Mon Dieu! Everything That Went Wrong For The French At The Battle Of Agincourt
From 1336 to 1453, England and France fought in the Hundred Years’ War, as a series of disagreements and rivalries played themselves out on various battlefields. The War evokes images of warrior women like of Joan of Arc, ruthless weapons like English longbows, and even well-known wordsmiths like William Shakespeare.
Generally speaking, the English won the major battles of the Hundred Years’ War, including Agincourt, but the French won the war. The Battle of Agincourt, fought on October 25, 1415, was the last major English victory. Why the English won was as much due to superior English weaponry and military expertise as it was to the French battlefield blunders, backwards thinking, and bad luck that characterized the day. Nonetheless, the Battle of Agincourt would be remembered as a colossal French embarassment.
- Photo: Jean Fouquet / via Wikimedia Commons
The French King Was Insane
When Charles VI became the King of France in 1380, he was just a child. His uncles and an administrative council ruled France with him until he took over personal rule in 1388. Despite showing some talent in fighting at the chivalric tournaments of the time, he also suffered from fits of madness and delusions. His periods of insanity, which lasted for months at a time, began after he had a high fever in 1392 and plagued him for the rest of his life. He often believed himself to be made of glass and, as a result, would not move for fear of shattering. He had metal stints sewn into his clothes and wrapped himself in fabric to keep from breaking, as well.
- Photo: K-putt / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0
The French Nobles Were Fighting Each Other
With a weak king, aristocratic aspirations were at their peak. During a break in the fighting with England, French nobility - namely the Dukes of Orleans and Burgundy - vied with one another for land and influence at the royal court. Charles VI’s brother, Louis, the Duke of Orleans, purchased a significant portion of land in Burgundy in 1402. The land, which Burgundy considered private and not for sale, was purchased with the money Louis drew from his royal income. Louis’s enemies responded – not only in support of Burgundy, but also to undercut the power of the King’s brother blaming increased taxation on Louis’s excess.
Louis was assassinated in 1407 as the rivalry became more volatile. Louis’s son, Charles of Orleans, responded by making any and all allies of Burgundy his enemies, launching a 30-year civil war between the two sides.
The French Aristocracy Suffered From Warrior Elitism
The French aristocracy, deeply engrained in chivalric values, feudal tradition, and concerned for their status in politics and society, refused to fight with the peasantry against the English. Despite several thousand peasants coming together and wanting to fight, the aristocracy didn’t want to take the risk of arming them lest they should revolt, nor did they want to lose out on their own chance for glory on the battlefield. There were several hundred peasants present at Agincourt in the end, but they were relegated to the rear guard and were either unwilling or not allowed to fight.
The French Leaders and Soldiers Got Cocky
The French outnumbered the English with anywhere from 12,000 to 36,000 troops to their 5,000, depending on which source one believes. The English troops were weak and weary, solemn and resolute the night before the battle. The English had been beaten down by disease, lack of food, and threats of French counterattacks since they'd arrived in France in August 1415. On the eve of Agincourt, Henry V ordered his men to remain completely silent, for fear of a surprise attack by the French. Meanwhile, their French counterparts drank and rabble-roused, certain of their impending victory.
- Photo: Narshada / flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0
The French Knights Were Weighed Down By Their Expensive Armor
The French knights wore heavy plate armor, as did their horses. With over 100 pounds of metal covering their bodies, they were hampered in terms of swift movement and limited when it was time to get off of their horses and engage in hand-to-hand combat. The English, for their part, wore lighter leather and chain mail armor, if any at all.
The French Army Feared Yet Continued To Underestimate English Longbows
The biggest problem for the French was their lack of longbows. The English archers dominated earlier battles of the Hundred Years’ War with their superior bows and the same weapons controlled Agincourt. An English longbowman could shoot up to 10-12 arrows a minute. The longbow hurled arrows as far as 400 yards. The arrows could pierce plate armor and shields alike from between 100 and 200 yards away.
According to legend, the French so feared the longbow that they threatened to cut off the first two fingers of any English archer captured in battle. This would prevent him from ever firing an arrow again. Given the success of the English, the archers began waving their first two fingers at the French as a taunt on the battlefield.