The second volume of Sumption’s massive, and excellent history of the Hundred Years War covers just over twenty years, from 1347 to 1369. The first volume ended with the siege of Calais, which the English ended up occupying for 212 years.

Of course, a city on the coast by itself is not a very secure, nor self-sustaining location. So even as a truce is agreed to, it becomes a friction point as English troops start taking over other nearby locations and building up a proper defensive zone for the city, which became the Pale of Calais. This was made all the more important by the collapse of Flanders communes, and the Count of Flanders’ reasserting control, which meant that Calais was now the only realistic point of debarkation of an English army in northern France.

So even as repeated efforts at truces and real peace are made, there’s plenty of friction and not a little actual fighting. A few things complicate what would ordinarily have probably led to a renewed round of hostilities. First, the arrival of the Black Death disrupts plans, and more seriously(!) France’s finances are a shambles, and collecting money to collect troops is nearly impossible in any great scale.

Fortunately for France, England’s financial woes are also serious. There’s actually a fair amount of money coming in (unlike France, which misses out on a decade of economic prosperity enjoyed by the rest of western Europe), but just garrisoning Calais and other ‘static’ military expenditures eat up most of what is left after paying off the debts caused by the previous decade of warfare.

However, the real action is in south-western France, where all this trouble began. Companies of military adventurers had gotten fairly well organized (as far as such things go) and were carrying out operations of seizing local castles and fortified points, and then effectively holding the surrounding region for ransom. Then, they find somewhere else in reach of that point and take that.

This isn’t armies on the move, and sieges, great or small, these are quick operations done by surprise at night, generally by escalade (and I’ll save you trip to the dictionary; it means taking the place by putting ladders against the walls, and climbing over; this is also a commentary on how boring guard duty is). A lot of the book is actually taken up describing the course of these campaigns and showing how widespread they ended up. The upshot is that these regions are effectively no longer administered by France, and aren’t contributing any taxes, and most of the rest of France was insisting that taxes collected be used for local defense instead of providing an army to defeat the English and retake strategically important castles.

The ending portion of the book deals with the sequel to all of this as the formal Treaty of Bretigny puts these companies out of any official work, and both sides are trying to get them out so that the terms of the treaty can be implemented. This turns into several years of trying to corner and ship out of the country bands of experienced military adventurers.

Meanwhile, we have the King of Navarre, who has extensive holdings in France, has a number of grievances with the French court, and quite a lot of ambition. He murders one of John II’s advisors and launches several rounds of civil war with France. There’s the battle of Poitiers, in which John II is captured, and the interminable treaty wrangling after that (and need to gather a ‘king’s ransom’ for real). The Estates General and the Dauphin struggle for control, and neither can raise the money needed for the war effort or ransoming the king, and Paris ends up cut off on all sides and controlled a middle-class council. All of this erodes the power and prestige as France as a nation.

But all of this is not enough to actually dissolve it as an entity, and end of the book shows how French authority recovered in the late 1360s, as well as going into the complicated situation around Pedro of Castile and Henry of Trastamara, which both sides get involved in. Sumption takes his time with all these complications, which is why this is such a massive series, and of course, why it such an informative one. This is definitely an essential work on the period.