Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Agincourt!

Happy Saint Crispin’s Day! And happy Saint Crispinian’s Day too! Nearly 600 years ago today, on the feast of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian, the French and the English fought the famous Battle of Agincourt – the inspiration for at least two great works of fiction and the topic of today’s post. 

The English won the Battle of Agincourt, but they weren’t supposed to. According to some accounts, the French army, with its heavy cavalry and plate-armored knights, stood five times larger than the English forces of Henry V, who had come off a long and costly siege at Harfleur. But thanks to overnight rains that turned the battlefield into a morass of thick mud, the French cavalry was unable to charge, leaving it at the mercy of the English archers and their deadly longbows. The Battle of Agincourt demoralized the French, who lost many of their best knights, and became one of the more legendary battles of the Hundred Years’ War. William Shakespeare featured the battle in Henry V, and so did Bernard Cornwell in one of my favorite novels, Agincourt.   

This is one of my favorites!
The hero of Agincourt is Nicholas Hook, a nineteen-year-old forester who escapes punishment for trying to murder one of his family rivals by serving as an archer in the English army occupying the French city of Soissons. Due to the treachery of an English knight, Nick gets caught up in the French massacre of Soissons, where he saves a nun named Melisande from being raped and starts hearing the voices of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian, the town’s patron saints.  

After the two saints help Nick and Melisande escape, Nick learns that Melisande is the daughter of a powerful French knight nicknamed the Lord of Hell, who is not too happy she’s taken up with Nick. Soon, Nick and Melisande end up in the army of Henry V at the siege of Harfleur in Normandy, but amid Henry’s forces, Nick encounters his old family rivals, who may be even more of a threat than the French. The novel culminates at Agincourt, where Nick must face all of his enemies, including the Lord of Hell and a French army larger and more powerful than Nick ever could have imagined.

The novel is classic Cornwell, filled with memorable characters, lots of tension, and thrilling scenes that lead up to the centerpiece battle at Agincourt. Conwell’s gift is making the reader feel like they’ve lived through this famous battle. But he does so much more. He makes the reader genuinely concerned for his heroes as he places them in one dangerous situation after another, all at the mercy of a host of villains that will leave you longing for the moment they meet their bitter end. The voices of Saint Crispin and Saint Crispinian add a hint of a fantasy to what is otherwise pure historical fiction, but I think the novel is better for it. If you like medieval historical fiction, odds are you’ll love Agincourt

The Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25 October 1415

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