The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell

“The treasure of Hookton was stolen on Easter morning 1342.”

That’s what I call a gripping first line for a novel. And, of course, anyone familiar with prolific historical writer Bernard Cornwell, knows that the first line is not the last that will grip his readers.

The Archer’s Tale is the first in a series which follows the Hundred Year’s War, as seen through the exploits of a young archer, Thomas of Hookton. The illigitimate son of a priest, Thomas chafed under his father’s restrictions and enforced scholarship. He had the hands and the heart of an archer, but must practice his craft in secret, for archery was the craft of a commoner.

The “treasure” of the little parish church was a dusty old lance of clumsy design with a tip of tarnished silver. It was brought to the village by Father Ralph with the claim that it was the lance of St. George, the very one that killed the dragon. But, of course, everyone knew that Father Ralph was mad.

Thomas of Hookton became an archer the day the raiders from Normandy invaded. As the slaughter began, Thomas barely made his escape to a nearby hill, where he called upon all his clandestine training with the bow. Picking his target, he drew and loosed.

“That was the first time Thomas of Hookton ever shot an arrow at a man and he knew it was good as soon as it leaped from the string, for the bow did not quiver. The arrow flew true and he watched it curve down, sinking from the hill to strike the red and green coat hard and deep.”

The story of Thomas of Hookton is the story of the church at a pivotal point in history. It is the story of misplaced religious furor which gave rise to cruelty and power, greed and ambition in the name of God. It is the story of deep-seated faith in religious relics and the systematic exploitation of that faith. It is also the story of the longbow and English archers and how they changed the face of war. Instead of knights and noblemen galloping to battle and glory on fiery steeds and brandishing swords, it was now the common archer with his longbow on whom victory hinged. And no army on earth could withstand that rain of death when the arrows were loosed and the “song of the bow . . . the devil’s harp music” filled the air.

The Archer’s Tale takes us through to the fall of La Roche-Derrien to the capture and sack of Caen, and the pillaging of the French countryside, to the Battle of Crecy, where the English, outnumbered and outhorsed on foreign soil, face a veritable horde of vengeful French.

No one can drag a reader more deeply into the heart of a pitched battle than Bernard Cornwell. No one can take a reader into the heart of an era, and its people into the heart of a reader, better than Bernard Cornwell. Through his eyes, and his obvious passion for history, we may re-live the age with its own peculiar burdens, hardships, heartaches, mindsets, through the characters he creates from the cloth of history.

And be sure to read Cornwell’s “Historical Note” at the back of the book where he details what is fact and what is fiction, and gives a more in-depth view of his “adventures in researching”. And don’t forget, there are many more of his novels on the shelves, including the acclaimed ” Sharpe’s Rifles” series. If you like really good historical adventure, believe me, you won’t be disappointed in any of them.

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