One of the most dramatic victories in British history, the battle of Agincourt—immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry V—pitted undermanned and overwhelmed English forces against a French army determined to keep their crown out of Henry’s hands.
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.