Yesterday was the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. Yes the sexcentennial of the Hundred Years War is upon us and hardly anyone noticed. No worries, as you have near on thirty years to catch an event.
Kidding aside, one of my Sunday reads was a well written article in the Telegraph by novelist Bernard Cornwell. It’s somewhat lengthy, but is not an exhaustive treatment of the battle and light enough to stay entertaining. Even has Kenneth Branagh giving the speech from Henry V – always a 10+ for inspiration before going into battle (or a long Monday meeting). I recommend it for your reading this day, if you did not catch it yesterday.
I mention the article here, not because I’m going into Hundred Years War history, but because of a question Cornwell asks at the end of the article:
Why do we remember it? There were other victories, like Poitiers in 1356, that were more decisive and it is arguable that Agincourt achieved very little; it would take another five years of warfare before Henry won the concessions he wanted from the French and even then his premature death proved those gains worthless. Shakespeare helped, but Shakespeare was playing to an audience that already knew the tale and wanted to hear it again. Agincourt was famous long before Shakespeare made it immortal, yet even so there were those other great triumphs like Poitiers and Crecy, so why Agincourt?
Indeed why? He began the answer with a powerful realization, with the flair that novelists are apt to use:
It must have started with the tales that the survivors told. They had expected annihilation and gained victory.
But what really captured my thought was the last paragraph:
The battle of Agincourt is part of the binding of England, the emergence of the common man as a vital part of the nation. Those common men returned to England with their stories and their pride, and these stories were told in taverns over and over, how a few hungry trapped men had gained an amazing victory. The story is still remembered, even six hundred years later, because it has such power. It is a tale of the common man achieving greatness. It is an English tale for the ages, an inspiration and we can be proud of it.
Now I would carry that thought forward to other fields. Can we not say something similar about our Civil War battles? I know it is out of vogue now days to mention Shelby Foote and his remarks on Ken Burn’s documentary. But can we not say the reason we find our Civil War battles so captivating is that it signified a binding of our country. Though unlike Agincourt, a binding after a rending. A self-inflected rending.
And much like Agincourt, a generation of common men who returned home from the battlefields of 1861 to 1865 and told their stories with pride. Powerful stories. Stories that came to personify what it meant to be an American. While I would not say that Gettysburg is our Agincourt (maybe Bastogne is a better “American Agincourt” in practical comparison), we can say the taverns that Cornwell alludes to were analogous to the Grand Army of the Republic… and even the United Confederate Veterans. And along the way, they ensured those battles would remain with us today. They created this American tale “for the ages….”
There are some who w0uld urge these battles are but a distraction from the larger, grander topics of importance. With respect to the Civil War – slavery, emancipation, and civil rights… in short a nation’s rebirth. They might speak of a “refounding” of America some 150 years ago as the reason why we should spend less time contemplating what happened on those battlefields. I disagree. Those ideas were but wisps in the air until someone put them in their head and then carried them forward. It’s the stories, mind you, that take us back to those times and places to explain how the ideas were enacted into reality.
What good are ideas and causes without the stories?