Wednesday 1 June 2011

Two Views of the Battle of Agincourt

I well remember when I were a lad, that there were still homes that afforded shelf space to Cassell's History of England. These ponderous and heavy volumes were historical shelf mates to the Encyclopedia Brittanica and were published in an age where Britain still had an empire and a concomitant patrician sense of ease with itself. Cassell's History of Britain as the title implies, took an unashamedly Anglo centric view of world events, many of which it's namesake had helped shape. The books published in 1871 were aimed directly at a middle class, who had seen their prospects improve on the back of the British Empire and it's ability via an industrialized and increasingly educated work force to exploit the fruits of it's territorial dominions.

Looking at these books nearly a century later, they seemed like the product of another world, created by minds with an entirely different take on the world around them and nowhere was this contrast more acute than in the depiction of the staple element of all good history books - warfare and the depiction of men in action.

Here as an example is the source of one of the engravings that was reproduced in fine black densely crosshatched line on the yellowing pages of Cassell's History of England. I wish that I could show you the actual page, but not having the books themselves and not having any immediate desire to remedy this situation, I present instead the template for the engraving; Sir John Gilbert's painting of the English army on the morning of Agincourt.

Now even allowing for the fact that they've been on the march for weeks and their personal hygiene, let alone depilatory arrangements will have become somewhat compromised even by medieval standards, the men, in Gilbert's painting all look incredibly ancient with those full beards, some of which have turned white on the campaign. They look more like Victorian gentlemen dressed for the part rather than men of action. The symbolism of the ravens rising up en masse as the priest conducts his sermon was of course entirely lost on my nine year old mind.

When it came to action scenes, Cassell's History of Britain sucked on ice.

Unlike Ron Embelton's depiction of the Battle of Agincourt, which for me was everything I could have wished for and more.

More of Ron Embleton's sublime artistry is on show at The Look and Learn website

and his brilliant comic strip Wulf the Briton has been collected together and published in a huge and sumptuous volume (with yours truly editing it - therefore shameless plug) by Book Palace Books.


  1. No need to be ashamed Peter - if you can't plug it on your own blog I don't know where you can!

    Regarding your alternative accounts of Agincourt it's funny how History is constantly being rewritten. Not long ago I read Warren Ellis' graphic novel about Crecy, in which he recounted that old chestnut about the modern 'two finger' sign originating with English longbowmen in the Middle Ages - only to hear Stephen Fry dismiss it as a complete myth just a week later on QI!

  2. I read Warren's Crecy about a year ago Phil, and I was really impressed. It certainly doesn't stint on the macabre aspects of medieval warfare but ...

    now I'm really bothered about the two fingered salute.

    Bit like that marvelous film set during the Battle of the Bulge with Jack Palance in the lead role and Eddie Albert as the flaky lieutenant. It's really convincing until the Jerries arrive with 1916 pattern helmets and huge national insignia liberally daubed over them. Not to mention the water cooled heavy caliber machine guns.

    And the tanks ...

    ... well best not to go any further.

  3. ...Then again there was that paperback cover for a novel set in the time of Good Queen Bess - where the illustrator carefully painted 'E1R' on some Beef-eaters' uniforms! :-)

  4. Not to mention that Gerry Embleton strip where Navy helicopters rescue the S.A.S. guys from the clutches of the Waffen SS in the middle of Yugoslavia in 1944.