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1415: The million gallon question

The 25 October this year will mark the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, where the English longbow so famously cut down the flower of French chivalry (or did it?). In the first of a new three part series leading up to the anniversary we examine the role of wine (and a little beer) in one of the most famous campaigns of the Hundred Years War.

An illumination of a medieval siege – although, judging from the “Oriflamme“-looking flag on the left of the picture the attackers may be French. Besieging an English castle near Bordeaux perhaps?

“Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach’d,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disorder’d twigs.”

Duke of Burgundy, Henry V, Act 5, scene ii.

“And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country.”


Through the story of the campaign and the horror of medieval combat we will see how wine entwined itself through and is an absolutely essential element to Agincourt, its preface and its aftermath. We will seek to examine how much wine the English army consumed, the thriving viticultural landscape of northern France, now almost entirely lost, and how the citizens of London fêted the victorious Henry V with vinous biblical allegories on his return to the capital.

As much work as possible has gone into making these essays factually correct although access to original, primary sources has proved sadly impossible and, no doubt, leaves certain arguments fatally flawed. This is not a strictly academic paper, it does not purport to reinvent the historical narrative nor undermine the work of very experienced historians for whom Agincourt is at the centre of their professional work and research.

It will hopefully, though, throw some light onto another aspect of the campaign and perhaps prompt someone better qualified than I to research it more fully. If the suggestions made below can one day be verified or even refuted and another view put forward it might, perhaps, have achieved something.

My thanks in particular must go to the historian and author Juliet Barker for her patient and very kind responses to my questions especially regarding the piece below, I hope she does not mind my taking her name in vain, and also to Professor Christopher Tyreman of Hertford College, Oxford who was also kind enough to respond to my slightly out-of-left-field questions.



Agincourt for most will conjure up ideas of chivalry, Shakespeare and a victory against the odds. But amid the speeches and heroics the last thing anyone thinks of is logistics and, in many ways, this is a tale of logistics – and a longbow, with some guts behind it.

An army may look splendid but if it is not fed it will not fight and if it cannot drink it will not be happy. As such when Henry V of England rekindled the Hundred Years War 600 years ago in a bid to reclaim his, “just rights and inheritances” in France, wine (and beer) was very much at the heart of his plans of conquest.

The territories that made up this French ‘inheritance’ were the duchies of Normandy and Anjou and the counties of Poitou and Maine.

These titles and domains had previously been English, constituent parts of the Angevin empire created by his great ancestor Henry II; an empire formed in no small measure through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152.

The empire crumbled under Henry’s son John I (also known as ‘Lackland’), with only Aquitaine (or “Guyenne/Guienne” in French) remaining in English hands.

Much of this territory was regained by Henry’s great-grandfather Edward III between 1337 and 1360 and then lost again during the French king Charles V’s ‘reconquista’ of 1369-1380.

Both Richard II, who was also the son-in-law of Charles VI[1] of France, and Henry IV had been too busy consolidating power at home to embark on too many foreign adventures. Under “noble Harry” things would be very different.

Henry V had not been born to be a king. His father Henry ‘Bolingbroke’ was Duke of Hereford and a first cousin of Richard II. Bolingbroke’s father was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the younger son of Edward III[2]. This made both Bolingbroke and his children royal by birth but not immediate heirs to the throne.

Bolingbroke was exiled following a spat with the Duke of Norfolk and during his absence his father, old Gaunt, died whereupon Richard disinherited Bolingbroke and took the lands and titles of Lancaster – some of the richest in the country – for himself. Richard’s increasingly tyrannical behaviour won him few friends and when Bolingbroke returned, ostensibly to reclaim his inheritance, he found many willing to help him depose Richard and make him Henry IV, which duly happened in 1399. His claim was disputed and he had to fight to uphold it, most notably at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.

During that battle the younger Henry, then Prince of Wales, was hit in the face by an arrow. It was later extracted with some skill by a surgeon who then cleaned the wound with wine and honey – evidence of the known antiseptic qualities of both. The wound and operation no doubt left a horrible scar[3] and it is possibly the reason one of the few portraits of Henry we have shows him in profile (above left, although he was apparently struck in the left-hand side of his face which is shown here).

Even if his father, by the time of his death in 1413, had stamped out most opposition to his rule, the taint of usurpation still lingered. For Henry V, victory in France would be read as divinely ordained and clear any lingering doubts he and the Lancastrians were ‘usurpers’ to the English crown. The campaign therefore was akin to a crusade to legitimise his dynasty and reinstate lands he saw as his by birthright.

A civil war in France between the princes of the ‘Armagnac’ and ‘Burgundian’ factions at court while Charles VI suffered his periodic bouts of madness meant the country was divided, weak and open to a fresh English assault.

Despite much diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing from Henry’s accession in 1413 and into 1415, war was inevitable.


The campaign begins:

“Fair stood the wind for France.” Laurence Olivier, perhaps the seminal celluloid Henry V – as imagined by Shakespeare at least.

Preparations for such an enormous undertaking grew steadily for several years but stepped up a gear in the summer of 1415 as the invasion force gathered in Southampton.

The sheriffs of Kent, Oxford, Wiltshire and Hampshire were charged with rounding up two hundred head of cattle and oxen from each county, while a further writ to the sheriff of Hampshire ordered him to proclaim that “all the king’s loyal subjects in Wiltshire, Southampton and all the other towns, markets and hamlets of the county should begin baking and brewing ‘against the coming of the king, his retinue and his subjects’.”[4]

A foiled rebellion[5] delayed the departure slightly but eventually the English army[6] set sail from Southampton in its armada. After a two-day crossing the English appeared unopposed off the Norman coast and had brought all of their supplies and equipment ashore by 16 August 1415. By 19 August, the English had the important port of Harfleur fully invested.

Our first insight into the state of English supplies at Harfleur, comes courtesy of a young chaplain called Raoul le Gay. Captured in the early stages of the landing by some English soldiers he was eventually interrogated by the Earl of Dorset and then Henry himself before being set free.

Le Gay was not physically mistreated during his detention but afterwards loudly complained of the lack of food and drink he’d had to endure. As we shall see though, the English army was hardly short of supplies and le Gay’s real complaint seems to be that he heartily disliked the English ale he was offered on the sporadic occasions anyone thought to feed him.

Detained for 13 days it was quickly deduced that he had no information of any use to impart and so he was released but not before Richard Courtenay, bishop of Norwich and one of Henry’s chief spymasters, told le Gay to pass on the message to a contact in Paris that the king had landed with, “50,000 men, 4,000 barrels of wheat, 4,000 casks of wine[7], 12 large guns and sufficient material to sustain a six-month siege,” which was a gross exaggeration in general but perhaps not entirely[8].

From a depiction in the Bayeux Tapestry we know the Normans embarked on their invasion of England with supplies of wine and Edward III during the Crécy campaign of 1346 had taken 300 tuns worth of wine with him to France[9], a sizeable amount but not enough to sustain his army – deliberately so for he intended to live off the land. Henry V by contrast was embarking on an altogether more extensive and ambitious enterprise.


A question of supply:

The term ‘medieval’ with all its associated stigmas of ignorance, superstition and violence is today used as an insult. In fact, while the period was all of those things, to look at it solely in this way is to ignore how creative and imaginative medieval people and how sophisticated their political, military, bureaucratic and artistic institutions were. It is worth remembering that many of the people who would launch the Renaissance had already been born in 1415 while those who would take it to its greatest heights would be born within a generation.

As such the extent and sophistication of medieval logistics while often over-looked or casually glossed over deserves some attention. Shipping an army of nearly 12,000 fighting men, a further 3,000 servants and attendants, 20,000 horses and artillery and keeping them supplied would still be a prodigious feat today and it was one Henry and his captains managed admirably.

There was a central supply depot organised by the king’s household, which ensured that shipments of flour, beer, wine, and fresh and salt fish and beef were brought into the camp to supply the troops.

Personal enterprise was also much in evidence. The earl marshal, Sir Thomas Erpingham, hired his own ships to bring corn, flour, wine, beer and even a barrel of salmon over during the course of the siege to feed his retinue and other lords will have presumably done likewise.

As Juliet Barker continues: “The charge that the English were short of victuals [and thus fell prey to disease] is not borne out by the evidence.”[10]

She cites the Lancashire knight Sir James Harington who was later debited for 428 pounds of flour, 2,576 pounds of beef and 4,545 gallons of wine[11] provided to his 50 archers[12] during the financial quarter ending 5 October from the aforementioned central depot.

Can we ever know how much wine the English provisioned for themselves and drank during the Agincourt campaign? Medieval sources being what they are (often imprecise, incomplete or inaccurate and sometimes all three) the answer is, probably not.

But we do have tantalising glimpses that give us a chance to at least attempt a reconstruction.

This next passage therefore will have to be treated more as what was feasible rather than absolute fact but nonetheless, even at its least extent, it will hopefully show the surprising and wholly impressive extent of the English army’s preparations for the campaign.

It should be noted that a medieval gallon was somewhat smaller than the later Imperial gallon set down in 1824, the former being 104 fluid ounces to the latter’s 160 fl oz. One medieval gallon is therefore a little closer to the current US gallon (123 fl oz.) and equates to roughly 2.95 litres; for the rest of this piece only medieval measurements will be used.

Those 4,545 gallons split between Harington’s 50 archers comes out at 90.9 gallons per man, which is a pinch (0.99) under a gallon a day for the three months the ration presumably covered – which is the financial quarter from August to October 1415.

If we then take Harington’s retinue as our control group and assume it was entirely typical in the rations it received, and there appears no reason to think otherwise, that means that from August to October 1415, the English army was being provisioned from supplies of wine up to one million gallons in size.

This argument is by default broad and imprecise due to lack of exact figures and its reliance on the rations of just one retinue. Nonetheless, let us take 90.9 gallons as our average wine ration for the period in question. That means an army of 11,000-12,000 men would have needed 999,900 to a little over one million gallons of wine.

Ignoring for the immediate present the question of whether or not that is how much wine actually made its way into the English supply depots or was even drunk, let us consider this question: “Was the supply and shipment of up to one million gallons possible in the fifteenth century?”

In the Middle Ages wine exports were measured in ‘tuns’, one tun being the equivalent of 252 gallons. Not all ships would have been capable of carrying full-size tun casks and so wine was also shipped in smaller pipes (or butts as they are also known), hogsheads and barrels[13] in the necessary combination to make the required tonnage – hence why a ship’s storage capacity is referred to as such today.

Our proposed wine ration for Henry’s army, therefore, would amount to between 3,967 to 4,328 tuns.

Medieval fleet from Edwards IV’s “Descent from Rollo and The Romance of the Three Kings’ Sons”, London, c.1475-85

The Hundred Years War severely hurt the production and trade of Gascon wine but exports from Bordeaux in 1412-1413 still totalled 13,158 tuns, while in 1422-23 they hit 16,258. This was down from even higher totals in the fourteenth century, the peak of which was over 100,000 tuns exported in 1308-09[14]. So Bordeaux’s capacity alone was enough to supply the English if necessary but wines from Portugal and Spain were also widely imported, as were the more expensive sweet wines from Greece and Italy which were all no doubt added to the supply pool.

The transport of this amount of tonnage would also have been no issue. The Gesta Henrici Quinti – “Deeds of Henry V” – claims Henry’s invasion fleet consisted of 1,500 ships but more recent research by Craig Lambert from the University of Southampton suggests it was probably closer to 650, perhaps 700. It is generally agreed however that all of them were over 20 tons in capacity and some of Henry’s flagships such as Holy Ghost had a capacity of 750 tons.

If the fleet was as big as the Gesta Henrici chronicler claims then the tonnage needed to transport our proposed wine ration would amount to each ship carrying just 2.6 or 2.8 tuns-worth per vessel. With the revised figures from Lambert this increases to 6.1 to 6.6 tuns.

It’s true it would have made up a large proportion of the tonnage available but it would certainly appear to be possible and let us not discount the possibility that some supplies might have been left in Southampton for collection and shipment over to France at a later date once the army had landed and the siege was underway.

Furthermore, the English army did not need one million gallons for the siege of Harfleur alone. If we imagine 650 ships transporting 2.6 tuns each – and they would have taken wine and beer casks for ballast – then the fleet could still transport 1,690 tuns in one go, the equivalent of 425,880 gallons, which is well over a month’s worth of wine for an army of 12,000 with each man receiving 0.99 gallons a day. As Henry expected a quick siege and then aimed to use Harfleur as an operating base to capture more towns in Normandy this would have been a practical amount to take and ensure his army was ‘watered’ well into September.

Could they have drunk that much? People in the Middle Ages certainly drank more than we do now, the daily ration for people in Provence and the Languedoc at this time was one to two litres a day. Although it’s a mistake to think people in the Middle Ages drank no water, it’s true that finding safe drinking water was often more difficult so beer or wine was the best thing to consume.

We have of course treated Harington’s men as ‘typical’ in the ration they received for the sake of argument. It’s possible they drank more than the average and their lord, in the circumstances, was happy to foot the bill. They were all Lancashire lads after all and the English have always had a reputation for heavy drinking abroad.

Why else might so much wine have been collected? There are a couple of possible reasons:

  • Wastage: a good amount of wine would have been lost through various means including damages in transit, evaporation and spoilage. Did Henry’s commissariat deliberately order too much wine knowing they would lose a proportion of it? The chroniclers do mention that supplies were ruined in the crossing.
  • Medicine: One can also not discount the use of wine in medicine. As mentioned before, wine was used to wash Henry’s wound after the operation to remove the arrowhead from his cheek following the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 so it would appear wine as a rudimentary antiseptic and anesthetic was an important part of a medieval doctor’s medicine cabinet. After most battles it was the nobility who would have had access to the best and most thorough medical attention but during a siege where casualties would arrive in fewer numbers there was probably time to look after even humble soldiers.

Even with one million gallons stockpiled and with casualties accounted for, at the rate of consumption set above we may conjecture that the English had drawn on 640,000 to 650,000 perhaps a maximum of 700,000 gallons from their gathering in Southampton in August to the time they set off from Harfleur on their march to Calais in early October.

As Henry intended Harfleur to be his base he needed it to be fully if not over- stocked with food and wine. Barker suggests that with one eye on the coming financial quarter beginning on 6 October, by early September Henry was already thinking of resupplying his depleted provisions.

On 1 October a letter dated 3 September from Henry arrived urging the members of the town council of Bordeaux, the “jurats”[15], to send “as quickly as possible” as much wine and other foodstuffs as they could spare with the promise of full reimbursement.

Master Jean de Bordiu[16], the former chancellor of Guyenne, who was accompanying Henry provided a covering letter suggesting the shipment of between 500 and 700 tuns of wine (126,000 to 176,400 gallons) in one go – a prodigious amount and indicative of how large Bordeaux’s vineyards were in this period.

By the time the letter arrived Harfleur had already fallen but if Henry was hoping for a quick turnaround he was to be disappointed. Having received the letter and gathered to discuss it on the 2nd, the jurats took until 13 October to agree to send just 200 tuns. And these were never shipped either as, at the end of that month, the councillors decided that winter was too close to risk a precious ship and its equally precious cargo on storm-tossed seas.

In their defence they had already sent 100 tuns of wine to Harfleur but this had been in lieu of two “siege machines”[17] they were meant to have supplied and 29,000 crowns (écus), which were owed to Thomas Beaufort the Earl of Dorset[18], for a campaign he’d conducted with the Duke of Clarence in the region in 1412.

In the end, “part” of the promised wine was shipped to Harfleur in early 1416 on the Bayonnais ship, Master Nicholon de Sent Johan. Harfleur at this point was under the stewardship of Dorset, and the wine was “well received” according to a letter dated March 1416 – though it also noted that Dorset was still peeved at not receiving the money still owed to him[19].

Let us return to return to the siege in 1415 though. Harfleur had proved a tough nut to crack. August dragged into September and dysentery, the bane of armies in the Middle Ages, soon broke out. Various causes are ascribed, as we see above, lack of fresh supplies was hardly an issue, at least to begin with.

It is said that some of the more adventurous soldiers began collecting shellfish in marshes that were part of the town’s sewer system, while another explanation points to the flooded fields around Harfleur, inundated by the townspeople as part of their defences.

These were eventually drained but for a long time these large standing bodies of water, along with the marshes, insufficient space to dispose of corpses, human and animal faeces (latrines were dug but were soon overflowing) and the hot and humid weather meant the entire area was a huge petri dish for cultivating bacteria. Coupled with the medieval man’s notoriously poor standard of hygiene a virulent epidemic was practically assured.

The numbers who succumbed in the outbreak are, naturally disputed. Death estimates in the English camp range from as high as 2,000 men to as low as 50.

The disease certainly incapacitated thousands of men though and carried off both Bishop Courtenay and the Earl of Suffolk as well as several more knights of Henry’s household. It must have been a grim time but the sickness was rife in the town too and, with no prospect of a relief force arriving, Harfleur capitulated on 22 September.

A garrison of 1,200 men under the Earl of Dorset, was picked and two of Henry’s warships, Katherine de la Tour and Holy Ghost, were tasked with plying back and forth across the Channel to restock the town garrison’s beer and wine supplies (the Bordelais having failed to deliver).

Henry was now faced with several choices. It was late in the “campaigning season”, and with a sick army and bad weather closing in Henry would be taking an enormous risk pushing on into France. Yet the capture of Harfleur by itself was not enough to justify the enormous expenses incurred in raising his army, shipping it to France and supplying it. Henry wasn’t the only one who’d incurred serious debts in order to mount the campaign. The medieval soldier, particularly the nobility and other knights, saw war as business. Raising a retinue to fight in a sovereign’s wars was extremely expensive for them and so in return they expected the chance to win some of that money back through plunder and ransoming high-value prisoners captured in sieges and battles.

Taking Harfleur had been an impressive achievement but declaring the expedition a success there and then and going home wasn’t a satisfactory option. He could turn south for Bordeaux on a long-range raid known as a ‘chevauchée’, devastating the countryside and providing plunder for the men and perhaps knocking over some hapless garrisons on the way; taking some knights and minor barons or bailli prisoner for ransom. This had been his great-grandfather’s preferred method of warfare (and why his logistical preparations had been more limited) while his grandfather John of Gaunt had conducted one of the most famous of these raids in 1373. Yet this too would be scant recompense for such a bold undertaking nor did it chime with Henry’s rather messianic if also benign view of France – that it was his by divine right and the people in it his subjects and, thus, not to be subjected to the horrors of rape, pillage and plunder.

The third, more dangerous option, and the one Henry already had in mind, was an eight day march through Normandy and Picardy to English-held Calais. It was to be less of a chevauchée than a cavalcade through territory Henry deemed to be his. It was also a calculated provocation. Henry knew a French army under the Constable Charles d’Albret, Marshal Boucicaut and the Dukes of Orléans and Bourbon was gathering at Rouen. He also knew that the march would take him along the same route as his great-grandfather had taken in 1346 – a chevauchée that had ended in the great English victory of Crécy.

He was throwing down the gauntlet to the French to either let him pass unmolested through northern France and tacitly acknowledge his right to do so or challenge him to battle and let God decide the victor in a trial by combat. Victory in such an event would prove the righteousness of his cause and crusade.

Click here for part II.

Footnotes to the text can be found on the following page.

[1] He married Charles’ daughter, Isabella of Valois, in 1396 when she was just six. The marriage was not consummated. Widowed three years later Isabella was almost matched with Henry V but was eventually married to Charles, Duke of Orléans (who we shall meet later in the story) in 1406 and died in childbirth aged just 19 in 1409.

[2] And thus founder of the “House of Lancaster”. Gaunt was brother to the famous “Black Prince”, who was Richard II’s father.

[3] Alexander the Great’s father Philip of Macedon suffered a similar injury and a reconstruction of his face based on his skull revealed a fearsome injury that cost him his right eye. Henry’s wound was not so severe but it is perhaps demonstrative.

[4] Barker, Juliet (2005) “Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle”, Abacus. p100.

[5] The “Southampton Plot” of Henry Scrope 3rd Baron Scrope of Marsham, Richard Earl of Cambridge (brother of the Duke of York) and Sir Thomas Grey to replace Henry with Edmund Earl or March. March himself spilled the beans to Henry and Scrope, Cambridge and Grey went to the scaffold.

[6] The ‘English’ army actually contained a substantial Welsh contingent. Henry had been born at Monmouth and was proud of his Welsh roots: “I’m a Welshman” as Shakespeare has him tell Pistol in Henry V. English will nonetheless be used throughout for the sake of convenience.

[7] Cask is a frustratingly vague word, encompassing as it does everything from a tun to a barrel.

[8] For the record, le Gay never did deliver the message. He balked at the task and skulked around nearby Montvilliers until he was denounced by a Benedictine monk who’d also been an English prisoner and who knew le Gay was carrying enemy letters. He and the would-be recipient in Paris were arrested and the latter put on trial for treason. Le Gay’s protestations of innocence were believed and he was released while the other defendant, also a churchman, was imprisoned and then banished to the provinces for life.

[9] Barber, Richard (2013) “Edward III and the Triumph of England: The Battle of Crécy and the Company of the Garter”, Penguin Books, p185.

[10] Barker, Op cit. p190.

[11] And an additional two pitchers notes Barker.

[12] A high proportion of archers were drawn from Lancashire, Cheshire and Wales because of their renown and skill with the longbow. Retinues from elsewhere in England were recruited with a ratio of three archers to one man-at-arms.

[13] Eight barrels made a hogshead, four hogsheads made a pipe/butt and two pipes a tun. Pipe and butt are interchangeable. These are the English measurements, the same terms were used in France and Spain but often meant slightly different volumes. Nor are they directly equivalent to modern volumes. An English pipe in the 15th century was 126 Imperial gallons, a Spanish one 100-105 gallons while a modern Port pipe is 115 gallons.

[14] Unwin, Tim (1991), “Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade”, pp199-201

[15] The council of Bordeaux was known as the Jurade and was composed of 12 jurats and led by the mayor/governor who was appointed by the king.

[16] Sometimes identified as the archdeacon of the Médoc.

[17] Whether cannons, trebuchets or other paraphernalia is not immediately clear.

[18] Henry IV’s half-brother and thus Henry V’s uncle. He was made lieutenant of Normandy and Duke of Exeter in 1416.

[19] Haure, Vincent. (2015) “Why did the city of Bordeaux celebrate the victory of Agincourt only moderately?”,

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