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.

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