Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ploughmen, peasants and boys aged 12... Named after six centuries, the unsung heroes of the carnage of Agincourt

Agincourt. After nearly six centuries, it's still a name that rings triumphantly in the English ear, one of those heroic, impossible last stands against overwhelming odds, up there with Rorke's Drift, or Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

Now, a project by the University of Reading, the Medieval Soldier Database, has put online the records of 250,000 soldiers who fought through the Hundred Years War, giving the very names of the archers and men-at-arms who fought at that historic battle.

Many have already found that something rather mysterious and marvellous happens when you read this list.

Instead of an abstract idea of '6,000 men', you suddenly begin to form pictures in your head of what this band of brothers might have looked like. Names are powerfully suggestive, and they give these ordinary heroes a startling, poignant reality.

Among their numbers, we find such good old English names as Robert Smith, archer, serving under Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and James Barton, man-at-arms, serving under Sir John Dabridgecourt.

They came from every shire, we can tell, because often their surnames simply record their place of origin, such as Lancashire lad, Richard of Bolton, or Richard of Kelby, from the tiny hamlet in the county of Lincolnshire, not far from Grantham.

From farther afield come more Celtic names such as Thomas Pentryth, surely a Cornishman, and David ap Llewellyn Lloyd, who might just have been Welsh, like many of the heroes of Agincourt.

Others are somehow quintessentially medieval, such as Watt Hunter, or Hodgekin Somerton.

The priceless muster rolls on which these richly atmospheric names appear survive because busybody bureaucrats were just as active in the Middle Ages as they are today.

The English exchequer, which controlled the state finances, wanted to know exactly which soldiers had served where, and so kept scrupulous records.

This is why we know now about Lord Despencer, whose military career had started at the age of 12; Sir Thomas Erpingham, who had fought from Scotland to Spanish Castile; and Thomas Gloucestre, whose soldiering lasted an astonishing 43 years, ranging from 'the vasty fields of France', as Shakespeare calls them in Henry V, to the sun-baked plains and valleys of Palestine.

Yet it's safe to assume that the redoubtable Thomas Gloucestre never saw combat quite like Agincourt.

A cold, wet morning, October 25, 1415, St Crispin's Day. The sun edging up over the thickly forested countryside to the east, not far from the River Somme. And in a muddy ploughed field, a small, bedraggled army of Englishmen, waiting for their inevitable end.

Henry V had led his men into France back in August, late in the campaigning season. They had besieged and finally captured the port of Harfleur, but it had taken longer than expected.

And now it was time to retreat, fast, before the onset of the bitter medieval winter. Their ships were waiting for them at Calais, 280 miles away, and the Channel was becoming rougher by the day in the October storms.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the hinterland, a vast French army was gathering. But if they could just make it to Calais and the ships...

They came so close. But in mid-October, as they marched north between the little villages of Agincourt and Tramecourt, across some fields hemmed in on either side by thick woodland, they came to a sudden halt.

Across their line of retreat lay a vast French army. They were cut off and vastly outnumbered.

Henry commanded about 6,000 men, 5,000 of them only lightly armoured archers. Before them stood an enemy army of some 30,000, ready to fight on their home soil and burning to avenge the previous defeats of Crecy and Poitiers.

The flower of arrogant but ferocious French chivalry, pennants fluttering, swords gleaming, knights grimly smiling.

Many of the weary English must have crossed themselves and bowed their heads in the rain when they saw that sight. They must have thought of their loved ones. For there would surely be no going home now.

On the eve of battle, the chronicles tell us, many of the English confessed their sins, ready for their deaths on the morrow.

Nevertheless, the next day, the Feast of St Crispin, under the inspiration of their great warrior-king, Henry V, they summoned their last reserves of energy and spirit.

Outnumbered as they were, they could not hope to attack, only defend. So they set sharpened staves in the soft ground, which would break the French charge and impale their horses.

Then they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, butted their long-handled pikes into the earth, and waited for that thunderous onslaught. It never came. The French nobles were quarrelling among themselves about who would charge first. So Henry gave his men the astonishing order, against all the rules of engagement for an outnumbered force.

Attack! And the English pulled up their defensive staves and began to march forward.
The territory gained proved crucial. Rapidly, the English set up a new line of staves, now only 200yards from the enemy. Well within bowshot.

Their men-at-arms stood shoulder-to-shoulder once more, hands clenched white-knuckled around the long ashen shafts of their pikes, raindrops beading on their steel helmets and running down into their eyes, trying not to shake with fear.

Along the lines, many faces of beardless boys, some as young as 12. And hanging over them all, the terrible sense of dread before a battle. Gregory More, archer. Thomas Langford, man-at-arms. Sir John Grey, Knight. They would stand or fall together.

King Henry gave the order and the English bowmen began to drop volley after volley of arrows on to the stationary French. A trained archer could shoot around 15 arrows a minute, so a force of 5,000 could shoot a staggering 1,000 arrows per second.

The rain of arrows forced the French to move forward and attack. Since the field was hemmed in by woodland, any attempt at outflanking was impossible. They could only march forward, heavily armoured, through the saturated mud.

Crossing even 200 yards in such conditions was exhausting. Some of them sank up to their knees, some even drowned, according to eyewitnesses.

And as they approached, that arrow storm from the English longbows became ever more lethal, shooting with a power and accuracy that would be unmatched until the invention of the rifle. At last they reached the English line, and the real fighting began.

Men on foot, facing each other with lead-weighted maces, war hammers, bill hooks, falcon-beaks ending in terrible pointed spikes, and pole axes, usually used for killing cattle.

And then it was a matter of bone-crunching, slashing and clubbing your enemy into the mud. Now those horny-handed, barrel-chested ploughmen and blacksmiths from the English shires, wielding little more than glorified clubs, proved themselves more than a match for French chivalry.

The left flank under the command of Lord Camoys came under particularly fierce attack from the French. Yet Camoys and his men stood their ground unyielding: men such as Simon Codyngton and John Colmer, Thomas Fitzhenry, and the aptly named John Bold.

They fought without mercy, trapped and outnumbered as they were. A second French wave was sent in, but as in the most atrocious scenes of carnage from the trench warfare of World War I - which Agincourt in some ways resembled - the dead bodies of their fallen comrades only made their advance harder.

Another key to English survival was the extraordinary fighting spirit of Henry V himself. An elite of 18 French knights, an assassination squad, had sworn to make directly for him across the battlefield and kill him, or die in the attempt.

Theydied. All 18 of them, at the very feet of the warrior-king, cut down either by him or his bodyguard. He fought in the front line for much of the day, taking many a blow, one of which demolished part of his crown.

And his resolute cries of 'Rally!' and 'Stand firm, men of England!' contributed immeasurably to the victory.

Yet along with his encouraging cries there were the sickening sounds of metal bludgeoning into flesh, the screams of horses, men drowning in a quagmire of blood.

If a Frenchman fell to the ground, injured or not, he would struggle to rise again in the sucking mud. And in a trice, an Englishman would be kneeling by his side like a ministering angel of death, flipping up his visor and dispatching him with a quick stab of a blade to his eyes.

Late in the battle, with the English slowly beginning to feel that they might yet survive and make it back to Calais after all, Henry feared that the French were going to try a final attack from the rear.

So he gave orders for all prisoners to be executed, in case they should be freed to fight again. But the French had had enough. Leaving at least 5,000 dead, against an English total of about 120, they fled the field.

Last year, French academics accused the English of having committed 'war crimes' at Agincourt. Applying 21st-century standards to the 15th century is the kind of stupidity which only the most eminent French academic could rise to.

You might as well complain that the French knights, in their turn, had some simply frightful ideas about the role of women. And as for their views on Jews...

The truth is that Agincourt was an astonishing victory, a testament to those centuries- old English qualities of sheer determination and stubborn refusal to acknowledge when we're beaten: a rock on which many more glamorous armies have broken.

Indeed, it is precisely because Agincourt was so atrociously unglamorous, so grim and bloody and mud-spattered, that it was so heroic: ordinary and exhausted men, achieving something quite extraordinary.

It's for this reason that many of us will be checking out the names of those who fought there on the Internet, and feeling a pride in our brave ancestors that stretches out across six centuries.

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