The drama of St Crispian’s Day: Shakespeare got it right

The battle of Agincourt — a high point of Cursed Kings, the penultimate volume of Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War — was a great English victory snatched from the jaws of defeat

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

Cursed Kings: The Hundred Years War, IV Jonathan Sumption

Faber, pp.909, £40, ISBN: 9780571274543

Charles VI of France died on 21 October 1422. He had been intermittently mad for most of his long reign, ‘a pathetic figure’ flitting, often witless, around his palaces. He left a ruined and divided kingdom. There was no French prince to follow his funeral. ‘Tradition was maintained by a solitary figure in a black cape and hat’ on foot behind the coffin. ‘It was the Regent of France, John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford.’ His brother, Henry V of England, married to Charles’s daughter Catherine, would have become King of France had he not died of dysentery two months previously. His infant son, Henry VI, would indeed be crowned King of France, but that is just beyond the scope of this marvellous history, which covers the years 1400 to 1422.

The Hundred Years War lasted for more than a century (1337–1453). Jonathan Sumption embarked on its history in 1979. There will be one more volume to complete what is surely a masterpiece of historical writing. It is wonderfully detailed and acute in analysis, yet the narrative never flags. Sumption never forgets that people now long dead were made of flesh and blood, driven by ambition, fear, hatred, love, jealousy. History is written looking back, but the good historian writes in the awareness that for his characters the future is terra incognita.

For the English the great Shakespearean moment of this book is the battle of Agincourt and its hero Henry V. Sumption shows that Shakespeare got it right. He also shows, dramatically, that it was a victory snatched from imminent disaster. If the French had held off battle, content to harass Henry’s diminished, sick and ill-supplied army as it struggled to reach a port from which it might escape to England, Henry’s great expedition would have ended dismally, and he would have found it difficult to persuade Parliament to grant him the resources necessary to mount another invasion. So Agincourt changed everything. Yet ultimately England was engaged on a war beyond its strength.

The story is full of drama. The French king’s incapacity during his frequent periods of ‘absence’ provoked a struggle among the princes for control of the government and its revenues. In 1407 John Duke of Burgundy, styled ‘the Fearless’, organised the murder of his cousin, the king’s brother, Louis Duke of Orleans, cut down in the rue Vieille du Temple in the Marais quarter of Paris. Civil war simmered ever afterwards. Twelve years later the Orleanists (or Armagnacs) had their revenge. John the Fearless was murdered on the bridge of Montereau where he had come, reluctantly, for a conference. ‘The murder was an egregious folly. For France it was a tragedy on an epic scale.’ It committed the Burgundians to an alliance with England. A century later a guide displaying the gash in John’s skull said, ‘By that hole the English entered France.’

Sumption paints a picture of medieval Paris every bit as vivid as that which Victor Hugo would offer in Notre-Dame de Paris, and, I would guess, more accurate. His account of the year 1413, when the Orleanists were driven out and for months Paris was in the hands of a revolutionary mob known as the Cabochians, reads like a trailer for the great Revolution of 1789; the horrors were no less. Though little of medieval Paris survives as it was then, you can still follow much of the narrative of this terrible year on foot as well as in your imagination.

One of the many strengths of this history is to be found in Sumption’s repeated insistence on the importance of money. Armies have to be financed and supplied, and this was hard, even though many of the forces engaged in the long, if intermittent, campaigns were small, only a few thousand men. But without money you can’t make war; you can’t maintain a siege; you can’t hire ships to transport armies.

The past, as we are often reminded, is another country where they do things differently. True enough, but they also do things much the same. As Henry V prepared for another expedition to France in 1416, his chancellor (and uncle) Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, told Parliament that ‘the history of his reign had been a long struggle for peace. Let us therefore make war so that we may have peace, for the object of all war is peace’ — which, after all, is why we invaded Iraq.

This is an enthralling book, fascinating, dramatic, compelling; also a wise one, as the best history is. I hope to live long enough to read Volume V, which will of course feature Joan of Arc. What an enticing prospect!

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  • Mack

    You invaded Iraq? Was that wise of you?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Kindly note that the battle of Agincourt took place on 25 October 1415, namely St Crispian’s Day.
    I’m sick of ignorant clowns telling me I’ve got the wrong date.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • Labour Mole Catcher

      There are many chips on the shoulders of this Japanese fantasist, indeed!