The Hundred Years’ War: A Century of Bloodshed
As one of the key strategic regions of Europe, and a prosperous, large kingdom of the Middle Ages, France was always an area of struggle, intrigue, war, and vying for power. Ever since its emergence, it was a prize sought after by the ravenous monarchs of Europe; and one of the crowns that sought to claim its right to the French throne was England. During the Hundred Years’ War, the ruling house of England, the House of Plantagenet, descended into a long and bitter conflict against the cadet branch of the French Capetian dynasty – the House of Valois. At the center of this conflict was the right to rule the Kingdom of France – and that meant power, wealth, and influence.
The long conflict between two of medieval Europe’s largest kingdoms made for a significant event of the era, and influenced many aspects of life in the region – from politics to the economy. Let’s learn more about the Hundred Years’ War, which actually took place from 1337 to 1453.
The Background to the Hundred Years’ War
One of the direct causes for the emergence of the conflict between the thrones of France and England was the death of French King Charles IV the Fair. As the king died in 1328 in his 33rd year without male heirs, the long ruling dynasty of the Capetians was ended in its direct line. As is always the case when a king dies without male heirs, the vying for the throne immediately took place. Charles IV was married three times, and at the time of his death was married to his cousin, Jeanne d’Evreux, who was pregnant. Alas, she gave birth to a daughter with the issue of succession still at large.
The problem was even more threatening due to the fact that Charles’ closest male relative was the King of England, Edward III, whose mother was Isabella of France, a daughter of King Phillip IV of France. This fact was not welcomed by the French nobility or the people – they disdained the notion of having a foreign king. So the throne was passed to a close patrilineal cousin of Charles – the Count of Valois, Phillip. The House of Valois was the most senior extant branch of the Capetian dynasty and a fitting continuation in the eyes of the French.
One major thing that prevented the English King Edward III to challenge the claim to the French throne was the so-called Salic Law. The law was created in 500 AD by the first Frankish king, Clovis, and among other things, it states that males cannot inherit a throne through their mothers. Reluctantly, Edward the III agreed to pay homage to the new French ruler, Philip VI, as England at the time ruled over the Duchy of Aquitaine.
Edward had to pay homage due to the fact that there was an ongoing conflict between England and Scotland, where he needed to focus his attention. But when the French throne under Phillip decided to support David Bruce of Scotland, the tensions only flared up higher.
Everything culminated in 1337, when Phillip VI decided to confiscate the Duchy of Aquitaine and put it back under French control in order to reassert his power as a ruler. This was done under a pretense that the English king sheltered Robert III d’Artois – an enemy of the French throne. In response to the seizing of the Duchy of Aquitaine, Edward III challenged Phillip’s right to the French throne – igniting the war between the two nations.
Right from the start of this conflict, Edward sought to take a cunning approach against the French. At the time, his was the weaker side – England only numbered around 4 million people at the time, while France had up to 17 million inhabitants – and thus he had to be careful. He made attempts to use the “divide and conquer” tactic, supporting certain French nobles against their rivals and attempting to gain allies within France, in order to further undermine the political situation in France.
During the first stages of the war, the English conducted several raids of the French coastline, plundering wealth. At the time, the French navy gathered a vast fleet that threatened England from across the channel. Edward dealt with this fleet in a daring clash that would be one of the most important events of the early Hundred Years’ War – the Battle of Sluys.
The First Victories for the English
This battle happened in June 1340, when the French fleet – numbering 230 vessels – encountered the English fleet of around 150 ships. With skilled maneuvers the English fleet had the upper hand, and they managed to utterly crush the French forces around the port of Sluys. French casualties numbered up to 20,000 men – compared to only 600 for the English. Furthermore, the English captured 166 French ships, and destroyed 24. With this victory, England was no longer threatened by the French navy, and could freely focus on the conflict on the land.
Battle of Sluys (15th century) by Jean Froissart. (Public Domain)
For the next few years, the war consisted of continued struggle in Brittany, with mixed successes on both sides, but without significant events. It was only in 1346 that Edward led a decisive and surprising invasion of France from across the channel. Caen was captured in a single day, taking the French off guard.
In response, the French King Phillip VI mustered his army and marched against Edward. The two armies clashed at the Battle of Crécy, on August 26, 1346. For the French the battle was a complete and utter disaster. Edward relied heavily on the use of longbows, and during the battle these weapons proved to be the decisive factor.
In the opening stages of the battle, French mercenary crossbowmen were routed by English and Welsh longbowmen, who had a better range and a better position. The French mounted knights attacked next and were also routed with heavy losses. At the end of the day, the French king fled, himself being wounded in the jaw by an arrow. The French casualties were immense, numbering several thousand, as well as up to 4,000 nobles killed, among them the Duke of Lorraine. On the other side, the English numbered around 300 casualties.
Battle of Crécy (15th century) by Jean Froissart. (Public Domain) Note the prominence of the Anglo-Welsh longbowmen on the right.
The Black Prince Marches to Battle
Edward III now marched through France unopposed. In 1347 he captured the major town of Calais, which was a key strategic point, allowing him to establish his troops and his presence in the north of France. But the war would see a sudden halt – in 1348 Europe was utterly ravaged by the Black Death, which would last until 1355. During this period, in 1350, Phillip VI died, and was succeeded by his son, John II the Good.
After the Black Plague passed, England quickly resumed their actions in France. Edward III’s son, Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince , led a series of successful raids across France, sacking and plundering Limousin, Auvergne, Carcassonne, Avignonet, and others. During one of these raids, the Black Prince encountered the army of King John II, and the meeting soon escalated into the Battle of Poitiers.
This even occurred on September 19, 1356, and was another disastrous French defeat. During the battle their forces were outflanked and encircled by a surprise attack, with their retreat completely cut off and their advance halted. Casualties were heavy for the French, and even King John II was captured, alongside many of his nobles. After this crushing defeat and the capture of the king, France descended into chaos.
King John at the Battle of Poitiers by Eugène Delacroix. (Public Domain)
Even so, Edward had no further success in his attempts to seize the major towns of Reims and Paris. And the English army, encamped near Chartres, was struck by an especially devastating storm on Easter 1360. Describe by many as a “freak of nature,” the vicious storm of wind, hail, and lighting caused chaos among the encamped English, causing 1000 casualties. This led Edward to sue for peace, which was gained in May of 1360 with the Treaty of Brétigny. This peace would last from 1360 to 1369.
But after those nine years of relative peace between the two nations, tensions once more rose. In the war for the crown of Castille that was ongoing, England and France supported opposing sides. England then taxed their region of Aquitaine even more than usual, in hopes of covering their debts. Aquitaine reacted harshly to the taxation and their nobility turned to France for help. France once more confiscated the Duchy of Aquitaine, reigniting the war in 1369.
With the passing of the years, players on the field of battle began changing. John II died while being imprisoned in London, and he was succeeded by Charles V the Wise. The new French king had an able commander on his side – the Breton Bertrand du Guesclin, a master of guerilla and attrition warfare. Together they reclaimed many of the lost French territories.
But after a while, the English forces checked some of their advances and managed to reach a stalemate, without any major pitched battles being led. Furthermore, the Black Prince died in 1376, and his father King Edward III died in the following year, being succeeded by Richard II, a boy of only 10. His leadership had no regency, even though he was a child. His early rule was met with many difficulties, mainly in England, sending the war with France into the background.
Prelude to Agincourt – England’s Finest Moment
In 1380, Charles V and his commander Du Guesclin both died. The French King was also succeeded by a boy, the 11 year old Charles VI. This also placed the war with England in the background. The war was largely slowed down for both sides.
Now both France and England depended on the taxes in their lands to continue to fund the war effort. But the high taxation caused much discontent among the common folk. Thus, due to the increasingly changing situation in both nations, the period between 1389 and 1415 was marked with relative peace between the warring sides.
In the meantime, England had a new King. Richard II was deposed in 1399, and Henry IV seized the throne, only to die in 1413. Henry the V succeeded him as the new King of England. The first thing on Henry’s agenda was war .
The ambitious King Henry V would lead a huge army across the channel and invade France once more. After a few initial successes, the English army found themselves outmaneuvered and outnumbered – facing an opposing French army at Agincourt. What happened next will remain etched in history as the greatest English victory.
The famous Battle of Agincourt was fought on October 25, 1415 on St. Crispin’s Day. The English were greatly outnumbered, and their army was almost eighty percent longbowmen. Still, unexpectedly, they had some key advantages, mainly in the layout of the terrain. Freshly plowed fields on the battlefield quickly turned to sticky mud, and made advancing very difficult for the French soldiers, who were cut down en-masse by the superior range of the English longbow. Agincourt was another overwhelming victory for the English.
Battle of Agincourt, 15th century miniature. (Public Domain)
A Hero Led by God and the End of the Hundred Years’ War
Once more, France was faced with turmoil within its own ranks. The noble houses of Burgundy and Orleans vied for power, and King Charles VI was insane, with almost all of his sons dying in childhood. Without a competent ruler, France was unable to stand against the English conquests of their land.
That is, until Joan of Arc appeared. Both Charles VI and Henry V died in 1422. Henry was succeeded by his nine-month-old son, Henry VI. Thus the war in France was left under the care of the Duke of Bedford, who continued to have moderate successes in France.
The French managed to score their first major military victory in 1429. The English laid siege to the city of Orleans and in the ensuing battle they were decisively defeated by the French. With the appearance of the heroine Joan of Arc – a teenage girl from a peasant family – the French national spirit saw an immense revival.
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- Neurologists speculate that Joan of Arc heard voices because she suffered from epilepsy
She claimed visions of God and the Saints, commanding her to restore the French lands and place Charles VII on the throne. After the decisive victory at Orleans, Joan of Arc led the army into the Battle of Patay in the same year, which was another decisive victory. Afterwards, the focus shifted in favor of the French, and the English forces gradually became weaker. France slowly regained its territories in the next few years, eventually bringing an end the long conflict that is known today as the Hundred Years’ War.
Joan of Arc in Battle (1843) by Hermann Stilke. (Public Domain)
Turning the Tide of a Century
Joan of Arc was accused of heresy and burned at the stake at age 19. But even so, she remains a national hero of the French people and her contributions to changing the tides of the war remain etched in time.
After the war, the English ruling house was weakened and that led to the War of the Roses. On the other hand, the French monarchy was strengthened and national identity increased. But what can never be undone are the countless lives that were lost in the many battles caused by the ambitions of kings.
Top Image: The Hundred Years’ War was a conflict between French and English kings. Source: diter / Adobe Stock
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Curry, A. 2003. The Hundred Years War. Macmillan International Higher Education.
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Wilde, R. 2019. The Hundred Years War. ThoughtCo. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-hundred-years-war-1222019