The battle of Agincourt

battle of agincourt

Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.

Exactly 600 years ago today, on October 25th 1415 one of the medieval world’s most famous battles was fought. The subject of folklore, theatre, poetry and prose the clamour of the melee at Agincourt still echoes down the ages.

It was on October 25th 1415 during the Hundred Years War (which actually lasted 116 years from 1337-1453) between England and France that Henry V led his army to victory at Agincourt against the forces of the French ruler Charles VI. Fought for the pride and property of monarchs (aren’t all conflicts prosecuted for the benefit of the wealthy?) thousands of knights, yeomanry, archers and peasants joined in combat on the bloody field of Agincourt. And thousands died there. At least we think they did.

There’s just one problem with the accounts of losses at Agincourt. There aren’t any bodies – well there aren’t nearly enough to demonstrate the six and a half thousand losses in such a significant battle during a conflict that spanned the generations. Nobody doubts that the battle took place. The question is precisely where and it’s a question that really matters.

Much of what we know about medieval history comes from on-site archaeology. Our understanding of life, of custom, of costume and diet, even of population movements and affiliations is derived from the bones and artefacts that have been uncovered from historical sites. Successful excavations of contemporary battlefields such as Towton (1461) have much to tell us but we can only learn from them if we know where they are. We do know a lot though.

We know that Henry V was actually in retreat at the time. Following a successful five week siege of Harfleur half of the English King’s men were dead from disease or battle. The remaining five or six thousand were on their way back to Calais and then to England, stricken by dysentery and in no state to fight anyone when they were confronted by a French army of four times their number. The depleted homeward-bound force could go no further unless something could be done about the 20,000 Frenchmen blocking their path.

What King Henry had on his side was the English longbow and no shortage of archers skilled in its use. They devastated the French cavalry who, try as they might were unable to get past the sharpened wooden stakes protecting them. Hindered further by the muddy terrain (it was late October after all) the mounted knights found it difficult to advance in good order and were beaten back, straight into the body of French infantry who were bringing up the rear. The muddy terrain, the result of two full weeks of rain also hampered the French infantry who dressed in much heavier armour than their English enemies were close to exhaustion by the time they reached their foes in hand to hand combat. The much more lightly armoured English army had the advantage of increased mobility and speed which proved decisive in the slippery conditions.

Henry’s archers on the French flank added to the confusion and the Battlefield soon became a jumbled morass of mud, blood, horses and men. The English longbow or ‘War bow’ was capable of much more rapid discharge than the French crossbow. Whereas the English could fire off 12 arrows a minute with relative ease their French opponents were lucky to manage 3 crossbow bolts in reply. The English arrows, powered by the immensely strong War Bows bore bodkin heads which were perfectly suited for piercing the plate armour of the day.

The French were effectively trapped in a natural bottleneck by the uneven terrain where they represented easy pickings for the English force despite their vastly superior numbers. The beauty of containing the enemy in a bottleneck is that no matter how great their number, those in the centre of their ranks have no opportunity to fight and no choice but to wait passively until their turn to fight comes (following the death of their fellows in the outer ranks). This strategy of containment had allowed Spartacus’ ancient slave army to defeat a much larger Roman force centuries before and it helped Henry V destroy the greater French army too. Contemporary reports had it that many of the French suffocated or were trampled by their fellows in the centre of the crushing mass of men. Those that survived the press itself were picked off by arrows as they waited helplessly for their chance to fight.

Taking advantage of the confusion and enforced non-combatant status within the French ranks the English knights took to the field, supported by their own infantry. Even the archers eventually abandoned their bows, using swords, axes and their dreaded ‘bollock knives’ to find the joints in French armour, bringing down Knights and yeomen alike.

Henry’s was an unusual army for the period. It was made up of well paid, well fed and well-disciplined professional soldiers (most of whom were longbowmen) and who understood and respected the chain of command. This was in stark contrast with the French forces who were essentially amateurs led by noble deputies for King Charles whose authority wasn’t always expected. At least some of the French disarray seems to have resulted from indiscipline and premature charges in direct defiance of orders to the contrary.

The battle was a rout resulting in between 6 and 8,000 French losses to a mere 400 on the English side. Not only that it signalled the beginning of the end for the French King, Charles and by 1420 Henry was recognised as Regent of France and heir to the French throne itself. Such was the power of the English longbow and the strength and skill of the dedicated men who trained almost from infancy to know how to use it and to develop the immense upper body strength necessary to do so.

And yet – for all the tales of glory that surround the battle of Agincourt the fact remains that this was carnage on a massive scale. As ever, ordinary men lost their lives in a conflict fought for the greed and pride of the super-privileged. The resulting ‘victory’ changed little about the everyday lives of ordinary people beyond which murderous monarch they paid their subsequent taxes too.

The result for the common man was always guaranteed no matter which King came out on top – they continued to be exploited by the monarch and they continued to be bullied into perpetual submission by a parasitic nobility.

When will humanity learn?

You can find links for each post in the Civilisation series here.


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The Guide 31: Support is meaningless

Not the activity – just the word.

It’s meaningless for care providers to talk about support unless they then go on to say what they will actually do – what ‘support’ means in this context.

Does it mean sending a letter of approval to the local paper, clapping or simply smiling benignly? Or does it mean something more tangible?

In my training I often ban the word altogether. That gets people actually to think instead of just trotting out tired old clichés. It’s sad to see how many people will confidently state that they’ll offer ‘support’ as though that solves the problem but when pressed have no idea about what that support might be. About what is really required in practice.

Support is a nice, warm, fluffy word but in itself it doesn’t really mean anything more than good intentions.

If you work in social care or health care then let me make a suggestion. Stop saying ‘support’ because it lulls us into a false sense of competence and when other people use the word immediately stop them and ask them just what that support will be.

Oh yes – and be prepared for some very experienced and knowledgeable looking people to be unable to answer you.

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The Guide 30: Don’t expect your service user to perform perfectly.

You don’t so why should they?

As we saw in the last few entries, we all make mistakes and it takes time to learn a new skill. But that’s only half the story. Even with practice people rarely achieve perfection. It’s true that we might perform faultlessly some of the time but even the best of us gets things wrong on occasion. For most of us it’s a very regular occurrence no matter how much we’ve practiced. We all have ‘off days’ and we all make mistakes. “Nobody’s perfect”, as the saying goes.

But whilst it’s easy to excuse ourselves for the regular little errors that make up every day of our lives many workers in health and social care have difficulty extending the same understanding and forgiveness to service users.

The next time you go into work take a random batch of care or support case files and look at the care plans inside. See how many of them have been discontinued as ‘unattainable’ after only one or two attempts. Notice also how many have stated goals set far too low because of an assumption that since the service user didn’t get it right every time they cannot be expected to attain meaningful goals. Then apply the same logic to your own life.

Would you find your own support plans discontinued if the same stringent demands were applied to your….

  • Sobriety
  • Spending and budget management
  • Anger management
  • Compliance with medication regimes as ‘self-administrator of medications’ (finishing courses of antibiotics is a good example here
  • Smoking cessation (how many times did the ex-smokers you know try and fail to stop before they succeeded?)

The fact that you mess up from time to time doesn’t make you a failure. It merely makes you human. We all make mistakes but that doesn’t mean we are incapable of doing well too.

Remember that, as we have already seen there is no us and them. If we allow ourselves to be less than perfect then we must also allow our service-users the same freedom to be fallible.

One of the fundamental themes throughout almost all of my writing is the idea that there is no ‘us and them’ and that people are just people. We are all fallible and we are also all capable of improving ourselves.

This means that it is never OK to assume that people with mental health problems can never overcome them. Those of us who work in mental health services have an obligation to work toward improved functioning and coping skills development. That obligation includes a duty to believe that the people we work with are capable of change given the right circumstances, opportunities and motivations.

Unfortunately there is a downside to this approach. Some mental health workers use the belief that ‘there is no us and them’ to justify unrealistic expectations of their service users. It is true that people can achieve great things regardless of diagnosis but it is also true that people with mental health problems are unlikely to function as well as those who are free of such problems – at least in the short term. It takes time to overcome our difficulties and there is no value (or logic) in expecting people who have problems to act as though they had not.

And yet some mental health workers, of all grades and professions seem unable to separate potential coping skills from current achievement. They expect their service-users to behave as though they had already overcome their problems and then blame them when they do not. This is not only lazy thinking, it is evidence of severely limited understanding of mental disorders, the process of recovery and the role of mental health workers.

When we blame our service-users for behaving like service-users we recreate the same sort of invalidating environment that brought many of them into our care in the first place. Rather than assisting people to develop better coping strategies this attitude further damages service-users and traps them in their existing circumstances and psychological difficulties. Our job is to help people to develop beyond their problems, not to judge them for having those problems in the first place.

Don’t blame people with mental disorders

for behaving like people with mental disorders.

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The Guide 29: Lapse is different from relapse

A good friend of mine began attending a well-known self-help group for problem drinking a few years ago. I’m happy to say that he didn’t attend for very long, partly because he found himself far from convinced about the group’s ‘message’.

He’d been having a difficult time at work and briefly retreated into alcohol as a way of coping. It wasn’t the best tactic he could have chosen by any means and it did start to cause more problems than it solved. It was a response to stress and like many such coping strategies it made him feel better in the short term but only served to make his troubles worse in the long term. But it was still a coping mechanism, however self-defeating it may have been over time.

The self-help group he attended took a very simplistic, almost religiose stance. All alcohol was bad, or so they told him and even a single drink would automatically put him right back to square one. They wanted him to believe that he had a permanent, unresolvable problem that could be managed with total abstinence but never ‘cured’.

According to my friend, we’ll call him Tom, the other members of the group accepted this idea uncritically. Presumably that was because those who didn’t accept it left, as did Tom after a few months. But he did stay around long enough to notice something very interesting.

As the pressures at work lessened he found himself able to drink in moderation once again. He reverted back to previous levels of alcohol use – social and quite infrequent. He stopped getting drunk and found himself quite able to ‘take it or leave it’ as the occasion required. However the other members of the group, those who believed the ‘one drink and you’re back where you began’ mantra didn’t seem able to do that.

During Tom’s time in the group he witnessed a small number of others ‘fall off the wagon’. They too had intended to have only a couple of drinks but they seemingly were unable to do so.

Tom realised that their belief prevented them from controlling their alcohol use. They thought that they must keep drinking after their first little tipple and so didn’t attempt to do otherwise. They defined a single drink as impossible to achieve and nobody tries very hard to do what they think is impossible.

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy

Had those people been able to acknowledge the possibility of ‘lapse’, a single event, they might have stopped at a single drink but since they believed only in relapse or abstinence they couldn’t.

So it’s important that those of us who work in mental health and/or addiction services understand that success in any endeavour (not just in overcoming substance related problems) depends upon both achievements and lapses into previous ways of coping. The lapses are a vital part of the process because, as we have already seen, it’s how we learn. It is neither necessary nor desirable to convince people that they’ve failed when all they’ve really done is stumble a little along their path to success.

Lapse is different from relapse

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The Guide 28: Do as I do

Model behaviours we want to encourage in others

Mental health work involves many aspects of care including working to help people to manage their emotions, their thinking and their behaviour. It involves challenge and more often than not it involves problem solving and behavioural intervention.

Goals and objectives relating to developing both behavioural and emotional control are commonplace and much of what we do is centred around working toward them. A very important part of this work is ‘modelling’. If we expect our service-users to make positive changes we need to demonstrate them in ourselves.

  • If the service-user has anger management problems they need to see us remaining calm.
  • If they have problems with paranoia they need to see us actively seek reasonable solutions in our own lives. Thinking the worst of the boss or seeing conspiracy among colleagues is not the best example to set.
  • Similairly if the service-user has difficulty sorting fact from fantasy it’s useful for them to see how we go about assessing evidence and making rational judgements. Let them know how we make sense of the world without jumping to conclusions and work on helping them to develop the same skills for themselves.
  • Most importantly if we want to encourage service-users to develop good support networks (a vital aspect of mental health maintenance) we need to show generosity of spirit in our own dealings with those around us.

The rule of thumb is very definitely ‘do as I do’.

It’s not ‘do as I say’.


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The Guide 27: Coping skills develop slowly

Take a moment to think of all the things that you’re most proud of in your life. For some that might mean professional qualifications from NVQs or SVQs to diplomas, degrees and even PhDs. Others will think of less formal achievements like charitable endeavours or learning to play a musical instrument. Perhaps you’re good at a particular sport or maybe you’re proud of overcoming your fear of heights and going on a parachute jump. It takes a particular form of courage to jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane several thousand feet above the ground. A friend of mine recently climbed Kilimanjaro. He’s rightfully proud of that.

What have you achieved?

The fact that you’re able to read this blog at all means that you’ve achieved something that most humans throughout history never managed to do. You have learned to read!

Whatever you’re thinking about the chances are that the things you’re most proud of didn’t come easily. They took effort. They took mistakes.

Thomas Eddison reputedly failed thousands of times before he successfully invented the light bulb. His attitude to these mistakes was interesting. He didn’t see them as failures. He saw them as learning opportunities. He saw them as milestones along the road to success.

Task debriefing

Every time he built a bulb that wouldn’t light up he learned a little bit more about how not to make a light bulb. Inevitably all that knowledge, all that trial and error eventually led him to find the right way to generate light.

Eddison learned from his mistakes just as you have learned from yours. Writing the first assignment you submitted in that college course, your first fumbling attempts at making music, the first time you tried to hit a cricket ball or ride a horse you made mistakes. Over time you learned from these mistakes and you did better.

That’s as true for you as it is for your service users. They make mistakes too. And when those mistakes are handled correctly they learn from them – just like you do.

So the next time your service user gets something wrong or fails to meet expectations don’t assume they’re incapable. Help them to grow because of that mistake, not in spite of it. It’s a vital part of learning new skills and new ways of coping.

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The Guide 26: People are just people

Following on from the idea that there is ‘no such thing as ‘us and them’, I’d like to make a more general point about people.

Nobody is special.

There – I’ve said it. You are not indispensable at work and your boss, your colleagues, your friends and your favourite service user are all replaceable. Nobody is special because people are just people.

If you work in mental health or social care services you will be used to certain professionals behaving as though they are more important or somehow more worthy of respect than others. You may even be tempted to behave that way yourself. Many in my own profession of nursing seem as though they have been pre-programmed to emphasise their own importance way beyond all recognition.

Different professional groups have different responsibilities and different levels of education are important but they don’t make us special. I trained as a nurse – a pretty well-educated and experienced nurse at that but that doesn’t put me in a position to tell a newly qualified social worker with a basic professional education how to do their job. I’m not special and I don’t know everything.

Similairly whilst I’ll happily defer to a GP when dealing with complex physical problems I’m not about to take their word when planning a cognitive therapy strategy for someone with psychosis. I will listen to them though.

By the same token I may be responsible for planning and organising a shift and delegating care tasks to support workers but I’d better not forget that they are more likely to know the best way to hoist, bathe, feed or approach a particular resident than I do because they know their own jobs.

  • Nobody is special.
  • Nobody is indispensable.
  • Nobody is irreplaceable.
  • People are just people.
  • People do the best they can with what they’ve got

Imagine a small child in a very large sweetshop. The lights are off and it’s completely dark except for a single spotlight illuminating a tiny piece of shelving. On the shelf, visible in the little pool of light are three bars of chocolate. One bar is milk chocolate, another dark while the third is white chocolate. That is all the child can see.

The child has one simple instruction…

Take your pick.

sweet shopObviously the child will choose one of the three chocolate bars he can see. It doesn’t matter what other treats might be in the shop because he can’t see them – he doesn’t know that they are available options.

This isn’t really about chocolate bars and children in sweetshops though. It’s about social care service users and the options they have available.

The sweets in the shop represent coping strategies. They’re behaviours. They’re choices about what to do in different situations. And just like the child in the sweetshop, service-users (along with everybody else) only choose the options, the behaviours that they know about.

So if someone you work with makes poor choices that’s not necessarily because they don’t want to do better. It’s more likely because they either don’t know what else to do or because they don’t think that other options will work for them. Many people understand intellectually about good coping skills or socially acceptable behaviours but don’t believe that they will be given the opportunity to make different choices work for them.

If they’re used to being treated with mistrust they won’t believe that the truth will work for them. If they’re used to being ignored they won’t believe that not drawing attention to themselves will meet their need for human contact. And they may well be right.

So, just like the child in the sweetshop they take the best option available to them.

They do the best they can with what they’ve got. That’s true for workers too. Remember the previous point too …. There is no ‘us and them’.

People with more knowledge have more options. They may well make better choices. But they’re not special.

Workers with more experience and qualifications may make better decisions because they know more and they have more depth of practice to draw upon. But they’re not special. In either case, whether we’re working with service-users or with colleagues, our job is not to think about specialness or deservingness. Our job is to do what we can to turn the lights on in the sweetshop.

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