To the battle of'Azincourt, in the midst of thousands of men and the best of French chivalry, the ideal of chivalrous war would have died. Moreover, this battle opens an uncertain era which threatens the very existence of the France of the time. In full Hundred Years War, but also in the midst of civil war between Armagnacs and Burgundians, the French knighthood suffered its greatest defeat there against the English army of Henry V on October 25, 1415.
The context of the Battle of Azincourt
France has been torn by conflict between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians since the assassination of Louis of Orleans in 1407, on the orders of Jean sans Peur. The struggle culminated in violence with the Cabochian episode of 1413. The same year, following his failure in Paris, the Duke of Burgundy negotiated with the English. The previous year, it was the Armagnacs who had asked for help, causing an English ride despite an agreement at the last minute between Armagnacs and Burgundians in Auxerre ...
The English are not in a much more enviable situation, also torn by a war between King Plantagenet Richard II and Duke Henry of Lancaster, his cousin. The latter, supported by Parliament, finally wins and is designated as the new king in 1399. However, he sees his own son rebel against him in 1411. It is a failure, but that does not prevent the young Henri V to succeed his father when he died in 1413. The legitimacy of the new English king being faltering, he had to face conspiracies. To calm them down, Henri V then decides to relaunch the war with France. He obviously learned about the divisions due to the civil war, and takes a positive view of the Burgundian proposals.
In 1414, he took up the claims of Edward III and demanded all the fiefdoms lost by the English since… the King of France Philippe Auguste! His too big claims are rejected, as much by the Armagnacs as the Burgundians. So it’s war. We do not know, however, the goal of the king of England Henry V when he landed in Normandy in August 1415, with ten thousand men transported by 1,500 ships. While the army is large, it is insufficient for an invasion, and the timing is inappropriate for a long campaign. After the capture of Harfleur, the King of England therefore began a classic ride, towards Calais. The French decided to counter-attack and cut off its route in Artois, at Azincourt, on October 25, 1415.
The forces involved
The French army is led by the constable Armagnac Charles I of Albret who, because of the troubled context, decided to do without the Burgundian troops of Jean sans Peur. He therefore ordered the nobility of Picardy not to join the host. The Duke of Brittany, still divided between the two kings, is also absent. The princes present, meanwhile, disagree on the strategy to adopt, the older like the Duke of Berry advocating caution, the younger like the Duke Charles of Orleans attacking. Jean de Berry nevertheless obtains that the king and the dauphin remain in Rouen.
The finally assembled army is made up of nearly twenty thousand men (some say twenty-five thousand), mostly cavalry. The constable would have refused the help of Genoese crossbowmen, deeming his troops largely sufficient. It is true that opposite, Henri V lines up about seven thousand men, including one thousand knights and above all five thousand archers. The English troops are tired by the campaign which began several months earlier. The French army, which chose the location of the battle, is therefore very confident ...
It's hard to explain the French errors even before the Battle of Agincourt! The choice of location, and even more so the placement of troops, are catastrophic. The French army, three more numerous than the enemy, regrouped in a small space between two forests, which annihilates its numerical advantage.
The nobles believe that they have the right to be on the front line to crush the English themselves; they thus leave behind them more experienced combatants, tight in about twenty ranks, and squires for the reserve. The wings consist of a cavalry intended to attack Henry's archers from the start of the battle. The lack of space pushes to deprive oneself of archers and crossbowmen, but the constable believes anyway that he will not need them… The command of the army is uncertain, divided between Charles d'Albret and the dukes like Orleans or Alençon.
The weather conditions are also not ideal for a battle, and even more so for a cavalry charge. It keeps raining, and the soldiers spend the night in their combat gear. The next day, it's an indescribable quagmire!
Henry V has less of a choice, and he arranges his army in the classic way: armed men in the center; on the wings and a little forward, the archers in a conical formation. The King of England has not forgotten the lessons of Crécy.
The Battle of Azincourt (Agincourt in English)
After a few final formal negotiations, the battle began at around ten o'clock on October 25, 1415. Henri V moved his archers forward, who were immediately charged. But the mud slows down the heavy French steeds, which then suffer several volleys of arrows. The bodies pile up, forming a bulwark in front of the following fighters, trapped by the geography of the terrain! The French knights still managed to make contact, but without the benefit of the charge; despite everything, they put the English men at arms in difficulty. The King of England, threatened directly by the Constable, then makes his archers slide on the enemy's flanks, and the quarry resumes, the English archers in their turn fighting hand to hand. Already, many French lords surrendered. The French army attempted a second charge, but encountered the withdrawal of the first, adding to the chaos! The battle hasn't started for an hour ...
The worst is yet to come. A rumor broke out in the English ranks: the French would have counter-attacked from their rear. It was in fact only an attempt at a counter-offensive, but Henri V, who feared the arrival of Jean sans Peur, ordered the massacre of most of the captives (despite the protest of the archers, who wanted ransoms ), before leaving the battlefield! Most of the French army did not even have time to make contact.
At the end of the afternoon, after the passage of the looters of corpses and scavengers, on the French side there are around 1,500 knights killed, including the Dukes of Brabant, Alençon, Bar, the Counts of Nevers, Dammartin, Vaucourt (and many others), but also the Constable of Albret himself! To this must be added more than three thousand “other” dead, including all the bailiffs in the region, who were previously responsible for raising the troops. The number - and the name - of prisoners is even worse: the Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, Marshal Boucicaut, Charles d 'Artois or the Count of Harcourt. Substantial ransoms in perspective. The English number only three to five hundred dead, including a dozen knights, including the Duke of York.
In both camps, God is made the judge of the Battle of Agincourt, which adds to its importance, even beyond its strategic impact, which is ultimately minimal. Indeed, victory did not prevent Henry V from returning to sea for England. The consequences are visible later.
The debacle first led the few French princes still alive, including the Duke of Anjou, to sign separate peace agreements, and even agreements with the English. The defeat worsened the civil war, the Armagnac ranks having been the most affected, and Jean sans Peur absent again negotiating with the enemy. The dominant feeling among the French is that of abandonment by God, the latter punishing the princes with fratricidal war and the humiliation of Azincourt.
The impact of October 25, 1415 is therefore more political and psychological than military and strategic. The Treaty of Troyes in 1420, and the partition of France, would doubtless not have taken place without Azincourt. On the other hand, despite the tactical lesson, we cannot say that this rout completely signals the end of the cavalry battle, or even of the chivalrous ideal. The French knighthood will have the opportunity to take some revenge, as in Castillon (1453), despite an evolution of the armies and the appearance of the artillery. In Marignan, in 1515, the charge of François Ier will be inspired by this chivalrous ideal.
For the English, the battle of "Agincourt" will remain one of the most glorious, taken as a model by both Henry VIII and Shakespeare.
- G. Minois, The Hundred Years' War, Tempus, 2008.
- C. Gauvard, France in the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th century, PUF, 2010.
- D. Paladilhe, The Battle of Azincourt - 1415, Perrin Academic Bookstore, Collection Pour L'histoire, 2002.