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The Road to Agincourt

To truly relive the event evoked by the word Agincourt, start where the drama began: at Harfleur, a sleepy little port adjacent to Le Havre. King Henry V of England landed there on August 14, 1415, intent on marching to Paris and seizing the crown of France.

He had problems from the start. You can see the remains of Harfleur’s 15-foot thick walls behind which 700 defenders tenaciously held off the 9,000 English soldiers for several weeks. Townspeople will point out the museum containing artifacts of the siege.

Having lost 2,000 men, King Henry grumpily set out for nearby Fecamp, a prosperous small town whose quiet harbor is now filled with colorful sailboats. Fecamp is a restful town to explore for a few days. Or head for Dieppe, four miles from Arques, the next stop for the English.

Dieppe’s long row of budget-to-luxury hotels face a park-like lawn and, beyond, the graveled beach. All offer delightful ocean views, comfortable rooms, and excellent food.

Arques itself is a friendly, picturesque town, largely undamaged by Henry’s forces. When the English threatened to burn the village the duke surrendered hastily, even providing the English with 20 wagonloads of bread. The castle at Arques is considered a national treasure.

Eighteen miles from Arques is the small village of Eu. Its count was taken prisoner at Agincourt and his heavy ransom impoverished the area. The castle is long gone, replaced by a magnificent 17th century chateau-museum reflecting the opulent lifestyle of the nobility of that era. (The Countess of Paris now lives there during the summer.)

Leaving Eu, turn south to follow the route of the English as they slogged along what is now D218 seeking and failing to find an unguarded ford across the Somme. The route leads to Amiens, a city Henry camped outside because it was too well defended. Amiens has excellent shops and hotels, and its cathedral is recognized as a classic example of Gothic architecture.

Next stop is Boves, a little town of stone buildings set amid broad fields, where Henry’s forces spent the night unmolested by the castle garrison. Today, two spires overlooking endless miles of grain fields are all that remain of Boves’ castle.

Drive on to Corbie, where French knights charged across the bridge, contemptuously rode down the English archers, then returned to their side of the river. At the next town, Nesle, the town elders told the English about an unguarded Somme River crossing. By the end of the day the English had crossed the Somme at Voyennes, and headed north for Calais, having abandoned plans to march on Paris.

They skirted Peronne, a large thriving town, passed through the tiny village of Forceville, then Acheux and Frevent. Late that afternoon, October 24, King Henry halted at Blangy. If you cross the narrow Ternoise river on foot and walk up the crest of the hill beyond, you’ll see, as Henry’s scouts did centuries ago, the field of Agincourt.

The battlefield has changed little since 1415. As the visitor stands at the slight hill crest where the English waited for the charge of the French, the thin woods of Tramcourt are on the right, the forest of Agincourt is on the left. As the mounted French knights rumbled up the muddy slope, the woods hemmed them into an ever-narrowing funnel and the English archers methodically destroyed them. The knights who reached the English positions had their war horses spitted on wooden stakes. By two in the afternoon it was all over—12,000 French had died, 14,000 were taken prisoner. The Duke of Agincourt and his two sons died in the battle. The English lost 100 men.

The field has two memorials: one a simple granite obelisk with the name and date of the battle incised on it; the other an ossuary, a place of bones where the unclaimed French dead are buried.

From Agincourt, Paris is only a few hours’ drive. I spent five days on the trip, but a visitor pressed for time could do it in less than two.

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