Agincourt - exploding the myth

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.’

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The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt

Henry V's archers inadvertently invented the ‘V-sign’.

A mounted soldier at Agincourt

A mounted soldier at Agincourt

There are many conflicting accounts of the battle, and little hard evidence.