On October 25, 1415 (Saint Crispin’s Day) an exhausted, sick, hungry and depleted army defeated a French army, fighting on their own ground and out numbering the English by four-to-one. Sir Bertine Entwistle, and we would presume perhaps his father before him, had been loyal supporters of the House of Lancaster (Kings Henry IV, V & VI), the royal dynasty of the day. In times when there was frequent treachery amongst nobles in the Kingdom, loyalty meant a lot. Young Bertine would have been doubly valued by the 26 year old King Henry V because of his intimate knowledge of France, having spent time there as a child – ward to a French noble family.
The depleted expeditionary force of six thousand Englishmen had already lost 2000 soldiers and had another 2,000 too sick to fight. They were in retreat, destined for the safe port of Calais, from where they intended to escape to England. But the army was intercepted at Agincourt by the French Constable, Charles d’Albret and an army 25,000 strong. The French army included heavily armoured cavalry and infantry so total annihilation of the English troops seemed inevitable. The French appeared to have everything going for them until nature turned against them. Henry V, a religious man, thought that God had stepped in and was taking a hand in his victory!
The vast cornfield, became a quagmire as it rained and rained and rained. The mud-mired French cavalry and heavily armoured infantry were easy prey for English archers. Knights in full armour who fell could not get up again without assistance. Struggling to keep their feet, the French soldiers were cut to pieces by the highly mobile English raiders with their hatchets, hooks and knives.
For each and every Englishman killed, many, many more French soldiers were slain. Estimates vary as to the English losses. Shakespeare claims 4 nobles and 25 troops, but the most widely accepted estimate is 100-200 English dead.
French losses are more accurately known. Around 500 French noblemen died that day. The French themselves have claimed between 8,000 and 11,000 in total of whom 1,200-1,800 were slaughtered prisoners. A whole generation of French nobles had been destroyed; there was barely a French noble family without losses and many family lines ended that day.
The victory gave Henry V the greatest fighting reputation of all English monarchs and the day resulted in Bertine receiving his knighthood from the King. It also paved the way for English domination of France until the middle of the 15th century. The army returned to England, but in the following years, expeditionary forces won battle after battle until in 1420, French King Charles VI agreed that on his death Henry would become King of France, and gave his daughter Catherine in marriage to the English king. Henry’s glory did not last – he died of dysentery in 1422. A few years later France produced its own hero, Joan of Arc, who reversed the English fortunes, until eventually the English lost all territories except Calais.
Shakespeare’s Henry V contains one of the best descriptions of the actual battle of Agincourt, which forms a major part of his play. The famous pre-battle oration is one of the most stirring pieces of English literature.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day
Sir Bertine gained lands in France after the victory but eventually returned to England in 1450 after the loss of much of the English-held territory. He lived on to the ripe old age of 59, still a loyal Lancastrian, at Entwistle Hall, Entwistle, Lancashire. He later fought for Henry V’s son, Henry VI, at the first battle of the Wars of the Roses, St Albans 1455 – but that’s another story!