Sunday, 25 October 2015


Today is the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt.

From the Chronicle of Enguerrand de Monstrelet. Source: wikimedia

Last weekend, I was privileged to speak at a day of lectures on the context and battle of Agincourt.  I had been a bit wary of the activities organised to commemorate the battle, but what made this day so effective, and what has made many of the lectures, exhibitions and activities organised by Agincourt600 so valuable, is the thoroughly nuanced approach which has been adopted.

Part of this has involved detailed research on the numbers of men fighting, wounded and killed; on the weapons used; on the provisioning of the army; and on the siting of the battlefields.  This has been done by examining indentures, inventories, quittances and so on - rather than relying on chronicle accounts where more or less hidden agendas can prove very distorting.   Anne Curry's new book on Agincourt is particularly effective here.  The result is to illuminate what remains an extraordinary battle, but to become more respectful of the suffering involved, and the sheer logistics of the operation.

Part of this has involved setting Agincourt in a far wider context:  the political factionalism in France, arising in the main from a king suffering from paranoid schizophrenia who often believed he was made of glass; the rise of the House of Lancaster in England, with its mighty dynastic ambitions; and the staggeringly talented Henry V.  Malcolm Vale spoke on Henry V, and drew a portrait of a king immensely courageous and skilled at battle strategy, but also pious, concerned for Church reform, careful (he wrote many wills), cultivated and a workaholic.  It all serves to remind us that whilst we might pick out one historical moment, the reality was far more richly textured.  Military activity was one thread in a weave of political instability, economic interests, diplomacy and social dislocation.

Memorial for the battle. Source: wikimedia

And perhaps most strikingly, rather than simply contributing to the myth of Agincourt, the commemorations have shown how this myth arose.  Such is the particular strength of Anne Curry's new book - why has Agincourt in particular achieved such a pre-eminent place in the popular imagination?  Shakespeare is often held responsible for the image of the good king Hal, and the defeat, against all the odds, of the French.  But of course, Shakespeare is a great writer precisely because his work resists a single reading.  He challenges us because he shows that life is an entangled web of perspectives, where easy judgements can mask infinitely complex realities.  And this seems a fitting way to think about Agincourt.

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