The Hundred Years War Historical Notes

The Hundred Years War was the last great medieval war. It was a war not just between kings, but lesser nobles were also able to pursue their own personal agendas while participating in the larger conflict. Future wars saw far less factionalism, at least on the scale found in medieval conflicts. The Hundred Years War was actually dozens of little wars and hundreds of battles and sieges that went on for over a century (1337-1453), until both sides were exhausted. While neither side won in any real sense, the end result was that while there were two kingdoms at the begining of the war, there were two nations at the end of it.

In 1337, most of the English nobility spoke French, although most knew enough English to deal with their subjects. When duke William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he did so as a French noble. But since duke William had conquered a kingdom, he had become king of England while remaining duke of Normandy (and a subject of the French king). Duke William also replaced nearly all the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with French nobles. During the next two centuries, the French speaking English kings acquired (mainly through marriage) even more property in France. Finally, in the 13th century, a particularly able French king (Philip the Strong) took most this land away from the English king. But by the early 14th century, two French provinces, Gascony and Guyenne, were still ruled by the English king, and in 1337 the French king Philip VI demanded that these provinces be returned to French control. The English king, Edward III, did not want to violate the feudal bonds that united all of Europe by defying Philip, his feudal overlord for those provinces. So Edward III challenged Philip VI's claim to the French throne, asserting that his own claim (which did in fact exist) was superior. Thus the war began, with Philip VI claiming the right to appoint French nobles as rulers of Gascony and Guyenne, and Edward III claiming that he was the rightful king of France and England.

There were other issues involved. England had major financial interests in the wool industry in Flanders (then a part of France) and France supported the Scots in their wars against England. Moreover, England had better troops, a more efficient government and thousands of English soldiers were more than willing to campaign in France, and get rich in the process.

For the first few years of the war there wasn't much happening except English raids into France and Flanders. Then, in the 1340s, England and France took opposite sides in the long-running civil war over who should be the duke of Britanny. In 1346 this resulted in a French invasion of Gascony and the shattering French defeat at Crecy. The English then rampaged through western France, until a truce was signed in 1354 (brought on by the devastation of the Plague, which hit France heavily in 1347-48)

The truce didn't last. In 1355, the war began again. In 1356 another major battle was fought at Poitiers and the French king was captured. English raids continued until 1360, when another truce was signed.

Between 1368 and 1396, the French won back much of what the English had taken by adopting "pillage and raid" tactics. These operations were led by Bertrand du Guesclin, Constable of France. At one point, the French even attempted to invade England. Various other campaigns occured in Spain, Italy, and the Rhineland. During all this, Edward III died in 1377, the year after his heir, the Black Prince passed away,

In 1397, Charles VI of France and Richard II of England agreed to a 30 year truce. The English were still in France, the French still wanted them out, and bands of brigands were rampaging all over the countryside. Civil war was brewing in both England and France. Despie the truce, small French forces managed to land in Scotland, England, and Wales to raid and pillage.

The English, with a smaller population, actually had a larger pool of higher quality troops available than the French. England also had a lock on longbowmen (yeomen), who were also excellent infantry and light cavalry. Thus the Enlgish had mobility and quality advantages. Meanwhile, the French had to contend with poor generalship. For most of the war there were a larger number of good commanders who were English rather than French.. As time passed, the French acwuired some good commanders of their own and they fortified most of central France (at horrendous expense), making it more difficult for the English to live off the land (and provide enough pillage to attract large numbers of those still superior English men-at-arms and yeomen). The French wore the English down. Sort of the like Napoleon or the Germans going into Russia, only in slow motion.

In 1413, Henry V (the great-grandson of Edward III) came to power in England. Henry allied himself with the Burgundian faction in the French civil war, defeated the French king Charles VI at Agincourt in 1415 and forced a treaty favorable to the English. In 1421 Henry V was declared the heir to the French throne (Charles VI disinherited his own son, the Dauphin) and Henry married Charles' daughter. The son of this marriage (Henry VI) would be the king of France and England. It looked as though England had finally won. But the disinherited Dauphin continued to resist. Henry V unexpectedly died in August 1422, followed in October by Charles VI, with the nine month old Henry VI not yet ready to receive the two crowns.

Despite the efforts of Henry V's able brothers to hold things together, Joan of Arc came and went, the Burgundians turned on their English allies, and by 1453, the French, aided by these developments and the increasing professionalism of their army (they were making extensive use of artillery and by now had a more or less standing army) had driven the English from the Continent. This gave the English a few years to get ready for the War of the Roses, while the French took care of some internal problems and got ready for the first of many invasions of Italy.

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