2015 is remarkable in being the anniversary of two of the most notable and evocative battles in English history – Agincourt and Waterloo. As it also eight hundred years since King John signed Magna Carta there has been a predictable flood of books covering all three of these topics. So it is a relief to report that the choice for readers who want the latest thinking from experts is a good one, especially as books published to coincide with major anniversaries can often be rushed out and of variable quality.
Of the three, Agincourt has, rather surprisingly, received the least attention. Juliet Barker’s 2006 book, Agincourt, the king, the campaign and the battle, is still in print and is well worth reading. Professor Anne Curry of the University of Southampton, a specialist in the Hundred Years War, has brought out a new book on Agincourt in the Great Battles series and the paperback version of her book, Agincourt, a new history, originally published the same year as Barker’s, is now available. Also reissued is the late Christopher Hibbert’s short volume, A brief history of the battle of Agincourt, readable but not as scholarly as Barker or Curry. Quite why no one else has revisited this famous Anglo-French encounter on a field in northern France, which has for long played such a crucial part in national consciousness, is a good question. Perhaps the answer is simply that medieval history still plays second fiddle to the national obsession with the Tudors at a more popular level.
The anniversary of Waterloo has been commemorated in literally dozens of books, by famous authors like Bernard Cornwell – who has, predictably, outsold all rivals – and by a raft of others less well-known. Napoleon has been given his due (some would say more than he deserves, though I am an admirer myself) by Andrew Roberts, in a mammoth volume, Napoleon the Great, that eschews great details on battles, probably a relief to some, but which begins rather slowly. Wellington has not been forgotten; the second of a two-volume life by Rory Muir has just been published, Wellington, Waterloo and the fortunes of peace, 1814-1852, but although well-reviewed does not seem to be a runaway success in the way Roberts’ book on Napoleon is. This probably tells you a great deal about the renown of these two historical figures and about Roberts’ having a far higher public profile than Muir, a military historian from the University of Adelaide.
There has been much nonsense in the press about the significance of Magna Carta and politicians of all sides have claimed it as their own. Quite why this piece of feudal strong-arming by a group of self-interested barons, fed up with a disastrous king, should be viewed as the precursor of the democracy in which we allegedly live has always mystified me but many pages of the national newspapers have been devoted to the importance of the document signed unwillingly by King John. Two books on the monarch who also famously lost his jewels in the Wash have been published this year. Marc Morris’s King John, treachery, tyranny and the road to Magna Carta is probably the more accessible of the two, though some have found its structure awkward. More scholarly is Stephen Church’s book, King John, England, Magna Carta and the making of a tyrant which demonstrates the author’s masterful grasp of contemporary sources but is a little hard going in places.
Finally, while we are still on a medieval theme, and to revert to the Hundred Years War, I cannot recommend too highly Helen Castor’s brilliant and moving account of the life and times of Joan of Arc in Joan of Arc, a history, now out in paperback. It is a model of how the complex history of the fifteenth century in France can be made as compelling as any historical novel and a salutary reminder that, while we may celebrate Agincourt and Waterloo, the cruel death of this remarkable nineteen year-old girl remains a blot on our past.
Linda Porter’s latest book, Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots, is out now.