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Battle of Agincourt
October 25, 1415
King Henry V of England

This story had been around for a while but some of you may not yet have heard it.

In this battle between the French and English, the French were overwhelmingly favored to win. They threatened to cut off a certain body part of all captured English soldiers so that they could never fight again. The English however, won a major upset and waved the body part in question at the French in defiance. Which body part was it?

The body part which the French proposed to cut off the English after defeating them was, of course, the middle finger, without which it is impossible to draw the renowned English longbow. This famous weapon was made of the native English yew tree, and so the act of drawing the longbow was known as "plucking yew." Thus, when the victorious English waved their middle fingers at the defeated French, they said "See, we can still pluck yew! PLUCK YEW!"

Over the years some "folk etymologies" have grown up around this symbolic gesture. Since "pluck yew" is rather difficult to say (like "pleasant mother pheasant plucker," which is who you had to go to for the feathers used on the arrows), the difficult consonant cluster at the beginning has gradually changed to a labio-dental fricative "f". Thus the words often used in conjunction with one-finger-salute are mistakenly thought to have something to do with the intimate encounter.

It is also because of the pheasant feathers on the arrows that the symbolic gesture is known as "giving the bird"

Chris Comer
Submitted by Bill Vaughn

And here is the version from the Encarta Encyclopedia

Agincourt, Battle of, military engagement during the Hundred Years' War, fought in France on October 25, 1415, between an English army under King Henry V of England and a French one under Charles d'Albret, constable of France.

Prior to the action, which took place in a narrow valley near the village of Agincourt (now Azincourt, in Pas-de-Calais Department), Henry, a claimant to the French throne, had invaded France and seized the port of Harfleur.

At the time of the action, Henry's army, weakened by disease and hunger, was en route to Calais, from which Henry planned to embark for England. In the course of the march to Calais the English force, which numbered about 6000 men, for the most part lightly equipped archers, was intercepted by d'Albret, whose army of about 25,000 men consisted chiefly of armored cavalry and infantry contingents. The English king, fearful of annihilation, sought a truce with the French, but his terms were rejected.

In the battle, which was preceded by heavy rains, the French troops were at a disadvantage because of their weighty armor, the narrowness of the battleground, the muddy terrain, and the faulty tactics of their superiors, notably in using massed formations against a mobile enemy. The French cavalry, which occupied frontal positions, quickly became mired in the mud, making easy targets for the English archers.

After routing the enemy cavalry, the English troops, wielding hatchets, billhooks (a type of knife), and swords, launched successive assaults on the French infantry. Demoralized by the fate of their cavalry and severely hampered by the mud, the French foot soldiers were completely overwhelmed. D'Albret, several dukes and counts, and about 500 other members of the French nobility were killed; other French casualties totaled about 5000. English losses numbered fewer than 200 men.

French feudal military strategy, traditionally based on the employment of heavily armored troops and cavalry, was completely discredited by Henry's victory. Although Henry returned to England after Agincourt, his triumph paved the way for English domination of most of France until the middle of the 15th century.

Corrections

A number of people have sent e-mail in response to this article and have pointed out certain historical inaccuracies.  The following was provided by Jason Dransfield:

I would like to clarify an innaccuracy on your pages concerning the battle of Agincourt and the threat to cut off fingers. The actual threat was to cut off the middle and and first finger as BOTH were required to pull back a traditional yew longbow, it is true that this lead to a gesture of defiance, but it was in fact the English V sign, not to be confused with the reversed V associated with "victory" and Churchill after the second world war.

The "Bird" is a purely American invention, and I am not sure of the origin, although I'm sure there is some connection.

As an Englishman living in America, I am constantly amused when people hold up these fingers to signify "two" and are unaware of what it means to any English born person! I hope this clarifies, hopefully accurately, some facts on your otherwise excellent website.