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.