Agincourt is one of the epic battles of history. It was fought by two badly matched armies that met in atrocious conditions on St Crispin’s Day 1415, and resulted in an extraordinary victory that was celebrated in England long before Shakespeare immortalised it in Henry V. It has always been held to be the triumph of the longbow against the armoured knight, and of the common man against the feudal aristocrat, but those are history’s myths. Bernard Cornwell, who has long wanted to write this story, depicts the reality behind the myths.
The Battle of Agincourt is well documented by at least seven contemporary accounts, three of them eyewitnesses. The approximate location of the battle has never been in dispute and the place remains relatively unaltered even after 600 years. Immediately after the battle, Henry summoned the heralds of the two armies who had watched the battle together, and with the principal French herald, Montjoie, settled on the name of the battle as Azincourt, after the nearest fortified place.
Nicholas Hook is an English archer. He seems born to trouble and, when his lord orders him to London as part of a force sent to quell an expected Lollard uprising, Nick’s headstrong behaviour leads to him being proscribed an outlaw. He finds refuge across the Channel, part of an English mercenary force protecting the town of Soissons against the French. What happened at the Siege of Soissons shocked all Europe, and propels Nick back to England where he is enrolled in the archer companyof the doughty Sir John Cornwaille, a leader of Henry V’s army. The army was superb, but sickness and the unexpected French defiance at Harfleur, reduce it to near-shambolic condition. Henry stubbornly refuses to accept defeat and, in appalling weather, leads his shrunken force to what appears to be inevitable disaster.
Azincourt culminates in the battle. Seen from several points of view on the English side, but also from the French ranks, the scene is vivid, convincing and compelling. Bernard Cornwell has a great understanding of men at war and battlefields and this is his masterpiece. This is what it must have been like to fight at Agincourt.