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Reign of Henry V. Part 1 page 6

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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."

On the part of the French generally all such cautions were treated as dotage. There was nothing but the most absolute confidence of victory in their camp. They were full of jollity, and feasted gaily on abundance of provisions and wine. Already they were engaged in- noisy declamations regarding the distribution of their prisoners and their booty, for they made themselves certain of securing the whole of the British army. They resolved to put all the English to the sword, except the king and his principal nobility, whom they proposed to spare for the sake of their ransoms.

The constable planted his banner on the Calais road, a little in advance of the village of Ruisseauville, and the Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, of Berri, Alencon, and Brabant, and all the great lords planted theirs round it with loud acclamations and rejoicings that the hour was come which was to give up to them their enemy and all his spoil. But the joy was soon damped, for the night set in dark and rainy. The ground was a clay which soon swam with water, and became so slippery that their horses slid and stumbled about in great disorder. The pages and valets rode to and fro seeking straw to lay on the muddy ground for their officers and themselves. There was a great bustling and moving to and fro; people shouting to one another, and making much noise, but obtaining very little comfort; and it was at length observed that their horses stood silent and did not neigh, which is looked upon on the eve of battle as a very bad omen. When they would have cheered themselves with music, very few instruments could be found. At length, however, they succeeded in lighting fires along their lines, and bursts of laughter and merriment were repeatedly heard by the English, while their enemies were, no doubt, calculating the value of their horses and the arms on their backs.

The English, on their part, passed a night of serious reflection. They had made a long march under great difficulties and privations. Many of them were wasted by sickness, worn down by fatigue and scanty and unwholesome fare. They were in the presence of an immense force. But they were descendants of the heroes of Crecy, which lay not far off, and they had the utmost confidence in the bravery of their leader. They spent the early part of the night in making their wills, and in devotion. The king visited every quarter of his little camp, and sent out, as soon as the moon gave light enough, officers to arrange the plan of battle the next day, and ordered bands of music to play through the whole night.

At break of day Henry summoned the men to attend matins and mass, and then leading them into the field, arranged them in his usual manner, in three divisions and two wings; but in such close array that the whole appeared but as one body. The archers, who were his grand strength, he posted in advance of the men-at-arms, four in file, in the form of a wedge. Besides their bows and arrows, the archers were now armed each with a battle-axe and a sword. The fatal field of Bannockburn, where the archers were rendered useless by their want of side arms, when Bruce rode his cavalry amongst them, seems to have taught the English this precaution. Every man, too, bore on his shoulder the stout stake, which Henry had ordered them to provide themselves with, pointed at each end, and tipped with iron. This they planted obliquely before them, as a chevaux de frise, and thus opposed a formidable rampart to the French cavalry. Such a defence had never been used before in any Christian army.

Determined to rival the fame of their predecessors in the most renowned fields, the bold archers of Nottingham, of York, of Lincoln, and of Kent, stripped off their jerkins of buff, laid bare their brawny arms and their broad chests, to give free play to their action. Many even flung away cap and shoe, and, half naked, they are said to have presented so savage an appearance as struck awe into the enemy.

The fight on the English side being intended, as at Crecy and Poictiers, to be on foot, Henry had placed all his baggage, with the priests and the horses, in the rear, near the village of Maisoncelles, under the guard of a small body of archers and men-at-arms. He dismissed all his prisoners on their parole to appear at Calais if he won the victory. He then mounted a grey palfrey, and rode along the lines of each division. He wore a helmet of polished steel, surmounted by a crown sparkling with jewels, and on his surcoat were emblazoned the arms of England and France. He went from banner to banner addressing and encouraging the men. He recalled to their minds the glorious victories of Crecy and Poictiers; he told them that he was resolved to win as great a triumph or to die on the field; and he declared that every man who showed himself that day worthy of his country and his name, should henceforth be deemed a gentleman, and be entitled to wear coat-armour.

Still more to excite their spirits, he told them that the French had determined to cut off three fingers of their right hands in order to ruin them for ever for bowmen, and he bade them remember what they had done at the siege of Soissons, where they had hanged 200 brave bowmen like dogs. These observations inflamed their resentment wonderfully against the enemy, and Walter Hungerford, a gallant officer of their body, said, in Henry's hearing, "Would to God we had here with us in the field some more of the good knights and brave bowmen who are sitting idle in merry England!"

"No," replied Henry, "not a single man of them! If God gives us the victory, the fewer we are, the more honour. The fewer we are, if we lose, the less the loss to our country. But we will not lose. Fight with your usual courage, and God and the justice of our cause will protect us. Before night, the pride of our enemies shall be humbled in the dust, and the greater part of that multitude shall be stretched on the fields, or captives in our power."

So the king went on inspiring confidence by his words, but far more by the lively cheerfulness of his countenance, which, like that of Edward III. on the like occasion, seemed to presage nothing but victory and glory.

The French had drawn up their host in a manner similar to that of Henry, but instead of their files being four, they were thirty-nine deep. The constable himself commanded the first division; the Dukes of Barre and Alencon the second; the Earls of Marie and Falconberg the third. But in their eagerness to come at the English, they had crowded their troops into a narrow field between two woods, where they had no room to deploy, or even to use their weapons freely, and the ground was so slippery with the rain, that their horses could with difficulty keep on their legs; while the English archers, who were immediately opposed to them, were not only on foot, but many of them barefooted, and, disencumbered of their clothes, were ready to make their way alertly over the soft ground.

Both the French and English commanders had ordered their men to seat themselves on the ground with their weapons before them., and thus they continued to face each other without action for some time. The const-able, most probably to gain time for the arrival of the expected reinforcements, still lay quiet, and Henry took the opportunity to distribute refreshments of food and wine through his ranks. He also seized the opportunity to send off secretly two detachments, one to lie in ambush in a woody meadow at Tramecourt, on their left flank, and the other to set fire to some houses in their rear as soon as they were engaged, to throw them into alarm.

Scarcely had the king executed this manoeuvre, when he was surprised by a deputation of three French knights from D'Albret, the commander. They came to offer him a free passage to Calais, if he would agree to surrender Harfleur, and renounce his pretensions to the throne of France. Henry disdained to enter into any negotiations except on the very same terms that he had dictated before he left England; and, penetrating the real object of these overtures, that of gaining time, he impatiently dismissed the matter. But the envoys were not to be so readily dispatched. One of them, the Sire de Helly, who had been a prisoner in England, and was accused of breaking his parole, introduced that matter, and offered to meet in single combat, between the two armies, any man who should dare to asperse his honour.

"Sir knight," said Henry, curtly, "this is no time for single combats. Go, tell your countrymen to prepare for battle, and doubt not that, for the violation of your word, you will a second time forfeit your liberty, if not your life."

"Sir," replied De Helly, insolently, determined to prolong the parley, "I shall receive no orders from you. Charles is our sovereign. Him we shall obey, and for him we shall fight against you whenever we think proper."

"Away then," said Henry, "and take care that we are not before you." And instantly stepping forward ho cried, "Banners, advance!"

With that Sir Thomas Erpingham, a brave old warrior, threw his warder into the air, exclaiming, "Now strike!" and the English moved on in gallant style till they came within bowshot of the French lines. Then every man kneeling down kissed the ground, a custom which they had learned from the Flemish, who, at the great battle of Courtray, where they defeated the French cavalry with such brilliancy, had thus each taken up a particle of earth in his mouth, while the priest in front elevated the Host, It was a sign of consecration to the great duty of the day; and haying done this homage to the God of battles, they rose up with a tremendous shout, struck each man his pointed stake into the ground before him, and stepping in front of these stakes, sent a flight of arrows at their foes, and again retired behind them.

The constable, who well knew the terrible effect of the English archers on the French troops, had prepared a scheme similar to that of Bruce at Bannockburn to break their line, and throw them into confusion. He had few or no archers, for the French at that period adhered to the feudal notion that knights and gentlemen only must handle arms. The dreadful defeats of Crecy. and Poictiers had not cured them of the foolish idea that arms must not be trusted to plebeian hands. He therefore had trained a body of 1,200 men-at-arms under Messire Clignet, of Brabant, who were to make a desperate charge on the archers, and break up their ranks. They came on with fierce cries of "Mountjoye! St. Denis!" but the slipperiness of the ground, and the fierce flight of arrows which struck through their visors and their armour, threw them at once into confusion. Their horses reeled and stumbled against each other in the muddy clay, and to avoid the iron hail of arrows they turned their heads aside, and thus knew not how to guide their steeds. Of the whole 1,200 not more than seven score ever reached the spiked barricade of the archers, from which the few remaining horses recoiled; and the whole troop in a few minutes lay dead or wounded on the ground. Only three horses are said to have penetrated within the line of stakes, and there they fell perforated with wounds. Meantime, hundreds of wounded steeds were dashing to and fro, and continually returning upon the French lines, stung to madness by their pain. All became confusion and disorder in the first division. The men-at-arms were so wedged together that they could not extricate themselves from the throng to advance or retreat. While the bravest strove to rush on the enemy, the timid endeavoured to fall back on the next division, and the most awful chaos arose.

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