For 116 years, the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet fought over the French throne and the rights to the Kingdom of France. It was a war that would ebb and flow in favor of each side, with lands being lost, regained, and lost again in a struggle that would later be used to invoke a sense of national rivalry between England and France. The war was an intermittent affair, with periods of peace interspersed with periods of unconscionable violence and the slaughter of thousands. This was the Hundred Years’ War, and it was a defining feature of Western Europe that spanned centuries.
How Did the Hundred Years’ War Start?
The rivalry between France and England went back hundreds of years. In 1066, William the Conqueror, a Norman lord and a subject of the Kingdom of France, became king of England. Thus, the Kingdom of England (Angevin Empire) had held territory in France, which the French throne considered to be its own vassalage. The English kings disagreed, and understandably tensions rose when France sought to curb England’s power by reducing the size of these vassal states, especially when England went to war with France’s ally, Scotland.
In 1328, the Kingdom of France faced a quandary. King Charles IV had died without an heir, and there was the question of who would succeed him. The English King Edward III had a solid claim as he was Charles’ nephew. Nevertheless, Charles’ cousin, Philip, the Count of Valois, led an aggressive campaign to be put on the throne, and it was he who was crowned Philip VI.
The English Kingdom’s lands in France had been reduced to the province of Gascony in the southwest of France. Philip VI issued an edict declaring that the English lands in France were now the property of France. In addition, aggressive naval actions by France interrupted one of England’s primary sources of income – the wool trade with the low countries.
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Provoked by these measures, Edward III declared himself King of England and France in 1337. Over a hundred years of conflict would ensue between the House of Valois (French royal dynasty) and the House of Plantagenet (English royal dynasty) in a war that would later be called The Hundred Year’s War.
Opening of Hostilities
On June 24, 1340, the first battle of the Hundred Years’ War was fought. The English navy had found the larger French navy blockading the Zwin estuary in modern-day Zeeland, Netherlands. The French navy, numbering over 200 ships, had been tied together into a platform to block any movement through the mouth of the river. The English fleet of 150 ships maneuvered into position while conditions pushed the French fleet out of formation.
Many of the French ships became entangled, and the French hastily tried to reform, but for many, it was too late. With the wind and the tide in their favor, the English attacked. The Battle of Sluys was completely one-sided. Of 213 ships, the French lost 190, of which 166 were captured. Estimates of casualties put the English losses between 400 and 600, while the French lost 16,000 to 20,000 men.
The Victory at Sluys scuppered any plans for a French invasion of England, but the French navy was quickly rebuilt, and English merchants were still at risk from French action. During the war, there would be consistent raiding of ports and coastal towns on both sides of the Channel.
In 1341, the focus of the war would turn to the province of Brittany as a succession dispute would draw in the armies of both kingdoms. There was little success on both sides until the English-backed claimant finally won in 1364. There was also intermittent fighting in Gascony at the time, but here too, there was little success to be found on either side.
In July 1346, Edward III launched a major invasion of France. With the initiative of surprise, the city of Caen fell within one day. Philip VI mustered an army, and the French and English attempted to outmaneuver each other, with the English finally forcing a fight on favorable ground.
On August 26, 1346, the two armies clashed at Crécy-en-Ponthieu. The outnumbered English army decisively defeated the French in the fighting that followed. The casualty rate among the French was phenomenally high. Over 4,000 French soldiers lay dead, with the English only losing up to a few hundred at most. This battle of the Hundred Years’ War proved the effectiveness of the English longbowmen, allowing the English to capture the port city of Calais, which then remained an English possession for the next two centuries.
During this time, the French realized the difficulty in defeating the English and asked their ally, Scotland, to ease the burden by invading England. The Scottish agreed and, in 1346, launched an invasion. The Battle of Neville’s Cross ensued, and the English won another decisive victory, killing thousands, with few casualties of their own. Among the Captured was King David II of Scotland. This action greatly reduced the threat from Scotland, and England was free to concentrate on France without worrying about its northern border.
From 1347 to 1351, the Hundred Years’ War was interrupted by the Black Death. As the plague ravaged Europe, killing 40% of its population, no country was in any shape to wage war on any other. Nevertheless, Scotland decided to invade England in 1349, thinking the plague was an act of God punishing the English. The Scottish army subsequently contracted the disease and took it back to Scotland.
After the plague had subsided and England had recovered enough to re-engage with hostilities, Edward’s son, known as the Black Prince, led two ventures from the territory of Gascony. He sacked, plundered, and pillaged a number of settlements and towns before the French were able to intercept him at Poitiers. The resultant battle was yet another crushing defeat for the French. With an army of just 6,000 men and outnumbered at least two to one, the English routed the French, killing or capturing around 7,000 men while sustaining minimal casualties. The French King John II was also captured, dealing a huge blow to the Kingdom of France.
After the battle, chaos gripped France as nobles and mercenaries roamed free, robbing and pillaging the country as the authority of the crown diminished. Taking advantage of this state of affairs, the Black Prince pressed his advantage, laying siege to Reims and attempting to capture Paris, but both actions failed. A freak hailstorm then struck, killing a thousand English soldiers. The Treaty of Brétigny was signed thereafter, and for a few years, there was peace between the two kingdoms. However, it was not to last, and the Hundred Years’ War resumed in 1366 as a proxy war in Spain and Navarre.
The English Lose the Initiative
Succession crises in the Kingdom of Castile in Spain broadened the war into the Iberian Peninsula. The English supported one claimant, while the French supported the other. From 1366 to 1372, the Hundred Years’ War focused on this theater. It was an inglorious defeat for the English and one that resulted in not only the new French King Charles V declaring English possessions in France unlawful but also saw the Castilians win a significant victory against the English navy, destroying the English fleet at the Battle of La Rochelle.
In 1373, the English attempted a major campaign to plunder and replenish English coffers. Leaving from Calais and leading 9,000 men, John of Gaunt marched across France, but dogged by small groups of French soldiers waging a guerilla war, the English were ground down to a demoralized and starving mass that barely survived the trek to Bordeaux.
In 1380, the English invaded Brittany, but the cost was high, and they were forced to abandon the siege of Nantes, acquiescing to a treaty that was a diplomatic victory for France. The following years saw France unable to capitalize on its victories as internal disputes, discontent, and problems in leadership hampered progress. England also had its share of problems with regime change, a peasant revolt, and a Welsh rebellion.
The Hundred Years’ War simmered down, and the two nations fought each other through proxy conflicts such as the 1383–1385 Portuguese interregnum (the English-backed king won).
In 1415, with the French experiencing problems in Burgundy, the English king Henry V saw an opportunity to strike. He invaded France with an army of about 10,500 men. They took the port of Harfleur, but it was a costly endeavor, and the English suffered from dysentery.
Vulnerable, the English decided to make a dash for Calais but were intercepted by the French. The Battle of Agincourt followed, in which England decisively defeated the French, killing 40% of their nobles in the process. Henry V and his army retreated back to England and launched another invasion.
In 1417, Henry V retook almost the entire duchy of Normandy, while the following year, the Burgundians took Paris. Reeling from these defeats, the French capitulated, and the Treaty of Troyes was signed, which agreed that the English king would succeed the French throne upon the death of the mad French king Charles VI. His son, the “Dauphin” (heir to the French throne), Charles VII was declared illegitimate. Henry V, however, would not live to see the fruition of this treaty. He died of dysentery in 1421.
The war continued as Scotland invested troops in supporting the Dauphin. The Franco-Scottish forces gained victory at the Battle of Baugé but lost decisively at the Battle of Verneuil, which destroyed the Dauphin’s army and eliminated the Scottish from France. It seemed at this point that the English would clinch victory in the Hundred Years’ War as they besieged Orléans.
Joan of Arc
The appearance of Joan of Arc, a religious visionary, buoyed the spirits of the French at Orléans, and they broke the English siege in 1429. The French followed up by taking several English strongholds and defeating an English army at the Battle of Patay. The Dauphin marched to Reims and was crowned King of France, but the following attempt to relieve Paris from the Burgundian occupation failed. Joan of Arc was captured in 1430. She was convicted of witchcraft a year later and burned at the stake.
Then English fortunes took a turn for the worse, and Burgundy withdrew from the conflict, handing Paris back to France. This gave the French the boost they needed to centralize their control over the kingdom and create a professional army. They took Normandy and Gascony back from the English. The Battle of Castillon on July 17, 1453 was the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War, and it was a crushing defeat for the English. The addition of cannons to the French army had been a major blow to the English.
After 116 years, the Hundred Years’ War was over. England lost all its continental possessions except Calais, and France emerged as a strong, centralized state. Nobles in England, angry over their loss of land in France, became unruly, and it is theorized that the outcome of the Hundred Years’ War set the scene for the Wars of the Roses, which saw an end to the Plantagenet Dynasty.
It is commonly perceived that the Hundred Years’ war was a struggle between two great nations, but in reality, it was a series of conflicts between two royal houses for a single throne. The patriotic fervor depicted in revisionist media was largely absent when the battles were being fought. For most English soldiers, their participation was an economic venture rather than out of a sense of patriotism. Nevertheless, propaganda did turn the war into a cause for enmity between the nations of France and England.
Ultimately, the Hundred Years’ War was little more than a brutal conflict in which many thousands died for their respective kings and lords. The outcome was that France remained an entity separate from England and not bound by a single royal line.