Eric Christiansen

A dreadful victory

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Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle

Juliet Barker

Little, Brown, pp. 460, £

The trouble with great historical narratives is the volume of detail they demand: tidal waves of personal and place names, of dates and sums of money, of CVs, menus, fashion notes, light brown hair and glacial moraines, which after 25 pages remind the untrained reader of the showing and telling of holiday snaps. Yet history without detail is worse than hot air, just a deflated party balloon caught on a hawthorn tree. Details have not merely to be included, but used as crampons up the rock-face of past time. Ways and means to ration and present them exist, and the most convenient is the footnote; it is a pity that Dr Barker’s publishers do not seem to have heard of it. They make her squeeze into the text stuff that holds up the narrative, and post shrivelled gobbets of information to the end-notes, where no one can see them. As a result this fine book is too long, and in places it drifts. There was no need to pack the suitcase with so much underwear, such as disquisitions on the lack of maps in the 15th century, on the supposed shape of the world, or on the variety of mediaeval dating systems; or to soothe us with lists of the names of Picard nobles called to arms by the French king, euphonious as they are: ‘the sires de Croy, de Waurin, de Fosseux, de Creqy, de Helchin, de Brimeu, de Mausnes, de la Viefville, de Inchi, de Beaufort, de Noielle and de Neufville’. It’s all right for Proustians, but hardly as essential as the excursions on heraldry, weapons and surgery.

However, this is a tremendous story which will carry most readers through to the end despite the delays. A smaller English army, footsore, sick and starving, was confronted by a huge French force intent on wiping it out, and managed not merely to defeat but virtually to annihilate the flower of the enemy’s military manhood; as if the British expeditionary armies of 1914 or ’39 had stood their ground and destroyed their German opponents. Much was against these reckless invaders: numbers, weather (torrents of rain to slacken bowstrings), supplies, and communications with possible reinforcements. As with Oliver’s in Ireland, Henry V’s boys had to let down their breeches in battle to let out the diarrhoea, and before it started they had put earth into their mouths to prepare for death. Only their king was sure that they would win, because God would grant victory to the just cause, whatever the odds, and he had no doubt that his own inherited rights over the French obliterated any preference these ‘rebels’ might have for obeying their own king. The rest of his army, like the chaplain who wrote an account of it soon afterwards, having trembled and wailed in the baggage train, seem to have feared the worst. A combination of lucky accidents and good leadership enabled them to deliver a knockout blow to knights committing involuntary suicide by repeated attacks over a narrow front where they were at a disadvantage. It was a glorious and dreadful victory for both sides, since both displayed amazing courage, and both were to endure dismal consequences. It committed the English to 35 more years of war effort, ending in ignominious withdrawal, and the French to many more defeats and losses before they won.

Despite those occasional mudbanks of detail, Dr Barker’s retelling of these famous events pushes on to its goal, leaving a clearer picture of the less famous circumstances which enabled David to kill Goliath. An assessment of the comparative resources of the two kingdoms would have helped, but the main point is that in 1415 those of England were concentrated under the leadership of a capable and aggressive leader with mainly loyal lieutenants, while those of France were partly negated by civil war, the madness of the king, the incompetence and youth of his heir and a lack of trust between the many military experts mustered in the army fielded at Agincourt. The dauphin, who ‘longs to eat the English’ in Henry V Act III, Scene VII, was not in fact present, and the most powerful of his nobles, the duke of Burgundy, was waiting to see who would win. Dr Barker makes it clear that English archery and Henry’s generalship were not the only or even the main reason why the French lost; it was rather because they failed to use their superior strength and high spirit in the right place at the right time. If they had attacked earlier; if they had attacked while the English bowmen were digging up and moving their defensive wall of sharpened stakes; if they had not posted their own archers out of range, to the rear; if they had not persisted in advancing on top of each other; even if one of the Sire de Croy’s brothers in arms had smashed Henry’s helmet rather than nicking it — they would have won.

We know that they didn’t, but Dr Barker keeps us on tenterhooks almost to the end by using a wide range of sources to minute the gradual worsening of Henry’s chances of getting out of France alive from the moment he rode north from his hard-won conquest of Harfleur with a force already one fifth depleted by disease and losses in battle. If the French had let him slouch on to Calais and sail home, while they recaptured Harfleur from its small garrison, this adventure would have been a warning rather than an inspiration to his followers; but honour made that unthinkable. The difficulty some may have in empathising with a king prepared to risk thousands of his best men and horses in pursuit of a dubious territorial claim, or with knights and nobles honourable to the point of masochism in keeping the oaths they had sworn as captives, but utterly treacherous in competing for power, or with whole populations prepared to accept the outcome of battle as the voice of God is lessened by the author’s shrewd assembling of case- histories and background information on the culture and beliefs of those involved.

So, after all, we get a series of memorable pictures in downbeat language, such as the teenage Henry’s coming out of the battle of Shrewsbury, 12 years before Agincourt, with an arrow sticking out of his face and its head buried deep in the back of his skull. He then endured a slow extraction by means of an extemporised surgical corkscrew in the hands of the royal surgeon Bradmore, who had learned his skill as a counterfeiter of coin. Henry survived that excruciating operation, and the dressing of linen, bread, turps and honey rammed into the wound, and was back fighting the Welsh in no time. At least he knew at first hand the horrors he expected others to suffer on his behalf for rather lavish wages which work out at sixpence a day for archers.