#onthisday in 1415, the Battle of Agincourt was fought during the Hundred Years’ War, ending in an unexpected decisive victory of Henry V’s outnumbered English army over the French.

“My yeoman father taught me how to draw, how to lay my body in my bow ... not to draw with strength of arms as divers other nations do ... I had my bows bought me according to my age and strength, as I increased in them, so my bows were made bigger and bigger. For men shall never shoot well unless they be brought up to it.” (Hugh Latimer, Archer)

The Battle of Agincourt wouldn’t be a true national myth if it wasn’t subject to continuous reinterpretations and revaluations of what actually happened on that fateful cold and wet October day in the middle of nowhere between Harfleur and Calais, even though Azincourt is rated among the best documented battles of the late Middle Ages with quite a lot of contemporary sources. The 18th and 19th century saw glorious knightly cavalry charges with English arms finally prevailing, the early 20th century rediscovered the famous Welsh and English archers and attributed them and their great war bows with a decisive role, making Azincourt a historical turning point where commoners defeated the flower of French nobility with what was basically a Stone Age weapon, today we put the role and the effectiveness of the long bows against plate armour into perspective and remember Agincourt as a huge, gory struggle of knights and armoured men-at-arms and archers in the deep mud between sharpened stakes.

Bows taller than 6’ had been used indeed since the Neolithic Age all over Europe to bring down big game or the occasional trespasser on your part of an Alpine glacier. Legend has it that Vortigern and his continental mercenaries brought the long bows back to Britain from Jutland and the Welsh adopted it like a duck takes to water. At the beginning of the 14th century, the Welsh and English had developed a proficiency with the long bows like no one else in the world. Bow staffs were usually made from a single piece of yew between 6’ and 7’ length and had a draw force of up to 400 N. Experienced archers could shoot between 6 to 12 3’ long arrows for over 250 yards that still were able to pierce armour at this distance. And most archers had learned their trade since they could more or less crawl. The frequency arrows could be shot on the battlefield, several hundreds of thousands at Crecy in 1356 alone led to a whole fletching industry to provide materiel enough for the endless border wars with the Scots and the French and their allies on the continent during the Hundred Years’ War. However, you can’t stop progress. Armourers from Milan and Nuremburg soon developed methods to produce plate armour that was comparatively light but could withstand long bow arrow, crossbow bolts and sword cuts.

The French cavalry tried to outflank the entrenched their at Agincourt. Dismounted knights stood with the archers between the sharpened stakes and the bowmen would not retreat from the fighting this time when melee loomed but make a stand. But first they shot volley upon volley, about 50.000 arrows per minute, on the French cavalry and even if they could not penetrate the Italian and German-made breastplates and helmets, they found the soft spots, of men an beast – the destriers were hit as well by countless arrows with their armour-piercing bodkin heads that would not kill the horses but drive them mad with pain, throwing their riders, trampling the wet field of Azincourt into a swamp and running back through the French lines of infantry and dismounted knights to make the chaos complete. The French finally arrived at the English lines in complete disarray after wading through knee-deep mud in full plate armour and shot at over several hundred years – and were slaughtered. It’s not certain if King Harry just cried “Let’s go, fellows” instead of giving rousing speeches and legend has it that the archers, who were threatened by the French to get the their right index and middle fingers cut off, the two that draw the string of the deadly yew bows, raised their hands, the back of the hand towards the retreating French and the two fingers stretched out in an infamous two finger salute that is used to this day. What they might have cried is left to imagination.
Depicted below is the patron saints of archers, St Sebastian, during his martyry, shot at by archers using what looks suspiciously like English long bows from a contemporary altar piece (Cologne, ca 1495)

And more about the Battle of Agincourt on:

#history #archery #medievalhistory #hundredyearswar #agincourt  
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