Azincourt is a great work of historical fiction from an established master of the genre, Bernard Cornwell.
Fans of his are legion, not least of all due to the success of his Sharpe series.
Azincourt, or Agincourt in Anglicized parlance, was one of the greatest English military triumphs of the Hundred Years’ War against France.
Despite overwhelming military superiority, the native French were soundly defeated by a force one quarter of their size. There were many reasons that this outcome came about, and Cornwell is thorough in exploring them.
There is certainly an element of British super-patriotism included within the covers — Cornwell knows who his target audience is.
But that being said, the hallmark of a great historical fiction writer is their attention to historical detail. Even a minor failing in this regard can make or break a book. If the history is off, the reader is decidedly less inclined to willingly suspend their disbelief for the duration of the narrative. Therefore, even though Cornwell is definitively pro-English, he strives for historical impartiality and accuracy.
The Hundred Years’ War was a transitory period in many ways. Its conclusion is often referenced as the end of the chivalric era, as heavily armoured men-at-arms and knights were still existent afterwards, but became less and less relevant to the determination of martial affairs in subsequent generations.
It also served as the heyday of the longbow, firearms being in their infancy, uncommon and often unreliable as yet.
The battle of Agincourt, as well as the previous battle at Crecy, showed that the English and Welsh longbowmen could be devastating in large numbers. The legendary arrow storm of the English army would have been terrifying to face, even when heavily armoured. Capable of launching 5,000 arrows every 10 seconds, the archers’ efficacy in this battle was amazing, but their transition to knifemen after their arrows were depleted was the true deciding factor.
The increased mobility of the light infantry in the morass of the freshly furrowed farmland was telling.
Also, the ferocity of the common soldier when cornered was unleashed, as the French flew Oriflamme banners, indicating that no quarter was to be given to the numerically inferior force.
That force, decimated by dysentery during the siege of Harfleur, was significantly less than half that of the French and composed primarily of archers.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s son rode with this army, and fittingly the clergy in this tale are often as venal and corrupt as Chaucer’s Pardoner.
The events of the battle are memorably portrayed by Shakespeare in Henry V, and Henry did claim his provenance was divinely ordained. Like the battle kings of old, he also led his men personally into battle and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The French king — by all accounts mad as a hatter — sent his marshals in his stead.
Cornwell manages to unfold these momentous events from the perspective of the everyday soldier. That soldier is our protagonist, Nicholas Hook.
Hook is not exactly a model citizen. The novel opens on his attempted murder of the antagonist as part of a longstanding family feud.
However, Hook is an outstanding archer. He is one of the few to survive the butchery the French enacted on the Burgundians and their English allies at Soissons.
The experience leaves him with PTSD of a sort, or with the divine blessing of St. Crispinian, patron saint of the fallen town, or perhaps both. He strives ever after to listen to the internal voice of the saint, who acts as a moral compass of sorts for young Nicholas.
Cornwell’s talent brings the reader back to the end of the medieval era.
He shows the casual barbarism of the day as graciously as he shows the transportive grace of medieval cathedrals, and he does so through the eyes of the common man.
Jason Wiggins is owner of The Book Place at 248 Third Ave. downtown.