The History Boys

I’ve been watching the BBC’s astonishingly good productions of Shakespeare’s History Plays (which if you’re not watching, and you can, you really should) and they prompted me to comment on my assorted historical crushes on Twitter. The response to this – from a couple of different people – was that they’re all a bit, well… battlefield-y. (In fact, one comment was that there was a theme of “spur-winning”).

This is me we’re talking about, after all. And, given the four years spent reading assorted medieval stuff, there’s plenty of battlefield action to choose from. So here, in no particular order, are the History Boys.

(I should also add that these are entirely biased sketches, and gloriously coloured by my own opinions. I have wildly overlooked Actual Historical Facts in favour of being generally impressed by this lot. So you can take anything I say with a reasonably large pinch of salt…)

John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399)

One of British history’s great politickers, Gaunt was immensely powerful. A patron of the arts (Chaucer’s great “Book of the Duchess” was written as a lament for Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche), he was a lover of chivalry and courtly attitudes, and was described as being “conventional in all things”, including religion and his aristocratic love of ceremony and show. He favoured falconry and hunting, and was also fond of dice. He was a tall, lean and well-built man and organised his retinue according to the model of King Arthur’s Round Table.

However, he was also seen as arrogant and disdainful, and would tolerate no form of criticism; frequently bickering with other knights, the City of London, Parliament and even the King. Only public apology and reconciliation would placate him. His ambition led many to suspect that he wanted to take the throne for himself, but he continued to act as an advisor to the minor Richard II (triggering the Peasants’ Revolt in the process, which, let’s be honest, is a bit of a mark against him…) and managed to ensure he was never connected to Richard’s opponents. Unpopular at home, he was nevertheless praised abroad as an example of what aristocracy should be.

Both his judgement and the scope of his influence (as well as his large number of retainers, all loyal and under his control) made him a force to be reckoned with, and as time passed – somewhat ironically – he came to be seen as a force for peace and stability in an age where neither were commonplace.

Edward of Woodstock; the Black Prince (1330 – 1376)

A legend in his own lifetime, Edward was renowned for his charisma, as well as being a general of skill and a warrior of courage. He was described by many as the “flower of chivalry” – although his actions often betrayed a more ruthless streak.

While his treatment of captured aristocracy was highly respectful, he was also known to use tactics like burning & pillaging land – as well as flank attacks (seen as revolutionary at the time, along with his deployment of massed longbowmen) and was less than interested in the welfare of the lower levels of society (and the less said about the Massacre of Limoges, the better…)

The interesting thing about Edward is his position in history: at a point where chivalry was still the ideal, but was becoming less and less the reality, the Black Prince’s somewhat… pragmatic approach to warfare made him effective and highly influential. Also: Crecy. But I’m an archer – I’m biased.

Speaking of which…

Henry V (1386 – 1422)

Henry of Monmouth was, from his youth, no ordinary man. In 1403, aged just 16, he joined forces with his father to put down the rebellion led by Henry Percy at Shrewsbury. There, he was struck in the face by an arrow: a wound which would have killed most men. Harry, however, had the benefit of being a prince, and was given the best care imaginable at the time; involving his wound being treated with honey and flushed with alcohol, and the Royal Physician constructing a special screw to remove the arrow from his face without causing further damage. He recovered, but was left with significant scarring – seen as proof of his bravery and prowess in battle. (The prince was also plain old lucky: Percy’s death at Shrewsbury is said to have been caused by an arrow hitting him in the mouth as he raised the visor on his helmet. He died instantly…)

Crowned amid a snowstorm, he is said to have been tall – well over 6′ – and slim, with dark hair and a prominent, pointed nose. As king, he made it clear he intended to rule England as a united nation, and wished to put the nation’s turbulent recent past behind him. However, like the Black Prince, he was entirely ruthless, and would act accordingly when he felt either his position or the kingdom was threatened (as in the case of the execution of his old friend, Sir John Oldcastle – thought to be the model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff). He was also the first English king since the Norman conquest to use English in his correspondence, and encouraged its use in government.

But Henry will be most remembered for his victory at Agincourt – in which an outnumbered, sick, exhausted and half-starved English army resoundingly defeated the French: a victory down, in large part, to the battlefield conditions and to the skilful deployment of massed longbowmen. Here, too, Henry displayed the same ruthlessness as before, giving the order for French prisoners to be killed. But thanks to Shakespeare, if nothing else, Henry is seen as the quintessential English warrior-king, and embodiment of all that is good about both England and its rulers.

And yes, I did just sneak that in. What?

Moving on, we come to the most modern of my ogle through the ages. And when I say “modern”, let’s remember it’s all relative, shall we?

Thomas Fairfax (1612 – 1671)

One of the most important figures in the English Civil War, “Black Tom” had long been opposed to the perogative of the the Crown, despite serving along with his father under Charles I. With the outbreak of the war in 1642, the Fairfaxes distinguished themselves as generals of the Parliamentary army in Yorkshire, and the younger Fairfax rose to be Commander-in-Chief of the “New Model Army”.

While the King referred to him as “brutish”, he was noted for his honour, his tactical skill and his conscientiousness – both in public and private. However, he was never comfortable with the politics of the war, and although he was still the titular head of the army when Charles I was tried, he refused to participate beyond the initial sitting of the court – rightly believing that the King’s execution was the intended result. Cromwell would later replace him as Commander-in-Chief.

Possibly more hardcore than all of this? He wrote poetry, endowed the Bodleian with manuscripts and tried to protect the libraries at York and Oxford from pillage during the war. For that alone, you have to love him…

So there you have it.

My History Boys.

Wildly inaccurate and judged purely on (a) how much they walloped people with swords and (b) how influenced I’ve been by the various literature on them I’ve read  – none of which is especially balanced – as well as (c) whether they knew how to deploy a longbow, these are my major historical crushes.

Who are yours?


One comment

  1. Definitely Richard III. Whilst I don’t doubt he was ultimately behind the death of the two young princes, I think he was driven to it less by personal ambition than by a desperate urge to keep the Lannisters, *ahem* I mean the Woodvilles from becoming the power behind the throne. He was also a good administrator and very popular in the north and would, I think, have been an excellent king in happier circumstances.

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