Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Agincourt - September 1415: Disaster Beckons by W. B. Bartlett

Agincourt - The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur The attack by Henry V's army on Harfleur

The days were hurrying past and Harfleur showed no sign of losing its will to fight. An action that was supposed to last for days had now turned into a siege, a slogging match. The determination of the defenders to slug it out increased the chance that the French king and his generals would be able to raise an army to counter-attack and drive Henry and his men back into the sea.

Sieges were a lottery. They put great pressure on the supply situation, both for those inside the walls but also for the besieging army. This was made far worse for the latter given the fact that they were far away from home. Ships scuttled to and fro from England bringing provisions with them whilst foraging parties were sent out locally to grab what food they could for the troops.

Problematic though it was to keep up the flow of supplies, this was not the main issue for the English. Siege camps in medieval times were unsanitary places to live. Thousands of men living close to each other with little concern for hygiene made for a breeding ground for disease. And it was now that one of the medieval world’s greatest killers played its hand: dysentery.

Soon it started to take its toll, decimating the army. It hit common soldier and knights and nobles alike. On 1 September 1415, Lord Fitzwalter, a mere sixteen years of age, succumbed, having barely reached manhood. By the middle of the month, matters were approaching epidemic proportions. It touched Henry V personally. One of his closest advisers was Richard Courtenay, Bishop of Norwich. He too fell ill with dysentery and it became clear that he had not long for this world. The king himself tended him as he was dying.

The death of Courtenay hit the king hard. But he could not afford to be overwhelmed by it. With each passing day there was an increased risk of a French counter-attack. Time was running out so it was decided to gamble everything on a shock attack on Harfleur. When it came it was carried out by a group of men who might be thought of as his storm troopers, individuals like John Holland, Sir John Cornwall, Sir Gilbert Umfraville and Sir William Bourchier.

The English has been busy, smashing the walls with their cannon and breaches had been made. Through the shattered defences the English charged. A counter-attack was launched but the English were ready for them. Archers carrying fire-arrows shot their missiles into the French ranks and they were forced back. The barbican, an important part of the outer defences of Harfleur, had fallen.

Agincourt - King_Henry_V_from_NPG Henry V

The defenders were now beginning to realise that they were running out of time. A delegation was sent to Henry V, asking for terms if no help from the French king was received. Permission was granted to allow a rider to make his way to the headquarters of the French seeing if help would be forthcoming in time. He returned with the news that they would not.

So at 8 o’clock in the morning of 22 September a procession of hostages made its way from out of Harfleur and towards a waiting English king, seated imperiously in front of his royal pavilion with a stern look on his face. He kept them guessing. By the harsh terms of medieval war, he would have been within his rights to slaughter the menfolk of the town who had resisted his calls to surrender. But he decided that on this occasion he would be magnanimous.

The men would be allowed to live, though the more important of them would be forced to raise ransom before they would be released. The humbler of them would be allowed to stay in Harfleur thought this would soon be turned into an English enclave, a counterpoint to Calais further to the north. The women though were forced to leave, useless mouths to feed in a town that was short of supplies. Their lot would be a harsh one.

With Harfleur fallen, Henry entered its shattered walls, walking barefoot through its gates like a Christian pilgrim. It was a great moment no doubt but it was a worried English king who acted the part of humble conqueror. The time spent on taking Harfleur had allowed the French to organise their defences further afield. Quite what to do next was a major concern. The most obvious next move perhaps was to hold what he had taken and send the part of the army that would not be needed back home.

That was the safe option but having thought long and hard about what to do next, the decision when it came was surprising and to some no doubt alarming. Henry would march its way to Calais and return home from there. The only problem with this was that it meant crossing over 100 miles of French territory with the strong possibility that the enemy’s army would be lying in wait for them. Henry V had turned gambler and the stakes for which he was playing could not have been higher.

Agincourt - 9781445639499

W. B. Bartlett's Agincourt Henry V, The Man-at-Arms & the Archers is available now