I needed a break from the nautical thrillers, so I skipped over to Cornwell’s Grailquest series. I’ve read the second, third and fourth book (1356) before, out of sequence, and so resolved to read the first three books (the originally trilogy) again as part of my gap-filling exercise while I wait for the last instalment of long-running The Last Kingdom series to be published in paperback. Spoilers ahoy by the way!
Harlequin introduces us to Thomas of Hookton a skilled archer in the employ of Edward III’s army abroad in fourteenth-century France. Thomas, the illegitimate son of a priest with a mysterious noble background, works under the command of Will Skeat, who in turn is employed by the Earl of Northampton military commander in the English army.
The book begins with Thomas’s home , the fishing village of Hookton, under attack from the French. They are there to retrieve a religious relic in the form of St George’s lance, with which he killed the legendary dragon, from the local church – it’s a classic MacGuffin. The invaders are led by Sir Guillaume d’Evecque who is working alongside the black clad and self-appointed ‘Harlequin’ Guy Vexille, who it transpires is actually Thomas’s cousin. Thomas puts his training to good use and fights off the French with his bow and arrow, but he is unable to stop them killing everyone in the village including his father.
Three years later Thomas is in France with the army and works his way through Brittany, Normady and Crecy in a series of adventures and historical battles. The story is much the same as a Sharpe novel with Cornwell weaving an intriguing story into real historical events. Thomas breaks the stalemate of the siege at the walled La Roche-Derrien by finding another way around the defences with a pluck band of archers in much the same way as Sharpe’s riflemen always seemed to be major influences in the outcome of events, but apart from that Cornwell assures us in his historical note that pretty much all the other battles are documented as accurately as possible.
This for me is where Cornwell has always excelled. The way he describes the action within these battles with men-at-arms, archers and horse-riding knights clashing in the fields of France is just brilliant. There’s no chivalry here – just blood and guts and vicious murder without prisoners. Thomas is always in the thick of it and when he runs out of arrows he resorts to his rather ham-fisted sword skills. The level of jeopardy is tangible and while it’s obvious Thomas will survive, the fates of all the other characters hang in the balance. Whether Thomas gets St George’s lance back is neither here nor there, and the holy grail is a MacGuffin that will come later in the series.
Thomas inevitably finds himself helping a damsel in distress in the form of the Countess of Amorica who is trapped in La Roche-Derrien and wishes to escape the unwanted attention of the English knight Sir Simon Jekyll who doesn’t need a potion to turn nasty. He takes her to the Duke of Brittany who kidnaps her son and tries to whore her out to one of his French men-at-arms. Out of the frying pan into the fire it seems. Thomas sees to it that the Countess finds favour with Edward III’s son and heir Edward the Prince of Wales, and they part company, but not before he’s got his leg over.
Thomas then runs into trouble with his nemesis Sir Jekyll who leaves him dangling on the end of the rope, only to be fortuitously rescued by the daughter of one Sir Guillaume d’Evecque. The French knight rather generously forgives Thomas for shooting him in the leg with an arrow and sees to it that he is brought back to good health. Thomas falls in love with the knight’s daughter and he takes her back the English army with him, after vowing not to raise arms against her father if they should meet on the battlefield 9which of course they predictably do).
The final part of the book is a corker. Thomas finds his band of merry archers still under the command of Skeat and fights the French at the battle of Blanchetaque and subsequently the much bigger battle at Crecy. All the main characters end up clashing and Thomas is lucky to get out alive. Sir Jekyll is killed, but the ultimate villain, Guy Vexille, escapes both Thomas and Sir Guillaume d’Evecque who helpfully also wants him dead after the deal over the lance went south. The outnumbered English army is victorious and this is largely thanks to their archers. It’s no surprise that in the US this book was published with the title The Archer’s Tale.