You have to be in love to write. If you’re writing fiction, you have to love the characters you’ve created, even the bad ones. If you’re writing nonfiction, then there has to be something about the time, place, story or people that you’re just in love with. If you don’t have this kind of passion for what you're writing, you’ll never be able to stay with it, and if you don’t care deeply for your characters, people, or story, readers will know it.
Because of this, I’m never surprised when I'm reading a book and get the feeling that the author might have fallen a little for his/her subject. In writing her book Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England, I suspect that Juliet Barker might have developed something of a crush on Henry V, because in her telling of the story of this famous battle, H5 comes off as the bestest, smartest, wisest, most super wonderful king ever ever ever.
I don’t begrudge Barker this; as I made clear, I think this is almost a hazard of the profession but one that can be a positive. It’s just that if you’re looking for a warts and all portrait of the Lancaster king, you’re not going to find it here. Then again, maybe the negative stuff isn’t out there. History is written by the victors.
Anyway, Once more unto the breach, dear friends. On to Agincourt.
Henry V claimed that he had a right to the French throne. As “What ho! I’m the rightful heir!” claims go, his point wasn’t the worst that’s been made, and in fact, was pretty good (I’m not going to go through all the genealogy on this, so I’m just going to have to ask you to trust me). The French were having trouble themselves with rival parties fighting for their throne. One was the Burgundians, led by John the Fearless (who may have been more aptly named “John the I’ll Sit This One Out Because Although France Is My Own Country an Alliance With England Would Be To My Advantage, So No Thanks, I Won’t Be At the Battle”), and the other were the Armagnacs. The latter were in charge at the time of Henry V’s ascension, but they had the misfortune of being led not by some early D’Artagnan but rather by the mad Charles VI and his feckless, disinterested heir the dauphin Louis, Duke de Guienne.
Henry V had good reasons (or, perhaps, Barker would say, indisputably GREAT reasons) to make his claim at this particular time. First, as noted, the French monarchy was in some disarray. Second, while it was expensive to put on a war, it was also a great way to make money if you happened to win (ransoms of captured nobles could build fortunes). Third, Henry’s father had usurped the English throne from the hapless Richard II (check that—we haven’t seen hapless until we get to Henry VI, I guess), so prosecuting a successful war would be a good way to sell the English people on the house of Lancaster as rightful rulers. Finally, Henry did honestly believe that he was the rightful heir to the French throne, his belief in this so strong that he was not above saying that if he invaded France, he would win because God knew he was right and was on his side.
The invasion force, led by Henry himself, landed near the coastal town of Harfleur in August 1415, laid siege to it and won the town at the end of September. Unfortunately, the army had been badly depleted by disease and Henry decided that rather than take on another ambitious campaign—perhaps Rouen, Normandy, even Paris—it would be better to travel up the coast to Pas de Calais, an English-held town, and spend the winter there regrouping for a spring assault.
Traveling from Harfleur to Calais shouldn’t have been difficult. When the army stopped in towns along the way, they said, “All right! Give us bread and wine and let us pass through or we’ll do to you what we did to Harfleur!” Not wanting to have their homes burned or be starved into submission, most towns obliged by sending out the wine and bread and letting the British pass through (Can’t you picture this happening today? I have this image of a bunch of sullen high school students trudging through a group of knights in armor, tossing out packages of Oreos and cans of Red Bull).
However, in order to get to Calais, the army had to cross the Somme river, and the French had begun to assemble battalions that stood menacingly on the sides of the Somme, staring out with that “No more bread and wine for you, you English bastards with your sorry cuisine!” kind of look. So the British had to keep on trudging upstream, looking for a place to cross. Finally, they did manage to ford the river, but did so with the knowledge that their small, probably 6,000 person force would have to confront a French army that had amassed troops numberinng anywhere from 36,000-80,000. Yet despite this seeming mismatch, the English soundly defeated the French. Numbers of casualties vary from account to account, but the general consensus is that the British lost only a few hundred fighters while the French dead numbered well into the thousands. Many high-ranking nobles were taken prisoner as well. All in all, the dysentery at Harfleur was more devastating to the English than the large, well-equipped French army at Agincourt.
Barker’s book is divided into three sections. The first part sets up the political scene, explaining why the British king thought he had a claim to the throne. It also introduces us to our Prince Hal. Shockingly, Shakespeare was wrong. Hal was not a wastrel as a young man whose wildness was a calculated move to make him seem better when he turned sober (“I know you all and will awhile uphold the unyoked humor of your idleness./Yet herein will I imitate the sun/Who doth permit the base contagious clouds/ To smother up his beauty from the world,/ That when he please again to be himself,/ Being wanted he may be more wondered at/ By breaking through the foul and ugly mists/ Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.” It seems that I have been dragging this quote around forever.). Instead, by age fourteen he was already leading campaigns against rebellious Welsh lords and restless Percys (Hotspur, you ungrateful wretch). Not only was he becoming a military leader, but Henry also observed his father’s fiscal irresponsibility, which at one point became so great that Parliament appointed a council to take over the finances of the country. The leader of the council? Oh yeah, that would be teenage Henry. He was so awesome.
So by the time Henry did ascend to the throne (no easy task—Henry IV liked his son the Duke of Clarence better and took a damn long time to die) he was battle-tested and wise in the ways of running a country. He quickly put England back on better economic footing than it had been for a while, reined in the lackadaisical handouts and lavish lifestyle that had bankrupted his father’s court, and led a circumspect, devout life. No wonder that when it came time to fight, Henry had no problem raising taxes to get money for the war and obtaining loans from towns throughout the country.
Follow the money may well be the motto of the historian, for it is in the account books of the English that Barker puts together the picture of the army that Henry raised. In this most interesting part of the book, she details how different members of the nobility organized their retinues, how many archers they hired, how many servants were required, how many horses were needed, how much they were paid. In turn, the king’s offices kept careful track of all these men and how much were to be paid for each one per day, what percentage each level of person received from ransoms, and so on. Barker excels at this kind of historical accounting work, taking what were presumably dry numbers on ancient rolls and using them to flesh out the army and the intricacy of medieval warfare.
The second section of the book deals with Harfleur and Agincourt. Henry in the field is, unsurprisingly, a marvel. While his army lingers during the siege, he is constantly solicitous of each man’s well-being, wandering amongst them to check in and see if everyone was doing okay. When the siege ended, he made sure that the surrender took place with him on a throne under a gold canopy wearing a crown, to leave no doubt in the French of his royalness. Yet when he entered a conquered town, he arrived bareheaded and quickly made for the church, to underscore his piety. Henry always, it seemed, knew when to lay down the law with some kingliness and when to woo the people with his humility. Henry V was so cool.
The battle took place on October 25, 1415, a date otherwise known as the feast of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, the patron saints of shoemakers, saddlers, and tanners (good—next time I end up with a bad pair of shoes, I’ll know who to be angry at). Henry does not appear to have given one big speech about bands of brothers, and “we happy few,” and all that, but before battle, he did walk amongst all his men giving them words of encouragement and praise. Henry had a more personal touch which was much better than anything that dull-witted Shakespeare could imagine.
Barker covers the battle itself in vivid detail, but most important are the reasons she suggests for the defeat of the French. One major point was that the night before the battle, Henry had the field surveyed, and determined that the ground was too soft and damp for horses. The next morning, no English fighters were on horseback, while the French sent out a full cavalry along with foot soldiers. The result? The horses struggled in the mud and the cavalry was almost completely ineffective. Clever Henry!
Of course that wasn’t the only reason the French failed. Inexplicably, when the English archers were settling into place, the French did not attack. If this move had been made, the whole thing might have been over before it started. The lack of action might have been due to the fact that there were an large number of high-ranking French nobles all jockeying for place and glory in what they were sure was going to be a winning cause. Too many leaders, in effect, created a lack of leadership.
Another problem was that while it may seem that having a larger army would be an advantage, in this case it was not; the space for fighting was small and couldn’t accommodate all the French soldiers. Having so many men was a hindrance rather than a help. In some areas, the very weight of advancing fighters crushed those in front of them. The English force was small, but it was more mobile, more organized, and more easily managed.
At one point, after the battle had seemed won, word came that the French had regrouped and were going to attack from another point. The large numbers of French prisoners taken by the English became a risk; they could easily be rescued and turned back into fighters for the new force. So in a move that some would consider not very sporting, Henry went against all chivalric practices and executed large numbers of prisoners. Well, some would consider it not very sporting; Barker points out that in this situation, if Henry hadn’t killed the prisoners, he would have been putting his own men at risk and his duty was to protect his own soldiers. So while it wasn’t very nice to kill unarmed and wounded prisoners, it was the right decision. Again, Henry rocks.
The battle's aftermath section of the book mostly covers how the various captured French nobles were ransomed and the return of Henry to England. He was greeted with almost unimaginable pageantry, such that might seem excessive for one so good and pious as Henry (don’t worry, he stopped off to pray at Canterbury Cathedral) but what’s the use of being king if you can’t be greeted after a big battle by parades, water towers filled with wine, giant statues, and singing virgins?
My goodness, I’ve said a lot, haven’t I? This is an enjoyable book, very typical of the type of history that is often written now. It’s about Agincourt, but it’s also about chivalry, armor, longbows, money, calendars, food, and disease. In other words, it’s the “one event used as a springboard to cover a time and place in great detail” style of book. Which is fine. I liked this book quite a bit, learned a lot, but alas! did not fall in love with it or Henry V, I’m afraid.
I’ll leave you with this: One of the few English nobles who died at Agincourt was Edward, Duke of York. He was, notes Barker, a figure viewed with suspicion by some for both being a good friend to Richard II but one who turned too easily to support Henry IV. Times were rough, though, and he would not have been the first man whose loyalties shifted to ensure survival. He served Henry V with distinction, but was perhaps best known as the writer of a treatise on hunting, which was the real love of his life. Here is an excerpt from his work:
For when the hunter riseth in the morning, and he sees a sweet and fair morn and clear weather and bright, and he heareth the song of the small birds, the which sing so sweetly with great melody and full of love, each in its own language in the best wise that it can…And when the sun is arisen, he shall see fresh dew upon the small twigs and grasses, and the sun by his virtue shall make them shine. And that is great joy and liking to the hunter’s heart.
Indeed, Edward, it is not just to a hunter’s heart that such a morning would bring joy. And I have said enough tonight and hope I shall see such a morning tomorrow and hope that tomorrow will be the kind of day when I fall in love with my characters all over again and help them get along as best as they can.