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Literature / The Grail Quest

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The Grail Quest series by Bernard Cornwell (originally a trilogy, but now extended to four books) is about an archer called Thomas of Hookton, bastard son of a French priest, who lives during The Hundred Years War. When his Doomed Hometown is attacked, he lends his archery skills to the English army, while hunting for the people who killed his father and stole a relic purported to be the lance of St. George. Eventually his path leads him on a quest for the Holy Grail.


So far in the series are:

  • Harlequin
  • Vagabond
  • Heretic

And, set ten years later, 1356. This time he and dark forces are after the purported sword of St. Peter.

Another Cornwell novel, Agincourt, is set in the same continuity but is more of a Spiritual Successor than a true sequel. Its protagonist Nick Hook is also an archer, but he's unrelated to the now-famous Thomas.

Not to be confused with the GrailQuest series of gamebooks by J.H. Brennan.



  • A Date with Rosie Palms: The Lord Douglas guesses this is the reason for the Virgin Knight's right arm being so strong
  • Annoying Arrows: Usually averted, since longbows and crossbows are serious business on the field, arrows and bolts being able to pierce chain mail armour. However, they can't pierce the more expensive plate armour, though the force of enough hits can help wear down a man wearing it.
  • Antagonist Title: The first book. The main villain of the trilogy is Guy Vexille, called "the Harlequin", and Thomas's cousin. Today "Harlequin" just refers to a kind of clown, but it's an Italian term meaning "the Devil's horseman" However, the English archers are also called the same thing in French, "hellequin".
  • Anti-Hero: Thomas of Hookton.
  • Anyone Can Die: Just because you're Thomas' BFF doesn't mean you will live.
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  • Archer Archetype: Thomas starts out this way — a haughty loner, unskilled in hand-to-hand combat but lethal at range — before growing into a capable leader of men.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: While the series has a fair amount of Reasonable Authority Figures, others, such as Guy Vexille, Sir Simon Jekyll, and Duke Charles of Blois are thoroughly nasty individuals.
  • Armour Is Useless: Only against the right weapons, otherwise it's very useful.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: The archers in England's army fit this to a tee.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: Most of the French leaders have this mindset at Crécy, which leads to them being on the receiving end of a Curb-Stomp Battle.
  • Badass Preacher:
    • Father Hobbe in Harlequin, who holds his own in a melee with a Simple Staff, and later serves as an archer at Crécy.
    • The Bishop of Durham is less interested in prayer than he is in smashing French skulls with a gigantic mace.
    • In 1356, there's Fra Ferdinant, an old monk pushing 60. He kills three trained soldiers with an old sword which doesn't even have a proper handle.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: Many.
  • Bling of War: Knights in shining armour, dressed in bright colours, with ostrich feathers on their helmets. Justified in that this is a way to aid identification on the battlefield; the text notes that when the Captal de Buch goes scouting, he switches to plain brown clothing.
  • Blood Knight: Plenty. Perhaps the most notable is Sculley the Scotsman in 1356, who gets very upset when he realises he hasn't killed anyone in over a month.
  • Brave Scot: Sir Robbie Douglas, William Douglas, The Lord Douglas - basically if they're Scottish with the name Douglas in this series they aren't going to be a coward
  • Celibate Hero: Roland thinks he's this — he believes the Virgin Mary has ordered him to remain chaste until he marries, and spends his life looking for worthy quests.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Due to the setting. But Catharism, branded heresy, also plays a pivotal role in the plot. The villainous Vexilles had sided with the Cathars a century before the story began, and their motivation throughout this series is to bring down the Church.
  • The Conspiracy: The Vexilles' plan is to acquire the most holy relics of Christendom and ultimately to destroy the Roman Catholic Church.
  • Corrupt Church: A Cornwell staple, though individual priests are protagonists, and by 1356 Thomas has become remarkably devout, giving a lot of money to the church to make up for the men he has killed — despite having been excommunicated.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Many of the characters.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Inevitable due to the setting. For instance, the revelation that her mother may have been a Jew is a major source of distress to Jeanette.
  • The Dragon: Simon Jekyll briefly plays this role to Guy Vexille, before getting a lance through the side at Crécy.
  • Eye Scream: Father Marchant's preferred method of interrogation.
  • Field Promotion: King Edward makes Will Skeat a knight just before the battle of Crécy begins.
  • Final Battle:
    • In Harlequin, it's the famous Battle of Crécy.
    • In 1356 it's the famous Battle of Poitiers.
  • Friendly Enemy: Sir Guillaume d'Eveque leads the raid that results in the death of Thomas's father. Later, he and Thomas become allies, and Thomas marries his daughter.
  • Four-Star Badass: The Earl of Northampton, who becomes Thomas's liege lord and orders-giver (sort of like the Duke of Wellington to Sharpe), and fights in the thick of battles.
  • Good Is Not Dumb: A minor example from Roland, a tournament champion notable for his chivalry and idealism. Ahead of the Battle of Poitiers he faces a French knight in single combat; his opponent's friends give him advice based on their knowledge of Roland's jousting technique. The knight is then shocked when the first thing Roland does is kill his horse, telling him: "This isn't a tournament."
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Sir Guillaume is brutally scarred from an encounter with the Harlequin. He isn't evil, but he's definitely not someone you'd normally want to cross.
  • Good Shepherd: Some priests are portrayed positively, despite the Corrupt Church. Notable examples are Father Hobbe and Abbot Planchard, particularly the latter.
  • Hero Antagonist: Let's face it — the Sire Roland de Verrec in 1356 is a genuinely good and honourable man, especially compared to the antiheroic Thomas Hookton. He starts out as an enemy, before honour (and love) lead him to change sides.
  • Heroes Prefer Swords: Largely averted. When he has to fight hand-to-hand Thomas favours a falchion (still a sword, but more akin to a cleaver) or a pole-axe, while pretty much every man-at-arms on both sides will bring a mace or an axe to the field in order to defeat their enemies' armour.
  • Heroic Bastard: Thomas — and the bastard son of a priest, no less. It doesn't stop him from occasionally laying claim to his father's family title.
  • Heroic BSoD: Jeanette has one after being raped by Duke Charles.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Father Ralph, the priest of Hookton and Thomas's father, is also believed to have had possession of a Holy Grail. He has an unassuming clay cup which he uses to give out communion wafers, and which several characters, including Thomas, take one look at and dismiss as rubbish. No points for guessing what it REALLY is.
  • Honour Before Reason: King John of Bohemia allies with the French at the Battle of Crécy and dies charging into combat when the day is lost. He's also blind. In general, many of the more chivalrous knights in the series basically run on this mindset.
  • I Gave My Word: Robbie Douglas's reason for not wanting to fight the English.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Despite his noble birth, Sir Simon Jekyll inherited his family's debt and is penniless as a result. The fact that many of the lowborn mercenary captains are wealthier than he is galls him to no end.
  • Info Dump: Brother Germain gives one of these about midway through the first book, explaining the backstory and motivations of the Vexilles. Later on in the same book, Guy Vexille himself gives his own version of this.
  • It's All About Me: Sir Simon Jekyll's default mode. He has a self-pitying tendency to see himself as the victim in all situations, and cast the people he has wronged as the transgressors.
  • Let's Fight Like Gentlemen: One skirmish in Harlequin is between equal numbers of English and French horsemen, arranged with a formal challenge. The archers mock them for thinking they're the "bloody Knights of the Round Table".
  • Love at First Sight: Roland and Bertille. To the point where he joins the English within a few hours of meeting her.
  • The Magnificent: By 1356, Thomas is known among the French as Le Bâtard, and often introduces himself as such.
  • The Man They Couldn't Hang: Thomas in Harlequin.
  • Market-Based Title: Harlequin has the title The Archer's Tale in the US because of the Harlequin Romance Novel brand. 1356 was also supposed to be named Slaughteryard.
  • Modest Royalty: The Earl of Northampton, something that endears him to his men.
  • Noble Demon: Sir Guillaume d'Evecque.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Scots and the Gascons are presented as this, in very different ways. The Scots are half-feral savages, worringly eager to kill the English and disdainful of negotiation and peace. The Gascons are courageous, chivalrous, and deadly.
  • Punctuated Pounding: Father Hobbe.
  • Rape as Drama: Jeanette comes to Duke Charles for refuge and financial aid, but the Duke rapes her and attempts to marry her off to a man of low status.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Played With. On the one hand, rape is largely seen as just another fact of life in this series, if a lamentable and morally wrong one. Thomas himself never partakes, though at the start of the series, he doesn't seem to show a particular aversion to it, his fellow 'hellequin' partake, and some of his best friends are - or were - vicious rapists, and he generally pays it no mind. However, after seeing Jeantte's Heroic BSoD following her rape, and nursing her through it, he wonders how many other women his comrades and fellow hellequin left in such a state following their depredations. Later, he sees it as morally wrong, but not something he can really stop in instances such as the inevitable Rape, Pillage, and Burn following a concluded siege.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: How Thomas's Doomed Hometown ends up, the chevauchée tactics work, and how sieges end for the losing town.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Until circumstances force him to leave, Thomas first serves under a troop of archers and men-at-arms led by the commoner William Skeat, who becomes something of a father figure to him. Later Thomas hits it off well with the Earl of Northampton, who becomes his liege.
  • Red Baron:
    • Sir Guillaume d'Evecque is known as "the lord of the sea and of the land" because of his piratical tendencies.
    • Guy Vexille calls himself "The Harlequin".
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: King Edward III, King Jean le Bon, and the Black Prince. The "something" here includes leading men into battle, and stealing Thomas's girlfriend. The Dauphin does his best, but is sadly ineffectual.
  • The Siege: Often.
  • Shout Out:
  • Take That!: The books contain a couple towards Braveheart, mostly around the blue facepaint.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Thomas.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: Thomas, at first, when he has to fight in melee. He doesn't have any formal training to speak of, but as long as he's given the right weapon he can do some SERIOUS damage.
  • War for Fun and Profit: Many characters on both sides have this mentality, especially the English hellequin who are charged with pillaging and ravaging the French countryside.
  • You Have Failed Me: King Philip pulls this on his Genoese crossbowmen at the Battle of Crécy. After they are badly beaten by the English archers in the opening skirmish, the frustrated king orders his horsemen to slaughter the rest of them.


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