03/11/2015 08:39 GMT | Updated 03/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Queen and Four Kingdoms Extract


On 24th October 1415, Yolande, Duchess of Anjou, receives news from a manservant sent to report on the French forces. She learns that the English troops, exhausted at the end of another day's trudging through heavy mud, found themselves on a rise near the semi-ruined château of Agincourt in north-western France, and gratefully bivouac there. They had succeeded in crossing the wide river Somme, avoiding its steep banks by fording further south, and marched north again aiming for Calais and reinforcements.

Throughout the next day Yolande waits impatiently for news of a glorious victory. None arrives, even though she knows her husband has posted several of their stewards within and on the edges of their army to report to them both. She plays with the children, visits the dairy, cuts flowers - when a courier gallops into the courtyard. Almost collapsing off his horse, he holds out a package to her steward. Yolande snatches it and with her fingers fumbling with the string, she sits down to savour the details of victory.

"After a week spent marching in mud and rain, heads down, following in the footsteps of the man in front, the English arrive at the top of an incline with a ruined castle, and make camp.. With the dawn, to their dismay, they see below them in the valley, our huge army stirring, armour glistening in the early light."

Seizes another account from the package, she skips to the next part:

"In the tradition of chivalric warfare, our cavalry, led by our senior knights, multi-coloured plumes on helmets waving in the gentle wind, ducal banners fluttering, gathered in their ranks in full armour on heavy warhorses, waiting for the signal to charge. These, too, felt the excitement, and despite their size and weight of their own armour and that of their riders, pranced skittishly in the early morning chill. As the mist lifted, our troops could see the English archers massed in tight formation on the rise by the ruin, and how few their numbers looked."

She can feel their tension - the English archers are famous but surely too few to have a significant effect? She tears open another agent's account:

"Our leaders knew the enemy had almost no cavalry and only their archers were left in any number. Confidence swelled in our warriors' breasts, and then came one trumpet call after another to attack and charge up the slope towards the hated English! There was a little confusion as the dukes' trumpeters blew "Charge" whereas the Constable's did not. Only he considered what a week's heavy rain would have done to the ground.

The large, rising, grassy plain between our troops and the enemy, had softened beneath to the consistency of melted butter. Our heavy horses, covered in armour, carrying our armoured knights, soon felt the strain and became mired in the plough and unable to charge up the hill. Seeing disaster unfolding before him, the Constable, Jean d'Albret, official commander of all the French forces, tried to recall the royal cavalries, but failed.

And where was her husband? Was Louis any better? Had he taken part after all? Yolande had heard nothing from the king's camp and her own courier sent there had not returned. Her hands begin to tremble, a dreadful foreboding growing inside her.

Another account in the package - it's from her faithful servant Hubert who has somehow managed to slip behind the English lines. She skips though what she already knows, and then reads:

"When the English King Henry saw the sinking spirit of his soldiers at the sight of the massed French army, he made a rousing speech, urging them to fight for him and their country "on this St.Crispin's Day". With his rhetoric, their dashing young king put fire back into the bellies of his soldiers, wasted by dysentery."

"The English longbow men, famous for firing up to ten arrows a minute, began to target our knights. So accurate, their arrows could pierce visors up to 200 yards and pass through the softer parts of our knight's armour. They even pinned riders to their saddles through their thighs."

Who were these men? She reads on:

"The English longbow men are an elite force, the best chosen from every village in their country, where their training begins from the age of seven. Their arrows are well crafted from oak and ash, their sharp metal heads cast with side barbs - impossible to pull out."

Yolande can feel her panic growing, her stomach churning, but she must read on.

"Our horses, weighed down with their own armour and that of our knights', struggled, plunged and stuck in the heavy going. Some of our knights dismounted only to flay about in the deep mud, unable to make headway in any direction."

Her breathing is coming in a mixture of gasps and sobs. The flower of our nobility rode out in the front of the troops, certain of taking part in a glorious victory and carrying back its spoils, many of them our relatives and friends.

"When the English soldiers saw our knights fall from or with their horses, their vision hampered by their visors, and the mud impeding movement, they took off their shoes and ran down the slope, slipping nimbly in and out of the mire in bare feet, their tunics marked for recognition with the cross of St. George front and back. Wielding daggers and short swords, they stabbed our helpless knights, up and under the plates of armour covering the hearts of the scions of our noble Houses. Those the daggers missed were dispatched by the ferocious English pike men."

Yolande sits stunned, tears pouring down her cheeks, her stomach in knots, imagining the carnage at Agincourt.

"The era of the glorious knight is over," she keeps repeating. "Chivalry is dead."