Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

220px-azincourt-final_lgAs an amateur medievalist (my undergrad degree included a major in Medieval Studies), I’ve maintained a healthy dose of historic reading in the last number of years. While most of this has focused on non-fiction that deals with the period, I have recently added some historical fiction as well, in this case Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell.

The book is set in the short period leading up to October 25, 1415, the date of the famous Battle of Agincourt. A modest English army under the command of King Henry V, composed mostly of longbow archers, defeated a much larger French force that contain heavily armoured men-at-arms and mounted knights. The history books record the day as a major victory for England and one certainly worthy of novelization.

The book follows Nicholas Hook, an archer who was outlawed for attacking a corrupt priest back in England. He escapes severe punishment by joining other archers in France, where he is on the losing side in the massacre of Soissons, where the English garrison of the city as well as many of the French denizens were savagely raped or killed by a French army. Hook survives, rescues Melisande (with whom he later falls in love) and ends up back in England where he joins the army of Henry V before the latter’s campaign into France begins.

Cornwell writes the story of Agincourt in a way that is accessible to those who are interested in history, but not in the depths of academia. While character development may not be the high point of the novel (some characters appear nearly one-sided, though Hook and a couple of the central characters are finely developed), Cornwell’s great strength is in his attention to detail when it comes to battles, equipment, machinery, weapons and vivid descriptions of the violence of war. His descriptions of the rape of French women at Soissons, or the gutting of French nobility with poleaxes at Agincourt, are hard-hitting and, at times, uncomfortable to read, but perfectly serve the author’s purpose. He also does a great job of capturing the day-to-day of medieval life and the logistics of military movement.

As a piece of historical fiction, I found this book incredibly enjoyable. For anyone with an interest in the medieval period, or if you are not too fussy on the magical elements of books like Game of Thrones, yet enjoy the setting, atmosphere and subject matter, this book is one that will be worth the time to read.

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