At Agincourt by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIX. Agincourt
The English king waited some time for an answer to a challenge he had sent to the Duke of Aquitaine to decide their quarrel by single combat; but Aquitaine cared more for pleasure than for fighting, and sent no answer to the cartel. It was open to Henry to have proceeded by sea to Calais, and it was the advice of his counsellors that he should do so; but the king declared that the French should never say that he was afraid to meet them, and that as the country was his by right he would march wherever he pleased across it; and so, after leaving a thousand archers and five hundred men-at-arms under the command of the Duke of Exeter, he set out on the 6th of October on his adventurous journey.
Accounts differ as to the number that started with him, some French historians put it as high as 17,000, but it is certain that it could not have exceeded nine thousand men, of whom two thousand were men-at-arms and the rest archers. Now, while the siege of Harfleur had been going on, the arrangements for the embarkation of the troops and stores carried out, and the town put in a state of defence, troops had been marching from all points of France at the command of the French king to join him at Rouen, so that here and in Picardy two great armies were already assembled, the latter under the command of the constable.
The English force marched by the sea-shore until it arrived at the river Somme. No great resistance was encountered, but large bodies of the enemy's horse hovered near and cut off all stragglers, and rendered it difficult to obtain food, so that sickness again broke out among the troops. On reaching the Somme Henry followed its left bank up, intending to cross at the ford of La Blanche-Tache, across which Edward the Third had carried his army before fighting at Crecy.
The French, as on the previous occasion, held the ford; but they this time had erected defences on each of the banks, and had strong posts driven into the bed of the river. Still ascending along the river bank the English found every bridge broken and every ford fortified, while a great body of troops marched parallel with them on the right bank of the river. At Pont St. Remy, Ponteau de Mer, and several other points they tried in vain to force a passage. Seven days were spent in these attempts; the troops, suffering terrible hardships, were disheartened at their failure to cross the river, and at finding themselves getting farther and farther from the sea. On the morning of the 19th, however, a ford was discovered which had not been staked. The English vanguard at once made a dash across it, repulsed its defenders on the other bank, and the whole army with its baggage, which was of scanty dimensions, swarmed across the river.
Sir Eustace, with his little force, now reduced to half its number, was, as it happened, in front of the army when the ford was discovered, and, followed by his two esquires and ten mounted men-at-arms, dashed into the river, while the archers, slinging their bows behind them, drew their axes and followed. For a short time there was a desperate conflict, but as reinforcements hurried across, the fight became more even and the French speedily gave way. When the king had crossed he thanked Sir Eustace for his prompt action.
"Had you waited to send back for orders," he said, "the French would have come up in such numbers that the ford would not have been won without heavy loss, whereas by dashing across the moment it was discovered, you took the defenders by surprise and enabled us to get over without the loss of a single man."
The constable, disconcerted at finding that all his plans for keeping the English on the left bank of the river were foiled, fell back to St. Pol in Artois. Henry followed, but without haste. His small force was greatly reduced by sickness, while by this time the whole of the royal army had marched round and joined that of the constable. On the day after the passage had been effected three heralds arrived in the English camp to acquaint the king with the resolution of the constable and of the Dukes of Orleans and Brabant to give his army battle before he reached Calais. Henry replied that fear of them would not induce him to move out of his way or to change the order of his march; he intended to go on straight by the road to Calais, and if the French attempted to stop him it would be at their peril; he accordingly continued to advance at the same rate as before.
The constable fell back from St. Pol and took up his post between the villages of Ruissanville and Agincourt, where, having received all the reinforcements he expected, he determined to give battle. On the 24th the English crossed the Ternois at Blangi, and soon afterwards came in sight of the enemy's columns. These fell back as he advanced, and towards evening he halted at the village of Maisoncelles, within half a mile of the enemy's position. Fortunately provisions had been obtained during the day's march; these were cooked and served out, and the English lay down to sleep. The king sent for Sir Eustace.
"You know this ground well, I suppose, Sir Eustace," he said, "for your Castle of Villeroy is not many miles distant?"
"'Tis but six miles away," the knight replied. "It is a good ground to fight on, for facing it are fields, and on either flank of these are large woods, so that there will be little space for the enemy to move."
"That is just what I would have," the king said. "Were they but half as strong as they are I should feel less confident that we should defeat them; their numbers will hinder them, and the deep wet ground will hamper their movements. As for ourselves, I would not have a man more with me if I could; the fewer we are the greater the glory if we conquer, while if we are defeated the less the loss to England. Does your young esquire also know the ground, Sir Eustace?"
"Yes, sire; he has, I know, often ridden here when hawking."
"Then let him go with four of my officers, who are about to reconnoitre the ground and see where we had best fight."
Guy was accordingly called up and started with the officers. He first took them up to the wood on the right of the French division, then they moved across its front at a distance of fifty yards only from the French line. The contrast between it and the English camp was great. In the latter all was quiet. The men after a hearty meal had lain down to sleep, heeding little the wet ground and falling rain, exhausted by their long marching, and in good spirits,--desperate though the odds seemed against them,--that they were next day to meet their foes. In the French camp all was noise and confusion. Each body of troops had come on the ground under its own commander, and shouts, orders, and inquiries sounded from all quarters. Many of the Frenchmen never dismounted all the night, thinking it better to remain on horseback than to lie down on wet ground. Great fires were lighted and the soldiers gathered round these, warming themselves and drinking, and calculating the ransoms to be gained by the capture of the king and the great nobles of England. Knights and men-at-arms rode about in search of their divisions, their horses slipping and floundering in the deep clay.
Passing along the line of the French army Guy and the officers proceeded to the wood on the left, and satisfied themselves that neither there nor on the other flank had any large body of men been posted. They then returned and made their report to the king. Guy wrapped himself in his cloak and lay down and slept until the moon rose at three o'clock, when the whole army awoke and prepared for the day's work. The English king ordered the trumpeters and other musicians who had been brought with the army to play merry tunes, and these during the three hours of darkness cheered the spirits of the men and helped them to resist the depressing influence of the cold night air following upon their sleep on the wet ground. The French, on the other hand, had no manner of musical instruments with their army, and all were fatigued and depressed by their long vigil.
The horses had suffered as-much as the men from damp, sleeplessness, and want of forage. There was, however, no want of confidence in the French army--all regarded victory as absolutely certain. As the English had lost by sickness since they left Harfleur fully a thousand men out of the 9,000, and as against these were arrayed at least a hundred thousand--some French historians estimate them at 150,000--comprising most of the chivalry of France, the latter might well regard victory as certain. There were, however, some who were not so confident; among these was the old Duke of Berri, who had fought at Poitiers sixty years before, and remembered how confident the French were on that occasion, and how disastrous was the defeat. His counsel that the English should be allowed to march on unmolested to Calais, had been scouted by the French leaders, but he had so far prevailed that the intention that Charles should place himself at the head of the army was abandoned.
"It would be better," the duke had urged, "to lose the battle than to lose the king and the battle together."
As soon as day broke the English were mustered and formed up, and three masses were celebrated at different points in order that all might hear. When this was done the force was formed up into three central divisions and two wings, but the divisions were placed so close together that they practically formed but one. The whole of the archers were placed in advance of the men-at-arms. Every archer, in addition to his arms, carried a long stake sharpened at both ends, that which was to project above the ground being armed with a sharp tip of iron. When the archers had taken up their positions these stakes were driven obliquely into the ground, each being firmly thrust in with the strength of two or three men. As the archers stood many lines deep, placed in open order and so that each could shoot between the heads of the men in front of him, there were sufficient stakes in front of the line to form a thick and almost impassable chevaux-de-frise. The baggage and horses were sent to the rear, near the village of Maisoncelles, under a guard of archers and men-at-arms. When all the: arrangements were made, the king rode along the line from rank to rank, saying a few words of encouragement to each group of men. He recounted to them the victories that had been won against odds as great as those they had to encounter, and told them that he had made up his own mind to conquer or die, for that England should never have to pay ransom for him.
The archers he fired especially by reminding them that when the Orleanists had taken Soissons a few months before they had hung up like dogs three hundred English archers belonging to the garrison. He told them that they could expect no mercy, for that, as the French in other sieges had committed horrible atrocities upon their own countrymen and countrywomen, they would assuredly grant no mercy to the English; while the latter on their march had burned no town nor village, and had injured neither man nor woman, so that God would assuredly fight for them against their wicked foes. The king's manner as much as his words aroused the enthusiasm of the soldiers; his expression was calm, confident, and cheerful, he at least evidently felt no doubt of the issue.
The Duke of Berri had most strongly urged on the council that the French should not begin the attack. They had done so at Crecy and Poitiers with disastrous effect, and he urged them to await the assault of the English. The latter, however, had no intention of attacking, for Henry had calculated upon the confusion that would surely arise when the immense French army, crowded up between the two woods, endeavoured to advance. The men were therefore ordered to sit down on the ground, and food and some wine were served, out to them.
The constable was equally determined not to move; the French therefore also sat down, and for some hours the two armies watched each other. The constable had, however, some difficulty in maintaining his resolution. The Duke of Orleans and numbers of the hot-headed young nobles clamoured to be allowed to charge the English. He himself would gladly have waited until joined by large reinforcements under the Duke of Brittany and the Marshal de Loigny, who were both expected to arrive in the course of the day. As an excuse for the delay, rather than from any wish that his overtures should be accepted, he sent heralds to the English camp to offer Henry a free passage if he would restore Harfleur, with all the prisoners that he had made there and on his march, and resign his claims to the throne of France. Henry replied that he maintained the conditions he had laid down by his ambassadors, and that he would accept none others. He had, in fact, no wish to negotiate, for he, too, knew that the French would very shortly be largely reinforced, and that were he to delay his march, even for a day or two, his army would be starved.
Perceiving at last that the constable was determined not to begin the battle, he sent off two detachments from the rear of his army, so that their movements should be concealed from the sight of the French. One of these, composed of archers, was to take post in the wood on the left hand of the French, the other was to move on through the wood, to come down in their rear, and to set on fire some barns and houses there, and so create a panic. He waited until noon, by which time he thought that both detachments would have reached the posts assigned to them, and then gave the orders for the advance. The archers were delighted when their commander, Sir Thomas Erpingham, repeated the order. None of them had put on his armour, and many had thrown off their jerkins so as to have a freer use of their arms either for bow or axe. Each man plucked up his stake, and the whole moved forward in orderly array until within bow-shot of the enemy. Then the archers again stuck their stakes into the ground, and, taking up their position as before, raised a mighty shout as they let fly a volley of arrows into the enemy.
The shout was echoed from the wood on the French left, and the archers there at once plied their bows, and from both flank and front showers of arrows fell among the French. As originally formed up, the latter's van should have been covered by archers and cross-bowmen, but, from the anxiety of the knights and nobles to be first to attack, the footmen had been pushed back to the rear, a position which they were doubtless not sorry to occupy, remembering how at Crecy the cross--bowmen had been trampled down and slain by the French knights, desirous of getting through them to attack the English. Therefore, there stood none between the archers and the French array of knights, and the latter suffered heavily from the rain of arrows. Sir Clugnet de Brabant was the first to take the offensive, and with twelve hundred men-at-arms charged down upon the archers with loud shouts. The horses, however, were stiff and weary from standing so long in order; the deep and slippery ground, and the weight of their heavily-armed riders caused them to stagger and stumble, and the storm of arrows that smote them as soon as they got into motion added to the disorder.
So accurate was the aim of the archers, that most of the arrows struck the knights on their helmets and vizors. Many fell shot through the brain, and so terrible was the rain of arrows that all had to bend down their heads so as to save their faces. Many of the archers, too, shot at the horses; some of these were killed and many wounded, and the latter swerving and turning aside added to the confusion. And when at length Sir Clugnet and the leaders reached the line of stakes in front of the archers, only about a hundred and fifty of the twelve hundred men were behind them.
The horses drew up on reaching the hedge of stakes. Their riders could give them no guidance, for without deigning to move from their order the archers continued to keep up their storm of arrows, which at such close quarters pierced all but the very finest armour, while it was certain death to the knights to raise their heads to get a glance at the situation. The horses, maddened with the pain of the arrows, soon settled the matter. Some turned and rushed off madly, carrying confusion into the ranks of the first division, others galloped off to the right or left, and of the twelve hundred men who charged, three only broke through the line of stakes, and these were instantly killed by the bill-hooks and axes of the archers.
The second line of battle was now in disorder, broken by the fugitive men and horses of Sir Clugnet's party, smitten with the arrows to which they had been exposed as that party melted away, and by those of the English archers in the wood on their flank. The confusion heightened every moment as wounded knights tried to withdraw from the fight, and others from behind struggled to take their places in front. Soon the disorder became terrible. The archers plucked up their stakes and ran forward; the French line recoiled at their approach in order to get into fairer order; and the archers, with loud shouts of victory, slung their bows behind them, dropped the stakes, and with axe and bill-hook rushed at the horsemen. These were too tightly wedged together to use their lances, and as they had retired they had come into newly-ploughed ground, which had been so soaked by the heavy rain that the horses sank in the deep mud to their knees, many almost to their bellies. Into the midst of this helpless crowd of armed men the English archers burst. Embarrassed by their struggling horses, scarcely able to wield their arms in the press, seeing but scantily, and that only in front through the narrow slits of their vizors, the chivalry of France died almost unresistingly.
The Constable of France and many of the highest nobles and most distinguished knights fell, and but few of the first line made their escape: these, passing through the second division, in order to draw up behind, threw this also into some confusion. The Duke de Brabant, who had just arrived on the field, charged down upon the flank of the archers. These met him fearlessly, and he and most of those with him were killed. This fight had, however, given time to the second division to close up their ranks. The archers would have attacked them, but the king caused the signal for them to halt to be sounded, and riding up formed them in order again. The French were unable to take advantage of the moment to try and recover their lost ground, for the horses were knee-deep in the ground, upon which they had all night been trampling, and into which the weight of their own and their riders' armour sunk them deeply.
"Now, my lords," the king said, turning to those around him, "our brave archers have done their share; it is our turn;" and then, as arranged, all dismounted and marched forward against the enemy.
In accordance with his orders, Sir Eustace de Villeroy and Guy were posted close to the king, while John Harpen led the men-at-arms from Summerley. For a time the battle raged fiercely. In the centre fought the king with his nobles and knights; while the archers, who had most of them thrown off their shoes and were able to move lightly over the treacherous ground, threw themselves upon the enemy's flanks, and did dreadful execution there. In the centre, however, the progress of the English was slower. The French knights made the most desperate efforts to attack the king himself, and pressed forward to reach the royal banner. His brother, the Duke of Clarence, was wounded, and would have been killed had not the king himself, with a few of his knights, taken post around him, and kept off the attacks of his foes until he recovered his feet. Almost immediately afterwards a band of eighteen knights, under the banner of the Lord of Croye, who had bound themselves by an oath to take or kill the king, charged down upon him. One of them struck him so heavy a blow on the head with a mace that the king was beaten to his knee, but his knights closed in round him, and every one of his assailants was killed.
The Duke of Alencon next charged down with a strong following; he cut his way to the royal standard, and struck the Duke of York dead with a blow of his battle-axe. Henry sprung forward, but Alencon's weapon again fell, and striking him on the head clipped off a portion of the crown which Henry wore round his helmet. But before the French knight could repeat the stroke Guy Aylmer sprung forward and struck so heavy a blow full on the duke's vizor that he fell from his horse dead. His fall completed the confusion and dismay among the French, and the second division of their army, which had hitherto fought gallantly, now gave way. Many were taken prisoners. The third division, although alone vastly superior in numbers to the English, seeing the destruction of the others, began to draw off. They had moved but a short distance when loud shouts were heard in the English rear. Two or three French knights, with a body of several hundred armed peasants, had suddenly fallen upon the English baggage and horses which had been left at Maisoncelles. Many of the guard had gone off to join in the battle, so that the attack was successful, a portion of the baggage, including the king's own wardrobe, and a great number of horses being captured.
Ignorant of the strength of the attacking party, Henry believed that it was the reinforcements under the Duke of Brittany that had come up. At the same moment the third division of the French, whose leaders were also similarly deceived, halted and faced round. Believing that he was about to be attacked in front and rear by greatly superior forces, Henry gave the order that all prisoners should be killed, and the order was to a great extent executed before the real nature of the attack was discovered and the order countermanded. The third division of the French now continued its retreat, and the battle was over. There remained but to examine the field and see who had fallen.
The king gave at once the name of Agincourt to the battle, as this village possessed a castle, and was therefore the most important of those near which the fight had taken place. Properly the name should have been Azincourt, as this was the French spelling of the village. The loss of the French was terrible, and their chivalry had suffered even more than at Poitiers. Several of the relations of the French king were killed. The Duke of Brabant, the Count de Nevers, the Duke of Bar and his two brothers, the constable, and the Duke of Alencon all perished. No less than a hundred and twenty great lords were killed, and eight thousand nobles, knights, and esquires lost their lives, with some thousands of lower degree, while the Duke of Orleans, the Duke of Bourbon, and many others were taken prisoners.
The accounts of the English loss differ considerably, the highest placing it at sixteen hundred, the lowest at one-fourth of that number. The plunder taken by them in the shape of costly armour, arms, rich garments, and the trappings of horses, was great; but of food there was but little, many of the victors lay down supperless around the village of Maisoncelles.
The knights who had led the peasants to the attack of the baggage-train, instead of joining in the fight, and had thereby caused the unfortunate massacre of so many prisoners, fell into great disgrace among the French for their conduct, and were imprisoned for some years by the Duke of Burgundy.
That evening the English king knighted many esquires and aspirants of noble families, among them Guy Aylmer, who was indeed the first to receive the honour.
"No one fought more bravely than you did, young knight," he said, as Guy rose to his feet after receiving the accolade; "I will see that you have lands to support your new dignity. Twice you were at my side when I was in the greatest danger, and none have won their spurs more fairly."
John Harpen would also have been among those knighted, but he declined the honour, saying that he was not come of gentle blood, and wished for nothing better than to remain his lord's esquire so long as he had strength to follow him in the field.
The next morning the army marched to Calais. The king turned aside with Sir Eustace, and with a strong party rode to Villeroy. Guy had gone on with the men-at-arms at daybreak, and a banquet had been prepared, and twenty cartloads of grain and a hundred bullocks sent off to meet the army on its march.
"'Tis a fine castle, Sir Eustace," the king said as he rode in, "but truly it is perilously situated. If after this I can make good terms with France I will see that the border shall run outside your estates; but if not, methinks that it were best for you to treat with some French noble for its sale, and I will see that you are equally well bestowed in England, for in truth, after fighting for us at Agincourt, you are like to have but little peace here."
"I would gladly do so, my lord king," Sir Eustace replied. "During the last three years it has been a loss rather than a gain to me. I have had to keep a large garrison here; the estate has been wasted, and the houses and barns burned. Had it not been that there was for most of the time a truce between England and France I should have fared worse. And now I may well be attacked as soon as your majesty and the army cross to England."
"You will have a little breathing time," the king said; "they will have enough to do for a while to mourn their losses. I will not leave behind any of your brave fellows who have fought so hard here, but when I arrive at Calais will order two hundred men of the garrison to come over to reinforce you until you can make arrangements to get rid of the castle, if it is not to remain within my territory."
Sir Eustace introduced Sir John Aylmer as the father of the newly-made knight.
"You have a gallant son, Sir John," the king said, "and one who is like to make his way to high distinction. I doubt not that before we have done with the French he will have fresh opportunities of proving his valour."
After the meal was over the king went round the walls.
"'Tis a strong place," he said, "and yet unless aid reached you, you could not resist an army with cannon and machines."
"I have long seen that, your majesty, and have felt that I should have to choose between England and France, for that, when war broke out again, I could not remain a vassal of both countries."
"It shall be my duty to show you that you have not chosen wrongly, Sir Eustace. I cannot promise to maintain you here, for you might be attacked when I have no army with which I could succour you. As soon as I return home and learn which of those who have fallen have left no heirs, and whose lands therefore have come into my gift, I will then make choice of a new estate for you."
The army marched slowly to Calais. It was weakened by sickness and hunger, and every man was borne down by the weight of the booty he carried. On arriving there the king held a council, and it was finally determined to return to England. The force under his command was now but the skeleton of an army. Fresh men and money were required to continue the war, and he accordingly set sail, carrying with him his long train of royal and noble prisoners. The news of the victory created the greatest enthusiasm in England. At Dover the people rushed into the sea and carried the king to shore on their shoulders. At Canterbury and the other towns through which he passed he received an enthusiastic welcome, while his entry into London was a triumph. Every house was decorated, the conduits ran with wine instead of water, and the people were wild with joy and enthusiasm. Great subsidies were granted him by Parliament, and the people in their joy would have submitted to any taxation. However, throughout his reign Henry always showed the greatest moderation; he kept well within constitutional usages, and his pleasant, affable manner secured for him throughout his reign the love and devotion of his subjects.
On his arrival at Calais Guy discovered that among the prisoners was his friend Count Charles d'Estournel.
"I am grieved indeed to see you in this plight," he exclaimed as he met him.
"'Tis unfortunate truly, Aylmer, but it might have been worse; better a prisoner than among the dead at Agincourt," the light-hearted young count said; "but truly it has been an awful business. Who could have dreamt of it? I thought myself that the council were wrong when they refused all the offers of the towns to send bodies of footmen to fight beside us; had they been there, they might have faced those terrible archers of yours, for they at least would have been free to fight when we were all but helpless in that quagmire. I see that you have knightly spurs on, and I congratulate you."
"Now, Count, what can I do to ensure your release at once? Whose prisoner are you?"
"I surrendered to one John Parsons, an esquire, and I shall, of course, as soon as we get to England, send home to raise money for my ransom."
"I know him well," Guy said; "his lord's tent was pitched alongside that of Sir Eustace, before Harfleur, and we saw much of each other, and often rode together on the march. If I gave him my guarantee for your ransom, I doubt not that he will take your pledge, and let you depart at once."
"I should be glad indeed if you would do so, Aylmer."
"At any rate he will take the guarantee of Sir Eustace," Guy said, "which will, I know, be given readily, after the service you rendered to his dame, and it may be that you will have it in your power to do him a service in return." He then told the count of the intention of Sir Eustace to sell the estate, or rather to arrange for its transfer.
"It is held directly from the crown," he said, "but just at present the crown is powerless. Artois is everywhere Burgundian, and it would certainly be greatly to the advantage of Burgundy that it should be held by one of his followers, while it would be to the safety of France that it should be held by a Frenchman, rather than by one who is also a vassal of England."
"I should think that that could he managed," the count said thoughtfully. "I will speak to my father. I am, as you know, his second son, but through my mother, who is a German, I have an estate on the other side of the Rhine. This I would gladly exchange--that is to say, would part with to some German baron--if I could obtain the fief of Villeroy. I have no doubt that Burgundy would not only consent, but would help, for, as you know by the manner in which your lady was made a hostage, he looked with great jealousy on this frontier fortress, which not only gives a way for the English into Artois, but which would, in the hands of an Orleanist, greatly aid an invasion of the province from Pontoise and the west. And, although the court would just at present object to give the fief to a Burgundian, it is powerless to interfere, and when the troubles are over, the duke would doubtless be able to manage it."
Guy had no difficulty in arranging the matter with D'Estournel's captor, to whom Sir Eustace and he both gave their surety that his ransom should be paid; and, before sailing, Guy had the satisfaction of seeing his friend mount and ride for St. Omar with a pass through the English territory from the governor.