1415: Henry V's Year of Glory by Ian Mortimer
|1415: Henry V's Year of Glory by Ian Mortimer|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: A detailed, day-by-day account of the year of 1415, its centerpiece being the battle of Agincourt, and in effect almost a biography of King Henry V.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 656||Date: September 2009|
|Publisher: The Bodley Head Press|
The medieval, in fact time-honoured, view of King Henry V as one of England's greatest heroes was propagated though not originated by Shakespeare, and again more recently to some extent by Olivier's portrayal in film. At least one historian has called him the greatest man that ever ruled England.
Reassessment in the last fifty years or so has tended to portray him as something of a villain, a fanatic and a merciless conqueror of whom little positive can be said, except that he was successful against the odds. In the latest volume of what he calls his biographical history of late medieval England, Dr Mortimer has skilfully corrected the balance. This book records in magnificent detail the dramatic events of 1415, which saw Henry lay claim to the French throne and win a decisive victory at the battle of Agincourt, on a day-to-day basis, yet he emphasizes in his prologue that this book is not about the battle, so much as about the man and his age.
Henry may have been a war hero and a brilliant commander, but at the same time he was incredibly ruthless, a man with what he saw as a divine mission to purge the people of France of their sins by total subjugation. If the lives of large numbers had to be sacrificed, so be it. (Of course, the same can be said of almost any military leader of his time). The conflict now known as the Hundred Years' War, which had lain dormant for some years, was reopened as part of his role in ensuring that God favoured the house of Lancaster and would reward it with victory on the battlefield.
He was also extremely lucky in that victory at Agincourt was to an extent handed to him by default through various tactical errors or misfortunes on the part of the French army, and also in that heavy rain on the eve of the battle worked to the detriment of the French and to English advantage. His campaign which culminated in the battle was a huge risk, and could easily have ended in ignominious English defeat (as did the protracted war against France, thirty years after his death). The English army was heavily outnumbered, yet (given that the numbers of casualties in medieval battles could only be very rough estimates) probably lost only about 1,600 men, as compared to French losses of anything between 4,000 and 10,000.
Yet 1415 was not only the year of a celebrated battle, but also a year of religious persecution throughout much of Europe, a time of struggle for power within the Catholic church, when most rulers and churches were equally ruthless in their efforts to destroy those whom they saw as heretics. Henry was not the only overlord in Europe who was prepared to send men to the stake, as the appalling fate of Czech priest and theologian Jan Hus shows. The description of his conviction and death in Germany is one which sensitive readers might wish to skim.
Dr Mortimer's descriptions of medieval life are as rich and colourful as his telling of the story. We learn how Christmas was celebrated at Henry's court, and there is a particularly picturesque portrait in words of London at the start of the new year, with muddy and rutted roads leading to Westminster, frozen or flooded fields, and logs outside the houses covered in snow.
All in all this is a very full, compelling account of the year and the main issues of the time. A brief epilogue surveys the rest of Henry's reign – most of it spent outside England, mostly in further and largely unsuccessful attempts to conquer France – and the end of the Lancastrian dynasty, while a lengthy conclusion analyses his character, his qualities and failings, and his place in history.
Our thanks to the Bodley Head for sending a review copy to Bookbag.
1415: Henry V's Year of Glory by Ian Mortimer is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.
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