Most of us will be familiar with these rousing lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V, spoken on the eve of the battle of Agincourt. Less of us, I imagine, will be familiar with the background to the battle or why Henry was fighting there at all. Despite having an interest in history, I for one will confess to knowing little about the period, my knowledge of the Hundred Years War limited to the odd novel (such as Bernard Cornwell’s Harlequin, Azincourt and 1356) and seeing period re-enacters demonstrate the weapons of the era at various events I’ve attended. When I received a copy of A Great and Glorious Adventure: A Military History of the Hundred Years War by Gordon Corrigan in the post recently, this seemed an excellent opportunity to start filling in the gaps in my knowledge.
It starts, perhaps unsurprisingly, with 1066 and all that. With the Anglo-Saxon nobility replaced by French-speaking Normans, England’s elite were very much Europeans, not just in language but also in kinship, in marriage and in land ownership. To cut a long and complicated story short, it was English claims to French inheritances that triggered the war. To add insult to injury, in May 1337, King Philip of France announced the confiscation of Aquitaine – a large and valuable province in southern France – from English King Edward III as punishment for harbouring a man Philip regarded as a traitor. Enraged at the loss of what he considered his birth right, Edward mustered an army and set sail for the continent; in January 1340 he declared himself King of France in a marketplace in Ghent and set about making war against the French in pursuit of reclaiming what he had lost (and a bit more besides if he could).
Edward won a stunning victory at Crecy in 1346, largely thanks to his employment of large numbers of longbowmen in his armies. The English longbow was a very different beast to the short hunting bows used in other European countries at the time; five to six feet in length and with a heavy draw weight, it took great strength and training to fire it, but provided devastating firepower when used in groups on the battlefield. All Englishmen were required to practice with the bow every Sunday from a young age, meaning large numbers men grew up with the strength and skill to fire these bows accurately and with speed. Placed on the flanks of an army in a defensive position, the archers cut down the opposing force in great numbers as soon as they got within range; the result was a series of victories against larger forces who never really learned how to counter the effect of the longbow. The battles of the war ebbed and flowed until 1453, but using this tactic won the English armies other victories, notably at Poitiers and Agincourt, which all but destroyed the French nobility.
Corrigan, a former army officer turned military historian, brings this era to life in an exciting and punchy text. Unlike many military histories, A Great and Glorious Adventure is far from being a stuffy account of battle formations and manoeuvres; alongside the information you need to understand the fighting, it provides the necessary social and economic background for the reader to put the battles into perspective. Personally, I found the accounts of how armies were raised, equipped, paid and moved to be more interesting than the accounts of the fighting – for example, I had no idea that the armies that were mustered for continental campaigns were traditionally recruited only from counties south of the Trent and at least three miles from the coast, as the rest of the country’s men had to guard against attacks from Scotland and protect the coastline respectively.
While England consistently failed to hold on to the lands it won in France (the last holding, Calais, was lost under the rule of Mary I), Corrigan puts forward a convincing argument for the lasting significance of the war on English national identity and Anglo-French relations. If you need an entertaining account of this period, you have come to the right place. If, however, you are looking for an impartial account of the war, this is not it. Corrigan gleefully describes Henry V as “the greatest Englishman who ever lived”, while notable French knight Bertrand du Guesclin is dismissed as “hardly qualifying as a hero, he was the nearest the French could get to one” and King Jean le Bon was “vicious, irrational, unjust, militarily incompetent and stupid (which, in the pantheon of French royalty, means that he was very stupid indeed)”.
Recommended (unless you are French!).
A Great and Glorious Adventure: A Military History of the Hundred Years War by Gordon Corrigan
Published by Atlantic Books, July 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing this review copy.
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