Sunday, June 7, 2009
Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell
Pub. Date: January 20, 2009
The battle of Agincourt, when it’s remembered outside of academia, is chiefly known as the heroic backdrop for Shakespeare’s Henry V and its legendary line ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’.
In reality Agincourt was a stunning and bloody victory for the English in the fall of 1415, a triumph over stunning odds to secure Henry V the French crown he desired, but would never live to wear.
Bernard Cornwell, bestselling author of numerous historical novels, tries his hand at the battle in the simply named Agincourt. While the book may lack the signature quotes of the Bard, it establishes a poetry of its own as it brings medieval France to life on its pages.
Agincourt tells the tale of Nicholas Hook, a veteran of a destructive family feud that follows him into his service to the King. When he fails to stop his old nemesis from raping and killing a girl he strikes a priest and becomes an outlaw, seeking safety from the gallows among the archers sent to fight Henry’s war. At the defeat of Soissons he is the lone archer to escape the brutal French retaliation and helps a French girl escape the carnage - a girl that would become the focus for both the renewed feud and the terrible anger of her noble French father.
Throughout the book, from London to the wet fields of France, Nicholas is aided by the infrequent but insistent voices of St. Crispin and Crispinian, patron saints of Soissons, the French town butchered by its own army. It is on their Feast day - October 25th - that the sickly and vastly outnumbered English army meets the French on the field of Agincourt and history is made.
In the book there is no denying the greatness and wonder of the victory, and it will be difficult for a reader to distance themselves from the urge to cheer on Hook and his companions. Yet, spiritual guides aside, this is no whitewashed, censored version of history.
The campaign is brought to life with vivid depictions of the violence and filth that was a soldiers lot, a life lived in a time where dysentery and starvation were just as feared as any crossbow bolt. Without disturbing the flow of the narrative, Cornwell introduces the reader to the religious, technological, political, and social status quo of the era and its people, and the novel is that much richer for the attempt.
That holds true for his depiction of Agincourt itself. It is a miracle, true, by almost any definition, and a marvel of history. But it was also brought about by the French having to cross a muddy field ploughed deep for winter wheat; by their lack of a unified command structure; by the deadly barrage of the archers; and by the cocky bravado of the French meeting the insanely overconfident Henry head-on on an autumn day.
Agincourt is a fine read for those who love history, action, or just plain good storytelling