David Green

title.none: Sumption, The Hundred Years War (David Green )

identifier.other: baj9928.0007.018 00.07.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David Green , University of Nottingham,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War: Volume Two, Trial by Fire. Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 680. 45.00. ISBN: 0-812-23527-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.07.18

Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War: Volume Two, Trial by Fire. Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 680. 45.00. ISBN: 0-812-23527-4.

Reviewed by:

David Green
University of Nottingham

The second volume of Jonathan Sumption's magnum opus on the Hundred Years War takes us from the truce of Calais in 1347 to the reopening of the war with France in 1369 after the failure of the treaty of Bretigny in a little under 600 pages (plus maps, index and bibliography). The bibliography itself is eyecatching. Perhaps Sumption's greatest contribution in this hugely detailed narrative account of the war has been his thorough investigation of communal and departmental archives in Cahors, Gourdon, Lille, Montpellier, Pamplona, Pau, Rodez, Rome and Rouen in addition to the more commonly cited repositories in Oxford, London and Paris. The first thing that anyone learns about the Hundred Years War was that it did not last for a hundred years. At the current rate of production, Jonathan Sumption may be as long writing about the war as its protagonists were in settling the matter. That is, in so far as the matter was settled, since the English did not resign their claim to the French throne until the French Revolution put paid to the concept of a king, any king, ruling France. Indeed, it has been questioned whether the war was ever one of (nearly) a hundred years. Jean le Patourel and others have argued persuasively that the conflict, which took place intermittently between 1337 and 1453, was part of a much broader struggle reaching far back into the Angevin Empire and perhaps beyond and certainly into the early modern period.

The considerable length of the work is understandable when one considers the necessity of discussing such momentous events as the Black Death, the battle of Poitiers, the Jacquerie, the Reims campaign of 1359-60, the principality of Aquitaine and the ill-fated Anglo-Gascon expedition to Castile of 1367 concluding with what Sumption describes as "Najera: The Disastrous Victory" (Chapter XII). In the course of this, Sumption narrates a tale of crises and near-disasters in France: the catastrophic defeat and capture of King Jean "le Bon" in 1356; Etienne Marcel and revolution in Paris; the treaty of Bretigny which partitioned a third of France, mainly within a greater duchy of Gascony, and defeat at the hands of the Great Company at the battle of Brignais, 6 April 1362. This "disorganised melee...was a spectacular feat of arms and a terrible shock to the government of John II. It created a brief but intense panic throughout eastern France. But it was almost entirely devoid of political consequences. The companies themselves could hardly believe what they had done, and their brief unity of purpose evaporated with victory." (479) Of similar disruption was the rash of private wars that sprang up in the disruption and disorganisation of the late 1350s and early years of the following decade, in Normandy, in Brittany and in the south. At Launac, north west of Toulouse on 5 December 1362 the larger army of the count of Armagnac and his adherents, including the Albret family, encountered Gaston Phoebus, count of Foix. "The battle was won, like so many unequal contests of the fourteenth century, by the concealed archers of the victor." (484) Sumption clearly, and in my opinion correctly, has not been swayed by recent arguments concerning the limited effect of the longbow. The consequences of the capture of Armagnac, Albret and others were considerable; not least for the complexion and temper of the principality of Aquitaine.

Sumption's work has been a part of a considerable revival in interest in the Hundred Years War and particularly its military aspects. Since the first volume of Sumption's history of the Hundred Years War, Trial by Battle, appeared in 1990 we have seen the publication of Anne Curry and Michael Hughes, eds., Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War; Andrew Ayton, Knights and Warhorses; and Clifford Rogers' edition of sources and interpretations of The Wars of Edward III in addition to his forthcoming War Cruel and Sharp. Kelly DeVries is soon to publish an account of the military campaigns of the war and Chris Given-Wilson and Francoise Beriac are undertaking work on the fate of the prisoners captured at Poitiers. Sumption's work is not directly comparable but complementary to many of these, providing as he does, a spiraling narrative, perhaps at the expense of analysis, but nonetheless telling a compelling story. This brings to mind a comparison with, if not the manner, then perhaps in the tradition of Jean Froissart, who peddled, to use Derek Brewer's phrase, "gossip raised to the height of genius". What we have here though is certainly a more reliable account than that of the first great 'historian' of the Hundred Years War.

Nevertheless, by contrast with some very fine primary research, Sumption does not appear to be aware of a number of recent additions to the historiography which might have influenced or coloured his interpretation of certain events and campaigns. For example, with regard to the 1355 and Poitiers campaigns of the Black Prince (233), a reading of Clifford Rogers' intriguing essay concerning a potential battle-seeking strategy in the chevauchees of the 1340s and '50s would have been useful, whether or not he agreed with Rogers' conclusions. [1] Perhaps Sumption is stronger when discussing socio-political, financial and administrative concerns than solely military matters, but his account of the battles of Poitiers and Najera are lucid (particularly enhanced by the maps on pp. 240, 243, 550, 553), as are the retellings of the other encounters and expeditions.

The broad-based nature of his research has been of particular benefit in elucidating the careers of a number of professional soldiers and mercenary captains. His work on the Free Companies and individual condotierri discussed in Chapter VIII, "The Companies, 1357-1359" and in Chapters X, "Unfinished Business 1360-1364", and XI, "Closing the Wounds 1364-1366", is of particular interest. For a number of reasons the subject has not been thoroughly explored in recent years, particularly in English, and, although it might be argued that the treatment of these subjects is somewhat disruptive to the narrative progress of the book, it is a timely reminder of the significance of such figures as Arnaud de Cervole (the 'Archpriest'), Robert Knolles, Seguin de Badefol and his nemesis Charles 'the Bad'. Indeed, the role and influence of Charles of Navarre is emphasised, as has perhaps not always been the case, at least in anglophone works on the war. In this section Sumption emphasises the destruction of France in the course of the previous campaigns and graphically demonstrates that throughout this period of 'peace', France was not at rest. This was, of course, the consequence of the conclusion both of formal hostilities with England and the Breton war of succession after the battle of Auray (pp. 517- 20), which released large numbers of unemployed soldiers into the heartlands of France. Some were directed, partly by papal influence, south of the Alps into Italy but by no means all. The devastation was characterised and wrought by such figures as "The Navarese routier le Bourc Camus..., probably the worst of them, continued undisturbed about his pillaging, kidnapping and torturing for eight years after the treaty [of Bretigny]". (457-8)

Among the professional soldiers described are figures who operated on a larger stage, men such as Bertrand Du Guesclin and John Chandos, and perhaps alongside these we may include Edward the Black Prince, who is, to a degree, the central focus of the book. The prince provides this focus through his role in the 1355-6 campaigns, in the expedition leading to the treaty of Bretigny, as prince of the greatly enlarged Aquitaine that resulted from it, and in providing a link to the reopening of hostilities with France in 1369 with which the volume concludes. On the character of the Black Prince, Sumption follows Richard Barber's approach and conclusions in Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine. A Biography of the Black Prince (Woodbridge, 1978, esp. p. 238), saying that, "It would be interesting to know more about this remarkable man, who was destined to be an even greater soldier than his father. A man who could inspire extravagant loyalty among his friends and subordinates and who married late in life for love must have been more than the cardboard figure described by the chroniclers of his day. But his personality is almost completely obscured behind their conventional praise." (154) Yet, when discussing Edward's support for Pedro the Cruel of Castile, who was said be some to have deserved his fate of usurpation by his brother, "It would have been in keeping with the Prince's mental outlook if he had shared this view". (543- 4) Understanding the mental outlook of an individual whose personality is almost completely obscured is, presumably, difficult. There is clearly some discrepancy, small yes, but nonetheless significant and perhaps indicative of a book, which while undoubtedly of great academic quality, is aimed at a wider audience. In connection with this, one might complain about the means of referencing which is sparse and then concentrates and conflates a number of sources in a single note, sometimes leading to a lack of clarity as to the origin of the information.

The prince's own motivation for involvement in the 1367 campaign is somewhat confused. It has been considered by P.E. Russell in his work on The English Intervention in Spain and Portugal in the Time of Edward III and Richard II (Oxford, 1955), who described the campaign as "...something of a crusade for an abstract principle..." (62) Certainly the wisdom of committing troops to Pedro's cause was questioned by the prince's advisors on the grounds of the deposed monarch being "a man of great pride, cruelty and enemy of the Church, [who] has been excommunicated by the Holy Father. He has had the reputation...of being a tyrant...It is also generally rumoured and believed that he murdered his young wife, your [Edward's] cousin, the Duke of Bourbon's daughter...[E]verything that he has suffered since is merely God's punishment." [2]

Another area of particular interest which has received little attention in English works on the Hundred Years War is Sumption's treatment of the period between Najera and the reopening of the war following the appeals of the Gascon nobility led by the counts of Armagnac and Albret. In the course of this, Sumption gives a balanced appreciation of the socio-political climate in the principality of Aquitaine as it was coming to its end. He neither blames solely the financial exigencies of the fouage imposed after the return from Spain and the failure of Pedro to pay the prince for his services, nor the assumed xenophobic tendencies of the English administration, nor the personal relations between the Black Prince and his higher nobility. Rather, he blends these and other factors to draw a convincing picture of a principality grown beyond its ability to govern itself, wracked with internal feuding, not only Anglo-French in character, and ravaged by plague and the costs of war and, ironically enough, by the actions of its own prince, some ten years and more earlier.

In scale, it can be assumed, Sumption's Hundred Years War cycle will compare with Roland Delachenal's masterly treatment of the reign of Charles V, yet this is a narrative account and a very fine one but it lacks the degree of analysis that makes Delachenal's account still vital to students of the war today. It could be seen as something of an indictment of the academic structure in both Europe and North America that such a project as this has been undertaken by someone without a university post, since the pressures of teaching, administration and the particular pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise and its equivalents preclude, at least for many, the opportunities to undertake research of such length, time of gestation and with the opportunities for study in so many far-reaching archives. We should be grateful that Jonathan Sumption has been able to do so.


[1] See Clifford J. Rogers, "Edward III and the Dialectics of Strategy, 1327-1360," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser. 4 (1994), reprinted in The Wars of Edward III ed. C. Rogers (Woodbridge, 1999), pp. 265-84.

[2] See Jean Froissart, Oeuvres, ed. K. de Lettenhove (Brussels, 1867-77), vol. vii, pp. 96-9.