The British have been in some scrapes throughout history. Like the smallest guy in a bar our tiny island loves to pick a fight with countries that are bigger than it. We’ve held smack downs with every country bigger than Jersey: America, China, Spain, the list really stretches on. We’ve even managed to fight amongst ourselves with individual countries bitch slapping each other and infighting among countrymen. Big battles involving Britain have always captured the imagination of authors, but recently fiction writers seem to be especially interested in the grudge that just won’t die. Over the next two columns I’ll be looking at two recent books that indicate the resurgence of interest in Britain’s long term battle with France.
British forces have fought the French repeatedly, mostly I suspect, because they could. France was close, making it one of the most convenient countries to fight with. Their close proximity meant that they kept doing things to annoy the British, like the Battle of Hastings. Clearly that was uncalled for.
In the thirteenth century Henry V of England decided that the French had committed the ultimate annoyance by ‘stealing’ the French crown, which was of course rightfully his. Henry embarked on a military campaign, considering himself fully entitled to rule France, although generations of kings had previously waived their right to the crown in return for compensation. It was undermanned and plagued by disease, it should have failed miserably. The fact that Henry finally beat the French into submission despite having wildly inadequate numbers of men is often trumpeted as an example of Henry’s shining leadership. In his newest book ‘Azincourt’ Bernard Cornwell focuses more on the men, specifically the archers who made up Henry’s army, portraying the victory as a result of solid training and a spirited will to survive.
The main character, Nick Hook needs to get out of England fast. He’s just hit a priest, which will get you hanged in Henry’s religious reign, even if the priest is a mad, rapist like Father Martin. Nick joins up with a group of archers hired to work in the town of Soissons in Burgundy and is in the town when treachery occurs. A bloody massacre of English archers is carried out by the French. Nick is the only English archer to return alive from Soissons and finds himself enrolled in Henry’s archers under the training of the formidable John Cornewaille. This sets Nick on the road to the epic battles of Harfleur and Agincourt.
Although the book was always going to be focused on the battles, what with the final conflict being in the title, I felt that sometimes the book was too focused on the specifics of weaponry. Long descriptions of different kinds of arrows and the process of making them often dominated the pages between the battles. While Cornwall has obviously researched his subject thoroughly and feels passionately about all aspects of military history, sometimes he lets his own enthusiasms break through in a way which makes the book drag. However this detailed look at thirteenth century weapons will probably be a bonus for those interested in military history.
When battle commences Cornwall creates a strong sense of the horrors that would have occurred but also leads the reader through the action at a pace, encouraging them on as the soldiers would have been propelled forward by the ranks behind. It is possible to be easily swept up in the tide of men fording their way on through the enemy’s ranks, so the reader can get close to the genuine atmosphere of the battles. Yet Cornwall is also always sharply focused, directing the reader to the details he feels they should not miss along the way. This mixture of instinctive empathy and removed observation gives the reader a multi layered experience of the battle scenes, enhancing the experience of reading this novel.
The book concentrates firmly on the ordinary soldier and those who physically trained them, almost ignoring the king. Although Henry appears at several points many of his appearances are concealed as Hook does not immediately recognise him or Henry believes himself disguised. His impact on the troops is minimized, although many familiar scenes appear such as the St Crispin’s Day speech. This removal of the royal commander is a fascinating new way of portraying the French campaign. It reflects the importance of the recent reassessment by social historians who have moved away from focusing on kings and aristocratic heroes to look at the contribution of the masses. Cornwall portrays a victory at Agincourt that comes because of the British archers need to kill to survive not because of superior military planning. At some point their determination to die taking French soldiers with them overwhelms the other side and they begin to win, almost without realizing it. Survival is won by the bloody work of ordinary soldiers in Cornwall’s world not gifted by the magical influence of charmed kings.