You will be able to tell from the number of pages that Desmond Seward’s A Brief History of the Hundred Years War really is brief. In his Trial by Battle, the first volume of his five volume history of the Hundred Years War, Jonathan Sumption takes 200 pages just to cover the causes of the war, so it’s fairly obvious that a book of this size isn’t going to help anyone understand why things happened. I still don’t really understand the political situation in France in the first half of the fifteenth century that allowed both sides in a civil war to ask for Henry V’s help, only for one side to assist him later in his goal to obtain the French crown. I do have a better idea of the battles and sieges of that period, though.
The book is a chronological telling of the events of the Hundred Years War, with the exception of the chapter in which Joan of Arc appears. As it must have seemed to the English and Burgundian armies at the time, she appears out of nowhere and Seward goes back in time to explain her arrival. In many ways this underlines Seward’s bias towards the French. Joan appeared as a kind of saviour figure outside the walls of Orleans, which was besieged by the English and the Burgundians.
I found this bias quite tiring, as the worst thing Seward (who was born in Paris) has to say about any French king, save Charles VII, is that he wasn’t a very good soldier (all of them except one) or that he had a taste for luxury. Charles VII, he says, was physically and mentally weak, and his confessors thought he was a heretic. Edward III, in comparison, was a womaniser who spent his senile last years drinking. Richard II became ‘insanely tyrannical’ and Henry V is compared to Napoleon and Hitler. English soldiers carried out atrocities, while French soldiers, presumably, behaved like perfect gentlemen. Seward also says that Roger Mortimer was ‘perhaps the nastiest man ever to rule England’. I’m fairly certain there would be more votes for John Lackland on that score.
The only Englishman for whom he has a good word is the Duke of Bedford, Henry V’s brother and regent for Henry VI in France, who ‘loved the French’. The French apparently loved him in return, but that’s possibly because there was order and, more or less, peace in the part of France that he controlled.
1978 was a long time ago and Seward includes a few things that contemporary historians would feel less able to be dogmatic about. He states confidently, for example, that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella were lovers and that the queen was carrying his child. He’s also happy to write that Edward II was killed by a red hot poker and that Isabella spent the rest of her life after Mortimer’s fall as a prisoner. I suspect there are similar bald statements about the fifteenth century part of the war, but I know a lot less about what was going on then to be able to know.
As you can tell, the book doesn’t have a huge amount to recommend it, other than the brevity which is mostly the reason for for its faults. It is easy to read, which is a plus and it does include all the major battles and a few of the sieges in the war. If you want something that you can read in a couple of days that will give you an idea of what happened during the Hundred Years War, this might be the book for you. If you want to understand why and how things happened, I’d recommend saving your pennies for Jonathan Sumption’s more comprehensive history of the war.