It is my pleasure to introduce fellow Historical Fantasy author, Jan Foster, who also writes Children’s Fiction. Her Historical Fantasy take you back to a period of religious turmoil in England, mixed with magical realism and romance. Here is a fascinating article by Jan drawing parallels between Henry V and Putin.
The uncomfortable similarities between Henry V and Putin
I didn’t set out to write a story about war with Destiny Awaiting, it just happened. It was supposed to be a simple enemies-to-lovers romance, set in a time of danger and adversity where strangers could observe the history and fulfil their destiny. And the novel is, on one level. I wanted to highlight how conflict drives the narrative, especially in my kind of stories, where the historical events are woven into the fabric of the storyline.
But, the more I wrote about the setting and circumstance, the more I understood the detail and decisions, and the more my feelings about Henry V, traditionally a hero king to the English, became mixed. It doesn’t sit well with me, but hear me out when I say: Henry V and Putin have a lot more in common than I could ever have imagined. So, however unpopular a view it is, I explain in this post why we perhaps need to rethink how we, the English, view Henry V.
I’m a pacifist through and through. The prospect of going to war fills me with horror – especially when I’m not certain quite why it’s being fought in the first place. It’s always amazed me how some people can bravely put themselves into the firing line for an idea, or a claim. I can see how people might fight for a belief or ideology, and I respect that, to a degree, because it must take a significant amount of faith that you are doing the right and just thing to put yourself knowingly in harm’s way. I don’t think it’s right to impose your own belief on others, though. It’s also easier to see how people can fight to protect others.
My prequel to the Naturae Series, Destiny Awaiting, was written during the last year when we have all seen the devastation of war brought to our doorsteps. In a country which is hundreds of miles away from my own, the impact of the Ukraine invasion has rippled through the world’s economies. When I started to research Henry’s campaign in France, what struck me while writing the closing chapters was the uncomfortable parallels with what is happening today and what transpired 600 years ago. At the time of writing this article, the one year anniversary of the war in Ukraine has long passed, and I fear, despite the support given to Ukraine to push back, there is a long road ahead on the war to reclaim sovereignty.
Historical right to rule
Let’s start with a belief that just because at one time a ruler ruled over lands, does that mean that they should ALWAYS rule them? Henry V was essentially continuing (or reviving) a war which had raged over France for almost a century at the time. The campaign of 1415 was just the latest in a long line of battles through five generations of Plantagenets and for 116 years, over the right to rule medieval Europe.
Putin believes that Ukraine is a part of historical Russia, the Russian lands which were claimed by the Tzars of old. As the head of his country, he perceives his position as Tzar-like, with near absolute control over what happens and how it is presented to his people by a ruthless control over the rhetoric. Not unlike the monarchy during medieval times, although arguably the citizens’ inability to read made the job easier back then.
A Heroic Leader – or so we’re led to believe. Controlling the rhetoric.
In England, Henry V’s battle at Agincourt is often taught to children as a David and Goliath type of battle – the few (thousand) plucky archers, ravaged by dysentery and exhausted after marching for hundreds to miles towards English-held Calais and safety, met the French army, three or four times the number, and won. Immortalised by Shakespeare, brought to life for a modern audience by numerous films, the tale of a charismatic young king who defeats the odds is the backbone of many a storyline since. Dying young (comparatively) and on the battlefield served to cement his legend. Or, to put it another way, he died young enough not to make too many mistakes later on in his rule. By most contemporaneous accounts, once he became King, Henry was a pious man, who had the ‘common touch’ which often monarchs lacked. A reformed party prince, scarred by early battles with the Welsh and Owain Glendwr, who sought the counsel of his elders to walk the careful balance of diplomacy, war and marriage to secure both the crown of France and peace.
That’s the rhetoric at least. History is largely written by the victors and it very much suited the scribes of the medieval age to paint Henry in a flattering light. Monarchs always want to control the narrative – and as information becomes more widely available, it gets harder for them. We may never know what Henry V was like behind closed doors, but I’m willing to bet, given his acknowledged partying pre-coronation, there’s a good few secrets which will never see the light of today.
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.
(King Henry, Act 4 Scene 3, William Shakespeare)
The image and rhetoric Putin presents to his people isn’t dissimilar to Henry’s – a dynamic and decisive leader who will stand up against the tyranny of pretenders to his ‘throne’. A man for all seasons. I remind you of the half naked, gun toting poses of Putin’s calendars showing his virility and prowess, and how Putin couched his invasion to his subjects as a ‘fight against Nazi oppression for the good of the Russian people’. Later, it was ‘a stand against the tyranny of NATO (who had no intention or inclination to invade Russia at all). To say anything which contradicts the Kremlin narrative is frankly, dangerous.
Imagery is all – Henry chose to show his best side (ok, the cheek without the arrow scar and the hair cut for comfort in battle as he prays for divine guidance), Putin issues state approved press releases and a calendar full of poses to remind us of his devout and earnest nature, whilst still being vigorous enough to lead his country into war.
Patience and Planning
There seems little doubt now that Putin planned his attack on the Ukraine over some years before he actually invaded. Henry’s preparations for war with France are well-documented, even by modern standards. Indentures, budgets, equipment lists and soldiers names and more still survive today – many are housed in the National Archives and quite a lot of information is available online in searchable databases as well. Henry planned the assault for many years and with dogmatic attention to detail. Even the last-minute hitch of a late-discovered plot to overthrow him before he set sail didn’t deter him. He dealt with the traitors in a characteristic, ruthless fashion before ploughing ahead, late in the campaigning season, with his voyage across the channel.
Such a build-up to attack is hard to hide (recall the massive convoys and build up of troops on the border of Russia and Ukraine in Spring 2021?). The world could see what was coming, even though we all hoped it could be stopped.
Neither leader planned for how long it would take though. Both thought that the overwhelming initial barrage would cause a swift capitulation.
Harfleur was ready for Henry’s arrival and had dammed the river until a vast lake surrounded the town. Wooden barricades stood in front of the picturesque white walls, and a battalion of troops were ready to deflect anyone who approached.
Every day, Henry’s forces besieged Harfleur with cannons and catapults, having fired all the surrounding farms and dwellings. The walled city, trapped by the lake of their own creation on one side and the sea on the other, was patched up overnight, every night, using anything the few thousand residents could get their hands on – church pews, building joists, doors even. Only one supply ship made it to the town in five weeks, and they must have felt abandoned by their ruler (who was mad and thought he was made of glass anyway!).
Under fire, running out of supplies, and cut off from any other support, military or food, the citizens of Harfleur resisted for just over five weeks before they overrode the commander of the battalion defending them, and surrendered their town up to Henry.
I cannot help but think of the terror of surviving under siege, not knowing when or if it’s going to stop, or if anyone is coming to help. The Harfleur scenes in Destiny Awaiting were written at about the same time as Mariupol was under siege. My character Aioffe is trapped in Harfleur, a stranger observing the best, and worst, of humanity. Five weeks of constant stress is a long time; the residents of Mariupol lasted almost twice as long.
Neither attacking ruler thought the towns they laid under siege would survive half as long as they did, in the end. By the end of the siege, both townships were pretty much flattened.
Cold hearted nature.
Perhaps the most damning fact about Henry V I discovered, which turned my stomach and reminded me so much of the lies of the Russians in WWII and the missing Polish prisoners of war, was what happened at the end of the Battle of Agincourt. Although they were winning, Henry wanted to be sure that the French would stay down rather than re-group. He ordered the captured prisoners to be put to death, and several thousand unarmed men were slaughtered. He kept alive only a few of the nobility who were good for ransom money. Many of his own knights refused to kill the captured, as it went against the chivalric way of warfare, but Henry threatened his men with the noose if they failed to carry out his orders. At the time, he was not criticised for this order, but by today’s standards, it would be considered a war crime.
How does Putin compare? Time will tell but atrocities committed in his name are already in the public eye, and of at least 14,000 missing children. I can only hope they are found. At the time of publication of this updated iteration of my article (June 2023) an arrest warrant for Putin and his war crimes has been issued by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Location, location, location.
Even though we live in a technological age, where information is easier to come by and orders are disseminated faster, the tactics of warcraft haven’t really evolved in some ways. Success on the battlefield still sometimes comes down to the weather, leadership and geography. Whether your troops are correctly equipped for these factors is also important.
In Henry’s case, he played to the strengths of the land and dreadful weather at Agincourt. The French were heavily armoured, known for their knights charging on horseback and subject to unclear chains of command. The night before battle, heavy rain fell on the freshly ploughed field just outside Agincourt. In times when a battle took place on one day, rather than stretching out to inch by inch claim land, such matters were decisive. Henry’s forces were lightly armoured, well trained (for it was the law for all men to practise with a bow) and led by experienced commanders. Henry had a battle plan to make the best use of the terrain, the weaknesses of the opposing forces and the strengths of his own. The result was a mudbath bloodbath as the French horses and armoured knights were trapped in the mud and felled by the rain of arrows from the wooded valley.
By contrast, Putin is faced with an opposition who know their landscape and the defensive opportunities of it. He may have rolled into Ukraine with tanks and vast numbers, but the lessons of warfare history (of which he is apparently an avid fan) have not served him well so far. And this, I believe, speaks to the mentality of the man. He makes war the old-fashioned way which Russia has fought with before. With conscripts, who have little vested interest in putting their lives on the line. With a confusion of commanders. With equipment not suited to the task at hand. It is my fervent hope that, like the French fell to the nimble-fingered archers of Agincourt, his attempt to conquer Ukraine is decisively prevented.
Henry V was by no means the most blood-thirsty of England’s kings. That he has been held up as a legendary warrior disguises the questionable choices he made in the heat of battle. Although it’s not easy to look beyond the legend to see the man behind it, by studying the actions of the past, we can change, or at least challenge, the rhetoric about what is happening today. Our values have evolved, and perhaps it is time to re-evaluate how we teach our children about our history. If we continue to glorify wars of the past, then we set ourselves up to be taken in by war-like leaders today.
More, by failing to question the reasons for going to war has time and time again cost lives and toppled countries. When we think of Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, did the wars achieve what was intended? Are the countries any better for those living there than they were pre-war?
If you would like to read more about the siege of Harfleur and the battle of Agincourt, Destiny Awaiting released 31st March 2023.
If you have any thoughts or comments on the opinions here, please email the author, Jan Foster or comment in this article.
For more other articles and stories by Jan Foster, please check out her website www.escapeintoatale.com.
By day, Jan juggles consultancy work with her family, but by night she sneaks off, into the past. Her penchant for sprinkling history with magic is fueled by coffee and Cadburys. When not writing, Jan takes her dogs and small monsters into the countryside, especially if there is a castle or historic building there with a cosy coffee shop in which to escape the rain of Manchester, England.
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