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At the Battle of Agincourt (1415), according to the War History Online article The Time English Soldiers went to Battle without Pants, and Won

The conditions for the archers at the start of the battle were dire, but they simply dropped their pants and did what needed to be done.

This is with reference to the ‘call of nature’ due to dysentery in the English army. Several other websites say more or less the same thing. For example, there’s this from Factinate:

...most of the English archers went into battle wearing no pants! This was actually because the dysentery which they still suffered from caused diarrhea, and it was much more freeing, to use that word, if you could fire arrows without worrying about soiling your pants.

And this from Scribol:

... due to a breakout of dysentery, the English archers fought much of the battle with their pants around their ankles – if not off altogether.

None of these sites have any sources, but perhaps a little more credible is History.com which cites the historian Juliet Barker in this paragraph:

When the battle finally began on October 25, the English were exhausted, filthy and nearly starving. Many were also reeling from the stomach-turning effects of dysentery. According to historian Juliet Barker, some of Henry’s archers “were reduced to cutting off their soiled breeches and undergarments in an attempt to allow nature to take its course more easily.”

Juliet Barker is the author of Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle which, unfortunately can’t be searched on Google books for a source. The Wikipedia article on Agincourt makes no mention of archers cutting off or otherwise removing breeches / pants / trousers and nor does Robin Neillands’ The Hundred Years War (of which I have a copy).

Is there any evidence in the chronicles of the time that some or most of the English & Welsh archers went into battle without breeches / pants / trousers, or have they misrepresented the sources?


In addition to the somewhat 'sensationalized' phrasing used by these websites, I'm doubting these interpretations because:

Would archers with dysentery have had the strength to draw their longbows and fight if they had so little control over their bodily functions that they had to remove clothing from the lower regions?

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    The more notable question to me is, what difference does dropping your pants really make? The reason you drop your pants is to prevent soiling them so you can put them back on unsoiled in a moment. If you're in the heat of battle, and afflicted with dysentery, why worry about soiling your pants? Wash them afterwards, along with everything else that will inevitably be soiled. Why lose the advantage of maneuverability by trying to walk with your pants around your ankles? Why would it be more "freeing"? This seems like projecting thoroughly modern prejudices and preoccupations onto the past. – Cody Gray Apr 29 at 5:13
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    @CodyGray Unlike modern pants, medieval hose was often in separate parts. This illustration dating to about 1400, for example, shows separate hose. This website has links to more examples. – sempaiscuba Apr 29 at 7:55
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    I found a copy of the US edition of Juliet Barker's Agincourt on archive.org. I've added a link to my answer. – sempaiscuba May 3 at 13:17
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    @sempaiscuba That's great, thanks very much for doing that! – Lars Bosteen May 3 at 13:20
28

tl; dr

At least some of the archers who fought at the Battle of Agincourt almost were almost certainly suffering from dysentery contracted at Harfleur. However, most of the worst affected had been shipped home to England before Henry left Harfleur for Calais.

Is there any evidence in the chronicles of the time that some or most of the English & Welsh archers went into battle without breeches / pants / trousers?

Yes, there is good evidence from at least three chroniclers (Jean le Févre, Jehan de Waurin, and Enguerrand de Monstrelet). Le Févre and Waurin are of particular interest since they were both present at the battle. However, we cannot say whether these accounts were written wholly independently, or whether there was an element of copying.

Would archers with dysentery have had the strength to draw their longbows and fight if they had so little control over their bodily functions that they had to remove clothing from the lower regions?

The result of the battle suggests that the answer is an emphatic "yes".


Evidence for Dysentery in Henry's Army at Agincourt

There is certainly good evidence from the chronicles that some in the English army were suffering from dysentery contracted at Harfleur. For example, Thomas Walsingham's Chronica Maiora

"When the king of England had settled matters at Harfleur as befitted a king and a victor, he decided to proceed by land towards Calais with quite a small force, not more, so it is said, than eight thousand archers and armed men, a great many of whom were hampered by the dysentery they had picked up at Harfleur ..."

However, we should be careful not to overestimate the numbers. We have (incomplete) lists of those infected with the 'bloody flux' (dysentery) who were sent back to England from Harfleur. Professor Anne Curry has analysed the data, and has proposed that the majority of those in Henry's army that were infected with dysentery had been sent back to England before he departed Harfleur on his march to Calais.


Juliet Barker's quote

The quote from Juliet Barker's Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle (published in the US as Agincourt : Henry V and the battle that made England) is:

Many of the archers were reduced to cutting off their soiled breeches and undergarments in an attempt to allow nature to take its course more easily — an option not available to the men-at-arms, encased in their padded steel plate armour. Grim though the sight of them must have been, the smell was probably worse.

The sources that Juliet Barker cites for this are:

  • Le Févre: Jean le Févre, Chronique de Jean le Févre, Seigneur de St Remy, ed. by François Morand (Société de l’Histoire de France, Paris, 1876-81), 2 vols. (vol i, pp 252-3),
  • Bacquet: Azincourt, 1977, p 93

Le Féver was a contemporary chronicler.


The Chronicles

Le Févre states:

"Lesquelz archiers estoient, la plus grant partie, sans armeures en leurs pourpoins, leurs chausses avallées, ayans haches et congnies pendans à leurs chaintures, ou longes espées; les aucuns tous nudz piez, et les aucuns portoient hunettes ou cappelines de cuyr bouilly, et les aucuns d'ozières sur lesquelz avoit une croisure de fer."


Le Févre is one of three particularly important contemporary sources for the battle which were written in France. The other two are La chronique d'Enguerran de Monstrelet, by Enguerrand de Monstrelet (available to read or download as pdf files from archive.org) and Recueil des croniques et anchiennes istories de la Grant Bretaigne, à présent nommé Engleterre by Jehan de Waurin (also available to read or download as pdf files from archive.org).

Le Févre and Waurin are considered to be particularly valuable since both men took part in the battle (le Févre with the English, and Waurin on the French side).

These three chronicles agree very closely. However, whether this means that they provide independent corroboration for other, or that the overlap is evidence of copying remains a matter for scholarly debate.

These questions are addressed by Anne Curry in her book The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations (pp 135-)


Professor Curry has combined the evidence from these three chronicles on this point, and translated them thus:

Most of these archers were without armour, dressed in their doublets, their hose loose round their knees, having axes or swords hanging from their belts

  • Curry, Anne: The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations, p 160 (my emphasis)

Yet another chronicle, the Chronique de Ruisseauville describes the English army in the early stages of the battle thus:

"They came very quickly, the archers in front running without armour and with their breeches hanging down, always firing on the French ..."

  • Quoted in Curry, Anne: The Battle of Agincourt: Sources and Interpretations, p 125 (my emphasis)

Now, exactly how many of the archers actually fought with 'their hose loose around their knees', or 'their breeches hanging down' is something we will probably never know. But some in Henry's army were undoubtedly suffering from dysentery during the battle, and the chroniclers are explicit that some, at least, dropped their hose before they fought. It seems reasonable that these facts are related.


As to your last question:

Would archers with dysentery have had the strength to draw their longbows and fight if they had so little control over their bodily functions that they had to remove clothing from the lower regions?

I would say that adrenaline is a wonderful thing, and that (up to) twenty thousand Frenchmen charging towards you probably helped provide motivation.

More seriously, these were men who had trained their whole lives with the longbow. Even in their weakened state they would have been able to employ it to devastating effect.

Which is exactly what the contemporary chronicles say they did during the battle.

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    Thanks for this and +1. I've been doing some more googling and turned up a reddit post which wouldn't open on my desktop (I use windows XP, it won't open some web pages). It has a different interpretation. On the chroniclers, the author says "By emphasizing the archers ragged attire and their lack of armor, these writers are trying to point out the perceived arrogance of the French army." – Lars Bosteen Apr 29 at 0:56
  • and then adds "By portraying the defeat as a result of towering aristocratic arrogance, these writers are creating a more palatable explanation for French defeat (moral failing which invoked God's displeasure) in the wake of a traumatic and crushing defeat." The post doesn't cite where this interpretation comes from (maybe his own?). Have you seen this interpretation before? Is it credible? – Lars Bosteen Apr 29 at 0:57
  • @LarsBosteen I haven't seen it before, and I'm not sure I'd go along with it. After all, English chroniclers like Thomas Walsingham also wrote about dysentery in Henry's army at Agincourt. – sempaiscuba Apr 29 at 1:02
  • Right. I certainly wouldn't question that there was dysentery in Henry's army. I was just wondering if this interpretation has been put forward by any of the leading historians on the Hundred Years War. Personally, I can't see how the reddit poster can draw this conclusion without at least some evidence (and there doesn't seem to be any). – Lars Bosteen Apr 29 at 1:22

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