The set of books I have decided to look at this week is Bernard Conwell’s Grail Quest novels, which starts with The Archer’s Tale. For these novels, Cornwell has chosen a fascinating period of history: The One Hundred Year’s War that raged through the fourteenth and early fifteenth century between England and France. What is unusual about these novels is they follow the story of a young archer on the English side. Why is this unusual? Well, normally in any form of novel, be it historical, fantasy, or Sci-Fi we expect to follow the story of someone fighting to protect their homeland, livelihood, or some other righteous cause. But by following the English, who were undoubtedly the aggressor during this long conflict in France, he has departed from this usual convention. At the start of the novel we meet our hero – Thomas of Hookton – as the English coast is attacked by French raids. I’m not sure whether Cornwell was trying to suggest that these raids may have led to the century of warfare or not, but either way, I didn’t buy it. The One Hundred Years War was an inevitable conflict between the two nations when William of Normandy conquered England way back in 1066 leaving a state lying on both sides of the English Channel. English Kings having claims to land in France might not seem a promising cause to base a set of novels on, but remember, these are the sort of reasons people made war upon one another back then. The armies involved very rarely, if ever, concerned themselves with the right or wrong of any conflict, being more concerned with the more immediate matters, such as staying alive, having food to eat, drink to get drunk on, and the comradeship of their fellows.
Thomas of Hookton was one such soldier, an archer from the army of King Edward III of England. Thomas is a long-bowman, the English army’s decisive weapon of the conflict, that led the largely peasant army of the English to beat a succession of larger more heavily armoured French armies. It is here that we meet the true star of these novels – The English longbow. This terrible and powerful weapon could only be drawn and used by those trained from birth. The young archer as he grew up, would be given a succession of bows, each slightly larger than the last. Only then, will the archer develop the powerful chest muscles and strength to draw the full size war bow which was over six feet tall. Only in England and Wales, where a strong tradition of archery with these weapons existed, could they develop an army of these highly skilled masters of the battlefield. Why was this weapon so decisive? Because the power of the longbow was such that it could punch through the French Knight’s mail, out-range the crossbowmen drafted in to oppose them, and also have an astonishingly rapid rate of fire – successive volleys of arrow raining down on the French army would destroy any line or formation. This weapon gave the English such a massive advantage that the French simply didn’t have an answer to.
Forget about notions of chivalry, patriotism, or any other romantic notion of war, this is true gritty history, showing how a small highly skilled peasant army can upset the odds against the vast armies of France. The story of Thomas of Hookton is an engaging one as he follows the English army through France and is confronted by many enemies (from both sides). He finds adventure, love, and danger as the story in interspersed with the many battles between the opposing monarchs. Cornwell is at his brilliant best in understanding and describing the battle tactics of each side, and how the English longbow could be used to such devastating effect. I thoroughly recommend these set of novels to anyone interested in the period of history, or just fancies an enjoyable ride, full of excitement and action, as you slowly come to understand the long standing animosity between the two nations. Cornwell once again shows historical fiction at its best!
Whilst I would take issue with Bernard Cornwell on some details in ‘The Last Kingdom’ series, his books on the 100 Years’ War are up there with the best. I first came across the archer Thomas of Hookton in ‘Harlequin’, a story that influenced my own writing in its progressive style (start at the beginning, move to the end – don’t backtrack too often – and don’t pull back from telling the story in its context). ‘Heretic’ took him to southern France and the struggle of the Cathars against an overbearingly Roman church. This is where the Black Death strikes, his description of the symptoms and the way the disease affected the French king’s soldiers as well as the Cathars and English troops with Thomas. As for ‘1356’, I think that must’ve been the third of the trio that went under a different name here (can’t remember it). It describes the battle at Crecy and how the French knights attacked their Genoese crossbowmen, thinking they were in league with Edward III, and how Edward’s longbowmen decimated the French cavalry… Mustn’t say too much.
All in all an epic read in 300-odd pages.