What do most of us know of the Hundred Years War? The famous victories at Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers and that it actually went on--intermittently--for a great deal longer than a hundred years. Fortunately, Jonathan Sumption is on hand to remind us that there was a great deal more to this period of medieval history that was instrumental in establishing the national consciousness of both England and France.
Trial By Battle is not for the faint-hearted. Its 650 pages only cover the period from the death of Charles IV, the last Capetian King of France to the surrender of Calais to the English in 1347. At this rate, it will take at least another six volumes to get to the end. But for those who take a deep breath and just decide to go for it, Sumption more than repays the effort. He takes a decidedly old-fashioned approach to history, being short on analysis and long on narrative, but there is nothing old-fashioned about his style. He has avoided the academic pitfalls of turgid prose and inaccessibility to produce a work of great readability that challenges many traditional assumptions.
To read many historians, the Hundred Years War was a glorious period of nobility and chivalry. Sumption gives the lie to this. He shows the war to be venal, savage and mercenary. Soldiers often gave more thought to their captives than they did for their cause, as huge ransoms could be extracted for their release. We're only talking noble hostages, mind. The ordinary foot soldier had no monetary value and was usually butchered on the spot. The same applied to civilians. This wasn't a war where human life was sanctified and the fighting was restricted to the battlefield. It had all the subtlety of the bombing of Dresden as both sides, and England in particular as the fighting was almost entirely restricted to mainland France, created a wave of terror to force the locals into submission. "Not a man or woman of substance dared to wait in the towns and castles or in the country around; wherever our army appeared, they fled away", wrote one English observer. Sumption's readers are likely to have precisely the opposite reaction. --John Crace
Trial by Battle by Jonathan Sumption is an enthrallingly detailed account of the background and first years of the Hundred Years War.