“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell (453p)
Azincourt is a stand-alone novel by British author Bernard Cornwell. Published in 2009, Azincourt depicts the infamous Battle of Agincourt in 1415 of the Lancastrian Hundred Years War and the story of archer Nicholas Hook, a commoner with a dark past.
(plot summary from BernardCornwell.net)
Agincourt (Azincourt in French) is one of the most famous battles ever fought; the victory of a small, despised, sick and hungry army over an enemy that massively outnumbered it. Azincourt, the novel coming soon, tells the story of that small army; how it embarked from England confident of victory, but was beaten down and horribly weakened by the stubborn French defence of Harfleur. By the end of that siege common-sense dictated that the army sail for home, but Henry V was stubbornly convinced that God was on his side and insisted on marching from Harfleur to Calais to prove that he could defy the great French army that was gathering to crush him. He believed he could evade that army, but the march, like the siege, went disastrously wrong and the English were trapped and so forced to fight against an enemy that outnumbered them six to one. Azincourt is the tale of Nicholas Hook, an archer, who begins the novel by joining the garrison of Soissons, a city whose patron saints were Crispin and Crispinian. What happened at Soissons shocked all Christendom, but in the following year, on the feast day of Crispin and Crispinian, Hook finds himself in that small army trapped at Azincourt. The novel is the story of the archers who helped win a battle that has entered legend, but in truth is a tale, as Sir John Keegan says, ‘of slaughter-yard behaviour and outright atrocity’.
The story of Agincourt and Henry V’s army in northern France is told primarily through Nicholas Hook, an archer who escapes his enemies and a certain death sentence in England to seek his fortune and safety abroad. Hook is an interesting character, but not unlike most of Cornwell’s other heroes. You can clearly see the similarities between Hook and Sharpe, Uhtred, Derfel, and so forth. He has the same confidence, savagery in a fight, natural leadership, luck, and dare I say it, sex appeal as those characters have. But Hook is more than just a seemingly stock Cornwell character, and is his own man and stands alone as a protagonist. He is a complicated man and portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience, he tries to do the right and live life in the virtuous way seemingly expected of medieval men as followers of the church. Hook is also a violent, stuck in a long-lasting family feud with the Perrill family, and relishes the opportunities to exact his family’s revenge. He seemingly has no problem killing; and killing outside of battle, murdering. Parts of this generational feud shape Hook as the story goes on as well, indeed it was the conflict with the Perrill family and their ally, Sir Martin, which sends Hook to France in the first place.
As a character, I enjoyed Hook, and did not find too similar to Cornwell’s other heroes to become bothered by it and rather took in him for what he was. I found his personal battle with his conscience, something that is a theme of the story, to be quite interesting. Like I said, he was a man seemingly intent on doing good, but he enjoyed doing bad when he had to. I have no doubts if he was able to Hook would have murdered and destroyed the entire Perrill clan. On the other hand, he is a deeply religious man, yet seemed at odds with his faith, unable to make sense of the needless slaughter surrounding him and if his King’s cause was just. Hook allows the dead saints – fittingly Crispin and Crispinian – to speak to him and play a part in his battle with his conscience.
As is usually the case with Cornwell, the side characters are strong in their support of Hook. Cornwell writes Melisande as another complicated person with a dark past, and she is a fitting companion for Hook as the two mesh well. It’s a believable man/woman relationship. And of course, Cornwell laces the story with depictions of historical figures. Sir John Cornewaille, the famous knight, is a key part of the story and his prominence not only gives the story a consistent authority figure Hook can defer to, but also its light heartedness. Cornewaille is depicted as a brash knight unafraid to speak his mind and his rants and bouts of anger are actually rather comical than overly serious. There is also of course the King: Henry V. Henry, from what I know about him, is fairly accurately portrayed, and like Hook and the other side characters, is a pretty complicated man. Deeply religious and bound by his God, Henry is also a soldier’s king, known for willingly throwing himself into the fray and taking on all comers in battle. That aspect of Henry’s personality is never lost in the story. I think a lot of Henry’s dialogue and “screen time” is adapted from Shakespeare as well, and readers will be delighted to read the recounting of Henry’s pre-battle speech from Shakespeare ahead of the final battle.
Seasoned readers of Cornwell’s work will be accustomed to how his stories tend to go, and of course Azincourt follows all those which came before it. The fighting is savage and violent, told in near blood thirsty detail, and you are thrown into the Battle of Agincourt as if you were really there in 1415. The story of the archers’ plight and the hopelessness of the task they faced is never dumbed down or overlooked, he stresses just how monumental their task was: 5,000 archers and 1,000 men-at-arms and their king against the might of France and its 36,000 strong army. Not for a second is the difficulty and scope of their achievement not presented to the reader in a way that will make them not understand what happened, and appreciate it all the more. You get a great sense for what the men who drew these bows were like –ordinary people, tradesmen and journeymen the French held in contempt and fear. As for the rest of the novel, it is similar to most Cornwell work, but is still immensely enjoyable, and doubtlessly readers will find that same enjoyment I found taking in Nicholas Hook’s journey across France and redemption in England.
Azincourt is certainly recommendable. As a stand-alone novel it is great, and not encumbered by being a part of a long-running series, you can pick it up at any time. If you have read Cornwell in the past and enjoyed his stuff, but erred away from the long-running series then I think this is a novel you may enjoy. I certainly did, and found it to be one of his best for some time. It’s the perfect story for fans of action, adventure, violence, a little bit of romance and their heroes leading the way.