Agincourt

By Bernard Cornwell

Harper. 451 pp. $27.99

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


Bernard Cornwell's novel

Agincourt

is a hybrid in which romance has been cross-pollinated with naturalism.

The main fictional narrative begins in 1414, a year before the climactic battle at Agincourt between English and French troops. The tale recounts the adventures of the young English forester Nicholas Hook. He rescues Melisande, a convent novice, from rape when the rebellious Burgundian town of Soissons falls to the distinctly unmerciful forces of the French crown.

This part bears favorable comparison with Robert Louis Stevenson. But where Stevenson sanitized the messier aspects of derring-do, Cornwell practically revels in the hacking, gouging, and gutting that characterized medieval warfare. This is no book for the squeamish.

Nick Hook is in Soissons as one of a contingent of English archers sent to reinforce the town's garrison. When the town falls, Hook is the only one among them to escape. The others are massacred, rather gruesomely. During the siege, Hook had become attached to the town's two patron saints, Crispin and Crispinian, martyred brothers. He is sure that, from time to time, they talk to him, especially Crispinian. What he takes to be their advice certainly helps him evade the pillagers and rescue Melisande from both the archers and the clutches of the treacherous knight who betrayed the town.

Bowman and maiden manage to reach Calais, at the time an English enclave, and from there they are shipped to London for interrogation, during which Nick actually meets young King Henry V. When Henry tells him, "We shall find you a lord," Nick confesses that he has been outlawed for punching a priest:

The king was silent and Hook dared not look up. He expected punishment, but instead, to his astonishment, the king chuckled. "It seems that Saint Crispinian has forgiven you that grievous error, so who am I to condemn you? And in this realm," Henry went on, his voice harder now, "a man is what I say he is, and I say you are an archer and we shall find you a lord."

The lord is Sir John Cornewaille, the European tournament champion, a man who is never happier than when swinging a battleax. The Hundred Years War is in full swing and Henry has a claim to the French throne, whose occupant, Charles VI, is almost certainly certifiably mad. So, in August 1415, Henry lands in Normandy with some 12,000 troops and immediately lays siege to the town of Harfleur, which does not, however, immediately surrender. In fact, it puts up pretty stiff resistance and is powerfully aided by the dysentery that sweeps through the English forces.

By the time Harfleur falls, it is late September and Henry has lost nearly half his men, which is why he decides to hightail it to Calais. By then, though, the French are on the move, and block his every attempt to cross the Somme. When he is finally able to cross, he's a good distance upriver. Worse, his soldiers, some still afflicted with dysentery, are weary from the march and practically out of food. And what confronts them, as they stand in the rain looking across a newly plowed field, is a French force of about 30,000.

The great battle is, of course, the centerpiece of Cornwell's novel. Nick Hook is a perspective figure who lets us get up close and personal with what went on. He is the perfect choice precisely because he is an archer, for the English bowmen decided the day. They represented the majority of the English troops, about 5,000 men. They were large men and uncommonly strong (the draw-weight of the English longbow was between 130 and 140 pounds, and the arrows could pierce most armor). According to Cornwell, in a single minute, about 60,000 arrows were loosed on the French. That's 600,000 arrows in 10 minutes - and that may well have been about all the English had. But it was enough to create chaos among the French and leave them, in their heavy armor, prey for the large, powerful archers and their poleaxes, swords, mallets, and knives (the commonest cause of death at Agincourt was probably a knife through the eye).

Cornwell is notably effective in bringing to life an age of faith and how much religion is simply taken for granted when it becomes an integral part of society. His characters no more expect every cleric to be a saint than we expect every politician to be a statesman. It also becomes clear that the greater the degrees of separation between church and state, the better: Good King Harry thought he was doing God's work when he burned the Lollards.

Perhaps most interesting of all is how the religious dimension contributed to the battle's immediate entry into legend. Thanks to Shakespeare, everyone knows the battle was fought on the feast day of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, those patrons of Soissons, which had been so viciously sacked by the French. People throughout Europe saw the French defeat as payback from heaven.

Frank Wilson is the retired book editor of The Inquirer and the proprietor of the blog Books, Inq. - The Epilogue. E-mail him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.