Great Battles: Agincourt
By Anne Curry
Oxford University Press.
256 pp. $29.95. nolead ends
nolead ends No other medieval engagement has a "greater cultural legacy" than the Battle of Agincourt, according to Anne Curry, professor of medieval history at the University of Southampton. Shakespeare's Henry V, and popular lore before and after, has portrayed it as the miraculous victory of outnumbered, God-favored English underdogs against the overwhelming superiority of the French, a turning point in history - when in fact it was not even the decisive battle in the Hundred Years War. The battle turned 600 on Oct. 25, and in Agincourt, concerned with why we remember the battle as we do, Curry attempts to untangle a complex legacy more myth than fact.
Those complexities began early. Henry V, "a master of propaganda," controlled the message; victory at Agincourt validated Henry's divine authority. From there, over 600 years, uncertainties have been compounded. Curry thinks archaeology and analysis of documents have more to reveal, especially on the French side, which she tentatively estimates at 12,000 men. Even the traditional location of the battlefield is not sure.
Why is the history still so uncertain? Much is due to Shakespeare. Henry V, for many people, is Agincourt, Curry believes; the play's legacy is "immeasurable." A whole chapter charts its influence. Without Shakespeare, Curry writes, "it is impossible to believe that Agincourt would be so well known and such a quintessential element of English-speaking culture."
Outside popular myth, Curry expertly discusses the messy world of historiography and debates within the historical community - over troop estimates, positioning of the English archers (to the front or the flanks?), and the penetrating capabilities of English arrows vs. French armor. No other living historian is better suited for this work. Curry has written and edited seven books, dozens of articles and chapters, and one massive database (medievalsoldier.org) on the 1415 English campaign in France and the soldiers who served therein.
In 1915, during the First World War, on the 500th anniversary of the battle, the London Times printed the whole of the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V. It has been reprinted several times before and since to rally hearts and minds. Curry leads us to appreciate why Agincourt keeps its strange and compelling place in history.
Scott Manning (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate student of history at American Military University.