The setting for the battle was the Hundred Years’ War, which was an on-again off-again, dynastic struggle for the crown of France between the Valois Kings of France and the Plantagenet Kings of England for five generations, often engulfing many other kingdoms of Europe during the times of chivalry and medieval civilization. Henry, not the most charming or appealing of English kings, demanded several provinces of France as his due from both genealogical claim and Salic law. He included in the bargain the physically weak and addled French King’s young daughter, Catherine, for marriage. The counter-offer, though generous, was rejected by Henry as far too little and, perhaps, mocking. His council of nobles agreed to invade France, led by the young king himself.
This 1884 painting by Sir John Gilbert depicts the morning of the Battle of Agincourt — October 25, 1415
The campaign consisted of a too-long siege of the city of Harfleur, a long, wet, starving, sickly march to Calais, suddenly blocked by a huge French army led by the Dauphin, son of the King. If ever the odds were stacked against a worn-out, bedraggled army, suffering from dysentery and eager to embark for home, this was it. Henry, however, determined to fight it out and leave the consequences to God.
John I, Duke of Alençon fights against King Henry V and Edward of York at the Battle of Agincourt
The key to victory in most medieval battles was the armor-clad knights and noblemen, normally mounted, and the men-at-arms prepared to fight on the ground with sword and lance. Best estimates number Henry’s men-at-arms at 1,500 with 5,000 archers. The English archers had trained from their youth in the skills of the longbow, made from ash, and equipped with dozens of deadly arrows. The archers wore no armor but carried self-defense weapons like axes, knives, and mauls.