Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Agincourt Book CoverI had mentioned the novel Agincourt when writing about the Grail Quest series. Like the Grail Quest series, Agincourt illustrates the military advantage that the longbow gave the English during the 100 Year War.
The story exceeded my expectations and I learned quite a bit about the battle. While the longbow did give the English at tactical advantage, which enabled them to win the battle, there are other factors that made a difference. I think the muddy battlefield was the decisive factor that allowed the English to gain the upper hand. Cornwell writes in the Historical Notes,

“The fields of Agincourt had recently been plowed for winter wheat and it is true, as Nicholas Hook says, that you plow deeper for winter wheat than for spring wheat. It had also rained torrentially the previous night, and so the French were trudging through sticky clay soil. It must have been a nightmare. No one could hurry, and all the while the arrows were striking and, the closer the French came to the English line, the more lethal those arrow strikes were” Cornwell later observes, “The French men-at-arms were weary, half blinded, disordered, and mud-crippled.”

It’s astounding that the leaders of the French forces did not see the disadvantage for armored men to fight in muddy terrain. Without the mud I suspect the French would have taken heavy losses but might have been able to defeat the smaller English army.

Another advantage for the English in addition to the mud was the use of wooden stakes as a defensive barrier. The English archers drove sharp wooden stakes into the ground in front of each man to deter and defend against cavalry attacks. The defense worked to break a french cavalry attack intended to destroy the archers before the main French attack by the knights and men-at-arms.

It was the combination of multiple factors and a bit of luck which enabled the English to win the battle.

Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe Series

After reading several series by Bernard Cornwell I finally dug into the Richard Sharpe series. I am reading them in  the chronological order of the storyline as opposed to chronological order of the publication date. Cornwell published Sharpe’s Eagle in 1981. Sharpe’s Eagles takes place in 1809 during the Peninsular War. The series was so popular that Cornwell later wrote seven Richard Sharpe novels as a prequel to Sharpe’s Eagles which takes place in India as the British are expanding their empire.


This is an interesting time in history that I know very little about. It is interesting due to a strange relationship between British East India Company and colonial government in India. The Wikipedia article sums it up well when they write,

“The Company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private army, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey and lasted until 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the new British Raj.”

Sharpe’s Tiger

Sharpe’s Tiger starts in 1799 during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War in India. Private Richard Sharpe and the 33rd Infantry is marching to besiege and take the city of Seringapatm.

Cornwell tells us in the Historical Notes section of Sharpe’s Tiger that,

“The novel’s description of the city’s fall is mostly accurate. Two Forlorn Hopes, one headed by the unfortunate Sergeant Graham, led two columns of attacking troops across the wide South Cauvery and up the breach, and there the columns separated, one going north about the city’s outer ramparts and the other south.”

Cornwell does tell us that he “took some liberties” with the story of the trap with the giant explosive that Sharpe set off prematurely. Corwell explains,

“The idea for the mine came from an enormous and spectacular explosion which occurred in the city two days before the assault. It is believed that a British shell somehow ignited one of the Tippoo’s magazines, which then blew up. 1 changed the nature of that explosion, and delayed it by two days, because fictional heroes must be given suitable employment.”

Sir Arthur Wellesley appears in several of the Sharpe series novels. He makes his first appearance in Sharpe’s Tiger as a colonel in the 33rd.

Tipu (Tippoo) Sultan was the ruler of the Sultanate of Mysore who died during the siege of Seringapatam. The Historical Notes tells us there is a bit of a mystery surrounding the death of Tipoo. It is not generally known who killed Tipoo but all his jewels were missing.  Cornwell explains, “his killer never came forward and it is presumed that this reticence was caused by the man’s unwillingness to admit to ownership of the Tippoo’s jewels. Where many of those jewels are today, no one knows.”  This mystery worked perfectly for Cornwell who was able to have Richard Sharpe kill Tipoo and take the jewels without having to contradict historical fact.

Sharpe’s Triumph

Sharpe’s Triumph takes place four years later in 1803 during the the Second Anglo-Maratha War during the Battle of Assaye. This is a conflict between the Maratha Confederacy and the British East India Company. Cornwell writes in the Historical Notes section that the battle of Assaye,

“happened much as described in the novel, just as many of the characters in the story existed. Not just the obvious characters, like Wellesley, but men like Colin Campbell, who was the first man over the wall at Ahmednuggur, and Anthony Pohlmann who truly was once a sergeant in the East India Company, but who commanded the Mahratta forces at Assaye.”

Battle of Assaye
Battle of Assaye (Image from Wikipedia)

Cornwell devotes a fair amount of time discussing Arthur Wellesley in the Historical Notes. he tells us that,

“Assaye is not the most famous of Arthur Wellesley’s battles, but it was the one of which he was most proud. Years later, long after he had swept the French out of Portugal and Spain, and after he had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington (as Arthur Wellesley became) was asked what had been his finest battle. He did not hesitate. “Assaye,” he answered, and so it surely was, for he outmaneuvered and outfought a much larger enemy, and did it swiftly, brutally and brilliantly.”

I would say the credit for the victory should be given to the brave infantry that attacked through heavy artillery and gunfire while taking heavy casualties.

Sharpe’s Fortress

Gawilghur fort walls from Wikipedia

Sharpe’s Fortress takes place during the Siege of Gawilghur in 1803.  Gawilghur “was a well-fortified mountain stronghold of the Maratha Empire north of the Deccan Plateau.”

Cornwell begins his Historical Notes section saying,

“I have done the 94th, sometimes known as the Scotch Brigade, and their Light Company which was led by Captain Campbell, a great disservice, for it was they, and not Sharpe, who found the route up the side of the ravine and then across the Inner Fort’s wall at Gawilghur, and who then assailed the gatehouse from the inside and, by opening the succession of gates, allowed the rest of the attacking force into the fortress”

British casualties would have been horrendous had it not been for 94th and Captain Campbell.

Cornwell theorizes that the ease of these victories did not help Wellesley later in life during the Peninsular War. He writes,

“it is claimed that he underestimated the difficulties of siege work, having been lulled into complacency by the ease of his Indian victories. There may be truth in that, and at Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Burgos and San Sebastian he took dreadful casualties.” Cornwell continue on, “My own suspicion is that he did not so much underestimate the ability of defenses to withstand him, as overestimate the capacity of British troops to get through those defenses and, astonishingly, they usually lived up to his expectations.”Cornwell concludes “their bravery helped disguise the fact that sieges were terrible work”

These first three books in the series have me hooked. I have no doubt that I will work my way through all of the Sharpe series books. I also plan to watch the television adaption. I have seen episode one and like it so far even though it does not follow the chain of events in the books.