Book Review: The Hundred Years War, The English in France 1337-1453 by Desmond Seward

The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453

By: Desmond Seward (Penguin Books, New York City, 1978) Maps and Battle diagrams by Patrick Leeson

Review by: Benjamin Sparks, Worcester State University ‘12

Author Desmond Seward’s (b.1935) Hundred Years War, the English in France 1337-1453, is a remarkably concise and yet in-depth historical narrative of the military history, royal, and cultural history of this most legendary medieval period. As he states in the books foreword, this volume is meant to be a short account for the general reader of medieval history, not for the expert or specialist historian on medieval warfare and tactics. Seward indeed does a write a thoroughly researched and engaging work, tracing the larger picture history of England’s great campaigns in France.

Swirl of Knights and men at arms in combat during the Hundred Years' War 
from a 16th century depiction

 Conscience to enhance his work with the French monarchial and cultural influence on England’s aspirations or plans, or lack thereof throughout many years of the War, he wields an even keeled account of the conflict through the respective viewpoints of both England and France.

King John of France surrenders to the Black Prince at Poitiers 1356

Even though the stated goal of this book was to be concise, it still provides enough content through maps, illustrations, lineage trees, present era photos, and background history to create a thoroughly engaging and engrossing historical narrative of the greater Hundred Years’ War era from circa 1337-1453 to read as a complete history.

The Hundred Years War narration begins with the coronation of French King Charles IV, ending with the ‘Dismal Fight’ and death of Sir John Talbot in his 1453 campaign during the reign of Henry VI. The author follows with an all too short epilogue providing some useful maps of the territorial changes in France during this era, but only explains the military course of the period from 1455-1558 in less than three pages.  

Though this book almost seems to be broken down into eleven chapters which read like separate, stand alone essays, Seward bridges each chapter chronologically from Edward III claiming the French crown to the lose of Bordeaux after the Battle of Castillon 1453, doing a decent job to thematically link each chapter in a way that does not generalize and abbreviate the history of the Hundred Years War.

Death of Sir John Talbot at Castillon 1453

One strong aspect of Seward’s book and his narration is his constant revisiting of the French monarchy and the French martial influence on the conflict which locked the House of Valois and the English Plantagenet kings in battle for over a century. He most certainly shows a strong inclination towards French medieval history and the classical culture of the country in this period, perhaps frustrating those English only readers in North America by using French phrases and quotes without translation quite frequently. His knowledge is most helpful however in creating a balance of coverage however which doesn't let the English contribution to the conflict completely dominate the narrative framework of this book.

One particularly strong chapter in the second half of The Hundred Years Wars was chapter nine, ‘The Witch of Orleans’, detailing the rise and fall of Joan of Arc. This chapter highlights the political and military history surrounding her short but fascinating and celebrated life very briefly, though their seems to be this recurring motif or image of the ‘Witch of Orleans’ so feared and hated by the English knights, this bold teenage girl dressed as a man-at-arms, riding her black charger with a small battle axe in hand, fanatically calling the Dauphinist soldiers to arms.

Joan the Maid of Orleans at the Battle of Patay

Seward’s thesis for this chapter is that essentially even though she was an influential figure, inspiring loyalty (for a brief time) amongst some prominent knights of the era, and is later remembered as a patriot and a scion of religious radicalism & militarism one might argue -Joan of Arc actually played a rather miniscule role in the military course of the conflict.

Seward makes some great connections with the influence of the rich Dauphinist faction on the Hundred Years War in chapter nine, led by the weak Charles VII with help militarily from Constable de Richemont, and others including the knight called La Hire and the Bastard of Orleans. The author could have used more explanation on how these men especially Richemont, contributed to the renewed war with England in the field of battle and politically in France among the higher nobles, only hinting that Joan perhaps upset this balance for a time because she could have been a threat as an active military commander, author focuses little on the Maid of Orleans and instead focuses on the actions of the English knight and field commander Sir John Falstaff, and the larger struggle between England, the Burgundians, and the French throne which was evident during 1420-1435.

Joan captured by the Burgundians

Compared to a similar historical narrative in style and content, such as Trevor Royle’s Lancaster Against York, The Wars of the Roses & the foundation of Modern Britain (2008), Seward’s The Hundred Years Wars though not as focused as Royle’s narration of the greater Wars of the Roses Era from 1399-1485, is a much more complete book due to the extras added like the weapon drawings, maps, artifact photos, appendixes, etc. It reads with more clarity and conciseness than Royle’s book which relies on narrative alone to describe his chosen topic. Seward’s volume fields a much better index and very deep bibliography though Lancaster Against York does have a better organized appendix and select bibliography.

Desmond Seward’s The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453 is a worthwhile purchase because it offers the reader a chance to engage the complex, sporadic, and multi-sided conflicts and battles which defined the Hundred Years War between primarily France and England. For the novice historian or student in an introductory course who knows little about the Hundred Years Wars and the medieval period in general, this book is ideal for giving great details and accounts of the most important events, places, battles, and figures, without becoming bogged down in complicated theories and military biased studies of medieval warfare, whilst also commenting on the common myths and misconceptions which cloud the understanding of the conflict in the modern era.

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