The Hundred Years War (1337-1453)

By Kor

One of the most well known wars of the Middle Ages, the Hundred Years War is actually an artificial name for a series of conflicts between the English and French. Although the wars proper began only in 1337, it is arguable that the conflict began when Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 and thus acquired the south-western portion of France. From then on, until 1453, the English and French fought each other every few years, the English position slowly eroding. In the reign of Edward III the wars became something more: they now included an English claim to the French crown. Although the wars were started over English aggression against the Scots and French aggression against the Flemish, the claim was introduced as a bargaining counter very early on in the conflict, and perhaps it was Edward III’s reluctance to give it up in return for territories that lost England the war.

Sluis and Crecy

The opening years of the war saw large-scale warfare with hardly any results for either party. The English invaded northern France together with a host of allies, including the German emperor and a cloud of imperial princelings. The force set down to besiege Tournai but eventually failed in this enterprise, and although the English and French armies faced each other for a while, nothing came of it. Meanwhile, the English were impoverished as they had to pay to keep their allies in the field, and even the crown was pawned off to repay the debts incurred.

Only after the naval battle of Sluis (1339) was there a positive sign for the English, and when the Breton Civil War (1341-1364) started, the English could find another foothold to challenge French authority. English intervention here went very successfully, beating the claimant-duke of Brittany, Charles of Blois, on multiple occasions. And in Gascony, the English territory in the south-west of France, the duke of Lancaster was scoring considerable successes, notably defeating a French army at Auberoche in 1345.

When Edward III invaded France in person in 1346, the French king Philip VI had to do something; his position was becoming very precarious in the face of the many defeats, and although avoiding battle was actually the soundest strategy, it was easily the least popular one. He was therefore more or less forced to chase the English through his country, and when his host finally caught up with them at Crécy, he decided to attack the English positions. The battle turned into a disaster for the French, who probably had about 25 000 men to the English 10 000. Charging uphill, the French knights reached the English lines in disorder and were defeated piece-meal; king Edward never had to resort to his tactical reserve.

The defeat left the French in serious disarray, and temporarily without an army; the peasant infantry simply dispersed, while the noble families withdrew. Only the forces of the dauphin, John of Normandy, were still in the field as a coherent French force, as he had been fighting in Gascony. He raced north, but the English had already invested Calais and his force was too small to even think of relieving it. When his father the king had gathered a large enough army to face the English once more, he marched into sight of Calais, but did not dare to approach. Discouraged, the garrison, which was already on its last legs, surrendered in 1347.


A truce was made for a number of years, and Edward’s son, Edward, the Black Prince, was appointed governor of Aquitaine. Continuing Henry of Lancaster’s aggressive policy, the prince managed to seriously expand his territory, and conducted a great raid in 1355. The following year he undertook another such expedition, heading for Poitiers. The French were hot on his heels and John, now second French king of that name, managed to trap the prince’s force at Maubeuge, south of Poitiers.

The French had learned from their previous encounters with the English, and although the first French wave was mounted, the rest of the army fought on foot. The cavalry force had difficulties to maintain their line, as hedges surrounded the English position. As a consequence they were beaten back. The infantry did much better, and managed to wreak some serious havoc against the English. However, the French army was too far away from the battle, and so reinforcements were continuously sent too late, losing the impetus; the moments a breakthrough might have been achieved passed.

The dauphin, Charles, retreated after a short fight, and eventually only the king himself was left. Attacking the English with his remaining men, he was outnumbered, outflanked and surrounded, and fought on until he was captured. One of his younger sons, Philip, fought by his side until the end, and was taken prisoner as well. His father later awarded him the duchy of Burgundy, and thus laid the foundation for the conflict between the Bourguignons and Armagnacs.

The English position, despite the capture of king John, only became worse over the years, as the English were making outrageous demands. France was overrun by mercenaries who pillaged provinces at will, and with the king in foreign custody the country slowly disintegrated. A peasant revolt followed (the Jacquirie), and the country was almost bankrupted. The four million écu ransom the English demanded for John was therefore unreasonable and unobtainable; and as the English were unwilling to give up their claim to the French crown, the French were unlikely to budge.

After a singularly unsuccessful campaign, where the dauphin, Charles, proved he knew exactly how to beat the English (by avoiding combat), the English finally made peace on more reasonable terms. However, the French were still unable to pay the ransom and the English were still unwilling to give up their claim, and so Charles V (as he became known on his coronation) used this as a pretext to recapture all the French cities and fortresses handed over to the English by the terms of the treaty.

The English king was now a very old and ailing man, and his promising son Edward was also suffering from a serious illness. The French, on the other hand, were unified and led by able captains such as Bertrand du Guesclin, and never let go of the initiative. The French victory became all the more complete due to the deaths of both Edwards, the heir passing away (1376) before his father (1377). The new king, Richard II, was only a child, and not a very warlike one. In 1389, a truce was negotiated.

And thus ended the Hundred Years War.
Or did it?

Bourguignons and Armagnacs

Neither Richard II nor Henry IV, the following two English kings, felt strong enough to challenge the French to an all-out war. Richard was too unpopular and Henry, as a usurper, could hardly afford such ambitious foreign policy. Meanwhile in France, Charles V had died and his eldest son succeeded him as Charles VI. However, Charles was mentally unstable (and received the nickname “The Mad” for that reason) and his brother (Louis of Orleans) and uncles (particularly Philip, Duke of Burgundy) tried to win his favour in his brief moments of clarity. The duke of Orleans supported an aggressive foreign policy, and it was thanks to him that France assisted Owain Glyndwr during his revolt; however, the duke of Burgundy, who supported a permanent settlement with England, managed to change the king’s mind and withdrew France from the Welsh revolt eventually. France was hardly united and the noble families formed into two blocs: the Armagnac party (led by the lord of Armagnac, after Louis of Orleans had been assassinated) and the Bourguignons, the Burgundian camp. John the Fearless, son and successor of Philip of Burgundy, was widely popular with the Parisians and relied on the city’s strength for support against the Armagnacs.

When Henry IV passed away and Henry V succeeded him, he steered for war with France, once more bringing forth his claim. He invaded France and defeated a much larger French army at Azincourt in 1415 on his way to Calais. The causes for the French defeat were many, but perhaps the most important factor was the disunity of the army: the French troops at Azincourt had been fighting each other the year before, when the Armagnacs had tried to take Paris. In any case, the French force, a vast mass immobilised in the mud after days of rain, was surrounded by the English and massacred. Not all the French forces were engaged, and one part, which was supposed to flank the English, was content to plunder the English baggage, slaughter the boys there and then retreat. The English were hardly more chivalrous; they killed most of their prisoners. Charles of Orleans, the son of Louis, was captured, and would spend most of his life imprisoned in England.

While the English besieged city after city, the Bourguignons teetered on the brink of neutrality with them and joined the fight against France, capturing many northern cities. In fact, this was a clever dynastic move on the part of John the Fearless: not only did he leave his successors the rulers of an independent realm, his lands would be rich, due to the spoils of war and English subsidies.

Charles VI was eventually persuaded upon to make peace with the English, a dictated peace no less. Charles was to appoint Henry his successor and give him his daughter, Catherine, in marriage. While superficially this raises interesting ideas of what would have happened had the treaty ever been enforced – Henry V died before Charles VI did, so it wasn’t – the fact is that the effects would probably have been very limited. None of the men fighting in France fought for Charles VI; they fought for the young dauphin or simply for the independence of their province or city. Charles VI was effectively in Burgundian custody, and those who still accepted his authority had already picked sides. As it was, Henry V’s early death proved to be much more decisive than Charles VI’s long-delayed passing.

The Maid of Orleans

Henry VI was, like Charles VI, bonkers. He was not fit to govern a country, much less two, and so the war continued without much grand strategy going on. The dauphin had John the Fearless assassinated during peace talks (1419), a cruel act to avenge the murder of Louis of Orleans years earlier; but John’s talented son Philip succeeded him, and continued his father’s policy of milking both the English and the French. The English continued their offensive, but bogged down at Orleans, and were driven back when the warrior-saint Joan of Arc arrived at the siege (1429). Her supposedly divine message inspired many, and the French went on the offensive, clearing one valley after the other of the English, often with local support. The dauphin finally dared to have himself crowned king of France as Charles VII.

Joan’s capture at the hands of the Burgundians proved disheartening, but not even her death, when the English burnt her on the stake for being a witch, could turn the tide of war now. Avoiding pitched battles, the French continued a tedious war of siege after siege, winning back all they had lost – and more. After the siege of Orleans, the English became more ineffective, and when the Burgundians pulled out of the war in 1435 it was clear that France had survived. It eventually cost two more decades, but in 1453 the English were finally driven out of Gascony, signalling the end of the war and leaving them only with the port of Calais in northern France. Now it was England’s turn to spiral into civil war.