There are no real winners when two nations fall out, but today we live in an age when wars can rumble on for years and involve countless civilian casualties. So it’s a surreal experience to visit the Agincourt Museum next to a field where an international conflict – legendary for hundreds of years – was all wrapped up before teatime.
The Battle of Agincourt kicked off in heavy rain late in the morning of October 25th 1415, St Crispin’s Day. And by mid-afternoon, the cream of French nobility had been cut down in the mud by the firepower of English archers.
The English army
The English army, now believed to be around 8,500 men, were marching to Calais to return home by boat after a campaign in Normandy. They were led by King Henry V, and faced a French army of around 12,000 men. Henry’s army of English soldiers and largely from Wales archers, were already exhausted and suffering from dysentery. Some of them removed their trousers and fought half naked. Many of them kissed the earth of this corner of Pas de Calais in northern France. They believed they would be buried in it later that day. Henry V heard Mass, not just once, but three times.
The French army
The French were led by the Constable of France Charles d’Albret and Marshal Jean II le Meingre (Boucicaut). The battle ‘barely lasted a few hours’ says Ludovic Hiltenbrand, manager of the Centre Azincourt 1415. But it was a decisive victory for the English and became the stuff of legend. The French, wearing heavy armour and bogged down in mud were cut down as armour-piercing arrows with a range of 250 yards were unleashed from the innovative longbows of their enemy. Among the lost was Gallois de Fougières, a Marshall of France. He was effectively the first recorded gendarme to have died in the line of duty. The uniformed official we know today, the ‘Gendarme’, is a derivative of ‘gens d’armes’, or people with arms (weapons), hence the expression ‘to take up arms.’
Look for Agincourt on the map and you won’t find it. The village is actually called Azincourt, nestled in the lush countryside of The Seven Valleys. The change of spelling is down to a mispronunciation by an English knight. When asked by Henry V for the name of the nearby fortress he pronounced it Agincourt.
You can still see the field where the face off took place. Most of it is now farmland and all of it bordered by quiet country roads – a 4km circuit on foot or by car.
In the heart of the village, you’ll find the excellent Centre Azincourt 1415 museum.
Centre Azincourt 1415 – The Agincourt Museum
The totally revamped Agincourt museum (2021) aims to tell the true story of the great 15th century battle and provides new detail about the Anglo-French conflict dubbed The Hundred Years War.
The new museum was designed by British Professor and author Anne Curry Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Southampton and French historian and author Christophe Gillot, Director of the Centre. They pored over material pertaining to the Battle of Agincourt that has survived in the National archives in the UK as well as chronicles and material in France. Their work has led to a new understanding of the battle.
The legend of Agincourt
For many centuries much of our ‘knowledge’ of Agincourt has come from William Shakespeare. Who can listen and not be moved by the stirring speeches the English king gives in Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599):
‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’
They are words which have inspired time and again, representing “Englishness” and triumph in the face of adversity. Some 500 years later Laurence Olivier’s famous film of the play, released in 1944, was dedicated to the commandos and airborne troops who made D-Day possible. A great piece of propaganda.
But not everything we think we know is true. And the Centre Azincourt1415 sets out to dispel the myths and examine the real and extraordinary story.
The Agincourt museum gives a lot of information in an easy and digestible way – in French and in English. Try games like Sovereigns of the Hundred Years’ War. Discover what soldiers ate, and words from the Middle Ages, and details of daily life, the clothes of the period, the illnesses, the treating of wounds.
The section devoted to armour shows how different ranks were protected. Of course, the richer you were, the better your equipment. A video demonstrates how a knight put on his armour (not an easy task). And you get a chance to feel the weight of a helmet, handle a medieval sword and feel the force needed to shoot a longbow. There are interactive screens to play with, videos and clever touches – listen to the Hundred Years’ War explained in 100 seconds.
The Centre Azincourt 1415 puts on events every year – medieval banquets, Night at the Museum, exhibitions and more. (See the website below for details).
What to see around and about
But Azincourt isn’t the only reason to stop over in this delightful area of gentle, rolling farmland dotted with small villages and farms. Five small rivers flow south to join two larger rivers – the Canche and Authie, hence the name Seven Valleys. Drop into the Tourist Office in historic Hesdin for information on outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling and fishing.
Follow the Canche through the Seven Valleys towards its estuary at Le Touquet and you pass through Montreuil-sur-Mer. Definitely worth a stopover in anyone’s book for its rampart walks, historic citadel and cobbled streets. It’s here that Victor Hugo set part of Les Misérables.
Montreuil has also become a hot destination for foodies, thanks to an indecent number of good restaurants for a town of just 2,500 people. Enjoy Alexandre Gauthier’s Michelin-starred fare at La Grenouillère beneath the ramparts. Or a traditional flammekueche at Le Caveau.
Montreuil has plenty of interesting independent shops, the sort you rarely see on British high streets nowadays. Cheese fans should pack a cool bag to stock up from Fromagerie Caseus on Place Général de Gaulle. A large market is held on the square on Saturday mornings. On the opposite corner, Aux Douceurs d’Antan stocks a range of local products from chocolates and biscuits to soup, jam and beer. Children will love Dragibonbons, a sweet shop on rue d’Hérambault that makes its own themed ‘cakes’ from sweets. Whilst Oliviers near the Citadel is an Aladdin’s cave of wines and spirits.
By Gillian Thornton and Janine Marsh
Centre Azincourt 1415, 24 rue Charles VI, 62310 Azincourt, www.azincourt1415.fr
Open all year round: 10 am – 5:30 pm except Tuesdays (10am – 4:30pm); July/August: 10 am – 6:30 pm