Five Essential Books on the Hundred Years War

Divided Houses

Got a request a couple days ago about books on the Hundred Years War.  I’ve been meaning to post something about what I was reading, and maybe I’ll follow up with that at the end of that post.  I’m going to preface my examples and remarks with a couple of quick observations

First, there are a ton of great reads on this conflicts.  Not just lots of books, but lots of good reading. So if you are interested in military history and are looking for another period to learn about, there is ample material.

Second, the core historians writing about he Hundred Years War in English are, not surprisingly, Brits.  Their research and willingness to shatter old myths perpetuated by Shakespeare, Alfred Burne and others changed our perception of this conflict.  It’s what keeps me buying books and reading their stuff.

Anne Curry

  1. Jonathan Sumption.  Yes that’s an author’s name and not a book title.  Sumption is the pre-eminent narrator of the period and has four books 1) Trial by Battle, 2) Trial By Fire, 3) Divided Houses, 4) Cursed Kings.  I have read the first three, and the first book twice. Sumption is so good at telling the story and helping us understand the political, social, economic as well as the military strands to this conflict.  It’s big picture stuff that’s complex but he somehow masters the contemporary sources and pulls it together into a readable, cogent narrative. Expensive and dense, not for the faint of heart, but definitely the best. Cursed Kings was released in August 2015, which I just learned as I was writing this article.
  2. War Cruel and Sharp by Clifford Rogers is an analysis of the English military system as it evolved under Edward III, and how it was used tactically and strategically.  Gone is the view the English army was small, outnumbered and beleaguered. It was an offensive weapon that sought battle.  Rogers traces the development and employment of the army from its development on the Scottish border to its ultimate victory at Crecy. I got my copy used, which helps with cost.
  3. Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years War edited by Anne Curry and Michael Hughes.  This book is a collection of essays by many different writers on a variety of military topics relating to the Hundred Years War.  There is an essay on battlefield tactics and two more on the composition of the English army 14th and again 15th Century. The war at sea and defense of the English coast are covered.  It is a real wealth of information in very manageable chunks.
  4. Agincourt: A New History by Anne Curry.  Curry takes one of the best known stories, told by Shakespeare, re-told by Col Burne in the 1940’s and kicks the props out from under it.  Curry has investigated and written about Agincourt for decades, but this narrative of the campaign and battle challenges long held beliefs about the size of both armies and tactics used by English and French armies.  A great book. Honorable Mention: Henry V and the Battle that Made England is a more traditional history by Juliet Barker.  Like Curry’s book, this was released in 2006.  It takes a more conventional look at Agincourt, but is also a broader examination of Henry V and events that shaped his decision making-his wounding at Shrewsbury, the usurpation of Henry IV and its role in the Southampton Plot. A great narrative. The two books are great together.
  5. Conquest: The English Kingdom in France 1417-1450 by Juliet Barker.  This is a great topic nobody else covers well. Maybe Sumption will. Barker focuses on Henry V’s second invasion of France and resulting conquest of Normandy as well as efforts to conquer all of France.  Yes, Joan of Arc makes her way into the narrative, as does the social impact of colonizing Normandy.  Barker doesn’t let us forget that England lost the war and focuses some attention on France’s reconquest. The only single volume history I’m aware of that covers this period.

One last entry–and I’ve said this over and over again-that is worth a read is the Agincourt chapter from John Keegan’s Face of Battle.  If that doesn’t stir some interest in this period, I don’t know what will.

There are loads of other histories that cover battles, soldiers and armor as well as interesting biographies. It is a historical era awash in great historical writing.  There are some items not covered well in English and that is the war from a French perspective. There should be biographies of the Valois kings from Philip VI to Charles VII, with a really great one on Charles V.  There should be a great study of the Bureau brothers and how their artillery changed the course of the war.  There should be a great study of the evolution of the French army during the Hundred Years War.  A People's History

What I’m reading now:

The Hundred Years War: A Peoples History by David Green.  This is a great book that takes a broader look at the social impact of the war on England and France.  Because we don’t have the sources to focus on the lot of Piers the Plowman, Green tends to examine the very small middle class, but the picture he paints ain’t all jousts and feasts.  Tough to live in the 14th century.

Divided Houses by Jonathan Sumption.  This may be the best of Sumption’s work.  It covers the years between the Treaty of Bretigny and the fall of Richard II and the House of Plantagenet. Packed in its 800+ pages of text are the English obsession with Castile as well as the strategic vision for its possessions in France. The emergence of Charles V (the Wise) as a great king and war leader and how he transformed French economy and military system into a winner and drove the English to the brink of defeat.  Not an easy read.  It took me six weeks to finish.  But it is just a great book on little known topics.

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3 comments on “Five Essential Books on the Hundred Years War

  1. Kurt Weihs says:

    Where would you rank Froissart?

    • kgsmyth55 says:

      Kurt, Froissart is pretty contemporary, but was still writing decades after the fact in most cases. Most historians take him seriously, but balance his work with others, such as the Chandos Herald or Geoffrey Le Baker to name two.

  2. Greg says:

    Thanks for the list, Kevin. I’ll start with Keegan, as I have a copy around here somewhere (and had forgotten about the Agincourt chapter within).

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