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Agincourt: A Few Comments

By Bill Braham

Two recent articles in Hobilar 57 by Rich Knapton and Rob Morgan have prompted me to contribute to the debate.

Location, Location, Location

The traditional site of the battle between the villages of Azincourt and Tramecourt, and centred on the monument, has surveyed by a team led by archaeologist by Tim Sutherland. The initial results were presented at the 2004 Battlefield Archaeology Conference held at the National Army Museum, London. The traditional site proved to be archaeologically sterile with neither battlefield debris or background material.

To place this in context one must appreciate that metal detecting and field walking surveys conducted over a period of years at Towton yielded not only battle-related debris but also a host of artefacts dating from the Roman era up to and including the present. Similarly, surveys of Ambion Hill, the erstwhile site of the battle of Bosworth, yielded virtually no battlefield debris but significant background material dating from Roman times to the 20th century.

The inference to be drawn is: any landscape undergoing cultivation or occupation will accumulate debris spanning the whole period of its use and battlefield debris, if present, represents an influx of artefacts related to a specific event. Thus the absence of battlefield debris at Ambion Hill confirms the suggestions that it was not the locus of the battle although the hill has seen human activity for several hundred years. At Towton the presence of both battlefield and background debris confirms the traditional site of the battle within a landscape exhibiting continuous human occupation.

The traditional site of Agincourt, however, has neither battlefield nor background debris. This may merely reflect the presence of adverse soil conditions precluding the preservation of archaeological material. More straightforwardly, it may indicate that the traditional site was not the site of the battle of Agincourt. Such a radical conclusion would have to be tested by further archaeological work coupled with a detailed investigation of the history of the landscape history.

Sutherland's survey identified an alternative site for the battle but the landowner refused permission for a survey because of an adjoining commune. Interestingly, a lavish new visitor's centre had only just opened in Azincourt and that may have coloured the landowners attitude.

In conclusion the archaeological support for the traditional site of the battle of Agincourt is wanting. Any solution will require revaluation and may indeed require relocation.

Climate and Trees

Knapton proposed an ingenious explanation for Henry V's victory in 1415 with original use of the effects of climate change on vegetation but the situation is not quite as simple as he implies.

Firstly, Knapton postulated that the oak might have entirely disappeared from northern France before 1400 yet clearly this was not the case in southern England, which had a similar climate and has the same soil as Picardie, Artois and Normandie.

The oak represents the climatic-climax vegetation of the Atlantic borderland. This developed extensively throughout northern Europe after the last ice age but this only occurred where in appropriate soil conditions. In Scotland, with generally lime-impoverished soil, the woodland is dominated by pine and pine-birch. On lime-rich soils, such as the Downs of the Weald and the Chiltern Hills, the beech dominates. The soil around Azincourt is similar to the Chilterns with underlying chalk covered with clay. Thus, given the similar climate, one would expect beech woodland to dominate in parts of Picardie and Artois rather than oak or birch.

The nature of the wood in the vicinity of the battle site has been confirmed by the Directeur, Office de Tourisme, Azincourt:

"Les bois étaient composés d'un mélange d'arbres. Actuellement le plus représenté est le hêtre (même chose à l'époque) puis viennent le frêne, le chêne ..."

I translate this as:

"The woods were composed of a mixture of trees. At present beech is the most common (as in the 15th century) then ash, then oak ..."

This is comparable to the composition of the medieval Chiltern woodlands: large woods dominated by beech and oak with smaller woods of oak and ash. Today we see a dense coverage of tall trees with little under wood but the medieval woods were more open with trees of different sizes and ages reflecting the medieval woodland management techniques. A wide range of trees, of various sizes, was grown for different uses. Medieval woodsmen used cutting, felling and natural re-growth, as well as coppicing and pollarding, to produce both under wood and tall trees for timber. This complex process is well documented for the Chilterns and it seems probable that the Seigneur and denizens of Azincourt and Tramecourt were at least as sophisticated in their woodland management.

Secondly, neither Pennington nor Rackham cites the Little Ice Age as a significant factor in the development of British flora. Both emphasise the effects of man to whom woodland represented a prime natural resource for fuel, manufacturing, construction and agriculture.

By the 14th century the distribution of oak woodland in England was more influenced by man's activities than the climate. The extant woodland of c.1250 was a relic of the agricultural system of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse social system . The woodlands s of England continued to decline until the Black Death. After the plague the woodlands stabilised or even expanded somewhat as the decimated population exerted far less pressure upon the woodlands.

The effects of the Little Ice Age were more marked on the extreme settlements like West Greenland and at the edges of a plant's geographical range than in northern France or England. Thus it is unlikely that the cooling associated with the Little Ice Age was sufficient to actually kill all the oak, or indeed any component of the woodland flora. The new climate would have been inhibited the oak and favoured the birch but the management of the woodland would militate against the birch unless it was of value to the woodsman.

In sum up my argument, the soil around Azincourt is lime-rich and, as expected, today's woods are dominated by beech not, as Knapton suggests, by oak. In medieval times beech dominated the woods of Azincourt. This is supported by the similarity between the woods around Azincourt and on the Chilterns; they share, and have shared, a similar climate and soil; and both the medieval dominance of beech and the extensive management of the Chiltern woods are well documented. Hence the Azincourt woods never became dominated by birch as Knapton suggests.

Shape and Size

In the light of the above, Knapton's U-shaped model of the English army, with a narrow frontage and the archer wings, lined up in an open birch wood may be somewhat simplistic. It also contradicts many of the modern interpretations of the battle. One author, Bennett, even casts doubt on the presence of the 200 archers in Tramecourt wood.

Curry's recent work on the relative sizes of the armies, as discussed briefly by Morgan, would presumably change the frontages calculated by Knapton and alter the relative merits of the U-shaped and herce formations. I have not read Curry's book yet so I will not comment further.

One thing, however, which does seem evident, is that a combination of both archaeological survey and documentary research will be necessary in order to adequately reconstruct the contemporary landscape of the battle of Agincourt. Once that exercise has been undertaken it should be possible to integrate it with evidence from the chroniclers etc. in order to arrive at a fully integrated interpretation of the battle.