Ian Mortimer


About writing the book

In theory, it was simple. I would write a book including everything we know about Henry V in the course of a year, arranged on a day-to-day basis, including the main events concerning his rivals, allies and enemies. In practice this was a very hard book to write; it left me utterly drained.

Problem no. 1 was that, despite the lack of royal household accounts, we know an awful lot about Henry in this year. He was, after all, a medieval king, and kings tended to be busy folk. Problem no. 2 stemmed from this - he had a large number of enemies and allies, so deciding whom to include as a supporting cast was not easy. Obviously the French courtiers and the duke of Burgundy had to be included; but what about the leading members of the Council of Constance? The Castilians and Aragonese? In the end I decided to include as much as I could about the Council of Constance - where it touched upon the English, the papacy, and the concepts of heresy and treason. Not only did these give an international perspective to similar debates in England, they added drama in the first half of the year, when Henry's own life was largely a matter of organising a campaign and praying.

This was the real difficulty: readability. While I could be confident that what I was doing was a wholly new form of historical biography, and radically different from every other book on Henry V and Agincourt, it was patently a very tricky literary form. Historical philosophers, postmodernists and critical theorists have for years criticised the standard form of history writing by claiming that historians distort their subject - and even that they write history to suit themselves - by selecting the limits of their subject, selecting the evidence to suit their theories, arranging the evidence to support their argument and basically presenting a view of the past that is more about the historian than about the subject. So in trying to present all the known facts, arranged in a strict chronological framework, day by day, I was avoiding most of these criticisms of evidence selection and arrangement. And yet, my solution to these criticisms of historical form was basically a long list of payments and similar details. It seemed impossible to write a book that was accurate, critically robust, arranged according to the day of the year, multifaceted and yet readable. As I stated in the conclusion to book, 'it may be that the more historians meet the challenges of accuracy, fullness and precision, the more difficult it is for them to create a 'story', or work of literature, out of the characters and events of the past.'

My strategy to deal with these problems had several stages. I first decided I had to do what I hate doing in any historical writing - to do all the research in advance. Normally I like to research the outlines of a man's life and then do the detailed set-piece research when I come to that specific section. That way the writing carries over something of my enthusiasm in discovering something new in the research stages. But 1415 could not be done like that: only by mapping every single day of the year could I know which characters would prove important, which had to be tracked through the year, and where the dull parts of the book were likely to be. Let's face it, even king's lives were sometimes dull, and records of the dull bits of king's lives could be even duller; so to keep the reader interested, certain aspects of daily life had to be incorporated to give colour and contrast to the day-by-day political narrative. But of course these had to be included in respect of things that happened on particular days; one could not simply choose to put something into the book without it having something to anchor it to a certain point in the calendar.

I began research and noting in January 2008. At the same time I was responding to editorial queries and rewriting two other books of mine, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England and The Dying and the Doctors, as well as writing promotional material for Time Traveller's and giving public talks etc. But, as usual, the desire to start writing eventually grew to the point that it overwhelmed the need to do further research, and I started the book on 24 July.

The problem was that the book was meant to be delivered in November. I had left myself four months to write it. That might have been sufficient, if I had tried to limit myself to 100,000 words. But I quickly realised that 1415 was my one big opportunity to demonstrate the power of a new historical form. Had I written a book 100,000 words long, it would have been nowhere near as meaningful. One could not have used the comprehensiveness of the form to identify areas totally lacking in Henry's life, such as how few women there were around him. One could not have begun to integrate the religious and the secular aspects of this man in this year. So, aware that I was setting out on an impossible task, I decided to go for it - to try the impossible, in the style of Henry V himself.

On 21 August I emailed my commissioning editor admitting that I had only written 20,000 words but claiming I could deliver the book in February. That was optimistic, to say the least. I plugged on. By 26 November 2008 we were up to 80,515 (89,615 incl notes) and by 31 January 2009, 151,972 (165,793). However, at that point I still had not yet started to write about October, the month of Agincourt. By the time I had finished the whole first draft, on 22 April 2009, it was 237,590 words long, including notes, appendices, etc (double its contracted length) and more than six months late. Very fortunately, I have the most understanding publishers in the world, and the significance of a comprehensive view of the year was not lost on them. I think we cut or removed to the notes about 4,000 words. And I have to say that my editor at The Bodley Head, JÖrg Hensgen, was marvellous, working flat out to make sure the book appeared on time; and so were all the others supporting him, including the copy editor, Anne Wenger, and Kay Peddle at The Bodley Head, who undertook to track down some pictures that I did not have the time to locate and secure permissions for myself.

When I finished my second book, The Perfect King in exactly a year, I said I could never work that hard again. The first draft of that book was 209,196 words. In writing 237,590 in three quarters of the time I had proved myself wrong. But I had also worn myself out. I had practically driven myself round the twist - no one had read a word of the book and I was so deeply immersed in the whole business that I had no idea whether I had written something completely unreadable. It would be fair to say my personal life suffered, as did my family life. Only as the months have gone by, and the book has receded into the distance can I get some perspective on it; and now I have to say that I am proud of it. I am glad I did not compromise in my original vision.

But what exactly am I proud of? The leading scholars are familiar with most of this evidence. Agincourt specialists will find no new chronicle entries here. Ecclesiastical historians likewise will see that I have used only previously published sources for the Council of Constance. But that perhaps is just the point: bringing these things together - integrating the various sides of Henry's life in as comprehensive a way as possible - that is what I am proud of. And in so doing I have put forward a numberof points about the ways we write history, and the ways we will be able to write history in the future. I hope that books like this and my Time Traveller's Guide go some way to showing that we do not have to stick to the traditional forms of history, which are largely designed to suit educational or academic purposes. We can experiment with form; we can look at humanity in the past in an infinite number of different ways - sympathetically as well as objectively. To me this is freeing history from the constraints of academic study. It might be ironic that I think of a 237,000-word book about a single year which has 1,200 notes in it as a means of 'freeing' history from ritualised academic form; but that is what I do believe this book does, and more so than my previous sympathetic biographies. I don't suggest that people should try to copy this approach but lessons such as chronological precision, integration of aspects of the subject's character, and going beyond the mere 'selection' and 'arrangement' of evidence, all show that one can find new ways to present an account of a well-known character. If that basic fact is accepted, and proves inspiring to others, I will be satisfied.