Although I have always been interested in History, majored in U.S. History in college, and have almost exclusively read History books since, I never knew much about Agincourt except that it was a major English victory during the Hundred Years War. When the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt passed last month, I decided to learn some more about the battle and chose Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England by Juliet Barker.
Barker’s Agincourt isn’t just about the Battle of Agincourt alone, but about the campaign as a whole, including the siege of Harfleur, the reasons and preparation for the campaign, and the after effects of the campaign. The book is roughly divided into three sections. The first section brings the reader to the rise of Henry V, explains why Henry V has a claim to the throne of France, develops Henry V’s personality and character, and explains how England prepared both militarily and financially for the Agincourt campaign. The second section covers the campaign itself, including the siege of Harfleur, the fractious nature of the French, the Battle of Agincourt itself, and the reasons why the French lost. The third section explains the effect the battle and campaign had on both the French and English and looks at what happened to members of both the English and French nobility in years that followed, foreshadowing future conflict between the two. Barker’s writing is compelling and holds the reader’s attention; she even manages to keep the reader interested when explaining the financial preparations for the campaign. As someone who isn’t versed in the various levels of nobility, the book never bogs down over rank/social status and she does a wonderful job of explaining how chivalry explained many actions and behavior. She does an excellent job in bringing Henry V to life, showing how there were both practical and moral motivations for many of his actions. She also handles Henry V’s controversial order to kill prisoners at the end of the battle, looking at the decision from several perspectives.
While reading Agincourt, I was particularly struck by two things: the personality and character of Henry V and the organizational differences between the English and French. Henry V seems to have been an extraordinary leader – experienced, energetic, practical, and pious with a commanding personality. He seems to have recognized talent and ability and let bygones be bygones (within reason) when the situation called for it. The organizational and leadership differences between the English and the French were simply night and day and came down to Unity of Command; the English had it and the French did not. The English had once clear commander and leader in Henry V. The French had no once clear commander in the field and as a result many of the nobility were at the front trying to do the same thing – advance their chivalric reputation. That ended up being one of the primary reasons the battle was lost, there was no one central leader to assign responsibilities then hold those commanders responsible as Henry V did with the English.
Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England is an interesting and informative read; I enjoyed it thoroughly. I not only learned a lot about Henry V and the Agincourt Campaign, it whetted my appetite to learn more about the Hundred Years War and what came before and after Agincourt. I’ve already bought Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, 1417-1450 and it will be my next read. The only complaint that I have is one that I have with many military histories – a lack of maps. The Kindle version of Agincourt has no maps. Maps of where the English landed in France, their positions in the siege of Harfleur, movements of the French toward the English, and maps of the battlefield and movements during the battle would make the campaign, siege, and battle much easier to visualize and make it much easier to understand where the forces were in relation to each other. If the print version has maps, it would definitely be a five star book, but the Kindle version is a four star book for the lack of maps.