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The medieval Band of Brothers

Artist's depiction of the Battle of Agincourt, without which we wouldn't have "Band of Brothers" (Image: history.com)
Artist's depiction of the Battle of Agincourt, without which we wouldn't have "Band of Brothers" (Image: history.com)

This year is the 20th anniversary of Band of Brothers, the highly celebrated HBO miniseries that chronicled the battles of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the eponymous "Band of Brothers", in World War II. You probably know that the phrase "band of brothers" comes from a Shakespeare play, and you might be able to pinpoint it as Henry V, in which young King Henry exhorts his soldiers to courage before the Battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt in modern French).
 
But do you really know what actually happened at Agincourt and what influence it had on history? The real battle took place almost exactly 606 years ago, on October 25, 1415, on Saint Crispin's Day, exactly as Shakespeare noted. (And for those of you wondering, Saint Crispin is the patron saint of cobblers, tanners, curriers and other leatherworkers.) Today's newsletter will take a look at the medieval battle without which the acclaimed TV series couldn't have its name.

Agincourt on the map (Photo: Google)
Agincourt on the map (Photo: Google)

The Battle of Agincourt was one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years War, a long conflict between England and France (and their allies) spanning from 1337 to 1453 (so actually being 116 years long). It started out as a succession dispute, when both the English and French royal houses claimed the French crown for themselves. Over time, it transformed into a general power struggle for dominance over Western Europe, and it became a major step in the birth of national patriotic sentiment in the Middle Ages.
 
It should be understood that long wars during the Middle Ages weren't like long conflicts in the 20th century. The lower national populations, lower food and economic production, the slowness of armies on the march and poor road conditions during harsh winters did not allow for the same speed and intensity that we see in World War I or II. Armed conflicts comprised of shorter campaigns, usually confined to a smaller geographical region, separated by years and sometimes decades of truces during which the warring nations were busy dealing with their own internal affairs.

The mid-1410s came at the end of one such period, and things were not looking good for the English at the time. Their holdings in France were reduced to two small areas in southwest France (much smaller than their previous territory there), and a strip of land in the northeast of the country, which included the port city of Calais and the now-Belgian city of Ghent. They've been on the back foot for decades at this point, slowly losing territories; but there was a new king in town, and he intended the turn the war around.

English- (red) and French- (blue) controlled areas in September 1415, just before Henry V's campaign (Photo: YouTube)
English- (red) and French- (blue) controlled areas in September 1415, just before Henry V's campaign (Photo: YouTube)

That new king was Henry V, who had inherited the English crown from his father, Henry IV, in 1413, at the age of 27. The old king gave young Henry a variety of military and administrative tasks well before his death, giving the new monarch valuable experience. Once Henry V ascended the throne, he quickly and efficiently silenced his political challengers and centralized power in his own hands. He decided that the final act of solidifying his rule was to score a major victory over the old enemy, France.

16th or 17th century depiction of Henry V (Image: National Portrait Gallery, London)
16th or 17th century depiction of Henry V (Image: National Portrait Gallery, London)

He couldn't have picked a better time to attack France, as France was in turmoil. The French king, Charles VI, was also known as Charles the Mad for his mental illness, which included the recurring belief that his body was made of glass and he might shatter if anybody touched him. The regency rule during his periods of insanity led to the lack of a strong central authority and a civil war broke out in France between groups of different economic, social and religious views – and, of course, good old power-hungry noblemen trying to grab the biggest slice of the cake.

(Image: 15th century illuminator known as the Mazarine Master)
(Image: 15th century illuminator known as the Mazarine Master)
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Henry organized an army of 12,000 men and sailed across the English Channel and landed near the French port of Harfleur in Normandy on August 13, 1415. Coincidentally, this happened about a mere 20 miles / 32 km to the east of where Sword Beach, the easternmost D-Day landing beach, would lie in 1944. Henry quickly besieged Harfleur; not because it was such a valuable prize, but because he hoped to draw out the French army and force it into a battle – surely, the French won't just sit and watch as he took a city from them.
 
But the French pretty much did just that. With no strong central power in France, they needed a lot of time to mobilize, and the armies gathering to meet the English challenge had no real unified command over them. Meanwhile, the vastly outnumbered defenders of Harfleur held out for much longer than anyone expected, and only surrendered on September 22. By this time, the English army suffered many casualties from an outbreak of dysentery in their camp (a common occurrence in medieval siege camps due to the lack of hygiene). Even worse, winter was coming and the campaign season was drawing to an end. Henry no longer had the time to conduct any major operations, and he wasn't even sure he had enough men to face the French army if it showed up.

The siege of Halfleur as depicted in the 2019 film The King (Photo: Netflix)
The siege of Halfleur as depicted in the 2019 film The King (Photo: Netflix)

However, he felt he couldn't just sail home. Wrapping up the campaign after the capture of one single town, and even that with so much difficulty, would have made him look weak – the exact opposite of what he set out to achieve. He decided that if he can't beat the French decisively, he will humiliate them instead. He would send his sick men home by ship, then take the rest of his army and march northeast through the eastern Normandy countryside until he reached the safety of English-held Calais. This would send a message both to his own people in England, and to the French: the King of England can march across France as he pleases, and there's nothing the French can or dare do about it.
 
By this time, however, the French had mobilized and several forces were now converging on Henry's army. Henry got as far as the Somme (the same river where the infamous battle would play out in World War I), where he found a superior French army blocking his crossing. He had no choice but to turn inland and follow the Somme upriver to try and find a safe ford. Naturally, the French did the same on the other side, trying to keep up with the English army and trap them on the wrong side of the river. The English eventually managed to outpace the French and cross the Somme before they could be intercepted. This forced the hand of the French commanders: Henry had to be stopped there and now, before he could reach the safety of Calais.
 
The two armies came to a head near the village of Agincourt. The exact sizes of the armies are unknown, but recent estimates put the English army at around 8,000-9,000 men. Most of them were lightly armored longbowmen from England and Wales; one-sixth of the army was comprised of men-at-arms: heavily armed, well-trained warriors who could fight from horseback, but were also adept at fighting on foot. All knights are men-at-arms, but the category also includes higher nobility as well as commoners who might form a knight's retinue or might be paid mercenaries.

Modern depiction of English longbowmen at Agincourt (Image: Pinterest)
Modern depiction of English longbowmen at Agincourt (Image: Pinterest)

Opposite them, the French army had 10,000 men-at-arms alone, and they were supplemented by 4,000-5,000 various footmen, mainly archers and crossbowmen. Additionally, every man-at-arms was assumed to be accompanied by a varlet, an armed and combat-capable servant. (The modern English word "valet" as in "valet parking" is related to this word.) With up to 25,000 reasonably fresh men facing 9,000 Englishmen who were already worn out by 260 miles / 418 km of marching, and with additional reinforcements on the way, the French felt very confident.
 
King Henry, however, had an ace up his sleeve. Shortly before the armies met, some of his scouts managed to ambush a French messenger, who was carrying a copy of the French battle plans. It was a good plan. Earlier battles during the Hundred Years War, notably Crécy and Poitiers, have taught the French not to frontally charge English longbowmen with a large cavalry force: while the knights' armor gave them very good protection against arrows, their horses were only armored on the head and were big soft targets. Instead, the French intended to send out two smaller cavalry forces and flank the English from both sides. These two units would charge into archers, and many of them would get through, since bowmen can't shoot in two different directions at once. Once the archers were interrupted and tied down in combat, the French main force would come up in the middle unmolested by volleys and shatter the weak English lines.

Replica of the style of armor a member of the English royal family would have worn around the time of the battle (Photo: myarmoury.com)
Replica of the style of armor a member of the English royal family would have worn around the time of the battle (Photo: myarmoury.com)

Henry realized that he could only foil this plan by denying the enemy the chance to flank him, and he chose the battlefield accordingly. The field's exact location is under debate by historians, but what's clear is that it was a strip of open ground running from northwest (the French side) to southeast (the English side), bordered by forests on the northeast and southwest. Cavalry can't properly charge through a thick forest, so this location protected the English flanks.
 
The two armies lined up in front of each other on the 24th of October, but neither side attacked. Henry had fewer troops and most of them were lightly armored, so an attack looked suicidal. For their part, the French were in no hurry: any delay would just bring them more reinforcements, while it would wear out the English even more.

Partial suit of armor and weapons from the Battle of Agincourt on display at the Tower of London in 2015 (Photo: Dan Kitwood)
Partial suit of armor and weapons from the Battle of Agincourt on display at the Tower of London in 2015 (Photo: Dan Kitwood)

Even with an advantageous battlefield, the English knew they were in trouble. The king heard mass three times during the evening, and the army spent the night awake. According to French authors (who of course were biased at the time), Henry threatened to cut off the ear of anyone who raised a noise. In contrast, music and laughter could be heard from the confident French camp.
 
In the morning of the 25th, the soldiers made their confessions, as was customary. King Henry then delivered a short speech, reminding the men of past victories over the French. His exact words are lost, but it was this speech that inspired Shakespeare's monologue, which included the lines:
 
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; […]

"The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt", 1884. Note the soldiers making confession in the background, left. (Painting: Sir John Gilbert)
"The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt", 1884. Note the soldiers making confession in the background, left. (Painting: Sir John Gilbert)

The men-at-arms, fighting on foot on this occasion, then took their positions in the open strip of land alongside some of the archers. The rest of the archers were placed on the flanks. King Henry stood in the center and the front, displaying himself conspicuously, possibly as a bait to goad the French into making the first move. Every archer had a sharpened wooden stake with him. These were driven into the ground in front of their lines, with the stakes leaning toward the enemy. This protected them from a devastating cavalry charge (the bane of any archer), as horses would not run willingly into such a barrier.
 
The French also took their positions. As you might remember, they had no strong central leader, and they were convinced of their inevitable victory. They've divided their armies into three groups – battles as they were called in French. Many of the knights and nobles insisted in fighting in the vanguard, the battle at the very front. This was not only to earn glory, but also for a chance to capture valuable English noblemen who could be ransomed back for large sums of money. Like the English men-at-arms, they have also dismounted for the fight, not wishing to risk losing their horses to English arrows. Two groups remained on horseback. A force of 800-1,200 horsemen was to charge and break the English archers. This was similar to what the original plan called for, but the lack of open ground on the flank would force this unit to ride up in the center, where all the archers could concentrate on them. A second cavalry unit of around 200 was to get behind the English army and attack the baggage and the servants. The second battle was formed by all the other men-at-arms, similarly on foot, who couldn't get a spot in the vanguard. All the archers and crossbowmen were grouped into the rearguard and left in the back, too far away to shoot at the enemy, on the assumption that they won't be needed, anyway.

A map of the area and the disposition of forces during the French (blue) attack (Map: Wikipedia)
A map of the area and the disposition of forces during the French (blue) attack (Map: Wikipedia)

Both sides lined up, and… started waiting again, just like the day before. This time, Henry was not willing to let another day pass with his chances slipping away by the hour, so he made a risky decision. He ordered his archers to pull out their stakes, advance toward the French, then stop and drive in the stakes again. This was extremely risky. Had the French cavalry charged the archers while they were on the move or still installing the stakes in their new position, they could have demolished the bulk of the English army. And yet, the French just stood and waited. It was probably because, as mentioned before, they did not have a clear leader, and nobody had the willingness and the authority to give the order. It's also possible they believed the English were going to charge into close combat.
 
What the English did instead was start taking shots at the cavalry from the very limit of longbow range. Arrows from this far had no chance of punching through armor, but they could still wound the lightly armored horses, causing them to go wild and out of control. This finally prodded the French into action, and the cavalry charged. The charge ended up a disaster. Shot at by archers from the front and sides, the undersized force was rapidly decimated and forced to flee. But at least the battle was on.

An alternative map of the battle (Map: John Fawkes)
An alternative map of the battle (Map: John Fawkes)

The French vanguard advanced on foot, and quickly realized they had another thing to worry about beside arrows: the ground. The open ground between the two forests was recently plowed; this makes for healthier soil and earlier planting in the spring. Additionally, it had also rained recently, turning the loose plowed soil into sticky mud.
 
The French were wearing heavy plate armor, which caused them to sink into the mud knee deep in some spots, while they were being pelted by a constant storm of arrows. While well-made armor of the time offered great protection against arrows, the visor was still a weak spot, especially around the eye and breathing holes, and raising to visor to get a better view of your surroundings or catch your breath was just inviting an arrow straight in your face. The men-at-arms advanced through the thick mud laboriously, leaning forward and keeping their heads down to protect their faces, but this further decreased their ability to see what was happening, and the slouching position made it harder to breathe in armor. Many men fell, got stuck in the mud, and drowned as mud seeped inside their armor. Meanwhile, the main battle also started advancing, pushing the vanguard before them. Stopping or turning around meant being trampled by the men behind you.

15th century French depiction of the battle. Note how the disposition of troops is not true to our present-day understanding. (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)
15th century French depiction of the battle. Note how the disposition of troops is not true to our present-day understanding. (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The French eventually reached the lines of English archers, but they were exhausted by the ordeal. The lack of heavy armor on the longbowmen would have normally put them at a significant disadvantage, but the circumstances offset this: they were still fresh, agile, and they were standing on solid ground instead of mud. They grabbed their swords, axes and even the mallets they used to drive in the stakes, and fell on the French.

Modern depiction of the moment when the first French men-at-arms (foreground) reached Henry V and his bodyguards (Image: Osprey Publishing)
Modern depiction of the moment when the first French men-at-arms (foreground) reached Henry V and his bodyguards (Image: Osprey Publishing)

Even in their terrible position, the French managed to push the English lines back a bit, but they didn't have the strength to break through. According to some historians, English bowmen on the flanks moved forward and around the French force, shooting them in the back while Henry and his men-at-arms fought them in the front. The muddy field turned into a killing ground, and the battle was all but over in three hours.

1867 depiction of one of the French leaders, the Duke of Alencon (right) attacking the wounded Edward of York (on ground), who is protected by King Henry V (left) (Image: James William Edmund Doyle)
1867 depiction of one of the French leaders, the Duke of Alencon (right) attacking the wounded Edward of York (on ground), who is protected by King Henry V (left) (Image: James William Edmund Doyle)

At some point during the battle, we don't exactly know when, the French managed to win at least one tiny victory. A local knight, Ysembart d'Azincourt, led 600 peasants and a small number of professional soldiers through the forest trails and emerged near the English baggage train, managing to steal one of Henry's crowns and other personal items.
 
Another, darker event casts a shadow on the English victory. As the number of captive French nobles grew, Henry gave the order to his men-at-arms to slaughter them. His men resisted at first; this act not only violated the code of chivalry, but also meant those men couldn't be ransomed back for money. Henry declared that anyone refusing the carry out the order would be hanged, and that was that.

Late 15th century depiction of the battle. Note the two captive French knights being led away with their hands bound. (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Late 15th century depiction of the battle. Note the two captive French knights being led away with their hands bound. (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

There's no full agreement on why he took this drastic step. It has been suggested that the captive French, still in armor, have greatly outnumbered their guards, and Henry was afraid they might pick up weapons scattered on the field and rejoin the battle, which would have put the English in a precarious position. Other historians believe that this brutal act was intended to break the will of the French rear guard, who still had not joined the battle at this point, and convince them to leave. It's also been suggested that only a relatively small number of prisoners were put to the sword before the remaining French fled, at which point Henry rescinded his order.
 
The battle was a catastrophe for France. About 6,000 Frenchmen died, at least 3,000 of whom were nobles and squires. The dead included three dukes, nine counts and an archbishop. The Constable of France (essentially the commander-in-chief), an admiral, the Master of the Crossbowmen (the commander of all infantry forces) and the Master of the Royal Household were all among the dead. Entire noble families had their male lines wiped out. English losses were light in comparison. 112 dead were identified at the time, but 600 to maybe 1,000 dead is a more reasonable estimate.

15th century depiction of Charles I d'Albret, the Constable of France, one of the notable French dead at Agincourt (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)
15th century depiction of Charles I d'Albret, the Constable of France, one of the notable French dead at Agincourt (Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Though Henry V did not follow up with immediate further battlefield victories, the battle of Agincourt still had far-reaching consequences. The young English king solidified his position at home, and garnered support for future campaigns against France. France was plunged into even greater turmoil: the earlier civil war flared up again, as one of the former factions was greatly weakened at Agincourt and their enemies decided to seize the chance and try to finish them off.
 
Even more importantly, the victory, along with other, earlier battles of the Hundred Years War, helped establish a sense of English national pride. The English royal court gradually abandoned French as its language and adopted English, which up to that point was only spoken by the common people. And it is no coincidence that the first major film adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, was made in 1944. Olivier originally only performed the famous monologue on radio as part of a morale-boosting broadcast. Churchill liked it so much he asked the famous actor to produce the entire play as a film. The story of Englishmen fighting and winning a major battle in France was a powerful rallying call at a time when English, American and Canadian forces were fighting Nazi Germany in Normandy, not that very far from the site where the first, original "Band of Brothers" stood.
 
Other major films based on the events (as depicted by Shakespeare) include the 1989 film adaptation by Kenneth Brannagh and the 2019 film The King starring Timothy Chalamet, based on three of Shakespeare's plays.

Laurence Olivier as King Henry in the 1944 adaptation of Henry V (Image: British Film Institute)
Laurence Olivier as King Henry in the 1944 adaptation of Henry V (Image: British Film Institute)

Today, Azincourt is a small village of around 300 inhabitants. It lies in the immediate vicinity of the actual battlefield. A small museum called Azincourt 1415 center serves as a place of remembrance and informs its visitors about the battle and the everyday life in the Middle Ages.

A photo of the interior of the Azincourt 1415 Center museum (Photo: www.history-pas-de-calais.com)
A photo of the interior of the Azincourt 1415 Center museum (Photo: www.history-pas-de-calais.com)
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