Divided Houses: The Hundred Years War III
Anne Curry reviews a new title by Jonathan Sumption
The Hundred Years War III
Faber and Faber
1,006pp £40 ISBN 978 0571138975
If the Hundred Years War has a boring bit, this is it – the years from 1369 to 1399 when the English lost most of the gains they had made from their victories of earlier decades and before they began to enjoy success again under Henry V. Sumption’s greatest achievement is to make this period exciting. But he also deserves praise for unravelling its complex series of events into a clear narrative.
This was the period when the war was at its most international. Sumption takes us not only on the chevauchées across France but also to Spain, Portugal and Flanders where engagements between French and English were very much more than sideshows to the main event. He also weaves in the papal schism which complicated the last two decades of the century and which remained unsolved even after England and France came to a long truce in 1396.
The journey begins with the reopening of war in 1369, where the French stole a march by invading English-held territory even before war was formally reopened. It takes us through each ensuing campaign, setting military activities against their political background and giving a rich narrative of the abortive diplomatic negotiations of the period. The English emerge with a poor reputation both in arms and in domestic affairs. Sumption provides a generally unsympathetic view of Edward III in his dotage and Richard II both in youth and his maturity. Charles VI fares little better, but Charles V receives a better press. The importance of the royal families on both sides emerges strongly. There is relatively little room for historiographical debate or problematising, but Sumption bases his narrative on firm archival study as well as on chronicle accounts. The breadth of research is impressive and the choice of detail enthralling. The reader emerges with a real feel of what it was like to be there.
Just before he brings England and France to a truce, cemented by Richard II’s marriage to Charles VI’s daughter, Sumption stops for a moment in chapter 15 to consider in more detail those who fought. This covers both French and English military systems, as well as giving insights into arms and armour, victualling, discipline and the pros and cons of military service. This is the first period of the war for which we have extensive nominal data on the English army, as a current Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Medieval Solider project also reveals.
Throughout, Sumption gives a vivid picture of military action in terms not only of what happened but also how it happened and what it signified. In his account of the siege of Saint-Sauveur in 1374- 75, for instance, he reminds us of one of the earliest uses of gunpowder artillery against fortifications. He reveals the burdens on civilians of all parties, whether through high taxation, lengthy sieges of towns, or the pillaging and devastation caused by marauding armies in the French countryside and by hit-and-run raids on English coasts from the sea by the French and their Castilian allies. Sumption has done a splendid job in retrieving this phase of the Hundred Years War from its unwarranted obscurity.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology