David Crane

The Hundred Years War ends in England’s agonising defeat – but triumph for Jonathan Sumption

His monumental history – the result of more than 40 years of writing and research – reaches its final volume, with the loss of almost all English conquests in France

The Battle of Formigny, April 1450, was a decisive French victory and destroyed the last significant English field army in Normandy. Illumination from the manuscript Vigiles du roi Charles VII in the chronicles of Jean Chartier, 1477-1483. [Getty Images]

On 5 February 1328 the last Capetian king of France was laid to rest in the royal mausoleum of Saint-Denis. It is now 33 years, and more than 3,000 pages since Jonathan Sumption’s first readers followed Charles IV on his last journey, as his funeral procession wound its slow way from Notre-Dame across the Grand Pont and out through the streets of Paris into the open countryside to the north of Europe’s most populous and richest city.

The death of Charles IV led to a crisis of succession that for the next four generations would embroil France and England in a war of unimaginable savagery. At the time of his death his queen was seven months pregnant, and when she gave birth to a daughter in the spring the crown was assumed by the late king’s cousin, the grandson of Philip III, Philip of Valois.

The Valois succession caused little protest at the time – certainly none in the English parliament – and but for two factors would now be happily forgotten. The first of these was that the 16-year-old English King Edward III had inherited a claim through his mother, Isabella; the second was that the land he already held in the south-west of France, the last fragment of an Angevin empire that had once stretched from the Pyrenees to the Scottish march, was as a vassal of the French crown.

The 1430s saw the stirrings of French nationalism, of which Joan of Arc’s life was both a symptom and a cause

Given the characters of both kings and the expansionist instincts of the French monarchy, it was a recipe for war, and within a decade the series of conflicts, punctuated by uneasy and fragile truces, known as the Hundred Years War had begun. In some ways this was and would remain a civil war, fought out between the great houses of France, but by the time that this final volume of Sumption’s history opens in 1422, it had taken on a more explicitly national character that would have profound consequences for the evolution of both France and England.

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