Nothing better epitomizes the turmoil of the Later Middle Ages than the prolonged and desperate struggle between France and England known as the Hundred Years War. Technically, this was a series of wars intermittently separated by periods of uneasy peace, but the fact that it took over a century to resolve this struggle justifies treating it as one war. Although, on the surface, the issues involved just concerned who held certain territories and the French throne, there were deeper processes going on that gave this struggle an importance far beyond its battles. The main process taking place was the painful separation of the two nations from a feudal and dynastic concept of the state that had kept French and English histories intertwined with one another since the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The growing use of the English language throughout the war especially illustrated this process. Whereas French was the primary language of the English court at the start of the war, by the end it was English. Also, Geoffrey Chaucer had written Canterbury Tales, one of the first great works of English literature, and John Wycliffe had translated the Bible into English, all this showing a growing sense of an English nation and culture.
Three main factors set France and England on a collision course in the 1300’s. Over the last two centuries, the French monarchy had gradually brought nearly all of France under its effective rule. In the early 1200’s, John I had lost most of England’s lands in France. However, two rich wine producing areas in the southwest of France, Gascony and Guienne, remained in English hands, a fact which greatly irked the French kings. Another source of concern to the French kings was England’s flourishing wool trade in the north with Flanders, which was part of France. When the Flemish workers revolted in 1302, they looked to England for support. Although the French put down the revolt, they were still suspicious of English intentions in Flanders.
But the issue taking center stage was Edward III of England’s claim to the French throne when the childless Charles IV died. Edward was Charles’ nephew, while the next closest male claimant to the throne was a cousin, named Philip. However, the French did not want an Englishman on the French throne, and thereby chose Philip VI as their king. Edward, feeling slighted by this decision and being concerned about his hold on Gascony and Guienne, decided to fight for the throne. The Hundred Years War was on.
The new face of war
One of the most dramatic signs of the transition from the medieval to modern world was the changing nature of warfare. The English were especially innovative in this regard, probably because they faced a much larger and more powerful enemy and thus felt more of a need to experiment with new ways of fighting. The armies of the Hundred Years War would differ from the armies of the Dark Ages in three major ways. One change was that, for the most part, these were not feudal armies of noble vassals fighting to fulfill their personal obligations to their lords. Rather, they were largely collections of mercenary companies containing many members of the lower classes and even criminal element. Their captains would contract their services to a king in return for the promise of pay, plunder, and ransoms for any captured enemies. Such armies may have been more stable and reliable than the old feudal armies, but they also created serious problems. Since they were rarely paid in full or on time and their ranks were often filled with the more disreputable types in society, they were prone to desertion, plundering, and violence against the civilian populace.
Two other big changes had to do with weaponry. One was the longbow, adopted from the Welsh by Edward I in the late 1200’s. This was a specialized weapon that took a full year to make and years to master. As a result, only richer free peasants (yeomen) and professional mercenaries had the leisure time for practice. The longbow was both powerful and had a rapid rate of fire. Formations of English long-bowmen, protected by rows of sharpened stakes and intervening formations of English knights, could unleash ten to twelve volleys of arrows per minute, a devastating rate of fire as the French would find out. Another weapon that would assume greater importance as the war continued was gunpowder. Both the English and, later on, the French would use cannons effectively to demolish castle walls and the medieval order they stood for.
While the history of the war was long an involved, it followed a basic pattern. At first, the English, with strong leaders and new weapons and tactics, would win striking victories against much larger French armies. This would continue until weak leaders would take power in England and more decisive one would take over in France. Then the French would adapt to the English weapons and tactics and gradually recover their lands. However, England would once again see strong leaders while France would suffer weak ones again and the pattern would start all over. This pattern cycled around two times, dividing the war into four basic phases.
Phase I: England ascendant 1337-1369)
The first major battle of the war, Sluys (1340), was a naval battle and determined who would control the English Channel. Naval battles in the Atlantic were rare, since the seas were too rough for oar driven galleys, and the square sail then in use could not tack well into the wind. Therefore, one navy or the other was usually confined to port, depending on the wind. Without the use of oars, ramming and clipping enemy ships was impractical, so naval battles were mainly land battles fought at sea, with each side trying to grapple and board the other side’s ships. In such a battle, the English had a definite advantage, since their longbows provided the firepower to clear enemy decks and let English soldiers storm their ships. As a result, the Battle of Sluys was a decisive victory for the English and gave them the freedom to raid France while securing their own coasts from seaborne raids.
For several years, small English armies would raid and plunder French territory while being careful to avoid any large French forces, since the English themselves were not sure of how effective their longbows would be against French knights. However, in 1346 a large French army succeeded in cornering a much smaller English army and forcing it to fight at Crecy. Lined up behind protective wooden stakes, the English long-bowmen launched volley after volley of arrows as “thick as snow”, first mowing down enemy crossbowmen and then bringing succeeding waves of charging French knights crashing to the ground. By sundown, the English had won a stunning victory against what seemed like insurmountable odds, considering enemy numbers and the high regard in which French knights were held all over Europe. Crecy opened the French countryside to the English, allowing them to seize the port of Calais, which they held until the 1550’s.
However, the French refused to recognize that the outcome at Crecy using these new tactics of long-bowmen in coordination with knights was anything besides a fluke. Therefore, after an interlude in the fighting brought on by the Black Death, they went after the English army again. This time they tracked down Edward the Black Prince and an army of some 8000 men at Poitiers (1356). Once again the French knights charged the English lines, and once again the hissing volleys of English arrows littered the field with French dead and wounded. Among the numerous prisoners held for ransom was the French king. Poitiers confirmed Crecy’s verdict that the balance of power on the battlefields of Europe was clearly shifting away from the heavily armored knight.
The aftermath of Poitiers saw the English conquer large areas of France in the western coastal areas. Meanwhile, peasant revolts, such as the Jacquerie, were challenging new taxes and the nobles’ power in society. Given all this turmoil and their inability to beat English armies, the French concluded the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, recognizing Edward’s new conquests in return for his relinquishing any claim to the French crown.
However, peace did not return to France, because the English did not want to disband their so-called free companies of mercenaries in England where they could raise all sorts of havoc. Instead, they turned them loose in France where they continued to loot and pillage as if peace had never been signed. One free company made a living from capturing castles and then selling them back to their original owners. Another company, under Sir Robert Knollys (knighted by Edward for his exploits and atrocities in France), controlled forty castles and plundered at will from Orleans to Vezelay. In response to these ravages, French peasants fortified their churches, slept on islands in local rivers, and dug tunnels to escape the English. Seeing no apparent difference between peace and war, the French resumed the war in 1369.
Phase II: The French resurgence (1369-1413)
By now, the French had learned to avoid open battle against the English long-bowmen, choosing instead to bolster town and castle fortification, cut off any isolated raiding parties, and deny the English the plunder that made the war worthwhile to them. Thanks to this strategy, the French recovered most of their lands from the English. This, the return of the Black Death, and then the Wat Tyler rebellion in 1381 all combined to make the war very unpopular in England. Therefore, in 1396, it was the English turn to ask for peace, giving up most of their French possessions in the process.
However, the tide soon turned back to favor the English for a couple reasons. First of all, the rule of the mentally unstable French king, Charles VI (1380-1422), unleashed factional strife between the noble houses of Orleans and Burgundy over who would control the king and French policies. Therefore, France was in a state of turmoil and open to attack. Also, about this time, a warlike English king, Henry V, took the throne and decided to launch a new campaign in France.
The English resurgence (1413-1428)
Henry entered France with a small army of 1000 knights and 6000 long-bowmen. Like Edward III and the Black Prince before him, Henry was trapped by a much larger French army that forced his tired and hungry army to fight at Agincourt (1415). By this time, knights were wearing suits of plate armor weighing up to 65 pounds, a much harder shell for the longbow arrows to penetrate. Despite this, the longbow still played a vital role in winning Agincourt. For whatever reasons, the French chose to avoid the formations of long-bowmen and instead attacked the groups of English knights in between. This had the effect of cramming the French into ever-narrower spaces that gave them no room to raise their weapons. Meanwhile, their comrades in back, unaware of this, kept pushing forward, creating even more of a crush up front that the English knights exploited mercilessly. At the same time, the English long-bowmen were hitting the French from the sides. This combination of being unable to maneuver and being attacked from three sides made Agincourt as much of a disaster for the French as Crecy and Poitiers had been.
Agincourt unleashed an avalanche of misfortunes upon France. The Duke of Burgundy, bitter over the murder of his father by the Duke of Orleans, defected to the English side. Paris fell to the enemy, while famine and turmoil stalked the land. Equally decisive and portentous for the future was another new weapon that was changing the face of warfare: gunpowder. Cannons had been used as early as Crecy in 1346, but mainly as glorified noisemakers. However, by the early 1400’s, the English had a large and effective siege train of cannons that pulverized the old medieval fortifications of towns and castles. By 1420, the English and their Burgundian allies had control of the northern half of France, forcing the French to agree to the Treaty of Troyes, by which Henry would take the French throne after Charles VI died. However, Henry died shortly before Charles and was succeeded by the infant, Henry VI. The French refused to give the throne to this child, and war resumed.
Joan of Arc and the final French triumph (1428-53)
At first, the Duke of Bedford, regent for the young Henry VI, ably continued the English advance against the pale and feeble Charles VII. It was then that a remarkable peasant girl, known to history as Joan of Arc, came to the French court, claiming divine voices had told her to lead France to victory. Despite the snickering at this simple peasant girl by the court, her persistence and genuine faith in her mission persuaded Charles to let her accompany the French army trying to relieve the city of Orleans. For whatever reasons, the French succeeded in saving Orleans, thus opening the road to Reims where Charles could officially be crowned.
To the soldiers, Joan was a symbol of French defiance, and her example restored the army’s spirit. However, her luck soon ran out. In 1430, the Burgundians captured Joan and sold her to the English who tried her as a witch for hearing demonic voices. After a long and exhausting trial, she was convicted by a French church court and burned at the stake in the market place of Rouen in 1431. Years later the Church would reverse its decision and declare Joan a saint. She was only 19 years old when she died.
Joan’s death backfired against the English in much the same way as the execution of the Hussite leader, Jan Hus, had backfired against the Church a few years before. Charles VII took heart and led a vigorous offensive against the English, while the French people agreed to a war tax to pay for soldiers and artillery to free their land of the now hated English. Now it was the French turn to use cannons to demolish English fortifications and sweep through France. Meanwhile, high war taxes and the lack of plunder to pay for the war made it increasingly unpopular in England. As a result, Parliament cut most funds for fighting in France. In 1451, at the Battle of Castillon, the French, using another experimental weapon, primitive firearms, defeated the last English army in France. Two years later in 1453, the same year the Ottoman Turks used artillery to help them storm the walls of Constantinople, the English were out of France except for the port of Calais. The Hundred Years War was over.
What had all this accomplished? The main significance of the Hundred Years War was that France and England, bound together for centuries by outmoded feudal ties and concepts, were now wrenched apart, leaving in their wake two distinct nations free to follow their own destinies. The Hundred Years War also symbolized far reaching military and social changes. Although nobles would be around for centuries to come, the longbow and gunpowder showed that their days were numbered. Gunpowder in particular meant that nobles were no longer safe, either on the battlefield or behind their own castle walls. And with their military dominance went the nobles’ unchallenged social preeminence. Gunpowder technology was also expensive. As a result, only kings and princes were able to afford armies with cannons and firearms, thus stripping nobles of even more of their power and prestige, leaving the way open for the rise of the modern nation state.