Saturday, December 25, 2021

1415: Wine and the Agincourt campaign, Pt I (logistics and supply)

Booze, very important in world history.

From The Drinks Business:

 (NB: This series of articles was originally published in October 2015)

The 25 October this year will mark the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, where the English longbow so famously cut down the flower of French chivalry (or did it?). In the first of a new three part series leading up to the anniversary we examine the role of wine (and a little beer) in one of the most famous campaigns of the Hundred Years War. 

Through the story of the campaign and the horror of medieval combat we will see how wine entwined itself through the story of the battle of Agincourt, its preface and its aftermath. We will seek to examine how much wine the English army consumed, the thriving viticultural landscape of northern France, now almost entirely lost, and how the citizens of London fêted the victorious Henry V with vinous biblical allegories on his return to the capital.

As much work as possible has gone into making these essays factually correct although access to original, primary sources has proved sadly impossible and, no doubt, leaves certain arguments fatally flawed. This is not a strictly academic paper, it does not purport to reinvent the historical narrative nor undermine the work of very experienced historians for whom Agincourt is at the centre of their professional work and research.

It will hopefully, though, throw some light onto another aspect of the campaign and perhaps prompt someone better qualified than I to research it more fully. If the suggestions made below can one day be verified or even refuted and another view put forward it might, perhaps, have achieved something.

My thanks in particular must go to the historian and author Juliet Barker for her patient and very kind responses to my questions especially regarding the piece below, I hope she does not mind my taking her name in vain, and also to Professor Christopher Tyreman of Hertford College, Oxford who was also kind enough to respond to my slightly out-of-left-field questions.


Agincourt for most will conjure up ideas of chivalry, Shakespeare and a victory against the odds. But amid the speeches and heroics the last thing anyone thinks of is logistics and, in many ways, this is a tale of logistics – and a longbow, with some guts behind it.

An army may look splendid but if it is not fed it will not fight and if it cannot drink it will not be happy. As such when Henry V of England rekindled the Hundred Years War 600 years ago in a bid to reclaim his, “just rights and inheritances” in France, wine (and beer) was very much at the heart of his plans of conquest.

The territories that made up this French ‘inheritance’ were the duchies of Normandy and Anjou and the counties of Poitou and Maine.

These titles and domains had previously been English, constituent parts of the Angevin empire created by his great ancestor Henry II; an empire formed in no small measure through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152.

The empire crumbled under Henry’s son John I (also known as ‘Lackland’), with only Aquitaine (or “Guyenne/Guienne” in French) remaining in English hands.

Much of this territory was regained by Henry’s great-grandfather Edward III between 1337 and 1360 at the start of the Hundred Years War and then lost again during the French king Charles V’s ‘reconquista’ of 1369-1380.

Both Richard II, who was also the son-in-law of Charles VI[1] of France, and Henry IV had been too busy consolidating power at home to embark on too many foreign adventures. Under “noble Harry” things would be very different.

Henry V had not been born to be a king. His father Henry ‘Bolingbroke’ was Duke of Hereford and a first cousin of Richard II. Bolingbroke’s father was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the younger son of Edward III[2]. This made both Bolingbroke and his children royal by birth but not immediate heirs to the throne.

Bolingbroke was exiled following a spat with the Duke of Norfolk and during his absence his father, old Gaunt, died whereupon Richard disinherited Bolingbroke and took the lands and titles of Lancaster – some of the richest in the country – for himself. Richard’s increasingly tyrannical behaviour won him few friends and when Bolingbroke returned, ostensibly to reclaim his inheritance, he found many willing to help him depose Richard and make him Henry IV, which duly happened in 1399. His claim was disputed and he had to fight to uphold it, most notably at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.

During that battle the younger Henry, then Prince of Wales, was hit in the face by an arrow. It was later extracted with some skill by a surgeon who then cleaned the wound with wine and honey – evidence of the known antiseptic qualities of both. The wound and operation no doubt left a horrible scar[3] and it is possibly the reason one of the few portraits of Henry we have shows him in profile (above left, although he was apparently struck in the left-hand side of his face which is shown here).

Even if his father, by the time of his death in 1413, had stamped out most opposition to his rule, the taint of usurpation still lingered. For Henry V, victory in France would be read as divinely ordained and clear any lingering doubts he and the Lancastrians were ‘usurpers’ to the English crown. The campaign therefore was akin to a crusade to legitimise his dynasty and reinstate lands he saw as his by birthright.

A civil war in France between the princes of the ‘Armagnac’ and ‘Burgundian’ factions at court while Charles VI suffered his periodic bouts of madness meant the country was divided, weak and open to a fresh English assault.

Despite much diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing from Henry’s accession in 1413 and into 1415, war was inevitable.

The campaign begins:

Preparations for such an enormous undertaking grew steadily for several years but stepped up a gear in the summer of 1415 as the invasion force gathered in Southampton.

The sheriffs of Kent, Oxford, Wiltshire and Hampshire were charged with rounding up two hundred head of cattle and oxen from each county, while a further writ to the sheriff of Hampshire ordered him to proclaim that “all the king’s loyal subjects in Wiltshire, Southampton and all the other towns, markets and hamlets of the county should begin baking and brewing ‘against the coming of the king, his retinue and his subjects’.”[4]

A foiled rebellion[5] delayed the departure slightly but eventually the English army[6] set sail from Southampton in its armada. After a two-day crossing the English appeared unopposed off the Norman coast and had brought all of their supplies and equipment ashore by 16 August 1415. By 19 August, the English had the important port of Harfleur fully invested.

Our first insight into the state of English supplies at Harfleur, comes courtesy of a young chaplain called Raoul le Gay. Captured in the early stages of the landing by some English soldiers he was eventually interrogated by the Earl of Dorset and then Henry himself before being set free.

Le Gay was not physically mistreated during his detention but afterwards loudly complained of the lack of food and drink he’d had to endure. As we shall see though, the English army was hardly short of supplies and le Gay’s real complaint seems to be that he heartily disliked the English ale he was offered on the sporadic occasions anyone thought to feed him.

Detained for 13 days it was quickly deduced that he had no information of any use to impart and so he was released but not before Richard Courtenay, bishop of Norwich and one of Henry’s chief spymasters, told le Gay to pass on the message to a contact in Paris that the king had landed with, “50,000 men, 4,000 barrels of wheat, 4,000 casks of wine[7], 12 large guns and sufficient material to sustain a six-month siege,” which was a gross exaggeration in general but perhaps not entirely[8].

From a depiction in the Bayeux Tapestry we know the Normans embarked on their invasion of England with supplies of wine and Edward III during the Crécy campaign of 1346 had taken 300 tuns worth of wine with him to France[9], a sizeable amount but not enough to sustain his army – deliberately so for he intended to live off the land. Henry V by contrast was embarking on an altogether more extensive and ambitious enterprise.

A question of supply:

The term ‘medieval’ with all its associated stigmas of ignorance, superstition and violence is today used as an insult. In fact, while the period was all of those things, to look at it solely in this way is to ignore how creative and imaginative medieval people and how sophisticated their political, military, bureaucratic and artistic institutions were. It is worth remembering that many of the people who would launch the Renaissance had already been born in 1415 while those who would take it to its greatest heights would be born within a generation.

As such the extent and sophistication of medieval logistics while often over-looked or casually glossed over deserves some attention. Shipping an army of nearly 12,000 fighting men, a further 3,000 servants and attendants, 20,000 horses and artillery and keeping them supplied would still be a prodigious feat today and it was one Henry and his captains managed admirably.

There was a central supply depot organised by the king’s household, which ensured that shipments of flour, beer, wine, and fresh and salt fish and beef were brought into the camp to supply the troops.

Personal enterprise was also much in evidence. The earl marshal, Sir Thomas Erpingham, hired his own ships to bring corn, flour, wine, beer and even a barrel of salmon over during the course of the siege to feed his retinue and other lords will have presumably done likewise.

As Juliet Barker continues: “The charge that the English were short of victuals [and thus fell prey to disease] is not borne out by the evidence.”[10]

She cites the Lancashire knight Sir James Harington who was later debited for 428 pounds of flour, 2,576 pounds of beef and 4,545 gallons of wine[11] provided to his 50 archers[12] during the financial quarter ending 5 October from the aforementioned central depot.....