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1415: Wine and the Agincourt campaign

(NB: This series of articles was originally published in October 2015)

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.

Hague KB, 72 A 25 - Froissart's Chronicles - 135r - Edward III takes Poix Castle
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.”

Ibid.

Through the story of the campaign and the horror of medieval combat we will see how wine entwined itself through the story of the battle of 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.

 

Introduction:

Henry VAgincourt 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 at the start of the Hundred Years War 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:

henry-v-01-g
“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.

Cask-Sizes-DC-1024x438But 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.

Holy-Ghost-1 agincourt henry v
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].

siege_orleansLet 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.

 

Footnotes to the text can be found below.

[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?”, www.agincourt600.com

In the second part of our look at wine in the Agincourt campaign, we turn our attention to medieval viticulture, hypothesise on the taste of wine in the fifteenth century and how people then viewed fine wine.

olivier-harfleur-lgAnd if he be not fought withal, my lord,
Let us not live in France; let us quit all
And give our vineyards to a barbarous people.”

Charles d’Albret, Constable of France, Henry V, act 3, scene v.

The army struck out from Harfleur between the 6-9 October – the chronicles are conflicting on the exact date – and stuck to the coastal road.

Shipping the army to France for a siege had been a major undertaking, keeping an army full of sick men together on the march in steadily worsening autumn weather was another altogether. Supply once again was a key issue.

The record of Henry’s march through Normandy is not especially thrilling in itself but is interesting for us in that it shows the sheer extent of viticulture in France in the Middle Ages.

As Henry’s “ordinance”[1] for the campaign forbade the plundering of the countryside in “our lands in France”, each man was ordered to take a week’s worth of supplies with him to last the eight days it was expected they would take to reach Calais.

In some texts Henry supposedly heads off to Calais without a supply train in order to move faster across the French countryside. He might have been daring the French to do battle with him but simultaneously hoping he could out march them and avoid confrontation altogether given the state of his forces.

Then again, even if the whole thing was a daring bluff, a gamble, it seems odd that a commander who had previously been so apparently meticulous in regard to his logistics would cast aside the need for a wagon train entirely. And how else were the royal tent, crown jewels and holy relics to be transported? Not least the royal wine supply? The archers may have been forced to yomp, tab and march burdened down with kit but not so the nobles.

If we refer to the sums from part one, we will remember that each man had a ration of just under a gallon of wine a day. For eight days one man would therefore expect just under eight gallons. An army of some 6,000 would therefore require 47,947 gallons – 190 tuns of wine.

These and the other supplies and equipment would have been loaded onto bullock or oxen-driven carts which would have formed the central body of the army on its march.

Richard Barber in his book on the Crécy campaign of 1346 notes that a medieval army would have had one cart for every 20 combatants[2]. An army of 6,000 therefore would have needed 300 carts and probably taken more if it were able. Each cart was capable of carrying one ton of supplies approximately so 190 tuns would have taken up over half the army’s transportation. This seems too much although how much weight other supplies took up is difficult to quantify. As Henry expected a battle to be fought, his knights and men-at-arms travelled fully armoured rather than keeping their armour stored in barrels on the carts as was more usual and this would have saved a lot of space. The men themselves, particularly the 5,000 or so archers, would have carried a certain amount of equipment, food and drink on their person as soldiers have always done.

Let us not forget that wine and beer was more important to the medieval man than water so transportation of a large amount of wine would have been given some priority. As Barber again points out in reference to the 300 tuns Edward III took on campaign, “this was no luxury, but an essential part of the supplies.”[3]

One hundred and ninety tuns may be too much but if we downgrade that number to 100 (a third of Henry’s transport wagons), then Henry was still taking 25,200 gallons with him, enough to supply an army of 6,000 men with half a gallon a day each on the projected eight day march. Whatever the amount taken we may imagine that this was deducted from the stocks that had already been brought to France.

It was also no doubt hoped that additional supplies either from towns or the surrounding countryside might be obtained along the way – either given freely or leveraged by any means necessary.

“Other means” was largely what it turned out to be. Henry might have viewed Normandy as a simple extension of his domains in England or Ireland, but the Normans themselves were not, it seems, at all convinced.

Upon arriving at each large town on his route – and finding the gates closed against him – Henry therefore resorted to the rather contradictory expedient of threatening to burn down the town and pillage the surroundings unless bread and wine were turned over to him and his army.

This would be the pattern of the campaign. Henry would avoid the better fortified towns such as Dieppe but bully smaller ones such as Arques and Eu into handing over supplies or, more accurately, their “tribute”. In this early stage of the march the point of these demands was not so much to supplement the supplies the English had with them. We shall see later that the presentation of bread and wine to a victorious king had a clear biblical origin, which would have been immediately evident to the people of the fifteenth century, not least Henry who was an extremely religious man.

While the handing over of bread and wine did serve a limited practical purpose, as a demonstration of power and acknowledgement of divine blessing on his enterprise joust4it had a stronger double meaning – one of submission and homage on the part of his new “subjects”. Furthermore, to strengthen this theory remember that Arques and Eu were reached well before the initial rations would have begun running out so demanding food from those towns was almost certainly intended as a symbolic act on their part rather than essential to the replenishing of supplies.

Supplication may have been the inescapable final result but the French did not always go quietly.

As towns were approached or left, the garrisons (defiant or enraged) occasionally ventured forth to skirmish with the English van or rearguards. At Eu, as the English vanguard approached, the garrison rode out to meet them. A “very valiant man-at-arms” named Lancelot Pières couched his lance in a challenge which was answered by an English knight. In a scene straight out of an illuminated manuscript or “the pages of Froissart”[4] the two knights spurred their horses at each other and clashed with such force that witnesses swore they drove their lances through each other’s bodies. Crashing lifeless to the ground Lancelot had secured his place in the annals of chivalry but the identity of the equally bold and tragic Englishman remains sadly unknown.

This needless, even suicidal act to modern eyes nonetheless is exactly what one expects of the period and what knights expected of each other. To court danger and not flinch in the face of death even as you succumbed to a mortal stroke was praiseworthy to knightly eyes. They were a warrior class in an often violent age and death was sweet if well met. Yet it also contrasts neatly with a world increasingly on the cusp of a more modern era, where ostentatious displays of knightly posturing and braggadocio sat alongside an ever more powerful mercantile middle class, and their bureaucratic and legal institutions; where a lord could be charged for even two additional pitchers of wine. The fifteenth century was not quite the last hurrah of the chivalric ideal but it was getting close.

But these displays of gallantry aside many garrisons generally hunkered down behind their walls, complied with Henry’s demands and simply hoped his army would move swiftly on to bother somebody else and if the price of that was some wine and bread then so be it.

 

Natural wine paradise?

The exquisite illustration showing the harvest at the Château de Saumur in 1416 (or perhaps 1415?) as depicted in the Duke of Berry’s Les Très Riches Heures. Small plots around castles and towns providing wine for the local area would have been the norm.

What is clear from the various sources though is that the wine they were handing over was locally produced which points to an agricultural landscape in medieval Normandy that included vines – something conspicuous by its absence now[5].

It should not surprise us terribly that a province such as Normandy had a wine industry in the fifteenth century – though “industry” is possibly too strong a word for it as mono-agriculture was not practised at this time.

There is a consensus that the early Middle Ages were warmer than our current climate which those interested in such matters have rather prosaically dubbed the “Medieval Warm Period” (MWP). This theory might explain the much greater spread of viticulture in France at the time but it is disputed as it is sometimes used to support the argument that the Earth goes through cyclical warm and cool periods and this is rejected by those convinced it is manmade pollution that is causing global climate change.

In a warmer climate, whites from northern France may not have been as piercingly acidic as certain northern European wines, such as still Champagnes, are today as they would have had more exposure to warmer weather and longer to ripen on the vine.

But were medieval harvests later than they are now? By the 15th century this MWP was at an end and the grape harvest is a common motif used to illustrate September or October in manuscripts from this period and, as we shall see below, if Henry’s army was drinking new wine from the barrels and presses in the town of Boves around 18-19 October, then the harvest must have begun in mid to late September or early October – which is not really so different from today or even the last one to two hundred years.

Whatever the truth of it though, what is not in question is that vines were extensively planted all over France at this time chiefly because wine was such an integral part of life and the medieval diet.

Niceties such as “terroir” were not always (if at all) of prime importance to medieval vintners and consumers. Wine was there to be drunk as part of a healthy diet and was as much of a staple as bread.

There were extensive vineyards around Paris for example and vineyards producing wine to grace baronial and monastic tables as well those of ruder homesteads often encircled towns, castles and abbeys across the country. The accompanying image (above left) for September from the Duke of Berry’s “book of hours”[6] from 1416, “Les Très Riches Heures de Jean de France, Duc de Berry”, shows a harvest taking place around the Château de Saumur – and it is not impossible to imagine the scene as typical to the set-up around the Norman towns through which Henry and the English army would have passed.

With this in mind the idea that it was the introduction of cork was responsible for “mass consumption” of wine in most of Europe is likely untrue. Vines were planted everywhere and hence wine was produced and consumed everywhere by rich and poor alike. Writing in 1968, Jean Durliat argued that since the 9th century ad, “the cultivation of the vine was not an aristocratic pastime but a normal occupation at every level of the peasant world.”[7]

There was also a busy international wine trade at this time. The best wine, from Bordeaux and Burgundy for example, was shipped abroad, even as far afield as Scandinavia and the Baltic, with London acting then as it is now as an important central hub. We have already seen Master Bordiu asking for a huge amount of wine to be shipped to the English army camped around Harfleur. He must have known that volumes of that sort were, relatively, easy to get hold of or he presumably wouldn’t have suggested that much.

vine pruning simon bening da costa hours

A detail of workers in a vineyard by the famous sixteenth century Flemish illustrator, Simon Bening; this from the February chapter of the Da Costa book of hours from 1515. The scene would have been little different to the previous century and even if set in a fantasy landscape note how the vines are trained up posts as they still are in the Mosel.

Most wines of the time were often white, particularly in the north and it is striking that it was the wines of Burgundy – generically referred to as “Beaune wines” – that were considered among the most powerfully flavoured and coloured in medieval Europe.

The taste of the wine is open to speculation but they were almost certainly what we might now term “biodynamic”, “natural” or “low intervention” wines. There were no pesticides, the arrival of phylloxera was centuries away so the vines were all ungrafted, they may have had very old vines or perhaps like today they replanted after a few decades to maintain crop levels, they only had access to natural yeasts and spontaneous fermentation would have been the norm because medieval vintners had no idea how to induce or control it; in fact they had no idea what caused it they just knew it happened. Finally the wines would have been unfiltered and unfined. All in all it does sound like a bit of a paradise for those in favour of minimal intervention, ‘natural’ wines..

The trouble with winemaking is that under even relatively controlled conditions there are many variables and so trying to pin down wine styles, often using grapes and blends which are no longer used commercially today or even completely lost to us, and then to trying to work out how they might have tasted from what we know of the winemaking that underpinned them is, essentially, pure guess work.

The wines are often said to have had a relatively short shelf life; around six months or so as a lack of stabilising agents would then have turned the wine to vinegar and with spontaneous fermentation if the weather was too cool then other bacteria could ruin the wine before fermentation had even begun.

A lot, it is true, would have been consumed locally and fairly swiftly but as wine was so important to their diet it had to last from one harvest to the next. Not all wine would be drunk ‘new’ and a good proportion must have had enough staying power to last a whole year at least.

There was always a limited trade in ‘reek’ wines from Bordeaux as well, which is to say wines from the previous years harvest that had been kept back for ageing.

On the evidence of the trade in wine alone it stands to reason that not all wine did spoil as a matter of course or that they did have methods of preserving it; distillation at this time was not a widespread enough industry to fortify wines but spoiled or low quality wine often had spices or honey added to it to mask the taste and prolong its drinking life.

But even today, admittedly under cleaner conditions and with a better understanding of what’s going on, when producers are experimenting with no sulphur[8] or spontaneous fermentation or even using these techniques to make their wines as a matter of course they manage to avoid these problems. Perhaps so their medieval forebears?

It is perhaps possible that kept on their lees and exposed to oxygen, perhaps with a flor developing in barrel many wines might have become a little “sherried” in style (as we would see it), giving them a distinctive taste no doubt but also less prone to spoiling.

In a particularly warm year the utter lack of specially cultivated yeasts might have led to sweeter wines or wines that never fully fermented. By contrast, a particularly cold snap or early winter could lead to the yeast becoming dormant, only to reactivate again the following spring and begin to consume the remaining sugar. It is sometimes argued that it was this latter course of action that led to Dom Pérignon’s ‘discovery’ of Champagne.

The pH of a wine is also key to its stability. If the climate was little different from today (hence the similar harvest dates) then full ripeness would not have been achieved leading to lower pH levels and a more stable wine – particularly when paired with high yields which would have been the norm. This in turn would lead to wines that were ‘clean’ and ‘light’ in character – and largely white wines too.

Simon_Bening_-_Oktober

Another delightful illustration from Bening from a book of hours showing October, where wine is being unloaded at a dock in Bruges. Note the man-powered winch for lifting the casks in the background, wine being topped up and the merchant in blue offering a taste of the latest vintage to a customer in red as the broker (perhaps?) hovers between them.

As it happens, it seems the people of the Middle Ages often had comparatively modern tastes when it came to drinks, and absolutely preferred light bodied and ‘clean’ tasting wines.

What their perception of ‘clean’ wines were was perhaps different to ours but Philip the Bold once complained of wines becoming, “yellowed and fat”, which sounds a little like white wine that has oxidised to an extent.

And what of the attachment to vintages?

“Almost all medieval wine was drunk in the year of its vintaging [sic]….We attach importance to the quality of age. Medieval man did not. He was little interested in age and he made no real effort to improve his wines by aging them,” William Mole has argued[9].

Medieval vignerons were certainly concerned with quantity rather more than quality. But is this view that they were not as concerned with quality and age fair?

When Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, issued his famous edict of July 1395 banning Gamay from the Côte d’Or, the less talked about aspect is his insistence that vineyard owners cut back on the amount of manure (animal and human) they spread on their fields to lower crop levels and boost quality.

Sixty years later his grandson Philip the Good repeated the edict adding: “The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation”[10].

This tells us two things. To begin with it backs up the notion that quantity was of greater concern to most vine growers than quality. Gamay then, as now, is easier to cultivate than Pinot Noir and crops higher. This preference for it is not to be sneered at, we know today it is capable of producing exceptionally good wines.

In addition, as wine was so essential to daily life a lot of it was needed. Exactly as it is today, a medieval vigneron would be paid for their wines or grapes and the more they produced the more they got paid and that was all that mattered to them.

Yet the edicts of the two Philips also points to a more refined knowledge of what made better quality wine and the scale of the wine export market, coupled with the high regard with which wines from Portugal, Bordeaux and ‘Beaune’ were held suggests there was a more sophisticated appreciation of wine among medieval consumers and how to make and store it so that it lasted in good condition than is generally supposed.

To begin with it is hard to believe that peasants who were so closely tied to the land and their plants for survival were ignorant of how to get the best out of their vines. Medieval winemakers would also no doubt have been well aware of the quality to be had in the juice from the first pressing and this higher-end stuff would have been siphoned off for commercial use and/or consumption by the vineyard owners, while second and third pressings would be taken and perhaps mixed with water to provide cheap wine for taverns etc.

Crisis:

laurence olivier Henry V

Out of supplies and with the French army closing in, by mid-October Henry may have been rueing his gamble.

By 15 October the English army was in very serious trouble. The 15th was the date they had expected to reach Calais, but the original ford across the Somme – the biggest natural obstacle between them and safety – at Blanchetaque had been too well defended. Henry had therefore been forced to turn south inland following the course of the river to find a new ford but at each one he found the French were already there in strong numbers.

The original supplies they’d taken from Harfleur were running out if not entirely exhausted and, as we have seen, the bread and wine extorted from the various towns was never enough to replenish the dwindling rations.

Far from home, wet, cold, tired, hungry and outnumbered it should be no surprise, as the historian Richard Holmes noted, that many of the soldiery probably came to view the campaign as more of a, “dangerous pub crawl than a crusade”[11].

But drink is also the enemy of discipline and Henry was swift to stamp out potential drunkenness.

One instance of this in particular stands out. During the advance along the Somme, the English came upon the town of Boves. The garrison commander proved himself somewhat more amenable to the English and their demands than others had been and even arranged for them to be billeted in the town.

He turned over eight large baskets of bread although this was unlikely to have been enough for six thousand men and there are reports of Englishmen searching for berries, roots, acorns and even leaves in a bid to assuage their hunger.

But if there was a shortage of food there was no lack of wine. Boves clearly had a great many vineyards and Barker notes that the town had enjoyed a “plentiful harvest of grapes” – and it is pleasing to think that Jancis Robinson MW’s “rule of ‘5’” was as true in 1415 as it still is six hundred years later.

Needless to say the English fell upon the presses and fermenting wine in barrel and began making merry[12]. Their officers, aware of the hardships they were enduring, were liable to be indulgent in such circumstances but not Henry.

Intervening personally he ordered a stop to the drinking. When one of the captains, with surprising temerity, proffered that the men were merely filling their bottles the king supposedly snapped back: “Their bottles! They are making great bottles of their bellies and getting drunk. It must stop at once.”

Reflecting again on his devoutness it is tempting to think he – or maybe a later chronicler with more time on his hands – was immediately reminded of Philippians 3:19 – “Whose end is destruction; whose God is their belly; and whose glory is in their shame; who mind earthly things.”[13]

His men were perhaps not taking his cause as seriously as he would like but this momentary slackening of discipline aside, all in all the conduct of the English army was remarkably good and Henry’s ability to keep it together despite the sickness ravaging it amid the atrocious weather is a testament to both his charisma and his abilities as a general. Only one man was hanged for breaking the ordinance when he stole a pyx[14] from a church and Shakespeare would later make Bardolph, the rogue and sometime companion of Sir John Falstaff, the wretch to suffer this ignominious end, dangling from a lone tree in a rain and windswept plain.

Eventually after a miserable march that had added six days to their journey and with French forces shadowing them every step of the way and cutting off the fords, Henry marched across country to miss a bend in the river, wrong footing the French and allowing for a more or less unopposed crossing at Béthencourt and Voyennes.

But, now over the river, the danger was even greater than before. A few days later Henry received a French herald who informed him that Charles, Duke of Orléans and Jean, Duke of Bourbon offered battle at a place and day of his choosing. Henry replied that he was not hiding and there was no need to arrange a place or time. If the French princes wanted battle, they need only seek him out on the plains of Picardy.

Sure enough on the morning of 24 October, the English vanguard crested a small rise and were confronted with the French army decamping from a valley to their right, “like a countless swarm of locusts”.

The road to Calais was blocked and Henry would have his battle.

Footnotes to the text are below.

[1] Orders of the day or the “rules of engagement” as we might now term them.

[2] Barber, Richard (2013) Op. cit. p230

[3] Ibid, p185.

[4] Barker, Juliet, Op cit, p234.

[5] There is one commercial winery in Normandy today, Arpents du Soleil http://www.arpents-du-soleil.com/en/index.php

[6] A devotional book including a calendar of Church feast days, excerpts from the gospels, psalms and a litany of the saints etc. Often richly decorated they are among the most common illuminated manuscripts still in existence.

[7] Unwin, Tim (1991) Op cit. pp172-174 ref. Durliat, J (1968) “La vigne et le vin dans la region parisienne au début du IXe siècle d’après le Polyptique d’Irminon”, in “Le Moyen Age

[8] The author recently tasted a Mosel Riesling made with natural yeast and no sulphur, which the producer was making as an “orange wine”. It had been in barrel for a year and remained stable. Despite a very slight hint of oxidation the prevailing taste and aroma was of fresh stem ginger.

[9] Mole, William (1966), “Gods, Men and Wine”.

[10] Johnson, Hugh (1989) Vintage: The Story of Wine Simon and Schuster p.134.

[11] Holmes, Richard (1996), “War Walks”, BBC

[12] Some may say this is evidence of a lack of discernment regarding vintages among medieval wine drinkers but this instance more likely typifies cold, tired, hungry soldiers making the most of what they could get.

[13] Douay-Rheims Bible

[14] A small container used to carry a consecrated host. This one was bronze and the army’s chaplain suggested he had mistaken it for gold. It cost him his life.

Trapped, far from home and outnumbered, the English army squares up to a powerful French host and prepares to do battle on the feast day of Saints Crispin and Crispinan.

Laurence Olivier again as Henry V. Behind him in this promotional shot for the 1944 film are reconstructions of the five banners Henry fought under at Agincourt. From left to right they are: the royal arms of England, the crowns of St Edmund, the cross of St George, the standard representing the Holy Trinity and, tucked down in the corner, the cross and martlets of Edward the Confessor.

“Dieu de batailles! Where have they this mettle?
Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull,
On whom, as in despite, the sun looks pale,
Killing their fruit with frowns? Can sodden water,
A drench for sur-rein’d jades, their barley-broth,
Decoct their cold blood to such valiant heat?
And shall our quick blood, spirited with wine,
Seem frosty?” 

Charles d’Albret, Henry V, Act 3, scene v.

After a tense standoff on the 24th the English passed a miserable night on the field. They were close enough to the French to hear the voices of the enemy drifting towards them on the night air and Henry had ordered them not to light fires to keep their positions secret.

So quiet were the English that at one point the French were worried they’d secretly marched away during the night. The French, famously but like all good stories probably fancifully, spent the night drinking wine, boasting and dicing for who would take which English noblemen prisoner.

It rained that night too. Since ancient times it had been noted that rainstorms often presaged great battles. Four hundred years later British officers who’d fought in Spain would remark that the night before nearly every major engagement was heralded by a thunderstorm. It rained heavily before Waterloo in 1815 too and in both instances, redcoat and archer spent the night lying shivering on the sodden plough that, on the morrow, might be their grave.

The next day the two armies drew up for battle, the archers hammered stakes into the ground to deter the French cavalry while the many flags that bobbed and fluttered over their ranks, provided one of the most colourful aspect of the battle – certainly when compared to the principal antagonists on the English side.

Many (author included) will have first been introduced to the period and the battle through Laurence Olivier’s masterly 1944 version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, in a film for which the term “Glorious Technicolor” might have been invented and still isn’t quite enough to describe the spectacle on display. The day is a blaze of sunshine, everyone is scrupulously clean and the French knights are lowered onto their horses with Heath Robinson-esque systems of winches and pulleys.

The reality though was rather different. The English army was tired, hungry, unshaven, cold and, after a night in a muddy field, indescribably filthy. The armour of the men-at-arms would have been rusting through constant use and exposure to rain, rivulets of water running down their helmets staining their faces with russet streaks.

The debate still flows back and forth as to exactly how outnumbered the English were: 10 to one, four to five? What is not in doubt and should not be forgotten is that they were certainly outnumbered, desperate and extremely miserable. Not only were they soaked from the previous night’s downpour, they were hungry, cold and miserable.

If this ragged and bedraggled, semi-naked army didn’t look particularly heroic it probably felt even worse than it looked.

The course of the battle is relatively straightforward but new research is greatly adding to our understanding of it – not unlike the comparatively more recent battle of Waterloo. It was certainly not a simple case of waves of French cavalry breaking on the medieval prototype of the “Thin Red Line”; of valiant but arrogant French knights mown down by the Maxim gun of its day – the longbow – before everyone cried “God, for Harry!” and that was that.

There was a French cavalry charge but the day was effectively decided on foot in a scrum of sheer bloody murder typical of medieval battles.

The professionalism of the English soldiery, particularly the skill of the archers, is often stressed and they were both well-drilled and veterans of campaigns in France and Wales but while the militia levies of the arriere-ban upon which the more feudal French armies still relied were of limited military use, the French knights and other men-at-arms themselves were no less “professional”, as the term was then understood, and as skilled as any in Europe in a stand-up fight. Among them there were veterans of the failed Nicopolis crusade, the various battles of the Hook and Cod Wars and the more recent skirmishes and sieges of the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war.

Were the French overconfident? Probably and rightly so. They had the English trapped, there were many more of them and the longer they waited the more Frenchmen arrived to swell their ranks as the English grew weaker.

The main French problem, which was increasingly becoming clear, was with the lack of any recognised commander and with it effective battlefield command and control. Nominally under the command of the experienced commander-in-chief of the army Constable Charles d’Albret and his lieutenant, Marshal Jean le Maingre known as ‘Boucicaut’, the arrival of so many mighty dukes who had their own ideas about how best to fight the battle led to a compromised command system, and subsequent confusion and dithering as a result.

Knowing the sick and staving English grew weaker by the hour, d’Albret and Boucicaut were apparently happy to wait and perhaps even force the English into capitulation without having to fight a battle at all. On the other hand, the more hot headed nobles were all for wiping the contemptible little army from the face of the Earth without further ado. How hard could it be?

Finally, although Agincourt had gone some way to making the ‘Armagnac’ and ‘Burgundian’-supporting lords and nobles put aside their factional differences to counter the English invasion for the good of the kingdom, old hatreds died hard.

The bulk of the French commanders at Agincourt were ‘Armagnacs’. Confusingly they should perhaps have been more properly called ‘Orléanists’ because they rallied around Charles Duke of Orléans. Charles’ father, Louis, had been one of France’s most powerful and pre-eminent lords and had been engaged in a power struggle with his first cousin, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy until John had Louis assassinated in 1407. At this point Bernard Count of Armagnac had taken the young Charles (then only 13) under his wing, marrying the young scion to his daughter, Bonne. Although Charles was something of a figurehead for the anti-Burgundian faction in France, the depredations of his new father-in-law’s Gascon soldiers around Paris a few years earlier had led to the Parisians branding them all ‘Armagnacs’.

These divisions were not the chief reason the French lost, as there were comparatively few ‘Burgundian’ knights in their ranks that day, but the French were certainly not the ‘band of brothers’ posterity has made the English out to be; with Henry’s army, at the very least, united in desperation. Although the Armagnacs and Burgundians both pointed accusing fingers at each other after the battle as they sought to blame each other for the disaster, the fact is even lords of the same faction found themselves at loggerheads as to how best to combat the enemy before them.

As the nobles bickered about what to do next the battle began with a less-than-action-packed resumption of the stand-off of the day before. For several hours the two armies stood in silence facing each other across the muddy field until Henry decided to take the initiative. Knowing, as d’Albret did, that fear and starvation would destroy his army more effectively than any battle, he gave the order to “advance banners”[1]. Every man knelt down and kissed the ground beneath him, the archers uprooted their stakes and the army plodded to within bowshot of the French. At a sign from Sir Thomas Erpingham, the archers loosed off a volley, goading the enemy into action.

The move caught their opponents off guard, the French cavalry are thought to have been exercising their warhorses in the cold of the morning and Henry’s archers were firmly entrenched behind their stakes once more by the time the horsemen managed to regroup and launch a half-hearted, badly-coordinated attack that was not pressed home with much vigour. A well-aimed volley of arrows would have sent a number of horses tumbling to the ground shrieking in pain and fright, throwing their riders, while others bolted. The few mounted men-at-arms who made it to the English lines were swiftly dispatched while the rest fell back and played no further part in the battle.

As the cavalry reeled the French men-at-arms had begun their advance in two massed divisions one behind the other; the first led by Constable d’Albret and the Duke of Orléans, the second by the Dukes of Alençon and Bar.

Contrary to Olivier’s film, a knight in full harness[2] did not need help getting onto his horse or even moving around. The weight was evenly distributed, they were used to wearing it and they were very fit. A man in armour was capable of doing minor gymnastics and a former French constable[3] was renowned for feats such as vaulting onto his horse and climbing the underside of ladders when fully armed.

Agincourt diorama
A reconstruction of the attack of the first French division at Agincourt, from a diorama of the battle commissioned by the Royal Armouries for its new exhibition at the Tower of London. The picture gives a good impression of the compactness of the French ranks and why so many were unable to use their weapons or even move at all in the press around them. Photo courtesy of Perry Miniatures.

However, the French host was now faced with a gruelling slog through a quagmire in order to get to grips with the English. Fit they may have been but as each armoured foot plunged into the grasping Somme clay – up to their knees in places it is claimed – it required ever greater effort to break the terrible suction, sapping their strength and proving treacherous footing. The second division advancing in the steps of the first probably had a tougher time of it due to the badly churned up ground but both will have had to contend with riderless and panicked horses plunging into their ranks, knocking men down and causing chaos.

And through it all they had to cope with the unrelenting hail of arrows for the agonisingly slow minutes it took to cross the 200 or so yards between them and the English.

At extreme ranges it is unlikely an arrow, even from a longbow, could penetrate the best plate armour but on the initial stages of their march the arrow storm would have forced the French to close their visors which in turn restricted their vision and breathing. The force of the impact of perhaps 50,000 to 75,000 arrows hitting their massed ranks in under a minute would have buffeted them around violently and made an awful noise.

Perhaps hungover if they really had stayed up drinking the night before, they would have very quickly become overheated, dehydrated and increasingly exhausted, as they struggled through the mire, stepping over the odd unfortunate whose weaker armour or unwise decision to look skyward at the dark banks of arrows above them had rendered him a casualty. It would have been a ghastly, infuriating and deeply dispiriting ordeal.

Worse though was to come.

The topography of the battlefield itself now worked against the French. Sloping gently inward makes it a natural funnel and thick woods and hedges on either side prevented any outflanking manoeuvres on the part of the French, forcing them to advance head-on into the English volleys.

In an historical parallel, the Newfoundland Regiment advancing into the storm of German bullets on the Somme just over 500 years later are said to have, “instinctively tucked their chins into an advanced shoulder as they had so often done when fighting their way home against a blizzard”. So the French knights would no doubt have reacted that grey day in 1415 and even if they were less vulnerable than those doomed Canadians, the arrows flying at them from all sides would have made those on the flanks in particular press inward as they sought to make themselves less exposed and seek mutual protection in numbers.

In addition, they would also have been angling for the banners bobbing above the English line which showed where the most important nobles were stationed – and where the best ransoms were to be won. Henry, the choicest ransom or even scalp of all, fought beneath five banners in the centre of the English line: the royal arms of England, the cross of St George, the standard representing the Holy Trinity, the crowns of St Edmund and the cross and martlets of Edward the Confessor. The standards of the Dukes of York and Gloucester and the notable lords Erpingham, Camoys and Cornwall would have been equally juicy targets for Frenchmen looking for wealthy prisoners. Coupled with the shepherding effect of the lie of the land and the arrows, the French were being massed together, which would have given impetus to their charge when it hit the English line but ultimately doomed many of them to a terrible fate.

It is a testament to their physical conditioning and bravery that having slogged through the arrows and mud the shock of their impact with the English line apparently forced it to recoil over six feet. No doubt keen to get to grips with their tormentors after the atrocious trial they’d just undergone, these were nonetheless tired men.

1052px-Map_Agincort.svgSoon after their collision, the second French division arrived and began to push those in front of them forward like a rugby maul. The aim was no doubt to create a rolling momentum which would punch through the English line and allow them to sweep through and around the English positions. In practice all it succeeded in doing was pressing too many already-exhausted men together in a vice.

So tightly packed together were they that the majority of the French weren’t able to even use their weapons. Unable to advance because of the unmoving English men-at-arms and the growing mound of French dead to their front[4], the press soon turned murderously on itself.

As the Gesta Henrici chronicle related: “For when some of them, killed when battle was joined, fall at the front, so great was the undisciplined violence and pressure of the mass of men behind that the living fell on top of the dead, and others falling on top of the living were killed as well…”

It’s probable men died standing up, crushed or suffocated in the throng, while as the chronicler says, any living man who slipped and fell in the press also risked being trampled or having more men, dead and wounded, fall on top of him so that he might suffocate, while those who fell forward would have had their faces pressed into the mud and blood and so drowned there.

The situation was exacerbated by the lighter armed archers who as well as now shooting point blank at the French, nimbly leaped in among the flailing men at arms, pitching them onto their backs where it was a simple case of flipping open the visor to butcher the unfortunate with their daggers and mallets. The English knew that the only way out of the trap was to kill and go on killing with no time for the niceties of taking prisoners until the French could take it no more.

Medieval battlefields were savage and murderous places at the best of times but in this instance the terrifying truth is that perhaps the majority of the French casualties at Agincourt were caused by their own countrymen around them not by the English.

As Richard Holmes described it, Agincourt was, “more of a Hillsborough-type disaster than a battle”[5]. The chief reason the French lost is because there were simply too many of them in too small a space.

A further attack, or threat of attack or possibly the raid on the English baggage train, the most debated part of the battle and which is still little understood, nonetheless led to the infamous killing of many French prisoners and the third and final French division, seeing the destruction of those before them, quit the field.

AgincourtThe grubby reality may fall short of later chivalric and romantic tradition but it was a victory nonetheless and, to the English, a miraculous one at that – it is not beyond the realms of possibility that afterwards they did as Shakespeare’s Henry commanded:

“Do we all holy rites;
Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum’.
The dead with charity enclosed in clay,
And then to Calais; and to England then:
Where ne’er from France arrived more happy men.”

But if Agincourt was an English triumph it is equally important to see what a tragedy it was for the French and when flipped in this way the story is equally if not slightly more compelling. It is hard not to feel sympathy for the French knights and the simply appalling ordeal they went through, one they bore stoically and extremely courageously.

Agincourt is one of those battles where the “flower” of chivalry is deemed to have died[6]. Many non-noble soldiers lost their lives there too, a fact becoming increasingly evident as historians crunch the numbers and reexamine the chronicles, but the butcher’s bill did fall unusually heavily on the nobility – a testament to their willingness to lead from the front.

Constable d’Albret; admiral Jacques de Châtillon; the master of the crossbowmen David de Rambures; the Dukes of Alençon, Brabant[7] and Bar; the counts of Nevers, Vaudémont, Marle, Roucy, Grandpré, Blâmont and Luxembourg and the Archbishop of Sens are among the usual French casualties quoted in the “royal fellowship of death” but the full extent of French casualties, already put at 6,000 to 8,000, will probably never be known. After the chroniclers of the time had run through hundreds of famous names many simply gave up and pitifully noted “and many more too numerous to relate”.

The most heart-rending reading is the litany of family members killed together, brothers and fathers and sons. The Duke of Burgundy’s two younger brothers Anthony of Brabant and Philip of Nevers were both killed, Philip’s second child, John, was born on the very same day his father died; de Rambures fell with three of his sons; Guy de Nesles with his son Raoulquin; Jean de Craon and his brother Anthoine; Jean de Croÿ and two of his sons; Antoine de Chartres and his two brothers; Robert de Wavrin killed with his son; Jean de Beuil and his brothers and the bearer of the sacred oriflamme itself, Guillaume de Martel and his two sons. The list goes on, at its most awful extent whole lineages of the great French families of Picardy, Normandy and Champagne were wiped out and the scale and impact of the losses is comparable, even better understood, when one considers the terrible slaughter of the ‘Pals’ Battalions from London, Liverpool, Manchester and Accrington on the Somme 500 years later.

What is more, the Dukes of Orléans and Bourbon, Marshal Boucicaut and the counts of Eu and Vendôme were among those captured. Plucked from the heaps of dead, young Orléans (he was only 20) and Arthur de Richemont, the brother of the Duke of Brittany, himself only 22, were found so covered in blood their coats of arms were barely recognisable. They were also lucky to have been spared the ghastly death met by so many of their compatriots in the lethal crush.

On the English side by contrast, the Duke of York and Earl of Suffolk were the only major losses along with the Flemish knight Jan van Brederode and Welsh knight Dafydd (or Davy) Gam who is also reputed to have saved Henry’s life during the battle and is often credited with killing the Duke of Alençon though this is unlikely.

Despite the victory, Henry chose not to hang around. He was still concerned there might still be another French army waiting in the wings and only once in Calais would they be truly safe. The dead were not, “with charity enclosed in clay” but rather stripped naked and left. Even at this stage the odd prisoner was discovered among the grisly mounds but those too wounded to move were put out of their misery.

Despite Henry’s prudence the French were shattered and the English army was allowed to limp away, arriving, one may imagine, relieved into Calais on the 28 and 29 October. There they found the governor, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, in anticipation of their arrival, had stockpiled fresh supplies including beer in “abundant quantities”.

The stocks did not last long however and on 2 November an order was sent to Falkenham in Suffolk for more food and ale. Naturally the more enterprising (and unscrupulous) traders of Calais were quick to raise the prices of their wares and many veterans of the battle were forced to sell their hard-won booty at a fraction of its value simply to buy a drink and a scrap to eat.

Most of the army would stay in Calais for the winter and then drift home the following spring, their indenture at an end. But not Henry. He stayed in Calais until 16 November whereupon he set sail for London with his most valuable prisoners, desperate to make it back to England before the end of the year to consolidate his victory.

And London was ready for him and what followed was a medieval pageant worthy of “Glorious Technicolor”.

 

“Ne’er arrived more happy men”:

News of the victory was received with great acclamation in England and on 2 November, as the order for beer was arriving in Suffolk, parliament convened and granted the king access to new tithes as well as the subsidy for life on linen, leathers and skins and a tax on “certain wines[8]” to provide him with further funds to pursue his campaigns to recover his “just rights and inheritances” in France.

After a six-day journey from Dover Henry’s triumph through the capital on 23 November was fêted as befitted a conquering hero – a conqueror bankrolled by the city’s guilds no less and who must have been glad their investment had come good.

Meeting_of_abraham_and_melchizadek by dieric bouts

Melchizadek greeting the victorious Abraham with bread and wine. Painted by Netherlands artist Dieric Bouts, who was born in around 1415.

As their allegorical guide the city’s aldermen drew on the biblical tale of Abraham’s reception by Melchizedek King of Salem, who greeted the prophet with bread and wine following his defeat of the “Four Kings”[9] – the biblical reference, as we have seen, Henry likely took for himself when demanding tribute from Arques and Eu etc.

As such, choirs of virgins sang the psalms “as to another David coming from the slaughter of Goliath,”[10] while the buildings and bridges of London were festooned with flags and coats of arms and effigies, bread was free for all and wine quite literally flowed from the conduits.

But once the celebrations and requiem masses were done, Henry quickly settled down to the important business of ransoming his captives. The gold to be squeezed from noblemen such as Charles of Orléans and John of Bourbon would go towards waging a new campaign in their homeland.

Medieval ransom was a complex and often laborious business and interested readers are directed to other more in-depth works that examine its intricacies. Needless to say however, while Henry was keen to wring as much money as possible out of his captives he was rather less keen to allow such powerful and capable commanders to run back to France too quickly to raise and lead fresh armies against him on his next campaign.

Marshal Boucicaut, 49 at the time of the battle, would die in captivity in Yorkshire in 1421, while Charles of Orléans would spend 25 years as a prisoner in England. His captivity – like that of the others – was not overly restrictive and he would travel from estate to estate as the “guest” of various noblemen. He would have occasionally met his fellow captives and they were allowed to receive money and goods from France. John of Bourbon sent for his falcons so he could go hunting while Charles sent for wine – up to 600 pipes (300 tuns or 75,600 gallons worth) according to one source[11] – from his vineyards in the Loire and Champagne perhaps?

His custody was not without tragedy. His wife, Bonne of Armagnac, would die in his absence and even many Englishmen felt the length of his captivity unduly harsh. He returned home a fluent English speaker and with a large catalogue of poems, largely rondeaus and ballades in English and French, including the rather lovely, “Is she not passing fair?”. Considered one of the finest medieval poets of the courtly tradition, he died a, for the time, rather grand old man in France at the age of 70 in 1466. He married Marie of Cleves upon his release from captivity in 1440 and had three children with her, their son becoming Louis XII of France in 1498.

An example of the hoops which Henry made some of his captives jump through before they could obtain their freedom and how not just money was sometimes accepted as payment is that of Raoul de Gaucourt and Jean d’Estourville, who had led the defence of Harfleur.

Incredible as it might seem to us, once Harfleur fell and the two knights became prisoners they was released on parole and ordered to present themselves to the king at Calais on 11 November. Despite being weak from dysentery contracted during the siege, they and several other captives duly hauled themselves from their sick beds in order to fulfill their word of honour.

Unlike Charles of Orléans who idled in his gilded cage, de Gaucourt and d’Estourville were set a sort of Herculean cum-Sisyphean series of tasks by Henry.

He suggested they would be best employed, to begin with, in helping secure the release of numerous English prisoners then in French hands and added they might also track down one of Henry’s crowns and other jewels that had been lost during the battle when the French had attacked the English baggage train, “which would be a great thing for us to recover.” Oh, and might they also take an order for 200 casks of ‘Beaune’[12] wine while they were about it?

De Gaucourt was paroled on 3 April 1416 and set off for France where he secured the release of the majority of the prisoners. He then found Henry’s crown, coronation orb and a golden cross containing a fragment of the “true cross” and the seals of the King’s chancery but many of the other jewels were too widely dispersed. He ordered the wine and went back to England. Henry though was not entirely satisfied. So de Gaucourt hired a ship, hopped back to France, secured the ransom of the remaining prisoners, gave them new clothes and shipped them all back to London and put them up in the Tower at his own expense, arriving back at about the same time as the wine and jewels he’d found on his previous trip. The whole experience left him out of pocket to the tune of 13,000 crowns.

In the end he would spend 10 years in English captivity, Henry recognising he was too formidable an opponent to be let go too easily. He was right, once back in France Raoul became a companion of Joan of Arc with whom he raised the siege of Orléans. He died an extremely old man for his times aged 80 or 90 having seen the English completely expelled from both Guyenne and Normandy.

 

Epilogue:

Despite the extraordinary outcome of Agincourt the effect was ephemeral in the long run; the coming of Joan of Arc, along with revitalised and reorganised French armies meant the days of the English in France were numbered, although in 1415 this seemed an impossible outcome.

Henry continued to campaign successfully and married Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine of Valois in 1420, with the further concession that he, Henry, and his heirs would succeed to the throne of France on Charles VI’s death and not the dauphin (also Charles). Who knows the weft of history if this had come to pass but in August 1422 Henry died of dysentery while on yet another campaign. He left behind a child king and a regency led by his brother John, the Duke of Bedford. When Charles VI himself died in October of that year, his son Charles, unsurprisingly, chose to ignore the English claims that the young Henry VI was rightful heir to the throne and was crowned as Charles VII.

To return to the immediate aftermath of the battle. In France the Armagnac-Burgundian civil war ground on. The murder-assassination of John the Fearless in 1419, at the probable instigation of the future Charles VII, led to the creation of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance which extended the war for a few more bloody decades. Together the Anglo-Burgundian armies emerged victorious from a number of battles including the great but now often forgotten victory of Verneuil – the “second Agincourt” as it is sometimes known.

Despite the best efforts of John of Bedford, the French under Joan of Arc and captains such as Etienne de Vignolles also known as “La Hire” (who sported bunches of grapes on his coat of arms) gradually regained the country for Charles VII. Although the Burgundians captured Joan and handed her over to the English in 1430, by 1435 with Bedford dead and the English diplomatic effort in disarray, the Burgundians switched sides once again following the Treaty of Arras, which also ended the Armagnac-Burgundian conflict.

The English war effort was further mishandled by the rising William de la Pole the Duke of Suffolk, who was rather too busy (according to his enemies) enriching himself than worrying about the state of the nation and the course of the war. After the disastrous battle of Formigny in 1450 which led to the fall of Normandy he was exiled, and as he sailed to the Low Countries his enemies caught up with him at sea and hacked his head off with a rusty sword.

Henry VI of England meanwhile proved as mad as his maternal grandfather had been and this weakness, coupled with the competing interests of over mighty subjects in the rival houses of York and Lancaster would plunge England into its own vicious civil conflict between the nobility soon after the fall of the last English territory in France.

After Normandy, Gascony fell in 1451 but, at the instigation of the Jurade, Bordeaux was briefly recaptured in 1452 by the ageing earl of Shrewsbury, Sir John Talbot. It was the last hurrah of English rule in France. In July 1453, 300 years of almost uninterrupted English rule in Bordeaux and the Hundred Years War effectively came to an end at the Battle of Castillon – in 1455 the Wars of the Roses would begin.

 

Footnotes to the text are below.

[1] He is sometimes quoted as saying the very colloquial, ‘Felas, let’s go,” or, “Fellas, let’s go,” and sometimes, “Let’s go, fellows.”

[2] A more correct term than the usual ‘suit’ of armour so often referred to.

[3] Bertrand de Guesclin (1320-1380), the famous Breton constable whose victory over Charles II of Navarre at the Battle of Cocherel in 1364 secured the accession of the Valois dukes to the inheritance of Burgundy.

[4] As tall as a man, one chronicler claimed though two to three feet high at most is more likely.

[5] Holmes, Richard (1996). “War Walks”, BBC

[6] The other would be Flodden in 1513 where James IV of Scotland and the flower of Scottish chivalry withered in the face of English arrows and billhooks.

[7] Brabant and Nevers were the younger brothers of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. Brabant arrived late to the field and improperly armed and armoured. Too valuable to be killed out of hand it is thought he was killed by accident as he was not wearing his livery. Both had defied the wishes of their older brother in order to fight at the battle.

[8] Alas, we know not which.

[9] Amphrael of Babylonia, Arioch of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer of Elam and Tidal of Goiim. Genesis 14:17.

[10] Harris, Nicholas (1832). “History of the Battle of Agincourt, and of the expedition of Henry V into France in 1415”, Johnson & Co

[11] Orléans, Charles and Arn, Mary-Jo (1994) “Charles of Orléans’s English book of love: a critical edition”, Medieval & Renaissance texts and Studies, Binghampton, New York, p15.

[12] Once again, the use of “casks” is frustrating as it gives little idea of quantity. We might assume the reference was to butts/pipes.

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