A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Though Shakespeare and many others would have it that Agincourt was the one great battle that decided all, it was actually only the beginning of this story. That unlikely victory encouraged Henry V to further military action to exploit internal turmoil in France and expand English territories. Eventually he had his eyes on the ultimate prize: after a couple of years of campaigning and the Treaty of Troyes, Henry married Catherine of Valois and was named the heir to the crown of France itself. The dauphin, King Charles VI’s son and true heir, was disinherited and pushed aside, but still alive. He had his loyal supporters, and they would haunt the English kingdom of France until he got his birthright back – and more.
Henry died young in 1422. His son became King Henry VI as a small infant, but his kingdom of France was in the capable hands of his uncle John, Duke of Bedford. The thing to remember, though, that even when things were going relatively well, the region was never quite stable. The kingdom of France was basically in a constant state of war, with some scattered spots of peace here and there. And then came along Jehanne d’Arc. Her actual achievements are debatable, but there’s no question that along her came the momentum with which the French would sweep the English off their territories – though it would still take a couple of decades and many setbacks before this could be accomplished for good.
Bad administrative decisions, bad luck, and after Bedford’s death in 1435 a lack of central authority all contributed to a downward spiral for the English, and bit by bit they lost their crucial strongholds in France. Peace negotiations came with a high price, and even so, the peace didn’t last: in the years leading up to 1450, England finally lost all of Normandy. There were moments when the English might have won decisive victories, but with hindsight one has to wonder whether even with capable leadership – even with Henry V himself at the helm! – they’d have been able to hold onto a country whose natural allegiances lay elsewhere.
Even more disastrously, the English began to lose their grip on Gascony, which had belonged to the kingdom of England since Eleanor of Aquitaine brought it as her inheritance. This part – though not really covered at all by the scope of Barker’s book, which has a specific focus on the English kingdom of (northern) France – is something that interests me particularly. I wonder about the many personal tragedies of the Gascons whose allegiance lay with England and whose last hopes were destroyed by the defeat in the battle of Castillon in 1453. Those Gascons and Gascon Englishmen who didn’t or couldn’t switch their allegiance to the King of France (something that many important Gascon noblemen had already done) were uprooted and lost everything. One wonders what exactly happened to all these people when they were forced into exile in England?
The fate of English France would play a decisive role in the future of England itself. All that remained of their possessions in France was the pale of Calais. Stunned and furious, the English began to look around for people to blame . . . with disastrous consequences. Would Henry VI have lost his throne, if it weren’t for the total fiasco in France? Probably not: as luck would have it, he’d got past the most dangerous years of a child king and had already been a grown-up king for years when things started unravelling in his hands. But the unravelling had its roots in the disintegration of his father’s conquered lands, which had obviously begun years before. One might even speculate that if Henry V had never conquered anything, Gascony wouldn’t have been lost; and if Gascony hadn’t been lost, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened. Barker, too, points out that had Henry V been content with conquering only the duchy of Normandy instead of the kingdom of France, things might have turned out very differently indeed.
Juliet Barker is the author of an acclaimed 1,000-page tome on the Brontë sisters, so it came as something of a surprise to me that she’d condensed this much material – almost four decades, innumerable battles and skirmishes, and a multitude of important people – into a mere 500 pages. (And that includes the notes and the index!) But somehow, Barker pulls it off. The chronological narrative flows beautifully, and we get glimpses of fascinating personalities: especially the major players like Henry V, merciless but efficient; the Duke of Bedford, almost as efficient as his brother. The short career of Jehanne d’Arc towers over an entire section of the book (as well it should!). Inevitably, some get the short end of the stick, such as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who probably wasn’t – despite his failures – quite the self-important, fumbling idiot as he comes across in this book. Out of necessity, many names merely flash by, though many of the unknowns have intriguing stories attached to them – like Richard Venables, an English man-at-arms who gathered his own private army to wage his own private war, with motives and loyalties that are quite unclear. (He fought the French Armagnacs, but was eventually executed by the English, who evidently didn’t view him as one of their own.)
The Hundred Years’ War is remembered for its iconic battles – Agincourt among them – but the reality was much more scattered and confusing: a military back-and-forth with a battle won here, a castle lost there, one city under siege, another city betrayed by cloak-and-dagger priests, and regions lost and won and lost again in a relatively quick succession. It was a ruthless war, with both sides committing atrocities on the civilian population that are enough to make the bile rise in your throat. Both thought they had God and justice on their side, but neither had the moral upper hand. For this reason a book like this, however interesting and well written, is bound to be a flurry of dates and names and casual (but not detailed) descriptions of bloodshed, so I’m not sure how well it would hold the attention of someone who hasn’t got at least some prior interest in – and some prior knowledge of – the subject matter.
However, if you do have any such interest, then this is the perfect book for you. A marvellous summary of its specific subject.
Paperback, Abacus, 512 pp. ISBN: 0349122024
Also published with the title Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, 1417-1450.