There can be no doubt about the scale of Jonathan Sumption’s achievement in his history of the Hundred Years War. Five massive volumes, published between 1990 and this year, each more than six hundred pages of narrative and notes. Together, they total nearly four thousand pages, not counting the bibliographies, with their ever expanding lists of secondary contributions as well as primary sources in Latin, French, Middle English, Dutch, Catalan and Portuguese. And all this done in Sumption’s spare time from his work as a barrister and then a justice of the UK Supreme Court.
But what is the result? Was the Hundred Years War special in anything except its duration? One answer is that it created a sense of nationhood, especially in France, or as Sumption puts it in his concluding remarks to this final volume, ‘war created the state and the state created the nation.’ Regional loyalties, to Brittany and Normandy, Maine and Burgundy, became subordinated, and in later centuries would have been seen as treasonable. Kings managed to impose systems of taxation. In England, the Anglo-Norman dialect, once the native tongue of most of the gentry, died out, and though French was still part of the equipment of ladies and gentlemen, it was Parisian French they learned, and they learned it as a foreign tongue. In France, speaking English was enough to get your throat cut – because, after all, who spoke English except the English? There was no point in anyone else learning an insular jargon.
The initial cause of the war was a dispute over succession. In 1314, Philip IV of France died, leaving three sons. But none of them reigned for more than a few years, each dying young. His daughter Isabella, however, married Edward II of England, and they had a son who became Edward III. That was Edward’s claim to the throne of France, by right: Dieu et mon droit, as the royal motto still declares. But it was the son of Philip’s brother Charles who became king of France, reigning as Philip VI. Who had the better claim? If you accepted the notion of primogeniture, then Edward did, but if you believed that claims couldn’t descend through the maternal line, then the rightful king was Philip – unless you backed Charles the Bad, king of Navarre, who was also descended from Philip IV, also in the female line, but now in the third generation. While the argument may have been relevant in the 1320s, when Philip IV’s last son died, it was meaningless by 1453, after more than a hundred years of war. By then it was obvious that no matter his heredity, a king of England couldn’t be king of France, precisely because he was English. Dynastic history had become national history.
Another effect of the Hundred Years War was the long subsequent history of opposition, or active enmity, between the two nations: the Wars of Religion, the Wars of Spanish and Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and the wars of empire, including the American War of Independence. Rosbifs and la perfide Albion on one side; counter-accusations too nasty to cite on the other. Sumption’s first two volumes, Trial by Battle and Trial by Fire, tell the part of the story most familiar to English readers. In the first volume, the Battle of Crécy and the Battle of Neville’s Cross against the Scots (both 1346). In the second, the Battle of Poitiers (1356): English archers mowing down French cavaliers and Scottish spearmen, total victory, the Black Prince winning his spurs and, by the end of the year, both John II of France and David II of Scotland safely locked up in the Tower of London awaiting ransom. Mission accomplished.
Except it wasn’t. Sumption takes us on through the chevauchées – the large-scale mounted raids that the English used to weaken and demoralise the French in the years after 1356. Other events altered the nature of the war, in particular the Black Death, which significantly reduced English manpower. In volume three, Divided Houses, we get the premature death of the Black Prince, which left as Edward III’s successor a ‘vulnerable child’ who became, as Richard II, ‘a neurotic and unstable adult’, deposed and murdered by his cousin, Henry IV, in 1399. This revived the French war, since one way to unite a divided nation is, as Shakespeare put it, ‘to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels’, advice which led to the third English victory, at Agincourt in 1415. But Henry V also died prematurely, leaving the throne to his baby son, Henry VI, who as an adult was rather worse than neurotic and unstable, being (so far as we can tell) intermittently of unsound mind. Cursed Kings, Sumption’s fourth volume, gives us the French problems and divisions created first by the accession of Charles ‘the Mad’ in 1380 and then by two assassinations: that of Louis of Orléans, effective regent of France, in 1407; and then, in reprisal, of Jean Sans Peur, duke of Burgundy, in 1419. English patriotism gives Henry V the credit for many victories, but they are better understood, Sumption says, as ‘a chapter in a French tragedy’. These events took place, moreover, in a whirl of treaties and negotiations and complex pressures on all parties.
Sumption’s final volume opens in 1422, the year in which both Charles VI of France and Henry V of England died. Technically, as per the Treaty of Troyes signed in 1420, both men left the same person as their heir: the 11-month-old Henry VI of England. But Charles VI’s teenage son, the dauphin, who had been disinherited in favour of Henry V, refused to accept his diminution, ruling in those parts of France not under English occupation. Both countries were in trouble, but the state of France was especially dire. The Dauphinists, as they were called on account of their support for someone not yet crowned king, perhaps pinned their hopes on their old allies in Scotland. The Scots responded, not by the usual method of staging a diversionary attack on northern England, but by sending an expeditionary force to France of some seven thousand men, a good half of them ‘wild Scottish axemen’.
The Scots made a dangerous move, however. Before the Battle of Verneuil in 1424 they announced that they would take no prisoners (three hundred years later the war-cry of the Covenanters was once again ‘Jesus and No Quarter’). One can imagine how this went down in the English camp, and indeed few prisoners were taken: the Scots were ‘all but wiped out’. Sumption says that Verneuil was ‘the bloodiest fight of the Hundred Years War’: the heralds counted 7262 of the dauphin’s army dead on the field, while the victors also lost unusually heavily, perhaps as many as 1600 men.
Things only improved for the English cause, such that ‘the summer of 1427 can be seen in hindsight as the high point of the house of Lancaster’s fortunes in France.’ Sumption includes a map showing that, by 1429, England and its Burgundian allies controlled the whole of northern France, including Paris, and the east as far south as Mâcon, along with (this time with Gascon allies) the area around Bordeaux. In terms of territory, this was close to a 50/50 split between the supporters of Henry VI and those of the dauphin. For the English to finish the war, they needed to cross the Loire barrier by seizing one of the bridge towns. The one they selected was Orléans, and the siege began on 4 September 1428.
At this point of near victory, Joan of Arc arrived. Also known as Jeannette, La Pucelle or the Maid of Orléans, she was the daughter of a serf living in Domrémy, Lorraine – territory disputed between supporters of the still uncrowned dauphin and the Burgundian allies of the English. In 1425, when Joan was thirteen, she heard a voice from God, which she eventually identified as that of the archangel Michael. The voice told her that ‘her mission was to lead the dauphin to Reims to be crowned,’ according to royal tradition. Before that, it was her duty to break the English siege of Orléans.
By the time she gained access to the dauphin he must have been getting desperate: his receiver-general admitted privately that he had only four écus in hand. Joan was given a bodyguard and allowed to join the fighting; on 7 May 1429 she led an assault on one of the besiegers’ fortified camps. While climbing the ladder she was shot in the neck with a crossbow bolt, but she came back as soon as her wound had been dressed and urged on the French stormers. The English withdrew the next day, with great loss to their prestige. Joan went on to nag and bully the dauphin’s advisers into further action, until on 17 July he was finally crowned as Charles VII in Reims Cathedral, Joan standing beside him, holding her banner. (In response, Henry VI was crowned at Notre Dame.)
Reims was Joan’s triumph. On 23 May 1430 she took part in a sortie from the besieged town of Compiègne, but was cut off and captured when the sortie failed and the defenders raised the drawbridge. She was taken for trial to Rouen, but it wasn’t clear what charges could be brought against her. Eventually her interrogators decided to play the ecclesiastical card and tried her on some seventy charges, including sorcery, heresy and wearing male clothes. Sumption notes that ‘the leading actors at the trial were all native Frenchmen’ and ‘churchmen with their own interest in the suppression of unauthorised and heterodox revelations’. Peasant girls claiming direct inspiration from archangels were a challenge to the learned doctors of the Université de Paris, and not to be tolerated. After a good deal of uncertainty – perhaps they should go to the pope for guidance? – she was convicted, to be released from church custody to the state, which would impose the sentence of death by burning.
But then Joan recanted, at which point she became a penitent, and could only be taken back to prison; until once again she was found wearing men’s clothes, for her a point of principle. She may also have realised that the alternative to death was only commutation to life imprisonment on bread and water. She accordingly took back her recantation and was handed over to the Rouen commander, an Englishman, and sent to the stake. There was little protest at the time, and she would be rehabilitated in her own country only two decades later, when the political situation was very different.
The military situation was changing too. The English had long relied on their combination of longbowmen on the flanks and armoured infantry in the centre, but the French grew wise to this formation and found ways to counter it. Don’t charge into the killing ground. Go for the archers first, from flank or rear. And the English now found themselves opposed by steel-bolted crossbows, which could match their archers’ range, if not their rate of fire. There were guns, too, not assembled from staves as formerly but cast in one piece, along with projectiles that fitted instead of the bore having to be packed with loam, which then had to dry out before firing. For many years, the best weapons against fortified towns had been surprise, ladders and bribery: Montargis was taken in 1433 by the captain’s barber’s girlfriend, with the assistance of a professional échelleur, or ladderman – not the kind of approach one could count on. New cannons were useful only against large and static targets, but that’s exactly what walls are. Garrisoning a fortress was no longer a low-risk job, especially once the practice of hanging defenders became common.
As for the financial situation, Sumption provides many figures, which must have taken a deal of working out. Essentially, England, even more than France, was broke. Its negotiators were also, in European eyes, notoriously incompetent, frittering away at the conference table advantages won in the field. In 1441 there was a scandal that further distracted attention, when Eleanor, wife of the duke of Gloucester, was accused of sorcery and ‘sentenced to a humiliating public penance in the streets of London’. Her husband, the main opponent of any peace process, never recovered. Soon afterwards, England descended into thirty years of civil war.
The Hundred Years War ended in August 1475, when a deal was struck at Picquigny on the Somme, with Louis XI and Edward IV agreeing a truce. Part of the deal was that the French should make an annual payment to the English Crown; it was paid for seventy years and amounted in the end to three million écus. Calais remained English until it was lost in 1558, though English kings continued, meaninglessly, to claim the title of Rex Franciae until 1801.
The French won the war, in the end. But if we ask who profited by it, English nobles did very well out of ransoms for many years, notably Sir John Fastolf, whose money eventually went to endow Magdalen College, Oxford. By the time of Henry VI, however, the English were paying out far more than they were taking back. As a result of the loss of all French possessions, English attention turned increasingly away from Europe to a world in which ‘the European empires in Asia and the Americas were the focus of international tension.’
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