Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England
better subtitled in the UK as The King — The Campaign — The Battle
© 2006 Juliet Barker
In the fourteenth century, nation-states as we know them did not exist. There was a England, and a France, but their borders were more fluid — and entangled. The English crown held title to much of France through marriage and ancestry, and because the English royal house descended from a Franco-Norman duke, the king of England was technically a vassal of France. This created the kind of tension released only with knights and massed formations of archers: the Hundred Years War, a series of conflicts between two nations and several royal houses. One of the most memorable episodes of the war was the upset at Agincourt, in which a small English force triumphed against a larger French array. In Agincourt, Juliet Barker tells the story of the battle in such
Henry V’s motives for invading France were varied. The old claim of Edward III which inaugurated the Hundred Years War was not his; Henry could barely claim kingship of England, let alone France. His own father was a naked usurper who died early fighting resistance to his claim, and though the cloud of scandal was mostly lifted by the time the handsome young Harry succeeded, it hovered still. France needed addressing, however: it remained a nuisance to English interests on the Continent, not only around Aquitaine but in Flanders. England’s prosperity came from trade, lately the Channel had become dangerous for shipping. Securing the coast would make it easier for England to smother piracy, and if the lush interior of France became a crown possession, so much the better!
It was not to be, however. Initial hopes for a display of overwhelming force against the French countryside fell apart during a siege of a French harbor, Harfleur. The port was taken eventually, but its defenders’ obstinacy cost the English army dearly. By the time the gates opened, the invading force’s strength had been sapped by disease. His numbers too much for the battered city to sustain, Henry decided to retire to the English held-port of Calais. He could limp to safety only through a country of enemies, whose watch over the rivers prevented a quick dash north. After watching the dwindling army for several days, the French finally checked the king’s march near the tiny village of Azincourt. Grossly outnumbered and weakened by sickness, the English should have been crushed. Instead, the Battle of Agincourt turned out to be one of the greatest upsets in western history. The section on the actual battle isn’t enormous, this is a story of why Agincourt happened and why it was important, and while the full story of the battle is delivered with talent, this isn’t a military history. The reasons for victory are there: Henry drawing the French into battle on ground of his choosing, in an area that undermined the French cavalry and allowed the English to make the most of their excellent longbows — and when the French desperately pushed through the mud and rain of death to assail the archers, the English knights pounced! In later campaigns Henry would achieve his aims (briefly) against the French crown; history would see them reversed, however, squandered by less heroic successors. No one save historians can remember the Treaty of Troyes — but Agincourt has achieved greater fame. Not only did it save Henry from capture or death, but the miraculous upset seemed to impress upon the English that regardless of the spurious actions of his father, Harry was God’s own anointed. Why else would he have been spared? It was a triumph of not just arms, but belief.
There are undoubtedly more detailed military histories of the battle, but Barker’s narrative gives the reader both a heroic champion whose surprising victory comes as a delight, and a lot of background information on early 15th-century English society and trade. For an introduction to the battle, it’s quite serviceable and easy reading.