A Little British History from the Malamute Saloon…

Howl5John Howland sent along this shortened version of an article he wrote for the Searcher magazine in 2004.  Guess he’s feeling guilty about that $20 he owes me.   Thanks Bubba….

The Centre Historique Medieval…

Sixty kilometres south-east of the northern French ferry port of Boulogne – about one hour’s drive – brings visitors to the hamlets of Azincourt and Tramecourt. On farmland between the two, under leaden autumn skies on Friday, 25 October 1415 (St Crispin’s Day), a tired, hungry, ragged, and dysentery-ridden English army of 6,500, commanded by King Henry V, engaged a French army of 26,000 in perhaps the greatest battle of the Hundred Years War. By the day’s end, the name of one of those hamlets would burn itself into English history.

Today, visitors will find a very fine museum dedicated to that day’s events; one of modern design, but lacking period artefacts, save for four arrowheads found by metal detectorists.  All the medieval weapons are superbly made modern copies. In a fusion of technology, innovation, and a dab of the dramatic, history comes spookily alive, not least by the eye-ball rolling, mouth-moving life-size figures of the battles’ two commanders – Henry V and Conetable D’Albret: Which comes as a shock to the system in the wake of a hearty lunch and a few glasses of Chateau Latour. The Centre is tactile and designed to interact with visitors able handle a variety of weaponry. The longbow simulator for example, where one can try drawing an 80-lbs pull longbow brings the physical attributes of medieval bowmen into sharp focus.

Here some 600-years later over lunch with Claude Delcusse in Agincourt’s first-rate Charles IV Restaurant, we discussed the events of that fateful day. Delcusse, who is not only the Director and locomotive force behind Agincourt’s Centre Historique Medieval, but at the time of my visit 2002 was arguably the greatest living authority on the battle. “How could 6,500 English defeat 26,000 French?” I asked him.

“Snobbery,” was the unexpected reply.

The French commander, Conetable D’Albret, a minor aristocrat, was held in low-regard by many of his more blue-blooded knights, some of whom held him in outright contempt. Between the hamlets of Tramecourt and Azincourt lies a narrow strip of funnel-shaped, open farmland, bordered to the north and south by woods; 1,200- yards wide at the northern end and 900-yds wide to the south. D’Albret massed his troops across the wide end of the ‘funnel’.

On the 24th October, the English troops marching north for embarkation at Calais to England, found their way barred by an overwhelming French army. Battle was inevitable. The French positioned themselves at the northern end blocking Henry’s route to Calais. That evening Henry ordered his bowmen to cut themselves stakes between six and eight feet in length.

Henry V formed his men across the 900-yard southern end, positioning 2,500 bowmen on each flank, lined up from the centre where his 1,500 men-at-arms and knights were stationed and out to the edge of the woods. He sent some his best bowmen into the woods on either side to act as ‘snipers’. It was a common problem for enemy knights riding into battle against the English, that if they lowered their helmet visors too soon, the narrow slits tended retain their exhaled breath with its inherent carbon dioxide making them disorientated. Hence, they rode into battle visor up, looking to one side or another, breathing fresh air, but importantly to avoid a full-on arrow in the face well knowing how the English bowmen volleyed their arrows. As the French knights began their slow advance, visor up, became easy targets for the English bowman ‘snipers’.

Henry organized his forces into three divisions: the vanguard, commanded by the Duke of York; the main division commanded by Henry himself; and the rear-guard commanded by Lord Camoys. Sir Thomas Erpingham marshalled the bowmen on the flanks in two herce (inverted ‘V’ formations). The stakes, sharpened at both ends, were driven into the ground at about 45-degrees – the standard English defence against cavalry. The French, to the north, formed up over a 1,200-yard wide front on freshly ploughed fields. Spirits were high and defeat impossible. They were eager to crush the English and anxious for battle. In the English lines, the mood was naturally sombre.

Army chaplains took the final Confessions of the English troops, all of whom were resigned to their fate with few expecting to see another sunrise. All captured English bowmen, the French announced, would suffer having their first two fingers lopped off so they’d never draw a bow again. Henry V knew he held the advantage of the ground. Somehow, the French had to be lured into charging the English line. Henry signalled Erpingham, who gave the famous order….”Nestroque.” (Now, strike!). Five-thousand archers fired en masse, high into the air, the so-called ‘cloud’ shot. Arrows fell like bolts from the blue into the ranks of the French knights who had advanced fortuitously, without waiting for orders, heads down into the withering hail of English arrows that came pouring into their ranks at the rate of up to 50,000 a minute.

Those horses struck by special, crescent-shaped, flesh-tearing arrows became unmanageable unseating the French knights at the feet of the English bowmen, who stepped from the line to deliver the coup-grace to the fallen with swift dagger thrusts through the eye-slits of the helmet visors, or deep into the armpits.

Behind the mounted knights came the lines of foot knights and men-at-arms whose line of advance had compressed from the 1,200-yard front to the width of the English line of 900-yards. Into this densely packed line bolted the fallen knights’ hideously wounded horses trying to escape the pandemonium. All the while English bowmen poured volley after volley into the seething mass of humanity. Those knights that did manage to get to their feet found themselves stuck fast in the mud; and easy meat for the dagger-men.

Being only 150 yards from the English line, individual French knights were prey to the legendary accuracy of English archery. Specially designed armor-piercing arrows struck these hapless and helpless souls at speeds estimated at over 125-mph fired from longbows with draw-pulls of 100-lbs or more.  Many knights were pierced through.

The screams of the dying and wounded amplified by the sheer terror of the ripped-open horses is a scene we can hardly imagine today. Finally, the English men-at-arms moved in for the coup-de-grace.

The French reserves seeing the appalling tragedy unfolding before them failed to counter-attack, unable to break through the mass of dead, dying, and wounded, strewn in front of the English line. Estimates vary, but certainly between 10,000 and 15,000 Frenchmen died that day at a cost of 800 English dead.

There was however, a horrendous postscript to the day’s unbridled slaughter. Henry, fighting at the head of his troops received news that units of French were attacking his wagon train well to the rear. Fearing they might free his captives creating a second front, ordered that all prisoners immediately have their throats slit; an order that was met with severe misgivings and, reluctance. Nevertheless, the order went ahead. Only later did it dawn that far from it being French troops attacking the wagon train, but unarmed local peasants foraging for food and anything else of value. The French naturally enough, regarded the killings as a gross act of butchery earning Henry V the soubriquet, ‘The Cutthroat King.’

Immediately following the battle, the English swarmed onto the battlefield to retrieve their valuable arrows – yanking them from the bodies of the dead and wounded alike – and looting anything remotely valuable. After which came the turn of the peasantry to ransack whatever was left. Seven days after the battle, one French chronicler recorded what he saw and referring to the 15,000 dead: “The bodies,” he wrote, “were as naked as when they were born.”

Of the English dead, only the corpses of the Duke of York and Earl of Suffolk were brought back to England, but not before these had been boiled in a cauldron to render them skeletal. The bones were laid to rest in the Tower of London.

Clearly, Agincourt was a battle ‘lost’ by the French – not because of any inherent lack of courage, quite the reverse – but through a potent mix of ill-discipline, snobbery, and English good luck.

English bowmen went into action carrying two sheaves of arrows (48) and these were stuck into the ground point first next to the bowmen’s left feet: A practice that led the French to believe the English used poison-tipped arrows. In fact, arrow wounds were contaminated by traces of soil picked up when the arrowheads were stuck into the ground. The ‘poison’ is known by modern medicine as Tetanus.

Though the English fired over 500,000 arrows, only four arrowheads have ever been recovered from the battlefield. “This was due to the fact that the English retrieved most of their arrows after the battle,” Claude told me. Why only four, I wondered. “Some time ago,” Claude said, “We had a controlled search with a group of people with metal detectors. They only found four arrowheads.”

That said, the Agincourt battlefield is a protected area and off-limits to clandestine excavators with, or without, metal detectors.

The famous two-finger ‘V’-sign of disrespect, dates back to Agincourt, when some of the defeated French were paraded through the ranks of English bowmen, they, to a man held up the first two fingers of their right hands to say…Look, we’ve still got them! Over the years, the ‘V’-sign, has become a symbol of impolite defiance to pomposity; the modern vernacular equivalent of …Up Yours!

As Henry rode from the battlefield, he saw a village church to his left. Turning to an aide, he asked,

“What is the name of the village?”

“Azincourt, Sire”

“Then let the battle be recorded as fought at Azincourt.” Thus, a tiny French hamlet carved its place in English history; known forever by its anglicized name…Agincourt.

____________________________

I agree…

There is no disease that I spit on more than treachery….Aeschylus

See you in the bar!

************

7 Comments

Filed under Metal Detecting

7 responses to “A Little British History from the Malamute Saloon…

  1. wintersen

    Seems like a strange article for a detecting magazine. Would it be accepted today? Are you sure it was published in a 2004 Searcher?

    The only article by John that year that I could find was a super piece entitled ‘On the Waterfront’, and still relevant today – maybe slight updating needed. In it he talks about how some detectorists are so concerned about making their machines more waterproof than they are. Article would also be most suitable for a magazine devoted to fishing. I think he may have been sponsored by Shakespeare’s, the waterproof clothing firm! 🙂

  2. Yo JW:
    Take a look at Issue Number 221 January 2004. Nice front cover pics too, featuring the re-enactor bowmen on the line of the left flank of the English bowmen ( I did two articles for the magazine, other was about the battle of Crecy). Not so much a strange article for a magazine since SEARCHER ran a competition I’d ‘T’-eed up supported by the Medieval Centre, Euro Tunnel, and the Pas-de-Calais Tourist board with whom I have close journalistic links.

    The main point of the article was that out of 500,000 arrows fired, only four arrowheads have ever been recovered. They are in the museum having been found under controlled conditions using expert detectorists.

    The other excellent piece to which you kindly refer was not, unfortunately, sponsored by Shakespeare though their Press and Media Office were most helpful.

    All the best
    JH

  3. wintersen

    Ah! I was looking for the name John Howland. I can only surmise that he was using a pseudonym … the writer is down as Peter Ross. That’s why I couldn’t find it! Thanks for that.

  4. From John Howland…

    Yep, a nom-de-plume JW. Why? Just for fun.

    Peter Ross, of Killin, Perthshire, developed in the 1890s’ a wet fly bearing his name, “Peter Ross, ” dressed as a variant of the ‘Teal & Red’ His creation is known as one the great ‘traditional’ wet-fly patterns often fished as a fry imitator.

    However, some fly-fishing wags down the years have reckoned that, “Even Peter Ross couldn’t catch anything on a Peter Ross.” I can testify to that! Whereas the ‘Bloody Butcher’ and indeed the ‘Teal & Red’ have produced more trout for me than most others. The Peter Ross is a very effective sea-trout fly. Arguably, you can take trout in Scotland all season with six flies: Bloody Butcher, Butcher,Teal Blue & Silver, Alexandra, Black Pennell, and of course, Peter Ross.

    Happy daze

    JH

  5. On Friday, 9 January 2015, Warsaw Wally had one of usual rants under the heading:-

    Britain in Need of Archaeological Balls.

    Ahem…er…um….thanks Wally, but no thanks. We have enough of your sphericals on a regular basis.

    Happy Hoiking folks

    JH

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