Agincourt: Battle of the Scarred King
“Agincourt occurred as the combatant kingdoms of England and France each ‘dissolved into on-and-off civil war.’ Livingston brings that world to life and the amazing characters of that incredible place and time.”
The battle of Agincourt, fought October 25, 1415, was hugely famous in English history before Shakespeare’s famous Saint Crispen (and Crispian) Day speech in the play Henry V. Author Michael Livingston in Agincourt: Battle of the Scarred King, writes, “It is the story of an army deep in enemy territory—beleaguered and outnumbered” and “wrought an improbable and resolute victory.” This remarkable success represented hope to a people through dark times for more than six centuries.
The author adds, "it’s a story that stands not just as a central pillar in English history, but also as a central pillar in its nationalistic mythology.” Numerous books have been written on this event, but Livingston writes, “our understanding of the battle has changed in just the past six years.”
Agincourt: Battle of the Scarred King draws its subtitle from the victor, King Henry V, who, as a Prince of Wales, took a near-fatal arrow in the head at the battle of Shrewsbury on July 21, 1403. With the arrowhead still in his face, Prince Hal charged and turned a hopeless battle into victory that saved his father’s crown.
Each such element of the story of Agincourt contributes to the myths that have grown about the actual event, such as the similar circumstances at the battle of Crécy. August 26–27, 1346; Prince Hal’s experience gained in putting down the now seldom remembered Welsh Revolt in the first decade of the 1400s; and the problems with crossing the Seine and Somme. The author tells the whole of this epic tale and myths about the great adventures that make up its many parts.
Almost all of the first half of Agincourt is devoted to different aspects of the Hundred Years' War. Elements include attempted assassinations, betrayal, luck, madness, money, rival Popes, rebellions of all kinds, proxy third-party kingdoms, roads, thrones without direct male heirs, weapons, and young men leading troops, punctuated with battles like Crécy and Poitiers.
One king would take advantage of divisions in the other’s country. A king such as Henry V gained huge prestige from a victory, even when militarily the battle changed nothing in the outcome of the war and the real success was hardly more than survival from possibly decisive mistakes, as at Agincourt.
The Hundred Years’ War, which included Agincourt, occurred as the combatant kingdoms of England and France each “dissolved into on-and-off civil war.” Livingston brings that world to life and the amazing characters of that incredible place and time, such as Olivier de la Clisson (the Butcher), whose career in England, France, and Spain would itself make a book as fantastic, or more so, more than any novel.
This attention to the various parts continues when Livingston finally brings “we,” as he refers to himself and the reader, to the actual Agincourt campaign. The author’s account of the late Middle Ages English army of Henry V and how it was paid is fascinating but also critical to understanding the battle. The reader learns about contracts, wagenburgs, wet-gap crossings, and other unfamiliar terms.
The author follows the race between two opposing armies as Henry V’s outnumbered army struggled against distance, hunger, and terrain to reach the safety of Calais. The English army finds itself so dangerous that the reader could almost forget how this story ends.
The “Lords of the army of France” respected the menace presented by the English longbowmen, as their enemy feared the French armored cavalry. Their army should not be relegated “to the status of background extras in a story of English glory.”
Henry V won at Agincourt, and his army escaped to Calais. He would achieve much during the remaining years of his reign, but nothing from his victory beyond the notoriety of having cleverly snatched victory from what should have been a lopsided defeat of his creation.
Livingston is careful with his sources, often advising the reader on what is credible, documented, or less. The author even writes that early sources and eyewitnesses as “usually (but not always) a good thing.” The traditional battle account is told almost identically in dozens of books. Livingston questions the conventional views of so many modern histories throughout the book as a literary means for raising suspense about what happened.
Despite “the many hundreds of books about the battle,” even where it took place had to be carefully researched, although “you should visit it” or its proximity. (The author devotes more than a chapter to finding the battlefield.) “History is about the truth, not the truth itself” but “historians have to work hard to verify the evidence, then re-verify what they used for evidence.”
This chronicle of the Hundred Years’ War keeps the narrative a lively page-turner. The writing style is informal, even good-humored, and mildly sarcastic. While “trying to be as transparent as possible” in narrating this saga of a long-ago alien world. Livingston observes that “medieval warfare was not a video game.”
Agincourt: Battle of the Scarred King might have included more on the history of the legend of the battle and its influence on England’s national image, although that historiography would probably fill a book by itself. This book has annotation and color illustrations. It also has a Suggested Reading and Acknowledgements.