Sumption’s “way with words” anchored in a forensic mind never fail to impress. He was a light in the intellectual darkness of the Covid years. More of Lord Sumption please Unherd editirial team.
…“A great nation can never safely be disgraced” is an observation which deserves sober reflection amongst current and putative members of NATO right now.
Are you suggesting that we need to allow Russia to genocide Ukraine?
What might had been prevailing wisdom in 1797 is disgraceful notion in 2023.
…I’m not suggesting that The West should simply accept the resurgence of Russia’s imperial ambitions Andrew. But intervening towards a future where the Russian Federation is permanently dismantled, or Russia is evicted from substantial control of the Black Sea through Crimea, would be to revisit the follies of the 1850’s.
Er, ever hear of Nazi Germany?
…two good examples on point Martin. In both cases, hostilities were immediately followed by respectful reconstruction and rehabilitation of the losers by the western European victors, who were much the wiser in 1945, than they had been in 2018. In contrast, the disgrace inflicted on Germany, and the disrespect shown towards Japan at Versailles in 1919, rather illustrate the worth of Pitt’s observation I would say.
The complete defeat of Germany was not in fact immediately followed by its reconstruction. The Morgenthau plan to dismember and de-industrialise Germany was a serious one (a united Germany being still only 75 years old at that time). It was mainly the onset of the Cold War which changed this, led to the Marshall Plan etc.
…As I said the West respected reconstruction Andrew, and directly contributed to reconstruction both under the occupation period, and then through the Marshall Plan. The main point though, is that the West actively sort to avoid another round disgrace for the Germans.
Brilliant article but what about the race and transgender angle ?
I’m sure someone could object to this bit if they were so minded:
The English Parliament was niggardly in agreeing to war taxes
It would take too long on a Forum such as this.
English or niggardly?
Not only that. As a person of colour I have no truck with this subject as I do not see anyone who ‘looks like me’ in any of the pictorial representations of this conflict. The Hundred Year’s War is an irrelevance, as is all English history prior to Windrush. Professor Kehinde Andrews makes this claim, so it must be true.
More tea Vicar?
…perhaps a sherry?
I think he was being facetious……
Without Windrush UK would be nothing.
All the great science and culture they created.
Who needs Shakespeare or Newton?
Indeed, what about it!
Surely Joan D’Arc was transgender?
She liked men clothing.
Acted like men, unlike French in ww2.
A very interesting article about a subject I (an American) know almost nothing about. The author’s style is engaging which bodes well for reading the books. I must admit, though, I followed the link to the final volume in the series: it is volume 5 and runs to almost 1000 words. I am a little daunted.
A minor point: when the author writes “It is part of the classic cannon of English patriotism”, I suspect he meant “canon of English patriotism.”
I live in hope that one day Lord Sumption will write an article about the legal framework, in England, governing the ability of people who’ve been “cancelled” to bring suit against those who have deprived them of their livelihood.
A minor point … 1000 pages.
Yes, I wondered about it.
Who is so interested in 100 years war to read 5 volumes of about 1000 pages each, apart from professional historians.
I am interested in warfare but there are too many wars of interest, to devote months of your life to read about one.
What strikes me as most interesting in this essay is the underlying theme of the “appetite for war” of past ages; or perhaps not so “past” since it remains in our (European) midst. But more in general, what becomes of this appetite when the local horrors of war become too much to countenance? The nuclear threat aside, can modern populations envisage the laying to waste of towns, great cities, whole swathes of countryside in our post-modern world, even as we see an example set before us in Ukraine?
Is it possible that the appetite for conquest and destruction becomes internalised, resulting in the cultural ructions we’re witnessing; a kind of self-immolation brought about by no longer having a common external outlet for this appetite, or instinct? What, then, would this tell us about our humanity?
The overview provided here by Lord Sumption has value beyond historical record, and surely that’s the point of creating and remembering – to serve us in our present. The tendency to try to revise our history by cultural “warriors” might thus be seen as an exercise in self-denial, an unhealthy form of repression about ourselves and our true natures, the understanding of which is a prerequisite of progress, seen in its more truthful sense.
I really enjoyed Sumption’s succinct and humorous book The Albigensian Crusade. I am saving up his Hundred Year’s War masterwork for a time with more leisure – but I have acquired the first 3 volumes in anticipation. Judging from this article, he may be a modern Thucydides.
Except that Thucydides was actually a participant in the Peloponnesian War.
How do we know?
Any photographs or witnesses?
What a moronic question!
A very interesting and engaging article. I do wonder if one reason why the Hundred Years War and its feats endures in both England and France is that the rivalry continued until either at least until Waterloo or even 1904 when the Entente Cordiale was signed? Some might say the rivalry never died and is still ongoing, despite the friendly official relations in this day and age. Even after this it’s hard to think of an occasion between 1453 and 1789 when England/GB and France were ever on the same side in a dispute or conflict. No doubt harking back to Agincourt, Crecy, Formigny or Orleans and invoking King Harry, the Black Prince or Joan of Arc also provided inspiration and patriotic fervour to all classes during this period and arguably still does today.
We provided considerable support to Henry IV in his ultimately successful bid to grab the French Throne in the late 16th century. We were allied with France in the War of the Quadruple Alliance in 1718, which witnessed the humiliation of Bourbon Spain.
We were again with France in the Crimean War of 1854-55, where it must be said France did most of the ‘heavy lifting’!
The French were also at our side when we gave the Chinese ‘as damned good thrashing’ in 1860, capturing Peking*and burning the Summer Palace.
(* Now called Beijing apparently.)
I would say these examples rather make JD’s wider point. Although we have often been allied with the French, and have fought wars against the other European powers (notably Spain and the Dutch), the old enemy has always been France.
The ‘old enemy’ has always been France since their very successful invasions of 1066 & 1152.
As you are something of a pedant (which I suppose is reasonable when you are talking about historical accuracy!), it should be pointed out that “France” or probably more accurately, the King of France, did not invade England in 1066. That was of course, the Duke of Normandy. That Dukedom was often in conflict rather than alliance with its nominal feudal overlord.
By his successful conquest of England, William and his successors became the equal in status to the King of France.
Very good point.Also England was very wealthy.
Years ago I read a list of French military interventions in Europe. Sparked off by reading Goethe, and finding out that for decades his part of Germany was occupied by French soldiers.
France regarded it as almost a divine right to ravage the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) from 1552 onwards.
Ultimately this policy ended badly.
Surely it was Napoleon who finished off France as great power (population decline and all that).
Still it is German music and French paintings for me.
OK, I forgot Italy.
But they never start and finish war on the same side.
Treacherous or sensible?
What is wrong with that?
Occupying Germany permanently would saved millions of lives in Europe.
When? The post 1945 solution was better. Of course there were and are still NATO military forces there, but the idea that the British or even the Americans had the appetite or resources to hold down a potentially hostile population indefinitely (we found it hard to manage in Afghanistan!) is for the birds.
Between 1453 and 1789 I said in fairness. I honestly couldn’t remember who the Quadruple Alliance was against, but thought that might have been when we allied with France for a change.
Fair enough, I only sought to emphasise that we were NOT ‘eternal’ enemies as some seem to think.
Off course I failed to mention the despicable Third Dutch War, when the ‘traitor’ Charles II* took French gold and joined them in their ultimately futile attempt to destroy the Dutch Republic.
Incidentally the Royal Navy again performed badly, if not as appalling as in the previous Dutch War!
(*He of the Secret Treaty of Dover infamy.)
All true but on another hundred occasions?
Friendly official relations?
You have sense of humour.
Should we sent French ambassador back to France on a dinghy with illegal immigrants?
French navy can pick them up.
An excellent essay, I thank you.
However “Yet the age which created these things was also an age of cruelty and destruction unparalleled in any earlier period and few later ones”, is surely an exaggeration?
Did the “unparalleled destruction” really exceed that of the destruction of the Roman Empire* by a myriad of Teutonic thugs and other miscreants, starting in the early sixth century? An event far more terrible in its long term consequences than the Hundred Years War could ever have been?
(* Mainly but not exclusively the Western Empire.)
The “barbarian” invasions that toppled the Empire didn’t really destroy Western Europe, it merely replaced one aristocracy with another. The Gothic kingdom of Italy was just as prosperous as Roman Italy until the Eastern Empire waged a long war of reconquest under Belisarius and Narses, that destroyed the peninsula. The decline of the West largely happened gradually, and under later assaults in the 7th and 8th century. Viking and Arab raiding did far more damage than the initial Gothic and Vandal takeovers.
I did qualify my remark by saying “starting in the early sixth century”, and off course I did mention the “other miscreants “, although I felt in unnecessary to name them all individually. Thank you for going to the trouble of naming them.
However soon enough the world of the centrally heated Villa, the Amphitheater, Theatre, Odeon, Cathedral sized Bath Houses (Thermae), sophisticated Law Courts, Aqueducts, a Professional standing Army and Civil Service and so forth had gone forever, or so it must have seemed. A far greater catastrophe than the albeit impressive devastation of the Hundred Years War.
If you haven’t read “The Fall of Rome” by Bryan Ward-Perkins you may well enjoy it.
I think everyone over-rates the strength, stability, and benefits of Roman rule. Rome averaged a civil war about every 5 years. The population and economy must have been in massive decline by the 3rd century, otherwise they wouldn’t have needed to rely on barbarians to man their army.
The fact that the loss of 15,000 troops at Adrianople was catastrophic, when the Republic lost more than 100,000 to Hannibal’s invasion and still prevailed, show that the Empire had collapsed long before the barbarians invaded. The local population also offered no real resistance to the invaders, which I think is the clearest indication that there was no value to Roman rule anymore.
Much like British rule in India, Rome may have brought infrastructure, but they usually destroyed the local economy to pillage its wealth. The population of Gaul probably never recovered from Caesar conquest until after Rome was long gone.
A Toynbee points to the massive slave estates making it uneconomic to farm fro the Plebians who provided the infantry. The Plebians migrated to the cities. The Equites and Patricians stopped sending sons to fight on the frontiers, hence increase in Barbarians in the army. The massive increase in bureaucracy led to raised taxes. Once the Praetorian Guard became dominated by foreigners and removed Emperors, there was instability in leadership.
The ultimate cause of movement were The Huns who caused other groups to flee from them. The Goths requested to enter The Roman Empire for protection from the Huns and this was denied but they entered anyway which showed Roman weakness.
I would say loss of fighting spirit, over taxation and spending on non essential items and making the wrong decision at crucial moments, led to Rome’s collapse.
The population of India went from about 200M in 1870s to 400M in 1940s. Increase in population sign of increased food consumption and hence propsperity.
Toynbee was a Marxist toad, and his scholarship feeble at best.
Yes but like Starkey comments about supposed black genocide, if India population grows so much in 70 years then natives conditions were not desperate.
Let’s not forget that there was no Indian state as it is now.
British replaced Mugal rulers and discontinued some terrible custom, as you know.
Still people with caste system complain about white people racism.
Rome was certainly ravaged by civil wars from the mid third century, but you seem to ignore the two centuries of the incredible ‘Pax Romana’ from about 30BC -180AD, a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity for nearly everyone.
You also seem to unaware of the two dreadful plagues that ravaged the Empire*, the first being the Antonine Plague of about 170-180 AD, to be followed a century later by the Plague of Cyprian around 270 AD. These undoubtedly reduced the population substantially, but by how much is a source of some dispute.
By the end crushing taxation and bureaucracy also played a major part as did the astonishing cost of completely parasitical Church, a ‘luxury’ they definitely couldn’t afford. It is little wonder that the civil population gave up!
As to Gaul not recovering from Caesar’s conquest (50BC) that is highly unlikely and against all the currently available archeological evidence.
(*Many times worse than the recent COVID nonsense.)
ps.Oh dear have I offended some christian Covid freak?
I am lapsed Catholic but I am a bit puzzled by your comments about Christianity.
Recognising Christianity as state religion was done as unifying measure.
I am not sure that eventual escape from dark ages and stopping Muslim invasion of Europe would happen without it.
“the world of the centrally heated Villa, the Amphitheater, Theatre, Odeon, Cathedral sized Bath Houses (Thermae), sophisticated Law Courts, Aqueducts, a Professional standing Army and Civil Service and so forth had gone forever”… I understand your point, but where would the Roman world have ended up, ultimately, had it not suffered destruction? In today’s society we possess pretty much everything on that list: central heating, theatres, bath houses, law courts, standing armies, civil service…. We also have wokeism, cancel culture, critical race theory, identity politics etc.
It would have ultimately destroyed itself.
Although it is true that modern Europe was born on the battlefield, it is also true that virtually every other region of the world was born on the battlefield, and it has been going on since time began. A perusal of the old Testament would confirm this fact.
Wonderful essay, every word.
I enjoyed this article a lot. Coming from someone like me who can still recall the almost painful boredom I experienced at school when treated to the same facts, that’s saying something.
A mention of the superlative composer Guilliaume de Machaut would have been a nice addition to this writer’s list of the luminaries of that time.
she defended herself with consummate skill at the trial which led to her execution
I guess there’s a big difference between “consummate” and “effective” which those who hang around trials don’t really get.
The outcome of the trial was predetermined and only ever going to end one way, although due to her skill in defending herself there were delays before those in “judgement” could find the means to justify their verdict.
Was the title provided by Jonathan Sumption himself? It does not fit with the text, and voices a conceit that is at odds with the tone of his writing, both in his profession as well as a historian.
…a small shout-out for the importance of the English Longbowman…it is very difficult to oppress men who can kill you at hundred yards, and quite possibly lethal to the oppressor…and that was exactly the population that we in England created, in order to prosecute our relentless wars against our neighbours…
…pretty much guaranteed to modify class relationships in ways that remained unknown in much of Europe for many centuries…
‘We’ also used the Longbow very effectively against the wretched Sc*tch over the same period, and with the same result.
WHO seriously denies this?
Without checking, so feel free to correct, I think you will find that the Welsh longbowmen were just as important! I have also read that that the longbow had a greater rate of fire, effective range and accuracy than the musket, and was only actually bettered by the invention of the breech-loading rifle in the mid-19th century. The reason for its swift decline around 1500 was that it was far, far easier to train a man to shoot a musket, and gunpowder and shot were much easier and cheaper to produce in quantity than arrows.
The English war bow was adopted from the Welsh during Edward I time from about 1270s and practice was made compulsory. Draw weight was up to 212 lb, archer could fire 24 shafts per miniute( equivalent to lifting 5058 lbs 39 inches off the ground ), could penetrate 4 inches of oak at 100 yds, kill a knight at 250 yds and butts were at least 440 yds long. Arrow length 39 inches. Boys started pracctice at 5 years, expected to draw 95 lb bow by fourteen years and at sixteen, kill a squirrel at 100 yds. There were armour piercing arrows. Pay was 2d per day if just had bow and arrows, 4d if helmet, sword and dagger and 6 d if horse as well. Labourer earned 1d per day. An archer volunteered and signed on for at least 6 months. Money was tax free plus any loot.
What made the English different was tax raised was agreed by House of Commons from 1295 AD and infantry was English whereas the French employed mercenaries .In France there were hardly any freemen, most were serfs, who were not armed. England was unusual in having free men from towns and a large class of freemen, husbandmen, yeoman and at end of Middle ages, Franklins.
Orwell in his essay says ” You and the atom bomb ” whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple , the common people have a chance “. When an archer could kill a knight wearing armour with a modern day value of £1M.
The creation of a well discplined light infantry composed of volunteer archers was only possible because England was a more free society; there was greater ownership of land by a middle class, there was more meat to eat( needed to develop the muscles to draw the war bow) and archers fought alongside dismounted knights so there was greater respect between the classes. The speech by The Black Prince before Poitiers to the archers may have influenced that written by Shakespeare for Henry V in the play. It was said that after Potiers there was hardly a woman in England who did not own a piece of jewellery.The Peasants Revolt was largely because the Feudal system was not breaking down quickly enough and knights such as Sir Robert Knollys asked for clemency.
By 1500 angled steel plate could not be penetrated unless arrow was made of steel and fired at 50- 100yds or so.
What England gained from The Hundred Years War was a affluent, armed, land owning middle class, respect between the classes and a patriotic indentity based upon upon being able to defeat much larger enemy forces. The Yeoman is unqiue to England and is respected for being sturdy, staunch and being workmanlike; there is nothing servile about him. As a consequence of a lack of class hatred, the Peasants Revolt does not produce the cruelty of the Jaquerie Revolt of France. In fact the Peasants Revolt mainly focuses on killing lawyers and destroying records of serfdom. I would suggest there is great similarity between Hoplites of Greece, Plebians who supplied Roman Infantry and English Archers. An infantry composed of volunteer free fit farmers undergoing prolonged rigorous training will be better soldiers than conscripts, especially if they are servile.
I would suggest the middle class is the back bone of a nation and for it to prosper it needs to be strong, elastic and supple, like a war bow not weak and brittle.
Great description of English society and it merits.
I am not sure about your claims as to efficacy of longbow.
There are many sources on Internet where they actually tested longbows and arrows against armour using replica of material available at the time.
Most arrows could not penetrate armour at all.
Most kills were through slits in visors and most havoc was caused by killing horses.
Thank you. Mary Rose long bows had pull weights of up to 212lb. Until they were tested people did not believe the power because most modern men , especially academics too weak to draw them. How many men can lift 112lb with single hand 24 times in 2 minutes.
Depended upon whether arrow was steel or iron. There appears to be plenty of poor quality iron arrows.
By early 15th century wealthier knights were wearing sloping plate armour which varied enormously; the Milanese was the best.
I remember watching documentary about longbow.
If I recall, after invention of hardened Milanese armour the arrows were ineffective and longbowmen were slaughtered in some battle in Italy, thus disappearing from battlefield in early 16th century.
I’m sorry, historically speaking, this is nonsense. Militarily, there is no denying the effectiveness of expert longbowmen, but at a combat distance closer to 30 yards and only within a thought-through combined-arms application. Bear in mind, the English thumpingly lost the 100 Years’ War.
Politically, the statement is parochial and ignorant of the situation among the city-states of Northern Italy, the Swiss Confederation, the interplay between Crown and municipalities in Castile, Scotland, or various polities in eastern Europe such as the Hussites, etc.
The 100 Years creates a united England. There is a substantial body of skilled land owning combat experienced armed free men not justb serfs. The Model Parliament of 1295 means taxes are levied on wool with Member of Parliaments Consent. There are approximately 270 knights representing counties and burgesses representing townspeople out of a population of 4M, a ration of 1:`14,900. Though most cannot vote , people can have their say at the hustings ,so they have a voice.
There is a break down of the feudal system producing a far more meritocratic society. It is true Florence, Genoa and Venice are wealthy but yoeman archer standing next to a knight in the battle line is unique in Europe. Before Poitiers the Black Prince speaks to the archers,
You make it plain you are worthy sons and kinsmen of those for whom under the leadership of my father and ancestors, the Kings of England, no labour was too great, , no place invincible , no mountain inaccessible , no tower impregnable, no host too formidable.. If victory shall see us allive we shall always continue in form friendship togther, being of one heart and mind. If envious fortune should decree, which God forbid , that in this present labour we must follow the final path of all flesh, your names will not be be sullied with infamy, and I and my comrdaes will drink the same cup with you.
Name any other heir to a throne in 1356 spoke with such affection to the infantry? The English were outnumbered five to one.
What the Hundred Years War did was not make a king dependent upon the fighting spirit and skill of free ordinary men and the agreement of Members of Parliament to levy taxes to pay for war. The English King ruled through consulation and consent: no other ruler in Europe did. The English King did not employ mercenaries.
What the 100 Years war produces is a large body of land owning, non- aristocratic, armed , skilled combat experience archers who can and will defend their libertes and vote for or at least express their opinion to the King, which which is almost unique in Europe. Though people may of different rank, the English were one people.
England never has a peasants revolt like the Jaquerie or German Peasants War or French Revolution becase the aristocracy and monarch never has such contempt for the ordinary person and the feudal system breaks down far quicker: from 1100 AD there is a decline.
German Peasants’ War – Wikipedia
The yeoman archer is a figure of respect by monarch and aristocrat.
‘Sir Robert Knollys …. probably begun his career as an archer.’ It seems we can wave goodbye to the English past tense. RIP.
Although Lord Sumption seems to place war in the past, I fear our nice 30-year long holiday from war in Europe (at least most of it) is at an end.
It may not actually touch places like France and Britain directly.
But war certainly is very interested in all European nations just now.
“30-year long holiday from war in Europe”? We seem to have forgotten NATO’s unprovoked and lies-motivated 1999 attack on Serbia.
If I remember, from my reading W. Churchill’s history, the wars of this age, between England and France, were an inheritance of William the Conqueror (a French speaking viking).
If I’m not mistaken, were not the kings of England, in fact, French and seen as legitimate claimants to the French throne through William?
So, while the wars appear as English aggression, it was at the time, more of internal French struggle between rival claimants where English troops were fodder for one side.
I may have this wrong. I’m digging deep in my memory here…
Great article, as always, by Lord Sumption.
Just one issue.
Surely 30 years war was much wider and more brutal contest that 100 years war?
Well before Napoleon’s wars.
Good point. Someone said the trauma was so great that the German people would always support anyone who would prevent chaos and provide order.
I agree – and I don’t think Jonathan Sumption makes anywhere as sweeping a judgement as the title to the piece (which was probably devised as clickbait by a subeditor) implies.