Henry V: The Battle of Agincourt and Blackheath

(Main Monarch: Henry V ­– 1413 to 1422)

Triumphant entry of Henry V into London / Credit: Edwin Brett – 1888
Triumphant entry of Henry V into London / Credit: Edwin Brett – 1888

Background

Henry V came to the throne in 1413, when he was twenty-six years old. His father, Henry IV, hadn’t been particularly well liked; after all, he was the usurper who had ousted his cousin – the rightful King – Richard II (who died, rumour had it, of starvation after being captured by Henry IV).


By the time Henry V inherited the throne, he’d already accumulated a mass of fighting experience, especially against the Welsh in their battle for independence, even though he was Prince of Wales at the time. Henry had also fought alongside his father against Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy — that bit in the film, The King, is true.


The King: a film about Henry V based on the plays of William Shakespeare, which doesn’t necessarily make it true, but do make it entertaining if you need something to watch on a rainy afternoon.


When Henry V was crowned king, there had been nearly twenty-five years of peace between France and England, after years of relentless battles (eventually known as the Hundred Years War 1337-1453), so why did the new King Henry want to kick it all off again?

One Hundred Years War / Credit: Battle of Poitiers, 1356, from Froissart’s Chronicle
One Hundred Years War / Credit: Battle of Poitiers, 1356, from Froissart’s Chronicle

Despite the depiction of Henry in The King as a peace-loving hard-liquor-drinking stinking sloth of a prince, he was none of these things, according to the primary sources. That’s not to say he wasn’t some of them, but Henry was known as a warrior prince, and he certainly wasn’t all for love and peace or anti-war.And there is no mention in the primary sources of him stinking either, although it’s hard to say how ‘stinking’ would have been defined back in those days when bathing once a week was considered clean. However, the sources do mention that there were some father and son tensions that the young Henry apologised for as his father lay on his death bed, but what those tensions were based on is unclear.


So, Henry V didn’t shun battle – in fact, he had a lot of admiration for his great grandfather, Edward III, a great military king who restored England’s position in the world after his useless father, Edward II (surprise), messed everything up and lost a lot of the lands his predecessors had conquered. Young Henry especially wanted to reassert England’s claims to the crown of France and sovereignty over its lands, just as his grandfather, Edward, had done.


For Henry, the timing was perfect. France was racked by civil war and weakened, so he aimed to hit them while they were down.


On 19 November 1414, parliament announced that Henry V would invade France as the rightful claimant to the French throne.[1]


The setting

Agincourt (or Azincourt) is in the north of France near Calais (France wasn’t actually France as we now know it – it was far from unified). The precise location of the battle is under hot debate by arguing historians, but at least we know the general area.


We also know that Henry and his troops travelled from London to Southampton, then to Harfleur in France, where they laid siege to the town, with over 2,300 men-at-arms and 9,000 bowmen.[2]

Henry’s Route / Credit: Matthew Bennett’ Agincourt 1415’ by Osprey Publishing
Henry’s Route / Credit: Matthew Bennett’ Agincourt 1415’ by Osprey Publishing

Henry and his men were victorious at Harfleur, but their stomachs were not.


The siege had taken them longer than they’d expected, and conditions were grim. That good old medieval killer, the ‘bloody flux’, aka dysentery, wiped out a lot of Henry’s men — so many that Henry decided to head toward Calais to get them back home before more died. (Again, historians are conflicted about just how many died of the bloody flux while at Harfleur.) He hoped to do this relatively unnoticed, but when the English army turned the corner towards Agincourt, a great French army of at least 20,000 men were waiting for them.[3]


This was an unexpected ambush, and Henry and his men were both outnumbered and exhausted. They could never possibly win.


The battle

English archers at The Battle of Agincourt / Credit: Angus McBride, Angus / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Image
English archers at The Battle of Agincourt / Credit: Angus McBride, Angus / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Image

Yet, on October 25th 1415, the English troops knelt and prayed[4] with bowed heads and their last confessions to God. Before them was the enormity of a battle like no other they had known with over 20,000 Frenchmen ready to protect their own king and country: a relentless enemy — the constant nemesis of England.

‘As they lay or sat there, listening to the pounding of the rain – if they were not actually feeling it soak through their clothes – most would have believed that on the following day they would die. Men who survived the battle but who were captured and could not afford to pay a ransom would be killed, normally with a knife through the windpipe or an axe blow through the skull. It was being said that the French were casting lots for which English lords they were going to take prisoner, such was their confidence. The rain was the least of their worries. Their lack of food, their tiredness and fear – tomorrow everything would be over, the whole hellish episode.’[5]

Henry rallied his troops with speeches as he rode up and down the battle lines of his army. Whatever he said (there are many versions to choose from) wasn’t important to his men as they wouldn’t have heard him anyway — the battle lines were long – too long for Henry’s voice to be heard by all. The most important thing was that his men could see him. They could see their young, vibrant king – full of passion and with the reputation for being a great warrior. Not only that, but Henry also didn’t sit on the edge of the battle lines – no – he fought alongside his men and risked his life while getting covered in mud and blood splatter, just like them.

‘Clad in safe and very bright armour: he wore on his head a splendid helmet, with a large crest, and encompassed with a crown of gold and jewels; and on his body a surcoat with the arms of England and France; from which a celestial splendour gleamed on the one side from three golden flowers planted in an azure field; on the other from three golden leopards sporting in a ruby field. Sitting on a noble horse as white as snow, having also horses in waiting royally decorated with the richest trappings, his army were much inspired to martial deeds.’

The battle began (much to the surprise of the French, who hadn’t anticipated it starting so soon) and the English men-at-arms (a small part of the English army who fought with a combination of longbows and on horseback) laid into them with arrow after arrow zooming through the air.


When the French realised the battle had started, a thousand of their knights on horseback, each weighing half a tonne and travelling at six hundred yards per minute (twenty miles per hour),[6] charged straight at the line of the English archers. Then the trumpets sounded, and eight thousand French men-at-arms charged too.[7]


Imagine around nine thousand charging men on horseback and on foot, all moving in one direction. The force of the stampeded must have been something quite unbelievable to hear and be amongst. But the French had made a big mistake. They couldn’t easily swerve or retreat and had to keep charging while the English shot a thousand arrows per second – yes, per second. It must have been chaos – the noise of the arrows zapping in the air and piercing armour.

 King Henry V and his men praying / Credit: Stefano Bianchetti / Bridgeman Images
King Henry V and his men praying / Credit: Stefano Bianchetti / Bridgeman Images

Huge piles of dead and dying men, along with their horses, built up to ten feet high – that’s taller than two spears on top of each other and almost the height of two men.


Just taking a moment to appreciate the image – that’s roughly nine thousand Frenchmen all charging towards the ten feet high wall of bodies because they can’t turn around.


“No one could escape for long – and those climbing were also shot, making the barrier higher. Those at the bottom were held immobile and crushed. Some suffocated”.[8]


The rest of the battle details are too, well ... detailed for this blog, and characteristically, historians continue to debate them.


What can be agreed upon is that Henry V and his tired, hungry and outnumbered army won the battle. It was won through a mix of military and strategic genius on Henry’s part, the skill of the English archers, the removal of their heavy armour so the mud didn’t weigh them down, the weather, the slow response from the French and their traditional battle formation, and many other factors that are greatly discussed in other blogs and books. (If you’re interested in the battle details, I have listed all my sources below).


Tired, dirty, bloody, exhausted, and yet victorious, Henry and his men returned to their homeland.


A place called Blackheath

Henry V arriving in London after the battle / Credit: Illustration for the weekly magazine Boys of the Empire (Edwin Brett, 1888)
Henry V arriving in London after the battle / Credit: Illustration for the weekly magazine Boys of the Empire (Edwin Brett, 1888)

On 23rd November 1415, at 10.00 a.m., a victorious Henry entered Blackheath on his way into London: mounted on a fine horse and wearing a gown of rich luxurious purple. He was greeted by the Lord Mayor, the Aldermen (dressed in identical scarlet livery but with their trades and crafts differentiated by hats and badges)[9], the local merchants and citizens.

‘On the twenty-third day of the month of November, in the year of our Lord 1415, the king returned from Calais to London with his prisoners, being greeted on his way one mile outside the city by the clergy in procession, and four miles from the city, at a place called Blackheath, by ten thousand of the people, nobles and citizens mounted on horses and brightly dressed in red, wearing particoloured hoods of black and white, their hearts leaping with joy.’ [10]

Below is an anonymous poem describing the pageantry and celebrations. Not everyone will enjoy reading it, but I’ve added it for those who just might.

Anonymous poem from the Chronicle of London from 1089 to 1483 / British Museum
Anonymous poem from the Chronicle of London from 1089 to 1483 / British Museum

The pageants for Henry’s return were so extravagant that they made a deep impression on contemporaries, especially the chroniclers, with one stating that Henry’s reception was so brilliant and varied it would require a special treatise to record it adequately (Thomas Walsingham).


After these joyous celebrations, the Blackheathens accompanied Henry to London, which took around five hours, as minstrels and musicians entertained and played for the growing crowds.


So glorious and memorable was Henry’s entry into Blackheath that Shakespeare includes it in his play, Henry V, where he writes:


‘Behold, the English beach

Pales in the flood with men, with wives and boys,

Whose shouts and claps outvoice the deep-mouthed sea,

Which like a mighty whiffler’ fore the king

Seems to prepare his way. So let him land,

And solemnly see him set on to London.

So swift a pace hath thought that even now

You may imagine him upon Blackheath,

Where that his lords desire him to have borne

His bruisèd helmet and his bended sword

Before him through the city. He forbids it,

Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride,

Giving full trophy, signal, and ostent

Quite from himself, to God. But now behold,

In the quick forge and workinghouse of thought,

How London doth pour out her citizens.

The Mayor and all his brethren in best sort,

Like to the senators of th’ antique Rome,

With the plebeians swarming at their heels,

Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in—

As, by a lower but loving likelihood.’[11]


King Henry V’s triumphal return to London after his victory at Agincourt / Credit: C.L. Doughty / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images
King Henry V’s triumphal return to London after his victory at Agincourt / Credit: C.L. Doughty / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

The pageants held for Henry V as he returned home from victory weren’t the last to be held on Blackheath. There were so many more celebrations, festivities, and royal dignitaries to visit our wonderful heath in the centuries before and after Henry V – some of which will be explored in these blogs.

 

If you’d like to subscribe to keep updated, scroll to the footer and sign up. If you’d like to get in touch about anything you’ve read or have more information you’d like to share, please contact Julie at blackheathandgreenwichhistory@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.


The website is a continuous work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me while I do the research.

 

Footnotes


[1] 'Henry V: November 1414', in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ed. Chris Given-Wilson, Paul Brand, Seymour Phillips, Mark Ormrod, Geoffrey Martin, Anne Curry and Rosemary Horrox (Woodbridge, 2005), British History Online [2] Curry, Anne (2005). Agincourt: A New History. Stroud: Tempus p. 70 [3] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/battle-of-agincourt [4] Mortimer, Ian. 1415 : Henry V's Year of Glory. London: Vintage, 2010 [5] Mortimer, Ian. 1415 : Henry V's Year of Glory. London: Vintage, 2010 [6] Mortimer, Ian. 1415 : Henry V's Year of Glory. London: Vintage, 2010 [7] Mortimer, Ian. 1415 : Henry V's Year of Glory. London: Vintage, 2010 [8] Mortimer, Ian. 1415 : Henry V's Year of Glory. London: Vintage, 2010 [9] Nicola Coldstream (2012) ‘Pavilion’d in Splendour’: Henry V’s Agincourt Pageants, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 165:1,153-171 [10] Usk, A. (1997). The chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377–1421 C. Given-Wilson (Ed.). (Oxford Medieval Texts). D. Greenway, B. F. Harvey & M. Lapidge (Eds.) Oxford: Oxford University Press. [11] Shakespeare, William, and T W. Craik. King Henry V. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2002

Sources

  • ‘Henry V: November 1414’, in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ed. Chris Given-Wilson, Paul Brand, Seymour Phillips, Mark Ormrod, Geoffrey Martin, Anne Curry and Rosemary Horrox (Woodbridge, 2005), British History Online.

  • Curry, A. (2015). 1415 Agincourt : A new history. Stroud. 70.

  • Adam, & Given-Wilson, C. (1997). The chronicle of Adam Usk 1377-1421.

  • William Shakespeare, Ed T W. Craik. King Henry V. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2002.

  • Coldstream, N. (2012). ‘Pavilion’d in Splendour’: Henry V’s Agincourt Pageants. Journal Of The British Archaeological Association, 165(1), 153-171.

  • Dodd, G. (Ed.). (2013). Henry V: New Interpretations. Boydell & Brewer. 217-248.

  • Goodwin, Thomas, 1650-1716 (1704). The history of the reign of Henry the Fifth, king of England, &c. In nine books. England: Printed by J.D. for S. and J. Sprint [etc.] 1704.

  • Chris Given-Wilson, ed., The Chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377-1421 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

  • R. R. Sharpe, London and the Kingdom, volume 1 (London: Longmans & Co., 1894); Nicholas Harris, ed., A Chronicle of London from 1089 to 1483 (London: Longmans, 1827).

  • Taylor, F., & Roskell, J. (1975). Gesta Henrici Quinti = The deeds of Henry the Fifth (Oxford medieval texts). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Ian Mortimer, 1415. Henry V’s Year of Glory (London, 2009).

  • https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/ten-reason-why-french-lost-the-battle-of-agincourt.html

  • https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/battle-of-agincourt