1356 – Bernard Cornwell

1356 by Bernard Cornwell is the book I mistakenly thought Azincourt was, in that it features the heretic archer Thomas Hookton in the fourth book, in true Douglas Adams style, of the Grail Quest trilogy. I read book three of the trilogy, now series, while on holiday a while ago [see Previous Post] and only realised at the end that it was (so I thought) the end of the tale.

1356 finds Hookton trying to find a sword with biblical power, La Malice, the sword of St Peter, said to imbue the holder with guaranteed victory in battle. Anyone who knows their European history will also know that somewhere in the pages will be the Battle of Poitiers.

Edward, the ‘Black Prince’ of Wales is abroad in France and the King of France is persuaded to face the English army to put a stop to the costly plundering. Hookton and his band of archers and men-at-arms – the Hellequin – are called to assist in the defence of the English. Amongst the thousands of angry French facing Hookton are numerous personal enemies – some old faces – religious and French who want him and his wife to face the justice of the church and burn as heretics, and some new faces – not so religious and Scottish who simply want to kill him because he is English.

The Battle of Poitiers is similar in some respects to Agincourt years later, in that the English (and Gascons and Welsh) are outnumbered by a seemingly superior French force in this case aided and egged on by Scottish lords who are spoiling for a fight given that there king is currently a prisoner in England. The battle sequences are well described by Cornwell, but I did have a sense that some of the text about longbows may have been cut and pasted from the Azincourt book. No biggy I guess – you can’t fault him for repeating historical accuracies.

Rather than the build up to the battle, I was more interested in the continuation of Hookton’s story and the search for the fabled sword, the troubled story of the virgin knight Sir Roland de Verrec said to be the best tournament fighter of France who falls in with the Hellequin, and the story of Robbie Douglas an old estranged friend of Hookton’s who swore an oath not to fight the English, but is under the rule of a lord bent on fighting the English at the King of France’s side.

The three intertwined stories work well together with the real history as a back drop and the quest for La Malice (an invented name btw) acting as a dash of fantasy. I enjoyed the book immensely and my only gripe is that the final section of story-telling covering events after the battle seemed rushed with only a few paragraphs describing Hookton’s confrontation of enemies that survived the battle.

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