Alfred H. Burne, The Crecy War: A Military History Of The Hundred Years War From 1337 to the Peace of Bretigny in 1360 (Albright)

Alfred H. Burne

The Crecy War: A Military History Of The Hundred Years War From 1337 to the Peace of Bretigny in 1360

(Pen & Sword, 1955; Reissue 2016) 366 pp. £12.99

crecy-war

This book, written shortly after World War II, forms the first part of a two-volume series by the author on the narrative history of the Hundred Years’ War. This particular volume provides a look at some big victories (Crecy, the capture of Calais, and Poitiers) and a lot of smaller ones, and it provides a strong narrative history that also shows a great deal of criticism of some of the sources. The author appears to revel in the fact that he is providing a very rare narrative of the whole course of the Hundred Years’ War, something which was not common in his time either in English or French historiography. It should be noted, though, that just as the author is willing to give a great deal of criticism, he is also willing to give a great deal of praise where he feels it is due, and whether he is giving one or the other, he is unstinting and often entertaining in his judgments, proceeding along lines of inherent military probability and seeking to make the best of often fragmentary records.

Although this is a narrative history, the author spends significant time commenting on sources and their varying quality. He lists what sources he finds to be most important, comments on the sources he mentions that other historians in the past have ignored, and laments where the French records are often lacking due to the chaos and confusion of early Valois France. Throughout the book, he has a lot of negative comments about Froissart, which shows up even in offhand comments where he is not even being cited as a source, as when the author comments on an incident at Calais where “the French were routed and Geoffrey de Chargny was captured. King Edward, on good evidence (by which I mean not merely on the “picturesque romancing” of Froissart), dashed into the thick of the fray and captured Eustace de Ribaumont (226-227).” Here we see the author poking at the credentials of one of the most notable sources of the Hundred Years’ War without any provocation. Burne is no less critical about contemporary historians he has weighed in the balance and found wanting, as his comment about one contemporary historian of his time demonstrates: “But Ferdinand Lot seizes on it and twists it to his own purpose. On such flimsy grounds and by such questionable methods does the learned historian seek to upset a hitherto universally accepted belief (316).” Fortunately for the reader, the Burne is not interested in ranting, and when he finds a source he likes and appreciates, he gives it as much praise as he dishes out criticism to those sources he finds unimpressive and unreliable.

The author begins his discussion of the Hundred Years’ War by pointing to its context, showing that the origin of the difficulties between the French and English during this period rested in the fact that the English king was supposed to pay homage to the French king for his territory in Gascony, held even after the disastrous reign of King John, which made questions of primacy and power and prestige a permanent source of difficulty for the two realms. Additionally, the hostility between Scotland and England and Scotland’s willingness to serve as a pawn for French interests in the Auld Alliance contributed to many centuries of suffering for Scotland and strife and tension for England. At several points in this narrative, events focus on abortive raids from Scotland or efforts on the part of England to subdue Scotland, neither of which were generally decisive. For the most part, though, the book follows the military campaigns in France, starting with the early campaigns taken in attempted alliances with German and Flemish nobles, then the campaigns in Brittany as well as Gascony and the Crecy Campaign, then the siege of Calais. By this time the narrative is more than half done as the author discusses the period between Crecy and Poitiers and the attempts of the French to counteract the superiority of English archers, the chevauchees of the Black Prince and Lancaster, the stunning success at Poitiers, and Edward’s last campaign which ended in the Peace of Bretigny, which the author comments as having presented England and France with the opportunity for peace having been taken advantage of through courtliness and savvy on the part of England and general exhaustion on the part of France after the capture of their king and the total absence of strong leadership on the part of the French monarchy.

Where this book particularly shines for the student of the Hundred Years’ War is in Burne’s commitment to praising the strategic genius of King Edward III and his band of brothers, bringing his success in expanding English rule and achieving striking victories against the French to the level of King Henry V’s more famous accomplishments at Agincourt. The author’s praise of Henry of Lancaster echos that of more contemporary historians like Nicholas Gribit [1], and his willingness to overlook the anachronistic moral judgments that have often led to Edward III being viewed as some sort of thuggish and wicked monarch is striking in its broadmindedness. Those readers who are willing to give Edward III and his subordinates credit for strategic and tactical brilliance that includes political and diplomatic savvy and who are willing to explore forgotten battles and campaigns in the Crecy War will be rewarded in reading this book, and it is no surprise that this book would be reissued sixty years after its original publication—it still is a worthy read about a worthy subject, and likely the sort of book that would be useful for students of late medieval England and France around the time of the Black Plague from high school through graduate school as well as beyond.

Nathan Albright
Norwich University

[1] Nicholas A. Gribit, Henry of Lancaster’s Expedition To Aquitaine, 1345-1346, Warfare And History 42 (Boydell & Brewer, 2016), 373 pp.

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