It doesn’t always pay to be a fan of heavy metal… at least in the Middle Ages
Even the strongest of soldiers would struggle to move in armour worn 600 years ago. The body was encased in heavy steel and it all weighed a ton, from the helmet to breast plate, back plate, chainmail, arm and leg guards. It was a battle to lift one item, let alone wear the lot, as visitors found out at Azincourt Medieval Centre.
The French army faced the same problem centuries earlier. Thousands of exhausted knights sank under the weight in knee-deep mud during the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415. The men became sitting targets for King Henry V’s archers, who wore little armour and were more agile. Their 6ft longbows shot arrows strong enough to pierce metal. There were many casualties. “Shooting a longbow is like a gun today. It was very precise,” said Christophe Gilliot, director at the centre.
Henry V’s defeat of the much larger French army is often heralded as one of the greatest English military victories. It has been immortalised throughout the centuries by artists, who include Shakespeare. His play, Henry V, with its the famous line “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”, was turned into a film starring Laurence Olivier in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh in 1989. It has also inspired music and poetry and even video games.
We had stopped earlier in the morning at the edge of the battleground, now a farmer’s field, near the rural hamlet of Azincourt in northern France. Thousands of people are expected to attend a remembrance ceremony at the historic site to mark the 600th anniversary on October 25. There will also be major events held across the Channel on the day and over the coming months. They include a service at Westminster Abbey, where Henry V is buried.
Estimates of the actual size of both armies varies widely but Christophe believed there were about 9,000 on the English side, with about 7,000 of them archers, some were from Wales. Many of the men had dysentery and were exhausted before the battle even started, which made the victory against a much bigger side seem even greater. Several hundred died compared to about 6,000 of the 14,000 French troops – of those 8,000 were noblemen in full plate armour.
The rain-soaked battleground would have been horrendous: full of noise and terror. It couldn’t have been more different to the warm, quiet and peaceful scene that I was looking at. There was no-one around other than a man sitting on a tractor. The freshly ploughed field was typical of the beautiful countryside in the Pas-de-Calais region.
The stillness was only broken by a car moving slowly along the lane in the far corner of the field. It passed a stone cross. There are many in northern France, mainly dedicated to soldiers who died in the First and Second World Wars. This one was erected to commemorate the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It lasted just six hours. “The site is very important for the English as it is a symbol of bravery,” said Christophe. Other than the cross, there was little else to show it had taken place here. That was not the case at nearby Azincourt Medieval Centre: the outside of the building, near the Rue des Archers, was in the shape of a longbow.
Inside I had tried to pick up the heavy armour, with not much success. The tension on the longbow string also made it difficult to pull back an arrow – the archers fired up to 10 a minute. The French used the much slower crossbow, which fired two bolts a minute. There were many other interactive displays, which included a giant model of the battle. (azincourt-medieval.fr).
The remembrance events were also intended to “celebrate the friendship between our two countries”, as Christophe explained. This link was apparent at La Tour de L’Horloge in Guines. The excellent family-friendly museum, about 11-miles from Calais, chronicles the period in history from the Viking invasion up to 1520 when Henry VIII of England met King Francis I on a nearby field. The event was to mark their friendship and is known as the “Field of Cloth of Gold”.
There were many interactive displays and replica costumes from the period for both adults and children to try on. They were a big hit, particularly with families. Vikings, kings, knights, pheasants, lords, ladies and, albeit briefly, a queen (a crown was placed on my head) were wandering about (tour-horloge-guines.com).
The museum also showed us the types of food people ate at the time. There is a vast array of produce grown in the region. As part of our three-day trip, we visited a goat farm, La Halte d’Autrefois, in Hesmond, near Azincourt. It sells organic goat cheese and freshly-baked bread. I helped milk one of the goats: visitors can also attend cheese making classes and bake bread, as well as stay in the farm’s gites, by a beautiful stream. (halte-autrefois.com)
Heading north into the hills we came across Perle de Groseille, a redcurrant sparkling wine producer. We enjoyed a tour of the site and wine tasting. (perledegroseille.com) Much of the area’s produce is sold at local markets. The stalls in the main square in the ancient town of St Omer were laden with fruit, vegetables, cheese, bread and meat. The imposing 13th century Notre Dame Cathedral was nearby along with a vast network of canals.
The Audomarois marshland area is a natural paradise for wildlife. We took a boat trip along the canals from the Maison du Marais. The museum explores the history of the marshes and the people who live there.
It wasn’t long before we were heading for another stretch of water: a much larger one that links France with England. The ferry back to Dover took just 90-minutes. Our shared history goes back centuries.
Southeastern trains have fast frequent daily services from London St Pancras to Dover Priory (southeasternrailway.co.uk). P&O ferry have 23 crossings a day between Dover and Calais. From £57 return for a vehicle and up to nine passengers, use Club lounge for an extra £12
Hire a car and explore the beautiful countryside in Pas-de-Calais.
Excellent local eateries include the restaurant in La Cour de Remi hotel in Bermicourt, where we stayed a night (lacourderemi.com); Le Charles VI restaurant in Azincourt (restaurantcharles6.com); La Sapiniere hotel in Wisques, where we also stayed a night (sapiniere.net/fr/) and Le Sept de Coeur in St Omer (leseptdecoeur.fr)
Read about Mary’s adventures in Donegal at Lough Eske Castle Hotel here >