‘I love France’, wrote Jonathan Sumption in the preface to his first book, Pilgrimage, published in 1975. Four years later, he began work on a history of the conflict that helped shape modern France, the Hundred Years War. Now, forty-four years and five volumes on, he has brought his 1.5-million-word study to a triumphant conclusion. For a full-time academic with a generous allowance of research leave, this would be a huge achievement. For a professional lawyer (latterly a justice of the UK Supreme Court), it is truly prodigious.
Those who are familiar with the previous volumes in this series will know what to expect from this one, which deals with the final stages of the war. This is relentless, narrative-driven history, written with clarity, passion and, above all, self-confidence. Battles (few), sieges (many) and peace conferences (usually abortive) seem almost to chase each other from the page, the story moving restlessly from one theatre of conflict to the next, each one depicted with a level of detail which is simultaneously impressive and unsettling. Barely is there any acknowledgement that the events Sumption describes are historiographically contested as he glides serenely above historians’ debates, the problems involved in untangling different accounts of how engagements unfolded and explanations of why alliances foundered or conferences failed. He trusts his own judgement and has certainly read many of the primary sources, though some of the secondary sources he references have been superseded.
The overarching story of the last phase of what, since the 19th century, has been called the Hundred Years War is relatively straightforward. Shortly before his untimely death in August 1422, Henry V, in alliance with Philip, Duke of Burgundy and ruler of much of the Low Countries, had