In autumn time when leaves crumble on the bough and birds turn eyes to warmer climes, that’s when eyes of men and women turn oft to distant lands and long-remembered places. It’s that time of year again. The nights are drawing in and kings, queens, knights, yeomen, serfs and all look into the warmth of their homes rather than the cold outside. Yet think back 596 years to the 25th October 1415 and for a small band of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish soldiers home was a long way away.
On this morning all those years ago, I recall our good king Henry V extolling all of us to do our duty in the face of horrendous odds: to do battle against the glory of France and to win. The problem we faced was this: our total force was fewer than 6,000; those of our enemies were – as far as I could see – at least 20,000. But there were probably more.
It had rained the night before. My fellow soldiers were cold and wet. The ground was muddy underfoot. I recall Sir Thomas Erpingham, the commander of the archers, wandering among this filthy soldiers, offering calm and reassuring words – his Norfolk burr whispering like a plane over elm.
I recall the king explaining to his lords the protocol of what to do should defeat occur. But I also recall him laughing in the face of adversity across the sodden field ahead of him. If we can be touched by the hand of God, then let that time be now. Within hours the French would overwhelm us – only prayers and fate could help us beneath the leaden skies of Picardy.
There we were at Maisoncelle, a small hamlet of fewer than 100 souls, standing and looking across the plain ahead of us. In the distance, to the left, we could see the church as Azincourt nestling in the trees. To the right, another woodland. In between, the feudal host of France glistened in the early morning.
We could hear jesting and laughter – the confidence of well fed men, fully rested and ready for battle. Yet we few souls knew that we would have to face these men on this field or lose the war. Azincourt, this dirty village, would either be famous for all time or some nameless burial ground for an army of lost souls.
Yet the French would not come forward. We knew then that we had to advance and attack them: sheer folly, given the size of the field in front of us and the risks of flank attack. Yet so it was that Henry gave the instruction for our pitiful band to advance. Fortune favours the brave.
Across that field we walked, the archers upping sticks and then, as we neared the village, placing them again in the earth – hammering their stakes into the ground and sharpening their tips. We were but 300 yards from our enemy. We could see them, their faces, their movement, their laughter. They were drinking and scornful of our ragged force. And still they would not come…
Here it was that Henry urged strength and with a signal to Sir Thomas urged our archers to loose upon the enemy a hail of arrows so vast that it would seem as if it snowed. Sir Thomas raised his baton in the air and at the command of “Next Stroke” lowered his arm. The arrows loosed like a cloud of darts and down they fell. In minutes the French, the immovable host, started to edge forward. I will be honest and say that fear gripped us but we knew now that we must stand and fight.
Our archers delivered wave after wave of arrows in a storm upon the French. Many brave men fell and piled high in mounds, crushing those still living until they drowned in the soft earth of that sodden field. It was not chivalry. It was not war. It was carnage. Yet still they came, pushing back our knights so that even our archers had to get amongst them.
I recall the Duc d’Alencon at one point surrendering his sword to Henry in surrender – yet to my shame I saw him cut down by the king’s bodyguards. Ih the height of battle, urgency overwhelms sensibility. As it did when fear of a French attack from the rear compelled the king to order the killing of many prisoners. With ransoms due on those men, I can assure you that this was not a decision taken lightly nor indeed received well by those guarding them. Yet so it is when victory can turn to defeat.
Within hours – I would say two hours at most – it was all over. The long road to Agincourt and on to Calais had ended here. Perhaps two hundred of our own in exchange for many thousands of the enemy lay strewn across the mud. As in all such battles at that time, those who lay suffering through terminal wounds were despatched where they lay by friends and fellow warriors. The peace of death came brutally to those who had avoided it during the battle’s climax.
When I think back to that fateful day all those years ago, I sometimes wonder what might have happened had things turned out against us. And yet they didn’t. And as our good bard William Shakespeare was to write so many years later, “gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.”
[…] My dear readers, for a vivid history lesson, you simply must read Sir Gawain’s account of The long road to Agincourt. […]