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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
21 Feb 2023

NextImg:A Military Historian’s Break From Tradition to Get the History Right

As with any story, over time, the facts can become distorted, turning the truth into a fantasy. In everyday conversation, we call it gossip or hearsay. Perhaps there are remnants of the truth, but the entirety of the story is far from an honest retelling. History, even academic history, can suffer from the same errant problems.

Michael Livingston, secretary general for the U.S. Commission on Military History and a professor at The Citadel, one of the nation’s six senior military academies, is known for setting historical records straight, even records that have stood or been accepted for centuries. His book “Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England,” about the Battle of Brunanburh, placed him on the map of historiography as a voice of intellectual and historical reason, as well as a strong backstop against historical hearsay.

His work on Brunanburh, a battle that took place in 937 and ultimately unified England, was one of controversy, as there were conflicting camps on exactly where the battle happened. But it was a theory about the Battle of Agincourt that caused his most recent discovery and controversy. This battle is one of the three most famous from the Hundred Years’ War between England and France and is arguably most known for being one of the settings in William Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” It’s on the eve of this battle that King Henry V gives the fictional, yet memorable St. Crispin’s Day speech.

Livingston, along with colleagues and fellow historians Kelly DeVries and Robert Woosnam-Savage, wished to test his theory regarding Henry V and the battlefield, but within minutes, his theory fell apart. The trip to northern France, however, wasn’t a complete waste, as it was near the site of another famous battle of the Hundred Years’ War that DeVries had some concerns about.

The three historians walked the traditional site of the Battle of Crécy, which led to an odds-defying victory for England and King Edward III while at the same time espousing the legend of Edward IV, famously known as the Black Prince. As the three walked the battlefield, it became painfully obvious that there were problems with the site, or as Livingston stated in an interview in an episode of “The Sons of History” podcast, problems that were “disastrous.”

“The more we walked the field, the more I was convinced that this isn’t something where we need to rotate the battle, or if we turn it a little bit it will work,” he said. “It was like, ‘It’s not here. Nothing about this makes sense.’”

From that point, Livingston and DeVries began their research into disproving the agreed-upon location and much of the folklore narratives that stemmed from the errant site. It didn’t take long to begin formulating his thesis for disproving the centuries-old belief. He began by getting online.

“When I got back to my hotel, I got on the internet and looked up a dozen public and English translated sources and read them, and they said the battle was somewhere else,” he said.

In the ensuing months, DeVries and Livingston researched and walked the battlefield dozens of times, even in attempts to disprove their theory. The work culminated in their groundbreaking work titled “The Battle of Crécy: A Casebook,” which won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for Military History. Just as with his work on Brunanburh, Crécy proved a point that Livingston hopes will echo throughout the history industry as much as it echoes throughout his classroom.

“A battle is its ground. You cannot understand the field of conflict until you understand the field,” Livingston said. “If you’re on the wrong ground, then you don’t know anything about the battle.”

Proving that the battle took place somewhere else didn’t merely change the battle’s location; it changed much of the way we must look at the battle itself and the overall Hundred Years’ War, especially how we view the English and the French.

“The main conclusion that people have come to with Crécy is that the French were stupid. They were getting mowed down for hours like they were Orcs in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ just wandering into the line of fire,” the historian said. “That tainted people’s understanding of the rest of the war.”

One question that Livingston and DeVries looked to answer was how the French lost the battle despite heavily outnumbering the English. Much of the credit has traditionally gone to the technological advantage that the English had against the French with their longbowmen. Although this did play a crucial role, it doesn’t fully answer the question. The field, however, does.

“The way I reconstruct it is that the biggest thing here is that Edward III took a great position and the French king (Philip VI) lost command and control,” he said. “If you are a leader on the battlefield and you lose command and control, good things usually don’t happen. It was an amazing storm of things going really well one way and really bad the other way.”

Concerning the Black Prince, there’s a legend that has grown over the centuries that Edward IV was a teenage Hercules of sorts, rushing from the frontlines into the foray of battle and killing countless French soldiers. The legend suggests that English knights warn the king that his son is hard pressed in battle and should be rescued, to which the king famously responds, “Let the boy earn his spurs [i.e., knighthood].” When the knights decide to disobey the king and rescue the prince anyway, they find him standing on the bodies of dead French soldiers, unharmed.

In reality, the Black Prince was indeed placed on the frontline, but apparently made the foolish decision to charge into the French despite the English longbowmen displaying their distinct advantage. Livingston said the reality was that the English prince was supposed to act as bait to lure the French into the firing line of the longbow. His decision to order a charge into the French, ultimately cutting off his own bowmen and placing himself in harm’s way, nearly cost England the battle and the war.

The Black Prince was actually captured by the French during the melee. It was during this time, while the French soldiers and nobility were arguing about who would claim the ransom, that Edward IV began to sneak away and English soldiers came through to rescue him.

“The Hundred Years’ War, for the minutes he was captured, was effectively over. He almost cost his father the entire thing,” Livingston said.

Nonetheless, the Battle of Crécy ended with an English victory and a young prince shrouded in a false, yet glorious myth.

“It makes sense why we get that story about earning his spurs because what we’re getting is what we would now call spin,” Livingston said.

He said there was a truth that was deflected and devolved into a myth. The fact that this story is mere legend goes well with the fact that the battlefield is wrong, too. Livingston said when the location of the battle was corrected, several other things became corrected, too, such as the military tactics and strategies from both sides, as well as the Black Prince story.

As much as he understands why there was spin from the English side, he said he also understands why the traditional battle sites such as those of Brunanburh and Crécy have been accepted for centuries.

“Traditions are hard to shake,” he said. “Somebody put a location on the map in the 17th century saying this is where the Battle of Crécy happened and everybody just assumed that that was right. If you get enough people repeating a lie often enough, people begin to believe that lie.”

He said historians have a difficult task of pushing back on what he terms “received knowledge.” This is perpetuated information, which may be incorrect, that historians pore over and then regurgitate, often unaware that it isn’t true. And when a historian pushes back on such a notion, even with compelling evidence, the pushback from traditionalists is inevitable. Livingston has received pushback on both the Brunanburh and Crécy investigations. He even received death threats about the Brunanburh research. One of the moments of disagreement with Crécy, which was far less dramatic than the death threats of Brunanburh, was from one of his colleagues.

“One of my colleagues said, ‘In the end, the reason we know Mike can’t be right is because if he is, that means we’re all wrong,’” he said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s the winning argument you think it is.’ But I get it at the same time. As a historian, you are somewhat trained to build on the previous generations’ work: ‘We know this, so let’s build on that to get closer to finding out what happened.’ But that only works if the foundation is good.”

Livingston said he isn’t concerned about the disagreements, nor is he ever concerned about what other historians or traditions say about a historical subject. He followed up the award-winning book he co-authored with DeVries with his solo work “Crécy: Battle of Five Kings,” which reiterates their findings and sets the argument on an even more solid foundation.

“The only thing that kept entering my mind was, ‘Is there something I’m missing? Surely they know something I don’t.’ But it became more and more clear that, ‘No, they don’t. They’re just all assuming,’” he said. “It’s not a competition; it’s just that we need to get it right. I want to get the history right. I don’t want to be right. I want to get it right.”

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