Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England

Review of Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle that Made England, by Juliet Barker Little, Brown and Company (New York, 2006)

During the Hundred Years War, England's King Henry V also laid claim to the crown of France, and to make good that claim he launched an unexpectedly successful armed raid through the French countryside beginning at Harfleur and ending at Calais. When the French army gathered at Agincourt, the vastly outnumbered and seriously debilitated English army won a resounding victory, and thanks to William Shakespeare that victory has been immortalized.

Juliet Barker's Agincourt: Henry V and the battle that made England is a mistitled but easy to read overview of the character of Henry V and his conduct of one of the most famous campaigns of the Hundred Years War. Barker provides a thorough background, both genealogical and ideological, to England's claim to the throne of France. She deftly explains the factions and personal foibles that divided French nobility at the beginning of the fifteenth century, leaving the country susceptible to attack. She also makes good use of the English exchequer records describing the preparation for the campaign. With this wealth of context, Barker makes a strong, and mostly successful, effort to draw the reader in to the late medieval mindset prevalent among the nobility at the time, especially regarding matters of chivalry and honor. Her work with primary sources is impressive, and will be quite enjoyable for a reader trying to capture the flavor of the time. It appears that she tells the story much as Henry V would have wanted it told.

Unfortunately, this ability to immerse herself in the late medieval point of view is both a strength and the primary weakness of Barker's approach. In trying to immerse the reader in the spirit of the times, Barker loses her sense of perspective and fails to analyze the events she describes. For example, she uncritically repeats a primary source account of how the young Henry was treated for a battle wound through the face that left an arrowhead "embedded six inches deep in the bone at the back of his skull." (31) Barker imagines the patient's agony during treatment without skepticism, but does not suggest how one could take seriously the idea that Henry survived such a wound and the subsequent medical treatments in the medieval era.

Barker's fascination with Henry's puissance and nobility is a touchstone throughout the text. She describes the Welsh rebellions as a learning experience in which he handled his enemies brilliantly; she discusses the way that coronation was a "spiritual event" for the king; finally, Barker announces that the English army at Agincourt had the "sole advantage that it was supremely well led." (251) Her conclusion has all the thundering certainty of one who stands before the medieval Christian church with an unalloyed sense of justification: She announces that the outcome of the battle of Agincourt showed "God had chosen to bless [Henry] with victory … despite the fact that he was the son of a usurper." (364) Barker asserts that this divine justification was more important than the campaign's effects on the political and military situation between England and France.

On smaller matters, she is universally generous towards Henry in her explanations, even while she denigrates the dauphin without providing any proof that his actions had different motivations than Henry's. During the campaign, Henry issued a challenge to single combat to the dauphin; Barker goes to great lengths to convince the reader that Henry meant this challenge seriously, and therefore the dauphin's lack of answer is evidence of his French cowardice, rather than a rational political or military decision. On the other hand, Henry's bold, even brash, reply to a similar challenge from the leaders of the French army is adduced as evidence of Henry's "courteous" nature. How a man with such a courteous nature, who followed "precisely the code of conduct that governed the medieval laws of war," could order the wholesale massacre of prisoners after battle is explained in terms of military necessity, without questioning the struggle between such necessity, if it even existed, and Henry's deep piety and punctilious observance of chivalry.

This lack of a critical approach climaxes in Barker's failure to analyze the battle after which the book is titled. She frequently slips into a simple narrative, as if describing the events from an eyewitness point of view. Barker sometimes attempts to convey the human experience of the battle; this concern is laudable, but that combined with her uncritical and unsophisticated reading of primary sources leads her into ridiculous statements such as claims that English arrows came so fast that "the sky literally darkened over," or that soldiers were "clambering on top of the heaps of slain to butcher … Frenchmen below," when neither of these statements is physically probable in actual battle. (281, 288) Barker's fascination with primary sources allows her to repeat these claims, without referencing the sources, while she chooses not to use seminal secondary works such as John Keegan's Face of Battle, which goes to great lengths to deduce and describe the physical and mental experience of being in the battle of Agincourt.

Furthermore, Barker's focus on the chivalric mindset also blinds her to more mundane concerns. She considers the fact that each Englishman "knew his place … within the chain of command that led directly to the king himself," to be of equal value with the shared hardship and bonding of the men on campaign when judging the strength of the English army. (267) Implying that the reassurance of a theoretical chain of command is as crucial as soldiers' commitment to each other in determining the combat cohesion of an army exemplifies Barker's overly simplistic approach to the human elements of military endeavors.

This book would do better to represent itself as a partial biography of Henry V than an account of the battle of Agincourt. It is an excellent account for a reader interested in how the Agincourt campaign was a tremendous triumph for Henry V; the text includes references to primary sources and provides a thorough historical background for those who may only have encountered Shakespeare's dramatization of the events. For the more historical reader, however, it presents a gentle narrative unburdened with a preponderance of evidence or analysis. Barker's adulation of Henry V is pleasant to read, but a reader who accepted it as the whole truth would, in Shakespeare's words, "think himself accursed."