Reviewed by Frances Stonor Saunders.
Shortly after dawn on
Harry's army also creaked, from joints stiff after weeks of exposure to incessant rain, and from armour that had rusted. Some men were barefoot, their shoes having disintegrated on a desultory march across 250 miles of hostile territory. Sick, half-starved, outnumbered by five to one - how did this pitifully reduced host transmute into the noble force that with "terrible aspect" humbled the pride of France at Agincourt 600 years ago?
The French army was vastly superior in number, but its bulk outweighed its intelligence. With no leader (both the king, Charles VI, and his dauphin, declined to make an appearance) or proper chain of command, it lacked the coherence and discipline of the English. During the lengthy period of deployment on that wretched field of the
Distracted by this competitive gallantry, they failed to take advantage of Henry's highly risky redeployment of his archers, who actually had to turn their backs to the French as they adjusted their position. Free to commence their deadly work, the archers unloosed volleys "as thick as rain" (in
What followed was carnage on a scale not seen in the Hundred Years' War since the battles of Crècy and
The military facts of the battle of
From her introductory section on the background to Henry V's quarrel with
Barker dismisses stories of "Henry's wild, misspent youth and his dramatic conversion at his coronation into a sober, just and righteous king" as mischievous invention, but doesn't explain what animated this reverse hagiography. Nor does she explain why the chroniclers log Henry's every eyebrow movement up to and including on the eve of battle ("A little touch of Harry in the night"), only to leave us with such a pallid impression of his role on the battlefield itself.
Elsewhere, Barker is more vigilant in her reading of primary sources (not just for what they say, but for what they fail to say). She is right to warn of the "propaganda trap" that historians must dodge, "the one-sided, politically motivated or simply jingoistic" response to
Barker is sometimes vulnerable to a bit of Old Vic nostalgia, but the weight of evidence she presents in this ambitious book speaks for itself: medieval war was a brutal business, and no amount of glamorous chivalric accessories can disguise that fact.