Agincourt by Juliet Barker

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The Independent Culture

Barker writes that "in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq" it is "impossible not to be struck by the echoes from six centuries ago". After reading this book, I cannot say that I heard many myself, nor that the gripping story was any the worse for it. The parallels, if any, are to be drawn with the First World War for the wiping out of a generation of aristocrats, at least on the French side, and the enthusiasm for poetry of some participants. Even this comparison is tenuous. Barker is concerned to overturn our image of the combatants as brutal, medieval thugs. However, there are certain differences between Wilfred Owen penning verses before falling to a machine-gun bullet and his 15th-century counterpart shoving a dagger through the visor of a prostrate French knight before relieving his victim of any saleable items. When the first wave of the French attack at Agincourt failed and a second threatened, the order to put to death those who had surrendered in good faith was famously delegated to the archers, who had fewer compunctions than the well-born men-at-arms. This blot on Henry's honour was justified by the military reality on the day and proves that winning, not chivalry, was in the end the most important thing for those involved. For a religious fanatic like Henry, the battle's positive outcome was enough to demonstrate the Almighty's forgiveness of any crimes.

Henry was also aware that God's verdict could be influenced by competent preparation. To transport his initial 25,000 troops he assembled an invasion fleet comprising 1,500 ships - 12 times the size of the Spanish armada. This was achieved by commandeering every ship over 20 tons currently in English ports, whether they were English or foreign-owned. Foreign visitors also helped with the financing, though some needed encouragement. Ten partners in Italian merchants' houses were thrown into a debtors' prison for declining to grant the crown loans totalling £2,000. Only an unhinged individual could display such unrepentant cheek while, at the same time, exhausting every legal and ecclesiastical avenue to ensure that his adventure was morally and legally unquestionable. When Henry accidentally rode past the village selected for his lodgings by his scouts, he refused to turn back since he was wearing his coat of arms and this would count in his own mind as a retreat - just one example among many here of his obsession with chivalry.

In the 15th century, as many others, living on the borders of English territory could be like farming the slopes of a volcano, and after Henry's march from Harfleur to Calais, French chroniclers wrote mischievously of the English destroying everything in their path. However, the king prohibited such behaviour on pain of death.

In fact, the defeat at Agincourt was widely believed to be divine retribution against the Armagnacs for their sack of Soissons the previous year, where nuns were raped and the townsfolk slaughtered. Some explanation was needed of how 6,000 bedraggled English men, half-starved and racked with dysentery after three weeks of marching in poor weather, could defeat a host at least six times their size. The answer was skilled leadership which made best advantage of the conditions that bogged down the French cavalry and left them at the mercy of archers who could fire as many as 20 aimed arrows in a minute.

The author remarks that those who lost their lives at Agincourt were men of great importance to the French administration, though she does not explore the consequences of this. One wonders what these were, and if indeed the loss of a few more unproductive oppressors would have been felt by the populace at large. The locals certainly wasted no time stripping naked the bodies of the fallen. Similarly, she charges - against the view that the English victory merely precipitated decades of war and waste - that had the French won the day as they were expected to, the loss of the cream of England's aristocracy and gentry would have been "catastrophic". The loss of an effective ruler aside, one wonders in what way precisely. One thing is reasonable to assume: Henry's pedantic adherence to the rules of chivalry - with the notable exception of his order to slaughter the surrendered at Agincourt - would have seemed, in the light of failure, the eccentricity of a very sanctimonious young man.