“Agincourt” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2009)


There are few battles in the history of the world that are most remembered by name, even by those who know or recall little from their high school history classes.  The Battle of Hastings is one; the Battle of Trafalgar is another; the Battle of Thermopylae is perhaps another, known to a lesser extent.  Then there is the Battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt, as it is known in French), which took place on October 25th, 1415.  For many, William Shakespeare springs to mind with his immortal play, Henry V, and “we few, we happy few.”  Or perhaps the image of Kenneth Branagh making a memorable performance as the king who battled unbeatable odds.  Ultimately it is the battle of the few triumphing over the many.  And now Bernard Cornwell has finally written his take to put our questions and qualms to rest in his classic, skillful style.

It was a stunning and in some ways incomprehensible victory of the British over the French in the midst of the Hundred Years War.  And what was the key advantage?  The British longbow.  Cornwell has already explored the beauty and importance of this historical weapon in the Grail Quest Series, and returns with one of his strongest characters yet in Nicholas Hook.  The name is real, taken from a list of archers of the time, along with most of the other characters in the book.  But Cornwell is not simply spinning a great, adventurous yarn from a relatively unknown piece of history.  The Hundred Years War, and in particular the Battle of Agincourt, is well documented.  In Agincourt, we do not see the familiar heroes who defy the odds; many die, many suffer.  It is a bloody, harsh reality, this war, that in some cases will leave the reader stunned with the graphic description.

In Cornwell’s best piece of writing to date, he doesn’t hold back, giving many gritty details and revealing a tough and sad world.  But ultimately we all know the British eventually triumphed; it makes for a much needed and happy conclusion to this ugly battle that left so many dead.  Agincourt is a special book that deserves a place on any medieval historian’s or medieval fan’s shelf, as well as an important spot for any Cornwell fan.  It is a book that will provide many answers, as well as both entertain and delight, and terrify and repulse.  Cornwell tells it the way it really was: cold, exhausting, painful, and very bloody.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 10th, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.