BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The very best of enemies
, March 28, 2015
A GREAT AND GLORIOUS ADVENTURE:
A Military History of the Hundred Years War
by Gordon Corrigan
(London: Atlantic Books)
Paperback: 320 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
For those used to reading accounts of the two world wars, it is hard to imagine that Britain and France, which fought alongside each other in the 20th century, were for many centuries traditional enemies.
British military historian Gordon Corrigan examines the longest-lasting conflict between the two nations, namely the Hundred Years War. Despite its name, the conflict lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453.
Corrigan’s book is described as a military history, but it also provides a comprehensive political background to the conflict.
The first chapter recounts English history from the 1066 Norman Conquest of England until the events which led to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War.
Edward III claimed the French throne because he was the grandson of Philip IV of France through his mother, Isabella. This claim was rejected by the French authorities, who decreed that only succession through the male line was legitimate.
Other contributing factors to the war were Edward having to swear allegiance to the French crown because he was also the Duke of Gascony, and France’s “Auld Alliance” with Scotland, a country England was trying to subdue.
The Hundred Years War can be divided into three distinct phases.
The first phase, lasting from 1337 to 1360, saw English success against the French, particularly in the battles of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) and the capture of Calais. This phase ended with the Treaty of Brétigny (1360).
The second phase dates from 1360, when war resumed, after France and England had been involved in a peripheral war regarding the disputed succession in the Spanish kingdom of Castile. During the reign of Richard II, English gains made during the first phase of the war were gradually lost. One of the causes of Richard’s unpopularity, which culminated in his deposition by Henry of Bolingbroke (who was thereupon crowned Henry IV in 1399), was Richard’s reluctance to pursue the war.
The third phase coincided with the period when the Lancastrian kings were in power. The first of them, Henry IV, was constrained in what he could do, largely because of sporadic internal disputes in England.
However, his son Henry V — later popularised by Shakespeare as “the mirror of all Christian kings” — significantly advanced the English cause in 1415, with the siege of the French port of Harfleur, and his later victory at Agincourt over the numerically superior French army.
Henry married Catherine of Valois, the daughter of the king of France. He died, however, before he could subdue France.
His son, the infant Henry VI, was crowned king of France in Paris; but the French gradually regained their territory. When peace was concluded in 1453, the only French territory England retained was the port of Calais.
Corrigan maintains that the English success during much of the Hundred Years War owed much to its superior strategy and weaponry. In three major battles, the English archers’ long-bows had a greater range and were more lethal than the French crossbows and other weaponry.
Furthermore, although the English generally fought with fewer soldiers, the soldiers they put into the field were generally better trained. They also tended to fight defensively, positioning themselves before the battle in strategically favourable positions and forcing the French forces to fight.
This is not to say that English strategy did not evolve. Earlier commanders, such as Edward the Black Prince, tended to mistreat captured civilians in order to inspire terror among the French. Henry V, however, tended to treat them well, working on the premise that he was their legitimate monarch. It was only those who resisted whom he treated harshly, because, in his mind, they were rebels.
Furthermore, the English made good use of technological advances. Cannons were first used during Henry IV’s reign, and were utilised more extensively under Henry V. Corrigan argues that one key factor in the ultimate French success was France’s adoption of some of the strategies that had made English success possible earlier in the war.
However, Corrigan notes that on numerous occasions the English failed to capitalise on successes in battles and skirmishes. He observes that, at various key points, England could have won the war.
For example, in 1355 the Black Prince’s raid had so weakened the French army and economy that England could have been victorious — that is, had England not simultaneously been deploying its troops to fight its neighbour, Scotland. Similarly, Corrigan speculates that, had Henry V lived longer, England might ultimately have prevailed over the French.
Corrigan also argues that the war solidified the distinct national identities of the French and the English. The long-running conflict also saw the decline in the use of heavily-armed cavalry, in favour of weapons such as the longbow and cannon.
Military successes achieved by either side underscored the importance of possessing a well-trained though smaller army, as opposed to a large but ill-trained force.
The Hundred Years War ended in 1453; but it wasn’t until 1801 that the English finally abandoned their claim to the French throne.
After the 1789 French Revolution and the downfall of the monarchy, Britain supported the Bourbon dynasty in the latter’s desire to be restored to the French throne. It would have looked singularly anomalous if Britain had been simultaneously seeking the French throne for itself.
Gordon Corrigan’s work is thoroughly researched and lucidly written. His descriptions of the battles, and of military aspects such as strategy, weapons, and structure of the army are clearly explained, and require no particular military expertise on the part of the reader.
Unfortunately, his dismissal of the significance of religion is problematic. He views religion as a essentially a tool used by the powerful to subjugate and control people. When recounting the role Joan of Arc played in galvanising French morale, he dismisses any suggestion that she received authentic visions.
Nevertheless, despite the author’s negative view of religion, this book is a fascinating and valuable study of a tumultuous period of Anglo-French relations, and is written so as to be accessible to the general reader.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.