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A Battle Royal at the Library

by Bill Peak

I'm pretty sure I have William Shakespeare and Bernard Cornwell to thank for the fact the battle of Agincourt has long fascinated me, for it was after I read Cornwell's novel of the same title and saw Shakespeare's Henry V that I began to seriously ponder that battle's many imponderables. These are, in no particular order:

In 1415, Henry V of England attacked France. His first goal, the seizure of the fortified town of Harfleur, took much longer than expected. By the time the city's garrison surrendered, Henry had lost a sizeable number of his troops to disease, probably cholera.

Now, knowing that the king of France had sent a great host to drive the English from his realm, Henry's only hope—if he was to avoid the destruction of his army and his own capture and imprisonment—was to race all the way across northern France toward the safety of the English-held town of Calais. But before he set off on this desperate march through miserable weather, he had to weaken his army even further by leaving enough men behind to defend Harfleur, the prize won at such great cost.

For a while the two armies played cat and mouse, but, eventually, near a village called Agincourt, the French managed to place their much larger force between the English and the road to Calais.

By this time the English force was on half-rations, so the soldiers that faced the French the next the morning (October 25, 1415) were hungry, exhausted, and riven by disease (it is believed that the dysentery was so bad among Henry's troops that some of them went into action that day sans culotte).

Looking at the odds—a well-fed, armor-clad French army of at least 15,000 men against an English force of, at best, 7,000, all of them half-starved and some half-naked—it's easy to see why everyone expected a great slaughter of Englishmen.

Yet the English not only carried the day, they killed so many Frenchmen that it took that country's nobility nearly a century to recover its numbers and sort out the property transfers necessitated by so great a mortality. Authorities disagree on the precise numbers, but there is no doubt that thousands of Frenchmen died that day, while contemporaneous accounts claim only 30 English dead.

Thousands vs. 30. You would have thought Henry V had machine guns at his disposal, not bows and arrows.

And if such a lopsided English victory isn't enough to make you scratch your head in wonder, there's one final conundrum that never fails to intrigue me: despite numerous attempts to do so, no archaeological evidence of the battle has ever been found—no hastily dug graves, no broken sword hilts, no dented helmets, not even so much as a thrown horseshoe. Despite the fact that, for centuries to come, the British would celebrate the victory and the French lament it, as far as professional archaeology is concerned, it never took place.

And so it was that, when I learned Michael Livingston, a professor at The Citadel, had written a new book about the battle, I immediately did two things: (1) I used the "Suggest a Title" option on the Talbot County Free Library's website to ask our acquisitions librarian to purchase a copy for Talbot's collection, and (2) using our inter-library loan system, I ordered a copy for myself from the Anne Arundel County Public Library.

I won't give away any of his conclusions, but I can tell you Livingston's exhaustive research has led him to propose a new site for the location of the battle (which, if he's correct, should solve the missing artifacts dilemma) and an English battle plan that helps explain Henry's improbable victory without making the French look like suicidal fools.

But Livingston's book does more than just solve the many mysteries surrounding Agincourt. It ends up being an extended lesson in not just history but the making of history: how we study the past, how, in telling and retelling it, various biases inevitably slip into the narrative, and how our view of the past is just as inevitably colored by our present, the intellectual paradigm that structures our study.

Perhaps just as interesting, and far more disturbing, the book—which spares none of the senses in describing close quarters combat between men wielding axes, hammers, halberds, and flails—makes us wonder, yet again, how rational human beings can so willingly engage in war (it was the older men, the veterans who had already experienced such battles, who were the most eager that day to enter the fray).

Finally, Livingston's Agincourt: Battle of the Scarred King is a good story, well told. I brought the thing home from the library on a Friday and finished reading it before the fire on Sunday afternoon. By the time this column is published, the Talbot County Free Library will own its own copy of Livingston's book. You should be able to find it on the New Books shelf at 944.0254 LIVI.

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