Again with the poor timing: I’ve just finished reading Agincourt by Juliet Barker and was considering whether I can be bothered holding on until Saint Crispin’s Day (25th October) before I post this – obviously not. And so this post is coming out exactly 599 years after some point in the middle of the Siege of Harfleur. This book covers that as well but it’s not quite as dramatic, is it? Anyway … I thought I’d write up a bit of a review of this book, and its follow up Conquest. These books come well recommended, with Bernard Cornwell quotes on the cover and much praise from other reviewers and historians.
I feel somewhat out of place to then say that I found these books disappointing. There’s so many positives in them – they are tightly written, cover the story with an expert eye from the grand scheme to the small details, contain some wonderful anecdotes*, characters and events, and are placed at a level that should be perfect with me (not too scholarly but assuming a certain level of background knowledge for their off hand references to Lollards or Richard II’s usurpation). However, I find these positives backfire and much of this detail is delivered flatly in a tone and pace that remains unswerving whether it is covering the peak of the battle of Agincourt or the production of cloth in the pre-war preparations. I know this is unfair, it’s a very well researched book and it never strays in irrelevancy, but it just doesn’t spark into life for me when it should.
They are books that are balanced to a fault. Obviously it’s not always appealing for authors to set out with a bias and controversial view in mind, but I don’t feel like I’ve picked up much of Juliet Barker’s insight here. Henry V is a character whose reception in recent years has become more mixed that in previous, but apart from a few brief thoughts on the implications of an English defeat or a lasting peace, Barker doesn’t add many conclusions to this book. Other characters like Edward of York are given brief biographies** that fill out their personality and dispel some of the Tudor propaganda that has dominated the popular view, but it is still very subdued. Give me drama! Give me excitement! Draft in Bernard Cornwell to spice it up a bit!
Having said that, Conquest suffers from this even more than Agincourt. Despite being generally balanced, these are books written for a British audience and Agincourt has the advantage of covering a extraordinary rise and battle against the odds. Conquest also covers a battle against the odds, but in a rather gloomy decline and slow trickled of power from the English to the French. It often comes down to the economics of the situations and Barker peppers the text with figures and statistics. I probably like stats more than most people, but there’s a time and a place and I’m not sure they quite fit into these books in the way they are presented. Again, I don’t like to be harsh – these are very well researched books on a very exciting period of history – but they just don’t get me going.
It iss certainly true though that these cover an exciting period of history! The tale of Agincourt may have been recrossed again and again by the English but it is a fantastic one, and it is one that can’t help but show the English at their best and the French at their worst. Due to some dubious legal interpretations in several locations the young Henry V would find himself as king of England with a claim on the French throne and in particular the ancestral lands in Normandy and Aquitaine. There was a certain advantage and opportunism to Henry pushing these claims – his family’s dodgy right to the English throne and a chaotic situation in France (the king Charles VI had infamous spells of insanity and there was a power struggle between his relatives and the powerful dukes of Burgundy) – but Harry was also a true believer with a strong will. He was incredibly pious and enforced a strict code of justice and discipline on his realm. He was even good enough to get away with this and, despite his young age, controlled the country with a security that would be unheard of for decades.
Henry played the diplomatic and logistical situations well and was soon setting off for the north coast of France with a sizable army. At this point things started to go a bit wrong. He laid siege to the important port of Harfleur and, while he was victorious, would lose time and much of his army during the process. He then decided to march to Calais but the French had finally (sort of) got their act together and were tracking his army with one of their own. Henry marched up the Somme to find a place to cross with his men gradually becoming shabbier and demoralized. He did eventually cross and found himself face to face with the French near a couple of villages – Tremecourt and Azincourt.
Henry was vastly outnumbered but he had that self-belief and a disciplined (if beleaguered) army. He had also checked the weather and knew the ground would be unsuitable for the charges of the French knights. The French on the other hand lacked central leadership and, though they had a plan, struggled to implement and adapt that plan to things on the day. The English would use their powerful archers to win the battle and, thanks to a bit of a false alarm about a counter attack, make the brutal decision to wipe out their French prisoners. In the aftermath England would be standing strong behind a popular and successful leader while France remained as divided as ever with an entire generation of nobility decimated.
It was all downhill from here and this is where Conquest picks up. Or almost, Henry would do one more successful campaign and win recognition of himself as heir to the throne of France. Unfortunately for the English, he died of dysentery two months before the French king and this deal never came to fruition. England was then left in the care of Henry’s newborn son – Henry VI. It’s not too much of a spoiler to point out that he would be a absolute disaster as a king, but things were declining before he even got close to adulthood. Henry V’s brothers (John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester) would take over the running of the kingdom and the war. Regency is a difficult thing at the best of times and there was a split between supporters of different policies and tactics in the war (or peace) with France. This lack of unity in England (combined with a growing French unity following the death of the Burgundian Duke John the Fearless) would lead to the English holdings in France falling away. This part of the story isn’t drab (It has Joan of Arc in it! And great characters like John ‘the English Achilles’ Talbot.) but it’s a slower and more meandering one than the English resurgence. It is as much about organization and logistics as much as it is about diplomacy and war. There are again plenty of details to draw on here and Barker includes plenty of them to set the scene and tell the story, though again it just doesn’t come alive where it should for me.
To sum up, they’re both good books and will certainly fill out the details of the Agincourt campaign and the end of the Hundred Years War in a very complete way. For anyone who has been taken in by the likes of Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction, these are definitely recommended. However, despite the expert views and unbiased picture, I found that the level of detail led to uneven pacing in places and to the books never really taking off in the way that they should have.
* One that stood out for me was the suggestion that the word ‘knackers’ comes from the old english word ‘nakerer’ for a military drummer who played a set a drums hanging below the waist.
** Edward was an interesting character – loyal to Richard II, then turned to Henry IV when the end was in sight (the subject of a recent http://historyofengland.typepad.com/ podcast) and the author of an apparently fantastic essay on hunting “The Master of Game”, which was more recently republished with a foreword by President Roosevelt (okay … not too recently)