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Reign of Henry V. Part 1 page 5

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But notwithstanding the lavish terms on which the army had been engaged, the siege of Harfleur was dearly purchased by it. The weather was extremely hot, and the place, lying low on the banks of the Seine, was at that season extremely unhealthy. A dysentery, partly from those causes, and partly from the incautious eating of unripe fruit, and the putrid exhalations from the offal of animals killed for the camp, broke out, and raged amongst the soldiers far more mortally than the awkward artillery of that age. About 2,000 of the troops had perished, besides great numbers who were disabled by sickness. Several officers of rank died, and when Henry had shipped off his sick for England, including the Duke of Clarence, the Earls of Marche, Arundel, Marshall, and many other great officers, his army was reduced to about one-half of its original number.

A council of war, which Henry had called before shipping off his invalids, had come to the decision of returning wholly to England, and making preparations for the next year; but to this Henry would not listen for a moment. To embark altogether, he said, would look like fear, and convert their conquest into a flight. He was resolved, he added, to march to Calais, and dare every peril, rather than the French should say that he was afraid of them, France was his own, he contended, and he would see a little more of it before quitting it. He trusted in God that they should take their way without harm or danger, but if compelled to fight, glory and victory would be theirs, as it had been always that of his ancestors in that country. He declared his route to be Normandy, Picardy, and Artois to Calais.

Having taken this resolution, nothing could turn him from it, though he had only 900 lances and 5,000 archers, barely 6,000 men in all; while a French army of 100,000 men was already on foot to intercept his march. Before setting out he repaired the fortifications of Harfleur, and placed it under the command of his uncle, the Earl of Dorset, as governor, and Sir John Fastolf, as lieutenant-governor, with a garrison of 2,000 men, which were independent of the 6,000 men he intended to take with him. He invited over many English families to settle in Harfleur, and make it a second Calais, granting them the houses and premises of the former inhabitants.

Having made these arrangements, on the 8th of October he set forward on his most daring march. He disposed his little host in three divisions, attended by two detachments, which served as van and rear guards on the march, ready to be converted in the field into wings for protecting his flanks. Never was a more hardy enterprise undertaken. It might, according to all ordinary principles, be termed fool-hardy. But all the victorious expeditions of the Edwards I. and III. had been of the same character, and, had they failed, would have been recorded in history as unexampled instances of rashness and folly: so much depends on the result, rather than the antecedents of an action.

At every step the little army of England was watched by overwhelming forces. The Constable of France, Count D'Albret, lay directly in their way in Picardy with 14,000 men-at-arms and 40,000 foot, and laid waste the whole country before them. At Rouen the king and dauphin lay with another large army, and fresh troops were hastening from all quarters towards his line of march. The French host mustered in his track already upwards of 100,000; some writers say 140,000 men. Henry had to traverse a long tract of country infested with these exasperated enemies. His troops were in want of provisions, lodgings, guides, which their enemy took care to deprive them of. They had, in fact, to march through a desert, defended by strong towns, intersected by deep rivers, and were exposed every moment to have their scouts, foragers, and stragglers cut off, while the foe took care to avoid a general engagement.

The army was sometimes whole days without food. The wretched people were themselves starving, from the devastations purposely made by their own countrymen, and sickness began to decimate the British troops from their excessive fatigues and want of necessary food. At the passage of the river Bresle, the garrison of Eu made a furious sortie, and fell upon the rear of the army with loud shouts and amazing impetuosity, but, spite of the exhausted condition of the soldiers, they received the attack with coolness, slew the French commander, and drove back the garrison to its fortress.

In four days, that is, on the 12th of October, Henry had arrived at the ford of Blanche-taque, where his grandfather, Edward III. had passed the Somme. He had intended to do the same, but the French, taught by their former failure, had taken care to make this ford impassable by driving strong stakes into the bottom, and D'Albret appeared on the right bank with a numerous force. Disappointed in this expectation, he retreated to the little town of Airennes, where Edward III. had slept two nights before the battle of Crecy. He then advanced up sought river, searching for a ford or bridge, as Edward had sought down it. He avoided Abbeville, where D'Albret lay with his main army, and marched to Bailleul, where he slept on the 13th.

Still advancing upwards, he found every bridge broken. every ford secured, and D'Albret and his forces marching along the right bank in exact time with him, ready to repel any attempt at crossing the river.

Seeing this, many of his soldiers, already enervated with fatigue and sickness, began to lose heart. They beheld themselves with alarm advancing further and further from the sea, and knew that tremendous bodies of troops were in both front and rear. "I who write," says a chaplain of the army, whose manuscript recital was first discovered by Sir Harris Nicolas in the Cottonian collection, "and many others looked bitterly up to heaven, and implored the Divine mercy, and the protection of the Virgin, to save us from the imminent perils by which we were surrounded, and enable us to reach Calais in safety."

The next day Henry attempted to force a passage at Port St. Remy, but without success, as Edward III. had done before him. On the loth, the following day, he made another endeavour to cross at Ponteau de Mer, but was again foiled. Still going on, he tried other passages on the 16th and 17th, but without avail. Everywhere appeared the most hopeless obstacles. Taking advantage of the winding of the river, Henry now dashed across the country from the neighbourhood of Corbie to Boves, and thence marched on Nefles. On the way he made a halt; in a valley, and ordered his archers to provide themselves each with a stake of six feet long, and to sharpen it at each end. He then pushed forward again to outmarch the constable, who was obliged to follow a more circuitous route by Peronne. He had sent, however, strict orders to guard all the fords of the river, but not being present to, see this enforced, Henry at Nefles received information that the passage was still open between Voyenne and Bethencourt. On the 19th he came up to this place, and made a dash across it. Four bannerets led the way successfully; the rest of the army and the baggage followed rapidly in their track; and in twelve hours the English had arrived safely on the right bank. Henry marched on to Monchy-la-Gauche; while the constable, instead of daring to attack him, fell back on Bapaume, and thence on St. Pol.

It is remarkable that during all this march up the river from the 13th to the 20th, a full week, the swarming French armies in his rear had not dared to fall upon him in his trouble and perplexity. As in the former case of Edward III., they felt that they had a lion in pursuit, and dreaded that he should turn and stand at bay. In any other case but that of an English army in a mood of desperation, they were enough to have annihilated the whole force at any moment.

While D'Albret had been guarding the passages of the Somme, the French princes, instead of attacking Henry, had held a council of war at Rouen in presence of the king. Here they had resolved to give battle to the English by a majority of thirty-five to five, and they fixed the 25th as the important day of action. They sent three heralds to announce this resolve to the King of England.

Henry was at Monchy when the heralds arrived. They delivered their message on their knees, which was that the King of France and his nobles were prepared to meet him in the field on the following Friday. Henry replied, with apparent indifference, "The will of God be done." The heralds then inquired by what way he meant to march, so that they might meet with Mm. He replied, "By that which leads straight to Calais: and if my enemies attempt to intercept me it will be at their peril. I shall not seek them, and I will not move a step quicker or slower to avoid them. I could, however, have wished that they had adopted other counsels, instead of attempting to shed the blood of Christians."

This was singular language for a man to hold who was notoriously in a foreign country with a hostile force, come avowedly to subdue it by his arms, and, therefore, necessarily himself intending to shed the blood of Christians; but the true meaning is, that Henry, at Harfleur, had sent a challenge to the dauphin, offering to decide the question of the crown of France by single combat; and this speech was an announcement that he was still ready to put his claims on this personal hazard.

Some writers have asserted that Henry, on this occasion, imitated the offered concession of the Black Prince, when in precisely the same predicament before the battle of Poictiers, and expressed his willingness to surrender his conquest of Harfleur for a free passage to Calais. But nothing could be farther from his language and bearing. His tone and demeanour were those of a conscious hero, who knew his strength, and took no thought for any disproportion of numbers. The heralds, instead of finding the king in any degree alarmed or dispirited, appear to have been greatly awed by his commanding coolness; and, receiving a present of 100 crowns, returned with a profound impression of the martial character of the king.

The constable had placed himself in advance directly in Henry's route to Calais; but he followed leisurely on his track, as if no enemy were either before or behind him. Yet all this time fresh forces had been flocking in to the standard of the constable; and his army was now so overwhelming, that it began to be impatient to fall on the English, confident that they could surround and destroy them. But the experienced D'Albret remembered the days of Crecy and Poictiers, when the like confidence had produced the most complete destruction to the French armies from a mere handful of these iron Englishmen. He fell back from St. Pol to the villages of Ruisseauvillo and Azincourt before he consented to stand and await the English king. Henry, on his part, leaving Peronne to the left, marched through Encre and Lucheu to Blangy, where there was a bridge over the deep and rapid stream of, the Ternois, which the French had neglected to destroy. At his approach they appeared disposed to demolish it, but drew off, and he passed over without interruption. The Duke of York rode on and saw that the constable's forces were marching towards the village of Azincourt. Henry reconnoitred them from an eminence, and, believing that they intended to give him battle, he ordered his troops to form and receive them. They stood prepared till it was dark; but no enemy appearing, they advanced along a road which led them to the village of Maisoncelles. There they halted at but a few bow-shots from the enemy's lines; but they procured plenty of provisions, and refreshed and rested themselves more than they had done during the whole march.

When the moon was up, Henry, with some of his most experienced officers, ascended the heights above the village of Maisoncelles, and beheld the whole French army drawn up in the plains of Azincourt, completely cutting off any further advance towards Calais, It was evident that the eve of a decisive battle had arrived. It was equally impossible to advance towards Calais or retreat towards Harfleur. In fact, to attempt in the slightest degree to retreat would be synonymous with destruction; for that would utterly dishearten his own men and bring the immense swarms of the enemy like a flock of hungry wolves upon them. Even if they could beat back such a host under such circumstances, they must soon perish by the way, for the whole region was a wilderness, destitute of food or shelter. The hour of action had arrived.

Henry was placed precisely in the same circumstances as Edward III. had been at Crecy, and the Black Prince at Poictiers. His army was reduced by the march, and many of his men were feeble with sickness. They had to contend with a force more than twelve times their own number; an enemy led on. by all the princes of the blood, plentifully supplied with everything, and confident of success. But for all that they did not lose heart for a moment, and the king appeared amongst them with the same calm and heroic air which had inspired with such assurance the immortal archers of Crecy and Poictiers.

The resemblance between the situations, and the circumstances of the three great battles of those ages in France, of which this was last of the trio, is one of the most curious facts in history. The English monarchs had set out on a precisely similar wild march across an enemy's country, careless of being surrounded by infinitely superior numbers, fighting on their own soil for everything dear to them. They had been driven to the same extremity, and obliged to make a stand against odds such as no men but Englishmen would dream for a moment of opposing. Yet on every one of these occasions they had been enabled to select a position of surprising strength, and so much resembling each other that the parallel is marvellous. The same sloping ground, protected behind by woods, and flanked by the same; the approach, contracted by woods or a deep lane, so that the vast hosts were useless so long as they maintained that position.

Yet on the other side the French had the insuperable advantage, not only of immense numbers, but of obtaining at will all necessary supplies. The country was entirely open to them; their cause was the cause of the common people against an invader, and they had only to wait in order to starve out the intruder, or, if he attempted to cut his way through them, to avoid a general engagement; still, however, desolating the country before and around, and harassing the flanks and rear of the foe, lion-like in spirit and prowess, but necessarily sinking under famine and fatigue.

That the French should, in the confidence of their numbers, have overlooked these vast advantages, these certain means of victory, in the first instance, is by no means wonderful; but after the terrible lesson of Crecy, and again of Poictiers, that they should have committed the same glaring blunder a third time, is an evidence of their lack of cool calculation at that time which never ceases to astonish us. The Duke of Berri, now a very old man, who fought in the battle of Crecy fifty-nine years before, was one of the few individuals, at least amongst the commanders, who appeared to have a misgiving. He strenuously opposed any general engagement, and though he did not succeed in that important particular, he did in another nearly as important. He carried his point that the king should not command in person, as was proposed. "Better," he said, "it will be to lose the battle, than to lose the battle and the king too."

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Pictures for Reign of Henry V. Part 1 page 5

Great Seal of Henry V
Great Seal of Henry V >>>>
Henry V
Henry V >>>>
Cradle of Henry V
Cradle of Henry V >>>>
Room in the Lollards' Tower
Room in the Lollards' Tower >>>>
French Carpenter and Maid-Servant
French Carpenter and Maid-Servant >>>>
The Battle of the Carpenters and Butchers
The Battle of the Carpenters and Butchers >>>>
Parliament of Henry V
Parliament of Henry V >>>>
Azincourt. - King Henry V. and the Sire de Helly
Azincourt. - King Henry V. and the Sire de Helly >>>>
Monmouth Castle
Monmouth Castle >>>>
Reception of Sigismund on the Coast of England.
Reception of Sigismund on the Coast of England. >>>>
Mass in the Abbey Church of Marmontier
Mass in the Abbey Church of Marmontier >>>>
Rouen >>>>
Cardinal Ursini
Cardinal Ursini >>>>

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