Book Review: Agincourt, by Bernard Cornwell
Recently, my dad asked if the first Bernard Cornwell novel he lent me in high school (Sharpe’s Eagle) set me on the path to majoring in history. It probably did.
Cornwell is a master of historical fiction. Specifically, he’s a master of historical military fiction. His Richard Sharpe series follows a British soldier through the Napoleonic Wars. I remember being totally enthralled by those books, to the point that I packed six of them to take on a week-long vacation, and read all six with time to spare. After I finished Sharpe’s Devil, the last in the series, I went to the library and borrowed a biography of Thomas Cochrane, a Royal Navy captain who figured prominently in the conclusion. That was the first non-fiction book I read for fun.
So I’m probably not in a position to review any of Cornwell’s other books objectively. But here goes.
Agincourt is Cornwell’s retelling of Britain’s most famous victory during the Hundred Years’ War. The battle saw the army of Henry V overcome a numerically superior French force (which may have been several times as large) on a muddy field in 1415, largely due to the prowess of Henry’s longbowmen.
Nick Hook, the novel’s protagonist, is one of those bowmen. He’s not all that likable at the story’s outset in 1414, when he’s just a forester trying to kill a man in the name of a generations-old family feud. But after failing to save a girl from rape, Hook becomes increasingly pious. And during the French sack of Soissons, he survives by following the directions of what he believes to be the voices of Saints Crispin and Crispinian, the city’s patron saints. Eventually, Hook’s new self-belief—and skill with a bow—earn him a place in Henry’s army.
For all his growth, though, Hook doesn’t measure up to Richard Sharpe (who’s basically James Bond with a musket—less dynamic than Hook, but more fun to read). Agincourt’s battles are the equal of anything in the Sharpe series, however, and Cornwell weaves in frank appraisals of late-medieval Christianity and the general brutality of the age. Overall, the book struck me as something of a guilty pleasure; I imagine Cornwell’s audience is largely male. But you could do far worse if you want to learn how to write a stirring fight scene.
For more reviews like this one, sign up for Nick's monthly newsletter.