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The 116 Years' War

Between 1337 and 1453, England and France engaged in a series of raids, guerilla actions, and all-out battles in what has become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The struggle actually lasted 116 years, to be exact, but it should be noted that the fighting was not continuous over the entire time span. There were cease-fires and periods of little or no fighting, but these times of peace rarely lasted more than a few years.

The Original Hatfields and McCoys

There must have been a major disagreement for two kingdoms to slug it out for over a hundred years. In the case of the Hundred Years’ War, there were actually two major disagreements, combined with the fact that the English and French really didn’t like each other.

The first disagreement was over land, specifically English holdings in southwestern France that were rich in trade goods. In a disastrous minor war earlier in the fourteenth century, England lost most of its holdings and wanted desperately to recover the land.

The second disagreement arose over the inheritance of the French throne. In 1328, the French king, Charles IV, also called Charles the Fair, died without a son to inherit the throne. This was a crisis for France; for centuries there had been no succession problems within the Capetian dynasty, or the rule of the Capet family. Now, however, things got complicated.

The closest male relative of the dead king was his nephew, Edward III, the teenage king of England; Edward’s mother was the dead French king’s sister, Isabella. According to Edward III, the decision about who should be king of France was a no-brainer: He, clearly, was next in line.

If Edward had been French there would have been no problem. However, the French nobility couldn’t stomach the thought of a foreigner, an Englishman, on the French throne. French legal scholars did their homework and found a very old law that prevented property and other inheritances from passing through a female line. That was good enough for France. They refused Edward’s claim to the throne and opted for a distant relative of the dead king.

Over the next several years, tension mounted between France and England. Edward III reluctantly recognized Philip VI as the new king, and France reluctantly allowed England to maintain some of its last holdings in France. Events came to a head, though, when France allied with Scotland as the Scots tried to win independence from England. During Scotland’s fight for freedom, Philip VI seized the English land in France. Edward III saw this as the perfect opportunity to make his move. He reasserted his claims to the French throne and to the lost lands in France. Fighting broke out and the Hundred Years’ War was underway.

Define Your Terms

Chivalry comes from the French word chevalier which means “horseman." Knights were bound by the Code of Chivalry, which governed their conduct in life, loyalty, and war.

Initially, there was significant popular support for the war in both England and France. The nobility supported the war because chivalry and feudalism held war to be glorious and virtuous. The lesser nobles saw the war as their opportunity for social mobility, or the possibility of moving up socially.

The nobles could not have realized, however, that chivalry would meet its demise in what is remembered as the last great medieval war.

Chivalry Is Dead

At the outbreak of the war, the two feudal kingdoms were poised to fight in two different styles. The English couldn’t match the French army in sheer numbers; they knew they would have to avoid engaging the massive armies on the open battlefield. Instead, English forces planned to use sneak attacks and guerilla raids—which weren’t chivalrous—to fight their neighbors across the English Channel.

The French, on the other hand, depended on traditional feudal battle strategies. They had many knights in heavy armor mounted on horses, a mainstay of feudal warfare, in addition to archers and foot soldiers. The English had knights on horseback, but not as many as the French, so they intended to rely primarily on scores of archers gathered from every corner of England. For generations, the knights were the dominant fighting force in medieval warfare. Little did France know that was all about to change.

Would You Believe?

After the Hundred Years' War, many knights found themselves no longer in demand. Warfare, for the most part, had passed them by. As a result, tournaments featuring jousting and other knightly activities sprung up around Europe to give knights an arena in which to showcase their talents.

On August 26, 1346, on a battlefield at Crecy in northern France, approximately 36,000 French squared off against about 12,000 Englishmen, nearly 7,000 of them archers using longbows. The battle began in late afternoon with the English dug in atop a hill and the powerful, mounted French knights charging up the slippery slope. After some eight bloody hours, the French quit, having lost nearly 10,000 men. English losses numbered only in the hundreds. The long- bowmen reigned triumphant; mounted knights were suddenly obsolete. English archers prevailed again at Poitiers in 1356 and at Agincourt in 1415. The English proved that knights could be defeated with unorthodox tactics—and unchivalrous methods.

England's Fleeting Victory

From the beginning of the conflict in 1337, the Hundred Years’ War was defined not by sustained warfare but by many smaller raids and skirmishes and a few major battles such as Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. After the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, it seemed as though the conflict would finally draw to a close. Led by King Henry V, who later was immortalized by Shakespeare, English archers once again dominated the French.

Victory at Agincourt gave Henry V the upper hand as he gained control of Normandy, Paris, and more. Henry forced the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 and, as a result, married Catherine, the daughter of France’s arguably insane King Charles VI. The treaty declared Charles’s son illegitimate and the future offspring of Henry and Catherine the true and lawful king of England and France. The plan would have worked brilliantly had not both kings died by 1422, leaving Henry’s infant son the rightful heir. This unfortunate event ushered in the final stage of the war, the French reconquest of their homeland, and the expulsion of the English.

Continental Quotes

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

—Henry V's speech to his troops before the Battle of Agincourt from Shakespeare's play Henry V.

Joan of Arc

As late as 1429, the English still had the French on their heels. Amidst this turmoil, now nearly a hundred years in duration, a peasant girl from Domrémy, France, emerged as the most unlikely of heroines. Joan regularly reported hearing voices and seeing visions of saints. Reportedly, one of the voices told Joan to go to the French king and assist him with the resistance effort.

Eventually Joan was granted an audience with King Charles VII. She convinced Charles that God had sent her to him to help drive the English out of France. The king gave Joan command of an army at Orléans, an army which, under her leadership, broke the English siege of the city. After rallying the French troops, she went on to a number of other successful victories and eventually led Charles to Reims for his official coronation.

Would You Believe?

Pope Calixtus III declared Joan innocent in 1456. Almost 500 years later, in 1920, the Catholic Church canonized Joan. Joan had gone from peasant girl to military heroine to heretic to the patron saint of France.

The following year, Joan returned to the battlefield. After an unsuccessful attack, Joan fell into the hands of the English, who, along with their supporters, put Joan on trial for heresy. Joan was tried, condemned for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1431.

Despite the execution of Joan of Arc, the tide turned in favor of France and the English slowly lost their grip. By 1450, Calais remained the last English stronghold in France. Three years later, the French won the final battle of the war, the Battle of Castillon. There was no treaty; the two exhausted pugilists simply quit fighting.

As a Matter of Fact

During World War II, the Vichy Regime of Nazi-occupied France (see Chapter 21) used Joan of Arc as a propaganda tool. The Vichy Regime hoped to inspire in the French a new sense of national pride and confidence in the new government. The Vichy Regime also hoped the use of Joan of Arc would inspire anti-English sentiments. The French Resistance, on the other hand, used Joan of Arc to fight the Vichy Regime. The Resistance played up Joan's efforts to liberate France from invaders and emphasized that Joan was a native of the region of Lorraine, occupied by the Nazis during the war.

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