Great British ‘myths’

Simon Jenkins

Every nation has its favourite tales from the past, but how accurate are they? On the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, Simon Jenkins, author of A Short History of England, casts a critical eye over British legends.

Events in history like the Norman conquest, the “Glorious Revolution” and the American revolution have become rooted in national myth. At the Battle of Agincourt, English forces defeated the numerically superior French. It is a victory that lives on in the popular imagination thanks to the speech delivered on the eve of battle by the monarch in William Shakespeare play Henry V. Actually, the truth can be a little different.

The Battle of Agincourt, 1415

Myth: England’s triumph

“For England, Harry and St George” ranks with Trafalgar and Waterloo in the annals of English arms. It was the climax of English success in the French wars. Henry V was recognised by the Burgundians and most of Europe as King of France. Ironically, he was the first who was believed not to have spoken French.

Henry returned to London to a hero’s welcome, with city aldermen coming to meet him at Blackheath and escorting him for five hours to London Bridge. Marrying the French Queen Catherine supposedly ended the 100 years’ war. But then it took five years for the French finally to capitulate at the treaty of Troyes (1420) and Henry to enter Paris in triumph. Worse, England was unable to hold in peace what it had won in war. Henry could not stay in Paris and keeping an army on mainland Europe was expensive.

In 1422 he succumbed to the battlefield curse of dysentery and the glittering new empire fell upon the shoulders of his 10-month-old son. A mere seven years after Agincourt, war broke out. Inevitablement.

Read Simon’s take on other ‘myths’ here great British ‘myths’.

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One Response to Great British ‘myths’

  1. alfy says:

    These “myths” of Simon Jenkins are of a such trivial, “back of a fag packet” nature that they scarcely merit a response. Agincourt was undoubtedly a great English victory over the French. The fact is undeniable. That it all fell apart soon afterwards is a commonplace of history. This is what happens when a martial king dies young and leaves the inheritance to an infant.

    In the American Revolutionary War most students are well aware that American colonists fought on either side, some with the British and some against. Only the most ignorant imagine that it was a “Brits v Yanks” conflict.

    At Hastings, only the myth of an arrow in Harold’s eye was unchallenged. This is a mis-reading of the Bayeux Tapestry. No other contemporary source attests this event. Harold was killed by sword and axe blows so that he was indeed badly disfigured. Most serious students of the period are well aware that the Normans were simply Vikings who had learned to speak a version of French. As to the effect on England, the invasion led to a division between a French -speaking elite who controlled all aspects of life and a Saxon proletariat who were simply required to obey. To examine this idea needs a fuller treatment than the thumb-nail sketches provided by Jenkins.

    With regard to WW2 it is undoubtedly true that Britain stood alone against Germany when the French forces capitulated in 1940. Again, most students are fully aware that the Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia, India, and New Zealand provide active support, and nationals from places like South Africa, Ireland and the West Indies, often joined the British services as independents. However, when the might of a renascent Germany was turned against Britain in 1940 the Russians had a non-agression pact with Germany, the Americans were practising non-intervention, and the French were ruled by a puppet Vichy government.

    While it is an exaggeration to claim that “Britain won the War” it is certainly true that the two big protagonists were late in coming to the table. The Russians only joined the Allies when Germany first attacked them in 1941, a fact still concealed from the Russian people who believe that only they were active in the fight against fascist totalitarianism. Similarly one may ask if the Americans would ever have moved themselves to join an anti-fascist crusade if the Japanese had not attacked them at Pearl Harbour in 1942.

    A friend or ally is someone who helps you when you really need it. Help that comes after the crisis has passed is useful but the recipient tends to hold the donor in contempt.

    The “myths” identified by Simon Jenkins are such that only the totally ignorant are likely to believe them. Perhaps the teaching of history in our schools over the last 30 years has been curtailed to such a degree that the”totally ignorant of our history” represents a majority of the population now.

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