I bought this book from Sue Ryder with the intention of reading while on holiday. As it turned out I did not get the time. I thought it was the sequel to Heretic featuring the character Thomas of Hookton, but I was confused on this point. This is the story of the famous battle told from the point of view of archer Nicholas Hook. However, Cornwell couldn’t resist giving Thomas of Hookton a cheeky mention in the story when a group of archers discuss legendary archers.
Nick Hook is embroiled in a family feud with the Perrill brothers and a priest called Father Martin. During the hanging of heretics in London, Hook hits the priest; something which is forbidden on pain of death. Hook escapes being hanged by joining an expedition to the garrison town of Soissons in France.
The French capture Soissons, and then torture and murder the English archers and townsfolk. Hook hides in a house and saves a French nun from being raped. The voices of the town’s patron saints Crispin and Crispinian in his head guide him to safety. They talk to him repeatedly in the book, and no explanation is really given for this – the reader is left to decide whether Hook was divinely blessed or simply suffering from a mild case of schizophrenia.
Hook discovers that the nun, Melisande, is the bastard child of the influential French Lord Ghillebert who instigated the murder of the archers. Hook and the nun, who wasn’t really that fussed about being a nun, become lovers. They return to London and tell the tale of the slaughter at Soissons to the royal court of King Henry V.
Hook returns to France with the royal army to help win Henry the crown of France, a crown the king claims he has a divine right to wear. The campaign begins with the siege of Harfleur. The town’s capture takes way too long, and dysentery devastates the English army. During a French attack, Hook secretly kills one of the Perrill brothers with a French crossbow bolt. One down, two to go.
In the woods near the besieged town, Hook meets Lord Ghillebert, who objects to his relationship with Melisande, but strangely doesn’t kill Hook when he has the chance. Hook’s brother turns up to join the dwindling English army.
King Henry, against all good advice, decides to march his depleted forces to port of Calais to signal his right to the French crown (before quickly jumping on a boat back to England). On the way, the remaining Perrill brother, Tom, frames Hook’s brother for stealing from a French church, and the king (who has told them in no uncertain terms to leave the churches and nunneries alone) hangs him in public. The army must get across the river Somme to get to Calais.
The French army appears in force on the other side of the river and is far larger than the English army. They force the now starving English army to march further down the river and meet them for battle at Azincourt (a.k.a. Agincourt if you’re English). Hook and Melisande get married before the battle, and Hook is persuaded to call a truce with Tom Perrill who will be fighting alongside him. Hook figures they are both going to be killed by the massed French anyway.
The battle occurs on a deeply ploughed field sodden by torrential rain on the day of St’s. Crispin and Crispinian (call it synchronicity if you like). The French men at arms wear full plate armor and find it hard to move about in the mud. The archers at the flanks of English army have no such problems. The French stupidly wait to attack and let the archers advance to a distance from which they can be hit by their arrows. The archers launch thousands of armor-piercing bodkin arrows as the French begin their painfully slow and disorganized attack. Meanwhile dirty old Father Martin tries to rape Melisande, but she manages to kill him.
The English archers repel a second attack using up their remaining arrows and fighting alongside their men at arms with their poleaxes. Hook takes Lord Ghillebert prisoner, and the French lord kills Tom Perrill. The king orders many of the less important prisoners to be killed to avoid a counter-attack at their rear. The French give up and leave. Thousands have been killed, and many lords are held for large ransoms by the English. The heralds declare that it is famous victory for the English.
At the end of the book Hook returns victorious to England with his wife and his prisoner Lord Ghillebert who grudgingly accepts Hook. Hook ends the story a wealthy man.
There is a very useful section of ‘extras’ at the end of the book where Cornwell discusses historical accuracy and the role of the longbow in that period of time. Being a big fan of historical fiction and archeology I found the whole thing very entertaining and educational.