You may not have heard it on the news but French police picked up a terror suspect earlier this month. A woman. Walking by the side of the road on the outskirts of the coastal town of Fécamp, some 40 kilometres north of Harfleur.
Heading along the grass verge with a determined stride, albeit with a slight hobble, caused by one of the soles coming loose from her boots, she seemed innocent enough. But it was her clothes that raised the alarm with a number of passing motorists. A rugged green smock and a headdress that while not exactly covering the face might possibly pass – if you are speeding along the highway, perhaps wrestling a stray cigarette from the carton – as Eastern. Maybe even … Arabic.
The police picked up the walker under the anti-terrorism laws; the memory of Charlie Hebdo remains raw.
They released her about twelve minutes later, however, when it emerged that they had inadvertently stopped a Dutch woman by the name of Maaika Buurman who was doing nothing more threatening than recreating the march of the English king Henry V’s bedraggled army from the coastal town of Harfleur to the village of Azincout, better known in England as Agincourt. In medieval costume admittedly.
“It was slightly disconcerting as they seemed to know every stop I had made and every little road I had taken,” says Maaike who, when she isn’t acting out the part of camp follower in battle reenactments, works as a therapist and an actress, occasionally helping out on the Harlingen-Terschelling ferry.
Ok, hold the phone a moment. A Dutch woman walking the 420-kilometre route of the English king Henry V from Harfleur to Calais in costume? It sounds like madness, a form of Dutch Realm Disease perhaps.
“I got married Robin Hood style in 1995 and i 1996 met the Wolfshead Bowmen from the south of England. Two years later I did my first reenactment with them at Agincourt. This year I decided to walk Henry’s route in medieval costume,” explains Maaike who kept a daily blog of her walking experiences.
“I needed to close a circle. From a personal point of view. Some of it I walked with the Welsh groups that were here and some of it I did on my own. So I was parking my caravan each day at the end point and then trying to take public transport back to the beginning which is not so easy in France.”
And it wasn’t just the police and public transport that caused Maaike problems.
“I lost a sole on my medieval boots which made it difficult to walk. So I changed to my modern boots and one of those fell apart as well. Maybe things haven’t changed so much in six hundred years.”
And then, of course, on the D925 from Goderville to Fécamp, came the long arm of the law.
“They stopped me and asked to see my papers. They said they had had a number of calls about a terrorist on the road. I told them I had left my sword and knife at home. Fortunately they laughed and sent me on my way.”
Well, the French gendarmerie may have laughed on this occasion but their 15th century equivalents were less than amused when Henry V, piqued by a box of tennis balls, went seeking the crown of France.
Yes this weekend saw the 600th anniversary of the battle, fought on a boggy field some 80 kilometres south of Calais on October 25, 1415. On St Crispian’s Day itself. That’s right the battle of Agincourt, as the English like to call it, the one made famous by William Shakespeare, albeit with some help from Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.
Remember that speech? How could you not? King Harry exhorting his bedraggled, exhausted, hungry, sick soldiers to relish their presence on the battlefield even though the numbers were stacked heavily against them.
“This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
Henry V, Act IV Scene iii
A confession. I had forgotten about the date of the battle and was only reminded when I chanced upon a small article in a French newspaper on Friday. I had been to the battlefield two years ago in 2013 with The Buffers – aka my brothers Henry and Felix – who revelled in walking the terrain, calling on their own military careers to check the slight slope that would have given Henry an important advantage, and feel the thick cloying mud clinging to their boots.
“How do you fancy running 500 metres through this into a barrage of arrows?” asked Felix, a former infantryman
“I wouldn’t,” said Henry. “I was artillery remember. We would have been firing the arrows.”
“Nor me,” I added. “I would be in the baggage train at the rear with my quill.”
Ah yes, this band of brothers.
The poor French, staggering into a hailstorm of arrows – an estimated 72,000 in the first ninety seconds of the battle – their horses bogged down in the mud, slipping, sliding and crushing their own men, all of whom were being forced into a central channel by the English and Welsh long bows, the machine guns of their time. It was largely over within the first half-hour, the threat of a French comeback nipped in the bud by the clinical slaughter of several hundred prisoners.
To prepare for this latest trip I force-fed my children, now 13 and 12, the Branagh version of Henry V.
“But do we have to go?” came a plaintiff bleat. “Can’t I stay at home and play Minecraft?”
It is not often I play the three-line whip but this was one of them.
“No. this is not the 599th or the 601st anniversary of the battle. It is the 600th. To the day. A hundred years ago it was soldiers fighting in the First World War who attended the commemoration. This time it will be you. And maybe in a hundred years’ time it will be your grandchildren. And when they are there they may pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that exactly one hundred years earlier you had walked this same muddy earth. That is history.”
There may have been a “deal with it” in there as well. Sadly, I am no Shakespeare when it comes to rousing the troops.
And so it was that we rose early and set off from south of Paris to join the throng and ended up meeting another band of brothers. And, as it turned out, sisters.
The village of Azincourt really is nothing special. Yes, it is a pretty little farming village strung out along the road. There is a café, the Charles VI, and a good little museum dedicated to the battle. But there is no boulangerie or boucherie, let alone a banque. Hamlet might be a better description (although not in the Shakespeare sense, you understand)
But it does have a church. And a battlefield.
And on Sunday October 25, 2015, the 600th anniversary to the day of the Battle of Azincourt, it was buzzing. A good two to three hundred people gathered in the village and then beside the battlefield, among them the 7th Baron Camoys, whose ancestor, Thomas de Camoys, the first Baron (of the second creation) of that title, commanded the left wing of the English Army.
The British ambassador Sir Peter Ricketts took his place in line with the French dignitaries along with eleven members of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) who are garrisoned at Monmouth Castle where Henry V was born. A section of the Republican Guard offered modern cavalry and a few French horns.
What was most interesting, though, was the array of visitors. There were a decent number of French present but they were outnumbered on the day by the Welsh and the English, a large number of whom had flags of St George draped around their shoulders.
The intention was good but it did hint a little at the in-yer-face bravado of an England football crowd.
On a day when a new plaque was unveiled to commemorate the French and British fallen on French soil over the last six hundred years, it was s trifle jingoistic.
Stealing the show were the reenacters. They didn’t put on a show – there had been an event in the summer – but they turned out in uniform and they did talk to the camera (see below); the long bows of Sarge (Keith Deeley) and Llewellyn Gog (real name, Luis Urtiaga) of the Sons of the Dragon and Sir Nicholas (Kerry) Horton and his wife Mistress Ann who run The Freemen of Gwent bringing a little bit of history back into our imaginations.
And, of course, a Dutch terrorist called Maaike.
©Barney Spender 2015
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