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Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England    by Juliet Barker order for
by Juliet Barker
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

On the 11th of August in 1415, a fully equipped army of at least 6,000 Englishmen set sail aboard a motley fleet of privately-owned cogs, carracks, and galleys from Southampton, England. Not surprisingly, the army's destination was France, the country with which England had long been arguing and battling. Enthusiastically inflamed by a righteous pride in their upstart English nation and further motivated by their singular dedication to one of their country's most remarkable warrior-kings, the English army was undertaking the journey to France for a fairly straightforward reason: The King of England was determined to finally settle a long-standing dispute with France over territorial rights and sovereign authority.

Landing several days later near the port city of Harflour, the impressively armed and well-supplied medieval army from England ran into stubborn resistance which they quickly overwhelmed. Proceeding immediately thereafter from the coastal battlefield, the heroic foot soldiers, long bow archers, and mounted knights moved unstoppably northward. Although the progress of the English forces through the French countryside was complicated by weather, geography, dysentery, and some erratic though determined French resistance, the English would not be denied their ultimate destination - Agincourt. It would be there that the English forces, as if by some immutable, divine destiny, would engage the French in a battle that would later be remembered as one of medieval England's most important moments.

It all happened on St. Crispin's Day in late October. The armies of England and France finally confronted each other in their bloody showdown on a rain-soaked plateau in northeastern France. Badly outnumbered (some estimates suggest that the odds were six-to-one) but heroically inspired and brilliantly commanded by their twenty-eight year old king, Henry V, the English army would prevail in one of the most remarkable battles in world history. The French began the battle with perhaps as many as 50,000 men; the historical records make the actual numbers questionable. When the battle ended and the damage assessed, however, the outclassed and outmaneuvered French had lost more than 3,000 knights and esquires, hundreds of barons, and a countless number of common soldiers. On the other side - according to the few available records - only slightly more than 100 Englishmen had perished on the battlefield.

Immortalized by William Shakespeare in Henry V, and fondly remembered over the course of six centuries by English men, women, and schoolchildren as the defining moment of English nationalism, the Battle of Agincourt has become the literal and symbolic representation of the 'classic triumph of the underdog in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.' Now, in Juliet Barker's superb study, modern readers can take a closer look at the many layers of myths and truths surrounding Henry V's invasion of France and the famous showdown at Agincourt. Barker adroitly presents a powerful and vivid narrative of the entire campaign, from the earliest 'preparations to the reaping of the spoils.' Going beyond the grim spectacle of the horrific battlefield scenes, Barker also - with fascinating details - shows us what life was really like in everyday medieval England: for the commoners, for the knights, and especially for the monarch, Henry V; in fact, even within the limited context of the book's specific focus, this may be one of the most impressive biographies of the man who is perhaps known to most of us only through Shakespeare's play.

In whole-heartedly recommending Barker's exemplary study of a singular monarch and a pivotal moment in English history, I would simply like to add my voice to writer Bernard Cornwell's assessment as it appeared in Mail on Sunday: 'If you buy just one book of history this year, choose this one. Juliet Barker's Agincourt, like Henry's achievement, is a triumph.'

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