The Men from God Knows Where

Maurice Keen

  • The Hundred Years War. Vol. II: Trial by Fire by Jonathan Sumption
    Faber, 680 pp, £30.00, August 1999, ISBN 0 571 13896 9

Like Edward Gibbon, that earlier master of narrative history, Jonathan Sumption went to Magdalen College, Oxford and stayed the course there longer and more successfully than his great predecessor. There are other points of comparison. Both left academia early for more public walks in life; Gibbon successively as squire, officer in the militia and Member of Parliament, Sumption for the Bar, where he became a leading QC. Both cast around with other historical interests before settling on their respective projects for a magnum opus. Sumption, having done so, has succeeded like Gibbon in fitting into a life with other preoccupations a prodigious effort of historical research. Though Gibbon’s Decline and Fall covers more than a millennium and Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War only a little more than a century, it is unclear which (when his work is completed) will be the shorter. Sumption’s first volume, published in 1990, carries the story to 1347, the second to 1369: there are still more than eighty years to go, before we reach the final chapter, with the collapse of the English cause in France in 1450-53. As the first two volumes amply demonstrate, it is a story worth telling in all the detail he has devoted to it.

Outside academia, the years and events spanned by these volumes are probably still best known through the near contemporary masterpiece of narrative history, Jean Froissart’s Chronicles. The Hundred Years War was never just a confrontation between the kingdoms of England and France. It drew into its orbit the great quarrel between England and Scotland that Edward I’s northern ambitions had generated, the civil wars of succession in the Duchy of Brittany (1341-64) and the Kingdom of Castile (1365-89), the long-running disputes between the great industrial cities of Flanders with their counts and the kings of France, and it spilled outwards into the politics of Italy and the German Empire. Froissart’s remarkable achievement as a historian was to hold this hugely complicated narrative together through the technique that he had learned from the authors of romance, following first one theme, one campaign or series of campaigns, then another, but taking care to break off at a point where he could conveniently pick up the first theme again at a later stage (just as, in the story of the Quest for the Holy Grail, we first follow Lancelot so far, then go on to follow the adventures of Bors, Gawain and others, then back to Lancelot to complete his story, and so on).

Sumption holds his story together in a very similar way, keeping the separate threads of simultaneous events in, say, Gascony, Brittany, Scotland and northern France running parallel, and interlacing them at appropriate points. There, however, the likeness between these two historians ends. With the tastes and the ethic of his knightly, aristocratic readership in mind, Froissart filled his chronicles with the pageantry of the battlefield and tournament, with anecdotes of individual prowess and chivalrous gesture. For evidence he relied largely on the writings of other chroniclers and on the oral testimony of knights, squires and heralds (showing little concern about including contradictory eyewitness accounts of the same event); and quite often filling gaps in his information from his own imagination. Given Froissart’s time and the limits of his purse, there was perhaps not much alternative, but his chronicle is in consequence, though vivid, deeply unreliable. Sumption has a very different aim: the reconstruction of a narrative that (in terms of cause, event and effect) is as truthful as may be. He has made full use of Froissart and many other chroniclers, but his principal sources are the records that survive: of taxation, of payments made, of musters, of appointments to command and of instructions to negotiators, together with newsletters, council minutes, diplomatic correspondence and proclamations. These convey up-to-the-minute reactions, sure in a way that the often nostalgic personal memories that Froissart tapped so skilfully are not, and, for all the gaps, covering a wider spectrum. Sumption is not insensitive to the appeal that the glorious aspect of war exercised and that Froissart’s readers so keenly appreciated, but what comes across much more clearly and more emphatically are the burdens of war, the confusions and incompetence, the horrors and miseries, and the variety of the human involvements that it brought in its train. His account is no less vivid for that.

The story of the Hundred Years War has its peak events, which are naturally the same in the accounts of Sumption, Froissart or anyone else. There are the great battles, the English victories on the sea at Sluys (1340) and on land at Crécy (1346, followed by the capture of Calais in 1347), at Poitiers (1356, where King John of France was taken prisoner, and which Sumption reconstructs superbly), and the Black Prince’s final ‘disastrous’ victory at Nájera in Spain (1367). The story also has its decisive turning points in politics and diplomacy, starting with the death, childless, of Charles IV, the last Capetian King of France, which opened the way for Edward III, 12 years later, to claim the French throne as a better heir in blood than Philip VI, who succeeded; Philip’s confiscation of Edward’s French duchy of Aquitaine in 1337, which precipitated the war; Edward’s decision, at Ghent in 1340, to lay claim formally to Philip’s crown and quarter the arms of France with those of England on his banner and his seals; the agreement on terms of peace at Brétigny in 1360 which ceded Gascony to England as a sovereign duchy, independent of France, and set King John free for a ransom of 3,000,000 écus. To moments of drama or decision such as these Sumption does full justice. He has a fine eye for the landscape of a battlefield, and a sure and well-founded knowledge of what can be made out about numbers involved, casualties and the tactical strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces. He knows well how to bring home the significance of the political resolutions that gave the war its visible turning points. Most historians of the war have been able to do reasonable justice to episodes like these, but Sumption’s narrative has other and more individual strengths.

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