on November 29, 2008
This is currently (Nov 29) available from amazon.uk under the title "Azincourt", which is the French spelling of the town where the battle took place. It seems that this has confused quite a few of the Brit readers, and the US title will be "Agincourt". The flavor is similar to the Grail Quest series, but set in 1413-1415 rather than the 14th century, and the hero is Nick Hook rather than Thomas of Hookton: both are skilled archers, both have noble fathers but are not part of the nobility (in Hook's case the parentage is strongly suggested). The strengths of Cornwell's works are the battle scenes, and here you get the sieges of Harfleur and Soissons and of course Agincourt.
You get a good feel for the time and place--London and France--and the mercenary troops that Hook joins. There's a lot of attention to the armor of the period--almost too much attention. There are descriptions that have the donning of armor piece by piece which has the feel of Cornwell showing off his research rather than adding to the story--since it isn't Hook who is wearing the armor. Hook is an exceptionally skilled longbowman, which enables him to rise in the ranks and do more protagonizing, so to speak. We don't get too many novels about the ordinary grunts--those who might be good at their profession, but not great.
Cornwell is a very prolific writer. This is good in ways, but the danger is that sometimes in such cases novels are not always as original and creative as they could be. So in Azincourt we have a love interest, and we have some evil villains. Hook's main enemy is a lunatic priest of noble lineage, a bible-misquoting rapist. For me, this reminded me of Sgt Hakeswill of the Sharpe series who kept reappearing in the novels until, mercifully, Cornwell has him die: Hakeswill quickly began to get very tiresome indeed. If you think about the Sharpe series, what you remember best are the battles, the events and locales: the evil villians--especially Hakeswill--are easily forgotten. That might suggest that in a good historical novel with lots of battles, such as the Sharpe series or Azincourt, you don't need an evil villain in the story to make it interesting. You need to avoid becoming formulaic. Cornwell does not, thank goodness, churn out a new novel every month like some romance writers who epitomize formulaic writing. I didn't see any suggestion that the adventures of Nick Hook will be continued, although if it does continue, and Hook is part of a mercenary troop then Cornwell might be able to take us into less familiar territory--what was going on post-Agincourt? So you get here a mixture of some new characters plus some of Cornwell's previous formulas, and on balance, the novel is one of his best works.
on January 31, 2009
When I hear reviewers say that 'No one understands the experience of the common soldier better than Bernard Cornwell' or something similar, I smile and think, 'Yeah, well how about the common soldier? And by that, I mean the Infantry 'grunt' who wields a modern sword, still sleeps in mud and filth, and endures ordeals and trials the likes of which most people will only ever read about. It's just possible he might have a clue.
Having said that, let me add that no WRITER understands the experience of the common soldier better than Bernard Cornwell. He's the Ernie Pyle of, oh, let's see- the Viking raids, Napoleonic wars, the Middle Ages, and the American War Between the States (or for my Southern friends- 'The War of Northern Aggression). In short, Cornwell gets it right; the pride, the rage, the pain, the loss and the soul sucking weariness in the aftermath of battle.
AGINCOURT is his latest novel and his latest educational look at a battle that inspired so many writers and historians. Here we find young Nicholas Hook, an archer who...nevermind.
Don't you just hate it when some smug reviewer gives away too much of the plot before you've had a chance to read the book? 'Who would've known that such is such is really the bad guy, he or she dies, or here's how the major battle ends?
I don't know, the reader, for one. You're really capable of making up our own mind about what you like and/or the why behind why you like it.
So, I'll just say that if you're a Cornwell fan, you'll enjoy the book. He seldom skimps on storyline.
And if you're familiar with his themes then you already know that there has to be a troubled young soldier, more than a few fierce battles and close calls, revenge, of course, and a young woman who makes his arrow's quiver (sorry but I did avoid punning with the word 'shaft').
Typical too of Cornwell's writing is that there is also good history to be found in whatever era he sets his story. He does his homework so that we don't have to.
Finally, and this probably won't count for much but as a former common soldier, a lowly 'grunt' who took part in a distant war, in several close fierce battles, and bled on nameless battle fields a few times, I find Bernard Cornwell's work to be exceptional.
on January 26, 2009
Here's the situation. You're a peasant, and as we used to say back home, you're so broke you can't pay attention. You're in the middle of a medieval battlefield, filled with rough characters and sharp weapons, with nothing to cover your own precious hide but the clothes on your back. You have one superb weapon --- the English longbow --- but not much in the way of arrows. You also have a long, sharp stick, assuming you haven't burned it for firewood already. On the other side of the line of battle, there is a nobleman, a feudal lord who owns, more or less, the labor of hundreds of people just like you. He's on a horse, wearing a suit of armor that incorporates all of the best technology of the day and worth more than your entire village can produce in 10 years. You've shot your last arrow, and the guy with the armor is coming to crush your skull. A plan would seem to be in order.
This is what you do, if you're lucky enough and strong enough to pull it off. You plant yourself right in front of the galloping, charging horse (nobody said this was going to be easy), stab it with your sharpened stick, and hope that the animal is hurt enough and scared enough to knock its rider clean off. While the knight is still on his back, trapped under the weight of his armor, you find the one weak spot in the armor --- his visor. And then you draw your long hunting knife and stab the no-good wretch right in the eye. Score one for the home team.
That's the reality of medieval warfare. It's savage, messy, and a million miles away from something as comparatively cold and dispassionate as pushing the button that unleashes hundreds of pounds of high explosives from a Predator drone over a terrorist camp. And if you want to bring back that world in fiction, it's not enough to reproduce the strategies of battle and the blood and slaughter that follows in its wake. You have to know the ground --- the sticky French mud that bogged down a huge army, making it vulnerable to barefoot English archers. You have to know the technology --- how the English craftsmen took a piece of yew wood and shaped it into a weapon that changed history. You have to know the dynastic politics that animate the strategy, the engineering of the castles and the religious beliefs that led men into battle.
In other words, it's the kind of thing that Bernard Cornwell has been doing for years --- and nobody does it better.
If you're not familiar with Cornwell's work, you can start with his bestselling novels about the Viking era in England, which follow a ferocious war leader into the shield walls of Alfred the Great. Or you can check out the monumental Richard Sharpe series, which chronicles a Napoleonic War hero from the torture pits of an Indian warlord all the way to a personal confrontation with the Corsican corporal in exile on the lonely island of St. Helena. Both of these series (as well as other Cornwell novels set in the Civil War or the American Revolution) betray a comprehensive knowledge of their respective historical eras --- and, even more important, considerable skill in making the battlefields and characters come to full, comprehensible life.
Cornwell's books are populated with stout, resolute heroes, noble enemies and the treacherous plots of evil men. AGINCOURT is no exception; the differences are largely in the areas of weapons technology, strategy and the intricate details of late medieval life. Its principal hero, longbowman Nicholas Hook, differs from most Cornwell protagonists in his religious faith (notwithstanding that it's hard to be a good Christian when your job description involves stabbing people in the eye).
The story of the climactic battle of Agincourt has been told before, most notably by Shakespeare, who gives King Henry perhaps the most rousing speech in English literature. Cornwell incorporates that speech in his narrative, but it's more of a grace note than anything else. The real work is done in the trenches, by the men with the long bows and the empty stomachs. Cornwell tells their story, and nobody does it better.
--- Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds
on December 24, 2008
Having never read any of the Sharpe novels or any of his other books, I came to Cornwell's *Azincourt* (to give it its proper title) without any expectations. And was pleased to find it's a rollicking read - just what I needed between a few rather heavier academic books on Medieval history. A lot of the formulas of popular historical fiction are here - the plucky young hero who with an exceptional skill, the beautiful girl, the evil nemesis, struggles against the odds etc - but Cornwell could give most genre writers a few lessons in pacing, prose style and characterisation. This is good stuff, stirringly told and nicely handled.
The tricky bit with historical fiction is the history - firstly because it's hard to get all the details right and secondly because few agree on what all the details are. On that second point Cornwell has been wise to lean heavily on the two recent works on the Battle of Agincourt by Anne Curry and Juliet Barker. He's tended towards Barker's slightly more traditional reading of the evidence, but the result is a highly realistic and credible reconstruction of a battle that is still the subject of fierce and ongoing debate.
But it's getting the little details right that can be even trickier. At one point, for example, a character expresses surprise that some of the English Lollard heretics had been hanged rather than burnt at the stake. In fact, it was the burning which was unusual: in England heretics had always been hanged until Henry V's persecution of the Lollards.
Small things like that are forgivable, but an author who specialises in novels about historical warfare really needed to get the fine details of Medieval combat, armour and war spot on. In many places it seems Cornwell was a bit confused. A broad brimmed helmet worn by an archer is called a "bascinet", which is actually a tall, brimless helm worn by a man-at-arms. Cornwell seems to think that the segmented fauld that protected a knight's waist was a separate piece of armour (it was actually attached to the breastplate) and has a knight arming by putting his cuisses on his thighs first, then his greaves where it would have been the other way around (so the cuisses with their poleyns on the knees could overlap the greaves on the lower leg). He thinks a mail aventail is a hood of mail worn under the helmet. That's a coif and it had gone out of fashion 100 years before Agincourt; the aventail was a tippet of mail attached to the lower rim of the helmet. He also overstates the lack of visibility in a Fifteenth Century helmet. Yes, they restrict your vision, but not to the extent that you are "half-blinded" as Cornwell imagines. Perhaps it would have been good for the author to have spent a day with a Fifteenth Century re-enactment group before writing, because these small details do make a difference and many of his audience know them down to the finest point.
Minor niggles aside, this is a ripping yarn and one that should dispel any lofty ideas about the reality of Medieval warfare. Recommended holiday reading.
on April 22, 2009
Agincourt is another action-packed novel from Bernard Cornwell. It is about Nicholas Hook, an English archer who joins Henry V's war against the French, culminating in the legendary battle in 1415. On one hand, I enjoyed the novel as a rousing adventure, while on the other hand I feel slightly conned because it is so similar to The Archer's Tale. Normally, I do not mind that Cornwell's heroes are virtually identical: Sharpe, Derfel, Thomas of Hookton, Uhtred, and now Nicholas Hook are all natural warriors who eventually lead men into battle despite their low birth. Usually, the historical details are enough to distinguish the novels. The time period in Agincourt, however, is a lot like the time period in The Archer's Tale--the difference is less than 100 years. Both Thomas and Nicholas are archers, have murdered relatives, rescue young women from rape who turn out to be the daughters of enemies, and have religious quests. Even their names are alike. While I am glad that Cornwell decided to write about one of history's famous battles, he could have tried a different tact. His main character could have been a lord, woman, man-of-arms, squire, or camp follower. Anything but a lowborn warrior who excels because he is good at killing. At this point, I think that Cornwell needs to try something new.
on February 4, 2015
Bernard Cornwell has written a fast-paced and historically sound novel about the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, although he has chosen to use the French "Azincourt" for his title rather than the Englsh "Agincourt". Because 2015 happens to be the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, it is likely to attract a great deal of attention to the famous battle for that reason, and we can reasonably expect some publishers to promote highly saleable distortions of what really happened at Agincourt.
I first became acquainted with Bernard Cornwell through his fine Napoleonic War novels centered on the colourful military career of English rifleman Richard Sharpe who fights in Wellington's armies, initially in India, and then through Portugal, Spain, and France to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. I found Cornwell's grasp of military history and weaponry to be quite extraordinary, his characters very engaging, and his recreation of military action to be absolutely riveting.
In "Azincourt", Bernard Cornwell follows a similar approach to the Sharpe novels by choosing a lowly English archer Nicholas Hook as his main character. Hook's deadly skill with the longbow does not protect him from the cavalier treatment and insults of upper class officers in the English army. Despite Hook's lack of social graces, Cornwell follows a settled pattern in his books by providing him with a beautiful woman as his companion throughout the Agincourt campaign. This lovely lady, whose name is Melisande, had been an unwilling novice nun in the Burgundian-occupied city of Soissons in northern France. Hook, in company with other English archer mercenaries, had been employed by the Burgundians to guard Soissons against the French king's forces. When the city is treacherously surrendered to the besieging French by senior English mercenary officer Sir Roger Pallaire shortly before the Agincourt campaign, all of the archers except Hook surrender. Hook is separated from the captured English archers, and consequently, survives the infamous massacre of these archers by the French. The brutal massacre of the English archers is an historical fact, and it is covered in exceptionally grisly detail by Cornwell. During the sacking of Soissons by the French, Hook rescues Melisande from rape by the same English officer who treacherously surrendered the city to the French for reward. Hook and Melisande escape to Calais, and travel from Calais to England where Hook finds employment as an archer with the army of King Henry V who is preparing to invade France in pursuance of his claim to the throne of France.
Bernard Cornwell's "Azincourt" novel is one of four in his treatment of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). Although termed the Hundred Years War, hostilities between the British and French actually lasted for 116 years. Cornwell's other archer novels include the famous battles at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356). Cornwell's coverage of the Agincourt campaign and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 is quite remarkable for its accurate historical detail, his knowledge of medieval weaponry, and fast-moving action. The reader is placed squarely in the thick of the action at both Harfleur and Agincourt. Readers of the Sharpe novels will find that one major difference in "Azincourt", and its three companion medieval novels, is the use by Cornwell in the archer novels of much coarser language and very graphic descriptions of the terrible wounds inflicted by medieval weapons on the human body. These factors suggest to me that this book may not be suitable reading for children under the age of fifteen.
Bernard Cornwell wrote "Azincourt" in 2008, and published it in the context of newly risen controversy over the numbers on each side at Agincourt which has been recognised for six centuries as one of Britain's greatest military victories against extraordinary odds. That controversy was sparked in 2005 by academic medieval historian Professor Anne Curry of Southampton University. I feel that it is appropriate for me to say something about that controversy and the apparent attitude to the controversy taken by Cornwell in "Azincourt". Cornwell rejects Professor Curry's revisionist postmodern-style attempt to diminish one of Britain's "Grand Narratives". I believe that Bernard Cornwell's approach to the numbers involved at Agincourt/Azincourt is correct, and I will explain why I support his approach and reject that of Professor Curry as being deeply flawed.
In her revisionist "Agincourt: A new history", published in 2005, Professor Curry claimed to have exposed the famous victory of a heavily outnumbered, starving, and disease-ridden English army over a massive French army at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 as a centuries-old "myth". When launching her book, Professor Curry claimed that her researching of English and French archival records of hired mercenaries, including men-at-arms and archers, suggested to her that the English were outnumbered by a factor of only four to three rather than by at least four to one, and possibly six to one, as previously claimed by intelligent eyewitnesses to the battle and accepted by generations of military historians since 1415. There are serious problems attending Professor Curry's attempt to diminish the heroic quality of the Battle of Agincourt by reliance primarily on surviving archival evidence. First, she has to reject the evidence of intelligent eyewitnesses to the battle in both the French and English armies. This is an absurd approach that immediately destroys the validity of her argument. Secondly, her reliance on archival records ignores the fact that many French archival records from the time of Agincourt were destroyed in the French Revolution. On the other hand, a vast quantity of English records that are relevant to Agincourt still exist in British archives. Those British records show that the attendance of most of King Henry V's army in France, including the presence of England's nobility, was bought by the king. Even royal dukes signed contracts of employment (indentures) for the Agincourt campaign. Finally, with regard to French archival records, Professor Curry appears to have failed to appreciate, or perhaps wished to ignore, the historical fact that the massive French army at Agincourt was largely composed of the great nobles of France, their vassal lords, and their knights, squires, and retinues of men-at-arms. These were feudal levies of the French king. They were not mercenaries whose presence at Agincourt could be proved by documentary evidence. It is highly unlikely that these massive feudal levies would have been recorded in the surviving French archival records of hired mercenaries used by Professor Curry to create her very questionable revisionist history of Agincourt. Professor Curry produced no convincing historical evidence to support her Agincourt theory, but if she was seeking controversy, and the probability of increased book sales, she appears to have achieved her purpose.
It appeared to me that Professor Curry was another armchair academic who purported to write about military history but lacked any realistic appreciation of the dynamics of a battlefield, medieval or otherwise. I view Professor Curry as falling into this category because she fails to appreciate that the Battle of Agincourt could not have been fought, as it was observed by intelligent eyewitnesses, with her fanciful ratio of nine thousand English fighting men pitted against a French army of only twelve thousand fighting men, i.e. a ratio of 3 to 4. When measured against the topography at Agincourt, the prevailing conditions, the battle practices of English and French armies at that stage of the Hundred Years War, and the course of the Agincourt battle, Professor Curry's figures are quite simply absurd. Professor Curry is a highly qualified academic Medieval historian, but that does not necessarily mean that she is qualified to write sound military history.
The distinguished medieval historian Dr Juliet Barker published her own history of the Agincourt campaign "Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle" in 2005, and Dr Barker put her finger squarely on the deadly flaw in Professor Curry's argument for near equality of English and French numbers at Agincourt when she said of Professor Curry's suggested close ratio of English to French: "And if the differential really was as low as three to four then this makes a nonsense of the course of the battle as described by eyewitnesses and contemporaries". See "Acknowledgments" at page 366.
Ignoring the informed estimates of eyewitnesses in both armies, including the recorded account of one intelligent Burgundian man-at-arms in the French army, Jehan Waurin, Professor Curry has grossly underestimated the numbers in each of the massive French divisions or "battles", namely, the vanguard, the main body, and the rearguard. She appears to have totally forgotten or chosen to ignore several thousand French archers relegated to the rear of the French army through the arrogant foolishness of the French nobility. She appears to have totally forgotten or chosen to ignore the heavily armoured French cavalry positioned on both wings of the French divisions (or "battles") whose purpose was to attack and crush the English archers at the outset of the battle. The heavily armoured French cavalry numbered at least 1,400, but an appalling failure of leadership of the French army caused the cavalry charges from both wings to be made by only about one-third of that number. The rest of the cavalry had wandered away from the battlefield during the lengthy period of inactivity in the morning. The pitifully reduced French cavalry charges failed because of failure to keep all the cavalry in the line of battle, the surprise advance of the English army to within long bowshot of the French, the storm of English (and Welsh) arrows that broke over the greatly diminished French cavalry, and deep sucking mud on the rain drenched battlefield.
Fortunately, highly respected medieval historian and author Dr Juliet Barker proved by publishing her "Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle" that she has a far better appreciation of the dynamics of a medieval battlefield than Professor Curry. To demonstrate that Dr Barker has a sound appreciation of the Battle of Agincourt in her book, and that Bernard Cornwell has wisely followed her approach in his novel "Azincourt", it is necessary for me to mention some of the historical details.
King Henry V invaded France with just over 12,000 fighting men. Henry's first target was the massively fortified town of Harfleur at the mouth of the Seine. The gallant French defence of the town prolonged the siege and allowed an epidemic of dysentery to ravage the English army. After the surrender of Harfleur, with his army reduced to about half its original number mainly through disease and battle injuries, Henry V abandoned his original plan to march on Paris. He could have safely withdrawn his army to England from the harbour of captured Harfleur but pride, and the political imperative to show more than the capture of Harfleur for the massive financial outlay on his campaign in France, impelled Henry to march his heavily depleted army from Harfleur to the English-held port of Calais on the English Channel. This march would normally be completed in 6-7 days and involve crossing a ford near the mouth of the Somme River. Henry's purpose in marching his army across French Normandy to Calais was to provoke the French to battle on their own soil. He had to leave a substantial English garrison to defend captured Harfleur. He buried some two thousand soldiers at Harfleur who had died from battle injuries or dysentery, and sent at least two thousand wounded and/or sick soldiers back to England. On his long march to Calais, Henry had only about 900 men-at-arms and 5,000 archers. The French rose to the challenge. They blocked the ford across the Somme and stripped the country between Harfleur and Calais of any food to feed Henry's army. After a lengthy diversion eastwards along the Somme, Henry finally found an unguarded ford and crossed the river. His small army had no food and was starving as it set off on a journey of several days to Calais. The French finally brought Henry V to bay at Agincourt (Azincourt) where they blocked the path of Henry's army to safety and food at Calais. The desperate English were starving, exhausted, and many were ravaged by dysentery.
There were intelligent eyewitness chroniclers in both the English and French armies at Agincourt, and I suggest that the most reliable assessment of French numbers on the actual battlefield probably comes from the noble Burgundian man-at-arms Jehan Waurin who history records not only as a soldier in the French army but also as Lord of le Forestier, politician, chronicler, and bibliophile. I believe that Jehan Waurin's credibility as an accurate chronicler of the Battle of Agincourt is enhanced by the fact that he actually lists the number of men assigned to each division or "battle" of the French army and the two cavalry formations on the wings. For example, he lists 8,000 men-at-arms, 4,000 archers, and 1,500 crossbowmen in the vanguard; a similar number in the main body, and two heavily armoured cavalry wings numbering in total 1,400. So including supporting cavalry, we have 28,400 French fighting men in the vanguard and main divisions or "battles" without including the mounted rearguard. Without including the numbers for the French rearguard, Jehan Waurin has driven a "coach-and-four" through Professor Curry's fanciful underestimate of French numbers. On the basis of his listing of numbers in the French divisions or "battles", Dr Barker describes Jehan Waurin's claim that the French outnumbered the English by six to one as "most likely" (at page 264).
The English and French armies formed up early on the morning of 25 October 2014 with the French army blocking the road to Calais. The two armies were separated by some 1,000 yards (914 metres) of rain-drenched ploughed farmland. Confident of their overwhelming strength in numbers, and knowing that the English were exhausted and starving, the French were content to wait for the English to either attack or attempt to flee. Henry V knew that his small army was starving and that flight was not an option. As the hours passed on the morning of 25 October with no movement from the massive French army, Henry decided to advance the English line of battle to within long bowshot of the French army, and hoped to provoke the French with arrows fired into their army. An extraordinary aspect of the Battle of Agincourt, and clear evidence of the failure of leadership in the French army, was the failure of the French to attack while the English army was moving forward and at its most vulnerable when the archers were busy hammering their defensive stakes into the ground with their backs to the French. Even on the night before the battle, the great nobles of France were squabbling over who would lead the vanguard of the French attack. The experienced French military commanders, Constable d'Albret and Marshal Boucicaut, were only nominal commanders. Had either been in full command, it appears unlikely that the French would have idly watched the English advance to long bowshot. The tactic succeeded when the English archers began firing into the French army. The provocation stung the French to action. A ragged and wholly uncoordinated French attack developed.
At the point where the English finally established their forward line of battle, the forest narrowed on either side to leave open wet ploughed ground measuring only some 900-1,000 yards (823-914 metres). This figure is put forward by the distinguished British military historian Sir John Keegan in the Agincourt section of "The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme". Sir John Keegan appears to adopt Jehan Waurin's figures of 8,000 men-at-arms in both the French vanguard and main body (ibid.). Keegan writes that these numbers in each French division would produce a dense body of men-at-arms with serried ranks "some eight deep" at the point of tactical contact of the two armies (ibid.). The narrowing of the point of tactical contact of the two armies favoured the English who now faced much less risk of being flanked by French cavalry intent on attacking and crushing the English archers who were mostly positioned on the wings of the English army. The English tactic would also seriously hamper the French vanguard and main body - producing a funnel effect that compressed even more tightly the already dense French lines of battle as each division struggled in heavy plate armour through deep sucking mud to reach the English line, and leaving the French men-at-arms greatly hampered in the use of their weapons when they finally reached the English line. The primary focus of the French vanguard and main body attacks was the 900 English men-at-arms in the centre of the English army. The great lords of France were not interested in demeaning themselves by attacking lowly archers, and many in the French divisions were interested in the ransoms to be paid by captured English lords and knights. This focus on the comparatively small number of English men-at-arms in the centre of the English line of battle and the deadly fire of the English archers on the flanks of the French divisions served to compress even more tightly the French divisions at the point of tactical contact with the English line, and made it very difficult for the French at the front line to use their weapons effectively, and consequently, they were slaughtered as rank after French rank was pushed forward by the compressed mass behind it. As each of the forward French ranks fell, their bodies created a rising barrier that had to be surmounted by those in the ranks behind them. Compounding the very serious problem of compression of the French divisions was the exhaustion of the French men-at-arms when they finally reached the English line of battle. The earlier failed French cavalry charges had churned up the wet mud of the battlefield and the cavalry horses that fled from the English arrows disrupted the line of advance of the French vanguard. The armoured French men-at-arms approached the English line very slowly, dragging each armoured foot out of the deep sucking mud before they could move on. Many exhausted Frenchmen died from being trampled underfoot in the crush.
The French could not have had only one rank or even three ranks in the lines of battle of the vanguard and main body as the mass of men-at-arms on foot approached the English battle line. Such thin French lines of battle, as apparently envisaged by Professor Curry when she plucked her figure of twelve thousand for the French army out of the air, would have been heavily depleted by the English arrow storm and would have lacked the mass and momentum necessary to break through the English line of battle. Unlike Professor Curry, the Marshal of France Jean Boucicaut had the military experience to appreciate that a dense massing of French men-at-arms was necessary to survive in sufficient numbers to break through the deadly English arrow storm and attack the English men-at-arms positioned between the archers. Marshal Boucicaut's plan for the Battle of Agincourt had envisaged ranks eight deep in each French division but he was not the appointed leader of the French army at Agincourt. There was no appointed leader of the French army at Agincourt. Boucicaut could only offer advice to the French royal dukes. As a result, all attacks on the English line of battle were spontaneous, uncoordinated, and disastrous.
Why were the French defeated at Agincourt when they heavily outnumbered a much smaller English army that was starving and ravaged by disease? One answer is that the English were well led, highly motivated, highly disciplined, and equipped with the deadliest weapon on the battlefield - the longbow. As to the massive French army, the answer is that it was a "scratch" force assembled quickly from all parts of France; it lacked a commander in chief, a chain of command, discipline, and coordination of its attacks. The French had thousands of archers but they were not used against the English army when it advanced to within long bowshot of the French army.
Although lacking a PhD in history, I graduated in politics, history and law from the University of Queensland, and served for seven years as an army officer. My formal history studies included the military campaigns of Julius Caesar (and translating from Latin his "Commentarii de Bello Gallico"), the Napoleonic Wars, and Japanese history to 1945. The One Hundred Years War has been one of my passions for twenty years. I admire greatly Dr Barker's scholarship, and despite my own modest qualifications as a military historian, I regard her as a medieval historian who understands the realities of a medieval battlefield. If those who read Bernard Cornwell's "Azincourt" want to learn more about this famous battle, I urge them to read Dr Juliet Barker's "Agincourt: The King, the Campaign, the Battle". It is very readable and much better researched than the treatment of Agincourt by Professor Curry. In my opinion, Dr Barker's "Agincourt" is the definitive account of the Agincourt campaign at this time. It is very helpful to follow Bernard Cornwell's accounts of the siege of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt with maps. I also recommend the excellent short and focussed history of the Agincourt campaign written by respected military historian Dr Matthew Bennett who has been a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst since 1984. Dr Bennett is an acknowledged expert on medieval warfare. His Osprey title "Agincourt 1415: Triumph against the odds" (Campaign) is available from Amazon at a very modest price and it contains magnificent illustrations and very helpful maps covering the siege and capture of Harfleur, the trek by Henry V with his greatly diminished army from Harfleur to Agincourt, and the battlefield at Agincourt. I also recommend the excellent DVD docudrama "Agincourt 1415: Triumph of the Longbow" (also available from Amazon).
on January 26, 2009
In my opinion, Bernard Cornwell is the greatest living writer of historical fiction. His Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur) is the most brilliantly written trilogy I've ever read. I am such a huge fan that I had my mother bring me the UK edition of this book so I could read it a few months before the US release date. My review is consequently colored by my very close familiarity with this author's earlier works.
Agincourt (Azincourt in the UK edition) is set during a pivotal phase of the Hundred Years' War: the reign of King Henry V. We follow the protagonist Nicholas Hook, an English archer obviously inspired in name and character by Thomas of Hookton of Cornwell's Grail Quest trilogy. Thomas gets a mention in this book as a legendary archer who managed to become wealthy, a nice shout-out that made me nostalgic for the far more interesting and well-developed earlier character. More on this point later. Nick gets entangled in the Siege of Soissons, the siege of Harfleur which makes up the middle of the book and the battle of Agincourt itself to close.
Part of what makes Cornwell's writing so good is his intense attention to detail, vividly painting the picture of a long-ago time and place in a compelling manner without feeling dry or academic. We certainly get a good sense of how warfare was conducted during the 15th century, and a little bit about how different life was for the nobility as opposed to everyone else. I admit to being so spoiled by the quality of Cornwell's writing that I've taken these things for granted. What I'm looking for are freshly imagined events and characters that deviate from his established formula.
By this I mean that most of the characters that Cornwell writes are offshoots of the fantastic individuals that populate the worlds of his best work. Nick Hook is, as I mentioned earlier, very similar to the grittier Thomas of Hookton from the Grail Quest novels. His woman Melisande is a French woman of noble blood, like Jeanette from the Grail Quest, who used to be a nun, like Hild from Cornwell's Saxon Stories. Lanferelle is a French nobleman with a grim reputation, like Guy Vexille from the Grail Quest. Sir Martin is an evil priest, a character who is present in almost every Cornwell novel, who quotes Scripture to his victims, like Obadiah Hakeswill from the Sharpe novels. I could keep on going for the other characters. Certain scenes seem to be recycled as well. To give one example, Nick and Melisande make a daring escape by pretending to be lepers, using their clappers and bells to drive off would-be captors. The very same ruse first made an appearance in one of the Grail Quest books, employed by Thomas and Jeanette.
In summary, if you have never read a Cornwell book then you will definitely enjoy reading this book. He makes the creation of an intriguing fictional storyline set in a highly accurate historical backdrop seem easy. If, like me, you have read nearly every single book produced by Mr. Cornwell, you will probably get the unfortunate feeling of having read this one before.
"Agincourt" is another lively but brutal lesson in English history, a primer in Medieval warfare and the campaigns and events that shaped what would eventually become the sprawling British Empire. As always, Cornwell spices his depiction of actual events with fictional characters - this time it's the 15th Century and the warrior king Henry V, told through the eyes of Nicholas Hook, an outlaw and archer in the King's army. The Hundred Year's War is coming to an end, chronicled here in the pious Henry's forays into France that would finally - if briefly - unite the two countries under English rule. Suffice to say, if we were taught history the way Bernard Cornwell writes it, we'd all be historians.
While Cornwell is admittedly not a scholar, he borrows heavily from scholarly works documenting the period, transforming academic text into swashbuckling human drama of love, greed, corruption, revenge and battlefield horror of unfathomable butchery - "...men of burning metal, phantoms from the dreams of hell, death coming through the dark to Soissons." But mostly "Agincourt" is homage to the humble English long bowman, a tribute to the yew bow and ash shaft and the men who trained a lifetime to develop the strength to send a bodkin-tipped arrow through an enemy's plate armor. Like the Battle of Crecy earlier in the Hundred Year's War (well told in Cornwell's highly recommended "The Archer" - the first and best of the "Grail" series), the English archer proved decisive in delivering battlefield victories over much larger and better equipped French legions. Beyond the tactics and strategies and decisions good and bad, Cornwell is at his best when describing the lives and deaths and fears and bloodlust of the men where the lines of battle become "a mess of torn metal and leather and muscle and guts." Through the mayhem, the author gently educates in topics as varied as 15th century Catholicism and the Lollards to the significance of heraldry and chivalry, while finding time to weave in the inevitable love story between the well-drawn Nicholas Hook and the fair Melisande, a French maiden and part time nun he rescues from slaughter during the horrific French army's rape their own town of Soissons.
In short, high drama and raucous history, an absolute must for the Cornwell fan and not a bad place to start for those who are not opposed to some well placed entertainment and carnage with their history.
on June 3, 2009
A truly well-written historical page-turner of a novel! My only complaint is the Sarah thing, I'd forgotten all about her by the epilogue... and the ending was TOO abrupt, my gosh it just "boom" ended!Was over and done with. After such a page-turning pace, the book hit me in the face as it ended. Highly recommended though and one of the better books I've read thus far this year 2009.
This is one of Bernard Cornwell's best offerings. I will concede that I don't read his Sharpe series nor his Starbuck series (I just don't care for those periods of history), but I enjoy all his other works & this is among his best. Here is the tale of Azincourt (the word may have been anglicized to Agincourt, but the place is Azincourt), the story that Shakespeare popularized in Henry V. Cornwell sticks almost entirely to historical fact in this tale, with a few concessions made in the historical note. But this tale is a strong historical telling through the eyes of fictional characters. The maps included in this are much better than in some of Cornwell's previous offerings.
Cornwell tells the tale of Nick Hook, a man with personal demons & enemies that are always near. Hook, due to a failed attempt at murder, is exiled & an archer in the English army. He uses the skill that he honed his entire life to use the English longbow with deadly accuracy. On his first journey to France, he saves a beautiful young woman during the vicious attack on Soissons & the two travel back to England. Defying punishment for returning, Nick is placed under a great Lord of England & meets the King.
Traveling to France with Henry to claim what Henry believes is his rightful crown, Nick watches the historical battles & sieges that have now become legend. With the assistance of 2 saints who speak to Nick, he becomes a leader of archers & is on the front lines of the battle at Azincourt, one of the greatest military accomplishments in history. Cornwell's ability to develop characters through whom we see the story unfold is at its best here. Nick is a real person, a man with fears & hopes. His struggle amongst the muck and mire of the battlefield in Azincourt is told with overwhelming grit & gore; Cornwell pulls no punches in telling of the horrors of battle in the middle ages.
For fans of Cornwell, homage is paid to archer Thomas of Hookton from Cornwell's Grail Quest Trilogy (The Archer's Tale,Vagabond &Heretic). I highly recommend that Trilogy, from the same period of time as this work, for those that enjoy this. I would also, in the spirit of this work, highly recommend Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles (The Last Kingdom,The Pale Horseman,Lords of the North &Sword Song, a series not yet complete & I eagerly await Vol. 5) & his Arthur Series.
I suggest a quick read of the historical note at the end of the book BEFORE you read this as it will provide setting & circumstances which led to the battles. Cornwell notes 3 historical works about Azincourt & I plan to read each; they are 'Agincourt: A New History' by Anne Curry, 'The Face of Battle' by John Keegan & the work that Cornwell lauds, Agincourt by Juliet Barker.