While Americans ‘flip the bird’ with a single middle finger, the British have traditionally achieved the same with two.
The two-fingered salute, or backwards victory or V-sign, made with the middle and index fingers, is said to have originated with English archers at Agincourt in 1415.
But is this really true?
Medieval researcher and longbow expert Clive Bartlett claims in his book ‘English Longbowman 1330-1515’ that it is. So too does historian Craig Taylor in the National Geographic documentary ‘Agincourt: A Hundred Years of War’.
Though this has been disputed by others.
For an audio version of this article, click on the video above
In his book ‘Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends’, David Wilton explores the origins of the V-sign in a section entitled ‘F**k’:
“During the Hundred Years’ War the French would cut the middle finger off the hands of captured English archers so that they could no longer draw the strings of their deadly yew longbows (the type of wood from which they were made.) Because of this, English archers would taunt the French by raising their middle fingers and exclaiming that they could still ‘pluck yew’, hence the four-letter word (f**k.)”
Funny, though as Wilton goes on to explain, “ … this is obviously (just) a joke, a pun. It is doubtful that whoever came up with this howler meant for it to be taken seriously”.
And yet, it has spread, he says, thanks to the internet.
Specifically, an inaccurate transcript of an NPR (National Public Radio, a US program) show called ‘Car Talk’ featured a story that answered the question of which body part the English archers waved at the French at Agincourt. Which was, it claimed:
“ … the middle finger, without which it is impossible to draw the renowned English longbow … Thus, when the victorious English waved their middle fingers at the defeated French, they said, ‘See, we can still pluck yew! PLUCK YEW!’
“Over the years … Since ‘pluck yew’ is rather difficult to say [like ‘pleasant mother pheasant plucker’, which is who you had to go to for the feathers used on the arrows], the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually changed to a labiodental fricative ‘f’, and thus the words often used in conjunction with the one-finger-salute are mistakenly thought to have something to do with an intimate encounter”.
In actual fact, the real episode of the show did not feature anything about “plucking yew” and only said that another gesture (presumably the two-finger salute) might have originated at Agincourt.
Wilton acknowledges earlier in the book that the story of Agincourt and the two-finger salute is older than the internet. However, he also says it fits the description of how many such tall tales arise: through speculation, distorted facts, and jokes.
‘Pluck yew’ is funny, and thus almost certainly, he concludes, started life as a mere joke. From there, it almost certainly took on a life of its own once some people started taking it seriously.
The Wikipedia page on the V-sign mentions Wilton’s book in its origin section, though also refers to a medieval document in which an English archer is depicted possibly making the gesture.
The image it refers to is held by the British Library, whom the Forces Network contacted for more information.
They agreed with us that, in fact, it isn’t clear if the archer is holding up two fingers, or pointing at a butt – a kind of mound with targets attached that was used for practice by archers in medieval England.
Given the presence of the butt, it seems more likely to have been intended as an illustration of the latter. And the British Library's assessment was that there simply isn’t enough evidence to conclude there is a link between Agincourt and today’s offensive gesture.
Why Was Agincourt So Important?
Looking for a clear link with the gesture obscures the larger issue of just why it is that this particular battle has been so mythologised as to have been connected, correctly or not, to the common two-finger salute.
In other words, just why was Agincourt so important? Why did the battle of Agincourt start? How did it actually happen? And what impact did it have on the history of England and France?
A careful examination of the battle itself reveals not only the answers to these questions and more, but also just why it is such an important part of English history and culture.
In The Archers’ Shoes
October 25, 1415, was a heck of a day to have been an English soldier.
Of course, one could say the same of other fateful dates: June 6, 1944; July 1, 1916; or, in more distant times, October 14, 1066.
But St Crispin’s, and St Crispian’s, Day was more than just the stuff of Shakespearean legend.
For as the sun came up that morning, the English army, numbering somewhere between three and 7,000 mostly ‘low-born’ archers, faced overwhelming odds.
Less than a kilometre away, across the muddy, wheat-sown fields outside the town of Agincourt, was a French army at least three times as large.
The English were starving and desperately trying to escape France via the port at Calais; the road to which was now blocked by as many as 28,000 well-armed French soldiers. Many were aristocrats, clad in state-of-the-art steel armour, and some were on partially-armoured horses wielding lances – the tanks of the middle ages.
Henry V was leading a well-trained, contracted force – the beginnings of today’s professional armed forces. But against such odds, this should have been its darkest day, not July 1, 1916.
But the English weren’t scared. They were angry.
They had heard their opponents’ boisterous singing and banter, and seen their conspicuous campfires blazing the night before. All was in marked contrast to the Englishmen’s quieter holy confessions, and the expectation they might die on the morrow.
Yet 29-year-old King Henry had capitalised on and exploited French arrogance, reminding his longbowmen of the rumour that if not killed in battle, their right hands would be mutilated by their enemies.
This part of the story is almost certainly true. English archers, with their 6-foot longbows, were an elite corps in medieval Europe. Yet, they were composed of mostly ‘low-born’ peasantry and weren’t respected by French knights.
King Henry’s ‘band of brothers’ speech, which he actually gave the evening of October 24th, not the day of the battle as Shakespeare’s play shows, was meant to overcome this class divide.
So too was the tearing up and passing out of royal coats of arms on October 25th – a gesture to symbolise a unity that cut across class lines.
Finally, the invoking of Saints Cripin and Crispian was a part of this strategy. Although Crispin and Crispian had been French, not English saints, they had also been commoners. During a 1414 battle, these saints of Soissons had had their hands mutilated when their city was captured by Orleanists, one faction in a bitter power struggle within France.
One key detail here is that English archers who had also fought against the Orleanists were put to death as well.
The choice to honour the saints seems to have resonated with Henry’s troops, because his tiny army was about to coalesce, and coalesce well, around a common goal: of getting the French to attack them.
Whether it was “Up yours!” two-finger salutes, flashing bottoms like defiant Scots in ‘Braveheart’, or simply a feint (a fake attack) by a few archers that did it, this was all part of cunning plan.
Because the English had laid a deadly trap for their French opponents, one that was about to be sprung with the blast of hunting horns.
Having crept quietly into position, laying in wait behind hedgerows and trees, and ready to bolt behind the security of their stake walls, the English archers prepared to unleash their arrow storm.
Raised on regular archery practice at the butt ranges, and inspired by tales of Robin Hood, the archers expertly looped the strings over their bows and readied them for action.
As they flexed their shoulders and back muscles to apply the 100 to 150-lb of draw weight necessary to flex their bows, they presumably wondered one last time: Was this going to be like the mass slaughter and regicidal disaster of Hastings in 1066, or the surprise victory of Crecy in 1046?
As they heard and possibly felt the massed ranks of the French cavalry gallop towards them, and watched the 30-plus ranks of French men-at-arms begin their march, they must have hoped desperately for the latter.
It was around 11am, and the pre-planned hunting horns were bellowing from the English side.
Wherever they were – on the left or right flank of the English army, or hidden and ready to launch an ambush from a field near the village of Tramecourt – the English archers unleashed their arrow storm.
Just like that, as many as 5,500 arrows hurtled through the air.
The battle had started.
But how had the war itself started?
As much as the archers wanted to avoid the fate of King Harold’s army in 1066, it was essentially his defeat at Hastings that had put them here in France almost 350 years later.
It was William the Conqueror’s capture of the English crown, after all, that had so closely interlaced the French and English royal houses in the first place. (Appropriately enough, one version of the Robin Hood story – ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ – features the Beyeux Tapestry depicting William’s victory at Hastings in the scene-setting opening credits).
Before he had become King of England, William had been, and continued to be, Duke of Normandy - afterwards ruling one realm whilst paying homage to the king of France in the other.
Yet this arrangement, with the English king being the vassal of the French, began to look odd come the reign of Henry II, which ran from 1133 to 1189.
That is because Henry had not only inherited the lands of William in England and Normandy through his mother Matilda (William’s granddaughter), but also his father’s estates in France.
And his Angevin Empire came to dwarf lands held by the French king.
But bit by bit, French kings had reclaimed control of lands that had formerly belonged to English monarchs – and Henry II’s son John lost Normandy itself in 1204.
This loss was cemented by the 1259 Treaty of Paris, in which Henry III formerly signed over Normandy, Anjou and other lands in France. He retained Aquitaine and Gascony, in the southwest of France, but only by agreeing to continue to pay homage to the French king.
His son Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, was too busy, well, hammering the Scots (and, before them, the Welsh), to get too involved in matters in France.
In turn, the defeat of Edward II’s forces by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314 meant this state of affairs continued for a while. In fact, the French and Scots had, and would continue to be, allies against the English.
And yet, it was again French matrimonial lineage that brought the two royal houses back together.
Edward III’s mother Isabella had been French (it was her marriage to Edward I’s son, Edward II, that was depicted in ‘Braveheart’ – though her affair with the Scottish rebel William Wallace was a complete fiction, given that she was only 10 when he died in 1305.)
It was this link that gave Edward III a plausible claim to the French throne when France’s Charles IV died, given that he had no male heirs.
But the French ruling elite employed an ancient legal framework, Salic Law, to prevent any ascension to the throne through the female line. Charles’ cousin Philip Valois was crowned Philip VI instead.
Now, just as conflict within the British Isles had affected England’s Edward I and II, now internal affairs in France came to impact this ongoing dispute over the French crown.
Philip VI had wanted to invade Gascony and take it back off the English king, Edward III, in 1329. But it wasn’t until Edward gave solace to Count Robert of Artois – a renegade the French were pursuing – that Philip actually declared Edward’s claim to Gascony forfeit in 1337.
It was this that triggered The Hundred Years’ War, which, in truth, was a series of conflicts between France and England with gaps in between them.
The war, or wars, ebbed and flowed, with the English achieving great victories at Crecy in 1346, and Poitiers in 1356, cementing the martial reputations of King Edward III and his son, Edward the Black Prince.
But by the time Henry V came to the throne in 1413, England had faced a series of more recent defeats.
In addition, Henry faced the prospect of internal rebellion, a legacy of his father, Henry IV’s, removal of Richard II in 1399.
In fact, it may have been the political opportunism of uniting disparate factions behind him that motivated Henry to invade France, and to make a claim to the crown as his grandfather Edward III had done.
When he did so, disunity also going on within France proved advantageous to him.
At the time, the French king, Charles VI, was insane (he believed he was made of glass and could shatter easily), and two factions – the Armagnacs and the Burgundians – had risen up to challenge each other for overall power.
This is part of why Henry met with success when he set off across the Channel in August of 1415.
He landed in Normandy, and besieged the town of Harfleur – an action at which early cannons were employed.
It took five weeks for him to break through the city walls, and this action has been used to show the two sides of Henry.
On the one hand, as Matthew Bennett points out in ‘Agincourt 1415’, he was magnanimous, imposing strict discipline on his troops, forbidding any burning or looting, or harassment of the town’s civilian population. This was, after all, meant to be his own kingdom, and its people his subjects, worthy of protection.
In ’24 Hours at Agincourt’, Michael Jones likewise describes how Henry went around to his men to keep their spirits up. He reputedly said:
“Fellows, be of good cheer! Save your energy, keep cool [be kele you well] and maintain your calm for, with the love of God, we shall soon have good tidings.”
Which means ‘Lads!’
As noted, this connection with the common soldiery – he deliberately used English rather than French with his men – would work wonders later at Agincourt.
On the other hand, he could be a serious taskmaster – chastising his men for drinking alcohol and hanging others for stealing from a church. This was a far cry from the party-loving prince he’d once been, a character arc that Shakespeare’s play apparently gets completely right.
In fact, Shakespeare places the following description of a formidable ‘Harry’ in the mouth of the French king:
“Think we King Harry strong;
“And, princes, look you strongly arm to meet him.
“The kindred of him hath been flesh'd upon us;
“And he is bred out of that bloody strain
“That haunted us in our familiar paths:
“Witness our too much memorable shame
“When Cressy battle fatally was struck,
“And all our princes captiv'd by the hand
“Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales …
“ … This is a stem
“Of that victorious stock; and let us fear
“The native mightiness and fate of him.”
In other words, the French king is afraid of Henry.
This, despite the disparaging ‘gift’ of tennis balls – a mark of frivolous youth - had conveyed to Henry near the beginning of the play (another real event, Jones says.)
Instead, it’s clear in Shakespeare’s version of events that, in reality, the French monarch saw Henry as embodying the military prowess of his relative the Black Prince, on display at Crecy in 1346, and Poitiers ten years later.
Indeed, Henry – former party animal as he may have been – had also gained much military experience, fighting for his father against rebels.
In Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV, Part 1’, he slays the rebel leader Henry Percy (‘Hotspur’) in mortal combat during the Battle of Shrewsbury. Yet, the real 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury is an even more interesting part of the Henry V backstory.
During the fighting, he received an arrow in the face, but kept going, lucky to have survived the action and then the surgery at battle’s end.
In other words, he’d been on the receiving end of the longbow, and knew its utter lethality when he unleashed it on the French 12 years later.
So we can expect that his baptism of fire as a prince also hardened Henry.
For Bennett points out that, as much as he possessed much honour, discipline and magnanimity, he could also be ruthless, single-minded and cruel.
And Jones gives us a flavour of this by showing that, having resisted him for five weeks, Henry sold the residents of Harfleur into slavery when he finally captured the town.
Branagh’s Henry at least shows a private relief after his threats result in the governor surrendering the town - as in, relief that he wouldn’t have to act on his threats.
The “waste and desolation”, “mowing like grass” infants and “fresh-fair virgins”, “pure maidens” falling into the hand of “hot and forcing violation”; the murder of fathers by dashing their heads against the walls, and the general “murder, spoil and villany” he says he will carry out are not necessary … precisely because the sharply-worded threat has convinced the town’s governor to give up.
Marching Into A Trap At Agincourt?
Part of what may have informed Henry’s brutality after Harfleur was the dysentery that set in amongst his army.
Jones says this may have reduced his army considerably, with 1,500 men invalided home across the Channel.
With some reinforcements, he got his army back up to 7,000 - again, the vast majority of which would have been archers. They were, after all, comparatively cheap to employ at 6 pence a day, compared to 12 pence for a man-at-arms, according to Battlefield Detectives*.
(*'Agincourt's Dark Secrets - Battlefield Detectives').
Setting off from Harfleur on a kind of victory march - periodically raiding as he went in order to assert his control over what he’d claimed as his own realm - Henry trecked across Normandy and then towards Calais.
But as the weeks wore on, and his food supplies dwindled, it became clear that Henry had bitten off more than he could chew, as it were.
The French, formerly divided against themselves, were beginning to unite around the cause of defeating him.
The force they would amass to meet Henry as he marched through Burgundy to Calais was considerable.
As mentioned, Jones estimates it to have been 28,000 strong – that’s fighting men; there may have been many more non-combatants.
Given this state of affairs, it’s astonishing to think that, trapped as they were, their exit to Calais blocked, and their food supplies gone, the English saw fit to make fun of their opponents.
The joke that helped kickstart the Battle of Agincourt centred on a knight called Jacques de Crequy, lord of Heilly.
And it happened shortly before battle commenced at 11 am, and after terms had been discussed and rejected by both sides.
The French had demanded Henry give up his claim to the French crown, and make do with the territory of Guienne (the Aquitaine); Henry had demanded not only the Aquitaine but also the county of Ponthieu, some cities, and the French king’s daughter Katherine as a bride, along with 300,000 crowns as a dowry. (War was expensive, after all).
As it happened, Jacques de Crequy, or De Heilly, had attacked a town in Aquitaine with other knights two years before, and had been captured and placed in Wisbech Castle in England.
From there, he had escaped – a breach of his chivalric knightly code – and now joined the French knights about to fight Henry.
After demanding an audience with the King, Jones explains that Henry started the meeting by “expressing surprise that a man who had escaped from prison should now (have the courage) to show up before his whole army”.
Suitably insulted, De Heilly reputedly became most irate about this insult to his honour:
“It has often been reported within your kingdom that I fled away in a most common manner, shamefully, and in a fashion unbecoming to a soldier and a knight. I deny this most strongly.”
Jones relates that De Heilly’s puffing with pompous indignation made the English burst out laughing. An amusing real-life reversal of the arrangement in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'.
But the joke, apparently, was the point, since Henry himself had laid an ambush with archers hiding in a field near the village of Tramecourt. Hardly a strict observance of the chivalric code.
This, Jones says, shows that Henry’s real aim here was provocation.
And, along with a feint performed by archers across the field of battle and then back again, behind their stake defences, it appears to have done the trick.
The map below depicts Matthew Bennett’s version of events, in which the English advanced, placed their six-foot stakes into the ground, and then awaited the French assault.
But Jones takes a different, and more logically argued, view: that it was, in fact, the French who did the majority of the advancing.
Given just how long it would have taken to get across almost a kilometre of muddy, wet, wheat-sown ground in full armour, Jones concludes that there wouldn’t have been time. It would have required the English archers and their men-at-arms** comrades to stay in formation, remove their stakes, then replant them and take up position. All while the French remained conveniently at bay until just the right moment.
(**Men-at-arms is the designation for armoured soldiers during this period; some of these men – those of sufficiently noble rank – would have been knights, and some of these would have ridden and fought on horseback as well. Most men-at-arms, though, were esquires – the social rank below that of knight).
Instead, he proposes that the English advanced only a little and then largely remained put, on the comparatively drier, untilled land at their end of the battlefield. (It had been selected precisely for this reason).
He also suggests that the archers must have had their stake walls – or, rather, stake fields, since they were arrayed unevenly – pre-set.
In their lighter, cloth garments, some of the archers may well have ventured forwards to provoke the French into charging, before then fleeing behind the safety of their stake defences.
Whatever it was that sparked the French horse charge, once it came on, the arrows would have been unleashed, probably from several places and directions.
Though just how many places is open to argument. Jones claims that the archers would have been on both flanks, on either side of the single clump of 900 to 1,500 English armoured men-at-arms in the centre, as well as interspersed between them.
But Bennett argues, quite logically, that this would have diluted their strength and made them more difficult to control.
Perhaps, then, they were confined to two sides of the field of battle, shooting diagonally across it, first at the oncoming cavalry attacking them, and later at the French men-at-arms as they marched towards Henry and his knights/men-at-arms.
They may also, as Jones points out, have been concealed in a field near Tramecourt.
Whatever the case, one imagines a nail-biting wait for them as they watched the French riders and their mounts first struggle over and then gain speed across the muddy field … clomping, then galloping, faster and faster … their hooves thundering as they got nearer and nearer …
As noted, the plan was to use hunting ritual, which was coordinated by horns and involved funnelling animals into a trap.
When the horns went, they must have unleashed a hail of arrows, zipping through the air, so dense as to darken the sky.
Like British soldiers at Mons five centuries later, rate of fire was of paramount importance – Bennett says 10 to 12 arrows a minute; Jones seven to eight. Whatever the case, if there had been 5,500 archers, that is as many as 55,000 arrows a minute.
It certainly wouldn’t have helped that the French cavalry had cobbled themselves together and attacked the archers in far lower numbers than originally planned.
Now, perhaps a few hundred horses charged the archers on either side of the battlefield – and since horses were not fully armoured, the archers near Tramecourt who fired into their flanks likely did immense damage.
Jones describes what this would have been: a bow with a draw weight of 150 lb could launch a 60-gram arrow, which was a heavy kind, 230 yards; lighter arrows could travel for 300 yards.
Those with broadheads, which were often used on horses, could also go through mail, and ‘bodkin’ arrows, a narrower kind, could go through plate armour. (In actual fact, a test carried out in the program ‘Agincourt’s Dark Secrets – Battlefield Detectives’ concluded this wasn’t the case – more below).
The results of all of this must have been absolutely lethal. As one Norman chronicler described it:
“Raising horrible cries, the English began to bend their bows with all their might, and to let fly arrows into the enemy in such quantities that their density obscured the sun, just like a cloud.”
When all this came down on the horses, presumably with many arrows hitting their exposed rear ends, catastrophe ensued for the French:
“’All that the French cavalry attempted was in vain’, (French chronicler Enguerrand de) Monstrelet said bleakly. ‘Horses were becoming unmanageable, and threw their riders on the ground’. Some turned back; others forced their way on, only to collide with the stake wall.”
Any who made it through the stake wall, by pushing or from being flung off their mounts, were quickly swamped and dispatched by the waiting archers.
But the disaster had only just begun to unfold for the French.
From there, many of the panicking horses were sent careering all over the battlefield, galloping wildly across the men-at-arms’ axis of advance.
Now, here they were, hauling heavy suits of armour across sodden ground for almost thirty minutes, only to have armoured and frenzied warhorses plunge into their ranks.
Jones points out that each archer may have only had 48 arrows, giving them up to six minutes of continuous firing (at a rate of eight arrows a minute.)
But assuming that not all those arrows were used up repelling the cavalry charge, the arrow storm must have then hammered the French men-at-arms as they continued their march.
Battlefield Detectives has revealed that by 1400, state-of-the-art steel armour was capable of absorbing an arrow without being pierced.
But even if this is true, lugging plate armour through the mud that morning would have been time-consuming and arduous - in fact, exhausting.
It also would have been disorienting, particularly once the range had been closed and the English archers could fire at a flat trajectory – right into the faces of the oncoming knights.
This would have forced them to lower their helmets, which had tiny visors, restricting vision and breathing.
Knights is also the key here – because many of the thousands of men-at-arms in the vanguard, the first of three infantry divisions (or ‘battles’) marching into the fight that day, were nobility.
That was precisely the French problem. Their commander, Marshal Boucicaut had called for the use of thousands of crossbowmen, more cavalry, and a more coordinated flank attack around the woods into the English rear.
That last attack did occur, but it had little impact, and the French nobles, determined to take on the English directly and get a piece of glory for themselves (and the profits from taking noble prisoners), had insisted on being in the vanguard – the very tip of the spear, taking the fight to the enemy.
When things went wrong, this left no one of significance to retain command and prevent cohesion in the remaining troops from breaking down.
Not only this, but it ensured that, far from the English having marched into a French trap, the French elite were now about to march right into an English one.
Henry’s scouts had reconnoitred the ground carefully before the battle.
They had noticed how the muddy ground got firmer just beyond the wheat field (the spot where the English waited for the French to come to them.)
They also noted the contour of the ground: the battlefield sloped down considerably on either side. So as well as being hemmed in by trees, the English were also placed at the apex of a triangle. In other words, the whole thing was a giant funnel.
This is something the French were now discovering, as they trudged over the muddy wheat, the glutinous mud sticking to the flat planes of their armour far more adhesively than it did to the cotton clothes worn by the English archers.
And with arrow storms unleashed in their faces, they were tripping over each other trying to stay upright on level ground, just so they could even get to and then take on their English opponents.
Now, as they emerged from this exhausting trudge, those who had made it without tripping over had the last trap sprung on them.
The English knights and men-at-arms, doggedly rallying around the banners of their lords, including the king’s, smashed into them.
The English, comparatively energetic from having not marched through mud, according to Jones, suddenly:
“ … began to strike in a most violent fashion – and knocked to the ground many who could not get up again.”
And that is the main point. Both Jones and Battlefield Detectives point out that, for the French, this was effectively a crowd-control disaster-in-the-making.
With ranks so deep, men coming in from behind couldn’t see what was happening ahead. Stumbling as they were, half-blinded by restrictive armour, horses and arrows smashing into them, and encumbered by their own exhaustion, they essentially crashed into one another.
Very soon a giant mass of bodies piled up and suffocation ensued.
In front of them, those who made it through the press were either captured or killed by English knights waiting for them – or by archers who had, by now, dropped their bows and taken up swords and the mallets with which they’d hammered their stakes into the ground. These were now used to bludgeon the French attackers.
Despite having been set upon by a gang of determined French soldiers, one of whom had hit him so hard he knocked one of the fleurets off his crown, the king fought doggedly. Jones says:
“Henry fought not so much as a king as a knight that day, as he flung himself against the enemy, giving and receiving blows, and giving an example to his men through his sheer bravery.”
Henry’s chaplain said of the battle:
“The living fell upon the dead, and our men climbed upon these heaps, which rose more than six feet high, and slew those below with swords, axes and any weapons they could find.”
An even gorier picture of events comes via chronicler Thomas Elmham, also quoted by Jones:
“Men trod on their own entrails, others vomited forth their teeth … some still standing had their arms hacked off, and all around them, in the chaos of battle, the dying rolled in the blood of complete strangers.”
The tide had clearly turned against the French, but the battle wasn’t over yet.
In Shakespeare’s rendition of events, an atrocity committed by the French triggers English retaliation. One English soldier says after an attack on the baggage train at the rear:
“'Tis certain there's not a boy left alive; and the
“cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha' done
“this slaughter: besides, they have burned and
“carried away all that was in the king's tent;
“wherefore the king, most worthily, hath caused every
“soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a
In actual fact, neither Jones nor Bennett make any mention of a French attack on boys present on the battlefield.
What did happen was an atrocity committed by the English.
Just as they were winning, Henry and his men noticed the French rallying themselves for another attack. With such a small force, and a large number of prisoners, Henry was afraid they might rise up and the battle tip in France’s favour.
He ordered his men kill off the French prisoners, something that resulted in burning many alive inside a barn, and others being stabbed through their armour. In many cases, this amounted to stabbing men in the face, since, if his men couldn’t get through the helmets, eye slits were the only available openings through which a blade could reach flesh.
Counterintuitively, Bennett notes that the upper-class French chroniclers who gave accounts of the battle blamed those on their own side for having put Henry in such a position (i.e. by trying to restart a battle that was so clearly hopelessly lost).
Bennett also says that over a third of France’s high-class French knights, 600 out of 1,400 individuals, were killed in the battle – an enormous blow to French society.
And in all, Jones says 6,000 Frenchmen – enough to fill five mass graves of 1,200 each – were killed overall, to only around 100 of the English.
Constable d’Albret was amongst the dead, and Marshal Boucicaut amongst those captured. He would die in captivity in England.
Henry too would die before his time – of dysentery at the age of 35.
And it is perhaps because of this that the Battle of Agincourt isn’t more historically significant.
Because in its aftermath, Henry did go on to marry Katherine, the daughter of Charles VI, and was set to inherit the crown of France.
Had he done so, and it not instead passed to his one-year-old son, he might have established himself as a strong duel monarch of both France and England. This possibly could have led to the histories of both countries overlapping as significantly as they did after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
In the end, France would win the Hundred Years’ War and force the English off the continent. One wonders, if Henry had lived into old age, if this would have happened.
Instead, Henry V’s victory at Agincourt has continued to have more cultural than political and historical relevance – his triumph against great odds immortalised best by Shakespeare’s play, written around 1599, less than 185 years after the battle.
Though not entirely accurate, of course, much about the play is, as far as we know, correct.
Not least the speech Henry gave to bring together his ‘band of brothers’ before the battle. Jones notes that many who hadn’t been there – such as men shipped home with dysentery after Harfleur – were envious of those who had been.
In this sense, it seems Henry’s greatest legacy is his own image projection: of himself as the leader of an elite and brave band of quintessentially English warriors fondly remembered by his men and the nation.
For more, read ‘Agincourt 1415: Triumph Against the Odds’ by Matthew Bennett, ‘English Longbowman 1330-1515’ by Clive Bartlet, 'The Longbow' by Mike Loades and ‘Henry V’ by Marcus Cowper. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.
Cover image by Darren Tan, from ‘Medieval Warfare Special: The Battle of Agincourt’, published by Karwansaray. Visit Karwansaray Publishers for more historically-themed books and magazines, including a series on medieval history.
And look at '24 Hours at Agincourt' by Michael Jones for more on Henry V's tactical triumph.
Portrait of King Henry V by unknown artist; oil on panel, late 16th or early 17th century; 28 1/2 in. x 16 1/8 in. (724 mm x 410 mm) © National Portrait Gallery, London - Transferred from British Museum, 1879 – visit The National Portrait Gallery to view the picture and its associated Creative Commons licence.
Thanks to Eleanor Jackson at the British Library for assistance with this article.