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Set in the reign of Henry V Nicholas Hook (the stories main character) is a forrester who has an ongoing feud with a rival family in the same village - the Perrils. The feud leads to Hook being declared an outlaw, consequently he flees to France to fight as a longbow-man . King Henry V wishes to claim the French crown, to which he has some blood rights. Hooks first battle is at Soissons where the French take and sack the town killing the English (and most likely Welsh) archers along with the French who support the English claim. Hook survives in hiding during the sack of Soissons and meets a nun Melisande whom goes on to become his love interest. King Henry V sees Soissons as a reason to further pursue the French crown and he lays siege to Harfleur. Unfortunately the siege goes on for too long and the English army is decimated by disease.
Henry V is not put off by this and decides to then march on Calais where he is stopped by a vastly larger French army until battle at wooded vale called Azincourt (I assume we all know what happened there?). Hook has many different exploits along the way, including the wrongful death of his brother, a love affair, the capture of French aristocracy and the end to his bitter fued with the Perrils..
The book is excellent throughout and the writing really sees the reader getting into the story from Nicholas Hooks perspective and from that of what it must have been like for a longbow man at Agincourt. I couldn't put it down, the only slight criticisms I have are the love interest was unnecessary, there is again an evil priest again the main character in a Cornwell novel and the idea of main character being led by Saint Crispin (too long to explain) is not needed. These are only minor issues and do not detract from the story or the likebility of the characters my recommendation is read this book!
Agincourt (English spelling) or Azincourt (original French) was a battle fought between the English king Henry V and the French forces in 1415. The village of Agincourt is in France and the great English victory against all odds was brilliantly re-told by William Shakespeare in his play Henry V. The play is one of English literatures greatest and most people know the story of the battle through the famous speeches and scenes from the play.
Azincourt by English author Bernard Cornwell tells the fictional tale of a Welsh bowman called Nicholas Hook, he is a brilliant archer who is pressed into the service of the king after being accused of beating up a priest after the priest raped and killed a young girl placed into his custody. Exiled from the lands he escapes to France and initially fights as a mercenary seeing atrocities, he is sickened by war but is asked to join the company of Sir John Cornewaille. He is soon a member of Henry V's invading English army, he is a part of the siege of Harfleur and fights at Agincourt where Henry's men are trapped by the huge French army.
That's the core of the story; anyone who knows Cornwell's more famous Sharpe novels knows that he likes to describe history through the activities of the common soldier. He dwells long on the hardships, fear and desires of the lowly archer in this case, here we have a tale in which virtually none of the political machinations which went on to ensure that England and France had over a century of warfare. There is little even on why Henry invaded France except a couple of mentions about being the true king of France, even if the French don't agree.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, a book centred on a fairly lowly Welsh archer who would in all honesty lack any kind of understanding about why the army he's in is invading France. I suspect you could ask any foot soldier in any army in history and find a bit of a lack of knowledge over why they are there? I mean why did we invade Afghanistan or Iraq certainly very little to do with al-queda or 9/11.
So the story is one of disturbance, a life disturbed gains acceptance through violence on a foreign field; this is also redemption of course and revenge. The book is a blow by blow account of the events of around 3-4 months of the campaign of Henry's in France, of course all the events include Hook even those which are a little improbable but this is a novel not non-fiction. Through the novel we are given plenty of fairly rude descriptions of bodily functions, fighting, disease, destitution and destruction, all are manifest from page of the novel and only let up when the armies return to London.
Does the novel truly give an impression of Agincourt? Well yes, the battle scenes are well written and give a feel for the events which shaped the English victory having a fairly central French character in the novel as the foil for Hook's English point of view gives a chance for the author to expose the deficiencies in both armies. The weather played a huge part and you do wonder if on a dry day France would have won, the novel also includes the notorious and not mentioned in Shakespeare's play of the killing of the French prisoners of war.
I enjoyed it, I've always enjoyed Cornwell's historical novels but always take them with a healthy pinch of salt because you know your reading a fictional account of the historical events. He always writes fluently and his prose is very much in the page turner style of writing but a Shakespeare he's not and perhaps that is where we should leave him as a worthy novelist but not a great writer.
Agincourt is one of the most famous battles in English history. Cornwell's novel "Azincourt" (which is the French name for the place that the battle took place) looks at things through the eyes of an English archer.....
Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944 to an English mother and a Canadian father. After marrying his American wife Judy he began writing novels as he did not require to green card to do so.
He is perhaps best known in the UK as the author of a series of books featuring the central character of Richard Sharpe. A number of these have been filmed for television starring Sean Bean in the central role.
Outside of the Sharpe series of novels Cornwell has also penned a number of trilogies, quartets and one-off novels covering various historical periods. These are:-
+ The Warlord Chronicles: The Winter, Enemy Of God and Excalibur which are set during Arthurian times
+ The Grail Quest series: Harlequin, Heretic and Vagabond which are set in the fourteenth century and revolve around the quest for the Holy Grail
+ The Starbuck Chronicles: Rebel, Copperhead, Battle Flag and The Bloody Ground which are set during the American civil war
+ The Saxon Stories: The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, The Lords Of The North, Sword Song and The Burning Land which are set during the reign of Alfred The Great and chronicle the Viking invasions that occurred during his reign.
His standalone novels are Gallows Thief (set in 1817), Stonehenge, which is set circa 2000 BC and details the construction of the titular structure and Azincourt which could, arguably, be seen as a sort of sequel to the Grail Quest series as a large part of it deals with England's position in France.
Azincourt was first published in October 2008 in hardcover with the paperback version following in 2009 . My version, which is the paperback one, also contains a number of extras at the end of the book. These are:-
+ Historical Note: 12 pages which place Azincourt in its historical context and discusses the siege at Harfleur and the battle of Azincourt itself.
+ The Longbow: 6 pages packed with information from what wood was used to make a good longbow, the training needed to master such a weapon, the arrows used etc.
+ Henry V Speech: The St. Crispin's Day speech as penned by William Shakespeare.
+ The Agincourt Carol: Written in the fifteenth century to commemorate Henry's victory as Azincourt.
+ Interview With Bernard Cornwell: The author discusses his views on Azincourt, the decisions he made about various plot points and the sources he used in his research before he started writing the book.
The marriage of Edward II of England to Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France can be seen as one of the causes of the Hundred Years War. When Charles IV, son of Philip IV of France died his nephew Edward III (now King of England) was his closest living male relative. In English eyes he was heir to the French throne and could therefore restore lands lost in France by the English aristocracy over the last 100 years or so if he succeeded to the French throne.
The French thought differently and asserted that the principle of Salic Law applied and that claims to the throne could not pass through women. This, in effect, barred Edward III from claiming the throne as his claim came via his mother Isabella. Instead an alternative line descended from Philips IV's brother, Charles of Valois was established.
Quarrels between England and France broke out periodically from 1337 onwards with both sides enjoying successes from time to time. France, however was unable to eject the English from French soil completely and the English were unable to dominate the country as a whole.
By 1414 France was ruled by the mad Charles IV and the English king Henry V demanded the return of the French lands that the English crown and nobility had held during the time of Henry II. To assert his claim he landed with his army at Harfleur before fighting again at Azincourt.
The book revolves around an archer named Nick Hook who is, (probably), the illegitimate son of Lord Slayton. The Hook family have an ongoing feud with the Perrill family and, at the start of the book Nick attempts to kill Tom Perrill. He fails and Lord Slayton later sends him to London along with the rest of his archers. It is here that he first hears the "voices" who instruct him to save a lollard girl named Sarah.
His attempt to save her brings him into conflict with Sir Martin, a very unchristian priest who is (probably) the father of Hook's hated enemies Tom and Robert Perrill. Escaping from Sir Martin Hook makes his way to France and witnesses the fall of Soissons and the subsequent slaughter of the townsfolk. It is here that he meets and saves the life of Melisande, a French girl who has been sent by her father to live in a nunnery.
Arriving in Calais, Nick give a first hand account of events in Soissons and is sent back to England to tell his tale to King Henry personally. A year later Henry assembles and army for a campaign in France. The stage is set for the ultimate showdown between the English and the French armies whilst Nick faces dangers of his own from the hated Perrills and Sir Martin who are also in the English army, and from Lanferelle, Melisande's father who is on the opposite side and who has sworn to kill him......
How much you'll enjoy reading this book depends, I suppose, on whether or not you've read any of the Grail Quest Trilogy: Harlequin, Heretic or Vagabond. If you haven't read any of the aforementioned books then you're liable to find this an well plotted page turner that will engage and hold your interest from start to finish.
The central character in the book is, as I mentioned, Nick Hook. He's a little different to the central characters in Cornwell's other novels, for example Uthred in The Saxon Chronicles or Thomas of Hookton in The Grail Quest series in that he doesn't really appear to have any sort of characteristics that make you warm to him and like him. He is primarily driven by his need to protect himself and Melisande and his desire for revenge against Sir Martin and the Perrills and, in the absence of (to quote Simon Cowell "the likeability factor") it's these plot elements that drive the story forward and keep us interested.
The fact that he hears the voices of St. Crispin and St. Crispinian who were the patron saints to Soissons marks Hook out as different from the other "heroes" that Cornwell has used in his other books and it is these "voices" that give him a link with Henry V. Henry's convinced that God in on his side and that the French throne is rightly his but he'd still like confirmation. "I wish the saints would speak to me" he says to Hook after Hook's told him what happened at Soissons. Nowadays, I suppose, we'd call Nick schiozphrenic and give him "care in the community" along with a handful of pills to pop.
Henry appears at various points in his novel and comes across as determined and single minded. He's intent on carrying out God's vengeance for the events in Soissons which, of course, dovetails nicely with his desire to assert his claim to the French throne. He's one of the better written characters in the book and is portrayed as a king of the people, being as comfortable conversing with the lowly archers such as Nick Hook as well as people of higher social classes.
Nick's adversaries, the Perrills, Sir Martin and Lanferelle are all used as devices to drive the plot forward and are characterised to varying degrees. Neither of the Perrills make that much of an impact in terms of character and personality. We know that they're bad and that Nick has a feud with them but they fail to be anything other than one dimensional characters. In contrast, Sir Martin is fleshed out more fully as a religious maniac who is more than happy to rape and kill whilst spouting all sorts of claptrap to justify his actions. Cornwell writes him in such a way that the reader will find it very easy to detest him.
Melisande, on the other hand is never really fully developed as a character despite the fact that she's the main female character in the novel. Cornwell gives details about her background, her father etc but it's hard for the reader to form any clear impression about what sort of person she is or how she's likely to react in any given situation and also what it is about her, aside from her looks, that attracts Nick.
In plot terms it would have been all too easy to allow the final battle of Azincourt to be the watershed event in lives of all of the characters in the book and for that to be the point at which we discover whether they live or die. Thankfully Cornwell resists the temptation to do this and a number of characters, both good and bad, die before, during or after the battle. The death of one character in particular comes like a bolt out of the blue and is completely unexpected but, in a sense that helps to make the book slightly more realistic.
Those of you who have read any other Cornwell novels will be well used to the sort of detail that Cornwell uses when describing fights and battle scenes. However, if you're new to Cornwell as an author then you might find some of his more descriptive passages harder to take than other historical novels that you might have read. For example:-
"He smacked him hard around the head and, while the archer was still recovering from the blow, drove the bolt down through one eye. It went in easily, glancing off the socket, and **** kept driving the shaft into ****'s brain until the rusted point scraped against the back of ****'s skull. The archer twisted and jerked, choked and quivered, but he died quickly enough".
I've asterisked the names of characters out from the above passage in order not to give away any plot elements but the way that the passage is written conjures up a very clear image of how the person in question has been killed. The descriptions of the battle of Azincourt and a number of other events are all described in equal or greater detail so if you're a squeamish sort person the level of descriptive detail in some sections of the book may be a little too much for you.
It's easy to remember the "big things" when writing a historical novel. Anyone writing a novel set during the Hundred Years War should know not to include mobile phones, computers, cars etc. It is however, easy to forget that travel in those days was slightly more problematical and that some people might have lived their whole lives without ever seeing the ocean. Cornwell includes a number of little touches throughout the novel such as the fact that Nick has never seen a body of water bigger than his village lake. He's never heard of Burgundy and doesn't really know where it is and he's never seen a fleet of ships. It's the little things like this that serve to remind the reader of differences between how we live our lives today and how different things were at the time of Azincourt and a lesser author could easily overlook this.
Those of you new to Cornwell's novels will probably enjoy this a lot as it's a real page turner and Cornwell's writing and plotting holds and retains your interest. As I mentioned above, if you've read any or all of the of the Grail Quest trilogy you may have a slightly different opinion. The fact that the action is set in France and that the prowess of Nick Hook and the rest of the archers play a major part in the book make this seem very similar to the Grail Quest trilogy and, to be honest, aside from the voices of the Saints that Nick hears there isn't anything really new here that you wouldn't find in the Grail Quest Trilogy. The "hero" of the aforementioned trilogy Thomas Of Hookton even gets name-checked at one point.
Overall though, this is a solid novel which is eminently engaging. Of the standalone novels (Gallows Thief, Stonehenge and Azincourt) it's probably the best and would be an ideal book to give to someone as their introduction to Cornwell's works.
The Battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt, to give it its technically correct name) is one that is well known amongst those who remember their history lessons from school. Shakespeare fans may also have experienced his Henry V as he prepared to take the English army across the Channel to France and attempt to defeat the French hordes who numbered nearly 6 times that of the English. It is an incredibly well documented slice of history.
Conversely, my only experience of the author Bernard Cornwell is in watching the TV adaptations of his Sharp books. As a result, when my father in law offered me this book, insisting it was brilliant, I wasn't too sure whether to go for it or not. Already knowing the result, as it is based on such a famous historical event, I wasn't sure that it would be something I would be able to get my teeth into.
However, I gave it a go, and despite starting and stopping a number of times to read something else, I finally knuckled down the other week to read it properly. I was met with a very clever fictional tale woven into the historical facts. It is clear to me that the hype surrounding Bernard Cornwell as the master of historical fiction is not one without merit, as I was sucked into an enthralling story and found it hard to put down once it got going.
Cornwell's tale follows an English archer, Nick Hook, as he finds himsefl in and out of trouble before becoming a frontline longbowman in Henry's army as they invade France to take over the disputed throne. Cornwell's first 100-150 pages are spen setting the scene, giving us heroes, damsels and villains galore, before crossing the Channel to show how these characters fit into the battles that ensue.
Hook is a well developed character, and one I felt was deep and easy to understand. Morally strong for the majority of the book, he adopts a rather cavalier approach to most of what he does, seemingly without a great deal of fear, traits which perhaps lend himself to attaining promotion through a couple of ranks in the army to fight for Sir John Cornewaille, one of the King's brutal leaders.
Sir John reminds me a bit of Gimli, the dwarf from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I had a vision of him being a stout and solid fighter, completely fearless and with a command over others that inspires you to want to fight with and for him, just not against him! He is almost given a parental role to Hook, as he takes him under his wing and guides him in battle.
He is painted in completel contrast to the man who is perhaps the main villain of the piece, Father Martin Perrill. He is shown as a villain right from the very start, and he and his two sons, all of whom fight in Henry's army as well, fade in and out of the story throughout, as Cornwell depicts a frantic personal struggle that runs well alongside the main historical battle that rages through the pages. This is perhaps where Cornwell's diversity comes in, showing that, despite there being two opposing forces, there are still personal battles within the bigger picture. Murderous intentions, revenge and inhumane intentions flow through this character plot, and it is almost as if there are two separate types of story going on, one a historical novel, the other a tense character thriller. Both run smoothly together.
On the other side of things are the French. The first part of the book that sets the scene incorporates a period in time that Hook spends in France before finding himself outlawed for hitting a priest (Father Martin - hence the feud!). During this time, he witnesses a brutal massacre of all, women and children, and manages to save one woman, Melisande, who then becomes the love interest throughout the book. Although she is painted as the damaged and gentle figure of the tale, she is perhaps not as developed as some of the other characters are, and certainly does not stick in my mind in comparison to the other main characters. I was surprised at this, as I had thought shje would have done, being pretty much the only main female character in the book.
It is whilst saving her, at the beginning of the book, that Hook brings religion into things, and here Cornwell does another clever thing, by incorporating some historicalk relevance into matters. The Battle of Agincourt was fought on St Crispin's Day, and the town where Hook saves Melisande has St Crispin and St Crispinian in relevance. He prays to them, and they respond, as distant instructional voices in his head, guiding the pair of them to safety. The Saints also present themselves to him at various points throughout the book, including during the battles the two armies engage in, and I found that this religious element was not only cleverly done, but also suggests a possible reason for the English Army overcoming such high odds. The onyl criticism I might have is that Cornwell almost seems to have a change of mind halfway through the characterisation of these two Saints. he starts off showing one as a gentle character, the other as rude and abrasive, and for a while suggests there is more to come. However, this is not pursued, which I felt a shame.
It is through Melisande and again the beginning of the book that we meet the most characterised of the French characters, her father, Ghillebert, the Seigneur de Lanferelle, known as the Seigneur de l'Enfer (l'enfer being the French for 'hell'). He is shown throughout as a very dangerous character, and you can see a huge buildup to a fight between he and some of the other characters. Knowing how skilled some of these fighters are, it was a very welcome buildup indeed. Sadly, the majority of the French are left alone by Cornwell, and the main focus is definitely on the battle from the English perspective. Perhaps this was for the best, as it may have become over-characterised, but I still would have liked a bit more from the French. What we did get from Ghillebert was enjoyable reading.
Cornwell makes the most of historical facts, particularly the archery side of things, showing how huge an advantage the English had with their archers, Hook included. He shows Hook as being Robin Hood-esque in terms of his skill with a bow, and there are a few feats which are verging on the unbelievable. Naturally, they are explained through Hook praying to the Saints. Religion was regarded as one of the key things to have on your side. Both sides believing what they were doing was right, and that God was with them. However, as the Hook's close friend and religious confidant, Father Christopher, points out, they can't all be right!
It really is a very well documented piece of historical fiction. I was wrong to have any fears about enjoyment with this, as the main plot merely has the Battle of Agincourt as the backdrop for Hook and the other characters. It provides the setting for some personal battles and some great fight scenes, and Cornwell really gets his teeth stuck in with some of the descriptive elements. At times, I felt it went into explanation mode in a bit too much detail, and I struggled through some of the more factual stuff, but the blood and gore were intoxicating reading, if a little heavy at times. The author certainly doesn't shy away from telling you exactly how someone died, or how brutal and strategic the deaths often were. Perhaps the most memorable of these is describing how the close combat on the muddy fields took place, with teamwork, stabbing people through the slits of their armour's visors, clubbing people to death, and using others' armour and weapons against each other. Death features heavily in the last 150 pages or so, and he certainly doesn't pull any punches. Be warned: elements are not for the squeamish!
Overall, I think this is a great novel, and will certainly turn me towards more of his work in the future. Once the initial scene setting is over and done with, the book flows really well, and the characters are so well developed on the whole that it helps to get you in the mood. I must admit, I lost myself in this for a couple of hours one afternoon, and apparently my wife had been trying to get my attention for quite a while before I managed to snap myself away and realise I wasn't actually there on the muddy French fields.
Cornwell does a great job, and shows how deep he goes into his research by entering some historical pieces at the end of the book. There's a really interesting piece on longbows, as well as his thoughts on the battle and Shakespeare's famous Henry V speech, which is where phrases such as Band of Brothers is rumoured to stem from. There is also an abridged interview that broadcast journalist Mark Urban holds with Cornwell, which is well worth reading.
Agincourt is currently available from amazon.co.uk for £4.63. I borrowed a copy from my father in law. It's not the sort of book I would read twice, so I'll give it back to him, although it's definitely one I'd be happy to have sitting proudly on my bookshelf. There are a few parts where I felt it dragged as the more detailed historical elements came into it, and it took a while to get into the swing of things, but it is still an excellent read and one I highly recommend.
After recently reading a Bernard Cornwell book for the first time, I picked up "Azincourt" the next time I was in the library. The first thing that struck me was the strange spelling of Agincourt -"Azincourt", however, is merely the French spelling.
This book is of course about the legendary battle of Agincourt, where a small English army, depleted by illness and lack of supplies, won an extraordinary victory over the French army many times their size. The English were led by Henry V and the victory was mainly ascribed to the use of the English longbow, as bowmen made up much of the army. Agincourt is also featured heavily in Shakespeare's play "Henry V".
I was intrigued at how Cornwell would retell the story of Agincourt and having only a vague idea of the battle itself, decided to read it.
Cornwell tells his version of the battle of Agincourt through a common archer, Nicholas Hook. Nicholas is early on in the book shown to be less than honest and not terribly reliable, however he does have some skill with a bow.
Nicholas is sent to London in a company of men by his Lord on command of the King and is soon involved in hanging Lollards. The Lollards are perceived as heretics and the King wants them to be exterminated. After witnessing a terrible act, Nicholas believes that he heard the voice of God. This voice drives Nicholas throughout the novel as he feels guilt at failing to heed the voice's instructions and this guilt forces him to intervene in similar circumstances.
The novel follows Nicholas's adventures in France as part of an English company of archers in Soissons and following this he becomes an archer in the King's army. This of course leads to the siege of Harfleur and then the battle of Agincourt itself.
I found Nicholas a bit wooden at some times throughout the book and didn't have a great deal of affection for him. Nicholas is quite a hard and practical character most of the time which is probably why I found it hard to sympathise with him. Strangely, however, I found myself rooting for him in the dangerous situations he faced.
Cornwell tends to dwell on the battle scenes and tactics, as well as the blood and gore throughout. I must admit I found this book quite heavy on the brutal scenes and it was often quite disturbing. This was probably an attempt on Cornwell's part to convey the brutality of the battles but it was a bit too much for me.
Cornwell's version of the battle is quite interesting in that the armour donned by the knights and the men-at-arms soon became a death trap rather than saving them. The heavy armour weighed them down as they fought in a muddy field - a disadvantage the lightly armoured archers did not face.
Cornwell did switch viewpoint a few times from Nicholas to his wife Melisande and then to Melisande's father - a French nobleman fighting on the opposite side. The changing viewpoints made the battle scene more tense and added a bit more interest by looking at the battle from the opposing side.
Religion was quite a dominant theme as Nicholas of course believed that he heard the voices of the saints he prayed to telling him what to do. Henry V believed that God wanted him to be the King of France and was very strict with his troops - anyone caught stealing from a church or harming a priest or nun would be hung.
I found this quite an interesting book in terms of Cornwell's version of the battle and the ways in which the weapons and armour were used. I also didn't know much of the story surrounding Agincourt and found this interesting also. Although I did take it with a pinch of salt as it is Cornwell's version of the battle and therefore will have a bit of artistic license.
At the end of the book was included a Historical note by Cornwell, as well as a short note about the importance of the longbow; Shakespeare's Henry V St Crispin's day speech ( Agincourt was fought on St Crispin's day 1415); the Agincourt Carol and an interview with Bernard Cornwell.
I found these inclusions very helpful in setting the story into context and also very interesting. I was quite astounded by the size of the longbow the archers had to carry and shoot, and also the skill and strength it took to do so. The note about the longbow includes the fact that the skeletons of English medieval archers were found to have distorted upper bones - a longbow man would have very over -developed arm, chest and back muscles.
I wouldn't say this book had me enthralled but it was interesting enough to keep me reading. I did find the main character a bit wooden but in the end this didn't really matter as the novel was about Agincourt rather than its characters. I thought this was an interesting look at Agincourt and I also felt that I learned a bit through reading it.
I would recommend this if you are interested in learning a bit more about Agincourt, as if you don't find the history interesting I'm not sure that there is enough of a plot to hold your interest. I would of course re-iterate that "Azincourt" is a fictional representation of the battle of Agincourt but I still felt that I learned something.
Despite my love of historical fiction, It was only relatively recently that I discovered the brilliant writing of Bernard Cornwell. Astonishing as it may seem, I was practically oblivious to the existence of this master of the genre until I started watching the Sharpe historical drama series on ITV. Even then, it took me a while to realise that the films were based on his novels, and then longer still until I finally picked up one of his books ("The Gallows Thief"). I was left shaking my head at my almost unforgivable oversight (I suppose it was a bit like loving sonnets but being ignorant of Shakespeare).
Cornwell has written a fair few historical novels based on real characters (such as Alfred the Great), as well as everyday folk in historical settings (Sharpe, and Thomas of Hookton in the Grail Quest series). Although I am a big fan of trilogies, such is my impatience that I will often resist reading one until all three books are published, as I get annoyed by the length of time between books - often necessitating a re-read - and can't wait to continue the story.
As such, when the stand-alone book "Azincourt" was recently released in paperback, I leapt at the chance to read one of his self-contained stories.
The book was first published in hardcover in October 2008. My review copy is the paperback version, which came out last year (mid-2009) and runs to around 450 pages. I bought my copy on Amazon for just under a fiver, which was discounted from the £7.99 RRP. Used copies are also available for around £3 on greenmetropolis.com.
The book also includes an additional 50 page section at the back called "Behind the Battle" - an excellent resource that has a comprehensive historical note from the author, a short history of the longbow, the full text of Henry V's speech in the Shakespeare play, and an interview with Cornwell discussing his insights on the battle. All of this additional content is very interesting, well worth reading and adds to the quality of the book.
To understand the book, it is helpful to understand the context in which it was written. Most pupils of English history and literature will be aware of the name "Agincourt" (Azincourt is the French name) - a small village in Northern France that saw an unlikely English victory in one of the most famous battles of the Hundred Year's War (a series of Anglo-French conflicts between 1337 & 1453, including the significant tussles at Poitiers and Crecy, so technically the 117 Years War, which doesn't have quite the same ring to it...).
The battle, fought on 25th October 1415 - St Crispin's Day - is indelibly linked with Henry V's iconic speech in Shakespeare's play of the same name. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition: And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood's cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
Henry invaded France to lay claim to the disputed French crown. However, a largely unspectacular and ultimately disappointing campaign left him with a small and sick invasion force and low supplies, leaving him little choice but to make a dash for the safety of English-held Calais. The French, scenting victory and anticipating Henry's humiliation anticipated his retreat and blocked the route to safety with an army six times the size of the English.
However, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Henry emerged victorious. His victory as down to a number of key factors, the most important being the strategic and highly effective use of the English yeoman longbow archers, a sodden and muddy battlefield that fatally restricted the mobility of French knights, and a large slice of French arrogance and incompetence.
This period in history and this battle in particular, left a popular legacy that extends well into the modern day. The phrase "Band of Brothers" was adopted by Stephen Ambrose in his book of the same name - which was turned into the brilliant Spielberg/Hanks collaboration that graced our small screens a few years ago. Churchill used "the few" as shorthand for the outnumbered and outgunned pilots of the Battle of Britain who almost certainly saved England from a German invasion.
Of course, the most iconic legacy of all is the English two-fingered "V" salute. English longbowmen were instrumental in securing victory at both Crecy and Agincourt, so the French had a habit of slicing off the index and ring fingers on the bow hand of all captured English archers (the ones they used to draw their bowstrings), so the English would stick two fingers up at the French as both an insult and in provocation.
The book is centred on a sympathetic character called Nick Hook, who, at the start of the novel is nineteen year old archer and forester from the South of England. He lands himself in a spot of bother as a result of his part in a generational feud with the vicious Perrill family - a recurring conflict that ebbs and flows throughout the course of the book. His sympathetic Lord gives him an out - namely, to take up arms and fight in France, and the story follows his adventures in the two years leading up to the seminal battle, first at the fall of Soissons in 1414 and then at Agincourt a year later.
Within the historical framework, Cornwell finds room for a love interest for Hook - a French novice nun called Melisande with interesting parentage - a mentor of sorts in the lion-hearted Sir John Cornewaille, and a nemesis in the shape of Thomas Perrill and Father Martin Perrill. These, along with Henry V himself, are probably the most fleshed out recurring characters in the novel.
One of the more interesting plot devices is the use of St Crispin and St Crispinian - both of which were patron saints of the sacked city of Soissons - who manifest as voices in Nick's head - he truly believes he can hear them and that they will guide him - and his absolute faith in their continuing benevolent presence endears him to the King, who, is similarly convicted that the Almighty is speaking to him.
King Henry is painted as a brooding, focussed and determined character who is utterly convinced that his claim to the French throne is both righteous and God-ordained, and he is utterly ruthless in his quest to re-claim it. Although he has an affinity with his men - a trait which is demonstrated to Hook personally a number of times, and generally through his famous speech, he sees them as little more than instruments and objects that he can use to achieve his goal.
There are a number of other bit-part characters which Cornwell uses as devices to move the plot along, but you get the feeling that the author's main focus is to get the story of the battle told - the build-up and characterisations are all well and good, but sometimes they seem entirely incidental to the main event.
The Perrill family, an odious clan lead by the almost maniacal and twisted anti-priest, Father Martin (he spouts fictional religious twaddle to try and justify his more lascivious and vile behaviours) play a hand in some of the key parts of the story, with Cornwell, carefully treading the line between creating tension and antipathy on the one hand and pantomime evil on the other.
He also does a great job of putting you in Nick Hook's shoes and seeing everything through his eyes, but I never really felt a connection with the character as a personality. That said, I appreciated Hook more as an everyman English archer. By the end of the story, through him, you get a masterclass on the English yew bow - how it is made, what it takes to wield it effectively, how to care for it, and it's importance to the English strategy. Cornwell's talent - and genius - is that he does this without getting too technical, instead, subtly weaving these threads into the story so that you pick up the knowledge almost without realising it.
You also get a sense for what the men who drew these bows were like - they were ordinary folk - tradesmen and journeymen whom the French held in high contempt partly not only because they were low-born and used ranged weapons (thus avoiding more "manly" hand to hand combat) but also because they quite rightly feared their killing power.
As you would expect from a respected novelist like Cornwell, the book is thoroughly researched and most of the factual accounts and descriptive passages dealing with historical conditions and the nuances of strategy and battle are spot on. In fact, I would go so far as to say you could happily give this book to someone as an accessible, non-academic historical account of the Battle of Agincourt. It's more of a history with a bit of fiction than historical fiction.
However, in places, the visceral and brutal nature of battle conditions - especially when it comes to the descriptions of injuries inflicted on both sides can get a little much. Whilst I applaud the authentic sense of atmosphere it creates, it is bloody, gory and not for weaker stomachs (as a visual equivalent, the gut-churning violence of the landings on Normandy beach in the film "Saving Private Ryan" are a pretty good comparison).
As an example, the sucking mud on the field of battle rendered most men-at-arms either immobile or unable to manoeuvre, and the archers, in their light armour and (mostly) bare feet, would smash them to the ground with lead-weighted poleaxes and mauls, and while they struggled to get up, a companion would push back the knight's visor and ram a long narrow dagger through the eye socket and into the brain.
Describing this once, in gory detail, gives flavour and context, but to repeat it in slightly different ways over a dozen times could be seen as excessive bloodlust of the highest order - but perhaps that's the point - once the red mist of battle descended on these men, they turned from soldiers and archers into mindless killing machines. It was kill or be killed, never knowing whether death was an axe blow or poleaxe spike away.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would do so again in a heartbeat. Cornwell has managed to take a historical account, subjugate the dry academia that would otherwise make it a turgid read for anyone other than the pure enthusiast, and develop it into a real page turner.
The characterisations are, in places, a little shallow, but the battle itself, and the events leading up to it are masterfully described and, with a bit of imagination, could even be described as the main character of the novel. Cornwell breathes life into people and places that I only ever knew on maps and as two dimensional figures in history books.
Azincourt has given me a deeper appreciation for this seminal event in European history. Although it seems like a throughly blokey book and the closest thing to the antithesis of chic-lit you could come to, I would still heartily recommend it to anyone - as long as you have the stomach for it.
A storming read.
© Hishyeness 2010