- - Friday, June 8, 2012

By Juliet Barker
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 485 pages

What goes around comes around. In 1417, 351 years after the Norman conquest of England, an English army led by the warrior King Henry V invaded Normandy. Henry’s precursor to D-Day would lay the groundwork for a forgotten but fascinating period when much of France, including Paris, would be ruled by England. Unlike the Norman conquest of England, however, the English Kingdom of France never really took root, lasting little more than 30 years.

It could be argued that its only lasting impact was inadvertent: The creation of a cult figure, Joan of Arc, who would come to embody French patriotism. Yet, as Oxford-trained medievalist Juliet Barker points out in her lucid guide to this very complicated period, the Maid of Orleans actually had less material impact on the Anglo-French struggle than a number of other major players. “The terrible irony,” she writes, “is that [Joan’s] dazzling achievements obscure the fact that they were of little long-term consequence: a ten-year-old Henry VI [of England] was crowned king of France just six months after her death and his kingdom endured for another twenty years.”

It would be more accurate to say that Joan’s achievements were of little midterm consequence. But in the short term, they rallied thousands of Frenchmen, from lowly peasants to high nobility and persuaded the hesitant Valois, heir to the throne, to have himself crowned as Charles VII, rightful King of France. In the middle term, much of the territory gained when Joan took the field would be lost but in the really long term, Joan - thanks to her martyrdom at the hands of English collaborators who burned her at the stake - not only inspired her contemporaries but also became the emblem of French nationhood, a force that would outlive all of France’s crowned heads and still lives today.

Not that her contemporaries were unanimous about Joan of Arc. In a premature attempt to liberate Paris, Joan walked up to the defensive moat, shouting, “Surrender to us quickly in Jesus’ name!” As Ms. Barker recounts, the Maid of Orleans added, “If you don’t surrender before nightfall we shall come in by force … and you will all be killed.” The rather unchivalrous response of one of the besieged garrison’s crossbowmen was, “Shall we, you bloody tart?” After which he promptly shot her through the leg. The besiegers quickly withdrew, carrying a reluctant Joan off with them.

Like this little episode, much of Ms. Barker’s narrative combines high drama and low humor. It could be argued that both the origin and end of the English Kingdom of France was a dynastic comedy of errors. Before Henry V invaded Normandy, what would become modern France was already divided between English holdings in Gascony and the rival “French” houses of Armagnac and Burgundy, a struggle, one might say, between brandy and wine in which the stronger spirit would inevitably prevail.

But, to borrow a strategic term from that eminent medieval historian Bill Clinton, as long as the English could cooperate with the Burgundians, they could “triangulate” the Armagnacs. Thus, after their successful invasion of Normandy, the English were able to coerce the unfortunate Armagnac King of France, Charles VI into marrying his daughter, Catherine, to Henry V. He was also pressured into naming Henry his heir, thereby disinheriting his own son, the dauphin that Joan of Arc would later goad to successful action.

Through a mixture of battlefield prowess and clever diplomacy, the young, healthy king of England was now directly in line to succeed the aging, sickly king of France. To top off what seemed to be his good fortune, Henry’s French wife soon bore him a son, also named Henry, who could inherit both crowns.

At this point, however, laughing fate intervened. A mere seven weeks before poor, demented (“he believed he was made of glass and was afraid to sit down in case he shattered”) Charles VI died, hale, hearty Henry V was carried off by a fatal case of dysentery, leaving his infant son - Charles VI’s grandson - to become king of England and France. Fate then carried the joke a step further: the infant Henry VI inherited none of his English father’s talent and all of his French grandfather’s nuttiness. In his long and muddled reign, England fared well only as long as able men - notably his enlightened uncle, the Duke of Bedford, and the gallant Sir John Talbot, his best field commander - governed France in his stead.

The doom of England’s French venture was sealed when Henry VI came of age and decided to rule in fact as well as name. Stubborn but weak, pious but mentally unstable, with vaguely peaceful intentions but totally gullible, he made a thorough hash of things. His biggest mistake was well-intended: In return for a pointless armistice, he married a French bride, Margaret of Anjou, handpicked by his Armagnac rival.

Queen Margaret, fondly known to her future English subjects as the “she-wolf of France,” would serve as a virtual enemy agent at the heart of the English court. The truce itself accomplished nothing and after further wasted blood and treasure, England lost its French Kingdom. Predictably, the bitter peace of defeat did nothing to help Henry at home. For him, Juliet Barker concludes, “the greatest tragedy was that his desire for peace in France fueled violent conflict and civil war in England and ultimately led to his losing the crowns of both kingdoms.”

He lost his life as well; a prisoner in the Tower of London, Henry VI was murdered on May 22, 1471. So ended what was, in many ways, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Author Juliet Barker is both learned and lucid in bringing alive the characters, the struggle and the ultimate futility of it all.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., who served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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