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25 September 2023

How England lost the Hundred Years War

The final part of Jonathan Sumption’s epic history reveals the complacency that led to the end of English power in France.

By Brendan Simms

In 1967, when the war in Vietnam was already going badly for those on the ground but Washington hawks were still optimistic, the legendarily well-informed Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann was asked by Walt Rostow, the national security adviser, whether the fighting would be over within six months. “Oh, hell no, Mr Rostow,” Vann replied. “I’m a born optimist. I think we can hold out longer than that.”

One is reminded of this exchange reading Jonathan Sumption’s utterly engrossing Triumph and Illusion, which deals with the final 30 years or so of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France. Similar discussions must have taken place in London in the 1430s and 1440s as one delegation after the other from the English regency in France and from Gascony tried to shake the government out of its complacency. When reality began to dawn, Sumption shows, it was followed by resignation and then apathy. Yet because of what we would today call sunk costs – the huge expenditure of blood and treasure – and the memory of Edward III, the Black Prince, and Henry V’s triumphs at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, nobody at Westminster had the courage to cut their losses and withdraw.

Triumph and Illusion is the last of an epic five-volume history of the war that the author began writing in the late 1970s. It has been as admired by experts in the field as it has been enjoyed by general readers and non-specialists such as this reviewer. Sumption’s erudition and grasp of the literature is formidable: the entry in the bibliography for one leading scholar, Anne Curry, runs over three pages, the most recent from 2020. His writing is lucid and his judgements are (almost always) compelling. The closest comparison would be the biography of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro, except that Sumption has completed his project and Caro stills owes us the final instalment.

Contemporaries felt that there were good reasons for the English presence in France. The security of the south coast of England depended on control of the ports on the other side of the Channel, in Flanders and Normandy. This was demonstrated during the devastating French raids of the 1370s and was a commonplace of English strategic discourse; one writer famously called upon his readers not only to “cherish merchandise” but to “keep Admiralty” so that the English would remain “masters of the narrow sea”. There were also valid dynastic reasons to defend hereditary territories in Normandy and in the south-western province of Gascony. The claim to the French crown was more tenuous and was initially advanced as a bargaining chip, but was made a partial reality by the victories of Henry V. Moreover, the wars in France gave ample opportunity for glory and loot.

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Sumption does not spare us the sheer brutality of English operations (the French were no better, of course). In earlier volumes he chronicled the savage chevauchées, extended raids that wrecked large swathes of France. In this volume Sumption elaborates another numbing list of burnings and “wastings”, which by the end had turned whole territories, as one observer put it, into a “sea of brambles”. The author also describes one massacre after another, usually driven not by sadism but by straightforward political or military calculation. The unfortunate truth was that terror tended to work. When hundreds of Flemings were butchered during an English sortie from Calais, the rest took to their heels.

There is also no doubt that the war enriched many Englishmen and English institutions. Sir John Fastolf, a veteran commander and looter, provided the foundation for Magdalen College, Oxford, where Sumption read history, and is still commemorated there as a major benefactor (“Fastolf must fall”, anyone?). Of course, all this was standard practice in medieval Europe. The English just did to the French what the French would have done to them, only they (generally) did it first and more effectively. As Sumption remarks, this earned them an unenviable reputation in France for violence and perfidy.

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Triumph and Illusion takes the story from the high point of English power in France in 1422 to its complete extinction (with the exception of Calais) 31 years later. Sumption begins with the laying to rest of Charles VI of France in an abbey just north of Paris and the proclamation of his successor “Henry, by the Grace of God King of France and England”. The snag was that the “Henry” in question was not the vigorous Henry V, who had died unexpectedly only weeks beforehand, but his 11-month old son by Charles VI’s youngest daughter Catherine. The government of France devolved to the regent, Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Bedford.

At this point the English and their most important ally, the Duke of Burgundy, controlled about half of France between them; the other half, nearly all of it south of the Loire, was held by Charles VI’s disinherited son, the Dauphin, who claimed the throne for himself. His chances seemed slim, at first. The English army was a killing machine that had repeatedly beaten much larger French forces. There were many English settlers, principally in Normandy, but also in Gascony, Maine and other parts of France. To most observers they, and the English presence, appeared to be there for good. Many Frenchmen, weary of the civil war between “Burgundians” and “Armagnacs”, welcomed the prospect of peace and stability under the Anglo-French Union of Crowns.

Bedford was a brave and resourceful soldier, but he failed to crush the Dauphin quickly. Slowly, the wheel of fortune began to turn. A peasant girl from Lorraine called Joan of Arc electrified the French with her prophecies of national revival and realised them in part by turning the Dauphin into King Charles VII of France through his coronation at Reims, as tradition demanded. Then Charles managed to peel off the Duke of Burgundy at the Treaty of Arras in 1435. What had been an English intervention into a French civil war was transformed into a national conflict between England and France.

At the same time, as Sumption shows, the French state became more effective at taxing and mobilising. The French improved militarily, often defeating numerically superior forces. During the last ten years or so of the war, the English were worn down, first gradually, then suddenly. Despite many warnings, the rapid fall of Normandy and Gascony by 1453 took most people by surprise. 

All this is conveyed in clear and vivid prose. There are numerous gripping set-pieces: battles, sieges, coronations and funerals. The pace rarely flags. Many of the characters are unforgettable: Joan of Arc, of course, but also John the Fearless, the father of the reigning Duke of Burgundy, who was murdered towards the end of the previous volume, but whose ghost still stalks the first half of this one. Even some of the walk-on parts are startling, such as the south-western magnate John V of Armagnac, who married his own sister and had three children by her.

Above all, Sumption brilliantly and sympathetically evokes the doomed world of Lancastrian France: the English settler communities, the French lawyers and clerics who tried and convicted Joan of Arc for heresy, and aristocrats like the Duke of Bedford who spent most of their lives in France, who died and were buried there, and who were by the end more Anglo-French than English. Their vision was summed up by the tunic worn by the Duke at the Battle of Verneuil in 1424: “the upright white cross of France”, Sumption tells us, “superimposed on the red cross of England”. It must have looked like a remix of the Union Jack.

In due course, England would unite with two other old enemies, Scotland and Ireland, but this time it was not to be. “France will be France and England will be England,” one of Charles VII’s most senior councillors predicted many years before the end of the war, because they were “separate and incompatible countries, in the nature of things too immense to be united in one body”.

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Surprisingly, Sumption claims that the idea of an English “continental wall” to protect against invasion “made little sense” in the late Middle Ages. In fact, as his own book conclusively shows, it was a sound doctrine. Shortly after the fall of Normandy the French were once again attacking the south and east coasts of England, “so bold”, as the Paston family of Norfolk complained, “that they come up to the land and play… as homely as they were Englishmen”. Manifest failure to hold the lands in France and to secure the Channel led to the fall and killing of several English office-holders and played an important part in sparking the Wars of the Roses.

Sumption, who has commented extensively on recent events such as Covid restrictions and Brexit, wisely does not draw any parallels with the present here. That said, some of the issues and terrain he covers have a certain relevance today. Sangatte, once an English fort covering Calais, which in turn shielded Kent, was until recently a staging post for migrants making the illegal crossing to England. Moreover, the current political salience of the government’s inability to “stop the small boats” shows that the imperative to “keep the narrow sea” is as strong today as it was 600 years ago.

Brendan Simms is professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge. His books include “Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation” (Allen Lane)

Triumph and Illusion: The Hundred Years War, Volume 5
Jonathan Sumption
Faber & Faber, 992pp, £40

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This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List