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Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England

by Julie Barker, Little Brown and Company, New York, 2006, $27.95.

William Shakespeare, with the aid of Lawrence Olivier’s Academy Award–winning motion picture Henry V, has made Agincourt (1415) the sole medieval battle known to the average educated American. Historian Julie Barker has delved deep into the surprisingly rich record to produce a thoughtful, detailed description of early 15th-century politics and warfare.

Although mistaken on many details, Shakespeare was not wrong portraying King Henry V as an admirable fellow, even by today’s standards. His father, Henry Bolingbroke, provided practical training in medieval kingship besides serving, in his own reign, as an example to avoid. Bolingbroke deposed his cousin, King Richard II, in 1399 and probably murdered him. Richard was unpopular, but his successor, Henry IV, did not improve matters. He also spent most of his reign in ill-health, so the future Henry V, still an adolescent, found himself leading armies putting down rebellions. This turned out to be a good education for Henry.

One can be a victorious general in the absence of political skills (George Patton and Douglas MacArthur are examples), but a successful national leader must have the benefit of widespread respect and few powerful enemies. George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower managed this, and Henry showed similar instincts. He could be as brutal as the average medieval general but generously forgave defeated rebel leaders. He also forgave his father’s enemies on taking the throne, and most (but not all) served him loyally. Perhaps most important, he treated Parliament with respect.

This was no minor matter. Until the 17th century, England’s revenue system was so rudimentary that during peacetime rulers were expected to govern using their private incomes. They could ask for money during a crisis (invariably wars), and Parliament usually went along, but the funds came in a lump sum designated solely to overcome that crisis. Naturally, rulers were tempted by this avalanche of money. Henry IV was more tempted than most, handing out sums to supporters and using it for personal purposes. This infuriated members of Parliament, who attached strings and appointed members to hold onto the money. Even as a prince, Henry V showed more fiscal responsibility as well as more charm than his father, so he never had trouble raising money. This was critical because his great-grandfather, Edward III, despite dazzling victories at Crécy and Poitiers, had defaulted on immense loans from Italian bankers, so that source was unavailable.

Assuming the throne in 1413, Henry proceeded to suppress a few threats to his authority before taking up the traditional occupation of English kings: fighting the French. Recall that a French duke, William the Conquerer, had successfully invaded England 350 years earlier. As kings of England, his descendants continued to rule parts of France and had legitimate claims to additional provinces and even to the French throne. Their eagerness to enforce those claims varied with the strength of the French monarchy, and Henry could not fail to notice that King Charles VI (1380-1422) was insane, and that bitter power struggles among powerful French lords had reduced the country to near civil war. Henry sent diplomats to suggest a solution to ongoing claims, one in which Charles would hand over territory and money. No one expected Charles’ representatives to agree.

The armies do not collide until the book is three-fourths done, but many of those 280 pages describe how Henry raised money, acquired ordnance and men, assembled the necessary 1,500 ships and led this unhygienic force of 12,000 men and far more horses across the Channel.

Landing in Normandy, he laid siege to Harfleur, now a suburb of Le Havre but then a leading port. A stubborn defense took more than a month to overcome, derailing Henry’s plans to march deep into France. When the town surrendered in October, the campaigning season was ending and the army had been devastated by dysentery. Returning to England would be admitting defeat, so in a show of strength, historians theorize, he marched his troops, now numbering 6,000, toward English-held Calais 120 miles away. By that time the long-delayed French army was blocking river crossings, requiring long detours. After two weeks, having long exhausted food supplies and only a few miles from its goal, the army was forced to fight.

No one should read Agincourt for its description of the battle. John Keegan’s 30-page account in The Face of Battle remains one of the jewels of military historiography. Barker does a fine job with the added benefit of a long prologue that delivers a reasonable explanation of the French disaster. She quotes medieval chroniclers who maintain battles are won by dash and courage, then demonstrates that Agincourt was no different from most: Victory blessed the army with superior discipline, firepower and luck. Although several times larger and rich in experienced leaders, the French force had no overall commander, so every knight wanted to charge in the vanguard.

Earlier, the English forces had advanced to the narrowest portion of the battlefield, funneling the enemy advance down to a narrow front. Worse, French men-at-arms charged toward their English opposite numbers, ignoring the lower-class archers massed on either side. Worse still, rain the previous night converted the battlefield into a quagmire that favored a stationary army.

The English line recoiled, then held. French front ranks were too densely packed to fight efficiently. Men behind them pressed forward, eager to engage. Reinforcements piled into the rear, adding to the crush. On the flanks, English archers fired into the mass until their arrows ran out, then took up hand weapons and hacked away. Agincourt was largely a three-hour massacre.

Agincourt might have been a fluke, but Henry acquitted himself well when he returned to France 18 months later. But that’s another book, because Barker tidies up the aftermath of the battle and then stops. One hopes volume II is in the works. It would deliver an intelligent account of medieval personalities and their politics as well as a nuts-and-bolts description of how they fought. It would be good history, but good history rarely has a happy ending. In that sense, Agincourt was a fluke.

Was Agincourt indeed “the battle that made England”? Not really. Some spectacular victories—Waterloo in 1815 or Tours in 732—changed history. Others, such as New Orleans (1814) or Chancellorsville (1863), were merely spectacular victories. Agincourt should be ranked with the latter. Henry’s 1417 French campaign captured Normandy, threatened Paris and won over powerful French nobles. That persuaded Charles VI to sign the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, which disinherited his own son and named Henry heir to the throne. When Charles died in 1422, Henry would have been king of both France and England—had he not died two months earlier. His son, Henry VI, was an infant, and within a few years Joan of Arc was on the scene.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.