The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘Please, Sir, why was Agincourt so important?’
‘What do you mean, Tomkins, why was Agincourt important? It was a great English victory. King Henry was outnumbered five to one – some say seven to one – and he massacred the French with a storm of arrows.’
‘But what good did it do? We lost the war in the end.’
‘This was the Hundred Years War, Tomkins. It took another forty years before we were chased out of France, and even then we held on to Calais for another century.’
‘Then it would have been better if we hadn’t won,Sir, or better still if we’d never fought the battle. As it was we got another forty years of war and still lost in the end.’
‘But we nearly did win! If it hadn’t been for that unfortunate business with Joan of Arc we would have won.’
‘What was unfortunate about Joan of Arc?’ asked Louise Davies. ‘Wasn’t she a Saint who was murdered by the English?’
‘I didn’t know you were French, Miss Davies’, laughed Beaky and the rest of the class giggled.
Mr Crow (we called him Beaky) always called the girls ‘Miss’. He called the boys by their surnames, like he had always done, but he didn’t know what to call the girls when we went co-ed. He couldn’t use their Christian names without doing the same for us, so he called them Miss.
I’d been winding up Beaky to show off to Louise and now she had noticed and was showing off to me. I liked that. We both read the same books and together we probably knew twice as much history as Beaky.
‘I’m afraid you’ve got some of your history wrong, young lady. The English didn’t murder Joan. She was burnt at the stake by the Church for being a witch. They made it up to her later, and made her a Saint. When I said it was an unfortunate business I meant that but for her we might have an Anglo-French kingdom to-day.’
‘Why would that be a Good Thing?’ I asked.
‘Tomkins, if you had paid attention in earlier classes you would have known that England had a long standing connection with France. The Mediaeval kings of England ruled more of France than the King of France.’
‘But, Sir, that was because the Normans conquered us. We never conquered any of France, not Normandy, not Anjou and not Aquitaine.’ (I had to show him that I had paid attention). ‘The Plantagenet’s were a French family who ruled half of France and fought the Hundred Years War to get the other half.’
‘Yes’, said Louise, ‘the best thing that happened to the kings of England and all their nobles and knights was to get chased out of France, so they stopped being French and became English. Joan of Arc saved England from being French.’
‘That’s a strange view of history, Miss Davies. I doubt anybody would agree with you.’
‘I would’, I said. ‘Before the Hundred Years War everything in England was run in French and everything written was written in French. After the war everything was in English.’
‘Well, I don’t think you can deny that Shakespeare’s play Henry V is one the greatest plays in the English language. If you’d seen it, I think you would think differently about Agincourt.’
‘Just because Shakespeare wrote a play about it doesn’t make it a Good Thing’, said Louise. ‘All his best plays were tragedies.’
‘If the Plantagenets had become kings of France we’d still be speaking French’, I said, ‘and there wouldn’t be any English Literature.’
‘I think I can hear the bell for the end of the lesson’, said Beaky. ‘I think you all watch too much TV. I blame those historical dramas. You need more traditional English History.’