Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Agincourt, by Bernard Cornwell

The original Band of Brothers kills some Frogs.


HarperCollins, 2008, 451 pages

Bernard Cornwell tackles his richest, most thrilling subject: the heroic tale of Agincourt.

Young Nicholas Hook is dogged by a curse, haunted by what he has failed to do and banished for what he has done. A wanted man in England, he is driven to fight as a mercenary archer in France, where he finds two things he can love: his instincts as a fighting man, and a girl in trouble. Together they survive the notorious massacre at Soissons, an event that shocks all Christendom. With no options left, Hook heads home to England, where his capture means certain death.

Instead he is discovered by the young King of England, Henry V himself, and by royal command he takes up the longbow again and dons the cross of Saint George. Hook returns to France as part of the superb army Henry leads in his quest to claim the French crown. But after the English campaign suffers devastating early losses, it becomes clear that Hook and his fellow archers are their king's last resort in a desperate fight against an enemy more daunting than they could ever have imagined.

One of the most dramatic victories in British history, the battle of Agincourt, immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry V, pitted undermanned and overwhelmed English forces against a French army determined to keep their crown out of Henry's hands. Here Bernard Cornwell resurrects the legend of the battle and the "band of brothers" who fought it on October 25, 1415.

An epic of redemption, Agincourt follows a commoner, a king, and a nation's entire army on an improbable mission to test the will of God and reclaim what is rightfully theirs. From the disasters at the siege of Harfleur to the horrors of the field of Agincourt, this exhilarating story of survival and slaughter is at once a brilliant work of history and a triumph of imagination Bernard Cornwell at his best.

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 accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

I like thick, juicy historical novels that are well-researched enough to give you some history, but dramatic enough that they could be fictional and still entertaining. Bernard Cornwell delivers this in spades (and stakes, and axes, and maces) with Agincourt.

The plot follows Henry V's invasion of France straightforwardly enough. By the usual complicated web of relationships and claims that caused most wars in Europe in the Middle Ages, Henry was convinced that France was his by right, and being a pious stiffnecked SOB, he was also convinced that God was on his side. This was enough reason for him to lead an army into Normandy, intending to make all of France bend their knee to him.

The French were not impressed.

Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries!

The protagonist of the novel is an archer named Nicholas Hook. Hook is just a simple (but lethally accurate) archer in the service of a local lord. An old family feud, a public execution, and a rapist priest results in Nicholas running away as an outlaw, with the voices of Saints Crispin and Crispinian talking to him in his head.

To escape England, he joins the invasion force going into France, witnesses the looting and pillaging of Soissons (in which the French army retook the town from an English garrison, massacred the English archers, and then proceeded to slaughter and rape the townspeople... who, keep in mind, were French), and rescues a French nun who was about to be raped by an English traitor. The nun turns out to be a French warlord's illegitimate daughter whom he'd cloistered away to try to keep her safe.

Nick and his new Frenchie girlfriend then follow the English army on its long and harrowing campaign ending in Agincourt, the famous battle in which the English cut down a vastly larger French army, captured a large share of its nobility, and opened the way to their eventual conquest of part of France. The common version of the story credits the English victory in large part to their longbowmen. Much of the remaining credit goes to the knee-deep mud at Agincourt, which proved to be very unfavorable terrain for heavily armored French knights.

While Cornwell certainly dramatizes the personalities involved ( real and fictional), it all felt quite real. This is a very bloody, gritty story — people enamored of medieval fantasy novels with rather antiseptic battles could learn a few things from the maiming, screaming, impaling, eviscerating, butchering, and shitting that goes on in this book. The violence is quite graphic and brutal, with much eye-stabbing, throat-slitting, skull-smashing, dismembering, and disemboweling.

Tying the historical events together, and making the affairs of a bunch of nobles looking for gold and glory more interesting to the common man, is Nick Hook, trying to survive and bring his beautiful French bride home. It gets pretty awkward when his father-in-law is on the battlefield trying to kill him, and his old family enemy is at his back.

Highly recommended for any fans of medieval history or historical drama. In the epilogue, the author talks about his research, what liberties he took and why, and recent findings that cast doubt on just how badly the English were actually outnumbered at Agincourt. Contemporary sources do not give reliable figures, so estimates range from the definitely exaggerated contemporary claims of 30-to-1 to a more conservative 4-to-3, but most historians still think the French outnumbered the English by at least 3-to-1.

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