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A Fine Life


The Hundred Years’ War was a series of wars conducted from 1339 to 1453 on many different levels, which were rarely combined into one conflict. At the top, kings of England and France and Castille locked horns over claims ranging from possession of one tenth of the French kingdom to the whole of it. At the bottom, teenage thugs beat the brains out of villagers for the sake of a mule and a change of clothes. That was not a pretty sight; but knights and ladies at the top did their best, with tournaments, feasts, festivals, and processions, to make their wars look good whenever they could. The contrast has not been ignored by historians and novelists, and will presumably always horrify those who believe that cruelty and civilization are incompatible. Others will simply be dismayed at the very long time involved, 120 rather than 100 years, and will be relieved to hear that not very much was happening between 1386 and 1414.

However, so many years of fighting, over so wide a range of countries (Scotland, Spain, and the Low Countries as well as France and England), costing thousands of lives at a time when populations were being drained away by plague—the Black Death—needs some kind of explanation. It cannot be supplied by the political rhetoric of later ages. National interest, nationalism, economic, naval, or military rivalry, mass-hysteria, the balance of power, the crisis of feudalism, the making of the unitary state, dynastic ambition, and all those other tried and trusted pacifiers for inquisitive students can be put aside, along with the lurid fictions of an age of waning and howling and decadence. None of that explains anything. At the time, the wars generated their own miasma of justification: genealogical, legal, chivalric, moral, political, patriotic, theological, and heraldic. It was well represented by Shakespeare in the lines given to the archbishop of Canterbury in Henry V, Act I, Scene 2, where the founder of All Souls college concludes his harangue on Harry’s inalienable right to be king of France by telling him to

—Stand for your own, unwind your bloody flag

and leave the prelate to deal with the moral issue: “The sin upon my head, dread sovereign.” The fellows of All Souls are still praying for the souls of those slain at Agincourt.

In his introduction to the first volume of his book, The Hundred Years War:Trial by Battle,1 Jonathan Sumption made some general sense of the whole thing by suggesting that the kingdoms of England and France were interlocked in such a way that any attempt to assert or increase royal power in one would involve war with the other; and that in France the attempt to run a loose structure of provinces by an all-powerful Parisian king had created tensions ready to snap at any moment. Perhaps that will satisfy some readers as stage directions for the upper levels of the conflict, but they will discover that the rulers were seldom in full control. Henry V was the exception. On both sides, the chain of command was usually more like a disintegrating net, with princely egomaniacs, hungry courtiers, ruthless adventurers, queer captains, spoiled priests, mad squires, military misfits, and plain crooks tearing off fragments for their own use in any part of the Western world where farmers and tradesmen were unable to protect their property and lives.

By 1359, Champagne and Languedoc were the only French provinces where people were prepared to help one another against these grisly predators and defeat them in battle, rather than offer money and supplies. These were provinces less obedient to the king of France than to their own rights and self-respect. France had turned out to be a tax system, rather than a cause, and English was a name given to almost anyone who was engaged in stripping the assets, wherever they came from. No amount of negotiation between the principals was able to check the terrorism.

It had all begun as Edward III’s attempt to secure outright possession of his family lands around Bordeaux. Soon this initiative led to devastation out of proportion both to the aims and the resources of English kings. A modern analogy to the relative numerical strengths would be if Mexico, having failed to subdue Guatemala, were to invade the United States in the hope of regaining Texas, and whip the gringos repeatedly in open battle before retiring, 120 years later, with Las Vegas as a memento. It may seem that this couldn’t happen. With England as Mexico, Scotland as Guatemala, France as the US, Texas as Aquitaine, and Las Vegas as Calais, it did happen. I am not sure that the structural flaws of the two monarchies are the best answer to the question of how. At any rate, there is another factor which ought to be considered, and that is the fusion between the wars and what we would call the market. “God for England, Harry, and St. George” was the cry up front; but from down among the varlets comes “Fresh money every day! God, that was a fine life.”

The fog certainly thins with the discovery that all surviving conquerors in any sizable engagement of this war were liable to win cash prizes, in the form of blackmail, ransom, or loot. At Poitiers, in 1356, combatants on both sides fought with astonishing and suicidal courage, and when the victorious Prince of Wales finally sat down to dinner with John II, the captured king of France, the dead lay round about in thousands. But the living were extremely busy exchanging promises of safety for promises of cash in a hectic exchange which worked up the social scale with sales and resales of profitable prisoners, loot, and horses, so that any quick-eyed varlet or squire could come away rich in return for a spoken word and a reassuring manner. At the end of the day, as Sumption writes, “the total receipts from all prisoners, apart from the king and his son [Philip of Burgundy], cannot have been less than å£300,000, which was almost three times what Edward IIIhad spent on prosecuting the war in the past year.” A pound sterling would buy 60 gallons of claret retail before the war, and only about 40 by this date; but 40 would fill over 200 modern bottles, which would be enough to occupy Sir John Falstaff for a week or two. And when the earl of Salisbury was prepared to pay å£67 for the king of France’s Bible, the shrewd looter could think of retiring to a quiet pub in Kent, and pillage no more.

Poitiers was an exceptionally big windfall, and Sumption describes how the brave king of France had eventually to buy his release with the promise of three million gold pieces, paid in installments.2 The possibility of even small bonuses, when weighed against the painful profits of farming or trade, would always look good. In the winter after Poitiers, the word got around that northern France was defenseless. A horde of military and paramilitary sharks came in by land and sea to feed, and the kings could do nothing to stop them. They fed.

It may help to imagine the vast institutionalized greed that inspires modern societies to wage wars of investment—regardless of the cost to the losers—translated into physical violence. So the “Great Company” or private army of 12,000 or more enforcers run by an ecclesiastical badmash, called the Archpriest, as a mobile protection racket in France and Spain for over ten years will not seem an illogical development, or entirely alien to the modern experience. Nor will Sumption’s story of the eager young squire of the Prince of Wales, John Kempton, who captured one of the most important men of Spain, the Master of the Order of Calatrava, at the battle of Nájera in 1367, for by then the war had drifted over to Castile. Kempton might well have expected to become a rich man for life on the payment of a ransom guaranteed by the word of a nobleman equally dedicated to honor and religion, so he let the Master go free on parole. This was his big mistake, as many a more experienced creditor might have told him:never trust a man with a foreign title and a crucifix. The Master refused to pay one peseta, morabitin, maravedi, or dobla.

Kempton sued him in the courts of Aragon, where he first had to prove that he was in fact the captor, and entitled to claim ransom. Anyone with experience of Spanish law courts will sympathize. He did eventually prove this, and then began attempting to collect. This meant going to Barce-lona many times, and paying many lawyers for their trouble. Eventually he decided to go the whole way, and become a naturalized Aragonese. He settled in Saragossa, and the Master began to pay up. Thirty-three years after the battle at which it had been incurred, the last installment of the debt was handed over. A moment of misguided chivalry, followed by a lifetime of litigation; and this is one of the happier ransom stories. A more complicated negotiation over the payment of the count of Denia’s ransom (the rights to it sold at a discount to four successive purchasers) resulted in his son’s being handed over as surety to the count of Foix and kept loaded with chains in a dungeon for years, while other interested parties killed and assaulted each other.

Mr. Sumption has many even more sorry tales to tell, and some may wonder why he is doing this, and who he is. It is a truth not quite universally acknowledged, although by now it should be, that historians have the dullest lives of any authors, the least tempting to public curiosity. They are born. They become immersed in paper. They emit paper. They die. There is little time for anything else. Their characteristic vices (rancor, vanity, and conformity) are not peculiar to them, but common to all academics. Their virtues recall the nature films in which herculean beetles are seen rolling vast globes of dung, “a hundred times their own body-weight.” Their publishers try to make them sound interesting by claiming that their clients engage in unremitting travel, prize-winning, and intellectual innovation. Who cares? What we need to know is why we should read yet another thick book, when the supply obviously exceeds the demand. There have been at least twelve books published under the same title as Sumption’s in English and French during the last fifty years, and dozens of related studies.3 Why have another one?

A word about this author may help to answer that question, because he has two slightly unusual qualifications. He is a narrative historian, and he is not paid a salary for being a historian. He is a London lawyer, with an income said to be big enough to ensure him courteous treatment should he have been taken prisoner in Old Castile. He also has a job as Judge of the Courts of Appeal of Jersey and Guernsey, which enables him to keep an eye on Her Majesty’s remaining French dominions. He chose this career after a few years at Magdalen College, Oxford, which in the Sixties became an incubator of historical talent, as well as nursing Andrew Lloyd-Webber the composer and James Fenton the poet. There was Roland Quinault, the uncompromising structuralist, and the unstructuralist ancient historian Robin Lane Fox, the eclectic world historian Felipe Fernandez Armesto, and Sumption himself, all of whom wrote ambitious histories of wide appeal in what many saw as an outmoded idiom. They sold well, without their authors rejecting old-fashioned story-telling or serious research, and each in his way has fended off the sour demands of the historical profession, which sap the vitality of all, but of none more than narrators.

  1. 1

    University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

  2. 2

    Thanks to a helpful note on money values, this can be translated as å£428,571 8s 5d or over 17 million gallons of claret, or over a billion gallons of beer, which would have kept the adult population of England drunk for a month, under an equitable system of distribution.

  3. 3

    Such as the papers collected in Curry and Hughes, Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War (Boydell, 1994).

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