Agincourt, Bernard Cornwell. New York, HarperCollins, 2009.
Summary: Through the eyes of Nicholas Hook, we see the massacre of Soissons, and the English invasion of France under Henry V including the frustrating seige of Harfleur, and the miraculous victory at Agincourt.
For many of us, if we know anything of the battle of Agincourt, it is through the lens of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Perhaps if you are a fan of military history, you’ve read John Keegan’s account in The Face of Battle. I was familiar with both of these but Bernard Cornwell brought this battle and the events to vivid life as it might have been experienced by one of the “few” English who fought it.
The story is told through the experiences of Nicholas Hook, an archer of dubious background caught in a family feud and outlawed from England because he struck a corrupt and mad priest in a failed attempt to rescue a young girl from rape. He flees to France to survive the massacre of English and French in Soissons, along with a French girl, Melisande, who he rescues from another rapist, atoning for his failure. We also soon learn that Lanferelle, who oversaw the destruction of Soissons, is the father of Melisande, out of wedlock, and he, and Hook become bound in a life and death compact over her. From his miraculous escape on, he is accompanied by the voices of Saints Crispinian and Crispin, the patron saints of Soisson, to whom he had prayed for deliverance.
He comes into the service of Sir John Cornwaille, who protects him from outlaw charges and the mad priest who continues to scheme against him and Melisande, who Hook now loves. Cornwaille recognizes his talent and makes him a ventenar, commanding a group of archers. And so he becomes part of King Henry V’s invasion force attempting to wrest the crown of France for Henry.
Cornwell helps us grasp the futility and frustration of the prolonged seige of Harfleur, brilliantly defended by the French, resulting in a severe weakening of the English army from dysentery and battle before the city was finally taken. Rather than return to England, which seemed prudent, Henry decides to march to Calais to defy the French, only to be blocked by them, culminating in the battle of Agincourt where 6,000 English (5,000 of which were archers) faced and defeated 30,000 French in a bloody massacre, avenging Soissons on the Feast Day of Sts. Crispin and Crispinian.
Cornwell does not spare us the gruesome details of the brutality of men against women, the conditions of a siege camp ridden with dysentery, nor the brutality of combat and the gruesome ways men died from arrow, mace, sword, and club, often in hand-to-hand combat. At the same time, his storytelling helps us experience, as if we were one of the archers, what this must have been like, even as we wonder how Nick and Melisande will survive their enemies, both the French and English. He also helps us understand the strategic factors that contributed to the English victory, ranging from the ground on which they fought, the critical role played by English archery, and the mistakes of leadership on the part of the French.
If you can stomach the violent descriptions, which I did not think gratuitous although they were graphic, you will find a spell-binding story as well as a well-nuanced rendering of the history of Henry V’s invasion of France, It is also intriguing to see Cornwell’s portrayal of the mix of piety and brutality in the lives of these men who faced death at close quarters.