Book Review: Cursed Kings

Cursed Kings

As I headed back to school last September, I was shocked to see “Cursed Kings” was available on Amazon.  This is the title of the fourth volume in Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War.

The book picks up where the third volume, “Divided Kingdoms” left off, with the usurpation of Richard II’s throne by Henry of Lancaster (Henry IV,) and the onset of insanity in the French king, Charles VI.

The book begins with the struggles faced by Henry IV to assert his legitimacy, as well as conflicts with Parliament to wangle sufficient revenue to maintain his household, let alone protect his Gascon holdings in France. Throughout his reign (1399-1413,) Henry faced multiple uprisings on the Scottish border as well as the persistent rebellion in Wales led by Owen Glendower. These were complicated by his own poor health and a wary eye on his talented, but ambitious, son the Prince of Wales.

In France things were, if anything, worse.  The intermittent madness of King Charles led to a dynastic struggle to control the royal council and the resources of France.  Led by the Armagnac faction of Valois uncles and brothers to the king, France exploded in civil war when the John Duke of Burgundy murdered Louis Duke of Orleans in the streets of Paris in 1407.  From that time on, the Burgundy and Armagnac factions of the Valois family were in constant conflict, illustrating the fundamental weakness of the French monarchy: though France was a much richer country than England, it was divided between the two factions that counted on quasi-independent dukedoms like Brittany and Navarre to support them in a bloody civil war, just as the greatest warrior king in English history was set to embark on a new invasion of France.

Henry V’s entry in the Hundred Years War was so much more than his Crispin’s Day address and the Battle of Agincourt. Though his reign was comparatively brief, 1413-1422, his campaign to open Normandy to invasion at Harfleur, the shocking defeat of the French army, and his relatively rapid conquest of Normandy and mastery of siege warfare, opening the Seine valley all the way to Paris itself should not be overlooked. His job was made somewhat easier by the persistent strife among the French.  The disaster at Agincourt was enabled chiefly because the French army was thrown together shortly before the battle and because there was really nobody to lead it. It simply marched to its death without a battle plan, and without a commander agreed upon by the Burgundy and Armagnac factions.

As Henry blazed a trail through Normandy, the struggle to control the streets of Paris, manage revenues even the person of King Charles and Queen Isabelle continued. John “the Fearless” generally had the support of the Parisian mob.  Armagnac forces struggled to coalesce around a strong leader as the two oldest of Charles’ sons died. Eventually, his youngest son, became Dauphin and leader of the anti-Bugundian French.  His murder of John “the Fearless” in 1419, led to a withdrawal of Burgundy from active participation from the war with the English, but instead became more of a diplomatic interloper, together with Brittany and other lesser feudal French vassals who could, and did play both sides of the game.

Unable to compel the Dauphin to fight the decisive battle he, and all English kings sought, Henry agreed to a lasting treaty, guaranteeing a certain amount of his goal.  The 1420 Treaty of Troyes wedded Henry to Catherine of Valois.  It also established Henry as nominal regent of France and created a dual kingdom of France and England. It insure that his heirs would also be King of France and England and essentially disinherited the Dauphin.

The book ends with French fortunes at a low ebb, but the English in France as largely a spent force.  With Henry in control of Paris and consolidating his control around the city, he is faced with the same crisis of fiscal collapse that confronted Edward III, Richard II and his father.  Unable to make the conquest and settlement of Normandy pay for itself, crushed by years of high taxation at home, parliament withdrew its unwavering financial support for the war in France. On the battlefield, Henry successfully removed persistent Dauphinist strongholds threatening the feeding, and subsequent civil peace of Paris.  Unfortunately his successes are undone when he contracted dysentery and died.  His death is followed shortly after, by that of his father-in-law, bringing an end to a long era of uncertainty in the French monarchy.

Jonathan Sumption’s histories are always a commitment in time and persistence by the reader.  The 773 pages in text in this volume are no different. It took me months to get through it as demands on my reading time were very extravagant this spring. But Sumption’s work remains accessible and provides remarkable detail about this conflict.  In this volume he pulls together an incredible number of threads-social, economic, political, and military-to assemble a complete picture of the conflict. I was left with a fuller understanding of the hopelessness of the English cause that might be a winner on the battlefield, but like the snake that swallowed a porcupine, France was simply too big and spiny a meal.  Though the French certainly did its best to sabotage its own defense, it’s clear by the end of the book and Henry’s death that, though the English kingdom in France could continue for a time, the English shot most of the limited bolts left to them, and the ending will not be pretty.

If you have an interest in the Hundred Years War, or want a greater understanding of the context for Agincourt, this book is a must read.  Not a summer at the beach reading, but definitely worth the time.

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