The Hundred Years War
The definition of the Golden Rule is that those with the gold
make the rules. In other words, those with the gold have the power as
well as those with the power have the gold. History books will
discuss the general reasons for war such as freedom from adversity or
freedom from religion. But the real issue for any war is the thirst
for power and control; and the means to finance them are the economic
Nations will endure years of fighting for power and control.
France and England fought each other for more than a hundred years to
have control of the Channel trade routes. 1 This century of warring
was known as The Hundred Years’ War and is the longest war in record
history. It began in 1337 when King Edward III invaded Normandy and
ended in 1453 when France won the Battle of Bordeaux. However, it was
not a hundred years of constant battle; there were periods of truces
in between. 2
One cause for the Hundred Years’ War was the claim to the
French throne. The conflict began when the direct line of succession
died without a male heir and the nobles decided to pass the crown to a
cousin, Philip of Valois. But this left two other male cousins
equally deserving of the crown; Charles, King of Navarre and Edward
III, King of England. 3 Edward III claimed that he himself was
deserving of the throne because his mother was the sister of the late
French king, while Philip VI was only a cousin. But according to
French law, no women could inherit the throne, nor could the crown be
inherited through a woman. 4
Philip of Valois chances of becoming King of France had been
remote and he had not been brought up as the future lieutenant of God
on Earth. Philip VI spent much of his resources on entertainment and
finery with gay abandon. 5 This caused conflict with the king’s
subjects. Since the king was considered to be sacred and inviolable,
neither cousin would challenge Philip VI. However, they would exploit
the situation and King Edward III lost no time and invaded Normandy
with an army of 10,000
This leads to another cause for The Hundred Years’ War. The
land along the Channel and Atlantic coasts was England’s first line of
defense against an invasion. England held claim to this territory
from the twelth century through the marriage of King Henry II and
Eleanor of Aquitaine. King Edward III was determined to gain control
of the French coastline while providing himself with a bridgehead for
future expeditions into France. 7
But the major cause of The Hundred Years’ War was the economic
interest – the revenues to be gotten from this rich territory. Wine
was Gasgony’s largest export product and major source of income to the
vassal. Wool was England’s largest export product and the source of
its wealth. English pastures produced fleeces that were the envy of
Europe which Flanders depended on for its wool and linen market. 8
English sheep growers sold their long fine wool to weavers in
Flanders, across the English Channel. Flemish weavers as well as
English sheep growers depended on this trade for their business. In
1336, Philip VI arrested all the English merchants in Flanders and
took away all the privileges of the Flemish towns and the craft
guilds. Resulting in the Flemings revolting against the French
control and making an alliance with England. 9 Consequently, the
flourishing market of the industrial cities of Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp
and Ypres were naturally coveted by the Kings of France and England.
Moreover, the Bordeaux harbor was within the borders of
English Gascony and was the center of the shipping and trading
industry. Commodities such as grains, dairy products, dyes and salt
would be shipped into Bordeaux via the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers and
the merchants were charged a customs fee for these products. Also,
Bordeaux would receive duties on wine, whether shipped-in or grown on
Gascon soil. Consequently, the profits from the tolls and customs
made Bordeaux the economic capital of Gascony. Furthermore, control
of neighboring areas such as Guyenne and Calais were economically
vital. Their union with Bordeaux would ensure England with a monopoly
of the shipping and trading industry from Spain, Portugal and
France was the richest country in Europe and its army was much
larger than England’s. In addition, France’s army consisted of hired
mercenaries. Therefore, France should have quickly defeated England.
But France’s army consisted of heavily armored knights who were less
mobile against the agile English swordsmen. The French military
leaders soon realized the archer was the only effective when fighting
a pitched battle. Consequently, France implemented a strategic plan
which was to avoid active warfare and to utilize the technique of
diplomacy and concessions. England could win battles, but France
could avoid them. Pitched battles were accepted only when there was
no alternative. Otherwise, France would raid unprotected towns and
villages, take what they could, then burn them to the ground. 11
Meanwhile, England could depend on the loyalty of her
subjects. The soldiers were happy to receive a salary and eager to
fight on French soil. They could profit from the plundering while
their homes didn’t suffer and damage. Moreover, England had superior
military tactics. They had perfected the fighting technique of the
longbow drawn by free swordsmen. Even though the archers were below
the knight on the social ladder, they were not ashamed to fight side
by side. Subsequently, the archer could destroy the effectiveness of
a French calvary charge. Also, King Edward III was very popular with
his subjects. He would fight beside his troops as well as to the
folks at home. As well, his sixteen year old son, the Black Prince,
was a superb military leader. 12 He successfully continued to lead
the English armies into battle against France. As a result, England
won most of the initial battles and kept the war in France. 13
One of the great English victories was the battle at Crecy.
The English were outnumbered four to one by the French, led by Philip
VI. The English occupied the side of a small hill, while the heavy
number of French men-at-arms and hired Genoese crossbowmen were at the
foot of the hill on a plain. The English were ready with their new
longbows at hand.
The Genoese crossbowmen attacked the English, but were too
tired due to the long day’s march and because of an earlier rainstorm,
their crossbow strings were loose. The English’s longbow proved to be
too much for the Genoese, so they dropped the crossbows and began to
run. King Philip was so outraged at the Genoese actions, he had his
men-at-arms kill many of them.
At one point during this battle, the French came across a
group of English knights led by the Black Prince, the son of Edward
III, dismounted from their horses and not prepared for battle. As
Edward III heard of his son’s misfortune, he ordered no aid be sent to
him and his men. This was to be his day. Slowly, pieces of the
French army began to flee, while the English army stood strong.
England had won the first great land battle of the long war.
They had already won control of the English Channel and a few years
later, the town of Calais surrendered to them on September 28, 1347.
For the next ten years, fighting was slowed. This was due mainly to
the Black Death which killed more than a third of the population. 14
Initially, England feared they would never be able to defend
themselves against a French invasion. France had enormous wealth,
military prestige and a dominant position in European politics.
However, the Battles of Vrecy and Poiters were major victories for
England. In both battles, England was greatly outnumbered by France
but, the English archers were more effective than the armor-clad
French knights. Therefore, the victories were perceived to be granted
by god because England was the rightful ruler of France. As England
continued to win the early battles and keep the in France, the
military’s feelings of inferiority and insecurity were replaced with
self-confidence and optimism. The first phase of The Hundred Years’
War went well for England.
Eventually the false sense of prosperity created by the
pillaging of the French towns and villages began to surface. Also,
the commoners were becoming dissatisfied with the high war expense.
The war was a strain on England’s resources and it was beginning to
get difficult to pay the soldiers’ wages as well as maintain the
garrisons. The English subjects were taxed out and tired of the
misappropriation of the war funds by the corrupt royal officials and
military commanders. Moreover, the military began to decline. King
Richard II was not a good general. Most of Edward III’s captains were
dead or in captivity and the new generation of officers showed little
aptitude for war. 15 But King Richard II had to fight France not
only for glorious tradition but to save the wine trade with Gascony
and the wool trade with Flanders. These resources were needed to help
finance the war. However, his campaign ended in retreat.
The Gascons were opportunists. They did not adhere firmly to
one lord. Even though they did better under English rule, they were
not resistant to the French. Consequently, France gradually gained
control of the Channel trade routes. Then King Henry V renewed The
Hundred Years’ War with a victory at Agincourt. He was a strong,
brilliant military leader and continued to win battles against the
French, recapturing the Gascon territory. 16 Also, with the marriage
to Charles VI’s daughter, King Henry V achieved the goal of French
sovereignty. He became the French regent and upon Charles VI’s
death, the King of England would succeed to a dual monarchy. However,
when Charles VI died, the King of England was a child. 17
Henry VI was too young and inexperienced to supervise a
kingdom and lead an army. As a result, authority did not rest in any
one person, but in all of the lords together. This led to English
disputes and disunity. Also, the subjects believed this was the
king’s war and the king should not finance the war through taxation
but from his own income from Gascony. The maintenance of a dual
kingdom was a financial strain and England was far in debt on military
wages. In addition, Gascony was very difficult to defend and the
unstable economic conditions made it difficult to meet military crises
as they arose. Consequently, the English army in Gascony disbanded.
When it seemed as if there was no hope for France, a new light
appeared for them. She was Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans. Joan of
Arc and Charles VII were able to organize France. They invaded
Gascony with an overwhelming force and began to capture the English
towns along the Norman border without being drawn into a pitched
battle. Even after Joan of Arc’s capture and execution by the English
and Burgundians, her spirit seemed to inspire the French. As a
result, the French offensive spirit was rekindled. Again, the French
outnumbered the English. But this time the French army did not rest,
instead they sped aggressively to the next battle. Moreover, the
French implemented the use of the cannon-ball. 19
Again, the allegiance of the noble families to England or
France was determined by the economic and judicial privileges of their
lordships. 20 But their land and goods were confiscated during
Charles VII’s invasion. Consequently, the nobles defected to France.
As England continued to lose its control of the South-West, France’s
ability to allure the nobility away from England increased. In the
past many had mocked the sovereignty of France. But in the political
conditions of 1442-53 they were seldom able to resist the bribes,
threats, and sanctions employed by a stronger and wealthier monarchy.
21 He who controls the Channel controls, controls the gold.
Subsequently, the high rate of the nobility defection to France
severely weakened England and ultimately caused its collapse of
It took over a hundred years and five English kings to win the
sovereignty of the French crown and thirty years and one king to loose
it. Success in warfare depends on the combination of a king who is a
competent military leader, an enthusiastic ruling class prepared to
fight and command the armies, and people willing to bear the cost
through taxation. For almost a hundred years England had this
combination while France did not. The English hated the French and
always feared an invasion. Also, the high demand for English would
exports created a substantial treasury for King Edward to pay for the
war. However, the pendulum swung the other way. As a result, England
may have won the battle, but France won the war.
Barnie, John. War in Medieval English Society. Ithaca: Cornell
Duby, Georges. France in the Middle Ages 987-1460. Paris:
Hundred Years’ War. Compton’s Online Encyclopedia. 1995.
Hutchinson, Harold F. King Henry V. New York: John Day Company,
Palmer, J.J.N. England, France and Christendom. London: University
North Carolina Press, 1972.
Vale, M.G.A. English Gascony 1399-1453. London: Oxford University
1. Palmer, J.J.N., England, France and Christendom. London:
University of North Carolina Press, 23.
2. Hundred Years’ War. Compton’s Online Encyclopedia.
3. Palmer, 47.
4. Hundred Years’ War
5. Duby, Georges. France in the Middle Ages 987-1460.
Blackwell, 1987, 274.
6. Hundred Years’ War
7. Barnie, John. War in Medieval English Society. Ithaca:
University Press, 1974, 181.
8. Palmer, 120.
9. Hundred Years’ War
10. Barnie, 219.
11. Duby, 233.
12. Hundred Years’ War
13. Palmer, 161.
14. Hundred Years’ War
15. Barnie, 25.
16. Hutchinson, Harold F. King Henry V. New York: John Day
Company, 1967, 214.
17. Hutchinson, 214.
18. Barnie, 245.
19. Hundred Years’ War
20. Vale, M.G.A. English Gascony 1399-1453. London: Oxford
University Press, 1970, 165.
21. Vale, 215.
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The Hundred Years War