(savvyreader.typepad.com, Nov. 28, Cathi Bond)
Bestselling author of the Richard Sharpe series, Bernard Cornwell, recently sat down with Cathi Bond to record a Prosecast episode about his new book, Azincourt. Read on to see what this king of historical fiction has to say about the battle that inspired his book, the weapons used, and what kind of research goes into his writing.
Cathi Bond Talks With Bernard Cornwell
Cathi Bond: Most of us have heard about the famous battle either from history class or Shakespeare’s Henry V. But I thought, why not start by asking if you could give us a quick historical primer about Azincourt.
Bernard Cornwell: Well, it’s really a terribly well known story because Agincourt is certainly famous in British history. It’s one of the few battles that everybody seems to know: Agincourt, Waterloo, and Trafalgar. It’s not just famous because of Shakespeare ([he] made it immortal) but it was so long before he wrote Henry V. The battle is famous because, above all, it was the victory of the few over the many. The story is how Henry V takes a small, but actually very good army to France, and then he messes up completely. His army gets sick and he loses about half his men to [the] sickness. He rather stubbornly decides that he’s going to march through France anyway, even though most of the advice he’s getting, and we know some of this, was saying if you do that you’re going to hit disaster. And it appears he does hit disaster because the French, who outnumber him hugely, trap him and it becomes one of the most famous battles ever simply because such a few beat so many. That’s the tale, but [in my book] it’s told through the words of an English archer called Nick Hook. The battle is often described as the victory of the archers, but we have to qualify that later perhaps.
CB: I was surprised at how important arches were. It’s strange, it’s almost like they’ve been forgotten in some way.
BC: Yes, this is the long bow, the same as the English long bow, which is a huge weapon; it’s about a piece of U, which is about at least 6-feet long. It can throw an arrow a very long distance with great force. It is an extraordinary weapon mainly because the English had it (the English and the Welsh) and nobody else did. It’s like one side possessing a machine gun and the other side not, and it’s a dreadful weapon in its killing power. For about, I should say, 70-80 years, the English armies completely dominated the continent of Europe simply because they had this weapon and no one else did.
The longbow was an incredibly difficult weapon to master. I think a modern Olympic bow has a draw weight to about 40lbs; in other words, when you pull the string back, it’s like lifting a 40lbs weight. The bows that the English and Welsh carried to Agincourt had a draw weight to over 120lbs, which is three times as strong. You had to be enormously strong to pull that time and time again.
CB: Have you ever actually tried one of these things?
BC: Yes, I tried to pull a 120lb one and I couldn’t do it. I got destroyed and backed out and fell out of the way. And you could actually feel the tension in the wood and the string. I mean, it was actually quite frightening: if this thing breaks, it’s going to do dreadful damage.
CB: Everything you do is meticulously researched.
BC: Well I claim that… (he laughs)
CB: You read it once and you just keep making it up?
BC: Well, that’s the nice thing about being a novelist, you do make it up. There’s so much we don’t know about history and a novelist can sort of step in where historians fear to tread. But yes, I think there’s an immense amount of research that goes into it and I think we still make mistakes.
CB: How much research did you do for a book like this?
BC: You know it’s almost impossible to say because research is a lifetime project. Discreet research, in other words, you’re just reading on the subject and nothing else for two or three months. But behind those two or three months of reading and taking notes and visiting battlefields, behind all that is a sort of lifestyle of reading history. I already knew an enormous amount about
Agincourt, Henry V, medieval armies, and the Hundred Years’ War. It was only really necessary then to distill all that into the research I needed.