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10 December 2015

For the love of the bloody kings

We have been bidden lately to celebrate Henry V, “Harry of Monmouth”: patriot, soldier, trouncer of our one-time enemies the French.

By Edward Pearce

We have been bidden lately to celebrate Henry V, “Harry of Monmouth”: patriot, soldier, trouncer of our one-time enemies the French. For we absolutely must celebrate the 600-year anniversary of Agincourt, a heroic victory won in October 1415 by the above splendid Henry.

Shakespeare has been quoted: “And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by/From this day to the ending of the world/But we in it shall be remembered,/We few, we happy few . . .’’ It’s good stuff, glittering kitsch. In 1944, the Laurence Olivier film went down to general delight, catching the mood of the hour – though the happy few who mattered at that point were the Red Army.

Yet read Shakespeare carefully. Into the war propaganda, he quietly slips Michael Williams, a common soldier. For him: “If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to
make when all these legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day . . . I am afraid that there are few that die well in a battle.”

Then again, consider Henry’s less frequently quoted lines, as he talks of rape and fire to the governor of Harfleur: “I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur/Till in her ashes she lie buried./The gates of mercy shall be all shut up . . ./[Nice place you’ve got ’ere, guv’nor].” Unlike the medieval historians’ supporters club, Shakespeare wasn’t “sound”. Too frequently, medievalists are romantics, singing along with Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, doing the family tombs and noting the crossed legs marking a crusader. They are ardent for heroes – witness the absurd cult of the guilty Richard III, the wronged victim of an interloper’s conspiracy.

Another Richard – the First – anticipated current Isis practice in Syria by sticking hundreds of Turkish heads on poles around his camp. And again, Harry of Monmouth: a national exemplar? Go to Amersham, at the end of the Metropolitan Line on the Tube, and note the memorial to the Lollards, the proto-Protestant dissenters, burned to death there on the orders of the national hero and gallant gentleman Henry V.

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As for heroic wars in France, they were acts launched for territorial acquisition. The projection expanded somewhat, deftly turning into the Hundred Years War – in effect, a war for all of France. It was futility sans frontières, the brute, running grudge and appetite of half-literate chieftains. Kings of England, at that time, however garlanded by the national poet, were invaders, claim-makers and acquisition men.

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Crusaders were on the make. At the urging of the doge of Venice, soldiers docked at a Christian Dalmatian port and looted it. The whole culture of the governing class during that time was directed at war, regularly prepared for in simulation. Men charged at each other in tournaments, playing war. When it comes to the real thing – rape, fire and murder by genial English squaddies, what we have from historians and novelists from Walter Scott onwards is evasion and PR: “Regrettable excesses, no doubt. Can’t make an omelette . . . Our client’s motives unpatriotically misrepresented . . .”

This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war