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Fast-paced and historically accurate account of Agincourt campaign
on February 4, 2015
Bernard Cornwell has written a fast-paced and historically sound novel about the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, although he has chosen to use the French "Azincourt" for his title rather than the Englsh "Agincourt". Because 2015 happens to be the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, it is likely to attract a great deal of attention to the famous battle for that reason, and we can reasonably expect some publishers to promote highly saleable distortions of what really happened at Agincourt.
I first became acquainted with Bernard Cornwell through his fine Napoleonic War novels centered on the colourful military career of English rifleman Richard Sharpe who fights in Wellington's armies, initially in India, and then through Portugal, Spain, and France to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. I found Cornwell's grasp of military history and weaponry to be quite extraordinary, his characters very engaging, and his recreation of military action to be absolutely riveting.
In "Azincourt", Bernard Cornwell follows a similar approach to the Sharpe novels by choosing a lowly English archer Nicholas Hook as his main character. Hook's deadly skill with the longbow does not protect him from the cavalier treatment and insults of upper class officers in the English army. Despite Hook's lack of social graces, Cornwell follows a settled pattern in his books by providing him with a beautiful woman as his companion throughout the Agincourt campaign. This lovely lady, whose name is Melisande, had been an unwilling novice nun in the Burgundian-occupied city of Soissons in northern France. Hook, in company with other English archer mercenaries, had been employed by the Burgundians to guard Soissons against the French king's forces. When the city is treacherously surrendered to the besieging French by senior English mercenary officer Sir Roger Pallaire shortly before the Agincourt campaign, all of the archers except Hook surrender. Hook is separated from the captured English archers, and consequently, survives the infamous massacre of these archers by the French. The brutal massacre of the English archers is an historical fact, and it is covered in exceptionally grisly detail by Cornwell. During the sacking of Soissons by the French, Hook rescues Melisande from rape by the same English officer who treacherously surrendered the city to the French for reward. Hook and Melisande escape to Calais, and travel from Calais to England where Hook finds employment as an archer with the army of King Henry V who is preparing to invade France in pursuance of his claim to the throne of France.
Bernard Cornwell's "Azincourt" novel is one of four in his treatment of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Although termed the Hundred Years War, hostilities between the British and French actually lasted for 116 years. Cornwell's other archer novels include the famous battles at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). Cornwell's coverage of the Agincourt campaign and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 is quite remarkable for its accurate historical detail, his knowledge of medieval weaponry, and fast-moving action. The reader is placed squarely in the thick of the action at both Harfleur and Agincourt. Readers of the Sharpe novels will find that one major difference in "Azincourt", and its three companion medieval novels, is the use by Cornwell in the archer novels of much coarser language and very graphic descriptions of the terrible wounds inflicted by medieval weapons on the human body. These factors suggest to me that this book may not be suitable reading for children under the age of fifteen.
Bernard Cornwell wrote "Azincourt" in 2008, and published it in the context of newly risen controversy over the numbers on each side at Agincourt which has been recognised for six centuries as one of Britain's greatest military victories against extraordinary odds. That controversy was sparked in 2005 by academic medieval historian Professor Anne Curry of Southampton University. I feel that it is appropriate for me to say something about that controversy and the apparent attitude to the controversy taken by Cornwell in "Azincourt". Cornwell rejects Professor Curry's revisionist postmodern-style attempt to diminish one of Britain's "Grand Narratives". I believe that Bernard Cornwell's approach to the numbers involved at Agincourt/Azincourt is correct, and I will explain why I support his approach and reject that of Professor Curry as being deeply flawed.
In her revisionist "Agincourt: A new history", published in 2005, Professor Curry claimed to have exposed the famous victory of a heavily outnumbered, starving, and disease-ridden English army over a massive French army at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 as a centuries-old "myth". When launching her book, Professor Curry claimed that her researching of English and French archival records of hired mercenaries, including men-at-arms and archers, suggested to her that the English were outnumbered by a factor of only four to three rather than by at least four to one, and possibly six to one, as previously claimed by intelligent eyewitnesses to the battle and accepted by generations of military historians since 1415. There are serious problems attending Professor Curry's attempt to diminish the heroic quality of the Battle of Agincourt by reliance primarily on surviving archival evidence. First, she has to reject the evidence of intelligent eyewitnesses to the battle in both the French and English armies. This is an absurd approach that immediately destroys the validity of her argument. Secondly, her reliance on archival records ignores the fact that many French archival records from the time of Agincourt were destroyed in the French Revolution. On the other hand, a vast quantity of English records that are relevant to Agincourt still exist in British archives. Those British records show that the attendance of most of King Henry V's army in France, including the presence of England's nobility, was bought by the king. Even royal dukes signed contracts of employment (indentures) for the Agincourt campaign. Finally, with regard to French archival records, Professor Curry appears to have failed to appreciate, or perhaps wished to ignore, the historical fact that the massive French army at Agincourt was largely composed of the great nobles of France, their vassal lords, and their knights, squires, and retinues of men-at-arms. These were feudal levies of the French king. They were not mercenaries whose presence at Agincourt could be proved by documentary evidence. It is highly unlikely that these massive feudal levies would have been recorded in the surviving French archival records of hired mercenaries used by Professor Curry to create her very questionable revisionist history of Agincourt. Professor Curry produced no convincing historical evidence to support her Agincourt theory, but if she was seeking controversy, and the probability of increased book sales, she appears to have achieved her purpose.
It appeared to me that Professor Curry was another armchair academic who purported to write about military history but lacked any realistic appreciation of the dynamics of a battlefield, medieval or otherwise. I view Professor Curry as falling into this category because she fails to appreciate that the Battle of Agincourt could not have been fought, as it was observed by intelligent eyewitnesses, with her fanciful ratio of nine thousand English fighting men pitted against a French army of only twelve thousand fighting men, i.e. a ratio of 3 to 4. When measured against the topography at Agincourt, the prevailing conditions, the battle practices of English and French armies at that stage of the Hundred Years War, and the course of the Agincourt battle, Professor Curry's figures are quite simply absurd. Professor Curry is a highly qualified academic Medieval historian, but that does not necessarily mean that she is qualified to write sound military history.
The distinguished medieval historian Dr Juliet Barker published her own history of the Agincourt campaign "Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle" in 2005, and Dr Barker put her finger squarely on the deadly flaw in Professor Curry's argument for near equality of English and French numbers at Agincourt when she said of Professor Curry's suggested close ratio of English to French: "And if the differential really was as low as three to four then this makes a nonsense of the course of the battle as described by eyewitnesses and contemporaries". See "Acknowledgments" at page 366.
Ignoring the informed estimates of eyewitnesses in both armies, including the recorded account of one intelligent Burgundian man-at-arms in the French army, Jehan Waurin, Professor Curry has grossly underestimated the numbers in each of the massive French divisions or "battles", namely, the vanguard, the main body, and the rearguard. She appears to have totally forgotten or chosen to ignore several thousand French archers relegated to the rear of the French army through the arrogant foolishness of the French nobility. She appears to have totally forgotten or chosen to ignore the heavily armoured French cavalry positioned on both wings of the French divisions (or "battles") whose purpose was to attack and crush the English archers at the outset of the battle. The heavily armoured French cavalry numbered at least 1,400, but an appalling failure of leadership of the French army caused the cavalry charges from both wings to be made by only about one-third of that number. The rest of the cavalry had wandered away from the battlefield during the lengthy period of inactivity in the morning. The pitifully reduced French cavalry charges failed because of failure to keep all the cavalry in the line of battle, the surprise advance of the English army to within long bowshot of the French, the storm of English (and Welsh) arrows that broke over the greatly diminished French cavalry, and deep sucking mud on the rain drenched battlefield.
Fortunately, highly respected medieval historian and author Dr Juliet Barker proved by publishing her "Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle" that she has a far better appreciation of the dynamics of a medieval battlefield than Professor Curry. To demonstrate that Dr Barker has a sound appreciation of the Battle of Agincourt in her book, and that Bernard Cornwell has wisely followed her approach in his novel "Azincourt", it is necessary for me to mention some of the historical details.
King Henry V invaded France with just over 12,000 fighting men. Henry's first target was the massively fortified town of Harfleur at the mouth of the Seine. The gallant French defence of the town prolonged the siege and allowed an epidemic of dysentery to ravage the English army. After the surrender of Harfleur, with his army reduced to about half its original number mainly through disease and battle injuries, Henry V abandoned his original plan to march on Paris. He could have safely withdrawn his army to England from the harbour of captured Harfleur but pride, and the political imperative to show more than the capture of Harfleur for the massive financial outlay on his campaign in France, impelled Henry to march his heavily depleted army from Harfleur to the English-held port of Calais on the English Channel. This march would normally be completed in 6-7 days and involve crossing a ford near the mouth of the Somme River. Henry's purpose in marching his army across French Normandy to Calais was to provoke the French to battle on their own soil. He had to leave a substantial English garrison to defend captured Harfleur. He buried some two thousand soldiers at Harfleur who had died from battle injuries or dysentery, and sent at least two thousand wounded and/or sick soldiers back to England. On his long march to Calais, Henry had only about 900 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers. The French rose to the challenge. They blocked the ford across the Somme and stripped the country between Harfleur and Calais of any food to feed Henry's army. After a lengthy diversion eastwards along the Somme, Henry finally found an unguarded ford and crossed the river. His small army had no food and was starving as it set off on a journey of several days to Calais. The French finally brought Henry V to bay at Agincourt (Azincourt) where they blocked the path of Henry's army to safety and food at Calais. The desperate English were starving, exhausted, and many were ravaged by dysentery.
There were intelligent eyewitness chroniclers in both the English and French armies at Agincourt, and I suggest that the most reliable assessment of French numbers on the actual battlefield probably comes from the noble Burgundian man-at-arms Jehan Waurin who history records not only as a soldier in the French army but also as Lord of le Forestier, politician, chronicler, and bibliophile. I believe that Jehan Waurin's credibility as an accurate chronicler of the Battle of Agincourt is enhanced by the fact that he actually lists the number of men assigned to each division or "battle" of the French army and the two cavalry formations on the wings. For example, he lists 8,000 men-at-arms, 4,000 archers, and 1,500 crossbowmen in the vanguard; a similar number in the main body, and two heavily armoured cavalry wings numbering in total 1,400. So including supporting cavalry, we have 28,400 French fighting men in the vanguard and main divisions or "battles" without including the mounted rearguard. Without including the numbers for the French rearguard, Jehan Waurin has driven a "coach-and-four" through Professor Curry's fanciful underestimate of French numbers. On the basis of his listing of numbers in the French divisions or "battles", Dr Barker describes Jehan Waurin's claim that the French outnumbered the English by six to one as "most likely" (at page 264).
The English and French armies formed up early on the morning of 25 October 2014 with the French army blocking the road to Calais. The two armies were separated by some 1,000 yards (914 metres) of rain-drenched ploughed farmland. Confident of their overwhelming strength in numbers, and knowing that the English were exhausted and starving, the French were content to wait for the English to either attack or attempt to flee. Henry V knew that his small army was starving and that flight was not an option. As the hours passed on the morning of 25 October with no movement from the massive French army, Henry decided to advance the English line of battle to within long bowshot of the French army, and hoped to provoke the French with arrows fired into their army. An extraordinary aspect of the Battle of Agincourt, and clear evidence of the failure of leadership in the French army, was the failure of the French to attack while the English army was moving forward and at its most vulnerable when the archers were busy hammering their defensive stakes into the ground with their backs to the French. Even on the night before the battle, the great nobles of France were squabbling over who would lead the vanguard of the French attack. The experienced French military commanders, Constable d'Albret and Marshal Boucicaut, were only nominal commanders. Had either been in full command, it appears unlikely that the French would have idly watched the English advance to long bowshot. The tactic succeeded when the English archers began firing into the French army. The provocation stung the French to action. A ragged and wholly uncoordinated French attack developed.
At the point where the English finally established their forward line of battle, the forest narrowed on either side to leave open wet ploughed ground measuring only some 900-1,000 yards (823-914 metres). This figure is put forward by the distinguished British military historian Sir John Keegan in the Agincourt section of "The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme". Sir John Keegan appears to adopt Jehan Waurin's figures of 8,000 men-at-arms in both the French vanguard and main body (ibid.). Keegan writes that these numbers in each French division would produce a dense body of men-at-arms with serried ranks "some eight deep" at the point of tactical contact of the two armies (ibid.). The narrowing of the point of tactical contact of the two armies favoured the English who now faced much less risk of being flanked by French cavalry intent on attacking and crushing the English archers who were mostly positioned on the wings of the English army. The English tactic would also seriously hamper the French vanguard and main body - producing a funnel effect that compressed even more tightly the already dense French lines of battle as each division struggled in heavy plate armour through deep sucking mud to reach the English line, and leaving the French men-at-arms greatly hampered in the use of their weapons when they finally reached the English line. The primary focus of the French vanguard and main body attacks was the 900 English men-at-arms in the centre of the English army. The great lords of France were not interested in demeaning themselves by attacking lowly archers, and many in the French divisions were interested in the ransoms to be paid by captured English lords and knights. This focus on the comparatively small number of English men-at-arms in the centre of the English line of battle and the deadly fire of the English archers on the flanks of the French divisions served to compress even more tightly the French divisions at the point of tactical contact with the English line, and made it very difficult for the French at the front line to use their weapons effectively, and consequently, they were slaughtered as rank after French rank was pushed forward by the compressed mass behind it. As each of the forward French ranks fell, their bodies created a rising barrier that had to be surmounted by those in the ranks behind them. Compounding the very serious problem of compression of the French divisions was the exhaustion of the French men-at-arms when they finally reached the English line of battle. The earlier failed French cavalry charges had churned up the wet mud of the battlefield and the cavalry horses that fled from the English arrows disrupted the line of advance of the French vanguard. The armoured French men-at-arms approached the English line very slowly, dragging each armoured foot out of the deep sucking mud before they could move on. Many exhausted Frenchmen died from being trampled underfoot in the crush.
The French could not have had only one rank or even three ranks in the lines of battle of the vanguard and main body as the mass of men-at-arms on foot approached the English battle line. Such thin French lines of battle, as apparently envisaged by Professor Curry when she plucked her figure of twelve thousand for the French army out of the air, would have been heavily depleted by the English arrow storm and would have lacked the mass and momentum necessary to break through the English line of battle. Unlike Professor Curry, the Marshal of France Jean Boucicaut had the military experience to appreciate that a dense massing of French men-at-arms was necessary to survive in sufficient numbers to break through the deadly English arrow storm and attack the English men-at-arms positioned between the archers. Marshal Boucicaut's plan for the Battle of Agincourt had envisaged ranks eight deep in each French division but he was not the appointed leader of the French army at Agincourt. There was no appointed leader of the French army at Agincourt. Boucicaut could only offer advice to the French royal dukes. As a result, all attacks on the English line of battle were spontaneous, uncoordinated, and disastrous.
Why were the French defeated at Agincourt when they heavily outnumbered a much smaller English army that was starving and ravaged by disease? One answer is that the English were well led, highly motivated, highly disciplined, and equipped with the deadliest weapon on the battlefield - the longbow. As to the massive French army, the answer is that it was a "scratch" force assembled quickly from all parts of France; it lacked a commander in chief, a chain of command, discipline, and coordination of its attacks. The French had thousands of archers but they were not used against the English army when it advanced to within long bowshot of the French army.
Although lacking a PhD in history, I graduated in politics, history and law from the University of Queensland, and served for seven years as an army officer. My formal history studies included the military campaigns of Julius Caesar (and translating from Latin his "Commentarii de Bello Gallico"), the Napoleonic Wars, and Japanese history to 1945. The One Hundred Years War has been one of my passions for twenty years. I admire greatly Dr Barker's scholarship, and despite my own modest qualifications as a military historian, I regard her as a medieval historian who understands the realities of a medieval battlefield. If those who read Bernard Cornwell's "Azincourt" want to learn more about this famous battle, I urge them to read Dr Juliet Barker's "Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle". It is very readable and much better researched than the treatment of Agincourt by Professor Curry. In my opinion, Dr Barker's "Agincourt" is the definitive account of the Agincourt campaign at this time. It is very helpful to follow Bernard Cornwell's accounts of the siege of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt with maps. I also recommend the excellent short and focussed history of the Agincourt campaign written by respected military historian Dr Matthew Bennett who has been a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst since 1984. Dr Bennett is an acknowledged expert on medieval warfare. His Osprey title "Agincourt 1415: Triumph against the odds" (Campaign) is available from Amazon at a very modest price and it contains magnificent illustrations and very helpful maps covering the siege and capture of Harfleur, the trek by Henry V with his greatly diminished army from Harfleur to Agincourt, and the battlefield at Agincourt. I also recommend the excellent DVD docudrama "Agincourt 1415: Triumph of the Longbow" (also available from Amazon).