“Go with God, but fight like the devil.” So says a character in Bernard Cornwell’s new book, “1356.” The Hundred Years’ War between England and France is in its 19th year.
While Edward IV, Prince of Wales, leads the English army in ravaging the French countryside, King Jean II fears the English longbow and is reluctant to attack. Finally, Jean decides to move against Edward, better known as the “Black Prince,” and the two forces converge for a decisive battle at a town called Poitiers.
Enter Sir Thomas of Hookton, an intrepid English archer who was raised to knighthood after the battle at Crécy 10 years earlier.
Thomas, known as le Bâtard, now leads a troop of archers and men-at-arms and is given the task of finding la Malice, the lost sword of the Apostle Peter used to defend Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane. The weapon is believed to bestow certain victory to whoever holds her.
The French also search for the blade and all will be decided at Poitiers.
The story of Thomas is continued from Cornwell’s previous Grail Quest Trilogy, and is written as a stand-alone novel.
The feuds, battles, and wars between the English and the French serve as a backdrop for the personal story. Cornwell does offer sufficient clarification and back-story to provide the historical context for the characters and their relationships but I would still recommend reading the books of the Grail Quest Trilogy before or after you read this one.
Thomas is the illegitimate son of a priest, a “devil’s whelp,” who was excommunicated for opposing the corrupt and ambitious Cardinal Bessierès in the earlier books.
He was classically trained for the priesthood in his youth, speaks French, the language of the English nobility, and can read and write.
He has a French wife and a son training to be an archer himself.
He owns land and a castle he captured from a lord in the south of France.
The band of mercenaries he leads is known as the Hellequin, “the Devil’s beloved”. He also has a mastery of tactics and command that make him an interesting, well-rounded character. Bessierès is also hunting for la Malice for its power to gain him the Papacy. He is assisted by a villainous priest who interrogates people by using a hawk that plucks out eyeballs.
Other characters include Thomas’ Scottish comrade-in-arms Robert Douglas, the young but capable Prince Edward, the dithering King Jean le Bond, and a murderous Scottish lord (Robert’s uncle) who claims he has the secret to defeat the English archers.
Cornwell, widely acknowledged as the master of historical fiction, is also the author of the Richard Sharpe series, the Warlord Chronicles, the Saxon Chronicles, and various other novels.
All of Cornwell’s books are notable for their strong characters, gripping subplots, excellent pacing, meticulously-researched historical detail and vivid battle scenes.
His writing puts the reader right into the action and moves back and forth from the screams, blood and clash of arms at the front lines to the commanders’ tactical and strategic view.
He provides a fascinating insight into the warfare, culture and religion of the late Middle Ages period, as well as the lowly soldier in the English ranks.
Most books would show the point of view of the royalty or nobility, rather than the common archer or man-at-arms but here Cornwell does both.
Cornwell also discusses the reasons why the yew longbow was the super weapon of the day and why King Jean was right to fear the English archer.
Ultimately the subplots converge at the battle of Poitiers, which, despite its significant results, has been judged less historically important than Crécy and Agincourt.
As Cornwell establishes, the battle was pivotal due to the fact Jean was captured and Edward demonstrated himself to be excellent in independent command.
Later events would cause the war to drag on for decades through several monarchies on both sides of the Channel.
My one criticism is that the climax of the story at Poitiers is only a small part of the novel in favor of the quest for la Malice and the ongoing feud between Thomas and Bessières.
Otherwise, I found “1356” to be a great book and a worthwhile addition to the collection of any Cornwell fan.
Darren Ivey is a firefighter and a Manhattan resident.