The Hundred Years War: Volume IV – Cursed Kings – Jonathan Sumption
Weird. Whilst hardly a habitue of the small incestuous circles that Anthony Powell wrote about, I am entering a phase when three of the next four reviews will be of books by people I know. Take Jonathan Sumption. I instructed him and briefed him on a case of law which through his forensic skills he won at the Supreme Court – a pretty landmark case it was too. Somewhat controversially Sumption became a Supreme Court judge directly after finishing as a silk, thus avoiding the hard graft of working his way through the court hierarchy.
But I always got the sense from Sumption that the law was something that paid the bills. His real love was mediaeval history and the so-called Hundred Years War, a victim of rounding down as it actually stretched between 1337 and 1453. Cursed Kings is the fourth volume of Sumption’s magnus opus, dealing with the events that made up this on-going conflict between England and France.
Volume 4 deals with the period between 1399 and 1422. Readers with only the vaguest of historical knowledge will probably realise that the battle of Agincourt – the publication of this book marks the 600th anniversary of the battle – is slap bang in the middle of the period and is probably what many people will pick up the book to learn about. But caveat lector, there is a lot of ground to travel before you get there.
It may be the forensic training but no shred of evidence (or in the case of this book, detail) is too light or flimsy not to be made use of. The reader is almost overwhelmed by the tsunami of facts and details that come at you. His command of detail is masterly and the depth and I imagine the quality of his research is impeccable and impressive. Studying this period at university will now be a doddle – all you will have to do is read Sumption. No need to go back to primary sources!
But for the more general reader it can be a bit of an overwhelming experience. You realise you are being guided through the highways and byways of French and English intrigue by a man who has a consummate understanding of the subject and writes wonderfully elegant English, but occasionally you want to shout, “OK, I get the drift. Life’s too short to know every detail of Armagnac and Burgundian scheming. Move the story on. When are the battles about to happen?” It is like being presented with a five course banquet when all you want is a sandwich.
But it is worth persevering with because it is a marvellously dramatic period of history. A French king, Charles VI, whose paranoid schizophrenia meant he drifted in and out of periods of madness, creating power vacuums for rivals, the murder of Louis Duke of Orleans in 1407 which plunged France into a bitter civil war between the Orleanists and Burgundians which inevitably opened the opportunity for the newly crowned Henry V, anxious to prove the legitimacy of his claim to the throne after inheriting it from Henry IV who had overthrown Richard II, to invade France. A further murder, this time of John the Fearless, in 1417 intensified the internal struggles in France and Henry V was able to consolidate and extend his conquests. As Francis I said in 1521 when looking at the skull of John the Fearless in Dijon, “by that hole England entered France”.
The book ends in 1422 with the death of both kings and French concerns about the terms of the peace treaty. It will all kick off again, mark my words.