Find out More – The Battle


I’m Toby Capwell I’m a specialist in
Medieval and Renaissance arms and armor. Warfare, knighthood, related
subjects. I’m also curator of arms and armor at
the Wallace Collection in London and I’m really excited about today. My whole
life, professional life kind of revolves around this subject and I’m constantly
encountering the fact that this is a subject replete with all kinds of myths
and misconceptions. It feels like almost every day I’m reminded that history is
not about what happened, it’s about what we wish had happened. How we would
like it to have been. We want our history to be emotionally or intellectually
satisfying and that leads us to twist it and change it around and emphasize
certain aspects and downplay others and I’m fascinated by that process. But I
also want to know what really happened, I want to know more about people’s lives
in the Middle Ages in the Renaissance so I worked very hard to try and cut
through and sort out mythologizing from the real hard
evidence and that can actually be very difficult sometimes.
So when Tod called me for this when he was putting this team together to do
this experiment I was really excited by that, but I also made the point that I
think we need to be very specific about a particular moment in history that
we’re trying to explore. The longbow is an ancient weapon, the Vikings
had long bows or they were used all the way through the Middle Ages they were
used into the 16th century so the generic issue of long bow shooting
versus armor needs to be specific and I said that I thought we should focus on
the Battle of Agincourt and that specific context because it’s the best
known in a way but it’s also the most misunderstood. It’s also the battle and
the period that is most kind of loaded politically and socially and culturally.
So it’s particularly hard for us to separate the myth and the misconception
from what really did happen but we know more about what actually did happen at
Agincourt now in the benefit of research that’s occurred over the last hundred
years or so. The Battle of Agincourt took place on
the 25th of October 1415, it was organized as part of a campaign for King
Henry theFfifth invading France. He invaded first and took over the port
city of Harfleur in Normandy, before moving east across northern France.
Finally bringing the French to battle at Agincourt in the in the Pays de Calais.
The myth of the Battle of Agincourt is the set up, that an army of stout English
archers defeated a much larger force of French Knights in a spectacular triumph
over the odds. That’s the appealing myth that casts this event as a kind of
class war of Commons versus Aristocracy that appeals to the modern mind but
that’s not what happened at the battle. Henry the Fifth certainly had a lot of archers.
The army that he had on the day was 4 archers to every one man-at-arms.
Henry the Fifth had knights though too, 1500 knights and men-at-arms and that’s a
crucial point that people often forget about. But he did have this massive
number of archers, 7,000 archers and 1,500 fully armed Knights. He was
arrayed against a French army that was all men at arms. The French had
quite a lot of archers who were there on the day but they were not engaged so
they do not matter. Superior numbers doesn’t matter when not all of them
engage with the enemy and what we’re concerned with, was who was actually
doing the fighting. And on the French side that was around ten to twelve
thousand fully armed Knights. We know less about the precise make up of the
French army, because the records don’t all survive in
the way they do in England, but we can look at past precedent. What were the
largest French armies in the last 20 years that the French were capable of
fielding? And they were never much bigger than around 14,000 men in total. So the
French had more people probably at Agincourt but not overwhelming massive
odds and that’s an important point. The shooting did matter on the day, but the
sources suggest certainly to me, that it was only one part of the one part of the
equation and we need experimentally to understand more about how medieval
English archery actually works and to try and rebalance our understanding of
this of this battle. The example of the the collision and the conflict in
everybody’s minds about this battle between myth and misconception and facts
is for example the very popular idea that the English shot up in the air.
There’s all this very dramatic Hollywood footage of archers aiming up in the air
and launching arrows high in the air so that they dropped down at long-range on
the enemy. And that’s visually appealing in a film, and the image of a
rain of arrows is poetic and everything but it’s not what happened. We have
visual sources of the time, pictorial art, which gives us a sense of what these
people looked like and how they shot. They are shooting straight, not up in the
air. We have then the written accounts there are both eyewitness accounts on
the English side and on the French side and lots of them. Then there are
official histories which are based on interviews with eyewitnesses and some of
them are more reliable than others. The diversity of sources gives us a better
chance of balancing out for for bias and secondhand knowledge and stuff like that.
And then we have the material surviving. There’s armor from this period surviving
and enough of it that we can get a good sense of the metallurgy, the construction,
the way it’s designed. And you combine all those different sources together,
written, material and pictorial, and you start to get a lot closer that’s the
real evidence not the Laurence Olivier film. So I’m really excited about today
because you can take all those different types of evidence and put them together
really carefully, but until you get out into the world and do something physical,
there’s a piece missing. You know we what we’re doing today is
taking all of that study and seeing what the real physical world has to say about
it. You know, how does it actually play out? What happens when that arrow hits
that breastplate? What does it sound like? And what how much variation in there?
What is the reality of it? That’s the final piece of this whole
puzzle and that fills out our ability to imagine the situation of the battle. The results,…. what you learn is only worth as much as the quality of your
setup and Tod is I think in an especially good position with everybody
who’s who’s helping today, to set up conditions that are faithful, as
far as is practical

28 thoughts on “Find out More – The Battle

  1. And there's even extras. I don't know what to do. I can't breathe. And then Lindybeige puts up a literal movie on Hannibal. Have I died?

  2. I always am impressed when I learn a new fact that enriches what I already knew about a particular part of history.

  3. Tobias looks and sounds hangover af. I guess weapons is not the only ware Todd's workshop produces when the sweet moon shines…

  4. I suspect that the single dislike is from a History Channel employee.

    Or maybe it is aliens.. probably aliens!

  5. I really love this experiment but i have one big question. Dr. Capwell says that there are a lot of written accouts of eyewitnesses. is it possible to produce a small bibliography (or perhaps there is already one and i'm just too blind to see) because this is very interesting.

  6. I think Toby is misrepresenting the primary sources, and oversimplifying some things.

    Some points:

    -"long" vs "close" range are ambiguous, subjective terms
    -The Monstrelet chronicle explicitly states that the archers shot at both long and short range. The romantic idea of a long range volley is right there in the source: "the archers…let off a shower of arrows with all their might, and as high as possible, so as to not lose their effect". This occurred right at the start of the fighting when the archers were advancing towards the french, and it is only after they had closed the distance that the sources talk about arrows crashing into visors at "close" range.
    -the archers were in multiple positions, as per the chronicles. some in the wings, some in the main body, and some in the fields. this was a complex affair.
    -the arrows had a huge psychological effect on both men and horses during the battle, as per the sources. focusing just on the armor penetration is fun, but it's a narrow perspective. If a "long" range arrow storm causes a group of horses in a crowd to panic, it's a problem for everyone in the vicinity. Arrows don't necessarily have to be lethal to be effective and important.
    -period artwork is a cartoon. unrealistically condensed to tell a story.
    -archers don't have to shoot high in the air at an angle to launch the arrows "long" distance. Mark Stretton (warbow archer) had a test once where he shot at 100 yards and the arrows were basically still almost horizontal.

  7. What a beautiful birthday present and what an exciting project! I could listen to Tobias speaking of English warbows and French bascinets the whole evening!

  8. I wonder how "dirty" the fighting would get, you have all those "specialised" daggers for finding gaps ect, but how much of the fighting was rolling in the mud, bashing eachothers head in with rocks ect. eye gouging ect. training with weapons is good but not all where trained the same, but when the fear kicks in, the real life and death struggle is going on how much "caveman" would be going on.

  9. While the 'decisive phase' of the battle may not have shooting with flight arrows, the engagement is supposed to have started with an advance by the English army and an attack from the archers which provoked the French van to assault. (This provocation would be important even if indecisive in it's own right).

    It is highly likely that at least a brief shooting at flight ranges was practiced, even if most of the harrassment/wounding happened at much closer ranges.

    Unless the entire understanding of the movements on the day is flawed of course.

  10. History twisted to be what you want it to be, isn't real history. It's propaganda.
    The biggest and most important task of the scientific field of History, is to weed out the true history, from the propaganda, lies, exaggerations, and misconceptions.

    Frankly, any historian who isn't aware of that issue, and/or doesn't makes sure to address it, isn't worthy of being a considered a historian.
    Dr Toby Capwell would seem to be a respectable historian, from what I can tell
    …in an aspect of history (medieval arms and armour) that is swimming in myths and misconceptions, in sore need of proper analysis and study, to discern the truth.
    Thank you, for doing the badly needed work, that you do.

  11. If anyone knows please tell me.
    If the archers did not fire in an angle did only the first 1 to 2 ranks shoot?
    Did they shout like line infantry or have gigantic gaps in their formation?

    (Excluding the case they were on a steep hill and everyone had a clear line of sight)

  12. Could they have just shot 7000 arrows all at once from about 50 meters at the French horses in a very narrow space and then rapidly butchered the French knights trying to get off their dying or dead horses? And then repeat this with every charge of the French? Confusion sets in and knights start lifting up their visors to get a better look and instead get another volley of arrows in their face.

  13. And gentlemen in England now a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon TOD's day !

  14. I added this in a comment but it bears repeating.
    Note that it's not sure how many French actually fought at any time. Dr Lucy Curry states that the French were spread all down the river watching for the English to cross and as these forces heard of the battle and were recalled they were flung into the battle to wear the English down. This would have worked except the English, knowing they were going to be overwhelmed, started butchering their prisoners and to stop this the French let them go.

  15. I wonder how much Toby dislikes how the English warbow is portrayed in Bernard Cornwell's "Archer" series and the stand alone Agincourt novel. Either way, I still enjoyed those books even if I know they don't accurately portray the capabilities of the English warbow.

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