Bernard Cornwell is a gifted and prolific historical novelist who seems at home in virtually every era, from the Napoleonic Wars (the Richard Sharpe series), to the American Revolution (“The Fort”), to the world of prehistory (“Stonehenge”). In “1356,” Cornwell turns his attention to the Hundred Years’ War waged between England and France for control of the disputed French throne. Its specific focus is the largely forgotten Battle of Poitiers, in which hungry, exhausted British troops defeated a well-fed, well-rested, numerically superior force of French soldiers.
Although “1356” is an independent narrative, it does bring back a familiar Cornwell character: Thomas of Hookton, hero of “The Archer’s Tale,” the first in a series of novels concerning the quest for the Holy Grail. As the new novel opens, Thomas once again finds himself on a mystical quest, this time for la Malice, the sword supposedly used by Peter to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This quest provides the armature for a series of skirmishes, adventures and hair’s-breadth escapes, in the course of which Thomas meets a few old enemies and acquires some new ones. Eventually, his journey leads him to Poitiers, where all of the novel’s elements, mystical and otherwise, come together in a virtuoso recreation of a complex military encounter — partly speculative but based on verifiable fact.
Much of Cornwell’s considerable reputation rests on the quality of his battle sequences, which are vivid, colorful and invariably convincing. His account of what happened in the field outside Poitiers is no exception. As always, Cornwell captures the essence of hand-to-hand combat — the stench, the confusion, the horrific brutality — with precision and immediacy. More than that, he imposes a degree of coherence on what must have been an utterly chaotic experience. Like a good military historian, he shows us the event from a variety of perspectives, breaking the battle down into its component parts, taking note of every significant factor. The geographical details, the ad hoc tactical decisions, and the calculated utilization of archers, foot soldiers and mounted riders all come under close, considered scrutiny. At the same time, he isolates those elements that, taken together, resulted in an unlikely British victory: the inexplicable retreat of one-third of the French forces, a devastating British cavalry charge, the hesitant deployment of French battalions and — most significant — the discipline with which the British soldiers held the line against a larger and better-equipped enemy. The result is a lively, accessible account of a remote moment in European history, a book in which Cornwell’s gifts as scholar and storyteller come together spectacularly.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Bernard Cornwell
Harper. 417 pp. $28.99