Set in the 1400s, “Agincourt” delivers a graphic account of one of the most important battles of the age. Underfunded, overconfident and thoroughly lucky, the English king, Henry V, decides he needs to conquer Agincourt in order to claim the French crown and maintain his dominance of the Normandy coast. He must overcome formidable odds and expensive, incredible losses on hostile foreign soil, and yet he marches on. Any real battle strategy is thrown to the wind as the French forces keep outwitting the English. If you don’t already know the actual story of Agincourt, the book will keep you guessing until the end.
The tale is told from an archer’s viewpoint. It’s not a new storytelling technique to have a warrior relate the action, but interesting in this case because the skill of English archers was feared throughout the world. If you had a few hundred archers on your side, you would most likely win the battle. They were the early medieval equivalent of our modern day artillery, yet their quivers only held about twenty arrows at a time. Think about it. Twenty ‘shots’ before having to be resupplied from a packhorse shared by other archers. Survival depended on having quick, deadly aim and well-made arrows that flew true.
As always, “Agincourt” is meticulously researched, and Cornwell accomplishes a literary feat few authors can claim – he makes a battle fascinating, while at the same time never letting us forget about the violence. From the description of exhausted men slogging through muddy tracks to the subplots of personal bickering over lands, women and food, war is depicted as grim, hard work accomplished for the glory of the nation and king.
Body armor and weapons of the era are discussed in terms of their merits for particular campaigns, and in very human terms – “armored men on foot were less vulnerable to arrows than horses…”
I keep coming back to Cornwell for more, wishing that my school history books could have made the events of that century come to life in the way he does. If Cornwell ever gives up the mighty pen for the more prosaic life of an ancient history professor, his classes would be standing room only.
For more information about Cornwell and his work, please visit www.bernardcornwell.net
Read the review of Cornwell's "Sword Song" here.