Monday, March 09, 2009

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

Shakespeare’s Henry V has always held a high place as one of my favorite plays by the Bard of Avon. Furthermore, the Battle of Agincourt depicted in the film version of the play by Kenneth Branagh, has been a fun, if not entirely historically accurate account of this pivotal and remarkable victory by a shabby, sick, under-provisioned band of invaders.

Juliet Barker has provided a detailed account of Henry’s rise to the throne of England, including his unique preparation in political, military, and diplomatic arenas. His vow to reform corrupt feudal officials, defend the church, and ultimately to recapture English lands in France, made him a beloved and effective monarch.

English history from the fourteenth century through the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, has always held a great deal of fascination for me. I have an extensive collection of biographies and histories from this period of English History. Barker has brought much of this time period into sharp focus.

Regardless of the admiration I have for Shakespeare’s version of the campaign, I always knew some exaggerations, deletions, and additions must have slipped into his account. I have always felt the play was propaganda to bolster the ego of Elizabeth the first, a descendent of Henry V, who was known for his ability to achieve consensus and motivate grumbling nobles, peasants, and merchants into supporting him. The rousing speeches Henry delivers before the walls of Harfleur and the “St. Crispian’s Day” speech immediately before the battle never happened.

The slaughter was unimaginable. The miracle of the English victory, largely attributed to the intervention of St. George and God himself, was due largely to French over-confidence, infighting among various factions of the French nobility, poor planning, and refusal to begin the battle. Each side wanted the other to attack first. Henry, who was concerned with his sick and demoralized men, decided to reform his battle lines, and attack. This opportunity, clearly visible to the French, was ignored.

One interesting point I never consider involved the consequences had the English lost the battle at Agincourt. The financial, political, and military disaster that would have resulted would have drastically altered English history.

This wonderful book contains more detail than the casual reader may want, but Barker has put together a gripping read. I sailed through this volume in two days. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 3/8/09

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