Posted: 10/25/2009


        It was a miserable day, Saint Crispins Day, Friday 25th October, 1415 as the army led by 29 year old Henry V of England faced the French army of Charles VI on the way to relief and resupply at the English port of Calais on the coast of France, in the ongoing Hundred Year's War.  His army had first beseiged and taken the port of Harfleur and his army of 12,000 had been reduced to 7,000 due to dysentary and exhaustion.

       They had marched 260 miles in 17 days and suffered from many skirmishes, and outside the present day town of Azincourt stopped to fight. Charles VI had summoned up more warriors although he wasn't actually in command on the field of battle. He left that to his Constable, Charles d'Albert.   Henry's secret weapon was his English and Welsh longbowmen, who William Shakespeare immortalised in his play, 'Henry V'  written 180 years later in 1599. It was part of his tetrology: Richard II, Henry IV part I, Henry IV part II and Henry V. The latter I studied at school for my English exams and learned some of the story including his famous speech, walking between his men's tents on the eve of one of England's greatest battles.  'WE FEW,WE HAPPY FEW, WE BAND OF BROTHERS'. Read the excellant 'AZINCOURT', an historical novel by Bernard Cornwall. (Agincourt in the USA version).

        FORWARD MORE THAN 600 years, and it is Sunday 25th October, Saint Crispins Day. I am at a service in the priory at Bolton Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales, on the River Wharfe, a favourite beauty spot of mine. The church has been a place of worship for over 850 years since 1154, even though  the Abbey itself has been in ruins since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1529, due to Henry VIII's quarrel with the Catholic Church in Rome, and he founded the Church of England. I don't usually go to church services, but this day I did attend to honour all the young men of Britain and France, slaughtered that day on a muddy, recently plowed field in Northern France.

       After the service, with a full house of about 250 parisheners, there was a 're-enactment' by Rosa Mundi  a small troupe who relive Medieval English history. They had sent up 3 tents in the grounds and despite the rain gave a long bow display in their home made costumes and real head and breast armour. Rose Mundi is also an English rose, with both red and white petals, and The War of the Roses, between the House of Lancaster (red rose) and House of York (white rose) is a part of English history which the society reenacts. In the summer months they camp in their tall narrow tents, but not on a cold, wet October weekend. Some slept in the church's accommodation.

        I learned from the members that the advantage of the longbow over the French Genoese cross bow was the speed and distance. They could fire 12 arrows a minute and each archer carried about 36 in battle. They could start firing from 350 metres. The cross bow could only shoot 2-3 a minute at much shorter distances.  Huge wagon trains would have been needed to carry about 1 1/2 million arrows to the battle field. The feathers for the arrows are only from the left wing of a cock goose, while the right wing feathers were used for making quill pens because of the way they curved. I bet you didn't know that!!

        English people use the V sign with the two fingers next to the thumb to give insult and a gesture of defiance. This was the signal given by the English and Welsh archers to the French. If an archer was caught by the French he would have these 2 fingers cut off to prevent him from firing a bow in anger again. Last century Winston Churchill used the two fingers with the palm facing out instead of inwards, as a V for Victory sign

        Despite odds of 3-1 the English ran the French off the battlefield. The French had heavier armour and had to close their helmets as hundreds of thousands of arrows darkened the sky. This prevented them from seeing, and restricted breathing. Also theiy had  heavily armoured horsemen and knights with armour down to their ankles They fell over themselves and their horses in the mud and couldn't get up, and woodland on either side of the battlefield made it improssible to outflank Henry V's forces.  The longbowmen came closer and closer until within yards of the enemy and fired directly into their faces. They also used hatchets and swords.  The king ordered that all the captured Frenchmen, except for the valuable noblemen, who were to ransomed, were to be killed, in case they escaped to fight again.

     Henry V later married the daughter of Charles IV, Catherine of Valois,and brought peace for a while, but his son, Henry VI wasn't much of a king, and lost the French territory. Henry V died in 1422 age 36.