Edward III, King of England, inherited a kingdom wracked by debt, baronial disloyalty, and civil war. Like many leaders before and since, he decided the best way to solve these problems was by uniting his countrymen together in a great foreign enterprise. That enterprise was the seemingly impossible task of conquering England’s traditional enemy – the immensely rich and powerful kingdom of France. Little did Edward know he would be taking his country into over one hundred years of violent international conflict and internal peasant revolt. Presented below are the five most important battles of that Hundred Years’ War.
1. Sluys 1340: First Battle of the Hundred Years’ War
Sluys may not be as famous as Crecy, Poitiers, or Agincourt, but it is arguably more important and has cast its shadow over European history ever since. Sluys was not the traditional medieval battle. It was fought at sea off the coast of Flanders and pitted approximately 200 French ships against a smaller number of English vessels. The English were personally led by Edward on board the cog Thomas. He drew his fleet up, according to one chronicler, “so that the wind was on their starboard quarter, in order to have the advantage of the sun.”
As the English closed the distance, a duel between both forces’ missile troops began. But it soon became obvious that the French crossbowmen were no match for the English longbowmen. The longbow had a much faster rate of fire – a serious advantage in the pell-mell nature of medieval naval combat. English arrows were sweeping the decks of French ships even before the English men-at-arms boarded.
In the end, it was a very one-sided affair. Most of the French fleet was captured, sunk, or run aground. There were probably around 10,000 French sailors killed, wounded, and captured, as opposed to a few hundred English. Edward sustained minor wounds to his hands and thigh during the engagement but was otherwise unhurt.
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Sluys is important because, in the short term, the battle destroyed French naval power and allowed Edward to land his army in France without incident. This would set the stage for the majority of the war being fought on French soil, as opposed to English. In the long term, Sluys established undisputed English control of the Channel (barring a few exceptions – 1688, 1940, etc.) for centuries to come.
2. Crecy 1346: The Longbow Ascendant
Edward may have won a naval victory, but victory at sea would never let him gain control of French territory and win the Hundred Years’ War. To do that, he would have to decisively defeat French field armies and potentially siege Paris.
After a short truce arranged by the Pope, Edward once again landed in France and by the summer of 1346 had goaded the main French army into battle near the village of Crecy. The English probably had a little over 10,000 men. The French host was undoubtedly larger, 20-30,000, and contained the best heavy cavalry in Europe.
But the English had one major advantage – the longbow. The longbow was made of yew and averaged six feet in length. A well-trained longbowman could shoot ten aimed arrows per minute, and recent analysis has proven beyond doubt that the special bodkin arrowheads used by the English could penetrate plate armor at a distance greater than 200 meters.
This would be the first time most of the French had seen such a weapon used in the field.
Edward chose his ground carefully, digging pits in front of his archers and throwing caltrops (sharp spikes designed to stick in horses’ hooves) forward from the English line. Confident in superior numbers, the French knights could not be held back. With great bravery and elan, they charged the English position repeatedly. The result was a slaughter. Perhaps as many as 2,000 French nobles died in the battle, along with thousands more foot soldiers and crossbowmen. English casualties again numbered in the hundreds.
The best heavy cavalry in Europe had been beaten by ordinary men armed with a devastating new weapon that was relatively cheap to build. It would be a slow process, but the mounted knight was on the way out. Soon the commoner would reign supreme on the battlefield.
3. Peasants’ Revolt In London 1381: The Most Important Battle of the Hundred Years’ War
When most people think of the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasants’ Revolt in England tends not to come to mind. However, the revolt occurred partly because of military reverses sustained during the war.
After Crecy, the Black Death ravaged Europe. As the population decreased, so did the amount of available manpower for farming. If a peasant did not like his lord, he could simply leave and find better treatment elsewhere. For a short time, the system of serfdom collapsed in both England and France.
But as the plague retreated, the repressive systems came back. The 1370s saw a reversal of fortunes in the Hundred Years’ War for England. Taxes were raised again and again to pay for it. The new king, Richard II, did not seem as interested in fighting as Edward III. This led to many experienced bowmen being put out of work. It was all a recipe for violent revolution, and that revolution came in the particularly hot summer of 1381.
After uprisings in Kent, the peasants’ revolt grew in numbers and eventually reached London. The rebels stormed the Tower, and the Chancellor, Archbishop Sudbury, and his Chief Treasurer, Sir Robert Hales, were both set upon, dragged to Tower Hill, and beheaded. The rebels also slaughtered any foreigners they could lay their hands on (mostly Flemings).
Eventually, the king rode out to meet them at Smithfield on Sunday, 15th June. Wat Tyler had been chosen as rebel leader. The demands of the peasants’ revolt were simple: an end to unfair taxes, the abolition of the nobility, and an amnesty for those who had rebelled. Incredibly, Richard agreed to all of it (he had little choice at that moment).
What happened next is unclear and depends on which chronicler you read, but by the end of the meeting, Tyler was severely wounded (having been stabbed in the side by the Lord Mayor), and the peasants’ revolt itself dispersed under promises from the king that they would be granted all their requests. It was a trick, and Richard would later, of course, break his word.
In France, too, a peasants’ revolt had occurred around this time, brutally suppressed by the Duke of Burgundy. The leading men in both countries took stock. Even though both peasants’ revolts were abject failures, there was undoubtedly a new force in politics: the commoner. The commoner did not yet have any representation in government, but he could not simply be ignored as before. Because of the war, peasants in both nations increasingly carried weapons and increasingly knew how to use them. This made them a threat not just to enemy armies but to the entire feudal social order.
4. Agincourt 1415: England’s Greatest Victory
Agincourt is probably the most famous battle of the Hundred Years’ War. Shakespeare immortalized the events of the summer and fall of 1415 in his play, Henry V.
Henry came to power in 1413. Just two years later, he was mounting an invasion of France. The coastal town of Harfluer was his first target. However, the town proved stubborn in its resistance. A long siege began, and diseases such as dysentery spread throughout the English ranks. But the English persisted, and the town eventually fell.
Henry’s army (already small by continental standards) had been reduced to a shadow of its former self. After leaving a garrison in Harfluer, the King determined to make an overland march to the English-held port of Calais, but bad weather, lack of food, and the lingering effects of dysentery conspired to make the march something of a living hell.
Still short of Calais, the little army then found its way blocked by a vastly superior French force. This would not be a repeat of the carefully orchestrated battle of Crecy. For the English, Agincourt was a desperate fight for survival. For the French, it represented an opportunity to destroy an English army, capture a king, and potentially win the Hundred Years’ War in an afternoon.
After refusing Henry’s offer of single combat, the French set up their camp and waited, content to let hunger and disease sap away at English strength. Shakespeare has his Henry character give a long, stirring, often-quoted speech.
In fact, Henry’s speech was probably quite short, reminding the men of the righteousness of his cause, of the promise that the French would give no quarter to longbowmen, and hinting at the possibility of a great deal of plunder from French knights that they managed to kill in the coming fight.
After the speech, Henry gave the order to advance banners. Moving up to the French camp and releasing a volley of arrows spurred the French into a hasty attack.
The French had forgotten the lessons of Crecy and again launched a mounted charge early in the battle. This was dispersed by the longbowmen. Further French infantry attacks advanced into a hail of arrows. Panic set in as those coming forward crashed into their comrades who were trying to retreat.
While plays and films often portray the battle as a somewhat heroic contest of arms, the reality was far different. Most of the French casualties probably occurred in this phase as panic caused a mass human stampede. Men who were not crushed by their comrades drowned in the mud. All the time, English arrows were being shot into the mass. At the edges, the English knights hacked and stabbed away, taking nobles prisoner where possible and butchering anyone else. When the longbowmen had run out of arrows, they unsheathed their knives and waded in, slipping daggers into the visors of wounded knights and plundering as much as they could carry from the bodies.
French casualties were horrendous, perhaps reaching 10,000. French nobility had been smashed. France’s king eventually had to sue for peace and accept Henry as his legal heir. Despite its horrors, Agincourt represents the high-water mark of English imperial ambitions during the Hundred Years’ War. It is also important in the formation of English national identity.
5. Castillon 1453: The Gunner Ascendant – Final Battle of the Hundred Years’ War
By 1453, France had created a professional army, organized its finances, and regained much of its lost territory. The last remaining English-ruled possessions in France were Gascony and the port of Calais. The English, by contrast, were disunited at home and unwilling to pay for the prosecution of the war abroad. Joan of Arc may have been dead, but she had inspired a nation.
The French invaded Gascony and met an Anglo-Gascon force near the town of Castillon in July 1453. But this French army was different from the ones that had gone before. It contained fewer armored knights, instead possessing many cannons and “handgonners” (men carrying primitive firearms).
This battle was essentially Crecy in reverse. A massive English infantry attack came on in waves, each of which was shot to pieces by French guns. English casualties numbered around the 4,000 mark. French were in the hundreds. Even the vaunted English longbowmen had been powerless in the face of this modern weaponry.
Gascony was absorbed, and French territorial integrity was finally established (apart from Calais, which would be taken in the next century). The battle was also crucial in presenting a modern, technologically superior army to the world. The English longbowman might have cost far less to equip than a knight but still took years to train. A medieval gunner could be taught how to use his weapon in an afternoon.
Castillon, therefore, proved the effectiveness of gunpowder weaponry, an effectiveness finally confirmed beyond all doubt at the Battle of Pavia in 1525.
The Hundred Years’ War was over. Feudalism was dying. The age of the mercenary – the commoner turned military professional, had begun.