Unless you’re a British history buff or a Shakespeare fan, I can’t imagine how the name Agincourt would ring with familiarity. For me, it’s the latter, and the central battle of Shakespeare’s Henry V is revived with Bernard Cornwell’s newest novel.
I discovered I’m in small company when I say that Henry V, save for some bright spots, is kind of a lousy play (My qualms with it, though, have little to do with Shakespeare’s historical accuracy or lack thereof). Still, I found myself intensely curious about the Battle of Agincourt and the young king who hacked his way to a seemingly miraculous victory.
Henry V was one of England’s most heroic monarchs, pretty much the last of the great conquering British kings of old. By the time Shakespeare’s play was performed, the legend of Agincourt and its victor had been inflated for two centuries. This was a guy that the English could look back on for inspiration.
I think we like Henry today because his heroic appeal is irresistible, bowl haircut notwithstanding. Branagh’s movie does the trick. But Henry V is an odd duck among Shakespeare’s heroes because he seems too good: unlike Henry IV, Hamlet, Othello, etc. there doesn’t seem to be much moral ambiguity about him.
But it’s there, I tell you.
In the play, Henry is such a great bloke that you might miss the fact that he bluffs and deceives friend and foe to accomplish just about everything. Also, his motives for going to war with France — taking power through the will of God — seems pretty inconsistent with his humble and amiable characterization. He loves his “band of brothers”, sure, but he’s still dogged in sacrificing his Englishmen for his own precarious gains, as a medieval king does.
Just who was this guy, really?
With the king’s first appearance in jet black armor, you know Cornwell’s Henry is different from the get-go. He watches heretics (“Lollards”) burned at the stake or hanged — all by his decree, of course. His face is scarred from an arrow he took at the Battle of Shrewsbury, an arrow that should have killed him. But he takes this as proof that God wants him alive to do His work, and that includes, Henry is convinced, exterminating “God’s enemies”. The French refuse to recognize his complicated claim to the French throne — and naturally God also hates the French, so it’s off to war.
But this villainous introduction to Henry is smoothed out once we get to know the king and he manages to prove likable through Cornwell, too. But we’re never to forget what drives the king to greatness is his Christian fanaticism and the conviction that no matter what he does, God is certainly on his side.
I wonder if in some respects this is the Henry that Shakespeare wished he could portray, and get away with.
The battle is even more curious.
If you go by the Shakespeare figures, (which he got from Holinshed’s Chronicles) our friends across the pond eradicated ten thousand French at the loss of twenty-nine. Not thousand. Twenty-nine unlucky guys.
Some people began to question this stupendous casualty report, the killjoys. But even after additional research, most estimates still indicated quite an amazing ass-kicking by the English. Cornwell went by the most likely outcome: 200 Johns and Lukes killed by the French, and 5,000 Jeans and Lucs killed by the English. The fascinating question is how in God’s name did that happen?
Cornwell attempts to respond to this in novel form, and he’s pretty convincing. This is undoubtedly, among all its other merits, the greatest accomplishment in Agincourt. Without spoiling the drama, here are some of the keys to victory as detailed in Cornwell’s depiction:
- The almighty English longbowmen — these countryfolk were amazingly strong (more buff in fact than your strongest knight in armor) and trained from a young age. The French hated hated hated these guys; English men-at-arms were to be slain, but English archers were to be tortured, then slain.
- The terrain — deeply plowed land + torrential rain the night before = clumsily advancing Frenchmen.
- Leadership — So yeah, that St. Crispin’s day, “band of brothers” speech we love? The English likely had quite a rally and superior tactics. Also, it’s doubtful that the French had a clear commander of their forces, and many among their ranks were either apathetic or drunk from the previous evening.
You can probably tell that I’ve been excited for this book. And if you feel something for the Shakespeare play, you’re gonna want to read this one, too.