It was “the time of the year’s dying . . . when the northern winds brought a promise of ice.”
In this smashing sequel to The Archer’s Tale, author Bernard Cornwell picks up his main character, Thomas of Hookton, and his traveling companions, in the year 1346 in England. Thomas has been sent to find an old monk who once nursed Thomas’s father, Ralph Vexille, known as a mad, tormented, yet saintly priest. There was talk that the old priest had possessed the Holy Grail, and Thomas has been ordered to pursue that quest.
The trio, Thomas, Eleanor, and Father Hobbe, find shelter in a farmer’s byre as “rain rattled on the mouldering thatch.” Thomas sleeps closest to the door and wakes to a bright light in the sky. In his half-wakefulness, Thomas sees in the light a vision of the Grail, only to find, upon fully awakening, that it is a real fire blazing upon the horizon.
At the end of The Archer’s Tale Thomas had left the English army fighting in northern France. The Scots, thinking England near defenseless, have now invaded. A small contingent under Sir William Douglas, intending to take the city of Durham, has agreed to the city’s ransom, yet are burning and pillaging the area outside the walls.
As the Scots make their way across a field through a thick fog, the city’s cathedral towers rise suddenly before them. With easy victory so near at hand, Sir William smiles — then curses, as the first arrow flickers and strikes home.
It is the prelude to the Battle of Neville’s Cross. England, again, is vastly outnumbered. The Scots are 12,000 strong, the largest army Scotland has ever sent across the English border. Thomas, the archer, joins his countrymen, led by a few northern lords charged with defending the country in the absence of the army.
Striking the first cord of battle, hundreds of English archers advance on the run as the air vibrates with the noise of the Scottish drums. Fear of these lethal longbowmen, who have turned the tide of many a battle, make them prize targets for the enemy. “Aim at the archers!” a man . . . bellowed. “Kill their archers first!”
The sweeping scope of this amazing battle could only have been captured by Bernard Cornwell. He puts the reader there, in the heart of it, in the heat of it. Even with the advantage of archers, the English brace their meager line for a tidal wave of overwhelming odds, aided only by the lay of the land (a small hollow on their left flank), and the inevitable longbowmen.
“Shields forward!” a grizzled warrior . . . shouted at the English men-at-arms. “Brace hard! Brace hard!” And everywhere an English line wavered, there would go up a cry for archers, and the dark and whispering rain of death would fall from the cloudless sky.
Cornwell, as always, sets his characters against a lush background of history. . It is a time of religious persecution, (the Inquisition), of faith in religious artifacts and their exploitation (i.e.the Holy Grail), and of a seemingly endless war between England and France (the Hundred Years War), and the author focuses on the contribution of the archers in snatching victory from defeat time and time again.
In most cases, where possible, the author has visited and walked over the field of battle, getting the feel and the spirit of it. And it shows in his writing. His characters animate and capsulize the lives of those living in this period of history, and reflect the social and political scene of the era.
Vagabond is the second book in this series on the Hundred Years War and the Grail Quest. Along with other eager Cornwell fans, I impatiently awaited the next.