Hundred Years’ War
Hundred Years’ War
Continual Warfare. During the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, there was almost continual warfare throughout all of Europe. The most famous, and longest, of these conflicts exemplifies all of the various wars of the late medieval period. Known erroneously as the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), it began over disputed Continental lands.
England versus France. English king Edward III launched his attack on the French, seemingly in an attempt to recover his crown as king of France. In his view the crown had been “stolen” from him in 1328 when, despite being the closest heir to the dead king, Charles IV, he was declared ineligible because his royal descent was gained through a woman. The throne instead was given to a cousin, Philip of Valois, who was crowned as King Philip VI of France.
French Military Might. At the time Edward’s move was thought to be foolhardy; France had a strong and renowned military. During the thirteenth century, under able warrior kings such as Philip II (Philip Augustus) and Philip IV the Fair, it had won many wars, strengthening the borders against the Spanish kingdoms, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire, while at the same time restoring almost all of the English lands in France. Rebellious lords and heretical sects had also felt the strength of France’s military might, ending up in prisons or, more often, in death. Indeed, Philip IV felt so confident in his military might that in 1307 he even challenged the Knights Templars, the largest military monastic order, declaring this crusading relic to be heretical and confiscating its treasures and lands. There were some defeats, it is true, most notably by King Louis IX on crusade in Egypt and North Africa and by noble-led French armies against the Flemings at the battles of Courtrai in 1302 and Arques in 1303, but these were quickly forgotten and whatever setbacks had resulted were quickly reclaimed.
Sluys . The first major engagement of the Hundred Years’ War was fought aboard ships in the harbor at Sluys on 24 June 1340. By the end of the day, Edward Ill’s navy, ably assisted by their allies, Flemings from Sluys and nearby Bruges who watched the fight from the shore and kept any French sailors from escaping to land, had won the battle. In doing so, they had almost completely annihilated the French navy. Edward III followed this victory with a siege of Tournai, the largest northern town that had declared its allegiance for the French king. Yet, it was there that he momentarily lost his momentum. Despite destroying many French-allied lands and villages near Tournai, and though it seemed that the town was on the verge of surrendering, Edward III lost his alliance through bickering and saw his own parliament hold up needed funds for him to carry on the war. He was forced to retreat to England and sign the truce of Esplechin with the French.
Crécy. What appeared to be a victory for the French quickly proved, however, to be nothing more than a short recess before even greater defeats. Edward III used the time to remove those elements in his representative government that opposed war with France, and then he planned his return. According to the truce of Esplechin, Edward III could not “legally” wage war against France for five years. However, before that time elapsed, a civil war broke out in Brittany between two heirs to the vacant ducal throne. Edward III used this excuse to reenter conflict with France, supporting one candidate in his claim, with France supporting the rival candidate. Four years later, in 1346, after the truce of Esplechin had expired, Edward III wasted little time in attacking the French kingdom. Landing in Normandy with a large army, probably as many as fifteen thousand troops, Edward III marched toward the Low Countries. However, he surprisingly stopped at Crecy, in the county of Ponthieu. The French army, still under the leadership of Philip VI, who was following the English decided this time to give him a battle, and, on 26 August 1346, the first great land battle of the Hundred Years’ War was fought. Establishing a repeated pattern throughout the next century, the French soldiers greatly outnumbered their opponents but lost. Philip VI was able to escape the carnage, departing to Paris under the cover of darkness, but
THE BATTLE OF CRÉCY
The French historian Jean Froissart’s account of the great English victory at Crecy (1346) is both colorful and stirring. Although Froissart felt that a historian had a duty to recite the valorous deeds of knightly heroes, he nevertheless carefully based his writings on information obtained from firsthand experience or from interviews with participants.
There is no man, unless he had been present, that can imagine or describe truly the confusion of that day, especially the bad management and disorder of the French, whose troops were out of number.… The English, who … were drawn up in three divisions, and seated on the ground, on seeing their enemies advance, rose up undauntedly and fell into their ranks.…
You must know that the French troops did not advance in any regular order, and that as soon as their king came in sight of the English his blood began to boil, and he cried out to his marshals, “Order the Genoese forward and begin the battle in the name of God and St. Denis.” There were about 15,000 Genoese crossbow men; but they were quite fatigued, having marched on foot that day six leagues, completely armed and carrying their crossbows, and accordingly they told the constable they were not in a condition to do any great thing in battle. The earl of Alencon hearing this, said, “This is what one gets by employing such scoundrels, who fall off when there is any need for them.” During this time a heavy rain fell, accompanied by thunder and a very terrible eclipse of the sun; and, before this rain, a great flight of crows hovered in the air over all the battalions, making a loud noise; shortly afterward it cleared up, and the sun shone very bright; but the French had it in their faces, and the English on their backs. When the Genoese were somewhat in order they approached the English and set up a loud shout, in order to frighten them; but the
English remained quite quiet and did not seem to attend to it. They then set up a second shout, and advanced a little forward; the English never moved. Still they hooted a third time, advancing with their crossbows presented, and began to shoot. The English archers then advanced one step forward, and shot their arrows with such force and quickness that it seemed as if it snowed. When the Genoese felt these arrows, which pierced through their armor, some of them cut the strings of their crossbows, others flung them to the ground, and all turned about and retreated quite discomfited.
The French had a large body of men-at-arms on horseback to support the Genoese, and the king, seeing them thus fall back, cried out, “Kill me those scoundrels, for they stop up our road without any reason.” The English continued shooting, and some of their arrows falling among the horsemen, drove them upon the Genoese, so that they were in such confusion they could never rally again.
In the English army there were some Cornish and Welsh men on foot, who had armed themselves with large knives; these advancing through the ranks of the men-at-arms and archers, who made way for them, came upon the French when they were in this danger, and falling upon earls, barons, knights, and squires, slew many, at which the king of England was exasperated.…
This battle … was murderous and cruel; and many gallant deeds of arms were performed that were never known; toward evening, many knights and squires of the French had lost their masters, and, wandering up and down the plain, attacked the English in small parties; but they were soon destroyed, for the English had determined that day to give no quarter, nor hear of ransom from anyone.…
Source: John Froissart, Chronicles of England, France, Spain and the Adjoining Countries, volume 1, translated by Thomas Johnes (New York: Colonial Press, 1901), pp. 36-45.
many of his lords and captains were killed. Edward moved victoriously to the town of Calais, and after a yearlong siege, again with the French king camping idly by, the townspeople could no longer withstand their forced hunger and the town fell. The English would use Calais as their Continental “beachhead” for the next two centuries.
Black Death. The Black Death, as it became known to contemporaries, began to spread throughout Europe in 1347 and effectively halted the military progress of Edward III and the English. The effects this plague had on the fighting of the Hundred Years’ War, on the manpower, leadership, finances, or strategy and tactics, were major. Not only was there a cessation of hostilities for nearly a decade, but when they did begin anew, in 1355-1356, the sizes of armies could be seen to have dramatically decreased. There was also a new tactic of warfare that the English began to adopt and that for the rest of the war they would practice with regularity and proficiency: the chevauchee, a quick cavalry raid through the countryside with the intention of pillaging unfortified villages and towns, destroying crops and houses, stealing livestock, and generally disrupting and terrorizing rural society.
Poitiers. On one of these chevauchees in 1356, Edward’s son, Edward the Black Prince, was raiding through the north-central regions of France. Outside of the town of Poitiers he encountered the new king of France, John II the Good (Philip VI had died in 1350). Another French defeat ensued, but this time the king was unable to flee from the battlefield; instead, John II was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The French were forced to the negotiation table, and the Treaty of Bretigny was signed in 1360. The French promised the English a ransom of 3,000,000 golden crowns for John’s return and the surrendering of the duchies of Aquitaine and Ponthieu and the town of Calais. Edward III, in turn, promised to renounce his claim to the French throne.
Charles V. The imprisonment of King John II in London may have been the best thing that could have happened to the French. John IFs ransom was long in coming to London—indeed, it was never completely raised—and he lingered in his English jail. In the meantime, John’s son and heir, the later Charles V, was forced to defend his kingdom’s shrinking borders, not only against the English, but also against the Navarrese and against roving bands of hungry soldiers left without employment by the Treaty of Bretigny but carrying on their own war by plundering the countryside. In this the dauphin Charles was aided ably by a rising French military superstar, Bertrand du Guesclin. Du Guesclin fought in several impressive engagements. In some he was dreadfully overmatched and unsuccessful. In fact, he found himself a prisoner after his defeats both at Auray, in 1364, and at Najera, in Castile, in 1367. At the latter conflict, du Guesclin had taken the side of Henry of Trastamara in his Castilian succession struggles with his half brother, Pedro the Cruel, who was supported by the Black Prince. However, in most of the engagements that du Guesclin fought he was victorious.
Regaining Strength. With these victories and others, Charles V—for he had assumed the throne in 1364 on the death of his father in London—saw his military fortunes begin to rise, and slowly he began to regain his kingdom. By 1369 he had taken back Aquitaine; by 1371 he had made peace with Charles of Navarre; that same year he again began to exert authority in Brittany; in 1372 his allies, the Castilians, defeated the English fleet off the coast of La Rochelle; and by 1377 he had outlived both of his chief enemies when Edward the Black Prince died (in June 1376 of a disease that he had acquired during his campaign in Spain), followed less than a year later by Edward III. These deaths left a child, Richard II, untrained in the warfare of his father or grandfather, as king of England, a situation that Charles V, and after his death in 1380, his son, Charles VI, took full advantage of, pushing the English back until they could only barely hold onto Calais and Gascony.
French Divisions. In 1396 Richard II signed a truce in Paris, dependent on the marriage of the still-young English monarch to Isabella, one of Charles VTs daughters, and a coequal Anglo-French attendance on a Crusade to the east against the Ottoman Turks. France and England themselves did not exchange blows during the period between the Treaty of Paris and 1415, when Henry V launched his attack of France. Nevertheless, the war did continue. Although English troops stayed away, in France during this period the military situation was far more demanding and far less resolved. Charles VTs mental illness had left an unstable government with several nobles vying for power. Quickly, two of these came forward and faced one other in what just as quickly became solid opposition to one other. The dukes of Burgundy and Orleans both were cousins to the king, which of course made them cousins to one other. However, their family ties did not bring them to an accord, and for almost the rest of the Hundred Years’ War, these two factions, typically known as the Burgundians and Armagnacs, utilized every means of warfare, from actual combat to assassination, to fight against one other. It was quite simply a civil war, one that would infect the French and weaken them to such a point that when Henry V did invade the geographical kingdom, he found instead a divided realm, with one side, the Burgundians, willing either to collaborate with his invasion or to ignore it, and the other side, the Armagnacs, unwilling to decide whether it wished more to fight against the English or the Burgundians. Still, there had been little more than words between the two parties before 20 November 1407, when Louis of Orleans was assassinated in Paris. John the Fearless was quickly implicated, and the kingdom of France became divided between the two sides.
Duke of Burgundy. There seems little doubt among historians that John the Fearless planned this assassination with the idea of taking advantage of the then weakened Armagnacs to extend his own lands and political power. His involvement put many of the other French nobles against him. Yet, the duke of Burgundy did not become discouraged and he became resolved to reinforce his position by military means. Simply put, he began to wage war against all who opposed him. He used his large army, well supplied with perhaps the largest, most diverse gunpowder artillery train in Europe, to attack his French enemies, and by 1419 he had gained a large part of France, including Paris.
Agincourt. In March 1413 Henry V came to the throne of England. Henry immediately set out to attack France, and on 14 August 1415 Henry V’s invasion force landed in the mouth of the Seine and began to besiege the nearby town of Harfleur. It was not a large army, probably numbering no more than 8,000-9,000 soldiers, only one-fourth of whom were men-at-arms. However, the French seem to have been completely unprepared for this attack, and six weeks later, on 22 September, the town surrendered. In early October, Henry V began a march to Calais, hoping, it is argued, not to encounter the French army but willing, it seems from the result, to engage this army in a battle should they catch him. On 25 October 1415, the French finally caught the English outside of the village of Agincourt. As at Crecy (and elsewhere throughout the Hundred Years’ War), the French army should have easily defeated their English foes, if for no other reason than that they outnumbered them by almost 5 to 1 (25,000 to just over 5,000), with most of the French soldiers, knights, and men-at-arms. Yet, they did not. In what was certainly one of the greatest and most immortalized victories won during the entire Middle Ages, the English severely defeated their opponents. At the end of the day, more than 10,000 French soldiers lay dead, including the commanding general, the constable of France, the admiral of France, 3 dukes, 7 counts, and more than 90 other lords and 1,560
knights. Other important French lords had been taken prisoners. On the English side the casualties were light, with only a few hundred killed, including only 2 nobles.
Aftermath. There was little English military action immediately following the battle of Agincourt, with Henry V back in London raising more money and troops for a larger invasion of France. Henry V returned to France late in 1417 intending to capture more of that kingdom. By 1420 he had taken Normandy. This gave him complete control of the northeast and southwest of France (the English, of course, still held Gascony), with his allies, the Burgundians and Bretons, holding onto the northwest and east of France, including Paris, as well as the Low Countries. On 21 May 1420, the Treaty of Troyes was signed between Henry V, Philip the Good (the duke of Burgundy after his father’s murder in 1419), and Charles VI. This treaty in all its intricacy can be reduced to one single provision: it made Henry V heir to the throne of France. Charles VI was still recognized as king, but should he die, and he was ailing almost all of the time, then Henry V would assume his throne. Charles’s own son, the dauphin Charles, was effectively disowned. In addition, Henry V would marry Charles VI’s youngest daughter, Catherine, with their eldest son then being heir to both the French and the English kingdoms.
Death of Henry V. Had someone suggested to Henry at the signing of the Treaty of Troyes that he might die before the frail Charles VI, he probably would have been laughed at. However, that is precisely what happened. During the siege of Meaux in 1422, Henry V contracted what was probably an intestinal illness, perhaps dysentery. He died a few weeks later on 31 August. Charles VI was still alive, although he would follow Henry to the grave later that same year. Also in 1422, Catherine, Charles’s daughter and Henry’s wife, gave birth to a son, named after his father. That baby was, almost from the moment he was born, Henry VI, king of France and England. However, he was not destined to rule France without the disinherited dauphin, Charles, to voice his and his supporters’ objections. And one of these supporters was a young peasant girl named Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc arose in 1429. In between the death of Henry V and her rise to leadership, the English had been able to push further into Armagnac territory, reaching as far as the Loire River and attacking the region’s capital, Orleans. This site became Joan’s first target. Having gained recognition and leadership in the army, Joan arrived at Orleans. The English had been besieging the city for five months and, despite having too few soldiers even to surround the town, seemed on the verge of capturing it. Joan refused to allow this, however, and after capturing several of her opponents’ field fortifications, as well as the Tourelles, the stone bridgehead in which they were headquartered, the English were forced to withdraw. The next month, and again by direct assaults on their positions, Joan removed the English from the rest of their Loire holdings and then participated in the battle of Patay, which was fought against these retreating troops. Following a relatively uneventful march from the Loire through Burgundianheld territory to Reims, on 17 July 1429, Joan’s patron, Charles the Dauphin, was crowned King Charles VII. Joan then set out to capture Paris. Here, she met her first defeat; unsupported by the new king and several of his counselors, and after suffering a debilitating wound, Joan was forced to retreat from the French capital after only one day of assaulting the walls. After her defeat at Paris and a few uneventful engagements in the southern Loire River area, the following spring Joan moved to support the French town of Compiegne against a large Burgundian army. On 23 May 1430, leading a sortie out of Compiegne, Joan was separated from the main body of her force, captured by the Burgundians, and eventually sold to the English. A little more than a year later, on 30 May 1431, Joan of Arc was burned to death as a heretic in the marketplace of Rouen.
Impact. Joan’s influence had been great. Not only had she crowned the dauphin as King Charles VII, after her death there would be no sustained retreating by Charles and the French. More important, within six years a peace conference would be held at Arras, which, while failing to make peace between the English and the French, did force the Burgundian duke, now Philip the Good, to reassess his alliance with England and to effectively switch sides, pulling away from an active support of England if not completely allying himself with Charles VII. This decision was a difficult one for Philip. However, it was more difficult for the English. England would never recover. It would take another seventeen years, but eventually the English would lose all of their lands in France (except for Calais): first Maine in 1449, then Normandy in 1450, and finally Gascony in 1453, a part of France that had been in English hands since Eleanor of Aquitaine had passed it to her royal English sons, Richard the Lionhearted and John, in the twelfth century.
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