Transporting the English Army to Agincourt
The King’s ShipsAt the core of any naval or transport fleet were the king’s ships. By the end of his reign Henry V possessed thirty-six vessels. The responsibility for maintaining the king’s ships lay with the Clerk of the King’s Ships. In 1415 William Catton held this office. As the Clerk of the King’s Ships was required to audit his accounts at the exchequer we have a detailed record of the king’s ships, including construction and maintenance expenditure. Under Catton there was a dramatic development in the size of royal ships.Most famous was the 1,400 ton Grace Dieu which was started in 1416 and was the largest warship to be built in Northern Europe at that time. Other large ships were also constructed. The Jesus of 1,000 tons and the Holy Ghost of the Tower at 750 tons were, after the Grace Dieu, the next largest ships. In 1415 Henry sailed aboard his flagship the Trinity Royal of 540 tons. The vessel was designed to impress and it was lavishly painted in vermilion and gold and flew the king’s banners.
Requisitioning transport shipsAs the king possessed only a small number of ships in order to transport large armies the crown relied on its prerogative to requisition English merchant ships. Occasionally, especially if the army was large, the crown would also hire ships from abroad, usually from ports situated in the Low Countries. In 1415 Henry hired approximately 250 ships from Holland and Zealand.
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Agincourt 1415: Myth and Reality
Loading the shipsOn arriving at the embarkation port the ships would be loaded with men, military equipment, foodstuffs and horses. In 1415 Henry’s fleet was stationed at several locations across Hampshire, but the bulk of the armada sat at anchor in Southampton Water (including Portsmouth) and Portchester. Shipping men and material was perhaps the easiest task.Loading and shipping horses was more complex. Not only did horses need more space aboard, but they also required water and food for the crossing. They were also expensive and so care had to be taken while moving them on and off the ships. The numbers of horses transported was vast. Each man-at-arms would bring at least two horses and by 1415 each archer one. In 1415, if we include the horses brought to pull the baggage, perhaps 20,000 horses were shipped with the army. We know ships were capable of moving this number of animals. In 1375 eleven ships transported a total of 562 horses to Brittany for the Earl of Cambridge’s forces and in 1423 three ships transported seventy-seven horses for three members of John Mowbray’s retinue. It is likely that in 1415 the largest ships of the fleet were set aside specifically for transporting horses, perhaps some would have held as many as fifty. Ships had to be modified to freight horseflesh. This usually involved the construction of hurdles and stalls aboard the ships designated as horse transports. Once aboard horses were corralled in stalls and had slings placed under them to secure them against rough seas.
Landing in FranceOnce the fleet arrived at the disembarkation point the task of unloading was started. The destination of the expedition had important implications for how the army was disembarked. If the army arrived in a port held by the English such as Calais or Bordeaux the speed of unloading was less important. In cases such as 1415 when the transport fleet landed in hostile territory it was important for the English to secure a beach-head to protect the troops as they disembarked.In 1415 when the fleet arrived outside Harfleur the king held a council of war and an order was issued telling no one to attempt a landing before the king, this was to ensure Henry was the first to step on French soil as a way of showing his right to that land. The following day the Earl of Huntingdon was sent from the fleet with a mounted patrol to reconnoitre the surrounding area.Once a beachhead was secured men and equipment were transferred from the ships using barges and other small craft. This was noted by one chronicle as taking three days. How horses were unloaded is a matter of continuing debate. If the fleet arrived at a port under English control horses would be transferred directly from the ships to quays. In 1415 however the English fleet arrived in enemy territory and horses could only have been unloaded by beaching the ships, building some temporary structure to facilitate unloading, swimming them from the ships to the shore or transferring them to smaller vessels by use of a sling, the latter method was favoured by British forces during the Gallipoli Campaign of the First World War.
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Agincourt 1415: Myth and Reality
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