Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
7 Sept. 2016
Review by James R. Smither, Grand Valley State University
Agincourt Remembered
Descriptors: Volume 2016, Middle Ages Print Version
By Anne Curry
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 256. ISBN 978–0–19–968101–3.
Agincourt: The Fight for France
By Ranulph Fiennes
New York: Pegasus, 2015. Pp. vii, 326. ISBN 978–1–60598–915–0.

Anniversaries of major battles produce flurries of new books to commemorate them. The 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (1415) is a case in point. Ideally, the new works include significant reappraisals of the battles, but there were already several recent good (non-anniversary) works on Agincourt.[1] For the most part the two books reviewed here cover familiar ground, at least as military and political histories of the battle and campaign. But their authors have found distinctive new angles of approach to their topic.

At first glance, Fiennes, a former British Army officer, seems an odd choice. He has spent his life not in academia, but, among other things, chasing Marxist terrorists across the Arabian Peninsula, circumnavigating the globe on foot via both poles, and climbing Mount Everest. But his family has a very long pedigree in the Anglo-Norman nobility, and several of his relatives served at Agincourt. Fiennes weaves his family chronicle into the history of Anglo-French relations from the Norman Conquest through the Wars of the Roses. His lively narrative does not elide or whitewash the uglier sides of war or medieval noble culture. While some of his claims about certain aspects of medieval history will set specialists' teeth on edge, his version of the Agincourt campaign and battle conforms to the scholarly consensus. His accounts of his relatives' lives and careers and allusions to his own experiences add a distinctive flair to the story.

Fiennes begins with the Norman Conquest in 1066, wryly noting that one of his relatives advised William the Conqueror to give up and go home during the Battle of Hastings. That advice notwithstanding, members of what became the Fiennes family loyally served William and his descendants for several centuries, acquiring titles and properties on both sides of the channel. Fiennes moves quickly through the next 350 years of English and French military history and dynastic struggles. While he takes some pride in his family's part in that history, his ancestors more often appear as arrogant, scheming, self-interested noblemen than as chivalric heroes. His sympathies lie far more with the English archers who secured battlefield victories and the commoners who suffered in wars started by ambitious kings and nobles.

Fiennes offers a detailed narrative of the Agincourt campaign itself, moving between the two sides and following his family members as they approach their dates with destiny. On the English side, several proved to be heroes, first at the siege of Harfleur and then at Agincourt itself. On the French side, events were frustrating and ultimately tragic. The author focuses on Robert Fiennes, a Norman nobleman and experienced soldier whose uncle was Constable of France in the late fourteenth century. Robert, Constable Charles d'Albret, and another veteran commander, Marshal Boucicaut, preferred the strategy that had worked so well for an earlier Constable, Bertrand Du Guesclin, namely, harassing the English and preventing them from foraging, while refusing battle in circumstances favoring the English longbowmen. As the French army gathered, however, in the absence of a royal family member to keep them in line, less experienced noblemen overruled the old hands in their eagerness to capture the English king and followed a battle plan that seemed doomed to fail.

Robert Fiennes had, earlier in the day, walked down the field between the villages and had noted that, although the available space between the two woods where the army would form up was some three-quarters of a mile wide, it narrowed down to less than half a mile at the point where, he estimated, the armies would actually clash. And this would see the bigger force seriously compressed. He also noticed that his feet were sliding about as he walked, due to the mud in the field's deep furrows. He remembered his uncle's many repeated warnings that mud was the great enemy of cavalry and heavy armour. Boucicaut and d'Albret were in agreement that, however well they commanded their divisions on the morrow, they were worried that such a large army should have nobody with experience in overall charge. This they felt was the greatest danger they faced in the coming fight. Robert looked at his shoes and the muddy trail of footprints behind him and was not so sure. (198)

The next day, Robert, wounded and captured in the battle, was apparently killed by the English. Since he left no memoir, Fiennes exercises some artistic license here, but he does shed light on major problems faced by the French.

Fiennes draws on personal experience in a variety of ways. He compares Henry's planning of the Agincourt campaign to his own efforts to fund and conduct his polar expeditions. He discusses in graphic detail his bouts of dysentery, a disease that plagued the English army in 1415. He compares Henry V's order to kill thousands of French prisoners after the battle to his own experience in Arabia, where his small force encountered lone goatherds who might betray them to the terrorists they were fighting. Though Fiennes chose not to kill these individuals, doing so would have been justified, since, as he was well aware, other British patrols had been ambushed after releasing prisoners. When Henry gave his order, French forces seemed to be assembling for a new attack. In that context, the French prisoners might have posed a threat. In light of this and given Henry's limited information about the condition of the French army and its leaders, Fiennes gives him the benefit of the doubt (225–29). This is not exactly scholarly history, but it brings to bear the kind of experience that scholars seldom have. One of the consequences of the battle and the killing of the prisoners was the near extinction of the male line of the French branch of the Fiennes clan, whose holdings passed to other hands.

The story in the rest of the book follows the English side, where those who had distinguished themselves in the campaign, along with their descendants, often went on to checkered careers; several lost their heads. For example, in 1447, James Fiennes, Lord Saye, seems to have had a hand in the death of the Duke of Gloucester, leader of the faction opposed to King Henry VI's desires for peace. Fiennes closes by noting the irony that one of his relatives had almost prevented the whole Anglo-French mess from starting in 1066, and another helped end it nearly four hundred years later.

Readers with a serious interest in the military history of the Agincourt campaign should begin with Anne Curry's 2005 book, but the new works reviewed here have strengths of their own. Curry's discussion in Agincourt of source materials and the evolving memory of the battle will enable readers to approach other studies more critically. In turn, Ranulph Fiennes's uniquely personal account offers insights and perspectives not found in more conventional histories.

[1] Including Anne Curry's own Agincourt: A New History (Stroud, UK: History Pr, 2005); see also Juliet Barker, Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England (NY: Little, Brown 2006).

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