The Hundred Years' War
John Gillingham reviews two books on the Angevin era.
The Hundred Years' War: Trial by Battle
By Jonathan Sumption - Faber and Faber, 1990 - 659 pp. - £20
The Angevin Legacy and the Hundred Years' War 1250-1340
By Malcolm Vale - Basil Blackwell, 1990 - 317 pp. - £59.50
The Hundred Years' War
By Robin Neillands – Routledge, 1990 - 300 pp. - £20
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Just the sort of letter to make a reviewer wince – especially when one of the books in question is a 659 page tome which he has occasionally picked up, felt its weight and put down again in order to turn to more manageable tasks. Prodded by a pitiless editor he takes it up again. After all, the Hundred Years' War is a big subject, so why not a big book? But then, on the title page, he is dismayed to find two words which had not been on the cover – 'Volume One' – and hastily turning to the end discovers that this volume only gets as far as the capture of Calais, i.e. to 1347. It covers just the first ten years and there are still over a hundred to go before the English crash to final defeat in 1453. A cunning lot, publishers, – disguising the fact that it is really a part-work they are marketing and. that at this rate there are at least another ten bulky volumes to go. Definitely daunted, reviewer puts book down yet again, then recoils at thought of another salvo unerringly targeted on his guilty conscience and written in the editor's deathless prose. With all the stoicism he can muster, he turns to page one and starts to read.
Some hours later he is still reading. First, hooked by Jonathan Sumption's extraordinarily vivid snapshot of Paris in 1328, as he takes us along the route followed by Charles IV's body, 'imperfectly preserved with vinegar and salt and aromatic spices', as the funeral cortege of the last Capetian king wound its way from Notre Dame to St Denis. Then intrigued by the similarities and contrasts between France and England as the two kingdoms lurched into war. Finally carried along by the narrative flow, wondering what is going to happen next. For the great advantage of telling the story in such detail is that even the reader who thinks he knows it quite well is constantly discovering that he doesn't. That although he knows, roughly speaking, what happened, he has very little idea of what didn't happen – but which might have. By recounting all those different diplomatic and military schemes considered, rejected, devised, postponed, modified, cancelled and – just occasionally – embarked on, Sumption gives the reader a sense of what it must have been like for the protagonists caught up in the stream of events which 'were moving too fast, and at distances too great for co-ordination'. It is this that justifies his preference for re- cord sources over chronicles. Not that he entirely eschews the latter. They are very effectively exploited for the light they throw on the aristocratic mentality of the time. But whereas chroniclers tell us what they thought had happened, the records sometimes tell us what planners and advisers hoped or feared might happen. Such fears could be crucial, especially when communicated to an insecure king like Philip of Valois – losing six sons, either still-born or dead within a few days of their birth in the years after his accession, it is not surprising that he felt his dynasty's hold on the throne of the greatest kingdom in Europe was a disturbingly precarious one.
Seen in this light, for example, what is always regarded as the great failure of Edward III's reign, the expensive creation of a coalition of princes from the Low Countries and Germany, may not, after all, have been such a mistake. Those princes took Edward's money and did little or nothing in return, but it was what they might have done which counted, which kept French resources concentrated, and carefully husbanded, in the north-east, when the south-west, Plantagenet Gascony, declared confiscated in 1337, was there for the plucking. By 1341 Philip had raised and spent vast sums, yet he had neither conquered Gascony nor faced Edward in battle. Edward, it is true, was 'bankrupt' but, then as now, governments could always raise more money so long as they enjoyed the confidence of either their bankers or their tax-payers.
It was Philip who had suffered the real loss in prestige and it may have been the need to restore confidence in his regime which was to lead to the fatal decision to attack the English position at Crecy. If this is so then can we be sure that Edward's 'Grand Strategy' of 1337-40 was the expensive failure it is always said to have been? Even with hindsight there is no certainty here; certainly there was none for the decision- makers, on both sides, who lived through those nerve-wracking years. As that fourteenth century diplomat otherwise known as Geoffrey Chaucer put it, 'War at his beginning hath so great an entry and so large, that every wight may enter when him liketh and lightly find war; but certes, what end that shall there- of befall, it is not light to know'. But what I do know is that Sumption's prose brilliantly keeps pace with events – and non- events – in Scotland, Flanders, Gascony and Brittany as well as in the council-chambers of Philip VI and Edward III. As an exercise in the organisation of a complex narrative this is a formidable achievement – if one that is occasionally all too conventional in its interpretation, in the notion, for example, that the experience of the Scottish wars had already led to an English 'military revolution'. And it is amazingly priced, £20 for a 659-page hardback! Apologies to Faber and Faber for my earlier cynical remark. Inevitably there are a few costs: a sprinkling of misprints and no illustrations. But books are to be read and this is a wonderful read – moreover there are no less than thirty- eight maps and plans! This has to be the history book bargain of the decade, if not of the next hundred years. Buy now while stocks last.
At twice the price for half the number of pages, Malcolm Vale's book is clearly not aimed at so wide a market. It is what it intends to be: a valuable and scholarly study. Vale explicitly sets out to interpret 'the so-called Hundred Years War as one phase in a longer, intermittent conflict ... in which the exercise of authority over the duchy of Aquitaine was a fundamental issue. Of course, as he acknowledges, historians have long seen the status of Aquitaine as a constantly recurring source of Anglo-French tension. But, as he equally pertinently observes, 'they have focused primarily upon rulers rather than on their subjects. Royalists to a man, both English and French historians have – with few exceptions – treated Aquitaine and its inhabitants as an anomalous impediment to the inexorable progress of the nation state'. He has therefore chosen to shift the focus of attention 'away from the conference table and the royal audience chamber towards the castles and communes of the south- west'.
Thus Vale has exploited departmental archives as well as the Public Record Office and the Archives Nationales. At the heart of the book are two long chapters on politics and society in Aquitaine in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. In these chapters he draws a convincing picture of a society which many contemporary outsiders found a worryingly turbulent one, a society in which nobles engaged in feuds rather than tournaments. One Gascon lord, Bertrand de Podensac, stipulated in his will that his new parish church should be built so that a crossbow bolt could not be shot from it into his castle. Yet it was also a period of economic growth: investment in the foundation of bastides and in the wine trade and shipping industries of Bordeaux and Bayonne which generated valuable revenues for the Duke of Aquitaine and strengthened social and commercial ties with England. Since, as Vale points out, in the early stages of the Hundred Years War Aquitaine had to look to its own defence – no army was sent from England until 1345 – these ties and the outlook of the Gascons were both alike crucial.
Individual Gascons were quite prepared to appeal to the parlement of Paris as a means of delaying or preventing ducal justice when it suited their private interests, but they were also very conscious of living in a pais with its own, largely unwritten, customs and they would not brook direct government by the Crown of France. This portrait of a region is very convincingly set into the wider context of Anglo-French cultural and political contacts. Here a central theme is the gradual weakening of cross-Channel connections and the worsening of Anglo-French relations, culminating in chapters on the war of 1294-98 – Sumption's account of this would have benefited from Vale's analysis of its costs – and finally on the outbreak of the Hundred Years War itself. Gascony had never been an English colony, but in the 1290s and the late 1330s it was in some danger of becoming a French one. The fact that most Gascons did not enjoy the experience also helps to explain the remarkable Plantagenet successes of the 1340s.
Only on two points would I venture to differ with The Angevin Legacy. The first is a quibble about its title, one which gives the potential reader no clue that this is essentially a book about Aquitaine. The second is on the legal status of Gascony before the 1259 Treaty of Paris. Vale, like virtually all historians (including Sumption), accepts Chaplais' argument that until that date Gascony had been completely autonomous, not a part of the kingdom of France. But, as I pointed out (The Angevin Empire, pp. 82-3), when Louis VIII planned to set up Hugh of Lusignan as Lord of Bordeaux in 1224, there is no sign that he thought that in crossing the Garonne he was venturing beyond the borders of his kingdom. Nor did Henry III's government ever mention the alleged 'allodial status' of Gascony though they would have had reason and many occasions to do so. All the evidence points to this being a new claim invented in the late thirteenth century in response to the new high-handedness of Philip the Fair. Thus it was a basically implausible claim; Edward III came up with a much more effective one when he announced that it was he who was the rightful king of France.
Neilland's book, as he engagingly confesses, is aimed at the kind of reader who thinks that William the Conqueror was an Englishman. In other words it was not intended for readers of History Today and indeed there is nothing in it for them.
JOHN GILLINGHAM is the author of The Angevin Empire (Edward Arnold, 1984).
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