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The Original Band of Brothers
Azincourt - Bernard Cornwell
Member Name: Hishyeness
Azincourt - Bernard Cornwell
Advantages: Excellently researched and written. A real page-turner.
Disadvantages: A little too visceral for some. Characters a little underdeveloped.
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
Summary: A must read for any enthusiast of English history or historical fiction.