Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book Reviews: Agincourt

by Bernard Cornwall
Which one of you SOB's is ready to do some man's work today? Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!
In 1066 when William of Normandy invaded England, defeated its Saxon king and took the English crown, subduing the Britons and Anglo-Saxons, he did not give up his lands in France, or more precisely Normandy. His descendants were just as aggressive, at one point ruling just over half of what is today modern day France, though technically they were still considered vassals of the French King. This Anglo-Norman presence grated on continental French sensibilities and noble interests. The French began a long campaign to reduce English suzerainty in France, peacefully if possible, violently if not. 

In the 14th century a particularly complex chain of events left the English King with arguably the best claim to the French throne. As a result, long simmering national and dynastic tensions boiled over into the bloody conflict we know as The Hundred Years War.

Although ultimately the French would triumph, ending English claims to French lands or thrones, the English won many of the war's best known battles. Perhaps it's because the English were more adept propagandists (The Battle of Agincourt was memorialized by Shakespeare in "Henry V") and because we speak English that we know more of the English victories and not their final defeat. Overall the Hundred Years War helped to speed the transition of England and France from feudal territories into nation states. It was also a precursor to the English War of Roses but that's another post.

The Battle of Agincourt was an English high point. An English army of  about 6000 sick and half starving men soundly thrashed a French army at least three times its size. Some people claimed the English were outnumbered by as many as five or six to one. Whatever the numbers were, contemporary chroniclers were shocked by the English victory. In this older book Bernard Cornwell takes the reader on an exciting and apparently realistic excursion into 15th century morals, ethics, hygiene, and warfare.

Cornwell tells this tale through the eyes of English archer Nicholas Hook, who was outlawed for trying to defend a woman from a rapist priest. Escaping death, Hook joins the service of English tournament champion and near peerless warrior Sir John Cornewaille (no relation the author assures us) and eventually winds up with Sir John's company as part of King Henry's army in France. 

Nick has another close call at the Sack of Soissons where the victorious French army committed horrible atrocities by any time's standards. Nick rescues a French woman from rape (Nick really hates rapists), falls in love, and starts hearing voices from Saints Crispin and Crispinian, to whom Soissons was dedicated. Unfortunately for Nick, Sir Martin, the priest Nick assaulted, and Sir Martin's illegitimate sons, who have their own hatreds for Nick, have arrived in France. And Sir Martin and his family have bad intentions for Nick and his betrothed Melisande. Cornwell puts the reader down in the muck. It is amazing and a little disgusting to look back and realize that in some cultures or times people: 
  • didn't understand germ theory
  • didn't realize that putting latrines upstream of camp was a very bad idea
  • had no antibiotics
  • didn't accept the concept of innocent until proven guilty
  • lost body parts for arguing with or otherwise disrespecting a priest or noble
  • thought that washing was arrogant, effeminate, and sinful
Nick has a rough decency, but war doesn't reward kindness. There are few people who can write such exciting descriptions of combat as Cornwell. In historical fiction we may know how the big picture ended but Cornwell gives us suspenseful history from the average man's perspective. 

Agincourt probably didn't settle controversies about whether a shaft shot from a longbow with a draw strength of one hundred pounds or more could pierce plate armor from the front. I've seen people make demonstrations for each side. Cornwell's answer seems to be that the longbow was only rarely capable of such a feat, and then only at close range. Armor works. But with 5000 archers capable of loosing 40,000 arrows or more a minute, even a low hit percentage will be damaging to most armies. And if a French knight or man-at-arms is stupid enough to walk around within bowshot without a helmet or with an open visor, well he's a dead man. As Cornwell points out, the real killing at Agincourt was done hand to hand and man to man. Hook may do some heroic things, but he never sees himself as a hero. He just wants to survive.

Because of poor planning, bad luck and horrible leadership, the French were never able to take advantage of their superior numbers. Agincourt is an exciting read for history buffs. If you are sensitive to violence you should avoid Agincourt like the Black Plague.
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