The "Hundred Years War"

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

As the 14th Century began, England and France had many common interests, a common culture, common traditions, and even a common language, as French was spoken in the English courts, a legacy of the fact that William of Orange, who conquered England in 1166, was from Normandy.

But near constant warfare throughout Europe, with shifting alliances, use of foreign mercenaries, social unrest, and even Black Death, began to eat away as these bonds, and provoke suspicion. England still had claims to portions of France. Yet since 1166, among these claims, Normandy, Anjou, and Poitou had been lost to the French, and only a strip of Aquitaine - Gascony - remained.

The French, of course, wanted all of France, and used its influences with traditional English enemy Scotland, and the nearby monarchy of Flanders, as chess pieces to achieve this.

Edward III came to the throne in 1327. As the son of Isabella, daughter of Philip IV of France, Edward was able to make a claim to the French crown when the brothers of Isabella all died without male heirs. (Unlike England, the French throne required a male.) Edward was fearless, competitive, and thrilled to the dangers of combat, and from an early point in life understood how warfare and diplomacy needed to be woven.

As a parenthetical we need mention here that Edward also elevated the principles of fidelity and chivalry among the nobility of England when he established, in 1348 (in the name of St. George) the Order of the Garter, which bound to him the 26 most prominent knights in the country, the symbol of which was a blue garter worn below the knee. (By the 15th Century the significance of this order would result in St. George being named the patron saint of England.)

In 1329 David Bruce inherited the Scottish crown but Edward challenged his claim with a candidate of his own (John Balliol) and went to war with the Scots to seat Balliol, who was subsequently overturned, then restored. During this, the French (now with Philip VI) revealed their preference of Bruce but indicated they would withdraw their preference if England would abandon Gascony. Looking for a military ally, Edward turned to the Count of Flanders, whose principality required English wool for its manufacturers, but Edward was rebuffed, and so he countered with an embargo of wool and an invitation to the Flemish to come to England to work their trade. Many did, with Flemish wool merchants revolting against the Count in favor of Edward. (Pretty good deal: where England had one industry, it now had two.)

Meanwhile, Edward announced his claim to the French throne (as indicated in paragraph 4) and Philip VI responded by claiming Gascony. War was now inevitable.

(Well you can see now that this will not be the shortest essay in the History section.)

Against the French, England looked like a sure loser, having merely one fourth the population, and an even smaller fraction of the wealth. But against the Scots the English discovered they had a new weapon - the English Longbow. It was 6 foot tall, made of oak or yew, and in a properly trained commoner, it could fire a heavy arrow 300 yards with enough force to penetrate armor, and could do so 6 times faster than the shorter-ranged (but more accurate) crossbows with which the French were equipped.

In 1346 Edward landed in Normandy determined to capture the port of Calais, taking a defensive position near the town of Crecy which maximized the fire power of his archers, into which the proud French knights rode, to their complete destruction. Calais would fall after a one year siege and remain an English possession for the next 200 years.

Ten years later, hostilities resumed when John, son of Philip VI, and now King of France, decided to make amends and met the English at Poitiers, the army lead by Edward's son, Edward, the Black Prince. (Black because it was the color of his armor.) The French had learned nothing from Crecy and again were mowed down by English long bowmen, with John taken prisoner. In the treaty which accompanied the ransom of John, many former English possessions in France were restored.

War was renewed in 1369 with Charles V now King of France, who knew not to attack the English long bow with mounted knights. Using guerilla tactics with hasty retreat to forts, he forced the English to employ expensive sieges, which they discovered could not be supported by further taxation. In the years which followed, the French would slowly but methodically retake many of the English gains. Edward III died in 1377, at the age of 64, but he much earlier had become senile, and incapable of action.

On the passing of Edward III, Richard II came to the throne at the age of 10, the son of the Black Prince. A man of small stature and no interest in warfare, he dealt with France by diplomacy and treaty. Unpopular with the other nobles, he eventually was deposed in favor of Henry Bolingbroke, son of the Duke of Lancaster, who would reign from 1399 - 1413 as Henry IV. Opposed by France which stirred up trouble spots in Scotland and Wales, Henry found it also necessary to war against the Duke of Northumberland, who contested his kingship. Feeling the time opportune, France invaded England in aid to Wales in 1405 and the Hundred Years War was now conducted in England. The French were repulsed, the Welsh contained. By now also, France slid into a long period of civil war (Burgundy versus Armagnac), whereas things settled down in England, but Henry went into mental decline and the throne passed to his son, Henry V.

Henry V (1413 - 1422) became king at age 27, already well tested in warfare in Wales. Convinced that God wanted him to conquer France in order to unite both countries for a crusade, he had the energy and charisma to convince other nobles to join the cause, and Shakespeare would compose a play later on that theme. Charles VI of France was now insane and civil war continued there. It would be a good time to invade.

Henry landed in Normandy intent on taking Calais, having 2,000 infantry and 6,000 archers and some primitive cannon. His drive was blocked at Agincourt by a much larger French army with many heavily armored knights, who had evidently forgotten the lessons of Crecy and Poitiers. The French were soundly defeated. The success allowed Henry to raise more troops and continue the war. The Treaty of Troyes in 1420 provided that Henry would marry Katherine, the daughter of Charles VI, and upon his death, Henry would be King of France. Henry would not live to see it, as he would die two years later of dysentery at the height of his military reputation.

With Katherine he left a 9 month old baby, and England would be ruled by the Royal Council, one of whom was appointed "Protector" of the heir, Henry VI, during his minority. In France, resistence to the English took the form of incessant attack while the dauphin (Charles VII), heir to Charles VI, grew through his own minority. The Hundred Years war would drag on another 20 years, would include such colorful characters as Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) defeating the English at Orleans, and finally end in 1453 with England abandoning everything but Calais.

Then a civil war like that which plagued France all these years would strike England, and we would call that struggle the "War Of The Roses". But that's another story.

In both the Hundred Years War and the War of The Roses there was a pivotal character who was not a king and not mentioned in this essay by name. He was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He would provide England, in his line of descent, with three kings named Henry (4, 5, and 6) from the blood line of his wife, Blanche of Lancaster, and two named Henry (7 and 8) through the line of his mistress, Catherine Swynford. But it wouldn't end there. Swynford's line of descent would continue with Edward VI, the queens Mary and Elizabeth, James I, Charles I and II, James II, William III, and finally conclude with Queen Anne in 1714. At this point, the product of her line would shift to a distant relative in Germany, since Anne died without an heir, and we would get George I and the Hanoverian line, which continues today in England as the "Windsor" family.

And that's all I have to say about the Hundred Years War.

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