Anne Curry’s purpose is not merely to act as a military analyst, but to explore the long cultural history of the battle’s meanings in subsequent British history.
Agincourt by Anne Curry. Oxford University Press. 256 pages. $29.95.
By Thomas Filbin
In response to whether the US Army could be successful at nation building in Iraq, the illustrious armchair general Rush Limbaugh stated, “The purpose of an army is to kill people and break things.” No other human endeavor besides war can boast such spectacular exponential success, an almost continual upward climb toward greater efficiency. Killing, maiming, and starving an enemy into surrender or extinction has enjoyed an ascent from hand-to-hand combat to fighting with steel and horse, gunpowder, air and sea warfare, poison gas and chemical weapons, nuclear bombs, and now drones and robots.
The Hundred Years’ War was one of the major conflicts in European history. Extending from 1337 to 1453, it was really a series of wars between England and France punctuated by short or long suspensions that kicked back in again with renewed ferocity. The underlying problem went back to William of Normandy’s conquest of England. As a French duke he held many fiefs as a vassal of the French king, but when William made himself the monarch of England he appeared to have moved his base out of France permanently. In response, French monarchs thereafter sought to reduce English holdings in France to prevent a potentially English state from becoming more powerful than their own.
Agincourt is perhaps the most famous battle of the war, celebrated, memorialized, and mythologized over the centuries. As a consequence, our ideas about it inevitably entail evolving interpretations as well as its uses as a historical occurrence. Anne Curry, Professor of History at the University of Southampton, has addressed all of this in a new book, a volume in the Oxford University Press “Great Battles” series. This year is the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, fought October 25, 1415, and Curry’s purpose is not merely to act as a military commentator, but to explore the long cultural history of the battle’s meanings in subsequent British history.
Curry argues that the battle, though consequential by being a severe defeat for the French, was not monumental because the wars went on for another generation. The lesson we all learned in Western Civ. 101 was that the English longbow signified the technical divide between the armies—the English army won because of the superiority of its weapons. Curry acknowledges its significance, but the longbow was not the sole factor. A flawed deployment of troops was as much to blame for the French defeat. Clustered too closely together in a narrow front line, the French could not utilize their superior numbers. The muster roll issue is also an important part of examining the military strategy; some accounts had the numbers of combatants on either side being at 20,000 to 50,000, or even more, but Curry’s analysis of the English invasion force places it to be about 7–8,000, while the French had perhaps 10–14,000 men in the field. The slaughter of the French was so quick and savage that heaps of bodies impeded them from launching ensuing assaults on English positions.
One note seldom discussed in English histories of the battle was that Henry V ordered French prisoners killed, a seeming contravention of the rules of war. Curry points out that, while cruel, this practice was not out of bounds at the time: prisoners brought to the rear of one’s position could easily regroup and attack, creating another front to the engagement. Killing the prisoners in Henry’s mind, then, was more military precaution than savagery.
Of course, bringing up the name of Henry V drags Shakespeare into the fray. Generations of English audiences formed their view of Agincourt through the play, which celebrates English fortitude. Laurence Olivier, and, more recently, Kenneth Branagh, have made film versions, and their stirring performances have imbued minds with the courageous rectitude of the English position. Curry notes, however, that original accounts of the battle written shortly thereafter are not plentiful, and the next few hundred years of writing about it had more to do with creating a national legend than accurate war reporting. The English saw their victory as God’s assent to their claims to French lands, while the French viewed it as a punishment from God for their lack of faith and dissolute behavior. “Narratives of Agincourt,” Curry observes, “written in England were closely tied up with the image of Henry V. During his lifetime he used the battle to emphasize divine approval of his cause.”
The propaganda value of what Agincourt had come to stand for was utilized by England during the Napoleonic wars, and then in the Second World War when Olivier’s stirring movie version was released. Because France and England were allies in the First World War, the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the battle was somewhat muted, so the French would not be offended. The patriotic line to be enforced then was that former enemies were now allies against a greater monster—the terrible Hun.
Curry spends time in the book examining paintings, poems, and other cultural recreations of Agincourt, even noting that today the word has become a business asset: “Agincourt Home Care, Agincourt Solicitors, Agincourt Insurance Brokers…”; naming your business after a successful historical event links it with a hallowed tradition of superiority and invincibility.
Curry’s book, while not lengthy, gives the reader a general picture of the battle, but then goes further, exploring Agincourt as a lesson in the various uses (and abuses) of history. She rightfully insists that thoughtful readers must always be wary, alert to how retellings of historical events can serve myriad purposes; they might have been created for reasons far removed from what drove the original event. Linkages are not always apt, and interpretations depend on the ideological positioning (and/or spin) of the interpreter.
Perhaps a large warning sign should be posted at every historical site: “Spectators beware of what is said about this and not confuse events with their myths.”
I am reminded of the story of a Catholic priest who was conducting a catechism class that had covered mystical doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven. A boy at the back raised his hand.
“Father—is this stuff really true?”
“It is all true,” the priest replied, “and some of it actually happened.”
Thomas Filbin reviews books for newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals.