© 2009 Bernard Cornwell
In the year 1066, William of Normandy crossed the English channel and claimed England’s crown as his own. In the year 1337, William’s distant relation Edward III returned to France to return the favor. Thus erupted the Hundred Years’ War, a succession of wars punctuated by treaties, royal deaths, and plague. The French bore the worst of it, as her enemies were not all across the channel: the French kings never quite had control of their vassals, and following the madness of King Charles VII, France fought not only against the English but against herself when rival houses vied to seize the crown themselves. In the midst of that furore, Henry V landed in Normandy intending to achieve great things. He brought with him young Nicholas Hookton, a man declared outlaw in England after gut-punching a randy and addled priest. Nick is a master longbowmen plagued by enemies who is determined to save his soul by accomplishing great deeds of his own — and as an archer destined for Agincourt, he will do just that, for Agincourt is one of the most singularly famous triumphs in English history.
Like most Cornwall heroes, Nick is a decent man in troubled times, forced to succeed not only against enemies in combat, but against personal foes. His exile from England began with a blood feud, and the two men with whom he has a date with death will arrive in Normandy in their own sweet time. Agincourt begins in the winter of 1413 and ends immediately after the famous battle, during which time Nick survives the sacking of Soissons, the dreadful siege of Harfleur (of “Once more into the breach, dear friends..” fame), and the road to Calais which will be interrupted by death, horror, and glory. He serves England along with some of the more colorful characters I’ve ever read, and the king of them is the blustering Sir John Cornewaille, whose fantastically hilarious speeches are filled with references to guts, bowels, bollocks, and detailed instructions on how to maim and savage the enemy. I took perverse pleasure in placing Robert Lindsay in his role, given Lindsay’s ‘large ham‘ moment in The Duel, a Hornblower movie based on “The Even Chance”. Cornwell’s writing is top-notch: the dialogue is lively (very fun to read aloud), and during battle scenes his pacing and use of short sentences punctuates the text like drum-beats, emphasizing the drama of war. When the titular battle begins, Cornwell uses multiple viewpoint characters — essential given that the archers, including Hook, ran out of arrows fairly quickly.
I’ve heard many explanations for the English victory at Agincourt, various scholars placing more emphasis on the climate, the setting, or the weaponry. I wondered if Cornwell would favor one of the other. His depiction honors the skill and potency of the archers, their weapons, and the horrid battle conditions (I knew the field was muddy, but had no idea the French were forced to march through deeply plowed ground which made maintaining cohesion difficult and limited their speed), but also mentions a lack of French organization, which seems commonplace in other battles of the time (like Crécy). As is usual for Cornwell, the amount of small details is enormous, and gruesome to read during the battle scenes.
Though I haven’t read the majority of his work, I’m most impressed by Agincourt: it is right up there with The Lords of the North, and should find fans among most of its readers. Those interested in medieval stories will find it especially appealing.
- The Hundred Years War: England in France, Desmond Seward. My favorite Hundred Years War text, used in two term papers to successful effect. (The first was on Jeanne d’Arc,the other on the role that internal French rivalries played in the course of the war.)
- “Henry V”, William Shakespeare
- Grail Quest series, Bernard Cornwell. Set during the war, and starring another master archer named Thomas Hookton.
- Great Tales from English History II, Robert Lacey.
- Animorphs, Megamorphs #3: Elfangor’s Secret, in which a time-traveling slug controlling an actor’s mind travels to Agincourt in hopes of killing Henry V, just to keep the actor from quoting the ‘band of brothers’ speech over and over again.