1356 is the fourth novel in The Grail Quest series by Bernard Cornwell. It is set in 1356, nearly a decade after the original trilogy, and culminates with the Battle of Poitiers. Intertwined in the plot is the quest to find La Malice, a fabled sword of Saint Peter and Christian relic which may turn the tide of the long war for France.
It was first published in 2012. It is the fiftieth novel by Bernard Cornwell.
Thomas of Hookton prefers to be known as le bâtard, the leader of the Hellequin, his band of mercenaries fighting in France. He and Genevieve have a son Hugh, already in training to use a yew bow. Michael, a young monk from England, walking to Montpellier for schooling, carries a message from the Earl of Northampton for le bâtard, gaining his education in battle while waiting for the message to be accepted. Fra Ferdinand, a Black Friar, retrieves an old sword from a tomb. Returning to the friend who asked him to get it, Fra Ferdinand is set off to wander with it, as his friend was murdered by men who said the pope at Avignon sent them. The Hellequin followed them, disturbing the local graveyard. The "nonsense" of the mystical powers of the sword, said to be the one Saint Peter sheathed in Gethsemane, has swirled up again, pushing many to seek it, in hopes a sword alone will give them the power they seek.Thomas of Hookton - leader of a band of English archers and Gascon men at arms in southern France, knighted earlier
Genevieve - Thomas' wife
Hugh - Thomas' son
Karyl - one of the Hellequin, from Bohemia
"Robbie" Douglas - Scottish noble and knighted, Thomas's friend, under oath not to fight the English, a few years younger than his uncle
William, Lord of Douglas - Uncle of Robbie Douglas, fighting for the French so he can fight the English, 28 years old
Sulley - a fearsome Scottish warrior in the service of William Douglas, whom most call an "animal"
Brother Michael - a young English monk travelling to Montpellier for education, 22 years old, who joins the Hellequin
Éamonn Óg Ó Keane - an Irish student at Montpellier studying to be a priest who joins Thomas' band, about 18 years old
The Count of Labrouillade - a fat and rich French nobleman, brutal and adulterous, who hires Roland de Verrec to bring back his wife, about 39 years old
Bertille, Countess of Labrouillade - the beautiful young wife of the Count of Labrouillade, 19 years old, married since she was 12
Sir Roland de Verrec - The Virgin Knight, the finest tournament fighter of France
Edward, the Black Prince - Prince of Wales and leader of the English army
William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton - English commander and Thomas' liege lord, who he calls Billy
Jean III de Grailly, captal de Buch - One of the leaders of the English army
William de Montacute, 2nd Earl of Salisbury - One of the leaders of the English army
Jean II - the King of France
Prince Charles - Dauphin of France, eldest son of king Jean
Prince Philippe - youngest son of king Jean
Arnoul d'Audrehem - Marshal of France
Cardinal Bessières - Corrupt French cardinal who aspires to become Pope
Father Marchant/Father Calade - an evil priest working for the cardinal
Roger de Beaufort - a clever but conservative student at Montpellier
Fra Ferdinand - a brave monk, a Black Friar, who recovers the holy sword La Malice.
Duke of Orleans - A French noble who abandons King Jean at the battle of Poitiers
Bill Sheehan writing in the Washington Post finds this latest addition to Cornwell's historical novels to be accurate, coherent, lively and accessible.
Much of Cornwell’s considerable reputation rests on the quality of his battle sequences, which are vivid, colorful and invariably convincing. His account of what happened in the field outside Poitiers is no exception. As always, Cornwell captures the essence of hand-to-hand combat — the stench, the confusion, the horrific brutality — with precision and immediacy. More than that, he imposes a degree of coherence on what must have been an utterly chaotic experience....The result is a lively, accessible account of a remote moment in European history, a book in which Cornwell’s gifts as scholar and storyteller come together spectacularly.
Publishers Weekly says no one describes a close hand-to-hand battle like Bernard Cornwell:
Cornwell, a master of action-packed historical fiction, returns with the fourth book in his Grail Quest series (after Heretic), a vivid, exciting portrayal of medieval warfare as the English and French butcher each other at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 during the Hundred Years War. Nobody writes battle scenes like Cornwell, accurately conveying the utter savagery of close combat with sword, ax, and mace, and the gruesome aftermath. English archer Sir Thomas of Hookton, called the Bastard by his enemies, leads a band of ruthless mercenaries in France. When the French hear of the existence of the sword of Saint Peter, “another Excalibur,” they must possess it for its legendary mystical powers, but the English have other ideas. Thomas is ordered by his lord, earl of Northampton, to find the sword first and begins, with his men, a perilous journey of raiding and plundering across southern France, fighting brutal warlords, cunning churchmen, with betrayal everywhere, and French and Scottish knights who vow to kill Thomas for reasons that have nothing to do with the sword. With surprising results, Thomas and his men reach the decisive Battle of Poitiers, a vicious melee that killed thousands, unseated a king, and forced a devastating and short peace on a land ravaged by warfare. Agent: Toby Eady Associates, U.K.. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews finds this novel's plot less tightly woven that the best of Bernard Cornwell's novels, limiting its audience to those who already have interest in the historical period of the fight for France in The Hundred Years' War.
The most notable English victory of the Hundred Years’ War turns on the possession of the sword Jesus bade Peter sheathe in the garden of Gethsemane.
At least that’s how it looks in Cornwell’s fictionalization of the events leading up to the Battle of Poitiers, beginning at the moment that a Black Friar breaks into a 150-year-old coffin and steals off with la Malice, the sword he finds inside. Scant hours behind Fra Ferdinand is an enforcer of the Avignon pope calling himself Father Calade and armed with a hooded hawk who serves as his own enforcer. The large-scale opposition between the English and French forces as they skirmish over ransom for hostages and salaries for mercenaries is complicated by the number of key characters who change sides. Sir Thomas Hookton, who begins by serving the Count of Labrouillade, soon breaks with him over (what else?) the money due him for restoring the faithless countess to his hearth and home. Brother Michael, a Cistercian who’s come to Montpellier to study medicine, takes up with Thomas. So does Sir Robert Douglas, who’s already fought against the English under his Scottish uncle. Few of these characters have any inkling that a pivotal battle in the endless war for France looms ahead. Neither, for that matter, will unwary readers. For, although every intrigue springs to life under the close-up focus veteran Cornwell (Death of Kings, 2012, etc.) has long since mastered, the strands aren’t always closely knitted together: Heroes and subplots blossom and fade with no consistent sense of their connections, and readers approaching the tale without the appropriate historical background will have to survive a long probationary period before they realize where this is all heading.
Best for fans of historical fiction who have both a taste for the Hundred Years’ War and some base-line knowledge that will allow them to enjoy this swashbuckling recreation.