Bernard Cornwell has never been afraid to tackle big subjects, whether famous battles like Waterloo and Seringapatam, or myths such as King Arthur or the Grail Quest. The subject of his most recent novel arguably falls into both those categories: the Battle of Agincourt. Famous across Europe at the time, it passed into legend when Shakespeare wrote a play which was published under the title The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France, and included a speech on the eve of battle which added to the English language the phrases “once more unto the breach” and “band of brothers”. Its place in the national mythology was only strengthened by the 1944 film of Henry V, which starred Laurence Olivier as an idealized young warrior king, and was dedicated to the British paratroopers who took part in the Allied invation of Normandy. The legend of Agincourt plays to the way so many English like to see themselves: stout yeomanry, out-numbered by haughty Continentals, but manfully winning through.
Cornwell has obviously done some thorough research for this book, which is delivered fairly unobtrusively during the narrative, and the endnotes include recommendations for anyone wanting to read further about the history involved. In fact, when the factual research does make its presence felt, the material is so interesting that it doesn’t matter whether or not it has been smoothly incorporated into the story. The constituent elements of a longbow, for example, fully merited a bit of dwelling on – they make for surprising reading, and give an insight into why historians are serious when they talk about “military technology” in the Middle Ages. Just as interesting were the mentions of why the French commanders couldn’t simply decide to switch from crossbows to longbows after having faced the English archers in battle; that if a longbow took time and effort to create, whole decades had gone into producing the men who shot them. This isn’t a work of historical explanation, however, and Cornwell hides the information amongst some lively story-telling, such as the episode in which a fletcher cuts a section from an altar-cloth whilst praying, because apparently silk is the best thread with which to tie quills onto arrows.
Agincourt distances itself from a misty-eyed romantic view of its eponymous battle in several ways, for example in its depiction of King Henry. The glorious young warrior king becomes a grim, thin-lipped religious fanatic with raw skin, pursuing a senseless heraldic claim to lands that lie a sea away from his realm. In much the same way the battle itself is revealed as the result of a pointless military excursion undertaken largely to save face on Henry’s return home. Any sense that the “band of brothers” (a phrase which doesn’t appear in the novel) have any idea what they’re fighting for is firmly quashed by frequent statements to the effect that it is the soldiers’ job to fight, not to understand. Shakespeare mentioned in his epilogue to Henry V that the land gained would be lost by the next English king, in lines which Olivier firmly excised from his film. Cornwell brings back this idea and elaborates on it: his common soldiers would find convivial company in much modern writing about World War I or Vietnam.
Spurning heroic national destiny as an organizing principle, Cornwell structures his story around the career of Nicholas Hook, a young archer outlawed for striking a corrupt priest who finds himself fighting in the French campaign. Directed by the voices of two saints, he rescues a French girl from rape during the sack of Soissons, gradually falls in love with her, and rises to be the medieval equivalent of an NCO, before his past catches up with him, and he soon has to deal with enemies in his own camp as well as an enigmatic and darkly glamorous French nobleman. The novel builds to the battle of Agincourt as the climax of both the historical arc and Hook’s own personal story. This brief précis points up both the strengths and weaknesses of this casting of the story. On the one hand, very few people currently writing can handle historical fiction like Bernard Cornwell. His work is always gripping, intelligent, and the action never flags. He has learnt his craft through dozens of books, spanning hundreds of years, and he absolutely knows how to keep his readership with him. He’s also got a nice line in low-key humour, for example: And he’s mad, the French king is…He’s mad as a spavined polecat, the stupid bastard thinks he’s made of glass. He’s frightened that someone will give him a smart tap and he’ll break into a thousand pieces. The truth is, he’s got turnips for brains, he does, and he’s fighting against the duke, who isn’t mad. He’s got brains for brains.
But this same craftsmanship also produces some of the book’s weaknesses. The plot summary I gave above will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Cornwell’s previous work. A young male outsider of straightforward character, a series of significant battles, a love interest, a nemesis within his own camp, a gradual rise based on merit rather than influence – this could be Richard Sharpe, Derfel Cadarn, Nathaniel Starbuck or Thomas of Hookton, but in this case he’s called Nicholas Hook. The assured construction of the scenes can become a little routine at times: when a paragraph describing a fight ends with a sword scything towards the head of a favoured character, and the narrative cuts away to deal with other events, it eventually stops being a surprise that, when the narrative returns, the blow is avoided by some unusual means and the fight continues. It does keep the action going, but a device like this is subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Much more serious, though, is the book’s take on the medieval world as a whole. Alongside the loud cynicism of its insistence that the battles are meaningless, the church is corrupt and the aristocracy live in a different world, Agincourt continually asserts a broadly positive, modern outlook. Merit is rationally rewarded, as Nicholas rises from the ranks not by the whim of a nobleman, but through recognition of his skills as a soldier. His love affair with Melisande, after he rescues her, is conducted on rigorously modern lines, based on mutual attraction, consent, respect and equality of choice. Religion for Nicholas is an internal matter based on personal experience of the divine, and does not involve interfering with the beliefs or pleasures of others. Cornwell is superb at detailing what would have happened to a soldier in this period, but doesn’t give any sense of how they might have thought or felt about it: there is nothing here of the darkness and strangeness found in Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play, or Peter Ackroyd’s Clerkenwell Tales.
Whilst rescuing Hook from his own era in this way, Cornwell is forced to make rather simplistic moral distinctions in the novel. Though he is at pains to deny that the historical movements his characters are involved with can be seen as glorious, individuals are simply and recognisably either good or bad. In the moral world of Agincourt, as with so much of Cornwell’s fiction, you are either a basically tolerant, respectful un-Medieval type, or you’re a bigoted psychotic rapist. It’s rather as if what we can’t come to terms with about the medieval past has been parceled up into people who are revealed as evil in and of themselves. The continual harping on rape through the book is particularly troubling. It certainly must have been far more prevalent in the fifteenth century than now, and has often been ignored by accounts of the past, but in Agincourt it feels like a moral lever, used to pry apart the two sides I’ve described, to demonstrate that you are either with us or against us. There’s something problematic about a novel which throws around the idea of rape so glibly, but refuses to use any verb stronger than “hump” when referring to it.
Cornwell has dethroned the Great Men of historical legend, but set up in their place the Great Representative Man in Robert Hook, who probably represents what we would like to see in the medieval era just as much as the heroes of much older histories. Tellingly, he keeps in the “bowfingers” myth: the tradition that the reverse “V” sign, used as a gesture of abuse in England, originated with the archers in the aftermath of Agincourt, who used it to taunt the French by showing that they still had the two fingers used to draw the string, which the French had threatened to cut from any prisoners. Cornwell documents that the string fingers had indeed been cut from archers at Soissons earlier in the campaign, and states in his notes that “I cannot confirm that the British two-fingered salute began in Agincourt as a taunt to the defeated French…but it seems a likely tale.” In the novel it happens like this, as an anonymous archer, crazed by the fighting, is killing injured men on the battlefield: He suddenly raised his two string fingers at the corpses he had made and jerked the fingers up and down. “Cut these off, would you? You bastards!”
This brief episode is worth dwelling on, even at the risk of pedantry, because it shows how much Agincourt still has invested in the national mythology about this battle. Cornwell is quite right that the bowfingers myth cannot be confirmed, in fact there is no evidence of this “tradition” which explains the V-sign before the 1970s. Personally I agree that the legend is “a likely tale”, that it feels right and makes sense – which should surely make it even more suspect. We can see sweet prince Hal, the “lovely bully”, become a fundamentalist aggressor without turning a hair, but still cling to the idea that flipping someone the fingers is an expression of something which was born on the battlefields of France. Obviously there’s no way the “tradition” can be disproved either, but before thinking of this as a charming little quirk of history, we might consider that it apparently first appeared during the 70s, a decade when the aftermath of imperial breakup, Commonwealth immigration and a rapidly changing society had produced the most famous period of extreme British nationalism in recent history. It could well be coincidence, but “bowfingers” seems to have been a product of the era as the National Front and other groups which peddled a highly insular, xenophobic notion of Britishness, regarding historical military triumphs as a crucible of identity. Its presence in the novel doesn’t make any link between Agincourt and the far right, but rather demonstrates even further that there is no straightforward way to relate this legend, that author and readers are already soaked in the story it purports to “tell”.
Agincourt is yet another cracking read from Bernard Cornwell, full of action and interest. It treats the kind of history which can be seen with precision and flair, but many people will find it has ignored the kind of history which counts, offering an exciting book of historical events instead of a truly historical novel.
This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, February 2009