Saturday, 9 February 2013

truth of agincourt

We’ve all heard the story or read Shakespeare’s play, but what is the truth behind the Battle of Agincourt? University of Southampton military historian Anne Curry believes she has the answers. On 25 October 1415, French and English armies faced each other across a muddy battlefield at Agincourt in Normandy, northern France. The English were outnumbered by almost twenty to one. Despite desperate odds, and thanks to the leadership of their fearless king Henry V, English forces won the day. During the ensuing celebrations his archers inadvertently invented the ‘V-sign’. This neatly packaged battle history has become an integral part of national folklore. But according to Anne, it is riddled with inaccuracies. The author of Agincourt:A New History, Anne is recognised as an authority on the subject, and many of her findings have blown apart the accepted wisdom associated with the battle. ‘The special appeal of Agincourt stems from the belief that it was a victory won against all odds because the English were so grossly outnumbered,’ she says. ‘English chroniclers, writing in the decades following the battle, claimed that the French had up to 150,000 men, while the English had only 6-8,000, having seen their army diminished by dysentery at the siege of Harfleur. Many of these claims have been exaggerated to give the impression of “plucky little England” against the evil French. Playing the numbers game The governments of Henry V and his French counterpart, Charles VI, were surprisingly bureaucratic, and detailed records were kept of the armies. ‘Thanks to these records we know for certain the relative sizes of the armies at Agincourt,’ she says. ‘Unfortunately, less documentation survives for the French army, but the evidence points to a plan to raise 9,000 troops to engage Henry. To this figure we should also add troops enlisted by allies on the north east frontier and local men from Picardy, but a total force of 12,000 is the absolute maximum given all the evidence. English records show that Henry V’s forces numbered 12,000 when he set sail. This number was reduced by the Harfleur siege, but Henry still had around 9,000 men with him for the battle. ‘The French may have outnumbered the English but not to the extent popularly believed,’ says Anne. Searching for eyewitnesses Anne is understandably wary of the more dubious testimony found in some of the writings of the time, focusing instead on hard evidence. ‘Detectives have the luxury of being able to interview those involved in an event directly afterwards,’ says Anne. ‘Historians must rely on eyewitness accounts, usually written down in the years following a battle.’ Anne cites the poetry of John Hardying, a soldier at Agincourt, as an example. ‘Hardying claimed to have been on the campaign, but the captain he claimed to have served under was at Berwick-on-Tweed during the period of the campaign.’ Anne also investigated the Gesta Henrici Quinti (the deeds of Henry V), which is the earliest surviving eyewitness account of the battle. It’s filled with anecdotal detail but is not without bias since it was written as a eulogy of the king, using the battle as a manifestation of God’s approval for Henry. Of course, accounts written in hindsight can be riddled with inaccuracies and embellishment. For the French, Agincourt was such a disaster that someone had to be blamed. For the English, it afforded an opportunity to eulogise Henry and his army. ‘In a desire to tell a good story, many modern writers on Agincourt have taken the best bits from each account and strung them together to produce a seamless narrative,’ laments Anne. ‘Using the detective analogy again, it is better to compare the conflicting testimonies and use other kinds of evidence, which do not suffer from the subjectivity of the chroniclers, to corroborate findings. We can also gain much by examining the field of battle itself.’ Bureaucracy in action The financial records produced by the English and French crowns were key to Anne’s reconstruction of the events that led up to Agincourt. Charles VI intended to raise an army of 3,000 archers and 6,000 men-at-arms. She has traced the assembly of this army to mid-September 1415. ‘The French intended to bring Henry to battle either at the Somme or near Peronne,’ explains Anne. ‘They had to act quickly if they were to intercept him as he marched from Harfleur to Calais. Heralds were sent to him on 20 October challenging him to do battle. It is possible that their chosen location was Aubigny just to the west of Arras. Henry initially moved in that direction but then turned towards the coast in the hope of eluding his enemy once more.’ During this time, the French were hoping to be reinforced by battalions both at Picardy and from the north-eastern frontier. By the morning of 25 October, not all of the additional troops had arrived at Agincourt. ‘Virtually all the chroniclers tell us that the French delayed giving battle for as long as possible on the day in the hope that the missing troops would arrive in time’, says Anne. Henry’s army Anne has traced the size and composition of the English army from the time it left England until the end of the battle. Exchequer records show that the army was around 11,850 strong when it landed at Normandy. ‘Since those who provided troops submitted accounts to the Exchequer after the campaign with details of what happened to their men, we can track how many died at the siege, how many were invalided home with dysentery and that 1,200 were put into garrison for the safekeeping of Harfleur,’ explains Anne. ‘Taking these losses into account, the army at Agincourt was around 9,000 strong.’ ‘The real contrast between the armies was their composition rather than their size.’ Force structure ‘The real contrast between the armies,’ she argues, ‘was their composition rather than their size.’ Of the 12,000 French, around 75 per cent were men-at-arms. The corresponding proportion for the English was 20 per cent, with the rest archers. Their superiority in terms of men-at-arms, all fighting on foot with swords, lances and maces, gave confidence to the French and led to them placing more troops in the vanguard in anticipation of winning the day with a huge first clash against the weaker English force. But they underestimated the effectiveness of the huge numbers of English archers. At over 7,000, and defended by both stakes and the geography of the battlefield, they proved inaccessible by cavalry charge. The French vanguard had no choice but to advance into a constant barrage of arrow fire, akin to modern machine-gun fire. Those who managed to reach the English men-at-arms were too tightly packed to raise their weapons to fight. Most were killed or injured in the melee, many by a swift dagger to the neck. Their fate persuaded their colleagues in the remaining French lines that entering the fray could be suicidal. As a result Agincourt was marked by accusations of cowardice and treason. Agincourt transformed Henry’s fortunes. He had invaded Normandy in 1415 as the son of a usurper with his own title hanging in a fragile balance. There was even a plot on his life on 1 August, the very day he had chosen to embark from Southampton. His crushing victory at Agincourt meant he returned home a hero. No one could challenge his royal title. Anne continues to research not just Agincourt, but the entire Hundred Years War. She has recently been awarded a £500,000 research grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to study the armies of late medieval England, and to create an on-line database of all known soldiers between 1369 and 1453. The debate surrounding Agincourt will continue despite Anne’s findings. The romantic view of the battle, complete with its myths and legends, has had centuries to develop. Although Anne’s book, Agincourt:A New History, uses expansive documentary evidence to substantiate her findings, it is not as accessible as Shakespeare’s play, Henry V. On this point, Anne agrees. ‘After all,’ she concludes, ‘who are we to argue with The Bard? I certainly never tire of watching stage or film versions of Henry V even if they are inaccurate.’ For more information contact:Professor Anne CurryEmail:

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