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Henry V, aged 28, set sail from Southampton, UK, on 11 August, 1415, with a fleet of about 300 ships to claim his birthright of the Duchy of Normandy. They landed at Harfleur, northern France, taking two days to disembark. Looting and molesting of the civilian population was forbidden and every member of his force had to wear the cross of St George as a badge of identification. He reminded them that they were not on a campaign of conquest, but rather to reclaim the land that rightfully belonged to him.
The siege of Harfleur lasted five weeks, much longer than expected, and Henry lost many men, and more than 2,000 from dysentery. He then took the decision to leave a garrison at Harfleur and take the remainder of his men - 900 men at arms and 5,000 archers - back home via Calais, France. Calais was 100 miles away and they could only muster enough rations for one week, but this was thought to be more than enough. There were two obstacles in their way - a large French army trying to force a battle and the River Somme, which was only passable in a few places. Outnumbered, sick, and short of supplies they struggled to cross the Somme with the French blocking every attempt. With supplies running low, Henry was eventually able to get ahead of his pursuers where the river snaked into a U-bend, crossed it and joined the road to Calais. Now on the same side of the river as the French army, Henry pushed his troops north to Calais.
It was on this road, near the village of Agincourt, that the French were finally able to stop Henry's march as they formed their army across the road, some 25,000 men against Henry's 6000. Then, to add to their woes, the rain started to pour and with only an orchard for cover they made camp for the night. The noise from the French camp must have added to their sense of impending doom, as the French Knights played games of chance to be among the first to attack and have the glory of killing a King. Against all of this the English confessed their sins, received the sacrament and made peace with God, expecting nothing but death the next day.
The next day was 25 October, St Crispin's day, and the French, vastly outnumbering the English, were expecting a humiliating negotiated settlement. Negotiations ended at an early stage and both sides prepared for battle. The French, though, weren't to be rushed and at 8.00am had breakfast, laughing and joking. The English ate whatever they had left of their meagre rations.
A further two hours passed. The French could wait - they had time on their side, blocking the road - but the English were getting weaker all the time. Henry then decided he had nothing to lose and forced the French into battle and advance. Henry rode his horse, with no spurs, indicating that he would dismount and fight on foot, along the English line. He even donned his royal surcoat of three leopards of England and three gold fleur-de-lis of France, which would mark him out to the French as the King. He gave a rousing speech exhorting them to act well and reminded the archers of the French boast to cut off the three fingers from the right hand of every man captured1.
The English then moved to within 300 yards of the enemy and began to fire. This sparked the French into action, their crossbow men loosing a volley but falling back under pressure from the English archers. The first wave of French cavalry then charged - a slow charge over the ploughed, rain-soaked ground, giving no impetus. Only three cavalrymen died in the attack, but one of them was their commander. This caused the French to become unnerved and they retreated into the now advancing main army. With forces moving in opposite directions and getting in each other's way, the French were soon in total disarray, but still they marched on. Nearing exhaustion with the field turning into a quagmire, churned up by thousands of heavily-armoured men, the English created an arrow storm for the men, ten ranks deep, who were now even afraid to look up in case an arrow pierced their visors. After 300 yards the army came into contact with the English but found that due to their numbers they had no space to aim a blow and what followed was a bloodbath.
Henry must have been in the thick of the battle as his helmet, which is on display at Westminster Abbey, clearly shows a dent from a battle axe. Henry also prevented the death of the Earl of Oxford by standing over his badly wounded body. All 18 French squires who had won the right to fell Henry died trying. The archers dropped their bows and entered the fray using swords, axes and mallets. The French started to fall back - many a French noble tried to give in - but the battle-crazed English just struck them down. All the French leaders were killed or captured. The main battle lasted just half an hour.
After the Battle
What was to follow immediately after the battle was repugnant, even by medieval standards. Henry's camp was attacked and looted and at the same time an attempted counter attack was tried and failed. Henry was still feeling vulnerable to attack and being unable to spare any men, ordered all the prisoners to be killed, sparing only the most prominent. In all 200 men performed the gruesome task.
As most of the prisoners were fully armoured their only weak point was in the head or face through the visor of the helmet, through which they were stabbed. In all, five Dukes, 90 Counts and 1,500 of Baron or Knightly class were killed or captured. The only man of note who died on the English side was the Duke of York.
Henry, seeing his victory as justifying his claim to be King of England and France, pushed for negotiation but his current army was in no strength to march on to Paris. It took five years, but a still weakened Charles VI, King of France, agreed for his daughter, Katherine, to marry Henry and he then became the recognised heir to the French throne. This was soon denied him by his dying seven weeks before the ageing Charles in 1422, and so he was succeeded by his one-year-old son as the new King of England and France.