Agincourt is a stunning ride through the battle best known from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Through the eyes of archer Nicholas Hook, I was entrapped at the siege of Harfleur; I marched relentlessly, cold and hungry, across France as I was chased doggedly by the French army; I shot arrows skillfully at a legion said to be almost five times larger than mine. I experienced the worst in men and trembled as hard decisions were made about my future without my consent. After turning the last page, I was exhausted yet exhilarated, much as Hook and his lord felt after their unlikely triumph.
As the book opens, Hook is outlawed from England after striking a priest; he heads to France to try out his archery skills and ends up a fugitive in the attack on Soissons. From there, he returns to England, where Henry V assigns him to Sir John Cornewaille’s men. Under Sir John’s instruction, Hook accompanies Henry’s army back into France with the plan to use Henry’s birthright to seize the throne. Trapped at Agincourt, the vastly outnumbered English must employ their archers to lead to an improbable victory. Threaded neatly throughout is Hook’s ability to “hear” the voice of St. Crispinian in his head; Hook comes to rely on his patron to guide him in his uncertainty.
Agincourt is filled with blood, gore, and treachery, and Cornwell gives a human face to the suffering through Hook’s travails as well as those of his army. The characters are vivid, and the gusto of Sir John is particularly rousing. Cornwell has a gift for bringing the past to life, and this is without a doubt his finest work to date. I emerged broken, beaten, restored, and victorious as I closed the final page, and that is a testament to Cornwell’s skill.