When Henry V began his preparations for the campaign of 1415, 600 years ago this year, Simon Flete had been the Master of the Armouries in the Tower of London for seven years. He came from a family that had been involved with the business for generations: the first recorded Master in 1327, John Flete, was likely his grandfather so Simon had probably grown up with the business of securing munitions and arming troops. But although he clearly knew what he was doing, he faced a mighty challenge.
The exchequer rolls of Henry V for 1415 tell us that for a 90 day campaign by about 12,000 fighting men, wages alone would cost the king £50 per day, £45,000 for the campaign, plus munitions, transport and food, at a time when the total annual income of the king’s exchequer was about £55,000 (around £23 million at today’s prices based on the retail price index). Of those 12,000 fighting men, about 7,000 were archers, 2,500 men-at-arms and knights, and 2,500 pages. There would also have been a complement of farriers and blacksmiths, masons and carpenters, servants and sutlers, wives and sweethearts, washerwomen and whores, strolling players, thieves and cut-purses tagging along with the army.
When one thinks of Agincourt, inevitably one thinks first of the archer. With his life-long training, his mighty bow, his sheaves of arrows, he represented the visible tip of a manufacturing, supply, mobilisation and training system that included Livery Companies, trade guilds, merchants, tax gatherers, sheriffs, military captains, local lords and the crown itself. Properly prepared and put in the right place at the right time, he was a war-winner without parallel in the armies of Western Europe. The archer was the precision Guided Weapon system of the medieval battlefield, capable of striking as devastating a blow against selected targets – including the leadership of an enemy force – as pilotless drones today. A competent medieval archer could sustain a firing rate of up to six arrows per minute. But of course these arrows had to be manufactured and stored in huge quantities, along with the bows to fire them including spare bowstrings and nocks (a separate piece at the butt end containing the crucial notch for the string). The records of the Tower tell us that in many years around that time, its armoury held in reserve more than 25,000 longbows, nearly 50,000 sheaves of arrows and close on 150,000 bowstrings. According to Ian Mortimer, the army of 1415 with its 7,000 archers was allocated twenty sheaves of twenty-four arrows per archer – representing eighty minutes of firing at intense rates – an immense amount of firepower if true, for this comes to 140,000 sheaves, or 3.36 million arrows.
Of course such a number could not be carried by the army on the march, and if it could, the muscles of the archers would surely have given out long before they were exhausted. But clearly Simon Flete faced an enormous challenge. One wonders, too, how he felt about the creation, the year before, of the post of Master of the Ordnance responsible for the new-fangled cannons. It had been 100 years since gunpowder had reached Western Europe and, given the slow rate and pace of technological innovation at that date, it is remarkable that already, guns had become so important a feature of the battlefield that the King of England saw fit to appoint an official of equal status to the Master of his Armouries.
For the campaign of 1415, Henry accumulated 10,000 cannonballs and gun-stones of various types at the Tower and other fortresses. Since we know of only 100 rounds of shot and an equivalent quantity of powder being taken to France for the two big guns used at the siege of Harfleur shortly before Agincourt, Simon Flete might well have regarded these noisy monsters as peripheral to the business of real soldiering. He could surely not have foreseen the time, 250 years in the future, when the Ordnance would swallow his post and his organisation.
There is no need here to rehearse the details of the campaign and the battle of Agincourt, but like Waterloo, it retains an enduring status and image, along with other triumphs like Trafalgar, Blenheim and El-Alamein; as well as a few disasters and near disasters like Fontenoy, Yorktown and Dunkirk. From very soon after the battle of Agincourt, oral history and story-telling began to talk up the battle and we should not, in this age of Twitter, underestimate the power of this sort of tradition.
Shakespeare of course played up the image of the triumph of the outnumbered underdogs in his play, Henry V - victory against impossible odds – and two famous movies, one made during the tensest period of the Second World War, have also played their part. But there has to be more to the enduring ability of Agincourt to capture the imagination 600 years on.
Perhaps a clue lies in the notion of the battle as decisive. Yet although it seemed at the time to be, it was not, any more than Crecy or Poitiers. The series of conflicts and campaigns that we call the Hundred Years’ War continued for another forty years; the French at last learned the lesson that large-scale attacks by heavily armoured troops against mass firepower had to be avoided unless on very favourable terms as at Formigny in Normandy in 1451. They took the long view, just as our Islamic enemies do today, gradually wearing down the expeditionary forces of England, depleting the Exchequer and stoking war weariness. By the end, France was devastated, true, but its government had already developed many of the effective organizational techniques for squeezing resources out of the populace that came to prominence in the centralized state of Louis XIII and XIV, and of Napoleon.
As for England, at the end of the Hundred Years’ War it was left with only Calais as a foothold on the continent and ripe for the dynastic conflict that we know as the Wars of the Roses. Although they would not have thought of it in such terms, the French created and exploited decisive conditions in the long struggle they did, in fact, win decisively.
That was not how things appeared in late 1415. In the aftermath of Agincourt, with French military power humbled, Henry of England took much of Normandy, re-uniting the duchy with England after two centuries of separation. He made a formal alliance with the Burgundians who had taken Paris after the assassination of their Duke, John the Fearless, by the Dauphin’s agents in 1419. In 1420, Henry met the mad French king, Charles VI, and signed the Treaty of Troyes, by which Henry was to marry Charles’ daughter Catherine so that their heirs could inherit the thrones of France and England. The Dauphin, later Charles VII, was declared illegitimate.
Henry V died in 1422. When Charles also died soon afterward, Henry’s infant son, Henry VI, was immediately crowned King of England and of France. But many in France remained loyal to the dispossessed Dauphin and the wars continued. In the long term, therefore, Agincourt was a glorious victory against the odds – the massacre of French prisoners notwithstanding – that was wasted by posterity. As Hasdrubal is said to have remarked to his brother Hannibal after Cannae: “You know how to win a battle, but you do not know how to use it.”