The Battle of Agincourt: why did the English win?

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The Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt, 1415.

Agincourt was an overwhelming victory against the odds. The total French dead may have been more than 6,000, whereas English casualties, dead and wounded, were no more than 500, and may have been as few as 100. In addition, between 1,500 and 1,600 prisoners fell into English hands. Many of the most distinguished members of the French aristocracy were killed or captured.

Little credit belongs to the English high command. King Henry V was a young feudalist out to prove himself by provoking an unnecessary war, and then leading his army on a strategically pointless march through enemy territory. His conduct of the battle was routine: he formed his line in conformity with established English practice, and his tactics were those of a simple defensive.

Still less credit, of course, belongs to the French high command, and herein lies part of the explanation for the outcome of the battle. But the failure of the French to exercise effective command and control probably owed more to the feudal character of their 44 army than to the incompetence of individuals. It was, in essence, an agglomeration of lordly retinues, each eager for glory, renown, plunder, and noble prisoners. Feudal egotism and indiscipline would probably have brought on the battle, and the bungled assault, whatever the most senior Frenchmen had done.

The English men-at-arms, on the other hand, were a small minority of their army, and they had a long tradition of combined-arms ‘bow and bill’ tactics. The missile-shooting of the longbowmen, the defensive staying-power of dismounted men-at-arms, and, when necessary, the offensive shock action of mounted men-at-arms made the English army of 1415 an altogether more sophisticated military machine than that of its opponents.

That such an army was possible was testimony to the feudalism-lite of early 15th-century England; more specifically, to the rise of the yeomanry, the rich peasant class, ‘the middling sort’ who would soon be at the forefront of a succession of radical upheavals that would give birth to the modern world.

This article is from the October 2015 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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