Fifteen (June 2015)

There seem to have been a surprisingly large number of significant historical events in years ending 15 and so this year is the centennial, bicentennial, tricentennial and so on: polycentennial if you will – although I’m not sure if that last word would be found in the OED.

In 1015 Canute began his successful invasion of England which led to a wonderful story about a king ordering back the sea: sadly ungrounded in fact. In 1915 the attack on Gallipoli was launched about which I’ve spoken at a previous assembly: you may be disappointed to learn that my magnum opus on Military Disasters that could have been avoided by a closer study of coming of age movies has not yet been picked up by an agent. On 18th June 1815: 200 years ago this month the battle of Waterloo was fought: 20,000 British deaths and the end of the resurgence of Napoleon. Also in June, in 1215, on the 15th, King John signed the Magna Carta: you may, at some point, be expected to know where he signed it. The joke answer is “at the bottom”, the answer they are looking for is Runnymede Green – on the Thames a bit west of here but the scholar’s scrupulous answer is that he didn’t sign it – he put the Great Seal of the Realm to it. Also in 1215, a bit later in the year, in August, we can celebrate the 800th anniversary of King John rejecting the Magna Carta and sending the country into civil war. So that’s nice. Finally, and this is the event that I plan to link into the rest of my assembly, in 1415 the battle of Agincourt was fought – I notice that a large number of my events are actually battles: is this a bias in my view of History or a quirk of the year, or both? Like Waterloo Agincourt was fought between the British and the French, like Waterloo it was a British victory but unlike Waterloo there were no German allies coming to help us out.

Reconstructing a battle that happened 600 years ago is a pastime that is likely to involve a great deal of speculation and it’s not always clear how closely the historians views approach what really happened which raises, for those of you who are considering the further study of History, the question of whether what really happened is actually the subject of History or indeed a valid concept at all. Agincourt, however, seems in its essentials to be generally agreed. The English King had invaded France for acquisitive purposes. The invasion had not gone well and during the tail end of the year the British force was retreating towards Calais, all hope of acquisition lost, merely aiming to escape alive. The French King rode out with his knights to cut them off and slaughter them – an activity that should, really, have been surprisingly easy: heavily armoured knights were the medieval equivalent of the tank and slaughtering demoralised infantry was their stock in trade. Unfortunately, they were struck by a moment of stupidity only equalled by Walter Peck who, despite warnings to the contrary, shut down the spirit containment facility at Ghostbusters HQ releasing thousands of ghosts back into the city – I think I have a second chapter to my book by the way. The French knights attacked the British Army (mainly English men-at-arms and Welsh archers) uphill through heavy mud. This would have been pretty silly at the best of times but it also happened to be almost exactly the way they had been beaten at the battle of Crecy almost 100 years before. The result was carnage – and not in a good way: the knights’ armour had become heavier over 100 years and was therefore more protective against the arrows than it had been at Crecy but it also meant that they arrived at the top of the hill exhausted and easy victims for the knives of the archers and maces of the men at arms. The British Army survived. Shakespeare got a play and Kenneth Branagh an opportunity to shout “Once more into the breach dear friends” (actually that comes from an earlier battle but without Agincourt there would have been no play and therefore no line).

After Agincourt the longbow went into disuse: the heaviness of armour had finally provided a defence against it but, interestingly, it is said that during the Peninsular War (the part of the Napoleonic wars fought in Spain and Portugal) the Duke of Wellington wrote home asking if a company of longbowmen could be found. Their accuracy and range was as good as the newly invented rifles but their rate of fire was much faster – about the same as the horribly inaccurate muskets that were held by most of the infantry. Before I go any further I must confess that this statement comes from the pen of Bernard Cornwell from whose books I have learned most of what I know about both the longbow and the Napoleonic wars. Mr Murphy says this is an unscholarly way to go about learning and I suspect he’s right but the books are entertaining stories as well as being informative in an approximate sort of a way. Anyway, the tale deserves a pinch or two of salt but it continues like this: Wellington wanted longbowmen and the country was scoured but without success – there were none left. The problem with the longbow, you see, is that although it was deadly, accurate and rapid it required an enormous amount of training. Any fool can fire a musket and nearly all of said fools can be trained within a month to load and fire one three times a minute but even to draw a longbow requires years of practice and almost super-human strength: archaeologists can recognise archers from their skeletons which have developed differently due to the strain of pulling the bow.

You are in the position of the British Army. You have just won Agincourt – and for the purposes of this metaphor we can pretend that it was a glorious and honourable victory. Well done: you have seen off your ASs and have, in the process, developed mental muscle and skeletal strength second to none: I have been enormously proud of the study that has gone on over the last month and a half – you would put most undergraduates to shame. Now, though, there is a temptation to put your longbows down and to hope that somebody is going to invent the machine gun before you next need to see battle. Please allow me to disillusion you: in just 12 months’ time you will be facing the same enemy, but tougher, better armoured and more determined to humiliate you. If you let your hard work go as a one off, special occasion, never to be repeated or even as a repeatable at will, I can take them any time routine then your A-levels will find you unprepared. If, however, you keep your eye in, your shoulder strong and your bow supple then the oncoming final exams will fall beneath your intellectual hail of arrows.

By this I don’t mean that you should be in the library studying until 6 each night and in revision sessions through every lunch hour – I don’t think any of us could sustain that for 12 months – but I do mean that you should keep up your work ethic: use your lunchtimes wisely, do some work after school before heading home. Take advantage of the fact that your hours are not filled with revision to do some of the reading that I keep banging on about. You have shown you can study well in revision mode for an exam: now transfer those skills to learning more widely and you really will have become scholars.

So: we have three more weeks. Use them wisely – study hard, read widely, if you haven’t already done so then sign up for at least one of the last three lab talks of the year (you really have no excuse not to), get some work done on your UCAS application, find yourself gainful employment for the summer – you’re going to be busy but we all know exactly how much can be achieved in three weeks of hard work and then you’ll have a third of the summer to rest in.