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After recently reading a Bernard Cornwell book for the first time, I picked up “Azincourt” the next time I was in the library. The first thing that struck me was the strange spelling of Agincourt -“Azincourt”, however, is merely the French spelling.
This book is of course about the legendary battle of Agincourt, where a small English army, depleted by illness and lack of supplies, won an extraordinary victory over the French army many times their size. The English were led by Henry V and the victory was mainly ascribed to the use of the English longbow, as bowmen made up much of the army. Agincourt is also featured heavily in Shakespeare’s play “Henry V”.
I was intrigued at how Cornwell would retell the story of Agincourt and having only a vague idea of the battle itself, decided to read it.
Cornwell tells his version of the battle of Agincourt through a common archer, Nicholas Hook. Nicholas is early on in the book shown to be less than honest and not terribly reliable, however he does have some skill with a bow.
Nicholas is sent to London in a company of men by his Lord on command of the King and is soon involved in hanging Lollards. The Lollards are perceived as heretics and the King wants them to be exterminated. After witnessing a terrible act,
Nicholas believes that he heard the voice of God. This voice drives Nicholas throughout the novel as he feels guilt at failing to heed the voice’s instructions and this guilt forces him to intervene in similar circumstances.
The novel follows Nicholas’s adventures in France as part of an English company of archers in Soissons and following this he becomes an archer in the King’s army. This of course leads to the siege of Harfleur and then the battle of Agincourt itself.
I found Nicholas a bit wooden at some times throughout the book and didn’t have a great deal of affection for him. Nicholas is quite a hard and practical character most of the time which is probably why I found it hard to sympathise with him. Strangely, however, I found myself rooting for him in the dangerous situations he faced.
Cornwell tends to dwell on the battle scenes and tactics, as well as the blood and gore throughout. I must admit I found this book quite heavy on the brutal scenes and it was often quite disturbing. This was probably an attempt on Cornwell’s part to convey the brutality of the battles but it was a bit too much for me.
Cornwell’s version of the battle is quite interesting in that the armour donned by the knights and the men-at-arms soon became a death trap rather than saving them. The heavy armour weighed them down as they fought in a muddy field – a disadvantage the lightly armoured archers did not face.
Cornwell did switch viewpoint a few times from Nicholas to his wife Melisande and then to Melisande’s father – a French nobleman fighting on the opposite side. The changing viewpoints made the battle scene more tense and added a bit more interest by looking at the battle from the opposing side.
Religion was quite a dominant theme as Nicholas of course believed that he heard the voices of the saints he prayed to telling him what to do. Henry V believed that God wanted him to be the King of France and was very strict with his troops – anyone caught stealing from a church or harming a priest or nun would be hung.
I found this quite an interesting book in terms of Cornwell’s version of the battle and the ways in which the weapons and armour were used. I also didn’t know much of the story surrounding Agincourt and found this interesting also. Although I did take it with a pinch of salt as it is Cornwell’s version of the battle and therefore will have a bit of artistic license.
At the end of the book was included a Historical note by Cornwell, as well as a short note about the importance of the longbow; Shakespeare’s Henry V St Crispin’s day speech ( Agincourt was fought on St Crispin’s day 1415); the Agincourt Carol and an interview with Bernard Cornwell.
I found these inclusions very helpful in setting the story into context and also very interesting. I was quite astounded by the size of the longbow the archers had to carry and shoot, and also the skill and strength it took to do so. The note about the longbow includes the fact that the skeletons of English medieval archers were found to have distorted upper bones – a longbow man would have very over -developed arm, chest and back muscles.
I wouldn’t say this book had me enthralled but it was interesting enough to keep me reading. I did find the main character a bit wooden but in the end this didn’t really matter as the novel was about Agincourt rather than its characters. I thought this was an interesting look at Agincourt and I also felt that I learned a bit through reading it.
I would recommend this if you are interested in learning a bit more about Agincourt, as if you don’t find the history interesting I’m not sure that there is enough of a plot to hold your interest. I would of course re-iterate that “Azincourt” is a fictional representation of the battle of Agincourt but I still felt that I learned something.
This review is also on Dooyoo.co.uk under my username.