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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More difficult but still largely successful, 7 Mar 2014
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This review is from: Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, 1417-1450 (Paperback)
Views on “Conquest: The English Kingdom of France in the Hundred Years War” have been much more mixed, although still mostly very favourable, that those expressed about the author’s other book on Azincourt. Depending upon their respective perceptions and backgrounds, reviewers has found this book “better than”, “as good as” or “not as good” as Juliet Barker’s volume on Azincourt.

As some reviewers have hinted at, the two books are only comparable to the extent that the “Conquest: English Kingdom of France” follows in the footsteps of “Azincourt”. Apart from this, there are two very different exercises, with “Conquest” being much more difficult to deliver successfully than “Azincourt”. While “Azincourt” is about a single campaign culminating in the crushing, spectacular and largely unexpected victory of one main character (King Henry V), “Conquest” covers over thirty years of conflict, with dozens of characters and events spread over two generations, complex and shifting political and military alliances between the main players, and the increasingly important roles played by morale and money as the gruelling conflict dragged on year after year.

The whole book is about much more than its title - “Conquest” – implies. It’s more accurately about the “rise and fall” of “the English Kingdom of France”. However, it is not quite about the last part of the Hundreds Years War either, because the loss of English Aquitaine and the last battles to defend it are only covered as part of the conclusion. What the author set out to do was to tell the little-known story of this “English Kingdom of France” which was essentially won by the sword, as opposed to English Aquitaine, which was part of the King of England’s hereditary lands ever since Richard Lion heart had inherited Aquitaine from his mother Alienor, the last Duchess of Aquitaine.

The length of the period under review, along with the very nature of late medieval warfare, explain to some extent why “Conquest” has received more mixed reviews, with some reviewers complaining about excessive detail for instance. It is significantly harder, and perhaps even impossible, to keep up the same kind of momentum over a period of 33 to 35 years, than it is over a much shorter period of 3-5 years that are punctuated by a major victory that is the climax of an exciting drama.

True to form, however, Juliet Barker’s has, through an impressive display of scholarship, come up with a chronological narrative of the whole period. While some events may be more detailed and/or better presented than others, you do end up with a bewildering succession of small actions, sieges and counter-sieges all across northern France, with only the odd larger scale battle taking place every few years. This was what medieval warfare was like. However tedious it may be at times when reading about this nowadays, battles were the exception and raids and sieges were the norm. There were at least three related reasons for this, and the author shows both of them at play very well.

One was that the whole of France (and all of Western Europe more generally) was dotted with stone castles and fortified towns by the 15th century. This meant that anyone wanting to conquer the land had to take control of each of these strongpoints one after the other. Taking fortified towns and castles was costly and dangerous, because it was time-consuming, with besieging forces always exposed to counter-attacks by relief forces, in addition to having to live off the land that they were occupying (and had presumably already pillaged) and to live in camp around the besieged position in rather poor sanitary conditions.

A related feature shown in the book is that even in the rare occasions when pitch battles did take place; a crushing victory by one side was not enough and hardly had any far-reaching consequences. After Azincourt, for instance, Henry V had to come back on another campaign and subdue the fortresses of Normandy one after the other. The lifting of the siege of Orléans and the battle of Patay, both traditionally presented as crushing defeats, simply put an end to the English offensive. At most, a few fortresses and castles changed hands yet again.

Another remarkable section of the book, with many well-made points, is the one on Joan of Arc. It shows very clearly how she was manipulated (and then abandoned to her fate) by the French King’s side and feared by the English side for the same reason: the impact she could have (and had) on morale at a time when military success was supposed to be a manifestation of God’s support for a “just cause”. However, her impact on the military situation, contrary to what has often been believed, may have been quite limited, despite the semi-legendary (and saintly) status that she has achieved. Her exact contribution at both Orleans and Patay, compared to that of all the battle-hardened French captains (Lahire, Xaintrailles, Alençon, John the Bastard of Orleans and Gilles de Retz, to name just these few) is essentially unknown. She may however have been the charismatic morale-booster that she has been portrayed to be, and this in itself could have made a significant difference, regardless of whether her military skills were significant or non-existent.

Regardless of whether she had an effective military role, her intervention did help to break the English’s momentum and get the French Dauphin to Reims to be crowned. Both of these events were significant, but neither resulted in any significant loss of territory to the English who still firmly held onto Paris and its surrounding fortresses. It can be argued, however, and with hindsight, that both events marked the modest beginning of a turn in the tide, with the war slowly turning in favour of the French.

One missing element with regards to Joan of Arc is that Juliet Barker does not try to investigate who she really was. Instead, she does mention a couple of other similar cases of women who were deemed to believe that God spoke to them and that they would free the country from the English. Both originated from the lower classes and at least one of them was a fraud. Joan of Arc’s background, however, may have been different since it is somewhat difficult to reconcile the little shepherdess from Lorraine and the young girl in full-plate armour riding a warhorse into battle that appears a few months later. The mere fact that she seems to have known how to ride and crossed northern France from Lorraine to reach the Dauphin’s court on horseback is very intriguing, since a shepherdess was very unlikely to have such ridding skills.

Another very interesting character is that of “the unsung hero”, John, Duke of Bedford, both as his elder brother’s right-hand man and as the Regent of France for the 13 years following his brother’s death and until his own demise. As Juliet Barker shows rather well, it is largely thanks to his herculean and talented efforts that the English Kingdom of France did not unravel sooner. This was especially true given the growing lack of support of the English Crown and the undermining of his position by his rivals that John had to put up with. In fact, the author shows that the unravelling started to happen just before and just after his death, when the Duke of Burgundy, whom the English had managed to keep on their side for over fifteen years, switched back to the French side.

It is when the author sets out to explain the decline and fall of the English Kingdom of France that the book becomes the most valuable. One issue on the English side, especially after Bedford’s death, was leadership. None had the stature and the dedication needed to step into Bedford’s shoes, and especially not Gloucester, Somerset or York although the English did have a number of good captains perfectly capable of leading in the field and certainly no worse than the French ones. Worse still, Henry VI was “peace-loving” to the extent that he was naïve and became almost gullible. He was manipulated by the French King into ceding Maine without a fight, in a way that was totally unlike anything his father or his uncle Bedford would have done.
Juliet Barker also shows that the division operated between the two crowns of England and France and imposed upon Bedford by the Beauforts and their allies, also meant that the Regent of France and his successors were almost always short of money to fund the war. It also meant that they could not count on support from the crown of England in money and men, other than on exceptional occasions, and even then, such support often turned out to be too little and too late.

One final point, which, while fascinating, is certainly worth discussion is that the author seems to believe that the efforts to establish, and then defend and maintain the “English Kingdom of France” were somewhat doomed to ultimately fail. While perhaps not entirely convincing, this view does build on the fact that France was both much richer - at least before it was transformed into a war zone – and about four times more populated than the Kingdom of England. This was the main reason for the English needing to keep the French divided, with Burgundy on their side and Brittany neutral, at worst. It is when this policy, which was both Henry’s and John’s policy, finally failed, and as the French learned from their military mistakes and developed their artillery and their first standing army – the “companies d’ordonnances” and the “franc-archers” – that the tide started to turn against the English.

This was a rather superb but complex book that is not as easy to read and access as the author’s previous one. It is certainly worth four very solid stars, but not quite five.
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