Books interview with Ranulph Fiennes: “The Hundred Years’ War was caused by my ancestor’s advice being ignored”

Ranulph Fiennes talks to Matt Elton about his new book exploring his family's links to the battle of Agincourt, and the insights that his own experiences gave him into the famous clash

A 19th-century illustration depicting the battle of Agincourt.

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In context

The Hundred Years’ War is the name given to a series of conflicts that were the distant after-effects of William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066. As well as being king of England, William and his successors retained possession of several areas of France, meaning that they were required to pay homage to the French king. Disagreements over this arrangement, as well as disputes over the rightful holder of both crowns, eventually led to fighting between the House of Plantagenet – on the English side – and, on the French side, the House of Valois, from 1337 to 1453.

The battle of Agincourt, on 25 October 1415, was a key English victory.


What led you to write this book?

I don’t know why they didn’t approach a military historian for this project, other than the fact that the publishers knew I had previously written a book delving into my family’s history [Mad Dogs and Englishmen: An Expedition Round My Family] and spotted that I had French connections – although that book didn’t particularly focus on the period of the Hundred Years’ War.

So I did more research into my family links in the Hundred Years’ War, and was amazed by how many of my ancestors were to the fore on both the English and French sides. Some of them I found quite distasteful: for instance, there’s every indication that my forebear James Fiennes was corrupt. A mob cut off his head and put it on London Bridge.

His brother Roger, on the other hand, was a very fine character. Along with three more of my kin – James Fiennes, John Cornwell and John Holland – he was one of the leaders at Agincourt under Henry V. They were sent on all the perilous missions, including the first landing to see where the French were.

I have connections on the French side, too. Robert Fiennes was in charge of the French army while his cousins were still living in England. So the reality of the battle of Agincourt is that the English Fiennes were largely responsible for wiping out their French cousins, and that’s rather sad.

What do you think the original cause of the Hundred Years’ War was?

Rather like the fact that you can isolate the key to the First World War as the student who shot that bloke at Sarajevo, the key to the Hundred Years’ War was William the Conqueror coming over to England in 1066.

My ancestors were involved in this episode, too. If you look at the Bayeaux Tapestry, it’s quite clear that the key moment was when the army commander, my forebear Eustace of Boulogne, said to William that the French forces should retreat because the English were winning. If William hadn’t recklessly given Eustace two fingers, and they had retreated to the ships while they still could, we wouldn’t have had the Hundred Years’ War. So the fact that my ancestor’s advice was ignored was the start of all of this.

What caused the growing animosity between the English and  the French in the lead-up to Agincourt?

By the reign of Henry V, the situation had become very intricate and convoluted. Robert Fiennes and his English cousins hated each other, and the fact that many families owned land on both sides of the Channel for more than 300 years meant that this relationship was typical of many other Anglo-Normans. Brothers and uncles were fighting each other, and when you have feuds that build up over decades you’re bound to have bad feeling.

If you get one person in a position of power – such as Henry V – who is determined to be king of France, then he will go all out to achieve his goal. That was the spark that led to the animosity coming to the fore.

Did you warm to Henry V?

I didn’t warm to him, no, but I certainly thought that he was a determined character. Whether that could be called fundamentalist nowadays, I’m not sure. I think that, in some ways, he was like Islamic State in terms of his absolute single-minded vision. When things were delayed at the siege of the port of Harfleur, which ended up dragging on until October 1415, he could see that heading inland would be highly lethal and statistically disastrous with the number of troops that he had left – and quite a lot of them were indisposed through illness or injury too.

Yet he remained single-minded in his vision. He was incredibly fearless, and a wonderful leader of men. He also chose his leaders very well – and I’m not just saying that because they were my kin!

Did your own experiences provide any insights into Henry’s planning for the battle of Agincourt?

I spent seven years organising for my own expedition. I didn’t want to be king of France, but I did want to be the first human being to travel around the globe crossing both poles using only surface transport – and it took me and my wonderfully supportive wife and team seven years of planning to get everything right. Henry V was meticulous, very organised, very hard working. My experiences meant that I did have some understanding of what he achieved.

What factors led to the French defeat?

The longbow was a major factor. Henry really did depend on the longbow, and that’s why I dispute Shakespeare, in his plays, calling it the ‘English’ army: it was the British army. There were many Welsh people, and those from Cheshire, who did a lot with bows.

So in a sense Henry was depending on one particular factor – the longbow – and that’s a decision that turned out to be correct.

He used the military superiority that this afforded him in a very sensible way. I think he was a very good military commander.

But the French defeat was also due to the fact that all of their crossbows and battle bows were, stupidly, put right at the back where they couldn’t fire shots. The French weren’t yet the masters of the cannon that they would be in the future, either. Experts have proved that one Brit was shot by a cannonball – just one. So all of the French long-range projectiles were nullified: the only projectiles that had any effect were those held by the cavalry and the men at arms.

The mud was a factor too. It did what it’s done many times before, which is to render the impact of the horses redundant.

What the French, including my cousin Robert, did manage to do was to be very brave and very determined. They had to crawl in heavy armour, through the mud, over many dead soldiers. The confined space also meant they couldn’t fight properly because they were so sardine-canned. Despite all of this, they almost managed to break the English line, which is impressive.

Was it hard writing about the battle knowing that your ancestors died?

Yes. When I was writing about Robert, I was really drawn into his story. He was part of a group of 18 men, almost like a brotherhood, that specifically wanted to get Henry V. They managed to get right up to him and damage his crown, which was pretty good going, but all 18 were killed.

So when I was writing about Robert, I was very keen for him to do well, but then I had to change to writing the next chapter in which I was following my kin fighting on the other side. But really, at the battle of Agincourt, I was rooting for Robert. Trying to deduce my own internal rationale for this, I think that it’s because I always find myself siding with the underdog. And, by this stage of the battle it was apparent to me that the underdog wasn’t the Brits, it was the French.

What was the impact of the victory?

In pure chessboard terms, the French had, up until the battle of Agincourt, dominated England for around 300 years, and the Duke of Normandy had become king of England. But now the king of England, Henry VI, was able to become king of France – thanks to his father, Henry V. So, as I write in the book, it is possible to simply say ‘touché’.

But that means nothing. What does mean something is trade, and Henry V was able to get to a situation in which England’s trade opportunities were pretty damn good – because, as a result of having to fight the French, England was able to start a navy that learned how to fight in clever ways. This led on to Walter Ralegh and all that lot, and then eventually to Britain outdoing the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Spanish. The French tottered along in the Caribbean and all over the place, but the fact that the world language is English is something that you can really trace back to this point.

So from the Hundred Years’ War there’s the beginning of a tiny island venturing right out around the world, and we wouldn’t have done that had it not been for this.

What new impression would you like readers to gain of this period?

My impression was how very, very frightening it must have been to be a fighter with the longbow used against you. You would have been in heavy armour, knowing that, if they felled you, you could be lying under other bodies. The ‘death squads’ that went around after the battle checking that people were dead meant that your visor could have been lifted up and you’d have your throat slit. I think it must have been absolutely horrific.

When I was fighting as a soldier in the Cold War, I was part of a group of 180 people fighting an opposition of 4,000 trained in the Soviet Union with fully automatic weapons. For three years we only moved by night, and never in groups of more than four.

We used walkie-talkies to contact each other – not by voice, just by the click click clicks. It was quite frightening.

But I knew that, if I got shot by a bullet, it’s not painful. I’ve seen a lot of people killed, I’ve shot people, and it’s not painful. But the men fighting in the battle of Agincourt knew about the horrible wounds they were likely to get, and the lack of medical treatment that was available. When they were sitting in their ambushes or waiting for the battle, it must have been terrifying.

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Born in Berkshire, Fiennes lived in South Africa as a child before returning to the UK to study at Eton. He later joined the British Army, in which he served for eight years. His exploits as an adventurer and explorer include the first trip to take in both poles using only surface transport. His books include Mad Dogs and Englishmen: An Expedition Round My Family (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010) and Agincourt: My Family, the Battle and the Fight for France by Ranulph Fiennes (Hodder and Stoughton, 336 pages, £20)