If you think of the Hundred Years War, epic English victories like Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt would probably come to mind. However despite these impressive military triumphs, the fact is that the French ultimately won the series of wars that stretched out over a 116-year period. Anne Curry, an English expert on the Hundred Years War, brings her considerable knowledge of the subject to bear in Osprey's Essential Histories volume #19. Quite simply, this volume is a tour de force in that the author presents a complex subject with insight and depth. Unlike some of the other volumes in this series, The Hundred Years War 1337-1453 represents a real research effort and not just a condensation of other sources. This is one of the best volumes that Osprey published in 2002.
As usual, The Hundred Years' War 1337-1453 begins in standard Osprey format with a short introduction, a chronology, a background to the war and the opposing sides and how the war began. The narrative of the war itself is 38 pages in length. Final sections are portrait of a soldier (one French and two English), the cruel nature of the war (attacks on civilians, raids on England), portrait of a civilian (the remarkable female poet and historian Christine de Pizan), how the war ended and conclusions. The author has provided a substantial bibliography as well as genealogical tables for both the French and English nobility. There are a total of ten maps (English lands in Gascony, campaigns in Northern France in 1340, campaigns in the north in 1341-1359, the campaign of 1346, the campaigns of the Black Prince, the second phase of the war, the Agincourt campaign, campaigns of 1415-1428, English garrisons in Normandy, and the defeat of the English) in this volume and they add great value.
The Hundred Years War was unusual for its protracted nature, although this was frequently interrupted by truces. The English, who began the war with modest objectives and expanded them when fortune favored their cause, crushed one French army after another in the early phases of the war. Much of French fell under English control by 1415 and it appeared that the French monarchy was in eclipse. Anne Curry does a wonderful job detailing how the French gradually turned the war around, beginning with the incredible campaigns of Joan of Arc. The French were not the complete blockheads that recurrent defeats would suggest, but were capable of learning from past mistakes. During the 1430s, the French monarchy oversaw the creation of the first standing army in Europe since the Romans. The French were also quick to adopt and efficiently organize artillery, which was used to help smash English armies at Formigny and Castillon (battles that are all but forgotten but which helped to decide the war). The author also does a splendid job detailing the war finances and economies of both sides. French revenue grew ten-fold during the course of the war as the French monarchy organized a robust tax system. However, the English fought the war on an economic shoestring and their revenues declined as the war dragged on. Indeed, the English often conquered land that was devastated and incapable of producing revenue for some time. In the end, the English lacked the money to sustain large armies in France and they were eventually overwhelmed. The author rightly calls this war a defining moment in European history, where large standing armies become possible and royal authority was forced to construct more complex fiscal structures than had existed under parochial feudalism.