Shakespeare’s history plays. 1315. The middle of the Hundred Years War. Henry V, uneasy in his possession of the English throne, because his father killed Richard II to get it, has decided to assert once more an old family claim to the French crown. The English army attack the key town of Harfleur in Normandy and manage to make a breach in its walls. Henry urges his troops to attack once more “for Harry, England and Saint George”. The defenders still hold out, however, and in his next, much less well known speech the King uses a different tactic, surrender or else:
in a moment look to see/ The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand/ Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;/ Your fathers taken by their silver beards,/ And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;/ Your naked infants spitted upon pikes…
And for these atrocities the king will not be to blame:
What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,/ If your pure maidens fall into the hand/ Of hot and forcing violation?
The governor of the town then surrenders immediately. Today we call it ‘giving in to the terrorist threat’.
I admit I went looking for it, but it wasn’t hard to find. Put ‘english atrocities in…’ into google and you are led on a world tour. Ireland, France, the eastern seaboard of North America, the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent, Australia…. (I’m not sure at which point English atrocities become British, but the Highlanders, victims themselves, soon got into the swing of things.)
I read part of a book on Google. Long sections appear online, but every so often a notice pops up: ‘pages 182-194 do not form part of this extract’, so they do the skipping for you. When you start again at page 195 everything seems still to be going on as it was on page 181. Now I can’t find it again – more research needed – but this is what I remember.
The favourite English strategy in the 100 years war was not to engage in battle with the french army – despite the three famous victories of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt – but was based on the chevauchee. Cheval is the root of the word which basically means rioting on horse back. Knights made contracts with the king to go on tour through northern and western france stealing food, defiling the locks of shrill-shrieking virgins, murdering, burning villages, they call it living off the land. It’s a sort of pure terrorism, I think. There’s no ideology. Catholics against catholics. The violence is done with no thought of a further purpose. But it helped the development of nationalism. The only reason was: we are English, and you are French. This was a new development, because the original point of the war was that the French speaking English kings claimed France as part of England. So the war ultimately achieved the opposite, defining English and French in opposition to each other, so that right up to 1914, 600 years later, a lot of people thought it was pretty strange that we were allies of France against Germany.
The king of France didn’t want to come out and risk his aristocracy in battle again, he said, for the sake of a few acres of farmland. He knew the English would get weaker as they ate all the food.
Many soldiers who had taken part in a regular royal war would stay on during the intermissions of ‘peace’, as if privatised – they just carried on doing what they’d been doing before, working for themselves rather than the king, as ‘routiers’, very, very damaged homeless people. Some had been outlaws or prisoners in England and offered the chance of rehabilitation through fighting the king’s war in France. They had nothing to go back to; they were outside the feudal system which gave most people an allotted position in society. A lot of them came from ‘the margins’. Cornwall, the Welsh marches, Cumbria.
On Saturday nights in the early 60’s I met their descendants on the last bus from Salisbury, the five past eleven to Bulford camp, via Amesbury. They were among the last conscripts to the British Army, teenagers from Glasgow, Liverpool and London. I was shocked and fascinated by their swearing. I was just learning to use the word ‘fuck’ as an occasional rhetorical ornament but for them obscenities were part of the essential fabric of speech. And that such small people could seem so violent: malnourished, tobacco stunted, and very hard. I felt fairly safe though. Military police land rovers followed the bus all the way.
They were not routinely referred to as heroes in those days. But then as the Duke of Wellington said after the battle of Waterloo, the scum of the earth could be heroes. Maybe scum make the best heroes. Shakespeare too found room for scum in Henry V. (After the battle Pistol says ‘To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal!’) But that contradiction sees to be beyond the reach of contemporary politicians and patriots.
We bourgeois teenagers of that first postwar generation were growing tall. (I know it doesn’t seem so now, but in the 60’s 5 foot 10 was tall.) I had a friend who provoked the squaddies on the streets of Salisbury at closing time because he was 6 foot 2 and well built with long (quite long – it was still 1962) hair. Because they were scum they wanted to fight a complete stranger, and because they were heroes they wanted to fight someone who was much bigger than them.
In the end of course the English lost the 100 years war, though they still content themselves with the fact that they won all the major battles, of which there were only three. I looked up Henry’s speeches in an old Signet Classic Shakespeare, and in the back found what Hazlitt had written about the play, soon after the battle of Waterloo. Hazlitt was not a friend of royalty, and says of Henry: he ‘lays all the blame of the consequences of his ambition on those who will not submit tamely to his tyranny.’ It’s a common ploy of tyrants.1 And he points out that in the recently ended Napoleonic wars the British were fighting to restore to the French throne the descendants of those whom they had denounced as usurpers five hundred years previously. But whatever the rights or wrongs of the cause, there will always be heroic scum to do the filthy work.
1Much earlier in the wars an ancestor of Henry V, the Black Prince, besieged and conquered Limoges, then because they hadn’t surrendered earlier ordered a massacre of its inhabitants. His actions have been defended on two grounds: a) the number of dead was exaggerated; you can’t trust those medieval chronicles and b) everybody did it.
I finally managed to copy and paste all this, but for some reason the larger font on the main bit becomes small, and the small font of the footnote becomes big, and this site gives me no control of font size, which is annoying. I mean, I would like to make these words quite small…. oh well