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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

“Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England”, by Juliet Barker

464 pages, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN-13: 978-0316015035

If you can set aside the Hollywood and Shakespearean versions of Henry V for a few hours and immerse yourself in the details of the complete campaign in France in 1415 – starting with the ascension of the young king and running through to hints of the eventual outcomes of the war (think Joan of Arc and some rare French victories in revenge) – you will find an exhaustive and at times exhausting account of piety, intrigue, treachery, treason, courage, leadership and good, old-fashioned battlefield management in Juliet Barker’s Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England. The complex, seemingly comic (at least to most Americans, who never had to experience the lineage of kings, dukes, earls and knights) genealogy that makes Henry first King of England and then to claim his rightful place as King of France provides the first third of the book. To the uninitiated (that is, to anyone who is NOT an English historian) the people, the claims, the terms, can be bewildering…but stick with it, as it is the Big Picture that really matters. Barker provides ample details of the skill and leadership of Henry V in first convincing others of his claims, and then in convincing his parliament to fund his huge undertaking. Like a pious politician, he wins the hearts and pocketbooks of his people, forms an army, and sails for France.

First, he must take the French port of Harfleur, which he overwhelms even as his own army is wracked by dysentery. After a more protracted siege than he expected, Henry must then set off overland for Calais, which is not that far – just up the coast, really – but there is the Somme River, a mile wide at the sea, and a pestering French force stopping his river crossing. So Henry detours, even cuts away from the river, than takes advantage of an opportunity to cross. With the crossing, he sets the stage for Agincourt (or rather, “Azincourt”), as the French have taken Henry’s delays as a chance to form up between Henry and Calais. Bad fortune, stupidity, hubris, and rain do in the French almost as much as does Henry’s wise use of archers, topography, and spikes. On this second point, Henry takes the bold move to narrow the gap in the field he must cover, providing him with one final edge on this cold, muddy day. Estimates of the French strength run as high as 150,000 men, but 18,000 to 30,000 is rather more realistic; the English have 6,000 to 9,000 but, more importantly, the English have firm, clear leadership – and few knights planning to charge stupidly through the muddy field. For the French the battle is brief and disastrous, and by day’s end the heralds can see clearly the carnage. The finest of French nobility lies dead or captive by the English. Henry returns in somewhat modest triumph; credit for the victory goes to God, and he sees the French as having been punished for their sins. Agincourt takes its place as one of the most memorable battles in western history.

Barker is a thorough journalist, and she captures human elements that transcend time and tradition. Endnotes are detailed, descriptive, and numerous, but a few more maps would have helped. And expect to be periodically confused unless you understand claims to royalty.

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