War criminals during the Hundred Years’ War


by Rumbold
27th October, 2008 at 6:22 pm    

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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  1. Jai — on 27th October, 2008 at 6:33 pm  

    Bernard Cornwall’s just released a hefty hardback novel about the Battle of Agincourt…..

  2. Rumbold — on 27th October, 2008 at 6:35 pm  

    I plan to read that this week.

  3. billy — on 27th October, 2008 at 8:13 pm  

    I just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is set against the background of the filthy truth of Britain’s colonial escapades during the Opium War, and their shameful cultivation of poppies in India, and all the rest of it. This is real subaltern history, about the moral evil and swamp of British colonialism, rendered into literary art. A rip roaring swashbuckling narrative set on a boat full of people escaping from places and people, set to go off and join in the Opium War. First part of a trilogy. Anyone interested in historical fiction, and a good old fashioned slap in the face of British nationalist historical discourse should read it. I personally can’t get enough of this kind of thing. Even if you’re an old fashioned Colonel Blimp and you’re afraid of reading about anything that doesn’t project the British colonial enterprise as anything other than the sun shining out of Queen Victoria’s asshole, you can still enjoy it as an action adventure, although it may give you high blood pressure.

  4. Roger — on 27th October, 2008 at 8:15 pm  

    The literary critic John Sutherland wrote an essay also arguing that Henry V was a war criminal. You can make your own emphasis with Shakespeare- contrast Branagh an Olivier’s films and recent stage productions.

  5. persephone — on 27th October, 2008 at 8:32 pm  

    Don’t most countries, if they looked far back enough, have something in their closet that would look untenable in modern times?

    I wonder if these french historians will also re-visit a more recent time in their history. Namely the deeds committed as part of the French Revolution. Or are they too busy eating cake. Even better these historians need to re-visit madame guillotine…

  6. billy — on 27th October, 2008 at 8:36 pm  

    There’s no shortage of French introspection about Robespierre and the terror, Persephone.

  7. persephone — on 27th October, 2008 at 8:42 pm  

    I do accept that, even then, there would have been some PR spin in a war but nonetheless I do believe the British possess military prowess, which they demonstrated many times in many battles… perhaps they just forgot to use it when faced with the french…

  8. persephone — on 27th October, 2008 at 8:46 pm  

    Billy @ 6 which makes it more absurd as to why they are raking this up.

  9. billy — on 27th October, 2008 at 8:54 pm  

    But Persephone, who is raking it up? Who are ‘they’? A group of French historians? They don’t represent the totality of French consciousness of history. Anymore than a gang of British historical nationalists or revisionists represent the totality of British historical consciousness, reappraisal, or even the collectivity of Britain as an entity today.

  10. persephone — on 27th October, 2008 at 9:21 pm  

    Billy,

    At times things raise a certain amount of my own national pride. This was one of them. And no it does not worry me that:

    “We have historians arriving from all over France, and all will produce hard facts concerning the battle, rather than rumours and speculation.”

    Though I eagerly await to see what evidence they do have to support their claims – perhaps an arrow with the french equivalent of `we woz robbed’ etched on.

  11. billy — on 27th October, 2008 at 9:30 pm  

    OK Persephone. It’s difficult to argue against trampled pride. In the face of their assault upon the very ovaries and testicles of England, these putain Frenchies must be dismantled. Have they no shame, fiddling with Anglo-Saxon honour through revisionism of this 600 years old triumph? As Shakespeare wrote in Henry V — To thy own nature be true, dauphin, thou art of your tribe, thou cheese eating surrender monkey.

    If we don’t have Agincourt, what do we have?

  12. persephone — on 27th October, 2008 at 9:39 pm  

    With such gloomy forecasts of a recession we may have to look back at past successes to cope with it all. We don’t need someone to also rain on our agincourt parade.

  13. Amrit — on 27th October, 2008 at 9:45 pm  

    Enfin, il y a quelque chose qui m’implique directement sur ce site!

    Nice to have a ‘different’ article on PP for once.

    @ Rumbold:

    ‘speaking of war crimes, hundreds of crossbowmen were killed by their own side, the French, because they failed’

    Failed at what, sorry? At killing the English?

    ‘This conference strikes me as being largely about Monsieur Gillot and colleagues’ desire to use history to reinforce some sense of French nationalism.’

    I would agree with this – it’s also another way to express bitterness about the constant threat to the French language that is posed by English, I suspect.

    People say that Britain need to accept its newly-diminished status in the modern world, but France is in even greater need of that self-introspection if you ask me…!

    @ persephone:

    Though I eagerly await to see what evidence they do have to support their claims – perhaps an arrow with the french equivalent of `we woz robbed’ etched on.

    HAHA. Une flèche avec la phrase ‘On nous a volé!’ y gravé, you mean? :P :D

  14. persephone — on 27th October, 2008 at 9:59 pm  

    Amrit @ 13: Oui & merci

  15. billy — on 27th October, 2008 at 10:00 pm  

    With such gloomy forecasts of a recession we may have to look back at past successes to cope with it all. We don’t need someone to also rain on our agincourt parade.

    It almost makes me wish we could still go to war with the French and Germans.

  16. persephone — on 27th October, 2008 at 10:08 pm  

    @ 15 Touche

  17. Vasey — on 28th October, 2008 at 12:57 am  

    Accusing a nation of commiting war crimes during the middle ages is like accusing a bear of shitting in the woods. The only way they didn’t do it is if they didn’t exist to do so.

    Someone behind this announcement had a budget they needed to justify and to justify quickly, I think.

  18. fugstar — on 28th October, 2008 at 3:02 am  

    its no stupider in time-space cluelessness than most of what passses for comment on this blog and in this country’s press.

  19. billy — on 28th October, 2008 at 12:43 pm  

    its no stupider in time-space cluelessness than most of what passses for comment on this blog

    Don’t be so hard on yourself, fugstar. You don’t have to feel so ashamed and publically repentant for your contributions.

  20. alembique — on 28th October, 2008 at 3:48 pm  

    poor old fugstar – 3.00 am man; the bitter insomniac with a sticky keyboard.

  21. Chris E — on 28th October, 2008 at 6:10 pm  

    I have not been able to take Bernard Cornwell seriously ever since shoulder surfing on a train and seeing the following:

    “Did you ever see the lance that Sir Geoffrey brought back from France?” He asked.
    “No”, she said, her eyes widening.

    With talent like that, a career writing dialogue for porn films beckons.

  22. fugstar — on 30th October, 2008 at 2:26 pm  

    348pm? nearly finished counting beans?

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