Monday, July 27, 2009

Agincourt

Is the battle of Hastings was famously a victory for the equestrian over the pedestrian classes, Agincourt, at the opposite end of the Middle Ages, produced an unlikely reverse result...for every Englishman on that autumn day in 1415 fought on foot, the King included.

And although the English upper classes had embarked on this cross-channel escapade in order to enforce a union of states already suggested by the Lancastrian monarch's coat of arms, their victory would unleash English political and cultural life from the francophonic hegemony originally applied by the Normans.

As soon as I finished Juliet Barker's account of Hank Cinq's epochal gamble, I handed it to my father, who in turn found it un-putdownable. He did however note that the battle itself plays a rather small part in this often dense account of Henry V's first continental campaign.

Indeed, if logistics are your thing, there's plenty to get excited about here. Personally I liked the sound of the 'job bag' system that Henry set up so that he could keep an accurate track on the sums 'indented' by those boarding the ships of the invasion fleet he had hastily put together (in part by pawning his own jewels), and was surprised to find that the process of haggling between crown and parliament for the necessary war-chest was already reminiscent of the separation of powers that characterises American government today.

It would take Henry's expedition three days to disembark in Normandy, and so frustrated were the French at their Constable's inability to defeat this D-Day precursor on the beaches that they later accused him of treachery. In fact it seems that D'Albret had simply had the bad luck to position himself on the wrong shore of the Seine in advance of the landing.

Henry certainly made a number of crucial tactical decisions after the capture of Harfleur which prevented his cause experiencing a bloody letdown, such as the short-cut taken between Corbie and Nesle which allowed the English to cross the Somme unhindered. They were also helped by the fact that the French were obliged under the rules of chivalry to give their enemies the choice of battleground, and that subsequently — and more mysteriously — they permitted them to advance on the eve of battle to the narrowest part of the chosen field, thus spannering the home team's pre-battle strategy of outflanking Henry's longbowmen.

It seems however that the flower of French aristcracy had a perfectly viable plan for overcoming Henry's smaller, dysentry-ridden force (archers included), and might have carried the day but for their comparative lack of centralised leadership. They had set aside many of their factional differences in order to gather there in such large numbers, but it appears that every senior lord present was determined to take up a position in the van, and some accounts tell of so many heraldic banners in the French ranks, that they ended up becoming an obstruction.

My father remains 'amazed' that Henry, strutting around in full royal battle regalia, wasn't singled out and whacked by a dedicated hit squad of French knights fairly early on. (Someone did however manage to lop the fleur-de-lis off the top of his helm with a well-aimed swipe.)

He also expressed astonishment at the levels of sophistication which prevailed in higher-end European life in this period. I somehow managed to skip the later middle ages at both school and university, and it is less the incipient modernity than the post-medievality that fascinates me now — post used here in the same sense as post-modern, for all over Barker's book there is evidence of the courtly culture of the Middle Ages disappearing up its own rear end.

The Monty Pythonesque qualities of fifteenth century warfare are here epitomised by Raoul, sire de Gaucourt, defender of Harfleur and founder member of the Order of The White Lady on a Green Shield and the slightly kinkier Order of the Fer de Prisonnier. For men such as these there was no better way to settle the issue of a siege than underground mounted combat a l'outrance in the narrow tunnels dug by humbler-class (and in this instance Welsh) miners.

Yet it was realpolitik driving Henry's decision to postpone for years the release of de Gaucourt — in spite of the fact that this colourful knight had successfully completed the quest mandated by his captor to recover Henry's crown, coronation orb and assorted fragments of the true cross: all pinched by light-fingered Frenchies during the course of the battle.

Barker's book nevertheless also serves as a reminder that when we describe the Saudis as 'medieval' we are in fact doing a an injustice to the men-at-arms who faced up to each other near the village of Azincourt. Theirs was indeed a maculine, chauvinistic ethos, but the special courts of morality they set up, were there not to try adulterers for capital crimes but rather to shame those male members of their class who had committed "offences of chivalry against ladies."

Most memorable character? French man of the cloth and possible double-agent Raoul le Gay, who after 'escaping' from captivity at Harfleur reported to the local Normandy authorities that the worst part of his experience had been the English beer.

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