Complete Internal Collapse

Malcolm Vale

  • The Hundred Years War, Vol. IV: Cursed Kings by Jonathan Sumption
    Faber, 909 pp, £40.00, August 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 27454 3
  • Agincourt by Anne Curry
    Oxford, 272 pp, £18.99, August 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 968101 3
  • The Battle of Agincourt edited by Anne Curry and Malcolm Mercer
    Yale, 344 pp, £30.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 21430 7
  • 24 Hours at Agincourt: 25 October 1415 by Michael Jones
    W.H. Allen, 352 pp, £20.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 7535 5545 3
  • Agincourt: Henry V, the Man-at-Arms and the Archer by W.B. Bartlett
    Amberley, 447 pp, £20.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 4456 3949 9

‘It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.’ This is how Aaron Copland explained his Fanfare for the Common Man, composed in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. If any theme links the books discussed here, it is the victory of the ‘common man’ – as represented by English and Welsh archers – on the battlefield of Agincourt, over the chivalric aristocracy of France. The ‘dirty work’ – and it was very dirty – was done by them. They unleashed volleys of arrows, slaughtered hundreds of French men-at-arms, and finished off both prisoners and the wounded who lay helpless. The legend of Agincourt has become so popular – in Britain at least – partly because it teaches that the common man can change the course of history. As W.B. Bartlett puts it, the battle ‘made legends of a class known simply as “the English yeoman”, to whom the triumph of Agincourt more than any others belongs’. The 600th anniversary of the battle, fought on 25 October 1415, was celebrated last year with re-enactments, exhibitions, lectures, acts of memorialisation and remembrance, an ‘Agincourt 600’ website – and the government supported the festivities with a £1 million grant. Henry V, who didn’t go in for triumphalism or self-glorification, would probably have regarded all the fuss with disdain.

The fourth volume in Jonathan Sumption’s five-volume series on the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) covers the period from 1399 to 1422, so includes Agincourt. Sumption brings his formidable skills to bear on some of the ‘great themes’ of the age: the ‘nascent forces of nationalism’, the ‘rising democracy of the streets’, the ‘disintegration of traditional forms of authority’ and the invasion of a larger, richer nation by a ‘smaller and poorer but better organised’ one. The prodigious levels of industry, tenacity and acumen with which Sumption recounts the facts of war, politics and diplomacy are rare in contemporary historical writing. But behind Sumption the dispassionate historian stands Sumption the brilliant advocate, lord justice of the Supreme Court. His transition, many years ago, from the academic world into that of the law, helped give Sumption the freedom to be enormously productive, and he has been. But it also, inevitably, distanced him from the academic community, and there is little sign in his work of engagement with recent debates in his field. The ‘new’ political and (to a lesser degree) diplomatic history, seen as the study of power, conflict resolution and sources of authority (le pouvoir and les pouvoirs); the history of state formation and the ‘polity’; recent work on violence, the emotions, faction and rebellion; recent currents in intellectual and gender history – these are seldom taken into account in what is a traditional, if not conventional, analysis of political and military behaviour. Women act, when they act at all, ‘with masculine determination’, while Catherine of France, the bride of Henry V, is described as ‘the most visible, and perhaps the most popular trophy’ of a peace treaty. The story is told with fluency and a sense of momentum, but the events it covers are not entirely explicable – as Sumption sometimes seems to think they are – in terms of the brutal realities of power politics and baser human impulses. Ideas, if not ideals, are an important part of the story, as is the intellectual, moral and ethical formation of the protagonists. The war did, after all, produce a substantial body of theoretical, prescriptive, polemical and didactic literature, both religious and secular, that improves our understanding of the assumptions, motives and behaviour of its participants.

A second caveat concerns Sumption’s depictions of the characters involved. We are given concise and colourful sketches of the principal actors, some of which border on character assassination. Louis of Orléans is described as ‘vicious: dissolute, and unstable, addicted to gambling and womanising, surrounding himself with wild friends and throwing debauched parties’. These attributes overshadowed his ‘undoubted abilities’, in Sumption’s view, and were only partially offset by his political intelligence and articulacy in council. The count of St-Pol is ‘a braggart … [with] no clear idea of what he was trying to achieve apart from fame’. Henry IV of England is ‘impulsive, changeable, irascible … unwilling to listen to advice’. John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy is ‘graceless, awkward and taciturn’, ‘brutal, cunning and duplicitous’, while his son, Philip the Good, is a playboy prince, given to ‘dancing, feasting, jousting, hunting and fornication’. Philip is admitted to be a subtler politician and better diplomat than his father, but his role as an important participant in the process of state formation in the Low Countries is barely acknowledged. Sumption’s character sketches make Henry V’s apparent sobriety, gravity and chastity, at least after his accession to the English throne, look all the more remarkable. The men disparaged by Sumption possessed, as Johan Huizinga sensibly remarked, the ‘vices … commonly found among the aristocracy’. But if historical writing is thought to be concerned essentially with the construction and judgment of cases for or against individuals, then such character traits are essential pieces of evidence: Sumption tends to address the reader as if from across the courtroom, preferring articles of accusation to pleas in mitigation. One problem with this kind of historical writing is that the judgments it arrives at can mislead rather than illuminate, and are often based on a less than critical assessment of contemporary sources, many of which are highly partisan. Sumption stands in a long tradition of historiography that claims the high moral ground: Gibbon, Stubbs and Acton (the ‘magistrate of history’ and advocate of history as a ‘hanging judge’) would no doubt have approved.

Sumption treats the period as one of French civil war as much as war between England and France. It witnessed the assassinations of the two leading figures in French politics, Louis of Orléans and John the Fearless, in 1407 and 1419; the extraordinary defeat of the temporarily united French (or at least some of them) at Agincourt; the reconquest of Normandy by Henry V; and the creation of an Anglo-French dual monarchy that was intended, but failed, to bring the French civil war to an end. France, Sumption writes, ‘suffered a complete internal collapse and a partial conquest by a foreign power’. His epic drama tells the story of a French tragedy as well as an English triumph, and he claims that the murder of Louis, duke of Orléans, by partisans of his rival John the Fearless, ‘opened one of the most wretched chapters of the history of France’. This murder, he goes on, ‘divided the country for a generation, provoking a brutal civil war which opened the door for the invasion and partial occupation of France by the English’. The events of 12 June 1418, when no fewer than 1500 supporters of the Armagnac/Orléans faction were killed by their Burgundian opponents in one of the blood-lettings to which Paris – described as the ‘homicidal city’ by the Norman poet Robert Blondel – was prone at this time, are shown to have been critical to the political polarisation of France into two mutually hostile zones. To speak, as Sumption does, of an ‘iron curtain’ partitioning France may be an exaggeration, but the geographical, legal, even psychological division of the country, which had always been difficult to unite, was not resolved for a long time. The city of Paris, which looms large throughout Sumption’s narrative, became intolerable in the eyes of the French monarchy, and the royal family spent an increasing amount of time in the Loire valley.

The division was made more pronouced on 10 September 1419 by the murder, on a bridge at Montereau during a diplomatic meeting, of John the Fearless by his Armagnac/Orléans enemies, a killing in which the dauphin, the future Charles VII, was implicated. There would now be no possibility of French unity in the face of English conquest. The reigning monarch, Charles VI, had been intermittently absent from power since 1392 due to his affliction with what looks to have been paranoid schizophrenia. In an age of personal monarchy, this left a dangerous power vacuum, with powerful royal brothers, uncles and cousins competing for power, income and patronage. Though attempts had earlier been made to patch up their quarrels, from 1419 onward the princes and their supporting factions were locked in a feud that was to last until (and even beyond) the rapprochement between Philip of Burgundy and Charles VII at Arras in 1435. The ferocity of the antipathy between the two camps was played out internationally too, in peace conferences and in the councils of the Church. Its intensity shocked the austere Cardinal Niccolò Albergati, who was given the thankless task of attempting to reconcile the warring parties. He finally succeeded at Arras, but that was a long way off in 1419, when Henry V, rather than the dauphin Charles, was seen by some in France as the country’s potential saviour, not its destroyer.

What Sumption fairly describes as the ‘pious orthodoxies’ of French historical writing (after Michelet’s mid-19th-century evocations of the French spirit) have given very little credit to Henry V’s attempted creation of a dual monarchy. After May 1420, when the Treaty of Troyes between Henry and the representatives of Charles VI was sealed and cemented by a marriage alliance, the French – apart from the dauphin and his supporters – were no longer the enemies of the English. The victor of Agincourt deserves to be considered a peace-maker as well as a warmonger. The ‘warrior-king’ tradition of both British and French historiography makes him an implacable enemy of the French, but later nationalistic preconceptions have obscured the 15th-century reality. The fact that the two realms of England and France, linked in a dynastic union, could be treated as separate entities, neither superior to the other, under the terms of the Troyes treaty, is testimony to the resilience and institutional strength of the French kingdom. Henry V’s assumption of the regency, and his heir’s assumption of the French throne, ensured the survival of a structure that was relatively stable, in spite of the murderous violence with which it was surrounded. The Lancastrian dual monarchy, in its French manifestation, was intransigent in its defence of the rights, prerogatives and authority of the French crown. Nothing was to be changed, and the institutional framework of the French state remained largely untouched.

‘Anachronism, hindsight and patriotic myth’, in Sumption’s words, have played their parts in the historiography of this period: Henry V invaded and occupied much of the heartland of the French kingdom, but could never – so the story goes – hope to pacify a country unified by hatred of its perfidious neighbour. Sumption notes the beginnings of a concerted move on Henry V’s part towards an agreed and potentially durable Anglo-French peace settlement in the winter of 1421-22. What was Henry V’s bottom line? The retention of Normandy and the ancestral Plantagenet lands in Aquitaine as territories held in full sovereignty, independent of the French crown? Or was his claim, through Edward III, to the crown of France never to be renounced? Was the continued partition of France between the houses of Lancaster and Valois a viable solution? We will never know. The king died, just before his 36th birthday, in the small hours of 31 August 1422.

The monk-chronicler of St-Denis – the ‘official’ historian of the French crown – wrote that Henry V ‘had the bearing of a king, pitiless to rebels … yet just and gentle to his own’. But the pitilessness was often tempered by the regal exercise of mercy. Beside Henry, the insane Charles VI, the well-intentioned but relatively impotent and bankrupt German emperor, Sigismund, and the disinherited, inexperienced and untested dauphin cut sorry figures. Recent (and not so recent) attempts by historians to cut the victor of Agincourt down to size, to make him yet another ‘common man’, have failed. Sumption’s work tends to confirm his stature.

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The Agincourt anniversary year saw the publication of several books devoted to the battle itself. Anne Curry sets out, as far as it is possible, what actually happened on 25 October 1415. The battle was not a decisive one, and did not force the French into negotiating, let alone surrender; Henry V didn’t wish to fight it, but was trapped into doing so; his deployment was designed, in turn, to trap the French and goad them into attack; the ‘overwhelming’ odds, in terms of the number of soldiers engaged against the English, have been exaggerated; the Welsh were a small minority (an estimated 10 per cent) in the army; and the lesson of Agincourt, if any, is that military commanders ‘should never assume an easy victory against a smaller, but well-led, cohesive and skilled, enemy army’. Questions remain relating to both the location of the battle, since archaeological excavations have yielded little (no grave-pits) and to the size of the respective forces. Curry’s most recent estimate of 8,680 English to about 12,000 French, mostly from Picardy, upper Normandy and other parts of northern France, seems plausible. If these figures are accepted, it would make the battle less of a David and Goliath struggle than is popularly assumed. Curry also gives a good account of Agincourt’s after-life in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and in myth, legend, literature and propaganda, and describes the attempts made by the French to explain away the strange defeat. From the mid-19th century, it was claimed that the low-born English archers had brought down a decadent, effete and (in some cases) cowardly French nobility – a view also held by some in France after the battle. A report drawn up in 2001 on the threat to French wine production posed by New World vineyards took a related line. A civil servant wrote: ‘At Agincourt we were defeated by our own self-certainty and complacency much more than by the English archers.’ For the British, the battle retains a symbolic value: at the beginning of the celebrations in Trafalgar Square after London beat Paris in the competition to provide the venue for the 2012 Olympics, William Walton’s arrangement of the ‘Agincourt Carol’, from his score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version of Henry V, was played to the jubilant masses.

The ‘Agincourt 600’ commemoration included an exhibition at the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London. The accompanying lavishly produced catalogue, edited by Anne Curry and Malcolm Mercer, contains 24 contributions from a distinguished cast of historians, including three from France. Rowena Archer, in a piece on war widows, notes the appalling casualty rate in some French noble families. The Craon family from Anjou, which had a history of soldiering and government going back to the 12th century, lost four of its members, becoming extinct in the male line.

Despite evidence that the French displayed the military virtues of courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice at Agincourt, the notion of the fallibility of their nobility continues to find supporters. English pragmatism, sobriety, professionalism and discipline won the day. Michael Jones, in 24 Hours at Agincourt, endorses this view, as does W.B. Bartlett, both of whom attempt to give hour-by-hour accounts of the battle and its preliminaries. It has become fashionable to try to lend verisimilitude and immediacy to a narrative by adopting this format, but the approach is contrived, and the sequence of events in these books is constantly interrupted, with consequent loss of momentum, by discursive digressions that often stray far from the battle. Jones, alone among the authors discussed here, has an original – if not eccentric – interpretation of Henry V’s battle plan. He claims it was derived from English hunting rituals, in which concealed archers – ‘forest bowmen’ – outwitted their prey with a surprise attack. There is not a shred of evidence for this. The fact that one of the king’s three chief commanders and supposed battle-planners was Edward, duke of York, the author of a celebrated hunting treatise dedicated to Henry, seems merely coincidental. The treatise itself – an English version of the Livre de chasse by Gaston Phoebus, count of Foix and vicomte of Bearn – hardly supports Jones’s argument. In hunting, the bow (often the crossbow rather than the longbow) was used to enable the accurate targeting of prey, but Agincourt demonstrated the devastating effects of longer-distance collective volley-firing. The use of surprise in battle was certainly not news. But Jones has interesting things to say about the crushing and suffocation caused by the ‘funnelling’ effect that the English used to trap and bring to a halt the advancing French men-at-arms. There is general agreement among historians that it was this that won the day for the English.