Thursday, October 24, 2013

Know Ye Not Agincourt?

Agincourt, Agincourt!
Know ye not Agincourt?
Never to be forgot
Or known to no men?
Where English cloth-yard arrows
Kill'd the French like tame sparrows,
Slaine by our bowmen
                                              Bowman's Glory. c. 1600


Until the year 1415, October 25th was known only for the Feast of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian.  The significance of those saints was lost among most, because every day was a feast day for one saint or another.  After 1415, the day would be celebrated as the greatest victory in English history.  In France it was mourned as the day that the flower of French nobility was lost on the killing fields of Agincourt. 

 Many histories of the Battle of Agincourt have been written, indeed the writing started almost as the battle closed.  It is one of the best documented medieval battles.  I won't try to recount the struggle here but will provide a very brief synopsis so the reader can understand the significance of the English victory and the extent of the devastation to the elite of French nobility.

 After a long and bitter siege of the port town of Harfleur, King Henry V of England marched his Army overland from Harfleur to Calais on the northern coast of France.  It should have been an eight day march.  Rations and supplies for only eight days were taken by the 1,000 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers of Henry's little army.  Two days from Calais his men were blocked from crossing the River Somme.  With his food supply running out he was forced to turn east, away from Calais to find an unprotected crossing point on the river.  Each bridge and ford were blocked by the enemy.  Finally the English, already four days overdue in Calais and long out of food were able to find a unguarded ford on the Somme.  A foot race on the Calais Road ensued between the weary, starving English army and a French force of almost 30,000 men. 

 The French outpaced the English and blocked the Calais Road near a little village called Agincourt.  In the battle on October 25th, Henry V's bedraggled men crushed the French Army and killed almost 8,000 French men-at-arms and knights, more men than in the entire English army.  English casualties were estimated to be only a few hundred.  Much of the victory can be attributed to the English archers and their deadly long bows.  Most who were there that day felt that only divine providence could have provided such an complete and lopsided victory. 

 My newest book, The Archer's Son, tells the story of a lad who goes along with a company of Cornish archers on the Agincourt Campaign.  The story follows the retinue of Sir John Trelawny from the Cornish village of Altarnon, to the Siege of Harfleur in France, the march to Calais and the Battle of Agincourt.  The experiences of this young boy change him forever.  Not just from the horrors of combat, but from the lasting brotherhood-of-arms that all soldiers, in all eras, develop with the men with which they serve. 

 Here is a snippet from Chapter 23 at the opening of the Battle of Agincourt:

"Keep your heads lads and nock a bodkin," William called out.  "There is Lord Erpingham.  Now we will provoke the French into moving."  The old knight strode quickly out in the field in front of the line where all could see him.  He tossed a baton high in the air to draw the attention of all the archers. 
"Now strike!"  The old knight bellowed at the top of his lungs.
In unison, five thousand archers muscled bow cords to their ears and launched arrows high in the air towards the French lines.  It was a long shot, so the high arching arrows took several seconds to ascend before they started their deadly fall to earth.  Hedyn could see a faint shadow that drifted across the wheat field created by the mass of five thousand feathered missiles.  Like a great flock of starlings, he thought. 
Before the first arrows began to thud into men and horses and to clang against armor, the archers were sending more arrows on their way, each man shooting at his own pace.  Within a minute 60,000 arrows were in the air or scattered across the battlefield.  Some in dirt, some in men.

Thirteen year old Hedyn, my protagonist, survives the battle.  But Agincourt is forever with him.  Our modern soldier's plague of post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is not a new phenomena.  It has tormented soldiers since there have been wars.  We have only now began to understand and diagnosis it.  From the Epilogue to The Archer's Son comes this passage:

            For many months after his return, Hedyn seldom smiled or shared mirth with family or friends.  He somehow thought that happiness was disloyal to the grief that he felt for Roger, and Lawrence and other lost friends who were in lonely, anonymous graves at Harfleur.  Only through prayer did his sadness finally subside.  Christ brought him the understanding that his duty was to the living, and not to the dead.
            But he never shook the demons that came to him in his sleep.  Each night was a dreamy torment of charging black nights, clouds of arrows, blood and lifeless bodies.  Only his bride knew of his suffering.  The ivory handle dagger remained hidden under his sleeping matt.  It seemed the only thing to bring him at least a tiny bit of refuge from his dread of the night.  Even as an old man, fifty years after Agincourt, the dreams sometimes came to torture him. . .
            In later life, small boys would sometimes shyly approach the gray haired old man and ask, "Hedyn Archerson, you were there?  You were with Henry at Agincourt?"  They would puff themselves up and try to appear older as they clutched their little bows. 
            He would sigh and respond, "Aye.  I was there.  I was at Agincourt."  But he told only stories that made him laugh or made him happy or brought him pride.  He told no tales that brought him sadness. 

The Archer's Son will go to the editor in November and be released in mid 2014. 

The Author dressed as an English Archer at the time of Agincourt.  These photos were taken at "Days of Knights" a medieval living history program.  They will be used to help develop art work for The Archer's Son. Photos by the Author and Scott Lyndon.

A fully armored knight as they would have appeared at Agincourt.  The armor of the English and French was essentially the same.  The colorful surcoats gave the identity (and nationality) of the knight.

A young page assists his lord in donning his armor

An archer takes aim with his longbow



  1. Hi Mark, I remember this battle being re enacted when John and I were involved with Re enactors. You look good in your Archers outfit. Although a sad battle it was. Thanks for refreshing my mind and posting the story

  2. Thanks Rita. The 600th anniversry reenactment that is being planned for Oct 2015 is shaping up to be a big one. Over 1,500 archers commited already. I'd love to visit the UK at that time and go over for my first visit to France to see the reenactment. It will be epic for sure.

  3. That would be incredible to see. Looking forward to Archer's Son. My son just finished a fantasy series of books about medieval rangers, we are table-top wargaming 15th c 28mm right now (French v. Burgundy). Sadly I sond off all my 15th c kit about five years ago...maybe I should start making again! Thanks for this post! Great picks.

    1. Thanks Cincinnatus. I think it is great that your are sharing an interest with your son. 28mm can be just as fun as full scale sometimes, and you can store an entire army in a shoe box! I'll post more on The Archer's Son as it nears its release.