Henry V’s Armada II


The vast majority of men-at-arms, the front-line close-combat troops, came from the lesser gentry as their equipment was so expensive. They wore plate-armour from top to toe, over a thick felt suit to prevent bruising. Since the jupon (a form of surcoat) was going out of fashion, in action they looked like mobile statues of burnished steel. The conical bassinet with a snout-like visor pierced by breathing holes was being replaced by the round-topped close-helmet with a simpler visor, or else by the sallet – a cross between a Wehrmacht tin hat and a metal sou’wester which could be pulled down over the face. Hands and feet were protected by articulated steel gauntlets and sollerets. Such armour weighed as much as sixty-six pounds but it was distributed all over the body (British troops ‘yomped’ for many miles across rough ground in the Falklands with over eighty pounds on their backs). Whether on horseback or on foot, its wearers had an enviable sense of invulnerability, and were able to discard their shields. Nevertheless, while a costly armour from Nuremberg or Milan – cunningly ridged and fluted to deflect blows – could stand up to almost any weapon, cheaper armours could be smashed in. The worst drawback, however, was heat; on a sunny day, despite air holes in his felt suit, a man-at-arms boiled in his own sweat and quickly became exhausted.

The man-at-arms rode a special weight-carrying horse like a modern heavy-weight hunter. (Other similar breeds are the Irish draught-horse and the Norman Percheron.) When mounted, his primary weapon was a massive lance, twelve feet long, designed to knock an opponent out of the saddle. However, whenever possible, English men-at-arms preferred fighting on foot; indeed in France this was termed ‘the English method’. Although a long, straight sword hung at his left side, balanced by a bollocks-hilted ‘misericord’ dagger – so called from being used to dispatch the mortally wounded – on the ground he employed a short steel-shafted battleaxe, a battle-hammer, a mace or a flail. (The latter, often called a morning-star, was a spiked ball and chain swung by a short handle.) Above all he had the pole-axe, designed to rip open or smash an enemy’s armour, inflicting terrible lacerations and bruises. This was basically a half-pike, five feet long, its steel shaft ending in a spike. The head was half axe and half hammer. This was perhaps the most lethal weapon evolved during the entire Middle Ages – significantly, the instrument wielded by butchers in abattoirs was also known as a pole-axe.

As long as they were able to shoot from a defensive position little could stand before Henry’s archers, although they could be routed easily enough by enemy horse if unprotected by men-at-arms. Yew was the wood most favoured for longbows, whose length averaged six feet. Arrows were usually made of ash. They were thirty inches long, flighted with goose-wing feathers and they had a four-sided ‘bodkin’ point – a case-hardened steel spike. The best longbowmen could shoot as many as twelve arrows a minute and had a plate armour piercing range of up to sixty yards, only the most expensive armours were protection against them. Mounted archers carried a lance, a strong spear rather than the battering-ram type used by men-at-arms. The archers’ side-arms were sword and misericord, supplemented by either a pole-axe, a billhook or a ‘maul’ (a leaden mallet with a five foot long wooden handle). Head covering varied from a sallet to a wickerwork cap banded with iron, while in addition to metal or leather gauntlets – together with a leather bracer on his drawing arm to save it from the bow string – the archer’s body was protected by a ‘jack’. The jack was something like a modern flak-jacket; made of as many as twenty-five layers of deerskin, often studded with metal and stuffed with tow, it reached half-way down the wearer’s thighs.

The invading army included twice as many mounted archers as those who marched on foot, no doubt reflecting the King’s experience in Wales. Remounts would have to be obtained locally in France. Mobility was essential. The archers operated in much the same way that the Boers did against the British in South Africa, or Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘roughriders’ did against the Spanish in Cuba – as mounted infantry, dismounting to shoot. Since they were also equipped with lances they could, if necessary, remain on horseback and reinforce a charge by the men-at-arms, riding with them.

It is also probable that, in the interests of mobility, men-at-arms wore half-armour or jacks when raiding or skirmishing. Usually at the close of an engagement archers and men-at-arms, on foot together, would charge the enemy, using pole-axes as rifle and bayonet were to be used in the twentieth century. The French were always at a disadvantage because of their predilection for the higher velocity crossbows with which they equipped their own archers. These weapons, which in any case were much heavier to carry, had such a slow rate of fire that going into action with them against bowmen must have been like facing repeaters with single-shot rifles.

There was an artillery train of bombards and culverins. The former were heavy bronze or iron guns, often of huge bore, on fixed wooden platforms, which travelled in ox-wains. Although primitive, they were far from being ineffectual, as is often suggested. They were generally founded at the Tower of London or in Bristol by bell-founders, who frequently operated them on the battlefield. Their greatest defect was sub-standard gunpowder which often disintegrated into its component parts; sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal. Nevertheless, since the 1370s founding had improved steadily, especially in bronze, while an art in mixing powder had developed, elm-wood tampons being placed between the charge and the gunstone. No doubt their rate of fire was very slow, since they had to be swabbed out with vinegar and water after each discharge. They were set off by a red-hot iron firing-piece kept in a charcoal brazier and a shot every five minutes was considered a remarkable performance. Yet such cannon could fire gunstones weighing several hundredweight up to 2,500 paces and were increasingly effective against city or castle walls. Stone shot constituted an early form of shrapnel, disintegrating on impact into razor-sharp splinters.

To some extent artillery reflected weaponry from the days before gunpowder. If bombards were the heirs of trebuchets (the stone-throwing catapults once siege-warfare’s principal tool), culverins were successors to the mangonels (huge mechanical bows whose enormous arrows had hitherto been the most formidable missile weapons available). These culverins were surprisingly sophisticated. Although not yet able to cast reliable bombards, even the iron founders could produce adequate if cumbersome guns of small calibre which fired metal bullets weighing as little as twenty-one pounds. Those in bronze or brass were still better. A bronze example in the cathedral museum at Meaux, found in the river Marne in 1896, is thought to have been lost by the English during the siege of 1421–2. It is a thick octagonal tube five feet long, with a round bore and a crude but effective breech-block hammered in during casting. It was mounted on a wooden tripod and transported in a cart. Although slow to reload and inaccurate, it was every effective at short range; at Castillon in 1453 an enfillading shot from a culverin went through six men. It was the ancestor of the handgun and the arquebus.

Munitions and provisions required organization on a truly massive scale. The king’s experience of planning such sieges as that of Aberystwyth must have been invaluable. He spent many weeks during the summer of 1415 at Porchester Castle, on the coast near the embarkation point of Southampton, directing operations. The munitions included siege engines (towers, scaling ladders and battering-rams), gunpowder and its ingredients, stone shot, bow staves packed in canvas, arrows in tuns, bow strings, collapsible boats of wood and greased leather, mining tools, masons, armourers and all the other craftsmen. Provisions included bread, dried fish, salted meat, flour, beans, cheese and ale, which came into the depots from all over England. To ensure that they had as much fresh meat as possible, cattle, sheep and pigs were driven from as far away as Yorkshire and the West Country. Clothing and shoes were also collected at the depots. All this had to be loaded onto the ships. In addition there were vast numbers of horses to feed and water.

Some sources say that the invasion fleet was as large as 1,500 vessels, though no doubt many were very small craft indeed. The transports were either hired – including 700 from the Low Countries – or requisitioned with their masters by the royal admirals. They also press-ganged men to crew them. Some of the vessels were adapted for carrying horses, with doors cut in their sides and stalls constructed by using hurdles as partitions. The ships were also fitted for combat, having large bridges or ‘castles’ built fore and aft from which the archers could shoot down on attackers. Their unfortunate owners lost a great deal of money, having their cargoes unloaded compulsorily and being paid only a small sum for each quarter year that their vessels were in the king’s service. They came from the West Country, from the Cinque Ports, from East Anglia, from the North Sea ports. It took three days to assemble such an armada, filling Southampton Water and every small bay and inlet down the coast as far as Gosport.

Ships were also needed to patrol and guard the sea, so that the French would be unable to intercept the invasion. These were the ‘King’s Ships’ – Henry’s navy, which was one of his most remarkable achievements. When he came to the throne there were seven King’s Ships; by 1415 there were fifteen and by 1417 there would be thirty-four. William Catton was appointed Keeper of the King’s Ships in July 1413. Early in the following year a wealthy Southampton merchant, William Soper, was engaged to assist him. A programme of buying and building vessels began at once. Soper built a dock and a store house at Southampton, and at nearby Hamble he constructed other storehouses, together with fortified moorings where the ships could shelter from enemy raiders. As well as building ships he refitted them. Under his direction the port grew into a full-scale naval base. War at sea was basically an extension of war on land and warships were no more than fighting troop carriers. Those which carried the largest complement of archers and men-at-arms were considered the most formidable. Accordingly, Soper’s priority was to provide the king with vessels of between 500 and 1000 tons – a vast size at the time – with two masts.

Even so, most of Henry’s warships in 1415 were those long-forgotten craft, ballingers. The French, and to a lesser extent the English, had tried using galleys in the Channel but being designed for the Mediterranean they were ill-suited to such choppy water. The ballinger was apparently developed by the English during the late fourteenth century as an answer to the galley. It was a big clinker-built sailing barge of around fifty tons, perfectly at home in English waters, while being additionally equipped with up to fifty oars. Shallow draughted, it could penetrate into the narrowest anchorages or up rivers without difficulty. It was also ideal for cross-Channel raids or privateering – becalmed French merchantmen were at its mercy. It was manned by forty sailors, ten men-at-arms and ten archers. By 1415 the king possessed ten of these versatile craft. They and his big sailing ships ensured that his invasion was untroubled by enemy warships.

For all his confidence in his ‘right’, Henry was far from sure that he would return from his adventure, that God would give judgement in his favour. He had a will drafted, in which he trusts that he will be received into Abraham’s bosom through the prayers of the Virgin, the saints and his special patron, John of Bridlington. It contains directions for his burial in Westminster Abbey and many bequests – though interestingly Clarence is left nothing. He signed it at Winchester on 24 July, writing on it in English; ‘This is my last will, subscribed with my own hand, R.H. Jesu Mercy and Gramercy Ladie Marle help.’


The armada to recover the king’s ‘right’ set sail on the fine and sunny afternoon of Sunday 11 August. Henry had been on board the Trinity Royal since the day before, but the fleet was delayed by three ships catching fire and burning down to the water line – which was widely regarded as a sinister omen. However, the chaplain who wrote the Gesta and was on board with the king remembers that, ‘As we were leaving the coast of the Isle of Wight behind, swans were seen swimming about among the fleet, and they were spoken of as a happy augury’. No one except Henry and his principal commanders knew the armada’s destination save that it was somewhere in France – some of his troops may well have thought they were bound for Guyenne. His security was almost modern in its thoroughness.

Henry V had never had any intention of securing his inheritance across the Channel by peaceful means. He had employed diplomacy purely to discredit French sincerity in the eyes of the world. Whatever the cost, he wanted war – a war which would justify the House of Lancaster’s deposition of Richard II and disinheritance of the Earl of March. If his ‘right’ in France should be confirmed by God giving him the victory in battle, such a victory would simultaneously establish his right to the throne of England beyond all dispute. As the Gesta makes clear, he was hastening ‘to seek a ruling from the supreme judge’.

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