Somewhat of a furore has sprung up over the weekend with the news that a group of French revisionist historians are holding a conference to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (1415). The controversy arose after the English were branded “war criminals” by Christophe Gilliot, a French historian, because of alleged war crimes on the battlefield:
“At the very least the English forces acted dishonourably. The middle ages were a very violent time, of course, but some might accuse the English of acting like what might now be called war criminals…These [acts] included burning prisoners to death and setting 40 bloodthirsty royal bodyguards on to a single Gallic nobleman who had surrendered.”
Let’s assume for a moment that these acts did happen. So what? This doesn’t really tell us anything new. We already know that the English forces acted appallingly throughout the Hundred Years’ War (which was actually a series of wars, lasting roughly from 1337 to 1453- the term ‘Hundred Years’ War’ is a historical invention). In fact, this was the cornerstone of the English strategy: to devastate the French countryside through widespread pillaging, burning and rape, in the hope of reducing the revenue of the French king and forcing him into battle (the French avoided battle mostly in the hopes of wearing the English down). Nor were the French any better, doing the same to English-held areas of France, or England, when they could get to it.
Thus, most of the English and French forces would probably fall under the category of war criminals. So why the need to brand a few Englishmen at Agincourt as ‘war criminals’? The answer lies in the other purpose of this conference: to argue that the English were not as outnumbered as was once thought, which is supposed to show that it wasn’t that impressive a victory. But nor does this stand up to scrutiny. We simply don’t have enough information to determine what the ratio of English to French forces was, and estimates vary wildly. Most of the soldiers were not hired directly by the king, but by individual lords, so we have little way of knowing their true numbers.
We know why the English won however. The combined power of the bow (now labelled as the ‘longbow’, another 19th century term), and dismounted men-at-arms. Most of the English knights fought on foot, whilst the longbowmen rained down arrows on the French. The French knights, most of who were mounted, were often trapped under the barrage of arrows, since the arrows could piece most armour and/or kill the horses. The French army’s own bowmen, the crossbowmen, took a lot longer to reload and so were far less effective (and speaking of war crimes, hundreds of crossbowmen were killed by their own side, the French, because they failed). The longbow (borrowed from the Welsh) was a phenomenal piece of equipment, but took an exceedingly long time to master, and England was the only country that mandated weekly lessons for it. If the French had gone down the English road, Agincourt might have gone the other way.
This conference strikes me as being largely about Monsieur Gillot and colleagues’ desire to use history to reinforce some sense of French nationalism. By labelling the English as war criminals, and arguing for parity in forces, Agincourt goes from a shocking defeat for the flower of French chivalry to a roughly even battle against an immoral foe. French pride is salvaged. Nor were any English historians were invited to the conference. This is rather sad, as it risks sacrificing a genuine historical debate (i.e. the size of the forces) at the alter of nationalism. I suppose if your military history is not covered in glory there is always a sense of bitterness, but that doesn’t excuse historical nationalism.
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