The heart of 1356, as is the case with most Bernard Cornwell novels, is a large, vicious battle featuring warlike opponents united only by the savage joy of war. Cornwell has covered battlefields ranging from formidable Indian fortresses to remote forts in the American wilderness to the hallowed fields of Waterloo itself. If you can’t tell from the title (I will be the first to admit that I had to look it up), 1356 tells the story of the Battle of Poitiers, which was an English victory over the French in the Hundred Years’ War. The Hundred Years’ War can be tough sledding for the armchair historian, especially on this side of the Atlantic, because the whole thing was so long, drawn out and inconclusive. But it was also remarkably bloody, and featured a lot of right bastards and some interesting weaponry, which makes it well-suited for Cornwell and his readers.
"1356, like most other Bernard Cornwell books, is a page-turner, and his skill in bringing the final battle to strong, valorous and bloody life cannot be questioned."
Cornwell is second to none in recreating the medieval battlespace, and 1356 is worth reading just for the portrayal of the clash between the English and the French forces that caps the novel. But his particular genius is not just in retelling the story of the battle; it is in making that conflict personal for his characters, and therefore for readers. You may or may not care how the Siege of Almeida turns out, but Cornwell heroes like Richard Sharpe do have a very specific interest in the outcome. This is usually due to a threat to the hero’s life and limb, but typically there is also a secondary objective for the hero that drives the readers’ interest beyond the outcome of the battle.
In 1356, the hero is Thomas of Hookton, an English archer who has appeared in two prior volumes. Here, Thomas is the leader of a semi-independent band of rovers who are involved in stripping the French countryside of supplies that the French Army can use to march against the English invader. The secondary objective is a holy relic, specifically a sword that is believed to have been used by St. Peter to cut the ear off a Roman soldier in the Garden of Gethsemane --- a sword that was then cursed by Jesus Christ on his way to Calvary.
It is the curse that gives the sword its name --- La Malice --- and leads the French Catholic clergy to believe that the sword will be a powerful weapon to wield against the English. It is the supposed powers of the sword that makes the perfidious French Cardinal who is the story’s chief antagonist lust after it. Hookton, however, is a pragmatist and a heretic on top of that. Like Cornwell’s other heroes, he has a healthy disrespect for superstition and magic. Yet he spends a good part of the book looking for La Malice, as though its powers were unquestioned. It’s not out of the question for the Cardinal, or the various other holy and unholy fools who populate the novel, to be interested in the relic, but it’s hard to believe that it’s all that important or crucial to the story.
If the magic sword were the only odd element in 1356, it easily could be shrugged off as window dressing. However, there are other story arcs that, if not exactly implausible, are unneeded distractions. There is not only a magic sword but also a magic bird that, we are told, blinds people who do not tell the truth. There is a rather beastly French count and a bloodthirsty Scottish laird who cause trouble for Thomas, not to mention a formidable chess-playing nun. These characters provide a little bit of local color, to be sure, but do little to advance the plot if they are not actively moving it sideways.
1356, like most other Bernard Cornwell books, is a page-turner, and his skill in bringing the final battle to strong, valorous and bloody life cannot be questioned. Thomas of Hookton may not be as well-realized a character as other Cornwell heroes, but he fights bravely and well against ridiculous odds. Cornwell enthusiasts --- a group that should include everyone interested in military historical fiction --- will find much to praise in its pages, whether or not they have a rooting interest in the Hundred Years’ War.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on January 10, 2013