Richard Ballard, England, France and Aquitaine (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In England, France and Aquitaine, Richard Ballard narrates the English loss of Gascony in what would prove to be the final, decisive phase of the Hundred Years War. Ballard makes it clear that the Anglo-Gascon alliance had a long history and that Bordeaux was an important component of the mediaeval English political economy. It was also a bone of contention between England and France throughout the Hundred Years War.
Ballard begins his narrative with Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, but his story unfolds in more detail after Henry V and his opponent Charles VI both died in 1422. That brought two very different kings to the fore: the infant King Henry VI and France’s Charles VII. As he grew into his role, Henry VI developed little interest in war: Charles VII was a warrior King intent on expelling the English from France and ruling over a unified country. He also had a cadre of good commanders and the talismanic Joan of Arc to call on. Charles also reformed the tax system and built a new, loyal army on the proceeds. He played his political cards well too with not just England but powerful Burgundy and a mosaic of local authorities to deal with. When he settled his domestic affairs, Charles advanced into Gascony and took Bordeaux. An English attempt to retake the town ended in disaster at Castillon in 1453, which precipitated the Wars of the Roses back in England. That gave Charles the breathing space to consolidate his power. Ballard spends some time explaining the impact of that on Bordeaux and the consequences for Anglo-French relations. Louis XI succeeded Charles VII in 1461 and continued strengthening France. The threat from England had only receded, however, not disappeared, and Louis had to maintain France’s readiness for war. But when Edward IV arrived in France in 1475, Louis XI paid him off and they signed a treaty, officially ending the Hundred Years War.
Ballard’s account of the ending of the Hundred Years War follows the traditional mediaeval narrative of complex personalities and power politics. That can be confusing for the reader, particularly when Ballard checks back to pick up strands of stories to provide background or aid in identification of seemingly peripheral characters. That is not helped by some typos on dates in a book dependent on following the chronology. Nevertheless, Ballard handles the intricacy of 15th Century French politics very well and tells the gripping central story with some aplomb. He adds a solid bibliography for further study, though there was enough here to satisfy the general reader and most students of mediaeval history. I certainly knew more coming out than going in while enjoying the journey, which I think is the test for narrative history. 8/10.
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