. "Since it is fitting," he said, "that all battles should bear the name of the fortress near to which they have been fought, let this field bear for ever the name of Agincourt."

The French lost 10,000 men in this great battle, and of these more than 8000 were nobles and knights. Some of the very first men in France were among them. On the English side the Duke of York was killed, and Michael de la Pole, the young Earl of Suffolk. How many more fell we do not know. A French chronicler says 1500, an English 3300. The English took 1500 prisoners, two royal princes among them.

The King went back to England. Afterwards he returned to France with another and yet stronger army. After much fighting peace was made. It was agreed that Henry should marry the Princess Katharine, and should be King of France after the death of Charles.