Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review: Henry V as Warlord


The following will be a review of the book Henry V as Warlord by Desmond Seward. This will be a less formal review than most are accustomed to but it will be striking most of the same points which will be found in reviews of a similar nature. While not exactly related to swordplay, it is related to medieval history and is thus of interest.

Seward, D. (2001) Henry V as Warlord, Penguin Books Ltd, London.

Seward opens his discussion of Henry V with a discussion of how the Lancasters attained the throne of England, claiming them to be "usurpers" to the throne. In this it can be claimed that they attained the throne of England in much the same way as many rulers did. Indeed one of the most famous families in English history, the Tudors, claimed the English throne in the same way.

The discussion of Henry V's invasions of France are made very much as single-sided accounts, with barely passing references to the Norman invasion of England, which in effect was the same in reverse, but with longer-lasting effects. Thus he focusses on the ways in which Henry V had an impact upon the French and the actions of the army of Henry V.  Many of the same actions which were committed by Henry V were the same as those which were committed by William the Conqueror when he invaded England.

In the way of many historians of the modern period he compares actions of the past with modern ideas of normality, making references to actions made by modern armies in World War II on both sides, but particularly the German army. This sort of revisionist angle of history is foolish as it does not take into account the mind-set of the day and thus the normalities which were experienced in the period. One aspect in particular which seems prevalent is the use of terror in war.

Terror was often used as a weapon in war in the medieval period. This was designed for a purpose. A city which held out against a besieging force for an extended period of time could expect a much harsher response once it finally fell than one which capitulated earlier. It is an element which can be seen as "normal" for this kind of warfare throughout the period and beforehand.

Further in certain cases commanders of armies would allow atrocities to be committed in the earlier parts of their campaigns to reduce the later body cound and civilian deaths in later sieges and battles. Henry V was not the only one who used this particular aspect of terror in warfare. Charles VIII of France in his invasion of Italy used the same method in his campaign. A city early in the campaign would be sacked to let all the others know what would happen if they resisted, and it would result in many others afterward capitulating early or not resisting at all thus reducing the body count. Such actions need to be examined from the overall point of view.

Seward also vociferously complains about Henry V's army "living off the population". Again this was normal practice during the period, and it was a practice which was continued, and was previously used. Again it can be cited that Charles VIII's army also used the same tact when travelling through Italy, expecting the various cities to pay for his campaign, feed and billet his soldiers as he passed through. These aspects were normal for this period. Thus the historian needs to understand and look at it from their perspective.

While Seward seems to be on a purposeful aim to reduce the status of one of England's favourite heroes, and present him rather as a warlord than a great king, his book does present a great deal of useful information. The detail which is supplied of his campaigns and how he managed to pay for them along with the alliances made, and plots he managed to avoid against his life are truly interesting. This makes the book well worth the read even for these elements.

The book is a most interesting discussion of the life of Henry V and covers many different aspects of his rise to the throne and also his life as king. It uses many different sources which have often not been heard from before, which are in themselves most useful. The only detraction in the whole situation is that the author seems to have had an aim from the beginning to cut down this famed figure by presenting as much information to the contrary of what has been presented before. Read from the point of view of an pure interest in both sides of the story, it is a good read and supplies very good detail, but tends to compare too much of what was normal then with what is considered normal now. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in early fifteenth-century English and French history and particularly in Henry V and his campaigns, even for a different point of view.