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Monday, May 12, 2014

“The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453”, by Desmond Seward

296 pages, Macmillan, ISBN-13: 978-0689109195

The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453 by Desmond Seward is an excellent (if rapid) retelling of The Hundred Years’ War, which was not so much one war, but a series of bloody conflicts, started by the English refusal to recognize the French Salic law which denied inheritance through the female line.

Edward III’s mother, Queen Isabella, was the daughter of King Phillip the Fair, and as such many, including Edward, felt that he, and not King Phillip’s nephew, ought to inherit the throne. Meanwhile in France, dependence of Salic law had only recently been revived and was, of course, being used for political reasons, including specifically that of keeping an Englishman off the throne. Alas, nothing is even so simple and there were many pretenders and schisms, including the Great schism between the Popes of Avignon and Rome as well as between French factions during this period.

Seward covers the motivations for conflict on different class levels and the effects of various conflicts while giving us a variety of thumbnail sketches of some intriguing characters. There are several genealogical charts which go far in explaining the dynastic imperatives of the players involved, as well as attention to military detail and descriptions of different kinds of weaponry, particularly the Welsh longbow versus French crossbow. Naturally, one cannot read a book on The Hundred Years’ War without discussing several of the battles, each of which are accompanied by military diagrams, allowing those who are military minded can have a real grasp of the actions at Crecy and Agincourt, for example, as well as of the military intelligence of Edward III, John of Gaunt, Henry V and Joan of Arc.

Seward relies on many primary sources, but in particular on Froissart and the Bourgeois of Paris. He quotes Shakespeare and ancient songs appropriately at the beginning of each chapter, and provides an excellent appendix of maps showing the vicissitudes of French territories and English occupations, as well as an appendix explaining the meaning of the currencies in the economics of the time.

This is a straightforward, exceedingly comprehensive delineation of one of the most confusing occasions in Western European history. Although it must be said that one is still rather confused at the end about how and why the dynastic, commercial, political and military factors interacted as they did. And it becomes very difficult to sort one French King and political pretender from another (I never did quite figure out what Phillip of Burgundy was up to). One has the sense that Seward might have better served his purpose by writing a book a hundred pages longer and by drawing attention to the less heady (but equally important) details of character, personality and relationship.

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