A Fine Life

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…

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