Book Review: Conquest
by Juliet Barker
Harvard University Press, 2012
British historian and biographer Juliet Barker’s lively and captivating book Conquest:The English Kingdom of France, 1417-1450 (published in the UK in 2009 and now available in hardcover in the US) begins with the year’s single most touching dedication:
This book is dedicated to Judith Bateson who died on 23 May 2009. She was not just my beloved mother but my ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ for every book I have written. I am bereft without her.
It’s impossible not to feel well-disposed toward the author of such a dedication, and it’s easy to like the idea behind it, the vetting of works of history through the sensibilities of that famous omnibus-riding intelligent, perceptive non-specialist. If all historians had such an invaluable resource, there’d be far fewer dull history books.
Barker’s mother certainly earned her accolade. The author’s biography of Wordsworth, though at times wrong-headed, is readable; her account of the Battle of Agincourt is so vivid the reader practically has to guard against mud-splatters, and her fat volume on the Brontes (recently re-issued in a sumptuous new edition) is a flat-out masterpiece, a book every civilized (or faking it) reader should have on their shelves.
Conquest fits somewhat oddly into this collection. It’s broader in sweep than all those other books combined, and it steadfastly avoids the concentrated focus that characterizes most of Barker’s other books. This is big-canvas Macaulay-esque narrative history of a decidedly rich vintage.
It details the remarkable 30-year window in the Hundred Years’ War during which the invading English, spurred by the fantastic successes of Henry V in 1417, conquered and consolidated rule over virtually all of northern France and laid claim to the French succession. The French eventually rallied and drove their hated enemies from the country, but the occupation and its aftermath worked subtle changes on the basic nature of the larger conflict, and Barker is perhaps the best chronicler yet in English to map out those changes, even while she tells the fascinating stories of the people doing the fighting and striving and dying.
The most famous of those people you’ll already know:
The story of Jehanne d’Arc – better known to the English-speaking world today as Joan of Arc – is perhaps the most enduringly famous of the entire Hundred Years War. The fact that, against all odds, she achieved two of her three aims [to raise the siege of Orleans and crown the dauphin as king] in her brief career has raised her to iconic status, but it is the manner of her death, burned at the stake in Rouen by the English administration, which has brought her the crown of martyrdom and literally made her a saint in the Roman Catholic calendar. The terrible irony is that Jehanne’s dazzling achievements obscure the fact that they were of little long-term consequences: a ten-year-old Henry VI was crowned king of France just six months after her death and his kingdom endured for another twenty years.
And yet, there’s the little attention-hog wearing her petite armor and carrying a banner on the book’s dust jacket …
Wisely, Barker steers her story clear of those well-grooved Hollywood tracks, giving us instead dozens of fleshed-out characters, from royal dukes and French princes to ordinary harassed citizens whose lives were thrown into upheaval by a war that seemed endless. Amidst the near-continuous clash of armies and the posturing of generals, Barker is refreshingly consistent at remembering the ordinary human dimensions of the contested period she’s covering:
As always, disease went hand in hand with famine, especially in the close confines of the urban areas. The cities of Flanders were badly affected and thousands died in Paris, where the epidemic wiped out whole families and spared neither Charles VII’s sister, the abbess of Poissy, nor the bishop of Paris. Wolves again came scavenging into the city, carrying off dogs and even a child.
Although to be fair, the book, as its title suggests, consists mostly of the aforementioned clash of armies, which Barker handles with such storytelling zest that it’s hard to believe she once spent so much time with that boring old stick Wordsworth. Here are the betrayals, the sudden reversals, the glorious victories, that illiterate peasant-girl in armor, and on every page our author’s sharply opinionated but impeccably grounded judgements, as in her summary of the Battle of Verneuil in August of 1424:
As at Agincourt, however, it was the archers’ willingness to engage at close quarters once their arrows had run out that proved the turning point in the battle. Bedford had given the order that there was to be no quarter and, inspired by his personal example, and that of the earls of Salisbury and Suffolk, who were with him, the English fought doggedly on, pushing the French line back into the Scots behind them and slaughtering all in their path. The dauphin, who had not accompanied his troops to the battlefield, now reaped the consequences of his signal failure of leadership.
There is the occasional hideous sentence (perhaps her mother was off doing the weekly shop, or taking a nice bus-tour). “The harsh winters of the preceding years,” we’re told at one point, “had steadily impacted on the ability to provide seed corn for the next planting, on the productivity of vines, fruit and nut trees and on the availability of foodstuffs for domestic animals.” And our author has a soft spot for the well-worn phrase – we reach the end of the line, we get too little too late, we’re lulled into a false sense of security, we have fatal flaws, we’re left high and dry, etc. The average intelligent reader may not slow down one instant for such trifles, but fans of Barker’s work might be irritated specifically because such trifles don’t crop up with nearly this frequency in her other books.
They’re present in this book, but they’re very handily outweighed by the strength and vitality of the book as a whole. When Henry VI fumbled and bartered away what Henry V had conquered, one of history’s greatest ‘what if’ scenarios was born. Conquest is a sparkling account of the Greater Britain that never was, and no matter what the tally for France or England, the book is another victory for Juliet Barker, long may she reign.