Why, I suppose it must have been Christmas 1414 when we first heard, down in Alvediston in Wiltshire, about the young King Henry, the one-time mad-cap Hal, how he'd been sending saucy messages over to France, laying claim to territories there which he said were his by right of inheritance. Now, he'd been writing to the Dauphin, see, no good writing to his Dad, he's stark nuts anyway, and he was claiming sovereignty over Maine, Aquitaine, Anjou, Normandy, along with the hand of young Catherine of Valois in marriage, with a dowry of two million marks. Well, the Dauphin being a boy and shallow, he thinks he's dealing with a baby so he sends a message back to our King: "Since you are a youngster, I am sending you little balls to play with and soft cushions to lie on until one day perhaps you will become a man." And he actually sends our King a box of tennis balls, tennis being a popular game amongst the wealthy in those days.
Well, that's what our King's waiting for and he sends back a message: "If God so wills and my life lasts, I shall within months play such a game of ball in the Frenchmen's streets that they will lose their jest and gain but grief for their game."
Well, just about the middle of April, 1415, the Governor, Sir John Turville, who lives down the castle at the bottom, well it wasn't really a castle, it was a ramshackle bloody affair really with a bit of the River Ebble running along one side which he called a moat. Wouldn't have kept a pussycat out. Anyway, he called us lads down, all the fellows working on his land to meet in the yard inside the gate. He climbs onto a cart and addresses us. "I call you here today to tell you that My Lord, the King, is enlisting an army to sail to France later this year to lay claim to territories there which are his by right of inheritance. Now I propose that a contingent from Alvediston shall consist of myself and Bailiff, the men of arms, eight archers and six boys to take care of the baggage and arrows in case of any fighting. Men at arms will be paid at the rate of 12 pence a day, archers 6 pence," - that's me. "The rest of you must remain at home to take care of the women, and the children and our farmlands."
I was in charge of the archers and I took the lads down every day for practice, down to the butts, they weren't really butts, it was a bit of fallow marshland down at the bottom, no damn good for anything else. Now our method of practice was to see how quickly and how accurately we could get off 15, 16 arrows in a minute. Now say you've got 5,000 archers, that's 75,000 arrows coming in in a minute. And that's a terrible thing to stand up against. Now I remember my old great Grand-dad. Now he was a boy at Crecy and he told my old man when he was a very young boy that when those first arrows went into Crecy into the French it darkened the sky, like a flock of starlings coming in to roost in the evening.
It was a terrific weapon, about as thick as a birch treat in the middle where you hold it with your left hand, tapering off either end, made of yew, and the method was you get your arrow, snitch her … bring the fleches up to your right cheek, and hold it, look down the shaft, then push out, push up your left arm, stretch the muscles back in the neck, open the chest, hold it, hold it, hold it, aim … And off they go.
By God, they went hard. Now we were shooting a target, say 250, 300, 400 yards distance and the men, they get very accurate. The bodkin sharp pointed arrows could pierce armour and the big broad headed arrows - terrible, they cut into the flesh and if a poor warhorse got one of those in the chest, by God he was unmanageable, absolutely useless. Anyway, that was the longbow.
Well, the time was getting on and on July 17, 17th it was, just as the Governor said, we all met together in the yard again, the young girls sitting up in the baggage cart, shouting and cheering and we was there having a last cup of wine. "Goodbye Jack, goodbye Joe, see you at Christmas."
At Southampton we were halted, every man's name was taken and written down on a great roll. Then through the Bargate and out into the square on the other side, coo, you never seen such a sight, hundreds and hundreds of men, all shouting and laughing. men sitting round cooking pots, carrying great bales of straw, men carrying suits of armour and the smell of wood smoke and the horses, lances stacked, banners flapping and flying and the King's Marshals riding about among us all, trying to tell the newcomers where to go.
I said to Ned, "Come on let's get out of this and go and look at there ships," and we pushed through all the throng down some narrow passages and on to a little quay and there was the Armada, looking like a forest of young larches, hundreds of masts, their sails furled and the pennants flapping in the wind and and a choppy sea, going smack, smack, smacking against those great blunt bows, pulling at their anchor chains and then we noticed on the quay there were two other men standing, one an enormous bearded man with a great sword hanging at his side and the other a smaller man standing three or four paces in front of him, smaller, but very well knit, very well made.
Well, we went back to our lines feeling as rich as if somebody had given us a bag of gold each. Later on that night young Ned said, "I wonder what the King was thinking about." A couple of days later we had the answer to that because it became known in the Army about this plot which had been uncovered, a plot against the King to set up the Earl of March, or somebody, while he was away and three of the main conspirators were there actually in the King's party. The Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope and Lord Grey. Well, these men were arrested, of course, summarily tried, taken out, hanged, drawn and quartered without any ceremony at all. My Lord Grey was a close friend of the King, he was let off lightly, he was just beheaded in public.
Now that's a terrible thing to see. Here's a man standing, standing in his shirt, looking round, smiling sadly and an enormous crowd of men all gathered round, in dead silence, and then the man is kneeling and s..oomph and his head's rolling in the filthy cobbles and he's dead.
Well, Ned was very silent after that. I said to him, "Take it easy son, you haven't seen nothing yet."
Well, that seemed to clear the air, 'cos the next day we got the order to embark and all that army, 6,000 archers, 4,000 men at arms and lances, the knights and all their horses and baggage, the grooms and the valets, the carpenters, the farriers, the blacksmiths and waggers, all crowding up the ramps, all laughing and jesting, off for a damn good holiday abroad.
Harfleur came into sight, looking very dark and sinister, standing in low, marshy ground under a lowering sky. Well, we finally disembarked at a little port quite near, called Quai de Caux. We were give three or four days to find our land legs and in that time the King was riding about among us on a little grey mare which he rode all through the campaign, telling us to take it easy, take our ease for soon we should have very good tidings.
I suppose he meant by that he thought that Harfleur was going to open its gates to us and show us a bit of hospitality. However, when we drew near to the town and crossed the little narrow causeway over the marsh, word came back that the Governor had no intention of opening his gates and he was going to keep them very firmly locked against us, whereupon the King sends a message to say he's going to stay there until he opens them, so order was given to lay siege to the town and planks and pontoons and bridges were laid out over the marshes and dykes until the whole town was completely surrounded and the postern gate cut off.
It so happened at that time it was blistering hot weather and the stink from those marshes was appalling. You know how a salt marsh stinks when the tide's out. Well, this was a damn sight worse 'cos it was filled with all the sewage and muck out of that town for 200 years, and very soon the men began to fall sick.
Well, nothing happened for about three or four days, then they brought up these great stone throwing machines, the ballistas really from Roman times and they could fire a rock about as big as a cauldron, they pull 'un back and they would go creak pvoooooooooom-pow! and crash against the wall and back into the moat the stone would fall, about as much good as spitting a cherry pip at a church door. Then they tried the great big cannons and they were no damn good, great clumsy things, did more damage to the gunners than the enemy and even the attempts to blow a breach in the walls with mines were just about as unsuccessful.
"I am possessed of a very great desire to see my territories and those places which belong to me by inheritance, nor shall I allow those inflated by pride to enjoy what belongs to us by right. My resolution, therefore, is to go on and if the enemy should attempt to hinder us on our way, we will come off with victory, triumph and very great fame."
The Road to Calais
On the 7th October we march away to the North on the old road to Calais which runs more or less parallel to the sea.
Now at Blanche-Tache great things were expected, because it was here, you see, that Edward III had crossed the Somme on his way to Crecy and his great victory there and it was here also that we were promised re-inforcements from Calais, but when we got there the next morning we could see for a start we'd never get across the river, it was far too deep, much too swift and instead of any re-inforcemeents waiting on the other side was a huge body of French cavalry with lances, flanked by crossbow men, just waiting, stock still, to see what we'd do.
The army was halted, conference held, the King was advised to turn back; if the French were there, they'd be there guarding the Somme all the way up, but no, he decides to go on, so we march upstream and the French march upstream on the other side.
There we are marching, gazing at each other across the water. To make matters worse it had started to rain and it rained from then on right through the campaign. Now spirits began to flag very quickly. They were very hostile at Amiens, couldn't get any food and on to Boves where the men broke open some big barns where there were great casks of wine and practically the whole army got drunk. Well, it didn't do any 'arm, we sank our sorrows for a little while.
Then the next day, on to Nesle and at that place a posse of French came dashing out of a wood on the right and seized one of the many flags we were holding, and rode away back with it, laughing, over the stubble, whereupon a young squire named John Bromley yanks his horse out of the ranks and goes galloping after them, seizes the leader, drags him off backwards and they were wrestling on the ground like a couple of boys, fighting in the stubble and then he stands there holding the banner aloft in his hands, to loud cheers from some of our archers, who ran out to bring him in, and the Frenchman too. Well blimey, he got knighted for that later on and the Frenchman, Lancelot Pierre, his name was, he was given a cup of wine for putting up a good fight.
He was taken to the King who gave him a few more glasses of wine and after a little more encouragement, he tells the King that there is a ford not much further up river at a place called Voyennes where we can get across and which was unguarded. Well, that seemed a bit too good to be true. However, scouts were sent off at the gallop and they came back a couple of hours later to say it was true.
So a forced march was made that night and on the morning of 19th October we got to Voyenne and there was this great wide river, gurgling over rocks and stones but nobody around. So, a party of about 800 archers were sent in to occupy a bit of high land on the other side to cover the crossing, 'cos we intended to go over there, you see. In we went to that water, coo it was cold, up to your knees, to your waist and then suddenly out of your depth, kicking, kicking like mad, holding our bows above our heads to try and keep them dry. Four of the chaps got taken away down stream and were drowned. But the rest of us scrambled out the other side up on to the high land, stood there panting, looking round, nothing to be seen only the fields of France, fading into there distance so we made back to say it seemed to be all clear and then the operation of getting the Army over the Somme began.
My God, what an operation. Into the flood went the horses and the carts and the men, struggling and floundering in the water, wheels came off the wagons which had to be fixed on again in mid flood. Men got carried away, pulled out again and shooting and yelling, "Come on, get on and get your backs into it, come on, move there, move, move," and after about three or four hours of this desperate floundering through the water, the Army was standing on the other side, panting and dripping and looking around them, fearful it must be a trap, but there's nobody there. Well, we were all countrymen, we knew damn well you can't move around in another man's land without eyes watching you, eyes watching from little coppice, from farmhouses and from woods. We couldn't see them, but by God, they could see us.
We were given that day to rest and try and dry our clothes. In that time all the archers were ordered to cut their stave, a long stave about nine foot long, sharp at both ends, the idea being that when we got to battle you stick them in the ground towards the enemy, like a spike palisade, so as to, to try and ward off their horses, I suppose, if they came. Anyway, we cut 'em out of a larch wood nearby and at this time the King went to spy out the land and he was met by a party of Frenchmen who came cockily riding up to him.
"Which road are you going to take?" they said. "Straight to Calais," says the King, "and if you should impede our way, it will not be without your very great peril." Why did they want to know which road we was going to take? Well, next day we marched on. it was very mysterious, very eerie. The whole of that huge wide country, very quiet, no noise, all deserted.
Now, as we came up too a little village called Maison Celles, a young knight called Sir Gilbert Baxter comes galloping back from the advanced party, pulls up in a flurry of mud and turf in front of the King, points back excitedly, "The enemy M'Lord are encamped across the road, not a mile further on."
Well, messengers are sent galloping back to our straggling ranks, "Close up, close up, close up, battle positions either side of the King behind the village. He'll be somewhere, At the double now, move, move, move, move. move." Well, that shook us out of our lethargy, and as we got to our places, panting, shaking off our packs, sticking in the stakes into the ground in front of us, we looked out at the scene in awe, so this was the battle ground they had chosen, this was to be the place of execution.
The road to Calais led straight down across a great wide field of winter wheat about a mile across, Wood of Tramecourt on the right, Wood of Agincourt on the left and way down the road, less than a mile on was the might of France, proudly planted right across our road, in their tents and pavilions and flags and banners flying and the smoke of a thousand campfires going straight up into the rainy sky. And the din from their lines which come to us in gusts over the plain like form a riotous horde, gathered before some tremendous tournament, filled with excitement and anticipation for the great sport and spectacle that was going to be theirs the next day.
But we needn't have bothered 'cos they certainly weren't bothering about us. No, they were preparing to sleep and to feast before the fun they were to have some time later on, but not now. Oh, no, they weren't bothered about us now. They'd look after us when the time came. They hadn't even noticed we were there. The rain continued and the night began to creep on. The trumpet sounded Stand Easy. There wouldn't be any fighting that day. Watches were set and the men off guard moved around listlessly, looking for firewood and food.
Soon it was pitch dark and the French campfires are glowing like orange torches and in front of them you could see the little black silhouettes of men nipping back and forth, back and forth, and in front of them the larger shapes of their warhorses being marched up and down, up and down by the grooms. Now there's no stabling for a warhorse on a battlefield, so the only way to keep them in trim is to keep them moving, keep them in fettle and that went on all night long, up and down, up and down.
(original illustration by Esmond Knight)
The night before the battle, "The poor condemned English,
by their watchful fires, sit patiently."
As the night wore on, the sound from their lines got more and more riotous, shouting and laughing, singing, drunken singing like a bunch of screaming gypsies. The louder they got, the more and more quiet we became, sinking lower and lower into our own thoughts and meditations.
This time last year we were in our own warm beds in Alvediston, nothing to worry about, except the sheep up on top, whether there was enough straw in the barns for the cows and now we was wondering whether we should be alive this time tomorrow and if we were, how many arms and legs and ears chopped off. Feelings of resentment began to grow inside us. This wasn't what we signed on for. What the hell were we doing here?
I looked up and there he was, moving around among us in a cloak wrapped round him, no covering on his head and the rain pouring down his face. Now he's just speaking very quietly to the men, "Be of good cheer, children, sleep while you can, the victory will be ours to-morrow. God is with us." Words to that effect. And he moved on.
Now it's a very funny thing but when a man says things are going to be all right when you know darn well they're hopeless, you begin to think, well, perhaps he knows more than we do. I mean how can a man ever look you in the face again if he's told you that things are going to be all right when you've got a damn disaster on your hands?
The first cocks began to crow. Maybe the cocks would be crowing in Alvediston too. And then suddenly, starting us out of our dreadful reverie, our own trumpets, reveille, get up, standto, standto. We was on our feet, jumping about, trying to shake some warmth and strength into our poor cramped limbs and trying to shake out that terrible fear that was sitting like a black toad in our stomachs. The last bit of wine, last bit of bread and you could see the men hugging their longbows to them as if they were their womenfolk, don't let me down to-day, my darling, serve me well to-day, my love. They were the only things that stood between them and death, the longbows. And then about 9 o'clock there sun broke through and the rain stopped. Cor, it was amazing and then about that time a little solitary horseman broke loose from the French lines and came trotting very jauntily down the road with 20,000 eyes on him and he draws up in front of the King to tell him to surrender now or face complete annihilation.
Whereupon the King replied, "Let they who serve prepare, for France is mine and I will have it and men will speak of me to their day of doom," and the herald twists his horse round on his hind legs and goes trotting back, smiling, with his arm swinging.
The King gets on to his own little grey mare and he was riding among us, just waving, saying, "God will be with us, God will give us victory to-day," and he comes very close to us chaps and looks down at us and goes past and then stops, looks back again and he turns his horse and comes back and he bends down; there's young Ned standing, holding a great bundle of arrows in his arms. He says, "Can you climb a tree, Ned?" He remembered his name! "Yes, sir," Ned says. "Then let me see how quickly you can climb that tree and tell me how many men there are beyond that wood on the left."
Well, Ned goes up that tree like a red squirrel. He looks round there for a bit and then comes slithering down and lands in front of the King. "Well," he says, "There must be a million men there, Sire, but they're only Frenchmen," he says with a smile. And the King bends down and pats him on the head. That's one of the few times I ever seen him smile. Coo, well old Ned's going to remember that when he's sitting round the fire as an old man. Anyway, the King goes back to his tent, dismounts from the little mare, gives her a smack on the behind and back she goes into the baggage carts. He puts on a breastplate, arm pieces, no leg armour and a little helmet without a vizor.
Now at this time we saw a great fluttering and moving of flags in the centre squadrons of the French. Well, we could see what they were doing. They were handing all the flags and banners back to the rear. Now, you can't see much in a vizor when it's down over your eyes and with all that flapping in front of your face you couldn't see sweet Frances Atkinson.
(original illustration by Esmond Knight)
The French Knights Charge.
Anyway, that's the moment that the King chose, he marches forward, right out into the fields, turns to face us and lifting up his arms says, "In the name of God Almighty, in the name of Jesus and Mary, in the name of the Holy Trinity, advance banners in the best time of the year and St George be this day thy speed", and the whole army lets out a great Hooray echoing backwards and forwards, across that little valley and then we started the advance. here we go, Sir Thomas motioning us forward. "Get forward, archers, get forward," so that we were moving forward like a great sickle, the archers like two protecting wings on either side. We moved forward, eight hundred yards, seven hundred yards, six hundred here we go boys, this is it, this is it, we are going through it, five, four, three, hold it halt, hold it.
Now we could see 'em, now we could distinguish the noblemen by their tabards, we could see 'em and there were their crossbow men already standing there on either side of them on their flanks, their bows ready, ready to shoot and at that moment, the chaps in the middle had lowered their lances, that was a sign that they were going to charge and at that moment more cavalry came bursting in from either side, anxious to be long the first into the field too, scattering their own crossbow men in front of them.
(original illustration by Esmond Knight)
The archers in action - 25th October 1415
Then the King raised his sword and dropped it and that was the signal we'd been waiting for, "Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shooooooot."
In the first minute 75,000 arrows like winged furies went screaming into the leading French. The effect was like a scythe, cutting into as a field of standing corn, they just crumpled and fell to the ground in wild confusion barring the way of those coming on behind but then we could see that they weren't coming on, no they were floundering, they were floundering in the morass created by the exercising horses of the night before.
It was incredible, a pattern was beginning to emerge immediately before our eyes. Here they were in the middle, caught in their own trap, while either side the French cavalry coming in were being compressed into that bottleneck between the two woods and they were being cut down in the filed of their own choice. It was amazing. Only minutes before they'd been immaculate, sitting there, fresh and arrogant, glittering in the afternoon sun and now they were twisting and squirming in the mud like a nest of maggots in a decayed carcass. Yes, the starlings were going home to roost all right.
And then the trumpet goes, close the ranks, get in closer, then the men at arms go in and start their deadly business of hand to hand fighting and still the arrows go reaching in and the archers behind, standing there in readiness in case we had an attack in the rear, we were ordered to shoot right up and over the fighting men and the arrows were arcing right over and finding the French coming on from behind and finding those running away in terror. Their leaders and captains had been killed and smitten down by the arrows so now there was no order but complete confusion and we were fighting on.
How long did it go on? When you were thinking about it afterwards, you couldn't tell until the end we were standing there sobbing for breath, exhausted, our arms hanging limply at our side, no more strength to lift the sword again. And then the trumpet sounds a retreat and we were staggering out through the dead and dying, staggering back to our own lines.
I looked round at our chaps, simple countrymen that I had known as young lads, wouldn't hurt a rabbit, mad men, with staring eyes, mad as a gate, covered in blood, like crazy men out of a madhouse walking back in a dream, couldn't believe it, laughing hysterically. And then we was back in our own lines and the sound and fury of the battle began to fade.
Then as the sun went down behind the woods, just behind us, that same herald who'd came up in the morning, so cockily, rode up to the King to say the day was his. "What is this castle that stands hard by?" he says to the herald. "Azincourt," the herald replies. "We call this the field of Agincourt fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus. Let there be sing Non Nobis and Te Deum."
The French couldn't be numbered, they were banked up there in piles that bottleneck between those two woods. This was the ground they'd picked to beat us and to crush us into the ground and there they all were seven foot high, piles of dead and dying and they've never been numbered - 10,000, 11,000, nobody ever really knew. The English: Duke of York, Earl of Suffolk, Sire Richard Kettley, Davy Game and a few others. We gathered them up, put them into a barn and burnt them.
And then the night began to come on. Some wine had been got from the village and we sat round our fires, drinking it, talking stupidly, wildly of what we had seen that day. Dressed in the finery we had stolen from the French, crested helmets of gold and silver, their tabards lying aslant our filthy clothes, tabards with golden suns and stars and rampant lions on, and now and then a man would fall crash into the cinders in dead exhaustion.
It's quiet now, only the pitiful sounds of poor souls dying there out in the darkness under the starts, unattended. And from their French lines, not a light to be seen. Then the cocks were crowing again for another dawn, a different dawn, then our own reveille sounds, stand to, get ready to march out, as if the King was keen to get out of that place.
A way had been cleared through the French lines on our road to Calais and we marched out, scarcely daring to look at those terrible banks of dead on either side, broken lances, filthy tabards, and banners besmirched with blood and filth. Fine faces, fearfully slashed, broken legs and arms, golden helmet filled with blood. Dead horses and the cream of French nobility, stripped naked by the scavengers, lying in a dreadful pattern of shattered vanity, a nightmare painting of the day of doom.
And we marched out, 'til the last remnant of the battle field was left behind and the fields looked fresh and clean again. On our road to Calais, filled with wonder, with gratitude for our deliverance, silenced by what we had seen and done, but filled with a sickening despair at the waste of it all.
Now the name of every man who volunteered was written down in a great book for all posterity to read. Dukes and Earls, Knights and Squires, Men at Arms and Lancers who joined and sailed and marched and fought and won for Harry and the Leopards of England on 25th October 1415 - not a single man is entered on that role as archer. Well, that's how it goes, isn't it?