An apocryphal housemaster is asked, on the occasion of his retirement, how he intends to fill his days. ‘Gibbon,’ he replies, succinctly. Real-life housemasters might now answer ‘Sumption’. Such is the intimidating length and fine detail of Jonathan Sumption QC’s history of the Hundred Years War. Divided Houses is the third volume.
The Hundred Years War was not a single war, nor did it last for 100 years. Rather it was a long and wearisome period of mutual hostility and violence between England and France, which lasted from the 1330s until the 1450s. Scotland, Wales, the German principalities, the Iberian kingdoms, the Italian city states and the papacy were all dragged in at various moments. It was in every sense a bloody mess.
This book takes up the story in 1369 and ends in 1399. During these years France recovered from the ignominious defeats of the 1340s and 1350s, booted the English out of most of their continental territories and won the battle for superiority in war finance. By the end of the 14th century, the reality of relations between England and France had dawned. Money ruled all. The English could not afford to conquer and hold France and the French had found better things to spend their money on than conquering or holding England. Both sides were broke, their royal houses had fragmented, and their populations had been provoked to rebellion by excessive taxation.
This was a strange period of what Sumption calls ‘intense personal heroism and collective mediocrity’. There were no thumping great battles to match Crécy, Poitiers or Agincourt. City sieges and raiding tactics came to the fore. The pursuit of war passed into the hands of professional soldiers and the routiers freelance companies such as that commanded by the famous Englishman Sir John Hawkwood. The French built up their naval strength and harrassed the English coastline and shipping. The English developed the tactic of the chevauchée: a mounted campaign of terror through the French countryside, which took a greater toll on the ordinary folk, slaughtered and left destitute, than it did on the heart of enemy government.
In the late 1370s England was destabilised by the deaths of Edward III and his most competent son, Edward the Black Prince. English war aims were then further skewed by the vaunting ambition of another royal prince, John of Gaunt, to make himself King of Castile. The new king — Richard II — turned out to be a weak child and a bullying, paranoid adult who fell out with his family and isolated the Crown from the political nation. Rebellion in Ireland and trouble in the Scottish borders distracted from the push to re-conquer Aquitaine and Brittany. War finance became the most pressing and insoluble issue of the day, but the King was inadequate to the task of resolving it. Peasants, parliaments and peers all expressed their disgruntlement with Richard’s disastrous leadership throughout his reign until he was finally deposed.
Sumption describes in vivid but measured prose the schism and discord across Europe. The papacy split between Avignon and Rome in 1378. It was subsequently dead as a peacemaking institution. The leading families of Navarre, Castile and Aragon squabbled incessantly. When Charles VI of France went mad in 1392, his powerful uncles — the dukes of Burgundy and Berry — began fighting among themselves and destabilised their own Crown.
By 1399, it was England that had most obviously hit the skids. An exhausted peace had been struck, but English possessions had dwindled to small coastal strips around Calais and Bordeaux. Yet France had problems of her own. The population was sick of suffering rapine and plunder. Royal authority was dangerously weak under a king who was convinced that he was made entirely from glass. Though neither side knew it, Agincourt was not far away. That, however, is for another volume.
Despite its many peculiar and violent turns, Sumption tells us the story straight. His skill throughout all three volumes so far has been to treat the conflict as a civil war between kingdoms that were intimately connected by blood, culture and history. The European context — lacking in many studies of this period — is at the heart of his work. The action shifts seamlessly from the Scottish marches to the plains of Navarre and the papal states and captures the experience of ceaseless, vicious war at every level of society.
In its breadth, political acumen and adherence to the art of simple storytelling, this is History with a capital H. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, Sumption would have been in good company. But there’s no getting away from the fact that this volume alone is a 1,006-page account of a mere 30-year interim between more exciting episodes in a distant war. It’s the sort of commercial nightmare that no mainstream publisher except for Faber would consider. I have no idea how, even at £40 a pop, it will be possible for anyone to turn a buck on this book.
Yet these are vulgar thoughts. What Sumption is producing is a monumental and complete work. When this history is finished, there will be no need of another for at least a generation. Everyone else may as well pack up.
The only question that remains is when he will get around to finishing his masterpiece. Volume I appeared in 1990. It is now out of print, though you can buy it on Amazon and eBay. Volume II came out in 1997. Sumption had better get his skates on. At the rate he’s going there will have to be five or, like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, six volumes. He has a busy day-job, but at this rate we won’t see his brilliant story completed until some time in the 2030s.
Then again, that may not be a bad thing. Even Sumption’s youngest readers will, by then, be wondering what on earth to do during their impending retirement. Well, here’s the answer.
Dan Jones’s Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 will be published on 30 April (Harper Press, £20).