The End of Europe's Middle Ages

Hundred Years' War

The Hundred Years' War was part of a rivalry between England and France that dated from the Norman conquest of England. It was actually several lengthy campaigns interrupted by periods of peace and truve. All the fighting took place on French soil, placing a heavy burden on the French population. Even when a truce was in effect, mercenary bands pillaged the countryside.

The outbreak of the Hundred Years' War can be attributed to several factors. One source of friction between the French and English was the Duchy of Gascony, where both nations claimed control. Gascony enjoyed a profitable trade relationship with England, doing a brisk business in Bordeaux wine and fine English cloth. The conflicting claims led to an inconclusive war between 1294 and 1303 and again led to conflicts in the Hundred Years' War.

A second source of friction also had a commercial foundation. Despite a long-standing claim by French monarchy to supreme authority over the Flemish, Flanders had established a strong trading alliance with the English in the wool trade. Since Flanders was the chief market for English wool and export taxes on wool comprised a large part of the English royal revenues, the English king took a great interest in Flemish affairs and resented French interference.

Map of France, c.1337

Another incentive for war developed when, in 1328, King Edward III (1327-1377) of England became a potential heir to the French throne with the death of Charles IV the Fair of France, the last Capetian. The French elected Charles IV's cousin, Philip VI of Valois (1328-1350), to the throne and, initially, Edward acknowledged Philip VI of Valois (1328-1350) as the French king. But when Philip VI confiscated Gascony in 1337, Edward responded by declaring war on France and assumed the title of King of France.

In the first phase of the war, the English achieved great success through a brilliant application of the new weapons and tactics that they had gained in recent wars with the Scots and the Welsh. Foremost among the new weaponry was the longbow, which debuted on the Continent with devastating efficiency at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 when English archers massacred successive waves of French troops as they attacked. A series of truces last until 1355.

  The Medieval English Longbow - Robert E. Kaiser

The year 1355 saw two major invasions of French territory. In the following year, King John the Good of France (1350-1364) caught an English army, led by Edward, the Black Prince (1330-76), near Poitiers. The battle was a repeat of Crécy and the French loss was compouneded when the French king, John II the Good was captured by English forces.

Map of France, c. 1377

Map of France 1429

Map of France, c.1453

With the Treaty of Bretigny-Calais in 1360, the first phase of the Hundred Years' War was brought to a close. After Charles V succeeded to the French throne in 1364, he renewed hostilities in 1369. His general, Bertrand du Guesclin, launched a war of attrition that exhausted English resources on the Continent. An alliance between France and Castile in 1372 provided the French with a strong naval force that restricted the English fleet while the death of Edward, the Black Prince, in 1376 deprived England of her best military leader. In 1377, Edward III also died and the throne passed to Richard II, a child of ten. The end result was that, by 1386, the English had lost most of their territory on the continent and a truce was signed in 1396, bringing the second stage of the Hundred Years' War to an end.

The contest was revived when Henry V (1413-1422) took advantage of the civil disunity by launching an invasion in 1414. Henry V soon proved his brilliance as a general at the Battle of Harfleur and again at the decisive Battle of Agincourt in 1415 where the French cavalry was decimated. The first European leader to employ siege artillery on a large scale, Henry V allied himself with the Duke of Burgundy and continued to encroach on French territory. According to the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, signed in May 1420, the French king, Charles VI designated Henry V as his heir and married his daughter to the English monarch. By September 1422, both kings were dead. According to the Treaty of Troyes, both the English and French thrones fell to the infant Henry VI but the dauphin Charles claimed the French crown as Charles VII.

In 1428, the English controlled all of northern France and, with their Burgundians, they besieged Orléans, the last major French stronghold. The following year, Joan of Arc set out to break the siege. She rallied the French forces who lifted the siege of Orléans and pushed the English back from the Loire, winning a critical battle at Patay and allowing Charles VII to be formally crowned at Reims. Although joan of Arc, abandoned by Charles VII, was eventually captured and burnt at the stake as a witch by the English in 1431, her enthusiasm and courage invigorated the French forces as they continued to push the English off the Continent. In 1435, Charles VII concluded a treaty with Burgundy and deprived the English of their greatest ally. In 1453, the Hundred Years' War ended without a treaty and England had lost all her territories in France with the exception of the port city of Calais.

Note: All dates in this section are regnal unless otherwise noted.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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