Monday 18 December 2017

Jonathan Sumption: Cursed Kings: The Hundred Years War IV (2015)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 2016
Review number: 1511

The fourth volume of Sumption's brilliant history of the Hundred Years' War is up to the standard he set in the earlier books, and very similar in many ways to them. Cursed Kings covers the early years of the fifteenth century (up to 1422). Until 1413, both countries were ruled by kings whose rule was compromised: Henry IV of England, who faced difficulties establishing the legitimacy of his rule after deposing Richard II; and Charles VI of France, who spent long periods mentally incapable of governing while the many other royal princes squabbled and diverted national resources to their personal gain. Neither reign was a period for a country to take pride in, and it often seems as though the governments of the two countries seem to be competing to make the poorest showing. Both crowns suffered from a chronic lack of financial resources, along with political disruption which was at times close to civil war. This means that the period was mostly one where the war was characterised by uneasy truces rather than open combat, at least until the accession of Henry V in 1413. The most interesting question about the early  years of the fifteenth century covered is what happened to make the immediate recovery of England so fast and so successful.

The second half of Cursed Kings is dominated by the effect of Henry V on the war. As Sumption says, "as with other successful warriors, his personality has been almost entirely masked by the uncritical adulation of contemporaries and the nostalgia of a later generation which lived to see his achievements undone". Being the subject of one of Shakespeare's best known and least ambiguous plays does not help, of course. I did occasionally feel that Sumption fell into the same trap that he warned about. Whatever he was like as a person, Henry's effect on the war was dramatic, and at one point, it looked as though France was about to be entirely extinguished as a nation. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that his personality, drive and ambition were the main reasons why the position changed so dramatically.

The book ends with the deaths of Henry V and Charles VI, paving the way for the final act of the long drawn out conflict to be covered in the final volume.

The book does include a fairly obvious copy editing error, not something I've seen in the earlier volumes. It is fairly minor (the town of Ham is described as "unwalled" on page 285, and then on page 286, its inhabitants "shout defiance" from these non-existent walls).