The Hundred Years War: Trial By Battle

Jonathan Sumption
September 11, 2017

Lord Jonathan Sumption OBE is a member of the UK Supreme Court. He is also the author of the first in depth multi-volume history of the Hundred Years War to be released in nearly a century. The two are not quite as incongruent as it may seem. Educated at Eton, Sumption possessed a passion for history which won him the Wolfson prize before he gained a passion for Law, and the series, which begins with Trial by Battle, and continues with Trial By Fire, Divided Houses, and Cursed Kings, benefits enormously from that perspective. Most older histories of the conflict focused on either the military dimension or on the interpersonal political dramas going on domestically in both countries. In the English language, this functionally meant that the Hundred Years War was reduced to a series of dates, 26 August 1346,  19 September 1356, and 25 October 1415, the dates of the English triumphs at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. The royal commanders, Edward III, his son the Black Prince, and great-grandson Henry Vth have ascended to heroic status, with little discussion of what they were fighting for, or whether it was worth the cost. The French side is if anything, even more personalized, focusing almost entirely on the figure of Joan of Arc. Charles V, Bertrand Du Guesclin remain largely unknown despite vastly greater achievements. The passion for social and cultural history which has dominated the academic field in recent decades has scarcely touched the subject; a hundred year long quarrel between nobles is hardly the subject to excite those who feel the poor, the female, the non-white have been forgotten in history.

Sumption, whether in pursuit of a deliberate mission, or simply because he happens to view the world as a civil servant with an appreciation for order, law, and sound financial management, goes a long way to rectify this. Trial by Battle, despite the name, is not really a military history. It extensively covers the major campaigns of course within its more than 600 pages, but the fact that it ends at Crecy is an indication of how unimportant Sumption views battles in the wider context of the war. His are wider. His chronicles on campaigns focus on decision-making – why decisions were made – and in contrast to the moralist historians of the 19th century, he disdains to pass judgement on the abilities of historical figures. On the contrary, he is generous, assuming anyone who lasted long enough in the Darwinian climate of the thirteenth century probably had some level of ability, and therefore his “why” focuses on explanations. At the center is the issue of logistics. The difficulty of keeping an army supplied and paid over an extended period of time, something that could bring the richest princes to their knees.

In fact, two themes dominate this first volume. First the origins of the Hundred Years’ War in a legal context, and secondly the logistical, legal, and financial difficulties of actually waging war or carrying on government in the period. The former is interesting in that it goes far beyond the usual “dispute over the succession” to show that in a feudal world built on legal obligations and with no clear definition of sovereignty of states, but rather of fealty to individuals, international law was in fact far more important than it is today. Rather than serving as a pretext for conflict,  legal disputes presented existential problems. Was a nobleman in Bordeaux who owed allegiance to the King of England as Duke of Aquitaine,  but to the King of France, committing treason if he accepted office in Ireland under the pay of the English parliament? Where did his loyalty lie if the King of France issued a call to join a campaign against Flanders, if Flanders was allied with England? More basic problems existed here, such as the question of where, such cases were to be tried? By the King of France as the liege lord of both that hypothetical Gascon nobleman and the King of England in his capacity as Duke? Or by the English King?

As long as monarchies were personal such disputes could be resolved by agreement between the principals, but as both England, under Simon De Montfort and Edward I, and France under Philip the Fair(1285-1314), moved towards institutionalization, with semi-permanent assemblies and parliaments vested with the power of taxation, autonomous municipal governments, and centralized civils services, these ambiguities became critical. The Kings of England and France could reach personal accommodations  over vexatious questions of sovereignty; the Parliaments of London and Paris could not be so understanding. In order to enforce the supremacy of royal law throughout France over that of local notables Philip the Fair and his successors had to establish the universality of the jurisdiction of their courts. And if notables could claim immunity by virtue of owing fealty to a notable who also happened to be a foreign ruler, that incentivized every defendant to dig up ancient Roman documents proving they in fact owed fealty to the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople or the German Holy Roman Emperor. The result was intensifying tensions over where exactly French power ended and English authority began around the vestigial English possessions in Gascony that bedeviled relations between the countries for 20 years before conflict broke out.

That was far from the only issue. The same problems of fealty and legal authority also complicated relations between the Kings of England and Scotland. On several occasions, most recently in the 1290s, the lords of Scotland had offered fealty to the King of England. This inherently made any Scottish nobleman captured in arms against England a traitor, subject to execution. Obviously this could not be applied universally for pragmatic reasons, but that did not mean English claims existed only as a pretext for expansion. Those claims mattered, not least because Scottish lords in dispute with their own monarch were apt to appeal to the “legal” overlordship of the King of England in disputes.

Finally, during the 1320s, French and English politics became intertwined. Edward II of England was married to Isabella, the only daughter of Philip the Fair. Philip had three sons, but their wives were caught and imprisoned in an adultery scandal that setoff a chain of events which became the basis for the French inspiration for George R. R Martin’s Game of Thrones. When Philip died in 1314, his son succeeded, to be followed in turn by his two brothers. Each sought an annulment, and it should have been a simple matter to terminate a marriage with proof of adultery. But politics made it no simple matter, because a refusal of an annulment meant the King could not father legitimate heirs, and as long as that was the case, whoever was next in line had an incentive to obstruct the process. This continued until 1328 when the last of Philip’s sons died without a male heir. Remaining were two female candidates, the daughter of Louis X whose legitimacy was suspect, Queen Isabella of England whose paternity by Philip was not doubted in the least, and Philip’s nephew Philip, Duke of Anjou. Eventually Salic Law, the French legal principle under which females cannot inherit was invoked to justify Philip’s ascension, but this was no open and shut legal case. There was extensive precedent for allowing succession through the female line, and Isabella had a son, Edward III of England, who was the eldest direct male descendant of Philip the Fair. The problem, of course, was his mother. Isabella had invaded England with an Army in 1327 along with her lover, Roger Mortimer, deposed her husband(he was subsequently believed to have been murdered) and in 1329 was living openly with her lover as regent of England for her underage son. The French lords may well have accepted an adult Edward III, or a Prince Edward if his father remained in England. They might have been able to stomach a female regent. They could not stomach the prospect of inviting Isabella and Mortimer to rule over them as they were over the English. The solution not only excluded Edward from the succession in the future, but called into question large parts of his inheritance, and raised questions about his legitimacy which also impugned his claim to the English throne.

All of these combined in the 1330s as Edward, having arrested his mother and executed Mortimer in 1332, invaded Scotland to install a Pro-English King, eventually triggering the Scots to appeal for French aid. Faced by 1337 with a serious threat, Edward attempted to form a defensive alliance against Philip of Valois, now Philip VI of France. Edward was not wanting for allies. The cities of Flanders, with close economic ties to England, had been feuding with their feudal overlord for years, while Robert of Artois, who in French politics had played a key role in bringing Philip VI to the throne broke with him.  The German Emperor was also in a dispute with the King of France. Brittany, meanwhile, was on the verge of a succession struggle of its own.

The problem Edward had was legal. All of his potential allies except for the German emperor were vassals of the King of France meaning that joining Edward would make them rebels, subject to execution and the forfeiture of their titles. Edward himself also, technically, would be a rebel, having sworn an oath to Philip VI in 1330. The solution was for Edward himself to assume the French throne. That would therefore allow any French nobleman who joined Edward to claim they were in fact serving the “legal” King of France. Sumption makes a compelling case that the English claim to the French throne had little to no role in causing the war. Rather, once the war was caused by other factors, it was necessary to make that claim in order to provide legal protection for Edward’s allies. It allowed him to “legally” intervene in conflicts like the war for succession in Britany as the legal overlord, and to confiscate and dispense the property of rebels(ie. Those who remained loyal to Philip VI) in the territories he held in France. The goal was always to trade it for regularization of the status of those possessions, something Edward sought eventually in 1360 with the Peace of Bretigany.

Fighting that war proved far than justifying it. Contrary to the image of rapid conquest and victory created by the celebration of Agincourt, it was unclear exactly how Edward was supposed to threaten France. Besieging cities was time consuming and expensive, while holding captured cities was a drain on resources. France was massive. The French, contrary to the impression of suicidal chivalric bravery, generally sought to avoid battle. Philip VI understood how massive France was, and how expensive transporting an Army across the channel, coordinating with allies, and keeping it in the field was. He understood that if he merely outlasted Edward, the English would quite simply run out of money.

The war then, between 1337 and 1346, was one of logistics. It was a competition between the ability of England and France to raise revenue and recruits and to keep armies in the field year after year. France should have had an enormous advantage. It had more than five times the population than England and was on the defensive. In practice, this did not happen, though it almost did. Edward struggled every year to gain subsidies from Parliament for his war, a struggle which French successes ironically aided him in. Early French naval successes made the war an existential threat to the interests of Parliament, and provided extensive funding, even after England gained naval supremacy after the Battle of Sluys in 1340.

Nonetheless, Edward could make little progress. Repeatedly he formed alliances, transported an army to Flanders, and invaded France only to have Philip VI refuse battle, forcing the English to withdraw. Had this continued, Edward likely would have had to sue for peace. But the political and constitutional realities of France made it impossible for Philip to continue his sensible military strategy. He too could not raise armies or taxes without consent, but whereas England had a central parliament, France had numerous local ones along with towns, all of which voted independently. This meant that while they were willing to grant him men and money, a conflict in Flanders did not strike the estates of Langdoc as particularly threatening. Furthermore, they expected something for their money. Instead each year they were asked to furnish money and troops for a royal army that then ran away rather than fighting the English. Nearer the center of operations, this Fabian strategy was even more politically catastrophic. While the English struggled to take and hold the citadels of major cities, they rampaged through the countryside at will, seizing monasteries, burning fields, and looting the suburbs outside of cities. Local cities, which had granted money and troops for a royal army under the assumption it would protect them, began to prefer to keep those troops at home for protection and to spend the money locally. The refusal of the French King to seek battle therefore posed an existential problem for every locality in France To continue to send their wealth and sons to a royal army that did nothing year after year, to keep their young men at home for defense, and to use the money to buy off either the English or the freebooters and independent companies proliferating in the wake of the conflict. Increasingly, they chose the latter option, with the result that it was French, rather than English revenue that was nosediving as the war continued. By 1346, then, the entire apparatus of French government was on the verge of collapse not just in Flanders, but in all the regions bordering English possessions. While the English had not established their own authority, a decade of rampaging unchecked by the French king had destroyed the prestige of the French monarchy in the region to such a degree that many were beginning to defect to recognize the English King to avoid the devastation.

As such, Philip in 1346 faced a political crisis, in which the inability of the French army to protect French civilians from the English, even as it prevented any substantial English conquests, threatened to lose the war without a battle. With the prospect of losing his army and his authority if he did not use the former, Philip VI concluded that even a lost battle was preferable to no battle as it would demonstrate the commitment of his government to fighting the invaders. That set the stage for the Battle of Crecy. While the extent of the English victory was unexpected, the battle did not immediately materially change the conflict. There was no rapid collapse of the French position as their was after Agincourt. The English, rather than advancing, continued their retreat and spent the following year laying siege to Calais. While its fall was important, the fact it resisted so long showed that for a time being Philip had staunched the bleeding even with a defeat. He had not, however, solved his problem. He could neither avoid battle indefinitely, nor seek battle without a high risk of defeat.

This highlighted a difference between the English and French governmental systems. It was not that the English king had to listen to Parliament while the French King was absolute. Both had to beg for funds. What was different is that the English Parliament provided a forum for national policy and interests. French naval superiority posed a threat to the entire English nation, while the loss of the cloth trade with the Low Countries which might follow an assertion of French royal authority there would cripple the economy of whole country. Parliament allowed national problems to bring forth a national solution.

In France, by contrast, elected authority was dispersed. It might well be in the interests of France as a whole to keep an army in the field, avoid battle, and wait out the English who were outnumbered five to one. But it was in no one’s interests to do so. Local authorities in the areas affected were threatened with destruction by such a policy, and responded by keeping their money and men at home. Estates in regions far from the center of conflict such as Langdoc did not see why they should pay for an army year after year that was far away. France did not lack economic resources. Its resources dwarfed those of England, something that would become decisive in the 1370s. But in the 1340s, the French governmental system was much worse at mobilizing them. The result was to force Philip into battle at Crecy, and to accelerate the process.

Sumption focuses extensively on these logistical issues, as well as the legal conflicts that occurred not just at the international level, but also at the local level in Brittany, Gascony, Langdoc, and Flanders. It is in his view a superior logistical framework which allowed the English to last long enough to gain a new lease of life at Crecy, and a weaker one which forced Philip to seek battle when his attritional strategy was on the verge of success. Sumption is not unique in his conclusions, but he applies a remarkably modern framework to the 13th century in a way few other authors I have read have done.

A couple words on the readability of the work itself. While the book is long at over 600 pages, it is written in a witty, occasionally humorous, and easy to read style that makes for fast going. I managed to complete both of the first two volumes on my phone while at the gym over the last year and a half.

While the subject matter may seem obscure and unrelated to modern politics or issues, the focus Sumption provides on institutions, legitimacy, and logistics, combined with the ultimate indispensability of law to effective exercise of authority, are ones that can be applied extensively to the modern world. I strongly recommend that anyone with an interest in wars, narrative history, or who just wants something interesting and unfamiliar to read to check it out.

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