Was the French battle plan for Agincourt doomed from the outset – or was it a sound plan disastrously executed?
The French were in a strong position on the morning of October 25, 1415. They’d run Henry V down and trapped him. They had more men, they had good ground, and their plan of attack could have worked. Over the decades of the so-called Hundred Years War they’d learned a great many lessons about how not to fight the English — from the famous fights at Crécy in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356 but also from dozens of lesser-known engagements — and at Agincourt they were in a position to do things differently. At least on paper, this was a fight they ought to have taken. That they didn’t win is both a triumph of Henry’s leadership and a tragedy of their own ability to maintain command and control. One side acted with cohesion and one did not.
How did the French adapt after Poitiers, and why did they revert to type at Agincourt?
The biggest threat to the French at Agincourt was the English longbow. Both sides knew it. Archers had devastated French troops at both Crécy and Poitiers, and at Agincourt the English had an even larger proportion of archers in their army than at either of those fights. The French realized they needed to neutralize this part of the English force, and they had a plan to counter it using coordinated cavalry strikes. Everything fell apart on the day of the battle, though, in large part because Henry deployed his archers in an unexpected formation, protected by stakes. We know that the English got hold of French battle-plans at some point in the campaign, and it might well be that this gave Henry and his commanders a tactical advantage at this crucial point, making them ready for what was to come.
You’ve done books on two of the big three battles of the Hundred Years War. Have you got plans to complete the set by writing a book on the campaign and battle of Poitiers at some point in the future?
Poitiers is a tremendously interesting battle. This past summer I spent several days investigating the site, trying to reconstruct the events there. So there might be something in the works. You’re right that it would make for a nice set alongside my books on Crécy and Agincourt!
To what extent did the growth of gunpowder technology and tactics affect the outcome of the Hundred Years War?
The Hundred Years War really does stretch across the advent of these new developments in warfare, and they do have an impact. At the same time, gunpowder didn’t explode onto the scene, if you’ll forgive the pun. The changes that it created — in tactics, fortifications, armaments, and so much else — were organic. So the more massive effects that we see really come about as we move out of the period.
What led you to be so interested in medieval European history?
The Middle Ages are a remarkable crossroads of cultural developments in Europe. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone not being interested in it. The currents of change span every facet of what it means to be human, and what happened in those crucial centuries continues to touch and shape our world today. It’s just endlessly fruitful to me. So if there was a second between me dipping my toes in its waters as a student and deciding to dive all the way into it as a medievalist, I don’t remember it.
Are there any battlefields where you’ve stress-tested the evidence, and found that the traditional account is accurate?
Absolutely! Though ‘accurate’ may not be quite the correct term. Unless we have archaeological evidence — which is exceedingly rare — the best we can say is that a traditional account is the most plausible story we have pending further information coming to light. But, yes, I’d say that the traditional accounts appear to be right more often than they appear to be wrong. I just don’t tend to write books about those cases! I mean, they’re exciting to me, but no one in publishing is clamoring to print a book where I repeat what everyone already thinks and then nod my head in agreement.
Have you ever thought about writing a book on one of the battles of the Crusades in the Levant, such as Hattin or Arsuf, when those areas are safe to visit again?
The Levant is full of battles I’d be thrilled to investigate, and yes, Hattin and Arsuf would have to be at the top of that list. I’ve read a great many of our sources about Hattin, for instance, and done a fair bit of satellite work getting my head around it from afar, but I’m always very cautious about saying too much about the actual reconstruction of any fight until I’ve had a chance to walk the ground for myself. I hope one day that can happen.
Would you say that challenging the traditional accounts of medieval battles is your area of speciality?
The last couple of books might give that impression, but I certainly don’t ever want to be ‘that guy’, if you know what I mean. The honest truth is that I never go into a project intending to overturn anything. That’s never the goal. I go into a project desiring to get as close to the truth as possible. To the extent that this can include challenging traditional accounts, I would contend that all I’m doing is being a historian. Trying to get the history right is the key part of the job!
Which battle are you planning to write about next?
My current book project is a new history of the so-called Hundred Years War, which has me covering a great many fascinating fights. There’s Poitiers, as I mentioned, but across six weeks in Europe this last summer I made site visits to battlefields from Castillon to Bannockburn. I’m covering a lot of ground in this book! As to which battle I might next attack in detail, I’m working several cases right now. We’ll have to see which one has the most interesting final conclusion!
Aspects of History Issue 18 is out now.
Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn.