The revamped Battle of Agincourt Museum (officially the 1415 Azincourt Center) aims to tell the true story of the great 15th-century battle and it does a great job.
We who were brought up on Shakespeare’s heroic play Henry V still think the English were virtuous and the French dastardly. The famous battle between the English and the French was elevated into an ultimate battle against the odds. It was portrayed as a glorious victory for the vastly outnumbered English. And who would not be stirred by sentiments and words that have echoed down the centuries such as these?
Henry spurs on his troops with:
‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead’
And how about: ‘Old men forget’
Or the even more famous ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ which continues:
‘For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’
The Plain Facts
The battle of Agincourt took place on October 25, 1415. The English army, led by King Henry V and numbering just under 9,000 men, faced a French army of around 12,000 men. The French were led not by their king, Charles the Mad, but by the Constable of France (lieutenant-general) Charles d’Albret and the Marshal Jean II le Meingre (called Boucicaut).
The battle probably lasted only three hours or possibly even less and was a decisive English victory. It was tactically astute but won largely thanks to the longbow archers. Their arrows were as deadly in the middle ages as machine gun bullets were in the 20th century.
The Agincourt victory sealed the young and as yet untried Henry’s rocky hold on his kingship in England. Importantly, it paved the way for the 1430 Treaty of Troyes which named Henry as heir to the French throne.
The museum is so arranged that you can take a quick visit (one hour) or a longer one of two to three hours – both of which you navigate yourself. However long the visit, it takes in the major events from Henry’s landing at Harfleur in Normandy to the great battle itself. The longer visit goes into more detail about daily and military life and the background of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453).
It’s an intriguing museum, designed by Christophe Gillot, Director of the Centre and Anne Curry, Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at Southampton University. It’s full of interactive screens to play with (clearly delighting both children and adults), models, videos and some very funny touches – listen to the Hundred Years’ War explained in 100 seconds. You’ll have to concentrate to get the whole picture, but don’t worry, there’s a timeline and explanation as well. Everything is in French and English and the museum is quite small so you can double back and make your own way around as you want to.
What you see
The museum gives a lot of information in an easy and digestible way. Try games like Sovereigns of the Hundred Years’ War; what soldiers ate, and words from the Middle Ages. You see details of daily life, the clothes of the period, the illnesses, the treating of wounds.
The section devoted to armor shows how different ranks were protected (it, naturally, went according to how rich and powerful you were). A video demonstrates how a knight put on his armor (not an easy task), and you get a chance to feel the weight of a helmet, a sword and a breastplate. And you can test how long it takes to reload a crossbow – far longer than a longbow.
Agincourt lies in the 7 Valleys, a glorious area of small rivers and streams, valleys and forests. It’s one of France’s relatively unknown gems. Here the once prosperous town of Hesdin on the banks of the Canche river is brought to life; the relationship between town and country is revealed and you see daily life in Agincourt village.
There are extracts from two of the films of Shakespeare’s play, one made in 1944 starring Laurence Olivier, and a later version with Kenneth Branagh made in 1989. Of all the exhibits, the famous scene from the start of the battle in the 1944 film dominates on a huge screen and totally silent. The sight of the arrows arching into the air is mesmerizing and terrifying.
The Hundred Years’ War
In a slightly larger nutshell, here are the main events. Relations between the French and the English – pretty straightforward when William the Conqueror successfully invaded England in 1066 – became infinitely more complex through the next few hundred years. Much of the aristocracy in England were Anglo-French and the legal language was still French.
What was later called The Hundred Years’ War lasted from 1337 to 1453. Battles and skirmishes waxed and waned through the period over the legitimate succession to the French crown and ownership of a chunk of France. It began when King Edward III of England claimed the title King of France over the French Philip VI and invaded Flanders.
To the English, the great battles that kept England’s ownership of vast parts of the country from Gascony to Calais, were Crécy in 1346 and Poitiers ten years later.
Henry V came to the throne in 1413 but with a politically volatile aristocracy and a pretty lawless country his position was far from secure.
France wasn’t much better with the mad King on the throne. It wasn’t helped by the infighting between two branches of the royal family, the Armagnacs who supported the mad King, and the rebel Burgundians. They’d been fighting on and off since 1407.
In what was a huge gamble, the young, ambitious Lancastrian King Henry decided to ditch the negotiations on his claim – negotiations that had been going on for a year. The French had conceded to many of his demands but as is the way with an English side that ignores much of what the other offers, negotiations had broken down. And war, as monarchs and leaders have found throughout history, is a great way to distract the population.
The Journey to War
Clear, easy-to-follow maps, illustrative panels and models in the museum show Henry’s physical progress. He landed at Harfleur in Normandy in August 1415 with around 12,000 men. But Harfleur was heavily defended and the six week-siege cost Henry time and men. Some were casualties; others deserted; most succumbed to illness. ‘Dysentery carried off more of our men than the sword, and had so direly afflicted and disabled many of the rest that they could not journey on with him further‘, wrote a contemporary chronicler.
On October 8, Henry left a garrison to defend Harfleur and set off with a considerably smaller army on the 320 km/200-mile journey towards English-held Calais. With the campaign season drawing to an end and winter approaching, Henry’s aim was to establish himself in Calais and hope to goad the French into war from his stronghold.
The French had other ideas.
Henry reached the Somme but didn’t cross at the obvious point as he expected the French to be waiting for him on the other side. Henry marched south and crossed the river near Péronne and found himself faced with French heralds summoning him to battle at Azincourt. Henry had around 9,000 soldiers; the French around 12,000.
The French initially called the shots. They had chosen the battlefield and had the larger army. But the make-up of the armies was vital. The English army of around 9,000 men was predominantly made up of those invaluable archers whose longbows had an effective range of 250 yards/229 metres (around 7,000 archers). The French had around 12,000 men, 75% of whom were knights and men-at-arms. The crossbow archers in the French army (Genovese mercenaries) may have had a weapon that went further and pierced harder but it took a long time to reload and there were far fewer of them. The French were relying on their heavy cavalry as shock troops.
Ever since the Battle of Crécy the English had found the longbow by far the most effective weapon. The archers lined up their arrows in front of them in the soil, making it an easy and rapid move to pick up and reload. It’s estimated that they fired an astonishing 1,000 arrows a second.
The museum has created an animation illustrating what it must have been like for the French knights at the receiving end of waves of arrows. Click here to see the museum’s video which comes from the website MechTraveller.
The sight of the arrows arching into the air is mesmerizing and terrifying.
The Battle of Agincourt
It was October 25, the feast day of St Crispin. The two armies are seen on screens in the museum preparing to fight. It’s an effective presentation; you feel the tension as dawn breaks and the two sides ready themselves.
On one side the English: Henry picked his position carefully with his men-at-arms at the centre, flanked by the archers, protected by woodlands on either side.
Opposing them were the French, their knights on horseback eager for a charge, a quick fight and even quicker victory.
At 11am the French cavalry advanced. The field was muddy; the heavy horses were slowed and then the rain of arrows began. The first French line charged at the English front, into sharpened stakes driven into the ground. Horses fell or were disabled by swords or daggers thrust upwards wielded by the English men-at-arms and at this point by the archers. Knights were dragged off their mounts, their heavy unwieldy armor preventing them from fighting effectively; their helmets stopping them seeing the enemy clearly.
The French advanced a second time, falling once again to the deadly arrow storm, adding to the chaos, and to the growing piles of dead and wounded men and horses in front of the English lines.
Henry V ignores the Rules of Warfare
‘I was not angry since I came to France, until this moment’
The English were taking prisoners when a group of local French led by noblemen attacked the baggage train to steal whatever they could find. In Shakespeare’s play the French kill the young English guards, justifying Henry’s cutting the throats of the French prisoners, even herding one group into a barn which was then set on fire. In fact he had no justification for killing the prisoners, many of whom were among the French aristocracy.
The whole battle lasted just three hours and possibly less. It’s been estimated that the English lost about 400 men. Edward, Duke of York who had saved his nephew, Henry V, from the Duke d’Alencon’s axe blows, and Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk were the two most important English casualties. The French by contrast lost around 6,000 men, many of them the cream of the French nobility.
After the Battle
That night, the English buried their dead. Henry, fearful of a French attack, ordered his soldiers not to collect booty from the dead French but to burn it.
Early on October 26th, the English left the battlefield with the French prisoners he had. Henry marched to Calais and arrived back in England in November. On November 23rd he entered London, feted and honored, and now safe on his throne.
The French Dead
With the French army comprehensively beaten, the cream of their knights killed and the dynastic war continuing, France was fatally weak. Unable to fight off the English, Normandy fell to Henry in 1419. The following year, 600 years ago, the Treaty of Troyes betrothed Henry to King Charles VI’s daughter Catherine and named him heir to the French crown.
Surprises at Agincourt
Travelling in France you’ll come across the gendarmes in their distinctive blue uniforms looking after the countryside and all French roads (maybe catching you speeding). They aren’t part of the police, but part of the French Army. Originally called the Maréchaussée, they were noble knights, part of the French cavalry and regarded as the elite. They were formed during the Hundred Years’ War to help counter the threat from England.
At Agincourt they were commanded by the 60-year-old Gallois de Fougières, the Prévôt des Maréchaux (Provost of the Marshals). He was born in Berry, went on the Crusade in 1396 and then travelled to Italy in 1410. He’s considered the first gendarme who was killed at Agincourt. He was buried at nearby Auchy-lès-Hesdin along with other knights of the time including the Admiral of France. In 1936 his skeleton was taken to Versailles and buried under the monument to the gendarmerie in Versailles.
One of the oldest national institutions in France, the military unit policed the countryside for centuries. In 1720 they were organized into units and in 1791 the Maréchaussée was renamed the Gendarmerie nationale.
One of the prisoners Henry took back to England was Charles, Duke of Orléans, discovered alive and well under a pile of dead bodies. The head of the Armagnac faction and in line of succession to the French throne as a Valois, he was far too important to be ransomed and sent back to France.
Charles was a poet, writing a love letter to his wife when in England. He uses the term ‘Valentine’ and it has been taken as the first Valentine poem.
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too soon
And I for you was born too late.
God forgives him who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine.
Charles spent 24 years in captivity in England, moving between castles throughout the country and writing around 500 extant poems in French and English. He never saw his wife; she died between 1430 and 1435. He returned to France in 1440, married Marie of Cleves in Saint Omer and died at Amboise in 1465. He’s buried in St Denis, Paris.
24 rue Charles VI
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 47 27 53
Open Tues-Sun 10am-5.30pm
Admission Adult €9; 5 to 16 years €6; family tariff (2 adults + 2 children) €25
How to get to Azincourt 1415 by car: If you are coming from Calais, the approximately 78 km/48 mile journey takes around one hour.
Check our Ferries to France
The Agincourt Battlefield
Today there’s little to see, just a stone marker, a small wooden building marking the ploughed fields where the great battle took place. The museum will give you a map to drive around the various viewpoints but it takes a large feat of the imagination to conjure up the scene.
A mass grave lies somewhere near here where thousands of bodies, most of them stripped completely naked by the local peasants in the night after the battle, lie buried. But the museum and the local authorities fear that if the exact location is known, enthusiastic searchers armed with metal detectors will overrun the place. So for now, the dead remain peacefully in the earth.
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More Medieval Towns and Connections
- Guide to Calais, the city with medieval connections and a great history with the English.
- The Bayeux Tapestry, that great depiction of one of the great battles of all time.