September 5, 2015


The drama of St Crispian's Day: Shakespeare got it right : a review of Cursed Kings: The Hundred Years War, IV Jonathan Sumption (Allan Massie 29 August 2015, The Spectator)

The Hundred Years War lasted for more than a century (1337-1453). Jonathan Sumption embarked on its history in 1979. There will be one more volume to complete what is surely a masterpiece of historical writing. It is wonderfully detailed and acute in analysis, yet the narrative never flags. Sumption never forgets that people now long dead were made of flesh and blood, driven by ambition, fear, hatred, love, jealousy. History is written looking back, but the good historian writes in the awareness that for his characters the future is terra incognita.

For the English the great Shakespearean moment of this book is the battle of Agincourt and its hero Henry V. Sumption shows that Shakespeare got it right. He also shows, dramatically, that it was a victory snatched from imminent disaster. If the French had held off battle, content to harass Henry's diminished, sick and ill-supplied army as it struggled to reach a port from which it might escape to England, Henry's great expedition would have ended dismally, and he would have found it difficult to persuade Parliament to grant him the resources necessary to mount another invasion. So Agincourt changed everything. Yet ultimately England was engaged on a war beyond its strength. [...]

Sumption paints a picture of medieval Paris every bit as vivid as that which Victor Hugo would offer in Notre-Dame de Paris, and, I would guess, more accurate. His account of the year 1413, when the Orleanists were driven out and for months Paris was in the hands of a revolutionary mob known as the Cabochians, reads like a trailer for the great Revolution of 1789; the horrors were no less. Though little of medieval Paris survives as it was then, you can still follow much of the narrative of this terrible year on foot as well as in your imagination.

One of the many strengths of this history is to be found in Sumption's repeated insistence on the importance of money. Armies have to be financed and supplied, and this was hard, even though many of the forces engaged in the long, if intermittent, campaigns were small, only a few thousand men. But without money you can't make war; you can't maintain a siege; you can't hire ships to transport armies.

Posted by at September 5, 2015 9:50 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus