Sunday marks the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, a major English victory over the French in the Hundred Years’ War. But how much do you know about this series of conflicts, fought from 1337 to 1453 over succession to the French throne?
Here, historian David Green, author of The Hundred Years War: A People’s History, shares seven lesser-known facts about the long-running struggle…
1) A Hundred Years’ War?
The first thing anyone usually learns about the Hundred Years’ War is that it did not last 100 years. Tradition dates it from 1337 to 1453, but in some ways it is more helpful to view this longest of European wars as one phase of an even longer struggle between England and France, stretching perhaps from the Norman Conquest of 1066 until the 1904 Entente Cordiale [a series of agreements signed between Great Britain and France that marked the end of hundreds of years of intermittent conflict between the two states.]
Conflict with the ‘ancient enemy’ has shaped the identities of both countries, and memories of the war remain long on both sides of the Channel. Charles de Gaulle remarked in June 1962: “Our greatest hereditary enemy was not Germany, it was England. From the Hundred Years’ War to Fashoda, she hardly ceased to struggle against us… she is not naturally inclined to wish us well.”
2) V for Victory?
The legend that the origins of the ‘v’ sign can be found in the Hundred Years’ War is, sadly, just legendary. There are no contemporary sources that suggest English archers, as an insult, raised to the French the two fingers with which they drew their longbows, nor that the French dismembered captured archers – removing those same fingers and thus preventing them from ever firing a bow again.
There is, however, an account of the French ‘mooning’ a detachment of English troops during the campaign that led to the battle of Crécy. This so enraged the English that they launched an ill-advised attack on a well-defended position and were beaten back with heavy losses.
Battle of Crécy, 26 August 1346. Hand-coloured later. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
3) Total war?
We are often told that ‘total war’ is a sad product of the modern, industrial age. It is, however, difficult to find any section of English or French society that was not affected by the Hundred Years’ War.
The peasantry in both countries, for example, were central to the war effort and suffered greatly as a consequence. Indeed, its members were targeted directly: because of the connection between taxation (paid chiefly by the peasantry) and military defence, the status of ‘non-combatants’ became very uncertain during the war. So, by attacking taxpayers, the English also attacked French military resources.
Furthermore, as the war unfolded it became a consciously ‘national’ struggle and, consequently, there were few reasons non-combatants should be immune from its effects. This policy and its brutally sophisticated implementation are clear from a letter written in 1355 by Sir John Wingfield, who served in the retinue of Edward the Black Prince (1330–76):
It seems certain that since the war against the French king began, there has never been such destruction in a region as in this raid. For the countryside and towns which have been destroyed… produced more revenue for the king of France in aid of his war than half his kingdom… as I could prove from authentic documents found in various towns in the tax-collectors’ houses.
Wingfield served as ‘governor of the prince’s business’ (essentially his business manager), and he wrote in the aftermath of the so-called grande chevauchée (a raid across southern France in which an army of around 6,000 soldiers destroyed 500 settlements of various sorts – villages, castles, towns, hamlets – and may have devastated up to 18,000 square kilometres of territory).
The Black Prince, however, was not content merely to orchestrate and witness the destruction, he wished to determine its exact extent, and so he brought officials such as Wingfield with him to calculate the precise cost to the French treasury. The psychological cost of this sort of raiding – the fear and insecurity it surely engendered – is more difficult to measure, but as the war drew on in France the ringing of church bells might as easily mean an impending raid as a call to prayer.
4) Rituals at the battle of Agincourt
The battle of Agincourt began at about 11am on 25 October 1415 (the feast day of Saints Crispin and Crispian). It had not been a pleasant night: heavy rain had turned the ploughed field between the two armies into something approaching a quagmire. The English and French forces had deployed in the cold before dawn, and hours had passed without either side making any move. Finally, King Henry V (r1413–22) ordered an advance.
But before they moved forward, a fascinating and seemingly extraordinary act took place: each man knelt – archers and men-at-arms alike – kissed the ground, and took a little earth in his mouth. This collective and yet deeply personal ritual seems to have been sacramental; a ceremony that combined elements of the Eucharist with the burial service. It served as a blessing, a purification, and a preparation for death.
Throughout the Anglo-French war, battles had enormous religious and symbolic significance. Not only was victory or defeat an indication of divine judgement, but for many it might bring one decidedly closer to divine judgement of a very personal nature.
The battle of Agincourt, 25 October 1415, (1910). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
5) We few, we happy few: part one
While chronicle accounts allow us to reconstruct the narrative of the battle of Agincourt with some precision, the size of the opposing forces remains a matter of contention. Shakespeare would have us believe that in 1415 the English were outnumbered at least 10-to-one. Such a number was shaped by dramatic necessity and also by various contemporary and near-contemporary English sources that suggested the French army totalled between 60,000 and 160,000 men.
Such numbers are patently absurd given what we know of the possibilities of military recruitment at this time; they were grossly inflated with the aim of exaggerating the scale of Henry’s victory. Recent work makes it clear that the Valois army was considerably more modest in size, perhaps 20,000–30,000 troops. And, indeed, in her 2005 account of the battle, Anne Curry argues that the French army was smaller still, numbering no more than 12,000 soldiers.
By comparison, Henry commanded between 6,000 and 9,000 soldiers – the anonymous author of the Gesta Henrici Quinti (The Deeds of Henry V), who witnessed the battle, suggested he led 5,000 archers and around 1,000 men-at-arms (although the numbering is not precise). The French, therefore, outnumbered the English by two to one, but probably no more.
6) We few, we happy few: part two
Some other aspects of Shakespeare’s account of the battle closely accord with contemporary accounts, and there is good reason to believe them to be accurate. When Sir Walter Hungerford (1378–1449) bemoaned the lack of archers in his company, Henry is said (again by the author of the Gesta Henrici Quinti) to have reprimanded him in a speech remarkably similar to that familiar from Shakespeare: “That is a foolish way to talk”, the king said, “because by God in Heaven… I would not, even if I could, have a single man more than I do. For these I have here with me are God’s people… Do you not believe that the Almighty, with these His humble few, is able to overcome the opposing arrogance of the French”.
7) Guns and gunpowder
The Hundred Years’ War saw some major developments in military strategy and technology. Indeed, some historians have argued that these changes amount to a ‘military revolution’.
Among such developments, the evolution of gunpowder weaponry was particularly significant. That evolutionary process was, however, a slow one. At Agincourt, for example, it appears that French artillery accounted for a solitary English archer during the battle, and in 1431 Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, fired 412 cannonballs into the town of Lagny and succeeded only in killing a chicken.
Nonetheless, as the war entered its final phase such weapons were becoming increasingly effective. They played important roles in a number of Joan of Arc’s battles and sieges, and the ‘Maid’ was considered particularly adept in aiming the weapons. Then, in the late 1430s, Charles VII (1422–61) took steps to put in place a professional artillery train under the command of the Bureau brothers – John, the king’s Master Gunner, and his brother, Gaspard.
Thereafter, the weapons available to the French grew in number and efficiency, and they proved their worth in successive sieges. Gunpowder weapons allowed the French to eject the English from Normandy and Gascony with astonishing speed. In 1437, the castle of Castelnau-de-Cernès in Gascony was “broken down… by cannon and engines, and a great part of the walls were thrown to the ground”. In some cases, as at Bourg in 1451, the mere presence of guns was sufficient to bring about an immediate surrender.
Around this time, gunpowder weapons also began to be used effectively as field artillery. Formigny in 1450 (a decisive victory for the French) may have been the first battle decided by gunpowder artillery. The engagement began with a cavalry assault on the English infantry and longbowmen, which was repulsed. Soon afterwards, however, the Bureau brothers arrived with two breechloading culverins on wheeled carriages.
These were capable of a high rate of fire and could outdistance the English archers. Although it required the arrival of further reinforcements to decide the battle, the artillery clearly played a telling role.
This was also the case at Castillon in 1453 (a decisive French victory), the final engagement of the Hundred Years’ War. This was, undoubtedly, determined by artillery, and, as a consequence, the battle marks a deeply significant point in the history of European warfare.
David Green is senior lecturer in British studies at Harlaxton College and the author of The Hundred Years War: A People’s History (Yale University Press, 2014; paperback edition 2015).