Reviewed by: Jeremy Black Author: Gordon Corrigan Publisher: Atlantic Books Price (RRP): £30
Full of the fascinating might-have-beens of history, the Hundred Years’ War serves as a reminder of the conflicts and contingencies that have shaped nations and states. The Treaty of Bretigny saw John II of France promise to renounce his claim to sovereignty to Edward III’s extensive continental dominions. Yet, by the time of the Truce of Bruges in 1375, Edward held little more than Calais, Bayonne and Bordeaux. At the 1420 Treaty of Troyes Charles VI recognised Henry V as his heir and as regent during his reign. However Henry’s son Henry VI was left controlling just Calais after defeats at Formigny and Castillon.
Gordon Corrigan provides an effective narrative of these wars. As he points out, war was important to the development of nationhood, in France as in England, and also left a lasting enmity (particularly on the French side). The war affected the politics and society of each power. For example, in England, a poll tax designed to fund the war with France pressed hard on the depressed rural economy, leading to high rates of evasion and unrest that culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. More generally, the frequent need to raise taxation to pay for warfare led to parliament becoming more important. War could not pay for itself, not least because the government relied on paid troops, rather than a feudal host. Instead, as it became clear that parliamentary consent to taxation was necessary, representatives of the counties and boroughs were given a key role in consenting to taxation.
It is not Corrigan’s goal to locate his subject in the wider context of what led to success in this period, but there are instructive comparisons with the English failure to conquer Scotland and Ireland in the 14th century. Repeatedly, political factors emerge in explaining the failure to translate victory into permanent success in France. Aside from the determination of sufficient numbers of the French elite to fight on, there was also the crucial shift in the support of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. At the same time, home support for the English forces waned. The surprising thing is that the English presence then lasted as long as it did, but the collapse in 1449–51 was swift, and was aided by an effective use of siege cannon by Charles VII.
Defeat helped discredit Henry VI and his ministers, while a crucial precondition of the modern history of the British Isles was the more insular character of England after 1453. It was to be one of the keys to its subsequent domestic and international development.
Jeremy Black is the author of War in the World: A Comparative History 1450–1600 (Palgrave, 2011)