The Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War was the bloody and protracted armed conflict between England and France and which took place during the the last century of the Middle Ages, from 1337 to 1453. Although the root of the struggle went back to the conquest of England by William of Normandy in 1066, creating a state lying on both sides of the English Channel, there were three inmediate causes of the war:

a) The enmity that had existed between these two countries since the rise to the throne of England of the Plantagenet dynasty which had acquired extensive territory in France.

b)The intention of Edward III, King of England, to occupy the vacant French throne. In 1328 Charles IV, Philip IV’s last son, died childless, and the French Capetian dynasty became extinct, leaving the throne vacant. The French king Philip IV also had a daughter named Isabella, who had married the English king Edward II. The offspring of this marriage was Edward III, hence his ambition to take the French throne. Nevertheless, the French applied the Salic Law, which forbad succession through women, putting on the throne Philip VI, the son of Charles of Valois and grandson of Philip III.

 c) The Flemish recognized immediately the English king Edward III as the new king of France, as the they linked economically with the English from whom they bought wool.

Hostilities broke out in 1337 when Edward III of England assumed the title of king of France, a title held by Philip VI. When the war began, France had a population of about 17 million, whereas England had about 4 million. Moreover, France was generally considered to have the most knights in Europe.

Edward first invaded France from the Low Countries in 1339, winning small success on land and defeating in 1340 a French fleet at the battle of Sluys off the coast of modern Netherlands. In 1345 Edward invaded northern France. As Black Death had arrived in Europe, his army was weakened by the fatal disease. When the English force tried to make its way safely to fortify Channel port, the French attempted to force them into a battle. The English were finally pinned against the coast by a much superior French army at a place called Crecy.

Edward’s army was a combined force of archers, pikemen, light infantry, and cavalry. On the other hand, the French clung to their old-fashioned feudal cavalry. The English archers used the longbow, a weapon with great penetrating power that could sometimes kill armoured knights, and often the horses on which they rode. The battle of Crecy was a disaster for the French, largely credited to the English archers. The English took up position on the crest of a hill, and the French cavalry tried to ride up the slope to get at their opponents. The long climb up soggy ground tired and slowed the French horses, giving the English archers and foot soldiers ample opportunity to wreak havoc in the French ranks.

Edward then proceeded northwards, unopposed, and besieged the city of Calais on the English Channel, capturing it in 1347. This became an important strategic asset for the English. It allowed them to keep troops in France safely. In 1356, after the Black Death had passed and England was able to recover financially, Edward’s son and namesake, the Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince, invaded France from Gascony, winning a great victory in the Battle of Poitiers, where the English archers repeated the tactics used at Crecy.

The new French king, John II, was captured. John signed a truce with Edward, and in his absence, much of the government began to collapse. Later that year, the Second Treaty of London was signed in 1359, by which England gained possession of Aquitaine and John was freed. The French countryside at this point began to fall into complete chaos. Old fashioned feudal warfare, in which knights fought for glory, was ended. The first phase of the war ended with the Treaty of Bretigny, which had made Edward renounce his claim to the French crown. At the same time it greatly expanded his territory in Aquitaine and confirmed his conquest of Calais. But France continued to suffer. The English had employed mercenaries who, once they were no longer paid, lived off the country by theft and plunder. Most French peasants would have found it difficult to distinguish between war and this sort of peace.

As the war dragged on, the English were slowly forced back. They had less French land to support their war effort as they did so, and the war became more expensive for them. This caused conflicts at home, such as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the beginning of civil wars. The final phase of warmaking that engulfed France between 1415 and 1435 is the most famous phase of the Hundred Years’ War.

In August 1415, the English king Henry V landed with an army at Harfleur and took it. Although tempted to march on Paris directly, he elected to make a raiding expedition across France toward English-occupied Calais. In a campaign reminiscent of Crecy, he found himself outmaneuvered and low on supplies, and had to make a stand against a much larger French army at the Battle of Agincourt, north of the Somme. In spite of his disadvantages, he won the battle, as the French defeat was catastrophic, with the loss of many of the Armagnac leaders.

Henry took much of Normandy, including Caen in 1417 and Rouen on January 19, 1419, making Normandy English for the first time in two centuries. He made formal alliance with the Duchy of Burgundy. Henry’s progress was now stopped by the arrival in France of a Scottish army of around 6,000 men. In 1421, the Earl of Buchan crushed a larger English army at the Battle of Bauge, killing the English commander, Thomas, 1st Duke of Clarence, and killing or capturing most of the English leaders. The French were so grateful that Buchan was immediately promoted to the High Constable of France. Soon after this setback Henry V died at Meaux in 1422.

Henry’s infant son, Henry VI, was immediately crowned king of England and France, but the Armagnacs remained loyal to Charles’ son and the war continued in central France. The English continued to attack France and in 1429 were besieging the important French city of Orleans. An attack on an English supply convoy led to the skirmish that is now known as Battle of the Herrings when John Fastolf circled his supply wagons largely filled with herring around his archers and repelled a few hundred attackers. Later that year, a French saviour appeared in the form of a peasant girl from Domremy named Joan of Arc.

With Joan of Arc, the French developed a sense of national identity. The girl led the French armies to victory over the English until she was captured and burned by the English as a witch. The French now had a greater unity, and the French king was able to field massive armies on much the same model as the British. In addition, however, the French government began to appreciate the "modern" style of warfare, and new military commanders, such as Bertran du Guesclin, began to use guerilla and small war tactics of fighting.

In 1435, the Burgundians under Philip III switched sides, signing the Treaty of Arras and returning Paris to the King of France. By 1450 the French reconquered Normandy, and by 1451 all Guienne but Bordeaux was taken. After the fall of Bordeaux in 1453, England retained only Calais, which was not conquered by France until 1558. England, torn by the Wars of the Roses, made no further attempt to conquer France.

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Thor is Carlos Benito Camacho, the manager and writer of this blog.