October 25, 1415 – King Henry V of England, against overwhelming odds, defeats the French at the Battle of Agincourt, securing his claim to the French throne.
Since the time of William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066, English royalty had blood and marriage connections to the French throne. William was also the Duke of Normandy, had blood connections to English royalty, and despite now being King of England still owned his duchy of Normandy. This connection was only strengthened in 1152 when Eleanor, duchess of Aquitaine and the former Queen of France (that marriage was later annulled at her request), married Henry II, the future King of England. Thus started the Plantagenet line of English kinds, starting with her sons Richard the Lionhearted and the less revered John.
With French royal blood came claims to French land and the French throne itself, and from the 12th century onward, English kinds claimed sovereignty over some or all of France. Generally, French royalty disputed those claims. This competition came to a head in 1337 when English King Edward III (Eleanor’s great-great-great grandson) and the current French king, Phillip IV, both claimed the right to be King of France. What began was a 100 year period (1337-1453) of on again, off again warfare for the title, cleverly known as The Hundred Years War.
A series of truces in 1389 had stopped the fighting for a generation, but when Henry VI took the English throne in 1399, he renewed the English claim to the French throne. His son, Henry V, became King, and in 1415 launched an invasion of France to regain the crown that he believed was his.
Henry’s army of about 12,000 men landed in northern France in August. After successful but lengthy sieges at Harfleur and Calais his army was down to fewer than 9,000 men. In late October a larger French force was shadowing Henry as he marched through the French countryside, finally blocking his movement on October 24th. While the French feigned negotiations as a stalling tactic in order to increase the size of their forces, Henry decided to call their bluff and initiate an attack rather than wait.
As it was, Henry’s army was outnumbered by about 3 to 1 at that point. Whereas Henry’s men were tired from marching, hungry, and suffering from dysentery, the French were well armed, fed and rested. Moreover, the French had thousands of armored knights, including over a thousand on horseback, and thousands of crossbowmen as well.
Henry, however, had two advantages of his own: planning and the English longbow. Henry’s plan was to lure the French into a narrow field hemmed in on both sides by thick woods. That field, moreover, had recently been plowed, and recent rains had made it thick with mud would slow the movement of the French armored knights. There, in that bottleneck, they would be sitting ducks to his longbow men – who made up about 80% of his forces – shooting arrows that could pierce armor at 200 yards.
The battle began on the morning of October 25, 1415, with the two armies facing each other on the field at Agincourt. Henry ordered his front line of soldiers to make a short advance forward from their defensive positions towards the French, hoping to induce the French, with their superior numbers, to attack. It worked. Seeing the English appearing to leave their defensive positions induced the main French front line of knights and foot soldiers to charge.
The French smashed into the English front line, pushing them back. This was part of Henry’s plan, however – as more and more French knights pushed into the breach left open by the retreating English, they became so densely packed in the narrow field that they were left without enough room to even raise their weapons. The press of French soldiers from the back made it impossible for those in front to move or fight – many were literally pushed by their countrymen behind them into English spear points. Some were crushed so badly that they suffocated in their armor.
Making matters worse, the thick mud had made it impossible for armored knights to move – many who slipped in the mud became stuck and were unable to even get back up. And, all this time, English longbow men were raining deadly arrows upon the French, who had no way to stop them.
French mounted knights tried to attack the lines of English archers off to the side, but this ended badly as well. Henry’s archers had defended their positions with pointed stakes in the ground, and with the woods behind them the mounted knights could not get around their flanks. Knights who were not shot themselves found their horses shot from under them, and the deep mud they fell into became a trap.
When the bowmen ran out of arrows, they grabbed hatchets, swords and hammers and fell upon the exhausted, bewildered and stuck French knights. When French reinforcements tried to join the attack, they too became trapped in the mud and bottleneck, suffering the same fate as those who went before them. Thousands were killed and thousands more captured – but that was not the end of it.
Soon after a lull in the fighting, when the initial English victory was clear, Henry became worried that the remaining large French rearguard was assembling for a counter-attack. He had a panic attack that the French prisoners – who at that point outnumbered the English – would then grab whatever weapons were laying around the battlefield and turn on their captors. Consequently, he ordered his men to kill all prisoners except those of high rank, who could be ransomed back to the French for cash. Hundreds, if not thousands, were put to the sword.
While reliable casualty figures are impossible to come by, it is estimated that the English suffered perhaps 500 dead, and the French at least 10 times that number. Henry returned to England where he was hailed as a conquering hero. While the political results took some time to develop, the stunning victory gave his claim to the French throne legitimacy in European eyes, and he was able to continue his military conquest of France. His campaign concluded in 1420 he married Catherine, daughter of Charles, King of France, and was officially named heir to the French throne.
Ironically, having worked so hard to gain the French crown, he never wore it; Henry died in 1422, likely from the effects of having spent so many years fighting. The Hundred Years War continued, but after Henry’s death the French slowly gained the upper hand. By 1453 the English had lost all the territory Henry had gained in France, and while thereafter English Kings continued to claim the French crown, they were never again in a position to take it.