Burnley men who fought at Agincourt

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As I completed these articles, celebrations were taking place to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo.

In fact, 2015 sees not only this but the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign.

I intend to cover all these great events in the remainder of the year but first am going to look at the battles of Agincourt and Waterloo.

Agincourt did not take place until October 25th, 1415, so ideally I should not be tackling that battle until later. I have something planned for then so I thought I would dispose of this battle, in which we know Burnley men played a part, today. By the time you read this, the anniversary of Waterloo will be over but I hope you manage to remember some of the scenes you will have seen on television over recent weeks.

I suppose many of you will be familiar with the old story of when Henry V was told his army had been victorious. The king had wanted to give the battle a name but, so involved, in preparations for the battle had he been, he is reputed to have forgotten where exactly he was. Back came the reply that the village everyone could see in the distance was Maisoncelles. Henry said this would never do: how could his English hero’s boast with pride if the battle was given a name they could not pronounce?

He was told there was a castle nearby with the name of Azincourt. “That will do”, the king said. “My good English fighting men will be able to make something of that!”

This story might owe more to Shakespeare’s famous play rather than what actually happened but the battle was named after a minor castle rather than the nearby village. Agincourt, as the English pronounced the name, is one of the most famous of all the battles the English have fought. Not, perhaps, as famous as Hastings, which the English lost, but certainly one of the greatest battles of our history.

In addition, we know there were Burnley men present on this battlefield but, so far as I know, we only have one name, Richard Towneley of Towneley. He had been born in 1387, the same year as the eventual victor of Agincourt, and succeeded to the family estates when he was only 12. The year, 1399, was the same in which the Plantagenet House of Lancaster came to the throne, in the person of Henry of Bolingbrook, who became King Henry IV, the father of Henry V.

Henry IV was a usurper. He had taken the throne from the foolish Edward II but, though Henry died on the throne in 1413, he had to face a number of rebellions against his rule. The new king, Henry V, who was 26 when his father died, was aware that, if he was to make his throne secure, he had to demonstrate his kingly qualities and, in an age of conflict, his military qualities.

Henry had enjoyed quite a sound education in military matters. He had fought in the Scottish campaign, at the beginning of the 15th Century, when only a young teenager. In 1402/3 he was in Wales fighting Owen Glendower, and his allies, Edmund Mortimer, some would say the rightful king of England, and the powerful Percys. It was in this conflict, and the next, that the famous Henry (or Harry) Hotspur was a participant. By the end of 1403, Prince Henry, aged only 15, had fought at the battle of Shrewsbury where Hotspur was defeated and slain.

Over the next five years, or so, there were a number of other challenges to Henry IV’s throne. The young prince was involved and he learned a lot from his experiences, even, in one conflict, being severely wounded by an arrow which embedded itself in his face. The young man recovered and, after a period of relative peace, which coincided with the last sickly years of his father, Prince Henry ascended the throne in 1413 aged 26.

As king, Henry might have expected an easier ride than his father had experienced. It appears he was a popular and thoughtful monarch but the first two years of Henry V’s coincided, not only with trouble with the Lollards, a religious sect sponsored by his grandfather, John of Gaunt, but also with another attempt by Edmund Mortimer to claim the English throne.

Henry realised there could be no peace in England if the barons had time on their hands. He decided, therefore, to revive the English claim to the throne of France. This had been first claimed, in 1337, by Edward III who had enjoyed great success in France, though, by the end of his reign, little that had lasted had been achieved.

The new king was aware that France was divided and its king, the mad Charles VI, was unable to govern effectively. The English Church supported an English invasion of France largely because Parliament, with some royal approval, had embarked on a programme of seizing Church property. The bishops thought that, if the energies of the nation were concentrated on France, their riches were more likely to remain in their palaces and cathedrals.

Also, the English barons were finding petty wars in England less profitable than they expected wholesale conflict against the French might have been. They, too, were aware of the divided nature of the French state and the barons began to think in terms of what they might plunder from France. It was not only gold and jewels they hoped would fall into their hands, a captured prince, or nobleman, might be ransomed for great gain.

Henry wasted little time in planning his invasion. He set sail for Harfleur on August 11th, 1415, with an army estimated as being between just over 10,000 to three times that figure. Present-day historians feel the lower figure most accurately represents the numbers at Henry’s disposal, at the time. However, they point out there would have been about that number of horses - the men-at-arms requiring two or three horses each and half the archers being mounted. In addition, there would have been a large number of men to look after the horses and the fighting men themselves.

In those days, an army was divided into two main sections – the men-at-arms and the archers, though there were others who fell into neither category. The men-at-arms were the knights and esquires, all trained as cavalrymen and all wearing armour. They used lances but also carried swords and knives. It is thought they constituted some 2,500 fighting men. There were about 8,000 archers, highly trained experts in the use of the longbow. Archers did not have the status of the men-at-arms but some rode into battle on horseback, dismounting to fight.

Two asides will explain the high level of organisation of the force assembled by the king. The men-at-arms were effectively contracted to the king to fight for him, but at a price. They expected about one shilling (5p) per day. Archers got half that but even this figure was thought of as good pay in that these men earned as much in a month as a skilled artisan could earn in a year.

The second example involves Sir Thomas Erpingham, who was, perhaps, one of the commanders of the archers. Records exist which tell us much about his involvement in the Agincourt campaign. One document is an agreement between Sir Thomas and the king in which it is stated the knight is retained to serve the king with a retinue for an agreed length of time during Henry’s campaigns overseas. Sir Thomas had to bring with him two knights, 17 esquires and 60 archers.

From this it is supposed other knights were indentured in the same way. Richard Towneley was not a knight but we do know he took two footmen and three archers with him. Burnley archers shared in the great victory at Agincourt but, sadly, we do not know their names. Of course, we can speculate from which local families they were drawn. Walter Bennett gives the names of some of the inhabitants of Burnley from 1423 to 40, a time close enough to think some of the names may have been represented with their fellow archers in France.

It was in the reign of Richard II (1377-99) that archery was made compulsory for men and boys and we know exactly where Burnley’s archery butts were located at this time. Whenever you go to the St Peter’s Centre you are visiting the site where Burnley’s Agincourt archers did their training. To show that, while lots of things change, some remain the same: Burnley’s First World War Drill Hall is located only a few yards from St Peter’s on Bank Parade.

We know Richard Towneley survived the battle and lived for a further 40 years. He must have had some stories to tell and, if he did, he would regale an audience with an account of the crucial role the English archers played in the victory against a much larger French army.

A number of eye witness accounts survive and tell us what took place. Suffice it to say the much larger, and over confident, French force was utterly destroyed by the English who, by that time had been depleted by illness to such an extent there might have been only 6,000 Englishmen in the field.

Henry, at one stage in the battle, ordered the mass murder of large numbers of captured French knights and esquires. Such an act would be regarded as a war crime today but, in the context of the time, though it was not compatible with the chivalric ideal, it is understandable and was the sort of thing a king had to if he wanted complete victory.

So some of your ancestors – three Burnley men – were among the archers of Agincourt. There is nothing in town to remind us of these nameless men and, while not wanting to glory in their achievement, we should, perhaps remember them and all the others, English and French, who fought at Agincourt.