Alive and kicking: the 100 Years’ War

Forget the Oberammegau. Ditch Bayreuth. If you want a summer outdoor spectacle, go to Castillon in the south of France.

These days it shouldn’t be too hard to persuade a couple of thousand French men and women to watch the humiliation of the English. We have made it very easy for them – switch on your TV and you can nightly view the absurdities to which the British submit themselves as they struggle to extricate themselves from the European Union.

But to pay €24 for the privilege of watching the re-enactment of a 500 year-old Anglo-French battle, sitting on uncomfortable seats, outdoors and open to all weathers, deep in the French countryside, seems just a mite masochistic. To do so as an Englishman, amid a crowd of French, was surely to risk a good deal of crowing, at least?

The re-enacted battle in question was that of Castillon, the final fling of the Hundred Years War, that lengthy struggle between France and England for the crown of France. Nothing was simple in that war, which lasted between 1337 and 1453. When the French army captured Bordeaux – as thorough a French city as any, one might think – in 1451, its citizens, who had been ruled by the English for 300 years, wrote to Henry VI of England, demanding that he come to their aid and re-take the city. Henry VI of England, who lived for fifty years until May 1471, was the only English king also to be crowned king of France.

France and Britain are brothers. Like brothers there are times of intense argument and jealousy, times of misunderstanding and times when they just can’t stand one another

So on 17 October 1452 John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, led a small English force of about 3,000 who landed at Bordeaux, certain that they would put the French in their place. All fighting ceased during the months of winter but by summer 1453 the French army under Charles VII were ready. On 17 July 1453 near the town of Castillon-sur-Dordogne, British and French armies struggled to the death in the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War. The French, thanks to their artillery, soundly beat perfidious Albion at the Battle of Castillon; the English were virtually wiped out and Talbot was killed on the battlefield by a French archer armed with an axe. Talbot’s embalmed heart is buried beneath the porch of St Alkmund’s Church in the centre of the town of Whitchurch, Shropshire, England.

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The English thereupon lost all the territory they held in France, except Calais – which, being swamped with booze-cruising Brits even in 1453, the French were glad to ignore until they tidied matters up in 1558, when they took it back. No-one knows the precise number of those who died in the Hundred Years War; estimates oscillate around 3.5 million, which means it ranks number 28 in the “book of horrible things”, but given the sporadic pustules of Black Death, sorting out how people died in those days is not easy.

Fast forward to summer 2018, a summer which will linger long in the memory for its apparently endless days of heat. In the sunlit August evening I wandered amid crowds of French people, as we waited for the show to begin, queuing for snacks and buying some locally produced honey. At around 9 pm the crowds began to take their seats, steeply raked an open to the chilling air. In front, about 150 yards away, the ‘stage’, again open to the elements, a hillside that rose away from the audience, creating a valley between audience and ‘stage’. There was a frisson among the crowd, an anticipatory chatter, as 2,500 people settled into their seats.

But like brothers, when one is attacked the other steps in to protect and defend

Then at 10pm the floodlights were thrown, bathing the stage in brightness and lighting the set of buildings that were to form the stable centrepiece of the action. In the valley we saw people in peasants’ dress doing a dozen different things – leading carts and animals, chatting and teasing, selling wares from market stalls, falling over, stealing kisses – while characters playing the part of monks spoke about peace, France, and harmony. As the evening moved on, men on horseback charged back and forth, sometimes in the blue garb so easily identifiable as belonging to the French troops, sometimes in the red-and-white that marked them as English. The seamless movement of the characters – all amateurs, all volunteers – was mesmerising. The culmination was the ‘bombardment’ by the French ‘artillery’ – a racket of rockets, a flare-up of fireworks, a colourful and booming blast of sound and colour and smoke, as ‘cavalrymen’ chased one another across the hillside opposite. The English were – of course – defeated. But the defeat passed almost without notice and there was no jingoist jubiliation by the French. It was history; it was thrilling.

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Inevitably as I watched this unusual and little-known spectacle I found myself reflecting on the centuries of Anglo-French relations, all the blood that has been shed between us, and by us in mutual support, all the bitterness and all the arrogance and all the camaraderie and barbs and passion. I had spent a week in the deepest countryside of France, a place of profound peace, amid locals who were amiable, humourous, and charming. Perhaps they can afford to be so. In any case, the Battle of Castillon reminded me of just how incredibly long is our shared history – how intertwined is Britain and France, despite everything. Paris is of course different – but if one wanted to know Britain, I would not recommend travelling to London.

France and Britain are brothers. Like brothers there are times of intense argument and jealousy, times of misunderstanding and times when they just can’t stand one another – flare-ups over apparently nothing, such as the scallops’ struggle right now. But like brothers, when one is attacked the other steps in to protect and defend. One brother is useless at learning foreign languages, the other feels nervously insecure about itself; but they remain brothers. I don’t see this changing, even as Britain moves towards leaving the European Union. There will be plenty of mockery on both sides, and well as envy on both sides, but it’s impossible to think that this brotherhood will die – it’s too old for that.