It’s quite rare to find an important chronicle which has not been published before, but that is the case for this narrative of the period 1415-1429 in College of Arms MS M 9. Although used extensively in the sixteenth century, the chronicle only came into historical consciousness in the mid-1920s when an Oxford postgraduate student, Benedicta Rowe, was able to consult it briefly. She realised immediately that the chronicle had been used by the sixteenth-century historian, Edward Hall, in his Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Familes of Lancastre and York (1548), and that it had links with the famous veteran of the Anglo-French wars, Sir John Fastolf.
Working in detail on the chronicle, we are convinced of its significance. It is in French, making it the only known chronicle of the fifteenth-century wars written in England. It was composed in the household of Fastolf in the 1450s. It provides a detailed and independent account of English actions between Henry V’s invasion of 1415 and the appearance of Joan of Arc before Orléans in 1429. Its uniqueness also derives from the vast lists it gives, written down the page like shopping lists, of those involved in the wars. Astonishingly the majority of names are Frenchmen. The authors seem to have been as keen to list the enemy as the ‘home side’.
We know who the authors were thanks to a Latin preface to the text added by Fastolf’s secretary, William Worcester. Two of those named – Peter Basset and Christopher Hanson – were described as soldiers, and we can trace their careers. The chronicle even includes two incidents that involve Hanson. We have much enjoyed the detective work, but it has left us with a dilemma. Hanson was in Fastolf’s service in England in the 1450s as was William Worcester and the scribe of the chronicle, Luket Nantron, a Parisian who ended his days in England. But Basset disappears from the historical record in the late 1430s. Had he left behind a chronicle, perhaps on Henry V, which the others had reworked? That’s a real possibility, we conclude.
But the chronicle is not just fascinating as an example of teamwork by the Fastolf circle, keen to help their master recall his glory days in France. The text also has a proven link to Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI part 1’ (1591) and to the ‘Mirror for Magistrates’, another important late Elizabethan work.
The chronicle also offers deep insights into the nature of war, but we found that these could hardly be described as neutral or up-to-date in terms of military tactics and technology. The chronicle belongs to the ‘chivalric genre’, exemplifying individual deeds of arms and naming practice. It can even be argued that the desire to list names takes precedence over the deeds attributed to individuals, pushing the boundaries of this literary genre.
Yet what is at least as distinctive and defining in the chronicle’s portrayal of war is its principled and moralistic tone, even if this is boosted by a strong nationalistic flavour. We find both good and bad behaviour but the former is almost invariably English while the latter is inevitably French. The worth of individuals – and indeed groups of combatants – is measured by their courage and their capacity to expose themselves to danger, especially in battles. But it is also measured by their moral integrity and their capacity to keep their word. The chronicle describes the ‘normal’ way to seize a stronghold through siege and surrender, acts which display both courage and mercy. It praises cunning and trickery when these are practised by the English but it abhors acts of treason and subterfuge, and deplores those such as Richemont, who defect from the ‘true cause’.
There is one area where the chronicle stands out from other writings of the period – its omission of the role of artillery and gunpowder. It is not simply that the chronicle overlooks the role of artillery: it despises it. We see this in its impassioned account of the deliberate hanging of gunners, and in the denunciation of those who fired the gun which killed the earl of Salisbury at Orléans. Was this the view of soldiers concerned that skilled combatants were becoming anonymous ‘cannon fodder’? Is it a sign that this is a reactionary backward looking chronicle taking refuge in the old ideals of the aristocratic, chivalric, class?
The chronicle poses questions about nationalism, military tactics and literary genre that will be an inspiration to scholars who now have access to this previously unpublished narrative.
This guest post was written by Anne Curry, who is Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Southampton, and author of many works on the Hundred Years War, particularly on the battle of Agincourt. She edited the 1422-53 section of the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England and has also played a major part in the electronic edition of the Gascon Rolls, now online.