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For thirty dramatic years, England ruled a great swath of France at the point of the sword—an all-but-forgotten episode in the Hundred Years’ War that Juliet Barker brings to vivid life in Conquest.
Following Agincourt, Henry V’s second invasion of France in 1417 launched a campaign that would place the crown of France on an English head. Buoyed by conquest, the English army seemed invincible. By the time of Henry’s premature death in 1422, nearly all of northern France lay in his hands and the Valois heir to the throne had been disinherited. Only the appearance of a visionary peasant girl who claimed divine guidance, Joan of Arc, was able to halt the English advance, but not for long. Just six months after her death, Henry’s young son was crowned in Paris as the first—and last—English king of France.
Henry VI’s kingdom endured for twenty years, but when he came of age he was not the leader his father had been. The dauphin whom Joan had crowned Charles VII would finally drive the English out of France. Barker recounts these stirring events—the epic battles and sieges, plots and betrayals—through a kaleidoscope of characters from John Talbot, the “English Achilles,” and John, duke of Bedford, regent of France, to brutal mercenaries, opportunistic freebooters, resourceful spies, and lovers torn apart by the conflict.
Barker weaves strands of contemporary evidence into a fluent account of a complex but fascinating era. There is a steady succession of treaties, marriages, murders, massacres, famines, sieges, battles and skirmishes, but Barker has an eye for the kind of detail that can illuminate the mindset of the long-dead.
— Stephen Brumwell
Barker weaves together the threads of an extremely complicated story, involving infighting among English notables for positions in France, the major roles of Burgundians (creating essentially a French civil war) and Scots in the fighting, and the double-dealing of many French leaders. The continuous fighting caused enormous destruction and population loss, especially in Normandy, and very few participants gained honor in the struggle, although Charles VII comes across here as a more effective leader than how he is usually portrayed. Highly detailed with valuable information on the huge human and financial resources England invested during the war's final decades, the book is nonetheless engaging and well written.
— F. J. Baumgartner
[A] lucid guide to this very complicated period...Barker's narrative combines high drama and low humor. It could be argued that both the origin and end of the English Kingdom of France was a dynastic comedy of errors...Barker is both learned and lucid in bringing alive the characters, the struggle and the ultimate futility of it all.
— Aram Bakshian, Jr.
From Chapter Eight: The Siege of Orléans
In the last week of April 1429 Jehanne d’Arc set out from Blois at the head of an armed convoy of several thousand men escorting wagons laden with supplies for the relief of Orléans. It must have been an extraordinary sight, calculated to inspire her own troops and strike terror into the English. In front of the column walked a group of priests under a standard painted with the image of Christ crucified, which had been made for them on Jehanne’s instructions: as they walked they sang the great ninth century invocation to the Holy Spirit, ‘Veni creator spiritus’, a hymn more usually associated with the coronation of popes and kings. In recent memory only Henry V, who also believed God was on his side, had given the clergy such a prominent role in his military campaigns.
Behind them came the Pucelle herself, riding on a charger. Slight but unmistakably feminine in figure, with her hair cropped in the unflattering above-the-ears pudding-bowl style favored by gentlemen of the time, she wore a suit of plate armor made for her at Tours, on the dauphin’s orders, at a cost of 100l.t. (£5833). She carried in her hand her white standard which, as her voices had commanded, depicted Christ in judgment, one hand holding the world and the other blessing the lily of France, proffered to him by angels on either side, and emblazoned with the sacred names ‘Jhesus Maria’. At her waist she bore the sword of Charlemagne’s grandfather which her voices had told her would be found behind the altar of the chapel at Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois. The chapel had been founded by Charles Martel as an act of thanksgiving for his crushing defeat of Muslim invaders at the battle of Tours in 732 and had become a popular place of pilgrimage, especially for wounded soldiers. Jehanne, prompted by her devotion to Saint Catherine, had visited the chapel on her way to Chinon in February 1429, attending masses and staying in the hospital and almshouses for pilgrims built in 1400 by Marshal Boucicaut, who had been captured at Agincourt and died a prisoner in England in 1421. She had not then asked for the sword but, after receiving the dauphin’s seal of approval for her mission, she sent word to the clergy of the chapel telling them where they could find it and asking them to give it to her.
It is unclear whether the monks already knew of the legend that Charles Martel had also donated his sword or indeed that it was missing, but the sequence of events, together with Jehanne’s curious choice of an armorer as messenger and the fact that she had to describe the sword, with its five engraved crosses, so that it could be identified, all suggest that its miraculous discovery owed more to human intervention than divine. The magical uniting of a sword with its destined owner was, after all, a commonplace of medieval chivalric literature. Charles Martel’s sword was not Excalibur, but it had been sanctified in a Christian victory over Muslims and was therefore the ideal weapon for another savior of France to wield against impious invaders. The discovery was especially opportune as the more evocative alleged sword of Charlemagne, which had been used in the French coronation rites at Reims since 1270, was in English hands at the abbey of Saint-Denis, near Paris.
Whatever the truth of the story, it was rapidly circulated, adding considerably to the Pucelle’s reputation as a prophetess. Rumors that her own coming had been foretold were also assiduously cultivated by Armagnac propagandists, even to the extent of rewriting one of the typically obscure prophecies attributed to Merlin to make it explicitly fit Jehanne’s mission. That the dauphin ordered and paid for her armor to be made by his master-armorer also suggests a deliberate attempt to identify her with the armor-wearing Pucelle foretold by Marie Robine, especially as the initiative to adopt armor, rather than simply male clothing, does not appear to have come from Jehanne herself.
Posted March 21, 2013
This book has a very good narrative flow and describes the times in an unusual (for a history book) and engaging way. The focus on Joan of Arc is pronounced, but this is a part of the charm of this book.
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