03.02.10, Rogers, War Cruel and Sharp

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Adrian Bell

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.010


Rogers, Clifford. War Cruel and Sharp:English Stratagy Under Edward III, 1327-1360. London: Boydell Press, 2000. Pp. v, 451. ISBN: 0-859-91491-7.

Reviewed by:
Adrian Bell
University of Reading

It may seem unnecessary for another book to be produced covering the first stage of the Hundred Years War. In the light of the recent magisterial work by Jonathan Sumption, The Hundred Years War, vols 1 and 2, is there anything else to say on the subject?

Rogers has a theory and he brings all his powers to bear on the matter, showing a great command of his sources in the process. This theory is counter to much of what has been written on the successful campaigns of Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, culminating in the victories at Crécy and Poiters. He argues that the English crown wanted battle with the French and engineered the situation to provide such an opportunity. Edward and his son were sure of their right in France, and were confident of victory, if they could fight in a chosen location and use what Rogers terms 'the tactical defensive'.

The accepted wisdom is that Edward and the Black Prince achieved their victories by accident. They were forced to fight by the French, when this was the last thing that they actually wanted. These victories were therefore gained by the expert use of the longbow and the superior tactical knowledge of the senior English commanders. The English were able to make this advantage count against much larger, but less organized French forces. The English had honed their skills against the Scots and had developed the tactic of fighting on foot, with an equal ratio of men-at-arms to archers, allowing the enemy to charge and disrupting this through the use of barriers (natural and man-made) and the long range effectiveness of the longbow.

Rogers believes that history has treated Edward III badly. Although his skills as a leader on the battlefield have been acknowledged, he has not been praised for his strategy which brought the famous victories. This reappraisal would therefore raise the profile of Edward from 'opportunist' to 'expert military strategist', as Rogers himself comments,

'Once we realize that the victories at Halidon Hill, Sluys, Crecy and Poiters, along with the consequent treaty of Bretigny, were gained by design and not by 'accident' we must acknowledge him as a genuinely outstanding military commander, one who must indeed be ranked among the most successful of European history' (9).

This is certainly a lofty claim, so what of the argument, is it convincing? Rogers has certainly left no stone unturned and has worried away at the evidence to find the support he needs. The book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride through the English successes and is entertaining as well as being thoroughly researched. The book works through the campaigns of Edward III beginning with the Weardale campaign of 1327 and culminating with the Reims campaign of 1359. Rogers integrates his interpretation into the discussion making invigorating use of mainly Chronicle sources. However, this is one of my few concerns with the work. Although, Rogers has developed new ways of analyzing the campaigns by looking afresh at the Chronicles, he is perhaps overeliant on their word. Chroniclers are not always accurate and have a tendency to copy each other. Therefore finding the same story in two Chronicler accounts, does not mean that an event must have happened -- but perhaps suggests that one Chronicler has copied the other. Rogers also uses the letters of King Edward and the Black Prince to show their intent, and takes these at face value, rather than as propaganda pieces. My own research on the campaigns of the earl of Arundel in 1387-1388 has shown that although the Chronicles are of use when reconstructing an expedition, they are no substitute for the surviving administrative records. For instance, the evidence from muster rolls demonstrates that chroniclers are rarely accurate when estimating the size of an expeditionary force.

The book ends with the English in the ascendancy following the peace settlement of 1360, and with both the King of France and the King of Scotland in custody in England. The book therefore concludes on a positive note and thus Rogers' theory regarding the brilliant strategic mind of Edward III would seem proven. It is important to remember the later reverses suffered by the English in the 1370s, leaving Edward III in the same position territorially as he started, apart form the useful acquisition of Calais. So ultimately, even if Edward did have a strategy, it was not as successful as the book portrays.

Rogers provides a very comprehensive review of the financing of the early stage of the war during Edward III's 'alliance strategy', subsidized with the creation of the English Wool Company. However, this analysis is slightly tainted by his statement that Edward III ruined the Italian financial houses of the Bardi and Peruzzi. This is a misconception, and the failure of these houses has been shown to have been a much more complex affair and little to do with the actions of Edward III (see for instance Edwin S. Hunt, 'A New Look at the Dealings of the Bardi and Peruzzi with Edward III', Journal of Economic History 50 [1990], 149-162).

So am I converted? Rogers has surely extended the scholarship in this area and I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Hundred Years War. My current seminar class have made good use of his insights and this book is essential reading as a core text on any reading list for a course on the Hundred Years War. But what about his theory? I am more inclined to believe it for Crécy than for Poitiers, and it has made me think more closely about these campaigns. Rogers has painted a vivid picture of the reality of warfare in the middle ages and his title rings true in many of the descriptions of the English campaigns.

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Adrian Bell

University of Reading