Review of Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell
by Bernard Cornwell
This is the first Bernard Cornwell book I've reviewed on Goodreads, which means it is entirely too long since I have read a Bernard Cornwell book! I'm a casual fan of Cornwell, having read some of his books—I'm particularly fond of his Arthurian trilogy, and I like his Hundred Years' War stuff—and eschewing others—like the Sharpe series, or the Starbuck series, because those two historical periods appeal less to me. That is the most enduring and endearing thing about Cornwell: his remarkable versatility as a writer of historical fiction. Give him a time period, any time period, and a battle, and he will find a character and a story that fits. Azincourt demonstrates this skill perfectly with the character of Nicolas Hook, an archer who finds himself at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
I rather liked Nicolas, and that surprises me, because he seems like a rapscallion and—sometimes—a coward. After all, it takes the voices of saints to urge him on to commit noble deeds! But Nicolas is just so earnest, especially toward the end of the book, that he won me over almost without Cornwell's help. He begins the story as a young, very naive forester who becomes an outlaw and gets exiled to France. By the time we reach the Battle of Agincourt, he is a leader of men, a husband, and a true warrior. And Nicolas recognizes these changes, especially the last one, for he meditates on what it means to be a warrior and why he fights for king and country.
Cornwell captures the spirit of the battle, particularly among the common soldiers present at Agincourt. I think it is easy to project our own contemporary, 20th-century nationalism back onto these soldiers, and that creates a rather inaccurate view of why these men were fighting. Yes, there was plenty of nationalism to go around, because the English hated the French, so if you were an Englishman, you sure didn't mind helping a few Frenchmen die. Sure, Henry V had a claim to the French throne. But it was a dubious claim, and these men-at-arms and archers are not scholars. They don't care about the legitimacy of claims, and they aren't necessarily fighting for Henry because he's an awesome guy or because he's their king. Many of the nobles, and a good deal of the common soldiers, are fighting for gold and glory. And many of them fight because they think God is on their side.
So it all comes down to gold, God, and glory, as my grade 11 history teacher liked to say. The nobility could capture noble prisoners for ransom, and the common folk could always acquire some nice armour, weapons, or trinkets from the corpses. Spoils of war. And if you survive to return to England, you return a war hero. The ladies like that. Despite its place in history as a celebrated victory of underdogs, the Battle of Agincourt was not some great triumph of the good English over the bad French, and it wasn't even a very good idea. It was a stupid move by Henry to march his forces to Calais. But he too was motivated by gold, God, and glory; he had creditors he couldn't disappoint, not to mention nobility who were always eager to see a succession crisis of their own.
Azincourt is not about nobility and political intrigue, however much I like that sort of story. And that's fine. Nicolas instead gives us the commoner's perspective: he's fighting because, as an outlaw, living in England is rather dangerous, and he does need money. Plus, he has a personal connection with this campaign against the French. Since the sacking of Soissons by the French army, and Nicolas' rescue of his eventual wife, Melisande, Nicolas has been hearing the voices of St. Crispin and St. Crispinian. They want him to be their avenging angel for the tragedy at Soissons.
So Nicolas marches off to war, but Cornwell doesn't get around to the Battle of Agincourt until much later in the story. In fact, most of the book isn't about Agincourt at all. And that's fine too. I don't see how Cornwell could have sustained interest for a reasonable length of novel just focusing on Agincourt; although the siege of Harfleur is more drawn-out and perhaps less dramatic, it has its own kind of suspense that makes it no less interesting. In his descriptions of the siege preparations and execution, from Nicolas' role as an archer to the Welsh diggers and the horrible living conditions, Cornwell shows us that he knows his stuff. And thanks to his vivid depictions of the gory carnage of war and the battlefield, Cornwell shows us that he knows how to show that he knows his stuff. Dry exposition Azincourt is not.
There is a lot of frank gore and violence in this book, and I think that's worth noting for people who would be hesitant to read such things. Cornwell does not gloss over the details of battle: he loves the skull-bashing of the pole-axe, the slopping of entrails over one's feet, etc. And I respect this kind of writing, even if it isn't my favourite thing to read, because it goes a long way to depicting the horrors of war. This is not a game, and if you are not a hardened veteran like Nicolas has become, then you are out of luck. Like Nicolas' poor brother, Michael, you may be eaten, chewed up, and spit out if you are too faint of heart. It is a good reminder not to over-romanticize this part of the past: sure, they had cool weapons, but I definitely would not want to live back then.
So Azincourt is more than just a single battle, even if it is not quite an entire war. It is a gradual, wending narrative that intersects with Henry V's campaign against France, told from the point of view of an archer who finds he needs to put to rest the demons of his past: the ghost of Sarah, whom he couldn't save, and the honour of Melisande, whom he did. He takes solace from the fact that saints talk to him, even though it also weirds him out. This was not my favourite part of the book either. We never get an explanation for why Crispin and Crispinian are talking to Nicolas (or if he's just hallucinating). Considering the very pious, credulous nature of the time, I think that is OK—but it still seemed out of place amidst the rest of Cornwell's hyperreal narrative. And juxtaposed with Father Christopher's accurate observations about both sides, English and French, invoking the name of God in their fight against the enemy, the presence of two saints pulling for an English archer is a little weird, and it undermines that otherwise very valid point.
I don't want to say "read this book" with all the certainty of a hearty recommendation, because I know it isn't for everyone. Meticulously researched but very well-written, Azincourt is something you might like if you are into military historical fiction, or even if that time period just fascinates you. As far its place in Cornwell's oeuvre goes, it definitely isn't close to being my favourite, but it is certainly a competently-executed novel that has a flair for dramatic but believable battle sequences. And it helps that it is based on a true underdog story. Archery has always been cool; archery at Agincourt pretty much set the standard against which all other archery coolness is measured.