Trial by Battle by Jonathan Sumption – A Review

trial by battle

Published: 1990
Pages: 672

Trial by Battle is the first volume in Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War. It begins with the death of Charles IV, King of France, in 1328 and ends with the fall of Calais to Edward III in 1347.

Many pages and words are spent on examining the causes of the war. This is really useful, as its origins are more complex than shorter histories choose to say. It’s not simply that Edward III was making a claim for the French crown, or that he was defending a man who had taken refuge in his court, or that he wanted to recover lost territory in Aquitaine, although all of these (particularly the last) played a part. Sumption takes more than 200 pages to look at the political situations in England and France, their relative wealth and the characters of their kings. When the war finally starts, it makes some kind of sense.

I knew about some of the things that happened during this stage of the war, but Sumption shows how they relate to one another. Events that have always seemed unconnected are joined together by his vast knowledge and understanding of primary and secondary sources in different languages. Apparently he reads French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, Catalan and Latin. The bibliography alone takes up 14 pages.

As you would expect from a Law Lord, Lord Sumption is very decisive on the legal niceties of claims of kingship and repudiating treaties. He also has a very clear view on what Edward III intended to achieve when he declared himself king of France.

I have enjoyed reading Trial by Battle very much, but I don’t know that I would recommend it to someone who knew nothing about the Hundred Years War. It would probably help to have an overview of what happened during this period and to have some knowledge of who was involved first. I was very uncertain about who was doing what in the Low Countries, partly because some of the counts and princes owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor and some to the King of France and I wasn’t always sure which was which, but also because most of them changed sides, one or two of them more than once. If you already have some understanding of the early years of the Hundred Years War, but want more detail, this is probably the book for you.


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:










Filed under Book Review, Hundred Years War, Medieval Warfare

9 responses to “Trial by Battle by Jonathan Sumption – A Review

  1. Sounds great, but I’m not sure I would ever get around to reading it, which is a pity. I did do a quick check to see if it was available in audio, but it seems not 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know that it’s something I would want to have read to me. There are also maps and diagrams and family trees, which wouldn’t work on audio.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s the problem with audio – it works much better with fiction. I’m currently listening to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book on Thomas Cromwell (an audio loan from the library) but I also found it on Kindle for the princely sum of $5.00, so I’ll be able to read the notes and bibliography etc and go back to the book if need be.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. A useful addtion to prior knowledge by the sound of it. I do know bits about the 100, but probably out of context and in the wrong order!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m more or less OK for the first 30 or so years, but when we get to the 15th century I’m completely lost. I’ve never understood why what I assumed were subjects of the French king burned Joan of Arc. I think I might have to wait for the fifth volume to find out how that worked.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a great read. The first volume alone is over 600 pages?! My, this really was an intense war. I’ll definitely need to do some preliminary research before diving in!


    • The most recent volume is over 900 pages. I think it’s because it covers the battle of Agincourt. Apparently Lord Sumption started the whole enterprise because he wanted to write about Agincourt and to write about that battle he had to understand everything that had gone before..

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: 2020 Week Seventeen – The Retired Reader

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s