History designed to be read as literature.
Charles Gray reviews the final volume of Jonathan Sumption’s 5-volume history of the Hundred Year’s War
Triumph and Illusion, the splendid fifth and concluding volume of Jonathan Sumption’s landmark history of the Hundred Years War(s), takes the account beyond the surrender of Bordeaux and the end of serious hostilities in 1453. It illustrates the genesis of the Wars of the Roses in the damage done to the standing of the English Crown from the loss of France, and recounts the aftermath as far as the 1475 Treaty of Picquigny with Louis XI. This brought to an end Edward IV’s futile, face-saving, and possibly insincere attempt to align himself with the Bourguignons, though it also ensured relative peace for two succeeding generations.
There is little one can add to the well-deserved superlatives already lavished on the previous four volumes in the pentalogy by a succession of reviewers.
A hundred years ago, the American scholar Ernest Sutherland Bates edited the well-known ‘Bible designed to be read as literature’. Sumption writes history designed to be read as literature. The terms ‘magisterial’ and ‘monumental’, however amply justified, have perhaps been rather overused. But this is nonetheless a huge achievement in reconciling high academic standards – to the non-expert eye of this amateur reviewer, the source referencing, bibliographies, and admirable maps and indexing are impeccable – while also appealing to enthusiastic non-specialists. The latter, in particular, will be grateful that Faber have done well in keeping the price – £40 – at least no greater than those of the two preceding volumes published in 2009 and 2015 respectively.
Sumption has an unusual ability to write for different audiences. There are many histories of the war(s). Most are either for the academic specialist and are hard going for the general reader, or are intended for general readers to skim through before their summer trips to France. However admirable for that purpose, they are, for the most part, lacking in originality and quality of research and writing.
The ability to distill research and writing into a narrative comprehensible to the lay reader is the mark of a born educator, such as Sumption, as distinct from the solitary researcher, burrowing in the archives, and content with the esteem of a limited number of his or her professional peers. Sumption has succeeded in bridging the gaps between his differing audiences in a very satisfying way.
This will be no surprise to admirers of his earlier works on the Albigensian Crusade and on mediaeval pilgrimage, or indeed to those who, in a different sphere, appreciated the articulacy and elegance of his Reith Lectures and books on legal theory.
Nor is it absolutely unparalleled among historians. One thinks of Steven Runciman and C.V. Wedgwood – or even of John Julius Norwich, though he himself, a hugely gifted populariser, always disclaimed great academic originality. But it is a rare and admirable characteristic at a time when narrative history is rather out of fashion. It is hard to imagine it being replicated, still less superseded.
Sumption brings together the huge scale of the war – though a competition for control of France, its geographical ramifications spread over much of Europe; its historical consequences for centuries after it had petered out; and its effect in crystallizing the national identities of both England and France, even if, for a time, it ruined both countries. All this is coherently encapsulated in measured and uncluttered narrative prose which does not lose the thread of the story and is peppered with some telling nuggets and anecdotes.
Of course, there are points about which readers will disagree with the author. Sumption’s earlier volumes come to an unusually favourable view of John of Gaunt. Normally written-off as a self-promoter whose main aim was to secure the throne of Castile for himself, Gaunt appears in the Sumption canon as a more farsighted, strategic thinker than many of his contemporaries, not least in doubting whether England could achieve outright victory against a richer and more populous French adversary .
There is also unusual attention to the logistics and the finances of the war. One realises the, at times, almost insuperable physical and economic constraints on both sides. There are frequent analyses of the problems of shipping both men and materiel between theatres, and of the financial difficulties hampering both governments’ management of the war.
But Sumption is no crude economic determinist. He devotes great attention to the influence of individuals on events, and to the impact, deliberate or not, of individual kings and the great figures of the age. He balances this with unusually detailed quotations from the personal experiences of relatively humble members of the respective armies. One wonders whether this focus on the individual human dimension may not be thought unfashionable by a generation of historians more inclined to look to economic, quasi-Marxist explanations of historical events.
It is characteristic of Sumption’s approach that he carefully balances the focus of his attention between the great and the small of this world; between personal and economic determinants of historical development; between macrohistorical analysis and smaller scale, but illuminating, personal accounts; and among the wide variety of sources – his references are in English, French, Catalan, German, Portuguese and other tongues. To have sustained such admirable equilibrium through five enormous volumes, written over thirty years, is not the least of Sumption’s achievements.
To a twenty-first century reader, Sumption’s most memorable conclusions, coming from a Supreme Court justice with a fine instinct for constitutional doctrines, may be the lasting influence of the War on the respective political histories of France and England. He demonstrates that it was the destruction of the Plantagenets’ ambitions in continental Europe which, in due course, led to England’s being established as a single, if not yet entirely coherent, political entity. He also points out that a lasting effect of the War was to propel the English and French monarchies in opposite directions. France evolved progressively towards centralised absolutism. England saw a strengthened role for Parliament in providing the monarch with the money needed to wage war. This in turn reinforced its standing and self confidence, dispersed political power more widely than in France, and instilled a more consensual style of government. These contrast persist: not for nothing does President Macron today rejoice in the monarchical Gaullist inheritance and what he calls the ‘Jupiterien’ style of the French presidency – not entirely to the benefit of France.
In the lingering aftermath of Brexit, there will also be interest in Sumption’s analysis of what would have happened if the Lancastrians had succeeded in uniting France. He concludes, surely rightly, that such a union would eventually have broken down under the tension between the English, and the richer and more populous French, parts of such an empire. As it was, the outcome vindicated the prediction, quoted approvingly in Sumption’s final line, by Charles VIII’s councillor Jean Juvénal des Ursins, that ‘France will be France and England will be England, separate and incompatible countries, in the nature of things too immense to be united in one body.’ Even the most committed Francophile readers will surely agree.