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The depths of France's despair

The Hundred Years War, Volume 2: Trial by Fire - Jonathan Sumption

The second volume of Jonathan Sumption's monumental history of the Hundred Years War begins with the English basking in the glow of the twin victories of Crécy and the capture of Calais. It was only the beginning of a series of miseries for the French, though, with the military blows soon followed by the destabilizing effects of the Black Death and the demise of their king Philip VI. Though his successor, John II, subsequently had the appellation "the Good" attached to his name, Sumption leaves the reader wondering what he had done to deserve it, as his 14-year reign was characterized by a series of missteps. The ambitions of his son-in-law, Charles of Navarre, only added to the chaos of French politics, while the resumption of the war in 1355 saw an invasion of France the following year by the English king Edward III's son, the "Black Prince." Confronting the English invaders at Poitiers, John led his forces to a defeat that ended in his capture.


While a king's capture (or at least the inescapable prospect of it) may signal the end of a chess match, John's imprisonment did not signify the end of the war. For while the French king negotiated with his captors in London, his kingdom gradually unraveled. With power dispersed among several individuals, there was no effective coordinated response to the bands of unemployed soldiers who roamed the country living off of plunder and extortion. In response, French peasants rose up in the rebellion known as the Jacquerie, while the demands for John's enormous ransom created a political crisis in Pars that ended in bloodshed. Though the English king Edward III enjoyed a commanding position, the terms he sought proved too objectionable to John's subjects, while a second treaty was never fully implemented because of Edward's unwillingness to make the necessary renunciation of his claims to the French throne. As Sumption makes clear, this soon proved to be a serious error, as John's death in captivity in 1364 brought to the throne a new king who would prove a far more formidable opponent to English ambitions.

All of this Sumption recounts in a detailed account that captures the full drama of an epic conflict. His narrative ranges widely, from the maneuvering of monarchs to the efforts by towns to resist the locust-like hordes of mercenaries that periodically descended upon them. Buttressing his description is an analysis that offers nuanced judgments that help explain the reason why events took the course that they did. In all this is history at its finest, one that is must-reading for anyone seeking to understand this complex conflict which defined so much of the history of the Middle Ages.