Oct. 25, 2022

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt

October 25, 1415: English King Henry V defeats a larger French army with the help of longbow archers at the Battle of Agincourt.


Cold Open

CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains gruesome depictions that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s July 22nd, 1403 at Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, England.

John Bradmore, a physician, peers into his patient’s jagged, angry wound. At yesterday’s Battle of Shrewsbury, an arrow struck the patient’s cheek. Surgeons at the battlefield tried to extract it but the shaft broke and the arrowhead is still embedded in his skull. John exhales. He’s healed injuries like this plenty of times, but never for such an important patient—because this injured man is Prince Henry, the 16-year-old heir to the English throne.

John picks up a sharpened wooden probe and drenches it in honey. Then he tells Prince Henry to prepare himself.

John pushes the probe into the wound until he’s confident he’s reached the arrowhead. Then he picks up a second probe and follows the path of the first, placing the probes on each side of the arrowhead and pulling them apart to hold the wound open. Then he inserts some mechanical tongs, carefully maneuvering them until he thinks the ends are touching the arrowhead. Then he turns a screw to clamp the tongs shut.

John steadies his nerves for what he knows is the most difficult part of the procedure. Slowly and carefully, he pulls the instrument back and pulls it free from Henry's skull.

The arrowhead, slick with blood, drops to the floor.

As the prince’s courtiers applaud, John takes a cup of white wine and pours it into the wound, then wipes it with an ointment made from honey, barley, and flour.

John nods to the courtiers to indicate his work is finished. He is surprised when Prince Henry grabs his hand and locks eyes. In a soft voice, John tells him not to speak. So Henry attempts a small smile. John realizes that the prince is trying to thank him.

But the surgeon knows Prince Henry is not safe yet. There’s always a chance the wound will fester. Still, given his bravery and resilience today, John’s confident the noble prince will survive and maybe go on to be one of the greatest Kings of all time.

Surgeon John Bradmore’s successful treatment of Henry’s wound ensures that the prince will indeed live to inherit the throne ten years later in 1413. Within two years of his coronation, now known as King Henry V, will command one of the most famous battles in English history. Ironically, the weapon that almost killed him twelve years before in Shrewsbury will be the same one that will decide the outcome of this famous conflict: the longbow. This time though, King Henry will use it to secure victory at the Battle of Agincourt on this day, October 25th, 1415.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 25th, 1415: The Battle of Agincourt.

Act One

It’s the middle of September 1415, one month before the Battle of Agincourt.

An English gunner covers his ears as his cannon booms. He watches as his missile strikes the stone walls around the French town of Harfleur, and drops to the ground in a shower of rubble with a thud. He sighs, frustrated. He has hit his target but there’s no real damage done. So the gunner begins the laborious process of loading and firing the cannon once more. He’ll keep firing until the thick walls are breached, or the enemy inside surrenders.

In the summer of 1415, King Henry V revived his family’s ancestral claim to the throne of France and invaded that country with an army of around 12,000 men. He marched here to Harfleur, a fortified port town in Normandy, but arrived too late to stop the French from reinforcing the town’s garrison and hiding behind its walls and watchtowers. Now, this gunner knows the siege is up against the clock—it must end before the bad winter weather sets in.

Watching his assistant get their cannon ready to fire again, the gunner swats the air trying to get rid of a persistent mosquito. There must be thousands of them. The English gun crews have built a fence to protect themselves from French archers' arrows, but there is no defense against these annoying insects.

Waving away the maddening mosquitos, the gunner picks up a long staff with thick wool on the end and dunks it in a bucket of water. Then he plunges it into the muzzle of the cannon, twisting it to ensure any smoldering gunpowder residue is cleaned out. Over the years, the gunner has seen enough people accidentally blow themselves up to know you never load a cannon without cleaning it first.

The gunner moves to the rear of the cannon and uses a pointed rod to clear out used gunpowder from the touchhole. Then he prepares a new fuse and puts it in place. He’s just about to call out to his assistant to finish the loading, but when he glances up, he notices his assistant is gone.

The gunner looks around, puzzled, before cursing under his breath. Who knows where the fool snuck off to. The gunner is just grateful the King hasn’t chosen this moment for one of his regular visits to watch the cannons at work. If the King were here, there’d be hell to pay for both of them. The gunner resolves that when his assistant gets back, he’s going to give him a stern talking-to.

Annoyed, the gunner does the assistant's job for him. He walks back to the muzzle and rams a ladle of gunpowder and a new ball down the shaft.

When the cannon is loaded, the gunner turns to see his assistant approaching. The gunner is about to unleash a volley of abuse. But he stops himself short when he sees his assistant is clutching his stomach. The gunner feels a rush of fear. An upset belly is the first symptom of a disease that’s been ravaging their camp: the bloody flux, or as it’s now known: dysentery. It’s a killer that strikes seemingly at random. The gunner has heard rumors that even the Bishop of Norwich and the Earl of Suffolk have died in the last few days from it.

Even so, the gunner and his assistant cannot take a break, even to get medical help. King Henry won’t let the barrage against the French stop for any reason. So they get back to work.

The gunner takes a wooden wedge and hammers it into the gun carriage, lifting the muzzle of the cannon slightly, while his assistant checks to make sure the weapon is correctly primed and loaded. When both are satisfied, they drop into a trench beside their cannon. The gunner picks up a long stick with a smoking taper on the end. He carefully lays the taper on the fuse until it sparks. A second or two later, another enormous boom echoes through the air.

The gunner and his assistant then climb out of the trench; time to repeat the process and keep pounding the walls. But when the gunner sees the pale, sweaty face of his assistant, he fears the lad won’t make it. He says a silent prayer that the siege of Harfleur will come to an end before the bloody flux comes for him too.

In time, the siege is successful. With the city walls gradually crumbling and no sign of relief, Harfleur falls to King Henry on September 22nd. But winning the town comes at a cost—thousands of English soldiers die after contracting the bloody flux.

But the English king will not slow down or abandon his plan. He will protect his new possession with a garrison and march onwards to continue his campaign of conquest in France.

Act Two

It’s October 24th, 1415, one day before the Battle of Agincourt.

David Gambe rides at the head of a small group of mounted men as they pass through a French village, his eyes darting left and right. The villagers look at him with suspicion before scurrying away to safety. His conspicuous sword, light armor, and heavy horse identify him as a soldier. It's David’s job to ride ahead of the English army and report back to the king any potential threats to their safety.

Days after Harfleur fell into English hands, King Henry V began the next stage of his ambitious invasion. As cold winds signaled the onset of winter, Henry decided to march his disease-ravaged army across Normandy to the English-held port of Calais. It was a largely pointless show of strength, a move designed to boost Henry’s ego more than achieving any military objectives. But David knows that Henry’s troops are being shadowed by a large French army, and it's his job to find out where it is.

Soon, David and his men leave the village and ride uphill. As his horse gallops up the steep incline, David looks down at the ground. The surface is churned and trodden. It’s not a good sign. Thousands of men and horses have passed by here recently in the last few days.

When David reaches the crest of the ridge, the landscape opens out in front of him. He pulls up his horse and gasps. A massive French army awaits, sprawling across the road and neighboring fields. David’s gaze sweeps across the camp. He estimates there are 15,000 Frenchman ready for battle—double the size of the English army.

Within an hour, David is back reporting his discovery to Henry who is clearly agitated and eager for information. David does his best to give clear answers, telling Henry that the French army is outfitted for battle, and they block the entire road.

When Henry asks how many Frenchmen stand in their way, David tells him and sees the color drain from the king’s face. So David adds, “But there are enough to kill.” The king smiles at David’s optimism and claps him on the shoulder. Henry tells David that the army won’t turn back. With brave men like David on the battlefield, the French have no chance of stopping them.


Later that evening, Henry walks around the English camp. He stops by a campfire where a circle of archers sit with their heads bowed. Some of them are barefoot. Their clothes stink. They share out a pulpy stew from the cooking pot, the last remnants of their rations supplemented by whatever they could loot and plunder during the day’s march.

Henry knows that he has made a potentially fatal mistake by insisting his army marches across Normandy. He planned for an eight-day trek. He quickly counts how long they have now been on the move and realizes it's up to 16 days. Autumnal rain made roads slippery which prolonged the journey. A few days back, the English army was blocked from crossing the River Somme by a French force patrolling the other side. Still, in spite of the delays, Henry is happy about one thing: the French haven’t forced him into battle yet. Even with an army twice the size of his, the French are cautious. And Henry knows why—they are wary of the English longbow.

Henry sits beside the archers and sees their heads rise. He hopes that by being in their company, he can lift their spirits. Henry asks them if they have their longbows ready. Every man nods. He asks them if they still have their fingers on their hands. They nod again and smile.

They’ve all heard stories about the French chopping off the fingers of any captured English archers, so fearful are they of the powerful longbow. Henry laughs, telling his archers that the French use crossbows because they are weak—they haven’t spent countless years training to pull the heavy string of a longbow like the English have.

Henry continues, telling them that, come morning, the English army is going to march into battle without fear and instructs the archers to find a stake and sharpen it to a point. Then, after they take their positions at the rear of the battle, he wants them to plunge their newly fashioned stakes into the ground with the point facing outward for protection. After that, he says with a determined glare, their job is to unleash destruction.

The archers cheer Henry as he rises, moving on to the next group of soldiers. Henry knows his army is exhausted and disease-ridden. But he is determined to make them believers and to convince them that they have the strength to beat the French. But deep down, Henry is worried. He can’t shake the fear that his foolhardy decision to march across northern France has put the English army at risk of a catastrophic defeat.

Act Three

It’s October 25th, 1415 in the countryside between the French villages of Tramecourt and Agincourt.

A fresh-faced English archer pulls back the heavy string of his longbow and releases it. A metal-tipped arrow flies into the air. The archer loses sight of it amid the thousands loosed at the same time. But he clearly sees their combined effect on the French cavalry charging toward them on horseback. Although the riders are mostly protected by armor, their steeds are not. Horses fall, pierced by the arrows. Some rear up in pain. Others panic and gallop away, trampling their own riders. 

So the archer pulls another arrow from his quiver, notches it on the string, and fires again and again. His movements are so practiced and efficient that a new arrow takes to the sky every five seconds. Thousands of archers around him are just as skilled. Together, they create a deadly cloud that rains down on the advancing French. 

Eventually, the archers repel the cavalry charge. Then they switch their aim to the knights advancing on foot. Their heavy armor means they can’t move at more than a walk, and the wet, muddy ground between the two armies slows them even more.

Although the archer’s arrows are less effective against the knights’ plate armor, they still crash into them with a mighty impact. Several are knocked off their feet. And with slippery mud all around them, they are unable to rise back up. Then English knights step forward to receive the slow, lumbering Frenchmen and the two armored lines begin to swing their swords in brutal hand-to-hand combat.

But the fresh-faced archer knows his job isn’t over yet. He drops his longbow and scampers around the flanks, approaching the Frenchmen from behind. The knights are powerless to stop the English archers hammering the backs of their knees with mallets to bring them down. And once one of them is flat out on the ground, the archer stabs his dagger through slits in their helmets. The French army simply has no answer for the simple and ruthless superiority of King Henry’s archers.

When the chaos of battle subsides, the fresh-faced archer returns to collect his longbow and survey the battlefield. French bodies outnumber the English ten-to-one. He knows he’ll be telling stories about this glorious day for as long as he lives.

King Henry V returns to England and is hailed as a conquering hero, although the long-term impact of the Battle of Agincourt is relatively minimal. The English keep control of Harfleur. And Henry re-invades France in 1417, but he dies four years later, and his hard-won conquests are soon lost by his son.

Nevertheless, the Battle of Agincourt has an enduring legacy in English culture and is still celebrated as one of Britain’s greatest triumphs, because King Henry overcame tremendous odds and secured victory thanks to his English archers and their longbows on October 25th, 1415.


Next onHistory Daily. October 26th, 1881. The Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday face off against the Clanton-McLaury gang in a legendary shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.