Jonathan Sumption
Jonathan Sumption; drawing by David Levine


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.

This is because what they do is far removed from what they are expected to teach students, who might spend an hour pinning down narrative history as an evolutionary dead end in the development of what is called historiography. They are warned by the American theorist Hayden White that historical narrative was once upon a time a version of comedy, or tragedy, or romance, or satire, and then went out of fashion. They are told that there have been revivals of this delusive art form, but that it is only tolerable if modernized in the light of structuralist models, so as to tell stories about the powerless, rather than the powerful, about women rather than men, about opinions of events rather than events, about many voices rather than one, about counterfactual as well as factual developments, about time running backwards as well as forward, and so on. And of course, about sickness as well as health.

Whoso doeth these things has a good chance of being saved. They may even achieve the “regeneration” that Peter Burke promised in 1991, when it seemed that “a search is under way for new forms of narrative which will be appropriate to the new stories historians would like to tell.” It cannot be pleasant to dish out this sort of pep talk and then have to sit down to make any sort of sense, micro, macro, or common, of the known events of the summer of 1352 in Perigord. Thanks to the irrepressible litigants of the Channel Islands, Mr. Sumption doesn’t have to.

Anyone who has ever tried to tell a historical story knows that regeneration doesn’t really come into it. It is a matter of fitting together an inaccurately transcribed selection of contradictory data of uncertain meaning and dubious reliability in a sequence that will hold the attention of a reader without being false or unbearably tedious. Anyone who can do that need not depend on the works of Paul Ricoeur, Clifford Geertz, Paul Veyne, or even Peter Burke, although their ideas would be most edifying to other kinds of historians and in other circumstances. Those who compose historical narratives get little useful advice from those who write about writing it.

Mr. Sumption’s prose is flat, perfunctory, and deadpan: appropriate for recounting almost uninterrupted carnage, treachery, and extravagance. The memorable phrases come from the chroniclers, whom he describes as unreliable and snobbish journalists but whom he cannot ignore. When we read about the Poitiers battle of 1356 that “men trod in their own guts and spat out their teeth…, the blood of serfs and princes flowed in one stream into the river,” we can thank the Petite Chronique françoise, and the compilers of the Grandes Chroniques for the red and blue hoods and proto-Jacobinism and other ominous details of the Parisian rebellion of the demagogue Marcel against the Dauphin.

Historians ought to be satisfied by the large number of manuscript collections (fifteen archives) Sumption has used to reinforce the many printed documents: 225 editions of documents alone. In Volume One he made an admission which may please them less: “I have not discussed conflicts of evidence or debated the divergent opinions of scholars. I have simply resolved the differences to my own satis-faction, and I hope to yours.” The lack of space and the need to keep the thread of narrative visible justify this decision. The question is whether he has succeeded in making a big story out of so many little ones.

What can be done at the other end of the scale was shown not long ago by Ann Wroe, in A Fool and His Money: Life in a Partitioned Town in Fourteenth-Century France,4 about treasure-troves and small-town politics in one of the afflicted parts of France during this period. The illusion of close contact with the realities of life successfully created in that book is not so readily sustained in Mr. Sumption’s account of high politics and grand strategy. Nevertheless, he claims to have found an overriding theme in these events, and he calls it survival: the survival of communities and cities and bits of France over a generation of defeat and devastation, while the English and the Gascons “crashed like great waves over the country, then ebbed away.”


In 1360 it appeared that Edward III had acquired full sovereignty over the whole of southwestern France forever; by the end of his reign, in 1377, it had become clear that “England had simply exploited the momentary weakness of a richer and more populous nation to extract a peace which was unlikely to survive its inevitable recovery.” Edward knew this much earlier. The year after the treaty, he began building huge defensive works on the Thames estuary, to protect London. It is unlikely that he was moved by the threat of a Danish invasion, although the French had tried to bring that about six years earlier. Even in its darkest hour, mutilated and humiliated, the French monarchy could raise money, if only by manipulating the coinage, from a sufficient number of people to turn their survival to its own advantage, or to the profit of its innumerable administrators. Even when the taxpayers rose up in rebellion and burned the account books, as they did now and then, even when the government lost control of Paris and the peasants waged war on the nobles, the state squeezed by.

But so it did in 1940, with a large and efficient German army sitting on its head. It is possible that the real threat in the 1350s was not so much the infestation of Anglo-Gascon riffraff and foreign freebooters as the hatred and distrust among subjects of the French king; this was so intense that it might have stopped, rather than merely hampered, the working of that state. In which case, the survival of the communities of France was not the big story, since the larger community came so near to collapse. Mr. Sumption’s account of how this happened is more memorable, inevitably, than the details of municipal resourcefulness in the Midi.

Besides, his volumes are about a war, and there is no getting away from the story of how the battles were fought and won. It has been more than fifty years since I first heard of the Battle of Poitiers and borrowed colored pencils to fill in the little rectangles on the battle plan. My heart beat faster at the great loop representing the furious ride of the Captal de Buch—a French commander allied with the English—around the rear of the French army; his contingent of only 160 men saved the day for the English, so we were told, by uttering a loud shout at the right moment in the right place. In those days, there was a tendency to present these wars largely as matters of national character and military technology: the famous long-bow was our Maxim gun, which we possessed and they did not. The Captal was a Frenchie, with a funny sort of name, but he was on the right side, and therefore an honorary Englishman.

These misconceptions leave no trace in the work under review, which is of course dispassionate and scholarly in all its ways, but the winning and losing of battles is the gift which no narrative historian can refuse, whether the whole business is seen as pointless (Tolstoy) or the high point of human endeavor (Froissart). The achievements of the Edwards and the failures of Philip and John are the themes which cannot easily be eclipsed in a book with Sumption’s title. The ghost of epic cannot be exorcised altogether, even if the nationalism (or male chauvinism) and technological determinism can be. If the great military enterprises are not the big story, then the book should have been given a different title.

But there have been many attempts to salvage something of lasting value from the clash of arms and incineration of harvests. Historians on both sides have detected the birth of national consciousness, French and English, and of national cohesion; this was the view of Edouard Perroy, writing under the German occupation, who concluded that the Valois kings finally won “because they symbolized the independence of a nation which had at last become conscious of itself.”

This had certainly not happened by 1369, when Trial by Fire ends. Across the channel, the victories and profits might have been expected to warm up the English into some kind of nationalist fever, and a “developing sense of a collective experience” has been detected in the reign of Edward III. There were patriotic outbursts, mostly for king, God and chivalry, and much abusing of the French, who were twice accused in parliament of planning to occupy England and destroy the English language. But cheering for England was one thing. Paying for it was another, and it was not long before inequitable taxation, military setbacks, and a new wages policy set the English at odds with one another quite as bitterly as the French, if not as violently.

By the 1370s the king was a senile dupe, the royal family disloyal profiteers, the ministers corrupt, the upper classes untrustworthy, the clergy unholy, the townsmen insolent, and the peasants unruly—to judge by what each was saying of the other. Merrie England was as disunited as it ever had been. The collective experience had not been worth much, after all. Like soccer stars, the knights of the garter and the chivalry of France lived in an international world of competitive display with their eyes fixed on each other and the big money, rather than on their fickle and gullible supporters at home.

To stray outside the limits of Mr. Sumption’s book still further: three hundred years after the wars ended, the philosopher David Hume was struck by the different effects they had produced on French and English national feeling. The English, whose upper classes had been fairly Frenchified since the Norman Conquest, “were commonly the aggressors” in the war, and had been “enabled to commit the most cruel injuries” to people on the other side; but have always hated the French far more than the French have hated them. Hume explained that this was so because France “lies in the middle of Europe,” and so has had far more neighbors to hate than England. Therefore French “popular prejudices have been diverted into many channels.” Perhaps he was ironical; or, as a Scot, he had been spared his ration of Anglophobia while he lived in Paris; or overlooked the bracing effects of Protestantism on xenophobia, or the common truth that we never forgive those we have injured. Perhaps he was right.

At any rate, these wars turned out to be the first and last time that Englishmen, Irishmen, and Welshmen were able to inflict spectacular ruin for long periods on what John Foster Dulles described as that “useful bit of real estate,” France, and they seem to have cherished the memory of it for much longer than their victims. It would be wrong to underestimate the intensity of French Anglophobia nowadays, but as Perroy noted in 1945 this feeling “does not go back to Joan of Arc, as some people would have us believe” (Vichy, presumably), “but only to Louis XIV.” Even in the Dordogne, where there are vivid rural recollections of English and Gascon atrocities, large numbers of Britons have been allowed to settle with very little loss of life or property at the hands of the mild inhabitants.

They never had Shakespeare, of course. He drew his crowds with the promise of yet more actors banging each other’s wooden swords under the banners painted with golden lilies and lions passant gardant, and gave them the military miracle of Agincourt as never before, with an aftermath running through all three parts of Henry VI. They came to cheer; whether they stayed to learn the bitter lessons of war also written into these plays is another matter. They probably went home satisfied that defeating Frenchmen was the ultimate test of English manhood and political success, and those who passed it would be entitled to marry a French princess. For the contending kingdoms

…whose very shores look pale

With envy of each other’s happiness

would never cease contending until valiant Englishmen chased away the cowardly French nobility and inflicted their virility on consenting French females, as had Henry V on Kate, the king’s daughter. There was an earlier play, The Reign of Edward III, in which sex and the invasion of France are confused less happily. The king leads his army into his destined conquest with a simpering apology for his intrusion:

—How gently had we thought to touch thy breast!

but only after he has failed to seduce the countess of Salisbury in the absence of her husband. He chases away the king of Scots, who has his own designs on the countess (“either to be wooed with broad untuned oaths or forced by rough insulting barbarism”), but she nixes the pair of them. Fortified with “the power to be ashamed of myself” he subjugates France in Act III and so recovers his self-esteem as a husband and a father. The play is sometimes described as “early Shakespeare”: infantile Shakespeare would be nearer the mark, but it touches deep chords by offering war in France as an alternative to adultery at home. There is no real hatred of France, either there or in Shakespeare’s plays. They merely keep alive a fantasy of triumphant warfare to which every generation can relate in its own way. The prejudice Hume detected is different, and probably unconnected with any version of the Hundred Years’ War.

To return to Mr. Sumption’s great enterprise: it is not really held together by any one theme, because the events cannot be arranged in that way. “Trial by Battle” and “Trial by Fire” do not represent real differences of warfare or politics, but are simply ways of distinguishing Volume One from Volume Two. It is impossible to pretend that all this assault and battery was analogous to the decline and fall of a great empire, or the discovery of a new continent, or the vindication of constitutional liberty, to take three of the pegs on which notable narrative histories have been hung.

There is a strong probability that no such peg can be found among the devices saleable to a modern audience, and that Jean Froissart’s promise in his Chronicle, to record as faithfully as possible the deeds of all those who stood their ground and did not flinch in the face of misfortune, remains the only one that has been successfully honored in a great work of art, even if Froissart’s work only extends up to 1400 and is in many ways tendentious and inaccurate. However, no one will say that of this or any further volumes which Mr. Sumption has in mind. He is bringing together so many different stories from so many countries and telling them with such close attention to detail that the chronicles of confusion become a trustworthy record of the time, insofar as that is possible.

This Issue

November 30, 2000