Wednesday, 20 February 2002
Jonathan Sumption: Trial by Fire (The Hundred Years War II) (1999)
Review number: 1071
The second volume of Sumption's enormous history of the Hundred Years' War covers the period between the aftermath of Crécy and that of Nájera, just under twenty five years - basically the reign of John II of France. The first part up until the treaty of Brétigny marks one of the lowest points in France's fortunes in the whole war, with the country unable to do anything about the destructive raids of the routier companies, holding towns and villages to ransome, encouraged yet not controlled by the English; the after effects of the Black Death; the battle of Poitiers, with the capture of the French king and many high ranking nobles; revolution in Paris and other northern cities; and effective civil war between different members of the Valois dynasty.
The major cause of the French problems dates back all the way to the weakness of the late Carolingian kings. This led to power becoming diffused among the provincial nobility, causing cultural fragmentation and political disunity symbolised by the Angevin empire, where Henry II ruled more of France than the French kings. The major aim of the Capetian and then Valois monarchy over centuries was to centralise power into their own hands, but even in the fourteenth century this was far from being realised. Although France was much richer than England, collecting taxes was so difficult that much of this period saw the crown in financial crisis. Different communities tended to refuse to pay taxes, and even when they did often put unwelcome conditions on the money raised, such as reserving it for operations within their specific area (with the result that the most hard hit areas were unable to pay for defence and the others were unwilling). Rulers who had a high level of personal prestige were more easily able to persuade the different areas of France to grant them money, but continual defeat and perceptions that the money was used to enrich favourites reduced the reputations of the Valois monarchs almost to nothing.
Militarily, the English had the advantage of better generalship (Dagworth, Lancaster, Chandos, Knolles and the Black Prince all outclassed the French regularly), but they lacked the resources to hold on to their gains. Once the French managed to reform their finances - bringing in the franc in 1360 and setting up a new tax system to end decades where the main source of the crown's income had been unpopular manipulation of the silver content of the currency - the end of this phase of the war became inevitable. They still had to make concessions, the English holdings in Gascony being extended and gains in the area around Calais being confirmed, but the treaty of Brétigny and the accession of Charles V marked something of a new beginning.
The story of these turbulent decades is ably told by Sumption, the details he gives (principally drawing on French archives) helping to make the whole course of events much clearer. The history is truly a great (if old fashioned) achievement, and it is to be hoped that Sumption manages to bring the whole thing to completion in as accomplished a manner.