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The Battle

  “Not so deep, you’re not planting trees,” a sergeant chided a young archer. “You don’t want to waste time tugging them free when we fire.”   “Aye, sergeant,” the archer mumbled.   The sergeant saw the youth was deathly white. “Bear up, lad,” he said softly.   Startled, the youth began to insist nothing was amiss, then looked appealingly at the sergeant.   “I fear I will die this day,” he blurted.   “There’s no shame in feeling fear. It afflicts all of us.”   “You too?” the youth doubtfully asked.   “All of us, boy. Every man feels the fear pressing on his chest or gripping his guts. It will disappear as soon as the fight begins. There will be no time for thinking then – only for cutting down those French sons of whores before they do the same to us.”

English Centre, 6:10 a.m. Henry sat astride his horse in front of the English battle line. The king in his blue, red and gold surcoat adorned with golden leopards and lilies was a startling splash of colour amid the drab ranks. Five knights stood behind him with banners adorned with the emblems of the royal house. At their centre was the flag of England, the red cross of Saint George on a snow-white field.   Everything about the young king’s attire and position had been calculated to ensure he stood out. It was unspoken proof to his filthy and haggard men that he would lead them to victory or die with them.   “Some say our king resembles the young Alexander the Great,” said an admiring knight in Lord Camoys’ contingent.   Camoys, who looked less than noble in rust-streaked armour intended to conceal his identity as a senior commander, sniffed.

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“It is well known that Alexander was dead at the age of thirtythree.”   “But he had conquered the world first,” replied the knight, not caring if he offended his master. “Good sir, what is the time?” Henry enquired of the chaplain standing by his horse. The cleric scanned the sun emerging above the nearby trees.   “It is almost prime, time for the first prayers of the day, sire.”   “Good. People in England are awake. And while they cannot know what we face this day, they will doubtless pray for our safety and success. That will please God, and incline him to give us victory.”   “Sir Thomas,” Henry summoned the knight standing near by. Erpingham’s armour was covered with a green surcoat decorated with black ravens. “It is time to speak to the men.”   Henry nosed his mount forwards, advancing ten yards before wheeling to face the army.   “The king.” The words rustled through the ranks until every eye was fixed on him.   Henry began to speak. He had shared his soldiers’ fears, privations and dangers in a dozen campaigns; he knew what moved them, and he knew how to talk to them.   “Hear me. No one knows better than a soldier that war is a terrible thing. To die on the battlefield far from home and friends is a fate no man welcomes. And yet there are far worse things. Not to fight would be to forsake our honour and our manhood, and betray everything that we hold dear. We fight for what is right; we fight for England; we fight for God and his saints.”   Henry looked in turn at the massed bowmen on the two flanks. “Archers! Remember the fate that awaits you if you fall into the hands of the enemy. The French lords have sworn to sever your

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fingers for daring to fight against them. And if they do not then butcher you like pigs, you will be cripples for the rest of your days.”   Raising his right hand as if taking a solemn oath, Henry cried: “We shall all share the same fate this day. I promise that I will fight among you, and die among you, if Heaven is not with us. Fight for your honour and your king. Fight for your wives, children and aged parents at home. Fight for England.”   A thunderous roar erupted from the ranks, swelling as it surged down the lines. “Henry! Henry!” thousands of voices roared.

French Battle Line, 6:12 a.m. The cheers of the English army went almost unnoticed amid the clamour and laughter in the French ranks.   “Did you hear that?” a man-at-arms asked. He was staring across the muddy field, one shoulder leaning on a poleaxe lodged in the mud.   “What?” distractedly replied his companion, busy cracking nut shells.   “It’s the English. They are cheering.”   “Cheering?” The other man paused to peer at the English line. “What do those ugly toads have to cheer about?”   “Who knows?” answered his companion. “How can any sane man understand the English?” Word of the baffling English behaviour was sent back to the French commanders. The approach of battle had not eased the tension of the night before. Boucicaut was arguing against ordering an immediate attack.   “You seem a little dyspeptic this morning, marshal,” Orleans jeered. “Something you ate has disagreed with you? Or perhaps the prospect of the coming fight unsettles your stomach?”

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  Several of the younger lords snickered; the duke of Alençon guffawed.   Boucicaut glowered at his smirking tormentor.   “Surely, you do not take offence at my whimsy?” Orleans laughed.   Constable d’Albret angrily turned on Orleans. “Enough of this! Henry of England is not wasting time trading insults with his nobles.”   Orleans’ cheeks reddened with anger. Two of his courtiers protested.   The constable cut them off, “We must decide what to do.”   “Yes,” agreed Boucicaut. “What is your wish, your grace?”   Orleans was stunned. He had been demanding the right to command, but now that it seemed within his grasp he was unsure.   “What do you suggest, constable?” the duke hesitantly turned to d’Albret.   Boucicaut brusquely interjected, “We wait to see what the English do. Time is on our side, and we must give the ground a chance to dry out.”   Orleans glared, but did not protest. Curtly, he nodded assent. One of his young followers leaned forwards, whispering something. Orleans beamed. “Unfurl the Oriflamme!” he demanded. “Show the English they can expect no mercy!”   It was clear from their expressions that neither Boucicaut or d’Albret liked the idea. The Oriflamme was a banner raised in extreme cases to show that no prisoners would be taken. The marshal knew that raising it was likely to make the English fight harder. Rebuffing Orleans, on the other hand, would cause more dissension among the French leaders. He reluctantly nodded assent.   Orleans yelped triumphantly as his sycophants clamoured: “The Oriflamme! Raise the Oriflamme! Death to the English!”

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  Guillaume de Martel, keeper of the Oriflamme, was summoned. The old lord, who was in his early sixties, unfurled the plain blood-red banner with a confident sweep of his hands. It snapped smartly in the breeze as thousands of awed men stared at the legendary symbol.   “That silenced them,” d’Albret said to Boucicaut.   “Will it do the same to the English?” the marshal asked sourly.

English Battle Line, 6:15 a.m. After the cheers following Henry’s speech, priests moved swiftly along the English line. Every soldier knelt on the muddy ground, heads bared and bowed, hands clasped in prayer. The priests recited blessings and made the sign of the cross over the silent ranks.   “Defend our cause for it is just, O Lord. Destroy the ungodly and wicked French,” implored one cleric, stretching his arms to the heavens. “Do not forsake us, we beseech thee.”   The priests completed the blessings and began walking to the rear. Some went quickly. Others trailed behind, reluctant to leave.   “Do not linger, good brother,” an archer told Thomas.   “I am afraid, and yet it seems shameful not to stay,” the monk stammered.   “No need of you dying,” the archer gently smiled. “There’ll be more than enough who meet their end today.” Henry stood in the centre of the front rank after a squire led away his horse. The faces of the soldiers behind him were mostly blank; each man was alone with his own thoughts. And so they silently stood, waiting for the enemy to roll down on them in a great wave of steel and razor-sharp death.

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Agincourt 1415  
Agincourt 1415  
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