Why write about the Hundred Years War? This succession of destructive wars, separated by tense intervals of truce and by dishonest treaties of peace, was one of the seminal events in the history of England and France, as well as in that of their neighbours who were successively drawn into it: Scotland, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland. It laid the foundations of France’s national consciousness, while destroying the prosperity and political pre-eminence which she had once enjoyed. In England, it brought intense effort and suffering, a powerful tide of patriotism, great fortune followed by bankruptcy, disintegration and utter defeat.

Writing my history of the wars, with the final volume out next week, has occupied 43 years of my life. So what have I learned in the course of my long Odyssey through the chronicles and archives of this remote period? More important, what might others learn? No historian writes entirely for their own satisfaction. They have an imaginary reader in mind whose pleasure is the ultimate test of their work.

The Late Middle Ages was a time of extraordinary contrasts. It was a period in which men, and occasionally women, created works of lasting beauty: buildings, sculpture, jewellery, paintings, novels and histories. It was the age of Chaucer and Gower, of Froissart and Christine de Pisan, of the exquisite miniatures commissioned from the Limbourg brothers by the great Duke of Berry, of the emotionally overpowering sculpture created by Klaus Sluter for the Dukes of Burgundy a generation before Donatello, of the dramatic churches of Mont-Saint-Michel and St. George’s Windsor. The image of decline that hangs over the whole period could not be further from the truth.

Yet the age which created these things was also an age of cruelty and destruction unparalleled in any earlier period and few later ones. Many of its finest buildings were left in flames by passing armies. Paintings and illustrated manuscripts were dispersed, sculptures vandalised,  the work of jewellers and goldsmiths dismantled and melted down to contribute to the costs of war. It has been estimated that France lost about a third of its population, most of them non-combatants, on top of the terrible toll exacted by periodic outbreaks of famine and epidemic disease. It was a time of morbid pessimism and anxiety, when human life was cheap and men and women contemplated the imminent end of the world.

The history of the 14th and 15th centuries is dominated by outsize personalities. The great captains take pride of place, many of them immortalised by Shakespeare: Mauny, Chandos, the Black Prince, Du Guesclin, Salisbury, Fastolf, Talbot and Dunois. We know a great deal more about them than we do about the heroes of earlier ages, not least because the records of government survive more plentifully than for any previous period. But the war’s chroniclers, waspish and prejudiced forerunners of today’s tabloid papers, are supplemented for the first time by contemporary sources of a more personal kind: intimate poetry, biographies, memoirs and personal letters.

Some of the great figures of the time, like Edward III and Henry V have come down to us as cardboard cut-outs, their personalities half hidden behind the mask of government and the clouds of incense in which their contemporaries enveloped them. Others conformed to no established pattern. In an age when power was a prerogative of great noblemen, others broke the mould. Bertrand du Guesclin, the most famous French paladin of the period, came from an obscure gentry family in Brittany. Sir Robert Knollys, the terror of 14th-century Burgundy, probably begun his career as an archer. The same was true of Sir John Hawkwood, the crude English thug who ended up as one of Italy’s most successful soldiers of fortune. His painted monument by Paolo Uccello, an official commission of the Florentine Republic, still dominates the nave of Florence cathedral.

The war made these men. Geoffrey Chaucer, known to most people only as the author of The Canterbury Tales, was also a soldier and diplomat, a polyglot who read widely in Latin, French and Italian. Charles, Duke of Orléans, was captured at the battle of Agincourt and passed the best years of his life in various English prisons, a pawn in the diplomacy of the period. Yet he was also a fine poet, pouring out his frustration in nostalgic ballads, some of them in English. At the other end of the social scale, Joan of Arc was an illiterate peasant when she turned the course of the war at the age of seventeen. She was only two years older when she defended herself with consummate skill at the trial which led to her execution. These extraordinary individuals would be worth meeting in any age.

There was, however, more to the Hundred Years War than exotic heroes and picturesque incidents, more than ever occurred to Froissart or Shakespeare. Until quite recently, war was the main collective activity of mankind. The origin of the modern state lies in the immense feat of organisation required to deploy a community’s resources for war. Most English soldiers were archers, which meant that armies were recruited across a wide social spectrum and in every part of the country. In Scotland, an extraordinarily high proportion of the manpower of the Lowlands fought in Scottish armies on the French side.

But, except in the most primitive societies, wars are not just fought by soldiers. They also depend on countless officials high and low, on recruiting officers and tax collectors, on shipbuilders and seamen, on armourers and metal-founders, on the men who read out proclamations in market squares or built bonfires on coastal hills to warn of invasion. These activities brought the war home to entire populations. A web of rumour united disparate communities. The state was omnipresent. It made people conscious of the state’s ambitions, but also of its failings. They were brought together by the triumphs of Edward III, the Black Prince and Henry V, but also by common grievances, many of which arose from the hardships of war and the bitterness of ultimate defeat. The Hundred Years War was not a total war in the sense that the world wars of the 20th century were total wars. But it came closer to the 20th-century model than any previous wars, perhaps closer than any later one before the age of Napoleon.

England and France responded to these challenges in different ways, with very different consequences. William Pitt the Younger once remarked that the prime material of war was money. Already in medieval Europe, the critical test of the power of the state was its ability to levy taxes. Following a widely accepted maxim of Roman law, most lawyers and philosophers of the time accepted that taxes required the consent of the community that had to pay them. In England, this was a reality. In France it was not. The English Parliament was niggardly in agreeing to war taxes, but at least it generally acknowledged an obligation to support the King’s wars, and its consent bound the whole nation. As a result the financial dependence of the English kings on Parliament was firmly established as a principle. With control of the purse, came political authority. The prominent role of the English Parliament intensified political activity in the communities represented there: the gentry of the shires, royal officials, clients and councillors of the nobility and the oligarchies of the towns. It dispersed political power among a large and coherent political community, forcing a more consensual style of government on the monarchy.

In France events took a different turn. The national and provincial estates were notoriously reluctant to authorise taxation, and when they did their authority was not always recognised by the communities from which they came. In the end, the kings lost patience and levied taxes by royal command, backed up by force. Before the wars, the political institutions of France and England had developed on very similar lines. But writing in the 1460s, Sir John Fortescue, a former chief justice and the author of one of the earliest treatises on the English constitution, distinguished between the “political” monarchy of England and the absolute monarchy of France. Fortescue overstated the power of the French kings, but he was right in a broader sense. The origins of the absolute monarchy of 17th- and 18th-century France lay in the methods needed to defeat the English in the Hundred Years War. France became a military state with a standing army and an aggressive foreign policy. England had only very small permanent forces, and did not become a major player in European politics again until the 18th century.

The English have always rejoiced in their insular status. As early as the 13th century, an English chronicler described it as “set at the end of the world, the sea girding it around”. It was the sentiment which Shakespeare put into the mouth of the dying John of Gaunt. “This precious stone set in the silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall, or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands.” It is part of the classic canon of English patriotism. Yet it was a myth. Politically, England was not an island until defeat in the Hundred Years War made it one. It had been part of a European polity.

Its fortunes were closely intertwined with those of France and the Low Countries. Its kings were peers of France, ruling a large part of western France by hereditary right. They conceived vast continental ambitions. Henry III measured himself against his great contemporary Louis IX of France, once trying to make himself King of Sicily. Edward III claimed the Crown of France as his own. He planned to make one of his sons count of Flanders and another Duke of Milan. A third son claimed the Crown of Castile and tried to make good his claim by armed invasion. Henry V’s errant brother Humphrey had ambitions to rule Hainault and Holland. It was the Hundred Years War that deprived the English kings of their continental dominions, encouraging an insularity that persisted for centuries.

And what if the English had won, as they so nearly did in the early 1420s? If Henry V and the Duke of Bedford had achieved their ambition of uniting France and England under the house of Lancaster, England’s subsequent history would have been very different. In an age when the state was not readily distinguished from the person of the monarch, the concept of the dual monarchy would sooner or later have broken down. England would of necessity have remained a continental power, but in a very particular sense. It would have become a subordinate part of a continental empire whose centre of gravity would inevitably have moved eastward towards its richer and more populous French territory, until the resulting tensions became intolerable. Defeat proved to be as decisive for the future of England as it was for that of France.

The passions generated by ancient wars eventually fade, but those provoked by the wars of the English in 15th-century France have proved to be surprisingly durable. England’s monarchs continued to call themselves Kings of France long after the title had lost any meaning. In 1797, in the midst of another war with France, when the House of Commons debated peace proposals which would have required George III to abandon the title, one member protested against Pitt the Younger’s description of the title as “a harmless feather”. It was, he said, “gallantly won in the same glorious wars by which we first asserted the claim of our monarchs to that harmless feather… A great nation can never safely be disgraced.”

In France, the memory of English conquests lived on. The foundations of scholarship on the Hundred Years War were laid by patriotic French historians of the 19th century, writing under the shadow of Waterloo and Sedan. The passage of time did nothing to soften their indignation about the fate of their country in the time of Edward III, Henry V and the Duke of Bedford. The extraordinary life and death of Joan of Arc defied historical objectivity until quite recently. For centuries, her story was the focus of powerful political passions: nationalism, Catholicism, royalism and intermittent Anglophobia. Such myths are powerful agents of national identity. The great French historian Marc Bloch subscribed to none of these “-isms”, but even he thought that no Frenchman could truly understand his country’s history unless he thrilled at the story of Charles VII’s coronation at Reims in 1429. Writing in the summer of 1940 in the aftermath of a terrible defeat, Bloch looked to an earlier recovery from the edge of disaster for reassurance about the survival of France.

We are no strangers to long-term conflicts. The struggle of Russia to dominate eastern Europe is three centuries old. The three wars which France and Germany fought between 1870 and 1945 can plausibly be regarded as one conflict finally settled only by the internal transformation of Germany. The Hundred Years War was a conflict of that order. It is a powerful story, a story of the emergence of the two great nation-states of medieval Europe, nations which once had much in common, but gradually grew apart in a tide of organised violence. It is above all a story of the impact of war on those who directed it, on those who fought it and on those whose lives were disrupted or destroyed by it. It happened six centuries ago, but the themes are timeless.

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