Anne Curry is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and professor of medieval history at the University of Southampton and one of the world’s leading experts on the Battle of Agincourt. The University of Manchester alumna is co-chair of the Agincourt 600 Committee, an organisation marking the 600th anniversary with celebrations in 2015, and author of Agincourt – part of Oxford University Press’ Great Battles series. Her latest book, The Agincourt Companion, was released on 10 September.
Where and when were you born?
In Chester-le-Street in County Durham on 27 May 1954.
How has this shaped you?
From my bedroom window I could see the 14th-century Lumley Castle, and that probably has a lot to answer for! But all that an excellent grammar school education offered in the North East – in terms of a thirst for knowledge and encouragement to aspire – was also crucial, not just in history but also in Latin and French. Without inspiring teachers in those subjects I could not have become a medieval historian.
As co-chair of the Agincourt 600 trustees, what are you planning for the 600th anniversary commemorations?
The main public events organised by the Agincourt 600 Committee are a banquet at the Guildhall and a service in Westminster Abbey but we have also, thanks to the £1 million given [to us] by the government, been able to fund many community, educational and legacy projects elsewhere.
What is the significance of the Battle of Agincourt within British history?
Thanks to Shakespeare it has become the best known of medieval battles and has continued to symbolise the many centuries when we were at war with the French, before the Entente Cordiale of 1904.
How significant is the English win in terms of military history, given the disparity in the numbers of soldiers on both sides?
My research has suggested that the disparity in total numbers was not as great as popularly thought. The main disparity was that Henry V had so many fewer men-at-arms. But his archers, who made up the majority of his army, were what made his victory possible.
Henry V has gained iconic status as a king. Was he a popular monarch?
Shakespeare’s portrayal of the “little touch of Harry in the night” [Henry V; Act 4, Prologue] is wide of the mark. Henry would have been much more aloof and he rarely appeared in public. He had to spend the first two years of his reign consolidating his authority since his reputation as prince had not been high. Not all his subjects supported his plans for an invasion of France in 1415 and towards the end of his reign we see increasing disquiet about the high taxation needed to fund his wars. But his successes in France did contribute to the respect of his subjects.
Would Henry have gone on to rule for as long as Elizabeth II?
Kings tended not to live as long in the Middle Ages, but the intriguing thought is that Henry could have been king of both France and England had he lived longer. The history of Europe would have been so different had he survived for a couple of decades longer.
History is a subject whose popularity has waned in terms of full-time undergraduate enrolments to university. However, history programmes are very popular on television. Do historians need to exploit historic anniversaries such as this to drum up support for the field?
My impression is that history is still a very popular subject at school. TV history no doubt helps but we should also acknowledge that history is well taught in schools and that students will always be keen to study how people lived and why they acted as they did. That gives so many insights into the current world.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Study as many languages and visit as many other countries as you can.
If you were a prospective university student facing £9,000 fees, would you apply or get a job?
I would certainly go to university. The intellectual stimulation is unparalleled and you meet fellow students who will be friends for life.
What’s your biggest regret?
Not spending a year in another country during my degree.
What do you do for fun?
I sing loudly.
What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best – opportunities to talk about my research in public. During the Agincourt 600 year, I will have given about 50 talks across the UK and in France. The worst – I am not sure that there is a worst. I am exceptionally lucky and have excellent colleagues and students.
What kind of undergraduate were you?
I worked hard and read as much as I could, but I also sang a lot and enjoyed cheap cider as well as everything about Manchester.
What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Singing the roles of First Lady and Papagena in the university opera group’s performances of The Magic Flute. It was the confidence and buzz I got from that which helped me perform well in finals and set me on track to be a historian.
Tell us about someone you admire
It has to be Professor Sir Ian Kershaw – a brilliant medievalist who went over to the dark side to become a brilliant modernist. Ironically, it was because he stopped teaching his special subject on 14th-century monasteries that I took [a course on] the reign of Henry V instead. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Is it true that our modern swearing symbol – the ‘V sign’ – originated from English archers gloating about their victory?
Alas, no. It is an urban myth. But its invention shows how desperately we want people in the past to be just like us.
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