The final volume of Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War does exactly what one would expect. Another eight-hundred pages on a bit more than twenty years of history. It’s excellent stuff as always, but I do feel like it’s a bit lacking. Sumption has always been light on the personalities of the people who haunt the pages of his history, and this more evident here, where both Charles VII and Henry VI are hard figures to understand.

Of course, his main strengths continue in this volume: Clear recounting of narrative history, and attention to the details of finance, recruiting, and wasted motion that inevitably rob large armies and successful campaigns of any ability to bring a large war to its close.

In particular, English finances are in poor shape thanks to all the borrowing Henry V had to do to finance his campaigns in France. However, he had finally converted England’s successes into a real treaty, and gotten a chance to set up an administration across much of northern France. This allowed for tax collection in France to pay for the war in France (well, only part of it, but that was the theory). At the same time, the rump Kingdom of Bourges has little political power, and less money. Once Charles VII is actually crowned, political capital recovers, which is used to re-impose disagreeable levels of taxation, and the financial situation reverses as England deals with declining revenues at home and abroad.

Indeed, the start of the book in 1422 sees both sides politically crippled. Henry V’s heir is eleven months old when he inherits the crowns of England and France, leaving a long regency. The top men are mostly competent, with the Earl of Gloucester being more of a bull in a china shop, but generally kept under control. The real problem is that as the situation grows worse, the main sticking point to negotiations are the English claim to the title “King of France”, and no councilor wants to have to explain to his King on his future majority how he lost that title. It’s something that needed doing (but may still have been insufficient), but since the King was too young to take the step himself, negotiating it away without him invites a treason charge later. And of course, when Henry VI does grow up, there’s no saving Lancastrian France, but there’s no talking him out of the title either.

Meanwhile, Charles VII’s court is still crippled by the internal divisions of the civil war that let England win much of northern France, and get the Duke of Burgundy in their camp. There are several more rounds of internal fighting and deposed councilors, which continue to waste the political strength of the administration in Bourges. But, even when unpopular, the men at the top are generally competent, and the internal fighting slowly winds down with factions largely swept away. This gives Charles VII the strength to go on the offensive, and erode the English position in many of the same ways as the English had done to the French for the last century, devastating areas, taking individual fortified posts by surprise and destroying the ability to generate revenues from the area (nor generate much of anything else…).

The primary dramatic moment comes early, with the English high-water mark. A controversial campaign has devolved into a punishing siege of Orleans, but despite being painfully overextended, the English are winning the battles. Money is nearly out, the garrison is dwindling, and court in Bourges is contemplating moving east to retain what they can there, but they’d be largely cut off from outside help from Scotland or Castile. Joan of Arc’s arrival turns things around, probably more from morale effects as anything else. After the English are defeated at Orleans, the self-confidence of both sides largely swaps, and the crowning of Charles VII just cements this development.

The secondary dramatic moment is the end, when the remaining English positions in Normandy fall in one vigorous campaign. After over a decade of continual losses and ever-deepening financial troubles, there’s precious little will left, and the entire area submits with very few people willing to put up with a siege over was has been an increasingly lost cause. For a denouement we get the end of Gascony, a sudden reversal as an English army actually gets there, and then that campaign’s collapse. We also see the start of the Wars of the Roses as factionalism in England deepens in the wake of failure.

The series weighs in at about 3580 pages of text covering one hundred twenty-five years. It is possible to go much deeper into the weeds than Sumption does, but outside of the things routinely studied of the war, you truly are in the weeds. In fact, the value of his books is all the things he covers from independent captains holding enemy countryside hostage to details of taxation and loans all put into a single framework. Its a truly amazing and readable series, enjoyable for anyone with an interest from start to finish.