I think my favorite moment in all of history occurred at about eleven on the chlly autumnal morning of October twenty-fifth. It had been raining for a week, and everything and everybody in the world was soaked to the skin. The six thousand man English army had been marching without food for several days. Dejection dripped from every frayed shirt and torn gauntlet. Nobleman and peasant had spent the previous night standing, because laying down in the cold mud was worse. They had no fires to warm themselves, because there was no dry wood, anywhere. Standing between them and a warm meal and the stout safe walls of the English channel port of Callais were over 35,000 offended Frenchmen. And then this twenty-eight year old hot head, Henry Lancaster, came striding from his tent, (he was probably the only who who had a bed) looked over that miserable multitude, and annouced “We shall attack”. His nobles must have thought he had lost his mind.
I can see them in my mind’s eye now, taking the royal lunatic aside to quietly explain to him that six thousand hungry and exhausted, demoralized and outnumbered men, do not attack a 35,000 strong well fed and well rested army. They slip away in the night. They pay a ransom. They negotiate a treaty. They do not attack. But, Henry was frustrated. The previous day had been spent in fruitless negotiations. The French were in no hurry. They had the home field advantage and were growing stronger by the hour. But Henry was insistant. He wanted to attack. And since the King is king by the will of God, unless he should accidently fall on his sword, you must do what he says. And Henry V, Plantaganet King of England, said “attack”. So they were going to attack. Still, I cannot but believe that at moments like this democracy was starting to look pretty good
Alas, this was not 1776. This was 1415. So, to the astonishment of everybody the entire English army picked up and struggled forward in knee deep mug, across the freshly plowed field, right up to arrow range of the French front line, about 200 yards. And there they stopped. They shouted insults, flashed the Middle Ages equivalent of gang signs, pounded their stakes and flashed their naked bottoms, and loudly discussed the questionable linage of the French nobility. Of course, the French were insulted, estranged, aggravated and enraged. The Frenchies drew themselves up in their noble outrage and threw themselves on the offending English with a vengence.
By any measure the English should have been massacured on the spot. They were not. Over the next three hours it was the French who were butchered. When it was all over about ten thousand Frenchmen were chucked into a mass grave. The English, who had lost about 1,500 dead, limped the sixty miles to Callais and that warm meal. Henry was given the French King’s daughter in marriage, which merely strengthened his claim to the French throne. It was a miracle. And, in retrospect, it was, of course, inevitable.
You want to know why most people think history is boring? It is usually taught in retrospect, as in “B” happened because “A” happened first. But that is never true. History never had to come out the way it did. If it was inevitable, it would be much faster. Gallieo would have been flying his helicopter over the fifty story office tower of Pisa. Humans are not logical. We are emotional creatures. And the cocaine addicted hedge fund managers who gambled their reputations and the futures of millions of investors on the ability of some alcoholic in Kansas City to make his mortgage payment on time, only thought they were being logical. History is actually one great big “What were they thinking?” moment of revelation after another. Like evolution, there is a logic to it only in retrospect. To expect the world to be otherwise, is a level of insanity which leaves little hope that the human species will ever rise above the level of smart monkey.
So what was the smart monkey King Henry thinking when he ordered the atttack at Agincourt? He was thinking he had really screwed up. He was thinking he had gotten where he was because of one stupid impuilsive mistake after another. But, true to his character, he made one final stupid, impulsive mistake. And that final one turned his entire world around.
The classical historical view of Argencourt is that the battle was won by the 6 foot long English Longbow, the high tech smart weapon of the Middle Ages. It took four years to make one, and up to 160 pounds of pull to draw one. It’s average rate of fire in the hands of an expert was less than six arrows per minute, and it was not of much use beyond 200 yards. Even at closer ranges it could not penetrate good solid chest armor. The catch for the targets, the French nobility, was that most of their armour was only of fair quality, and lesser strength chain mail was used to shield the arms and legs. But the longbow did not win the battle of Argincourt.
So what was the real miracle at the Battle of Argencourt? John Keegan in “The Face of Battle” attempts to recreate the experience. “Had most of the French first line kept their feet, the crowd pressure of their vastly superior numbers….would have forced the English back. Once men began to go down, however….those in the next rank would have found they could get within reach of the English only by stepping over or on the bodies of the fallen…yet in doing so they would have rendered themselves even more vulnerable…Seeing the French falling at the heads of their columns….the archers siezed the chance that confusion and illresolution offered. Drawing swords,…axes, bills or mallets…they ran down to assault the men in armor (on their flanks).
“…while an archer swung or lunged….another…(landed) a mallet-blow on the back of the head or behind the knee. Either would have toppled (the Frenchman) and once sprawling, he would have been helpless; a thrust into his visor…or through the chainmail of his armpit or groin, would have killed him outright or left him to bleed to death. Each act of execution need have taken a few seconds…Little scenes of this sort must have been happening all over the (battlefield)…”(pp 93-103)
So it was not the magical mystical longbow that won the battle, nor the sword held by a king. It was the simple hammer and mallet, in the hands of a villan, who butchered his enemy like a swine. It is not a very romantic image. But it is profoundly pragmatic. And that is why that moment before the battle of Argincourt, is my favorite moment in all of history.