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600 Years Ago Today: The Battle of Agincourt

(Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, a painting by Sir John Gilbert)

And for 600 years to follow, gentlemen in England then abed thought themselves accursed they were not there that day. On October 25, 1415--the Feast of St. Crispin--a small army led by King Henry V smashed a much larger but antiquated French army at Agincourt in northern France.

British novelist Bernard Cornwell explains at length in the Daily Telegraph how mud and the power of the Welsh longbow became the undoing of the heavily-armored French knights:

Some eight thousand French men-at-arms were advancing on foot. No one knows how long it took them to cover the two hundred or more paces which separated them from Henry’s men-at-arms, but it was not a quick approach. They were wading through mud made treacherous by deeply ploughed furrows and churned to quagmire by horses’ hooves. And they were being struck by arrows so that they were forced to close their helmets’ visors.

They can see very little through the tiny eye-slits, their breathing is stifled, and still the arrows come. The conventional verdict suggests that the French were cut down by those arrow-storms, but the chief effect of the arrows was to delay and, by forcing them to close their visors, half-blind the attackers.

When the French knights finally closed in on the archers, they found that their unarmored opponents were still at advantage, even in close quarters combat:

The bowmen wore little armour, and in the glutinous mud they were far more mobile than their plate-armoured opponents, and any man capable of hauling a war-bow’s string was hugely strong and a battle-axe in his hands would be a ghastly weapon. And so the archers joined the hand to hand fight and the tired French were killed in their hundreds.

(Video Link)

Agincourt has loomed large in British popular memory for the centuries that followed. It was well remembered by William Shakespeare, who made it the center of his play The Life of Henry the Fifth. His character of King Henry delivered the famous "Band of Brothers" speech, abbreviated in the 1989 Kenneth Branagh adaptation.

-via VA Viper, who points out that today is also the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in world history, as well as the 161st anniversary of the charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava.

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