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May 7, 2010


Bernard Cornwell - 9780061578908

New in paper, the title announces quite well the subject: the surprising victory of Henry V of England over the French in 1415. It was one of the more important battles of the 100 year war because a substantial number of French aristocrats were killed or captured on the field even though the French outnumbered the English by as many as 4:1 on the field

The French had long memories of defeat by the long-bowmen beginning with Crecy in 1346. There, as at Agincourt, the English were outnumbered and the French lost miserably . . . attributable to the English long bow; likewise at Poitiers, ten years later, when the French king was captured. The "Frogs" were ready for a smashing victory over the "Goddamns"--the French epithet for the English. Still they feared them greatly . . . with cause.

Victory was due in large measure, again, to the English bowmen, though Henry's brilliant tactics and French hubris were important features. Further, the French King was marginal and probably insane, so the French were led by a committee of nobles; never a good plan. The English army had just finished a prolonged siege at Harfleur, was sick from weeks in back-country, tired from a long and tortuous march, short on food, and deprived of all physical comfort. The French force, estimated at 30,000 men, appeared certain to overwhelm their hungry, exhausted opponent fielding a piddling 7,000.

As anticipated, Cornwell's narrative is outstanding. As the "reigning king of historical fiction" he never disappoints. The history is accurate, the research in depth, and the descriptions of battle and interaction of the combatants are superb. One comes close to feeling present at the scene, which is always this author's forte. As a stand alone volume it is nice to be done with the story in one sitting. (It is frustrating to wait a year between volumes, especially so with his most recent series on Alfred the Great, a multi-volume series begun in 2004, now at volume five, and as yet incomplete. I'd rather wait until he finishes a series before I begin to read it.)

He tells the tale thru the experiences and the eyes of the archer. His principal protagonist is an extremely skilled peasant archer who moves up thru the ranks based upon that skill; a talented, muscular man whom you'd prefer to fight next to, rather than in opposition.

His after-word is unusually interesting this time because he includes a Q & A by a journalist regarding the book; especially so because of a discussion of the long bow. It took years to master the art of handling such a weapon, and most armies simply could not produce such yeoman archers in sufficient numbers to matter. The decline of the armored Knight is attributable in considerable measure to this formidable weapon. The bow was so powerful it could drive an arrow thru armor and/or unhorse the rider, putting him at an extreme disadvantage being on foot with 60 or more pounds of armor and fighting blinded by his visor.

Great read; interesting history; and we enter the book knowing who won, but the trip down history's lane is fascinating. Sehr Gut !!

Posted by Curmudgeon at May 7, 2010 12:57 PM