What Was The Hundred Years War?

The Hundred Years War was a vicious, costly, drawn out affair caused by ambitious English kings set on ruling France. The see-saw war went on for 100 years until the English were finally driven out of France.

For over one hundred years, English kings laid claim to the French throne. France was not a united country in the middle of the fourteenth century. English monarchs already held large tracts of land in France but they wanted to be the rulers there, too. In 1337 England held large areas on the mainland, including Gascony in the south and Ponthieu in the north. France proper consisted of Paris and a small surrounding territory. Despite its small size, France was the strongest and most advanced country in Europe. France and England became natural enemies and rivals.

Earlier, under King Henry II, England held as much land in France as the French King himself. But the French were slowly and quietly expanding their territory; taking over English lands. Many who were loyal to England fled there when they lost their land. The people of Flanders appealed to the British crown for help against the advancing French influence; England did not want to risk losing her close economic ties with the rest of Europe. Meanwhile, naval battles in the English Channel and coastal raids became more frequent. In 1337, war between France and England began in earnest.

In those days, royal weddings were political events as much as anything else. Edward III of England was the son of Isabella, a French princess. Edward claimed that, because of his mother, the French throne belonged to him. The French wanted Philip VI of Valois as king and crowned him in 1328. They claimed that Salic law forbade women from becoming a French ruler. Edward didn't need an excuse to fight with France, but this gave him one.

The English won a great naval battle off Sluys. They didn't capitalize on it and instead signed a short-lived truce in 1340. The English won an important and decisive battle in 1346. King Edward led his troops against a much larger French army at Crécy in Ponthieu. French knights, on horseback, attacked the English before their generals had given the command. The English had the deadly longbow and decimated the cavalry charge before it reached them. The rest of the English troops had an easy time cutting down the few confused, scattered French soldiers.

The great victory at Crécy did little to advance Edward's cause. He besieged the port of Calais for a year before he could capture it. It remained English for over two hundred years. The English at home were enjoying the glory and spoils of war while the French suffered the humiliation of a foreign army ravaging their land. The Black Death reached England in 1348 and killed off one third of the population before it was ended. While the Black Plague was at its height, Edward established the Order of the Garter. It inspired courage and paid rewards to his loyal knights.

Significant changes in the tactics of warfare during the fourteenth century were having an effect on the French-English war. National armies began to replace the individual nobleman's private forays into battle. Infantry began to replace cavalry, and the French were badly hurt by their slow response to this change. English archers armed with longbows were wreaking havoc on the mounted soldiers of France. Cannon and handguns were being used with more regularity, although the guns were often as much a threat to the attacker as to the target.



In 1356, Edward's son, the Prince of Wales, was victorious in a battle over the powerful army of King John of France. Edward's son was nicknamed The Black Prince because of his black armor. He destroyed the town of Limoges in 1370 and, for his cruelty, the French hated him. He succeeded in capturing King John and sending him to the Tower of London where King David of Scots, his ally, was already prisoner. The English demanded three million gold crowns as the ransom for King John.

The war began to turn in France's favor after the Black Prince attacked Spain. This campaign was very costly to English resources and also provided France with an ally to her south. The fighting resumed in 1369 when Edward once again assumed the title of King of France. Charles V of France engaged a brilliant general named Du Guesclin. The new general fought using guerrilla tactics against English castles. Edward was by now feeble with age and the Black Prince fell ill. The French regained all of the land that they had lost.

Edward died in 1377 and by then, the English only held on to Calais and some coastal areas around Brest, Bayonne and Bordeaux. By the end of the fourteenth century, the war had died down to a series of weak raids and skirmishes. Richard II, son of the Black Prince, made peace with France in 1396. Neither he nor his successor, Henry IV, sought to renew the fighting.

Henry V was King of England from 1413 to 1422. He saw continued hostility with France as a way to channel the energies and fighting mood of his nobility. Meanwhile, France itself was torn by rivalries between the families of Burgundy and Orleans. The French king, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of madness. The conditions were right for a renewed English attack.

In 1415 Henry's army landed in Normandy. Marching to Calais, they were cut off by a huge French army. The small English force was victorious because the French were still relying on cavalry and the English archers destroyed them. 7,000 French fighters died that day while the English lost less than 500. At the signing of the peace treaty at Troyes in 1420, it was agreed that Henry would marry Princess Catherine of France. Any son of theirs would become king of England and France.

The French ignored the treaty after the deaths of Henry V and Charles VI and Dauphin Charles was next in line for the French crown. Dauphin was a weak leader and in danger of losing his crown to rivals in Burgundy. A new light appeared on the French scene named Joan of Arc. The sixteen-year-old girl claimed to have had visions from heaven. Her leadership inspired the garrison of Orleans and the enemy began to retreat. With the Dauphin's support she amassed an army and took revenge on the Burgundians at Patay in 1429. In 1430, the Burgundians, allies of the English, handed Joan over to them. She was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1431.

Joan had inspired a new patriotism in France and when the Burgundians rejoined France the end was in sight for English aspirations there. The war was going badly for England and in 1444 Henry VI was forced to seek a two-year truce. In July 1453, the last English army in France was destroyed at Castillon. Only Calais remained English until Mary Tudor finally surrendered it in 1558.

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