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.

It is in the exposition of what was going on between and around the familiar peak events that his account comes into its own. For these intervening years, which we who write text books commonly hurry past, were in fact packed with incidents and developments, less obviously dramatic but whose cumulative effect largely conditioned the broad swings of fortune in the central struggle. Here Sumption’s meticulous knowledge of the record evidence enables him to bring out two points in particular that the contemporary narratives such as Froissart’s were incapable of conveying. The chroniclers consistently wrote as if the kings, princes and captains whose doings they described were in effective control of their affairs, an assumption which the kings and captains shared. As Sumption demonstrates, this was in large degree an illusion. The second point is a connected one. Though chroniclers could well understand the burdensomeness of war taxation and lamented it often and eloquently, they had little understanding of finance, let alone economics. Even the expert ministers and servants on whose professional advice kings and princes had to rely (when they listened) were far from competent in these fields. Nevertheless, money, in the 14th century as later, was the vital sinew of war and the key to military control: it is an essential strand in Sumption’s story, and he makes sure it is seen to be so.

On the English side, the illusoriness of control (the basic reason for which was the incapacity of the administrative system to carry the strains the war put on it) is well illustrated in the early years, covered in Sumption’s first volume. Between 1337 and 1342, the English planned a whole series of expeditions which either failed to set out or went off at half cock, because recruitment went too slowly and numbers proved too few, because of the difficulties of purveying the necessary supplies, and above all because of the difficulties of requisitioning shipping (in the absence of a royal navy) to transport them overseas. Edward III hoped to cross with an army to the Continent in July 1337; by late August a mere two thousand men were ready in London, waiting for ships; in November the expedition was cancelled. In April 1338, the Earl of Huntingdon was commissioned to lead an army to relieve the hard-pressed English Seneschal of Gascony, Oliver Ingham; by June it was clear that it was not going to get off the ground, and was likewise cancelled. In the autumn of 1341 an expedition to Brittany was projected, and desperate efforts made to assemble ships at Portsmouth; in November cancellation again. In 1338, Edward did cross with an army to the Low Countries, and remained abroad with it for most of the time until late 1340. It was, however, a good deal smaller than the princes of the Low Countries, the Continental allies whom he had retained with money pensions, had expected; and he quickly found that his funding was quite inadequate to meet either their expectations or the pay of his own troops. The ambitious scheme of loan finance, secured on English wool exports, that was supposed to cater for the expenses, was based on gross miscalculation and on misunderstanding of the way in which the market operated.

Edward was at a loss to understand why his servants and ministers in England could not provide more money: ‘although time after time we have sent them letters and messengers impressing on them our penniless condition and begging them to send us some wool, money, and whatever supplies they could raise ... we have received nothing at all.’ In fact, in England his demands and the efforts of his servants to meet them had brought things to a point where the Council was in fear of imminent popular revolt. But for the rebellion of the Flemings against their loyal French Count, and the outbreak in 1341 of a civil war of succession in Brittany that Edward could exploit, it is hard to see, on Sumption’s account, how he could have seen out the 1340s with anything but ignominious defeat.

On the French side, at this early stage, the incapacity to keep things under control is less dramatically apparent. Indeed, the French were not unsuccessful in their harrying of the English South Coast, in eating away at English allegiance among the Gascons, and in undermining Edward’s Low Countries alliances. Strains are clearest in the somewhat hand-to-mouth system for financing military operations. Plans for the muster of armies were made first and summonses were sent out; the quest for cash to pay the soldiers followed. This involved lengthy negotiations with assemblies of provincial communities whose assent to taxation was necessary, at which the King’s officers repeatedly found themselves faced with bitter recriminations about local grievances and past exactions, and with unwillingness to pay up unless danger was physically at hand. The other prime recourse of the French government in time of need, manipulation of the coinage (devaluing its silver content), could and did bring in large profits, but was economically unsettling and profoundly resented – so undermining respect for royal authority. The strains were unremitting, moreover, because Philip VI and his councillors found or felt it necessary to muster substantial forces simultaneously on a series of frontiers, with English Gascony, with Flanders, and from 1341 with Brittany, yet never found themselves quite strong enough on any of them to press home the military advantage decisively. In consequence, their operations were never sufficiently determined to frighten local seigneurs or Flemish townsmen out of wondering whether they might not gain more, in terms of regional interest and of their quarrels with their neighbours, out of toying with an English alliance for their own ends rather than by submission to French royal authority. At its fringes, control really did begin to slip. This was a kind of rot that could spread easily, moreover, as it did into lower Normandy in 1343, when Godfrey of Harcourt allowed himself to be drawn into the English orbit.

Sumption is surely right to devote a good deal of space to this indecisive, constant and repeatedly mismanaged campaigning in the northern and western French frontiers of the war during the 1340s, which foreshadows the much greater incoherence of the military confrontations of the next decade (the central theme of his second volume). But as yet, before 1347, control was never completely lost, by either side. The two sparring kings, Edward and Philip, with their councillors, are in consequence never far from centre stage. The dénouement to this period of the war came when they faced each other at Crécy (1346), with Agincourt the most famous of the victories of the English longbow, followed by the capture of Calais.

It is a dénouement singularly appropriate to the way in which Sumption has to this point managed his narrative. Almost in the manner of tragic drama he has shown us two rulers, driven forward in their competition with one another by the relentless interplay of the force of events with the flaws in their characters and perceptions: Philip cautious, suspicious and indecisive; Edward bold and determined but reckless in terms of the strains he put on his resources. When, in 1346, Edward embarked on a hugely ambitious expedition to France (Sumption suggests, on convincing grounds, that he was contemplating an occupation of Normandy), Philip found that his personal reputation and that of his kingship would no longer stand his avoiding battle in the way he had so often done in the past. Crécy, with its terrible slaughter of French chivalry, provides the climax of this drama, and the epilogue, of the long, exhausting and ultimately successful siege of Calais, paves the way into the second volume.

As Sumption is careful to make plain, Crécy provides a dénouement in narrative terms only. That there were no major campaigns in the years following the capture of Calais was the consequence of Europe’s engulfment in the plague we know as the Black Death, not of any slackening of Edward III’s will to push his advantage further or of Philip’s to set about retrieving his situation (with the recapture of Calais as his first objective). Nevertheless, over the next decade and a half, the shape of the war changed, and in consequence the focus and structure of Sumption’s narrative changes also. Up to this point, the military story has retained a semblance at least of answering to the decisions of directing minds. In the 1350s, however, in France though not in England, that semblance of control slips, and we see events, not men, taking charge. France was the scene of most of the fighting (Scotland, an important area of confrontation in 1332-46, slips into comparative insignificance now as a ‘second front’), and what happened there becomes in consequence the predominant theme. Sumption’s story is a terrible one, of a kingdom brought to the verge of structural meltdown. He is the first writer to tell it in full in English, and he does its anguish and confusion ample justice.

Of course, threads of political continuity and decision-making run through the story. On the English side they are clear enough. We see Edward III in 1355 recruiting and despatching expeditions simultaneously to Gascony, Brittany and northern France, as he had set out to do in 1345 (and controlling his war finances rather better than he had done in the 1340s). We see him exploiting, cautiously and distrustfully, the developing confrontation between the new King of France, John II, and his royal kinsman Charles the Bad of Navarre (in Normandy, after its duke, the greatest territorial lord), much as he had earlier exploited the resentments of the Flemings. On the French side we find John II responding to the strains much as his father had, mustering hosts, calling meetings of the Estates to negotiate war taxation, manipulating the coinage – until he was captured at Poitiers. The story has once more its visible climaxes: the battle of Poitiers (1356), the sealing of a peace at Brétigny in 1360, the re-opening of the war in 1369. But as a battle, Poitiers was no more decisive strategically than Crécy had been, and the Peace of Brétigny did not put an end to the fighting in France. The real continuity with the preceding period lies not in the realms of policy, nor in its high-profile events, but in the continuous fighting on the frontiers, especially in Gascony and Brittany, which now began to spread out into other regions.

The earlier fighting in the south west had given the impoverished Gascon nobility a fine apprenticeship in the art of seizing, with a small band, a castle or a township and maintaining themselves there for the time being by the pillage of the surrounding region and by levying protection money (patis) from its inhabitants. In the early 1350s, independent Gascon routiers were carrying this kind of warfare far beyond the borders of Aquitaine into Poitou, Auvergne and Limousin. In Brittany, English adventurers, established as captains of garrisons and strongholds in support of the house of Montfort against the house of Blois, had learned a similar lesson: how easy it was to hold these places to their private profit, living off loot and protection money, and had begun similarly to range further afield. After 1353, the developing confrontation between John of France and Charles of Navarre allowed a further crop of adventurers, Navarrese and English, to infiltrate the strongholds of Normandy and to follow their example. A warfare of surprise escalade, pillaging and imposed tribute began thus to spread autonomously, outside the control of the rulers in whose name it was directed and independent of the expeditions they organised, such as the Black Prince’s raid across Languedoc in 1355 and his campaign of 1356 that climaxed in his great victory at Poitiers.

With John taken prisoner in that battle, the remaining semblances of control collapsed in France. In deepening crisis, the Dauphin and his counsellors found themselves at the mercy of the Paris mob, clamouring for unachievable reforms under the leadership of the Provost of the Merchants, Etienne Marcel. Charles the Bad, for his own ends, sought to fan and exploit the anger of the Parisians and of the Estates, and to make himself master of the capital, perhaps of the kingdom – and for a while it looked as if he might succeed. There were scenes of chaos and excess that anticipated the worst days of the French Revolution.

In this paralysis of government, the warfare of the free soldiery mushroomed to alarming proportions. Up to this point, routiers had usually operated in quite small, independent bands, now they began to confederate into what came to be called the ‘Great Companies’, temporary but formidable armies, sometimes with a single leader, sometimes under a group of captains. As such, they were capable of mounting substantial raiding expeditions, fully comparable with, for instance, the Black Prince’s in 1355, save that they had no settled base to return to, as he had at Bordeaux. Since they had no means of living except by loot and ransom, when they had bled one region to the edge of famine their only alternatives were to go on somewhere else, or to disperse, and in due course regroup to lay waste some other pays. Fertile provinces which had not yet felt the full impact of warfare offered them an obvious and all too tempting opportunity. In 1357, a large company, under Arnaut de Cervole, nicknamed ‘the Archpriest’, ran amok in Provence (technically just beyond the French border). In the Ile de France in the next year, Anglo-Navarrese companies virtually controlled the countryside and the traffic of the river valleys, bleeding the land white and making huge profits by the sale of safe-conducts to merchants and travellers. In the autumn of 1358, another ‘Great Company’ of English and Breton routiers under Robert Knolles invaded the rich Loire provinces, moving on into the Nivernais and the Auxerrois. ‘They brought the whole of the region under their control, ordering every village great or small to ransom itself and buy back the bodies, goods and stores of every inhabitant, or see them burned ... those who stood in their way they killed, or locked away in dark cells ... beating and maiming them, and leaving them hungry and destitute.’ With the collapse of royal government, resistance to these companies was almost impossible to organise (though there was some success in Languedoc and Champagne). Elsewhere, the only means to be rid of them was to raise taxes locally to pay them to move on. In hapless France, war thus swung out of control to a point where its effects began to resemble those of an engulfing natural catastrophe rather than political confrontation.

The Peace of Brétigny did not put an end to this situation. In Brittany, the war of succession between John de Montfort and Charles of Blois wore on until Charles’s final defeat and death at Auray in 1364. In Normandy and Picardy, fighting continued between the French and the Anglo-Navarrese until after the decisive French victory at Cocherel that same year. Some of the companies found in these wars the means to continue to live off the land. Others continued in arms simply on their own account. In 1361, a Great Company under Séguin de Badefol that had looted its way down the Rhone valley established itself at Pont-St-Esprit, raided up to the walls of Avignon, and had to be bought off by the Pope. In 1362, after going on the rampage in Burgundy, another Great Company, led by a group of captains of whom the most prominent was one Le Petit Meschin, found themselves faced at Brignais, south of Lyon, by a royal army gathered by King John’s lieutenant, Jean de Tancarville, and routed it. Ultimately, the only answer was to pay or persuade these men to ply their awful trade somewhere other than France. A good many passed into Italy, nominally in Papal service, including the famous ‘White Company’ of Sir John Hawkwood. Urban V attempted, unsuccessfully, to siphon off another large group under the Archpriest, to serve in the East against the Turks. Much more successfully, late in 1365, the Pope and the King of France (now Charles V) financed Bertrand du Guesclin, veteran of the Breton wars, to lead most of the principal bands remaining at large to Castile in a Great Company, to oust Pedro I from his throne in favour of his francophile bastard half-brother Henry of Trastámara. The story of the free companies in France thus closes with the beginning of another story, whose backdrop is Spain – but which is an integral part of the narrative of the Hundred Years War.

With that story, Sumption rounds off his second volume. Pedro, displaced by French arms, appealed to England and to the Black Prince. The Prince mustered an army in Aquitaine and led it over the pass of Roncevalles to his last great victory at Nájera in 1367, over Henry of Trastámara and his French soldiers. But he hadn’t the funds to pay his troops, and Pedro proved unable to supply them: English enterprise had once again failed to count cash costs in advance. The Prince’s efforts to raise the sums he needed by taxation in Aquitaine led directly to the appeals of the Gascon lords to the Crown of France; to King Charles’s decision, in 1369, that since France had never formally renounced sovereignty over Aquitaine as stipulated in the Brétigny peace terms, he must hear their appeals; and so to the re-opening of the Anglo-French war. By that time, du Guesclin and his fellow soldiers were back in Castile, finishing off with Pedro.

To hold together a narrative as chaotic as that of the Hundred Years War between 1348 and 1369 as Sumption does is no mean feat. One of the keys is his sharper than usual attention to the provincial aspects of the war, into whose story his account of what was going on at the centres, at Paris and Westminster, is skilfully interlaced. Most histories tend to approach things the other way round. Sumption’s distinctive procedure enables him to bring out and reinforce the thesis (enunciated early in Volume I) that the Hundred Years War, at least in its early stages, is best understood as a civil war or series of civil wars with France as their geographical epicentre, rather than as a national confrontation. By making clear early on how many pieces there were on the board, and by taking pains to give each its full description, he makes it possible for readers to follow the course of things spinning out of control, without themselves being spun out of control. His extraordinarily extensive knowledge of the landscapes of France and her provinces is a boon to this very effective method of steering his story (he makes profuse use of maps of the war’s regional theatres).

Sumption never forgets that he is telling us not only about kingdoms and regions and communities but also about people. He is a master of taut character sketches: of the kings and captains, and of their counsellors of varying competence and honesty; of the cardinal legates who travelled to and fro in the vain hope of forwarding diplomatic reconciliations; of the ‘men from God knows where’ who rose from obscurity to notoriety as leaders of the free companies. Never wasteful of words, he understands well how to bring to life through acute touches and often bloody anecdotes the brutalities of the war and the miseries of its victims, above all of the people of the countryside. ‘What can you have experienced of sufferings like mine, all you people who live in walled cities and castles,’ wrote Hugh de Montgeron, prior of St Thibault in the Gâtinais. When the companies came, he hid the treasures of his church and fled with the peasants into the forest, where they built themselves crude huts as a refuge and ‘ate their daily bread together in fear, sorrow and anguish’ through the winter of 1358-59.

Sumption’s two splendid volumes have done a very considerable service to the current study of history by restoring narrative to its proper place in the discipline. The fashion of the present runs strongly in favour of what is sometimes called ‘thematic’ history. Narrative as full as Sumption’s and fuelled by his high erudition brings back into focus forces which the thematic approach inevitably but artificially tends to obscure but which operate continuously alongside the functioning and malfunctioning of social, economic and political systems, and interact with their history: forces of chance, of coincidence, of individual charisma and individual villainy. If we forget these, we are in danger of forgetting how and why it is so easy for total war and holocausts to ambush societies that look well set on the path of progress. That is what happened in the 14th century to France, which at its outset had looked so fortunate and prosperous. As in the case of events in our own age, the telling of their story is the only way to do proper justice to the human experience of those who were caught up in the maelstrom.