The war owes its historical significance to a number of factors.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The Hundred Years’ War is the name modern historians have given to what was a series of related conflicts, fought over a 116-year period, between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of France, and later Burgundy; beginning in 1337, and ending in 1453. Historians group these conflicts under the same label for convenience.
The war owes its historical significance to a number of factors such as the introduction of new weapons and tactics which eroded the older system of feudal armies dominated by heavy cavalry; the first “standing armies” in Western Europe since the time of the Western Roman Empire; changes in the roles of nobles and peasants, and over-all key developments in the early growth of nations and new monarchies. It is often viewed as one of the most significant conflicts in the history of medieval warfare.
The war was not so much between nations states as between or within royal families, whose blood-ties allowed them to claim jurisdiction in each other’s realms. Kings did not think in terms of borders or national entities so much as of territorial and legal jurisdiction (Overy, 132). The kings declared war, and the nobles were honor-bound to provide troops and the feudal system supplied the bulk of the army. Yet, as a result of the war, national identity in both France and England solidified. Joan of Arc emerged as France’s national heroine. For the English, the Battle of Agincourt, fought on St. Crispin’s Day, became part of folk memory, with the gallant longbow men defeating a far larger French force—approximately six thousand men against 36,000. William Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, with the king’s stirring St. Crispin’s day speech, became the stuff of legends . Fighting against the odds—yet winning—would become so much part of the English psyche that it can be said to have inspired such a feat as the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from the shores of Belgium and France in May and June 1940, and it saw them through the dark days of the Battle of Britain, when the British Empire stood alone against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
Parliamentary power increased as a result of the Hundred Years’ War, since kings found their tax raising prerogatives constantly being scrutinized and controlled by the assemblies of the nobles and landowners. The cost of such frontier war forced rulers back into the arms of their subjects, who had to provide money and manpower, and who were increasingly reluctant to do so (Overy, 160). The result was increased Parliamentary control of budgets, and the emergence of what resemble modern nation states. Overy comments, “the fourteenth century saw definitive emergence of many of the European states which were to survive into the modern age,” with England, until it started to acquire its overseas empire, more of less confined to its present borders. The war was a long and bloody affair, but it did leave Europe a more stable place, and so achieved something positive in terms of a providential understanding of history as slowly progressing towards a more peaceful world.
Early Origins, 911-1314
The background to the conflict can be found four hundred years earlier, in 911, when Frankish Carolingian ruler Charles the Simple allowed the Vikings of Rollo to settle in a part of his kingdom known afterward as Normandy (after the Normans). The Vikings, known as Normans and led by William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066. They defeated the Anglo-Saxon leadership under King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings and installed a new Anglo-Norman power structure. William took the English throne as king of England. The battle was the most decisive victory in the Norman conquest of England.
The Anglo-Normans, at the height of their power during the eleventh century, controlled Normandy and England, along with Maine, Anjou, Touraine and Aquitaine. However, in 1216 the Anglo-Normans lost most of their continental possessions to France, leaving a situation in which most of the English nobles in the fourth century were recent descendants of the Anglo-Normans who still spoke a version of French, and could remember a time when their grandparents had ruled Normandy. The nobles had never fully given up the dream of one day re-conquering their homeland in Normandy; it was a very rich land, and England stood to become very wealthy by retaking it. The war was both a “national” desire to re-take a former kingdom, and personal desires on the part of the nobility to gain wealth and increased prestige.
Immediate Precursors, 1314-1337
The specific events that led up to the war in the early fourteenth century began in France, where the Capetian dynasty had ruled for over 320 years, with one male heir after another taking the throne (the longest continuous dynasty in medieval European history). In 1314, the Capetian king Philip IV died, leaving three male heirs: Louis X, Philip V and Charles IV. The eldest son and heir, Louis X, died in 1316, leaving only his posthumous son John I, who was born 1316 and died that same year, and a daughter Joan II, who was married to Philip III of Navarre, count of Evreux. In order to secure his claim to the throne, Philip IV’s second-oldest son, Philip V, was obliged to buy off Joan’s claims (using also the rumor that Joan was a product of her mother’s adultery, and not a daughter of Louis X). When Philip V died in 1322, his daughters were put aside in favor of the third son and heir of Philip IV, Charles IV.
In 1324 Charles IV of France and the English king Edward II fought the short War of Saint-Sardos in Gascony. The major event of the war was the brief siege of the English fortress of La Réole, on the Garonne River. The English forces, led by the Edmund of Woodstock, 1st Earl of Kent, were forced to surrender after a month of bombardment from the French cannons and after being promised reinforcements that never arrived. The war was a complete failure for England, and only Bordeaux and a narrow coastal strip now remained in English possession. The recovery of these lost lands became a major focus of English diplomacy. Another effect of the war was to galvanize opposition to Edward II among the English lords of Aquitaine, many of whom became sympathizers of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (Lord Wigmore), who would later invade England and dethrone Edward II.
King Charles IV of France and Navarre, the youngest son of Philip IV, died in 1328, leaving only daughters one of them yet unborn. The senior line of Capetian dynasty ended thus in “tail male,” creating a crisis about who would become the next king of France.
Meanwhile in England, Charles IV’s sister Isabella, widow of Edward II, was at the time effectively in control of the crown, having forced her politically weak husband to abdicate in flavor of their teenage son, Edward III. It was Parliament, however, that proclaimed Edward III as king, indicating the increased power of the subjects’ assembly. Edward II was considered too weak to rule effectively. He is also thought to have had a homosexual relationship with his chamberlain, Hugh le Despenser, Earl of Winchester (1286-1326). The young Edward III, being the nephew of King Charles, was his closest living male relative, and was at that time the only surviving male descendant of the senior line of the Capetian dynasty descending from Philip IV (Philip the Fair). By English interpretation of feudal law, this made the Edward III the next heir to the throne of France.
The French nobility, however, did not want a foreigner on the throne, especially an English king. The French nobility claimed that royal inheritance could pass only through an unbroken male line and not through a king’s daughter (Philip IV’s daughter Isabella) to her son (Edward III). This principle, known as Salic law, originated in the ancient tradition of laws belonging to the Salian Franks. The French nobility asserted that the royal inheritance should therefore pass to Philip of Valois (Philip VI), who had taken regency over the throne after Charles IV’s death. Charles’ unborn child, had it been male, would have become king. It was instead a daughter, and Philip VI became king. Both Edward III and Philip VI had good legal cases for the right to the crown, and the force to back it up.
Joan of Navarre, daughter of Louis X (or at least the daughter of Louis’ wife), also had a good legal case to the French throne but lacked the power to back it up. Navarre was accustomed to female rulers, and had no traditional “Salic” impediment.
Meanwhile, the English controlled Gascony (in what is now southwest France along the Atlantic coast), a territory that was a remnant of the formerly large French territories inherited from the Anglo-Norman kings. Gascony produced vital shipments of salt and wine, and was very profitable to the English nobility. Gascony was a separate fief held from the French crown rather than a territory of England, and the homage for this possession was a matter more difficult to resolve. Philip VI wanted Edward’s recognition as sovereign; Edward wanted the return of further lands lost by his father. A compromise “homage” in 1329 pleased neither side; but in 1331, facing serious problems at home, Edward accepted Philip as king of France and gave up his claims to the French throne. In effect, England kept Gascony and in return Edward gave up his claims to the French throne. In 1332 Joan II of Navarre, daughter of Louis X of France, gave birth to a son, the future Charles II of Navarre. Edward III was now no longer Philip IV’s male heir in primogeniture, although he remained Philip IV’s male heir in proximity.
In 1333 Edward III went to war with David II of Scotland, a French ally under the “Auld Alliance,” and began the Second War of Scottish Independence. Philip saw the opportunity to reclaim Gascony, while England’s attention was concentrated at home. However, the war was a quick success for England, and David was forced to flee to France after being defeated by King Edward and Edward Balliol, the pretender to the Scottish throne, at the Battle of Halidon Hill in July 1333.
In 1336 Philip made plans for an expedition to restore David to the Scottish throne and to also seize Gascony. Open hostilities broke out as French ships began ravaging coastal settlements on the English Channel and in 1337 Philip reclaimed the Gascony fief, citing feudal law and saying that Edward had broken his oath (a felony) by not attending to the needs and demands of his lord. Edward III responded by saying he was in fact the rightful heir to the French throne, and on All Saints’ Day 1337, Henry Burghersh, the Bishop of Lincoln, arrived in Paris with the defiance of the king of England. War had been declared.
Beginning of the War, 1337-1360
The war can be divided loosely into four phases: a phase of English success under Edward III from 1337 to 1360; a phase from 1360 to 1400, where the French were successful in nearly driving out the English; a phase from 1400 to 1429 that was marked by great English victories under Henry V of England; and a final phase from 1429 to 1453, in which France was united under the Valois kings. When the war began, France had a population of 14 million, whereas England had a population of only two million. Moreover, France was generally considered to have the best-trained and largest number of knights in Europe at that time.
In the early years of the war, Edward III allied with the nobles of the Low Countries and the burghers of Flanders, but after two campaigns where nothing was achieved, the alliance fell apart in 1340. The payments of subsidies to the German princes and the costs of maintaining an army abroad dragged the English government into bankruptcy, with huge damages to Edward III’s prestige. At sea, France enjoyed supremacy for some time through the use of Geneose ships and crews. Several towns on the English coast were sacked, some repeatedly. This was a cause of fear and disruption along the English coastline, and there was a constant fear through this part of the war that the French would invade. France’s sea power led to economic disruptions in England as it cut down on the wool trade to Flanders and the wine trade from Gascony. However, in 1340, while attempting to hinder the English army from landing, the French fleet was almost completely destroyed in the Battle of Sluys. After this, England was able to dominate the English Channel for the rest of the war, preventing French invasions.
In 1341 conflict over the succession to the Duchy of Brittany began the Breton War of Succession, in which Edward backed John IV, Duke of Brittany (John of Montfort) and Philip backed Charles, Duke of Brittany (Charles of Blois), who was initially successful. Action for the next few years focused around a back and forth struggle in Brittany, with the city of Vannes changing hands several times, as well as further campaigns in Gascony with mixed success for both sides.
In July 1346, Edward mounted a major invasion across the Channel, landing in the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy and marching through Normandy. Philip gathered a large army to oppose him, and Edward chose to march northward toward the Low Countries, pillaging as he went, rather than attempt to take and hold territory. Finding himself unable to outmaneuver Philip, Edward positioned his forces for battle, and Philip’s army attacked him at the famous Battle of Crécy. Until this time, Philip had undertaken a strategy that forced the English into retreat when he would not meet in battle on English terms. Although Philip had a numerically superior army and sufficient supply line the English did not. The much larger French army made a series of piecemeal attacks against the expert English and Welsh longbow men, and all of the attacks were dispersed with heavy losses until the French were forced to retreat. Crécy was a crushing defeat for the French.
Edward proceeded north unopposed and besieged the coastal city of Calais on the English Channel, capturing it in 1347. This became an important strategic location for the English. It allowed the English to keep troops in France safely. In the same year, an English victory against Scotland in the Battle of Neville’s Cross led to the capture of David II and greatly reduced the threat from Scotland.
In 1348 the Black Death began to sweep across Europe, preventing England from financing and launching any major offensives. In France, Philip VI died in 1350 and was replaced by his son John II, also known as John the Good.
Sporadic conflicts in Brittany continued, including notable examples of chivalry such as the Battle of the Thirty in 1351, during which 30 French knights from Chateau Josselin called out and defeated 30 English knights. In keeping with tradition, the French ransomed many of the defeated English, including such men as Sir Robert Knolles (died 1407) and Sir Hugh Calveley (died 1393), who later continued to fight against France more successfully.
After the Black Death had passed and England was able to recover financially, Edward’s son, Edward the Black Prince, invaded France from Gascony in 1356, winning a great victory in the Battle of Poitiers, where the English archers repeated the same tactics used at Crécy. Gascon noble Captal de Buch led a flanking movement that succeeded in capturing the new Valois king, John II of France, and many of his nobles. John signed a truce with Edward, and in his absence much of the government began to collapse. John’s ransom was set to two million écus, but John believed he was worth more than that and insisted that his ransom be raised to four million.
Later that year (1356) the Second Treaty of London was signed, in which the four million écus ransom was guaranteed by having royal members of the Valois family come to London and surrender themselves as hostages while John returned to France to raise his ransom. As part of the treaty, England gained possession of Aquitaine, a large coastal area of southwestern France including the large towns of Poitiers and Bordeaux. As royal hostages, they were given free rein to move about, and once John left for France, the hostages quickly escaped back to France. John, who was “Good” and chivalrous and horrified that his word and honor had been broken, returned to England and turned himself in. John eventually died a prisoner in England in 1364 and was given a great chivalrous ceremony and honored as a great man by the English.
In 1358 a peasant revolt in France called the Jacquerie took place. It was caused in part by the deprivations suffered by the country people during the war and their hatred of the local nobility. Led by Guillaume Kale (Carle or Cale), they joined forces with other villages, and beginning in the area of Beauvais, north of Paris, committed atrocities against the nobles and destroyed many châteaux in the area. All the rebellious groups were defeated later that summer and reprisals followed.
Edward invaded France, hoping to capitalize on the discontent and seize the throne. Although no French army stood against him in the field, he was unable to take Paris or Rheims from the dauphin Charles (later Charles V of France). He negotiated the Treaty of Brétigny, which was signed in 1360. The treaty made him renounce his claim to the French crown, but it greatly expanded his territory in Aquitaine and confirmed his conquest of Calais. In reality, Edward never renounced his claim to the French crown, and Charles made a point to retake Edward’s new territory as soon as he ascended to the throne.
The English also came out of the war with about half of France’s vassal states as their allies, representing the clear advantage of a united England against a generally disjointed, vassal-filled kingdom of France.
French Victories under Charles V, 1360-1400
The reign of Charles V saw the English steadily pushed back. Although their claimant, John V of Brittany, defeated and killed Charles of Blois at the Battle of Auray, John and his heirs eventually reconciled with the French kings. Breton commander Bertrand du Guesclin, who went over to the side of Charles V, became one of his most successful generals.
At about the same time, a war in Spain occupied the Black Prince’s efforts from 1366. Pedro the Cruel, whose daughters Constance and Isabella were married to the Black Prince’s brothers John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley, linking these royal houses, was deposed by Henry II of Castile in 1370 with the support of Du Guesclin and Henry II went to war against England and Portugal.
Just before New Year’s Day 1370, the English Seneschal of Poitou, John Chandos, was killed at the bridge at Château Lussac. The loss of this commander was a significant blow to the English. Captal de Buch was also captured and locked up by Charles V who, like the English, was not bound by outdated chivalry. Du Guesclin continued a series of careful campaigns, avoiding major English field forces, but capturing town after town, including Poitiers in 1372 and Bergerac in 1377, until his death in 1380. Du Guesclin, who according to chronicler Jean Froissart (1337-1405), had advised the French king not to engage the English in the field and was successful in these Fabian tactics, though in the only two major battles he fought in (at Auray in Brittany in 1364 and Najera in Spain three years later) he was on the losing side and was captured on both occasions.
The English response to Du Guesclin was to launch a series of destructive military expeditions called Chevauchees, but by refusing to be drawn by them Du Guesclin was able to accomplish his objectives. The disastrous English defeat by the Castilian-French fleet at La Rochelle in 1372 was another key factor here, undermining English seaborne trade and supplies.
In 1376 the Black Prince died, and upon the death of Edward III in 1377, the under-aged Richard II became King of England. It was not until Richard had been deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) that the English, under the House of Lancaster, would forcefully revive their claim to the French throne.
Despite the tactical reforms of Bertrand Du Guesclin and the victory of La Rochelle, England’s internal issues remain central to this period:
- The Black Prince was dismissed from the military after only two years of conflict with Charles the Wise in France; partly due to his illness, partly due to his brutality (particularly at the siege of Limoges in 1370), and partly because his problems with money had brought England into major debt. The Black Prince’s early absence left Bertrand Du Guesclin with little significant competition in his attack on Aquitaine. Edward III was also too old to personally take command against Bertrand.
- The replacement commanders for the Black Prince and Edward III were easily distracted from the war in France: John of Gaunt was more interested in making himself king of Castile rather then defending Aquitaine and Calais, nor was Richard II interested in war, thus leading to a lack of will among the English commanders.
English Victories under Henry V and Subsequently, 1400-1429
Although Henry IV planned campaigns in France, he was unable to put them into effect due to his short reign. In the meantime, though, the French king Charles VI was descending into madness, and an open conflict for power began between his cousin, John, Duke of Burgundy, and his brother, Louis of Valois, Duke of Orléans. After Louis’s assassination, the Armagnac family took political power in opposition to John. By 1410 both sides were bidding for the help of English forces in a civil war.
The new English king, Henry V, turned down an Armagnac offer in 1414 to restore the 1369 frontiers in return for support, demanding a return to the full territories of Henry II. In August 1415, he landed with an army at Harfleur in Normandy, taking the city. 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 Crécy, 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, his victory was near total and the French defeat was catastrophic, as they lost many of the Armagnac leaders.
A French army, estimated at six thousand men, was routed by the much smaller English force at Valmont, near Harfleur, in March 1416. In subsequent campaigns after a considerable naval victory (won under the command of his brother, Bedford, on the Seine) in August 1416, Henry took much of Normandy, including Caen in 1417 and Rouen on January 19, 1419, placing Normandy under English rule after over two hundred years of French control. He made formal alliance with the Burgundians, who had taken Paris, after the Armagnac execution of John of Burgundy in 1419. In 1420 Henry met with the mad king Charles VI, who signed the Treaty of Troyes, by which Henry would marry Charles’ daughter Catherine of Valois and Henry’s heirs would inherit the throne of France. The Dauphin, Charles VII, was declared illegitimate. Henry formally entered Paris later that year and the agreement was ratified by the French Estates-General (parliament). Earlier that year an English army under the command of the Earl of Salisbury, a highly capable soldier, ambushed and destroyed a Franco-Scottish force at Fresnay, 20 miles north of Le Mans (March 1420). According to a chronicler, the allies lost three thousand men, their entire camp, and its contents—including the Scottish treasury.
After Henry’s early death in 1422 (almost simultaneously with that of his father-in-law), his baby son was crowned King Henry VI of England and also king of France, but the Armagnacs remained loyal to Charles VI’s son, the dauphin (heir to the French throne) Charles, and the war continued in central France.
Following Henry’s death, English armies continued to remain masters of the battlefield, setting very high standards of military effectiveness.
In 1423 the Earl of Salisbury, perhaps the most outstanding English commander, completely defeated another Franco-Scottish force at Cravant on the banks of the River Yonne. He personally led the crossing of the river, successfully assaulting a very strong enemy position, and in the resulting battle the Scots took very heavy losses; the Franco-Scottish army ceased to exist.
In the following year, Bedford won what has been described as a “second Agincourt” at Verneuil when his English army of nine thousand men, his Burgundian allies being elsewhere, destroyed a Franco-Scottish army estimated at 16,000 men. The Scots were surrounded on the field and annihilated virtually to the last man; Scottish losses numbered around 6,500 and included many important commanders. As a result, no large-scale Scottish force landed in France again. The French, too, took heavy punishment—all of their leaders were killed on the field and the rank and file were killed or mostly dispersed.
This combined arms victory demonstrates the very high level of battlefield effectiveness often achieved by English armies during the war, which their opponents never matched in the field. For long periods of the wars, the French would simply not face the English army in open battle.
Victories continued—in February 1426, Sir Thomas Rempstone with only six hundred men utterly routed a French besieging force estimated at 16,000, during the “Rout of St. James” which occurred at St.-James-de-Beuvron on the Normandy/Brittany border. He suddenly launched a surprise counterattack and the French, commanded by Richemont, fell back in panic and disarray.
Furthermore, in February 1429, Sir John Falstaff, who was taking a supply convoy to Orléans, was attacked by a French army with a small Scottish contingent. Falstaff, who had about one thousand mounted archers and a small force of men-at-arms, formed a circle of his supply wagons. Greatly outnumbered, the English force beat off attacks in what became known as the “Battle of the Herrings” before counterattacking; the French and Scots were ignominiously defeated yet again and put to flight. Sir John, through the medium of Shakespeare, was perhaps unfairly cast as coward and villain.
France Victorious, 1429-1453
By 1424 the uncles of Henry VI had begun to quarrel over the infant’s regency. One such uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester married Jacqueline, Countess of Hainaut and invaded Holland to regain Jacqueline’s former dominions, bringing him into direct conflict with Philip III, Duke of Burgundy.
By 1428 the English were ready to pursue the war again, laying siege to Orléans. Their force was insufficient to fully invest the city, but larger French forces remained passive. In 1429, Joan of Arc convinced the dauphin to send her to the siege, saying she had received visions from God telling her to drive out the English. She raised the morale of the local troops and they attacked the English redoubts, forcing the English to lift the siege. Inspired by Joan, the French took several English strong points on the Loire. Shortly afterward a French army some eight thousand strong broke through English archers at Patay with heavy cavalry, defeating a three thousand-man army commanded by John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. The first major French land victory of the wars, this opened the way for the dauphin to march to Reims for his coronation as Charles VII of France.
After Joan was captured by the Burgundians in 1430 and later sold to the English and executed, the French advance stalled in negotiations. But, in 1435, the Burgundians under Philip III switched sides, signing the Treaty of Arras and returning Paris to the king of France. Burgundy’s allegiance remained fickle, but their focus on expanding their domains into the Low Countries left them little energy to intervene in France. The long truces that marked the war also gave Charles time to reorganize his army and government, replacing his feudal levies with a more modern professional army that could put its superior numbers to good use, and centralizing the French state. Generally, though, the tactical superiority of English forces remained a potent factor. John Talbot, for instance, who specialized in fast attacks, routed French forces at Ry and Avranches in Normandy in 1436 and 1439 respectively. Talbot, one of the most daring warriors of the age, was the victor in 40 battles and skirmishes. This was one of the main reasons the war was so prolonged. The biographer of the Constable Richemont put it plainly when he wrote, “The English and their captains, above all Talbot, had a well established reputation for superiority, Richemont knew them better than anyone.”
But a repetition of Du Guesclin’s battle avoidance strategy paid dividends and the French were able to recover town after town.
By 1449 the French had retaken Rouen, and in 1450 the count of Clermont and Arthur de Richemont, Earl of Richmond, caught an English army attempting to relieve Caen at the Battle of Formigny and defeated it, the English army having been attacked from the flank and rear by Richemont’s force just as they were on the verge of beating Clermont’s army. The French proceeded to capture Cherbourg on July 6 and Bordeaux and Bayonne in 1451. The attempt by Talbot to retake Gascony, though initially welcomed by the locals, was crushed by Jean Bureau (died 1463), French master of artillery with his cannons at the Battle of Castillon in 1453 where Talbot had led a small Anglo-Gascon force in a frontal attack on an entrenched camp. This is considered the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War.
Warfare changed tremendously during the Hundred Years’ War. From the type of weapons used, to military tactics, to the very notion of what war meant, the Hundred Years’ War challenged the long-established order of medieval society. It became clear that traditional medieval warfare would no longer work as it used to.
Given the great disparity between the size of France and England and of population, that of France was four or five times greater, the question as to how the wars were so prolonged is significant.
England was a more unified country that possessed a far superior financial system than France. The English leadership, as a result of the Welsh and Scottish wars, had ditched some out-moded concepts of how war should be conducted. Military writer Colonel Alfred Burne tells us that Edward III had revolutionized the recruitment system, using a paid army for foreign service rather than a feudal army. Captains were appointed who recruited troops for a specified period. The result being that “…England now possessed a paid, professional short-service army for foreign service.” This proved far superior to the French feudal host.
French chivalry stressed the primacy of the mounted knight, the objective being to dismount one’s opponent and hold him to ransom. Edward’s tactics were more definitely out to kill, and so were more modern. For this he had formidable resources—the longbow was a devastating weapon and English armies cleverly combined archers with dismounted men-at-arms. This combination proved lethal on the battlefields of Western Europe against French, Scottish, Spanish and Flemish armies, often inflicting many thousands of casualties for trifling English losses.
Tactically, the disparity lay with the French. But as military writer General Fuller pointed out, “…nevertheless the size of France prohibited lengthy, let alone permanent, occupation.”
An insoluble problem for English commanders was that in an age of siege warfare, the more territory that was occupied, the greater the requirements for garrisons. This lessened the striking power of English armies as time went on. Salisbury’s army at Orleans only consisted of five thousand men, insufficient not only to invest the city but also numerically inferior to French forces both within and without the city. The French only needed to recover some part of their shattered confidence for the outcome to become inevitable. At Orléans, they were assisted by the death of Salisbury through a fluke cannon shot and by the inspiration of Joan of Arc.
Further, the ending of the Burgundian alliance spelled the end of English efforts in France, despite the campaigns of the aggressive John, Lord Talbot and his forces to stay the inevitable.
The war also stimulated nationalistic sentiment: it devastated France, but it also awakened French nationalism. The Hundred Years’ War accelerated the process of transforming France from a feudal monarchy to a centralized state. The latter stages of the war saw the emergence of the dukes of Burgundy as important players on the political field, and it encouraged the English—in response to the seesawing alliance of the southern Netherlands (now Belgium, a very important textile hub at the time) throughout the conflict—to develop their own clothing industry and foreign markets.
The most famous weapon was the Welsh (or English) longbow; while not a new weapon at the time, it played a significant role in the strategic advantage it gave the English. The French mainly counted on crossbows, many times manned my Genoese men. The crossbow was used because it took little training or skill to operate. It however was slow to reload, prone to damage (rain could easily damage it), and lacked the accuracy of the longbow. The longbow was a weapon of skill and required a lifetime to be proficient at it. It also required tremendous strength to use, requiring tension rates of around one hundred pounds to draw. It was the wide spread use of it in the British Isles that gave the English the ability to use it as a weapon, and it was the tactical developments that brought it to prominence. The English, in their battles with the Scots, had learned through defeat what dismounted bowmen in fixed positions could do to heavy horses. Since the arrows shot from a longbow could penetrate plate armor, a charge could be dissipated before it ever reached an army’s lines. The longbow enabled an often-outnumbered English army to pick battle locations, fortify, and destroy opposing armies. For some reason, as the Hundred Years’ War came to a close, the longbow became less viable as there were not the men to wield them.
A number of new weapons were introduced during the Hundred Years’ War as well. Gunpowder, firearms and cannons played significant roles as early as 1375. The last battle of the war, the Battle of Castillon, was the first battle in European history where artillery was the deciding factor. The early phase of the war triggered the development and rising popularity of the longsword, and the longbow success triggered transformations in armor (including plate armor).
War and Society
The consequences of these new weapons meant that the nobility was no longer the deciding factor in battle; peasants armed with longbows or firearms could gain access to the power, rewards and prestige once reserved only for knights who bore arms. The composition of armies changed from feudal lords (who may or may not show up when called by their lord) to paid mercenaries. By the end of the war, both France and England were able to raise enough money through taxation to create standing armies, the first time since the fall of the Western Roman Empire that there were standing armies in Western or Central Europe. Standing armies represented an entirely new form of power for kings. Not only could they defend their kingdoms from invaders, but also standing armies could also protect the king from internal threats and also keep the population in check. It was a major step in early developments towards new monarchies and nations and entirely broke down the medieval orders.
At the first major battle of the war, at the Battle of Crecy, it is said that the age of chivalry came to an end. Ironically, during this time there had been a revival of chivalry, and it was deemed to be of the highest importance to fight, and to die, in the most chivalrous way possible. The English even apologized for fighting non-chivalrously, saying they had no choice since they were so unfairly outnumbered, leaving the dirty business to the Welsh. It was a lesson the French would take a long time to learn and at great cost before they also began to fight in less chivalrous ways. The notion of chivalry was strongly influenced by the romanticized epics of the twelfth century and knights literally imagined themselves re-enacting the stories on the field of battle. Someone like Bertrand Du Guesclin (1320-1380) was said to have gone in to battle with one eye closed, declaring, “I will not open my eye for the honor of my lady until I have killed three Englishmen.”
The Continuing English Claim to the French Throne
After the end of the Hundred Years’ War, England continued to make claims on the French throne for years afterward, until the Act of Union in 1801, at which time the title of king of France was omitted from the new royal style.
- 1337 — Battle of Cadsand initiates hostilities. The Flemish defenders of the island were thrown into disorder by the first use of the English longbow on Continental soil
- 1340 — June 24: Battle of Sluys. Edward III beats Franco-Genoese fleet of Philip VI of France off the coast of Flanders and gains control of the English Channel
- 1345 — Longbow victory by Henry, Earl of Derby against a French army at Auberoche in Gascony
- 1346 — August 26: Battle of Crecy. English longbow men defeat soundly French cavalry at Abbeville
- 1346-1347 — Siege of Calais
- 1350 — Les Espagnols sur Mer. English fleet defeats Castilian fleet in a close fight.
- 1351 — Combat of the Thirty. Thirty French Knights from Chateau Josselin under Beaumanoir call out and defeat thirty English Knights under Earls of Pembroke and Brambaugh
- French army under De Nesle defeated by English under Bentley at Mauron in Brittany, De Nesle killed
- 1356 — Battle of Poitiers. Edward the Black Prince captures King John II of France, France plunges into chaos
- 1364 — September 29: Battle of Auray. End of Breton War of Succession French defeat, Du Gueschlin captured
- 1367 — Battle of Najera (Navarette) Black Prince defeats a Castillian/French army at Najera in Spain
- 1372 — Battle of La Rochelle Castilian-French fleet defeats the English fleet, leading to loss of dominance at sea and French piracy and coastal raids.
- 1415 — October 25: Battle of Agincourt. English longbow men under Henry V defeat French under Charles d’Albert
- 1416 — English defeat numerically greater French army at Valmont near Harfleur
- 1417 — Naval victory in the River Seine under Bedford
- 1418-1419 — July 31 – January 19: Siege of Rouen. Henry V of England gains a foothold in Normandy
- 1419 — Battle of La Rochelle Castilian fleet defeats Anglo-Hanseatic fleet.
- 1421 — March 22: Battle of Bauge. The French and Scottish forces of Charles VII commanded by the Earl of Buchan defeat an outmaneuvered English force commanded by the Duke of Clarence; the first English loss in a land battle of the Wars
- 1423 — July 31: Battle of Cravant. The French army is defeated at Cravant on the banks of the river Yonne
- 1424 — August 17: Battle of Vernuil. The Scottish forces are decisively defeated
- 1426 — March 6: French besieging army under Richemont dispersed by a small force under Sir Thomas Rempstone in “The Rout of St James” in Brittany
- 1429 — February 12: Battle of the Herrings. English force under Sir John Falstaff defeats French army
- 1428-1429 — October 12 – May 8: May Siege of Orléans English forces commanded by the Earl of Salisbury, the Earl of Suffolk, and Talbot (Earl of Shrewsbury) lay siege to Orleans, and are forced to withdraw after a relief army accompanied by Joan of Arc arrives at the city.
- 1429 — July 17: Battle of Patay. A French army under La Hire, Richemont, Joan of Arc, and other commanders break through English archers under Lord Talbot and then pursue and mop up the other sections of the English army, killing or capturing about half (2,200) of their troops. The Earl of Shrewsbury (Talbot) and Hungerford are captured
- 1435 — Battle of Gerbevoy La Hire defeats an English force under Arundel
- 1436 — John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury routs a larger French force under La Hire and Xantrailles at Ry near Rouen
- 1437 — John Talbot defeats the Burgundians at Crotoy
- 1439 — John Talbot disperses a French army of six thousand under the Constable Richemont at Avranches in Normandy
- 1440 — John Talbot takes Harfleur
- 1450 — Battle of Formigny. Two French armies under the Count of Clermont and the Earl of Richmond defeat the English under Kyriell
- 1453 — Battle of Castillon. The Valois use cannon to defeat the Lancastrians and end the Hundred Years War. The 70-year old Talbot is killed while trying to rally his fleeing troops
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- Braudel, Fernand. “The Perspective of the World,” vol III of Civilization and Capitalism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984.
- Burne, Alfred. The Agincourt War. Wordsworth Military Library.
- Dunnigan, James F., and Albert A. Nofi. Medieval Life & The Hundred Years War, online book.
- Froissart, Jean. “On The Hundred Years War (1337-1453)” from the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
- Overy, Richard. The Times Complete History of the World. New York: Barnes and Noble, 6th ed., 2004.
- Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years War. The English in France 1337-1453. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
- Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War I: Trial by Battle. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
- Sumption, Jonathan, The Hundred Years War II: Trial by Fire. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
- Wagner, John A. Encyclopedia of the Hundred Years War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 01.20.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.