Dorset’s role in Agincourt
In the 600th anniversary year of the Battle of Agincourt Steve Chilcott joins the dots between some Dorset connections …
Published in October ’15
In the immediate months prior to the Agincourt campaign, King Henry V was a man on a mission. He believed himself to be the rightful heir to the throne of France, through his French great-grandmother, Philippa of Hainault, via his grandfather, John of Gaunt, and he was, in addition, determined once and for all to eradicate the memory of his father’s questionable seizure of power following the mysterious and sudden end to the reign of Richard II.
Henry’s great-grandfather, Edward III, had ruled interminably, siring in the process some 14 offspring, whose bitter bickering ultimately resulted in the dynastic struggle we know as the Wars of the Roses, but for now Henry’s purpose was clear; sail for France and with the support of God and of St George, claim his rightful inheritance: the French crown.
To this end he urgently needed men, supplies, horses, ships and vast numbers of arrows.
Richard II, on his accession, had inherited a royal fleet of perhaps 40 or 50 ships but this was soon whittled down to precisely five, of which four were sold off to clear at least some of the mountain of debt left by his father’s interminable war-mongering; the glittering victories of Poitiers and Crécy had undoubtedly been resounding coups but had come at considerable cost to the royal exchequer.
When Henry V acceded to the throne in 1413 his fleet numbered precisely six, but by dint of some furious improvisation – largely by lifting parts from decommissioned vessels and grafting them onto the stripped-down keels of others – he could boast a ‘Royal Navy’ comprising a dozen, by early 1415. This would hardly be sufficient to mount an invasion on the scale he intended. In March 1415 Richard Cliderowe and Reginald Curteys were handed open cheque books and sent hotfoot to the Low Countries to procure ships.
With Henry some £5000 the poorer (probably around £2M in modern currency), they returned with between 600 to 700 assorted craft, somewhere around half the total Henry envisaged for what would be the largest invasion fleet ever assembled prior to D-Day, and some 12 times bigger than the Spanish Armada.
Due to considerable dithering and indecision Henry V’s much-vaunted Grace Dieu, a giant of the seas at 2750 tuns burthen, with a 218’ keel and a 50’ beam (comparable to Nelson’s Victory and twice the size of Henry VIII’s Mary Rose), which was being built from scratch, still lay half-finished in her specially constructed dock in Southampton by the time Henry’s invasion fleet weighed anchor on Sunday 11 August 1415.
This leviathan consumed 2735 huge oaks, 1145 beech, and 14 ash trees in the course of her construction; the call for suitably sized timbers coming from a radius of 100 miles around…
The man responsible for assembling Henry V’s huge invasion fleet was the Admiral of England, Thomas Beaufort, Earl of Dorset, half-brother of King Henry IV, later created Duke of Exeter. Dorset then commanded the Graville siege lines before Harfleur and after the French garrison had surrendered was ordered to repair the defences and hold the town for the King.
To supplement his fleet Henry had seized all vessels over 20 tons found in English ports between Berwick-on-Tweed and Milford Haven, whether English or foreign, and ordered them post-haste to Southampton.
Dorset, a mere hop, skip and a jump across a by now rapidly receding New Forest would provide easy and rich pickings for the would-be conqueror of France.
Michael Drayton tells us, albeit at some historical remove, in his masterwork The Battaile of Agincourt (1627)
‘So Lyme, three Ships into the Nauy sent,
Of which the Sampson scarse a mon’th before,
Had sprung a Planke, and her mayne Mast had spent,
With extreame perill that she got to shore;
With them fiue other out of Waymouth went…’
But Henry needed more than ships. He needed large numbers of horses – both sturdy coursers, strong enough to carry a man in full plate armour, lighter palfreys to act as saddle horses and pack-horses to carry baggage – arms, armour, wagons, draft horses, he also needed carpenters, wheelwrights, cord-wainers (skilled leather-workers), blacksmiths, fletchers, armourers, bowyers, master gunners, miners (undermining the enemy’s fortifications was an accepted part of medieval siege craft)…
His army, in addition to men-at-arms and archers, would bring the paraphernalia of medieval siege warfare such as belfries (huge wooden-framed siege towers) giant catapults, trébuchets and mangonels in addition to the new-fangled iron cannon, unreliable and slow to load, but nonetheless part of the equipment required.
But above all he needed food and provisions and to this end orders went out far and wide for bakers and brewers and for cattle to be driven on the hoof down towards the mustering points around Southampton Water. The sheriffs of those counties closest to these embarkation points – Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire – were instructed to supply, at the King’s expense ‘…and at a reasonable price’, some 200 head of cattle and then a month later a further hundred bullocks and oxen.
Men were recruited under a system of indenture, a legal document written in duplicate which was then cut into two halves by means of an irregular, or ‘indented’ line, each half to be retained by the parties concerned.
Recruiting would not be a difficult undertaking as archers would be guaranteed a daily wage of 6d with food and drink requirements covered, whereas a skilled workman or craftsperson could expect to earn between 3d and 5d per day but then have to find their own subsistence; a bloody and ignominious death in the cloying mud of Picardy probably never entered into the calculation.
Some 250 indentures survive from the Agincourt campaign although some are for small numbers of combatants and in some cases even just for individuals.
We know for example that ‘The Lord Matrevers, with his retenu at the Battell of Egyncourt’ numbered 10 lances or men-at-arms named as follows: Monsr. Wauter Barkeley, Henry Tylmayn, Thomas Poynt, John Frompton, Thomas Hardy, John Bavent, William Moore, William Dorset, Robert Pokeswelle, Robert Banent (or Bavent) and John Winford. These would most likely have been paid around twice what the archers were paid, plus a share in a bonus payment, or ‘regard’, of 100 marks, to cover for the cost of armour and possible loss of a horse in battle. Matrevers is recorded as having 34 archers indented to him. Archers would have been yeomen or minor landowners with sufficient means to equip themselves with a horse and the very basic protective armour that they would customarily wear in battle.
Some names of these archers come down to us:
Henry Chyswell , Thomas Holwell , Walter Shaftesbery, Thomas Symmesone and John Shappewyk, all with a familiar Dorset ring to them, although we don’t know whether these murky figures survived to fight on the field of Agincourt, were invalided home due to dysentery resulting from the unexpectedly drawn-out siege of Harfleur or whether they succumbed during the 260-mile march along the coast and thence across the Somme.
The Matravers family had held the village of Lytchett Matravers from the time of the Norman Conquest through until the ravages of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, the name being an amalgamation of the Celtic word Lit-chet which means ‘grey wood’ and the Matravers family name.
No strangers to plotting and political intrigue this Matravers decided to side with the King whereas his ancestor Sir John had fought for Edward II at the débâcle of Bannockburn in 1314 where he was taken prisoner.
Fourteen years later we find him standing for Parliament and soon after appointed as constable of Corfe Castle. He was however treading thin ice in openly declaring his support for Edward’s French consort, the ravishingly beautiful but disastrously profligate Isabella, who was championing her son, the future Edward III, over her husband, the feckless Edward II, and whose risqué affair with Roger Mortimer brought the country to the very brink of civil war.
When Mortimer was arrested, condemned and executed at Tyburn, Matravers, already implicated in the King’s unsavoury and mysterious death at Berkeley Castle (by insertion, it is claimed, of a red hot poker), also had a price placed on his head and fled, in the very nick of time, to Germany, where he found right of asylum. Granted a full pardon by Parliament he returned and was instated as governor of the Channel Islands.
Matravers died in 1364 at Hooke near Bridport and is buried in Lytchett Matravers churchyard and then in 1415 we find his great-grandson indentured to the King for 34 archers and 11 men-at-arms. What goes around comes around…
Our problems in tracing the names further lie in considerable discrepancies in spellings which mean that a name may occur several times under different listings, leaving uncertainty as to whether we have a new entry or merely a double entry for the same individual. In any event ransom was the name of the game and he who could command a high price, if captured alive, would most likely survive where lesser mortals merely had the visor of their bascinets lifted and their throats cut; no names, no pack drill.
The rank and file of Henry’s raggle-taggle army were of little consequence.
Further Dorset names occur in the ‘retinu’ of Sir Walter Hungerford, Sheriff of Dorset, who was indented to the King for 17 men-at-arms and 55 horse archers drawn largely from the area around Weymouth and Lulworth.
It was Hungerford, rather than the Earl of Westmoreland, to whom it is attributed in Shakespeare’s Henry V, who, on the eve of Agincourt and before the King, expressed the regret that: ‘ O that we now had here But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!'; it was a remark that didn’t impress the fictional Henry greatly, so he forestalled any such defeatism by saying: ‘ If we are mark’d to die, we are enow To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more..
Whether from Ryme Intrinseca or from Purbeck Henry’s soldiers were very hungry by the time they had marched from the mouth of the Seine to the little village of Maisoncelle, just south of Azincourt, where they parked their baggage train. They had long since lost all vestiges of foot wear, were soaking wet through and had been suffering from such acute dysentery on the way that many had just cut the backs of their trews off…and they were a very long way from home. ◗