The Hundred Years War

Duke of Alencon at Battle of Agincourt

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The Hundred Years War was a series of connected conflicts between England, the Valois kings of France, factions of French nobles and other allies over both claims to the French throne and control of land in France. It ran from 1337 to 1453; you’ve not misread that, it is actually longer than a hundred years; the name derived from nineteenth-century historians and has stuck.

Context of the Hundred Years War: "English" Land in France

Tensions between the English and French thrones over continental land dated to 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England. His descendants in England had gained further lands in France by the reign of Henry II, who inherited the County of Anjou from his father and control of the Dukedom of Aquitaine through his wife. Tensions simmered between the growing power of the French kings and the great power of their most powerful, and in some eyes equal, English royal vassal, occasionally leading to armed conflict.

King John of England lost Normandy, Anjou, and other lands in France in 1204, and his son was forced to sign the Treaty of Paris ceding this land. In return, he received Aquitaine and other territories to be held as a vassal of France. This was one king bowing to another, and there were further wars in 1294 and 1324 when Aquitaine was confiscated by France and won back by the English crown. As the profits from Aquitaine alone rivaled those of England, the region was important and retained many differences from the rest of France.

Origins of the Hundred Years War

When Edward III of England came to blows with David Bruce of Scotland in the first half of the fourteenth century, France supported Bruce, raising tensions. These rose further as both Edward and Philip prepared for war, and Philip confiscated the Duchy of Aquitaine in May 1337 in order to try and reassert his control. This was the direct start of the Hundred Years War.

But what changed this conflict from the disputes over French land earlier was Edward III’s reaction: in 1340 he claimed the throne of France for himself. He had a legitimate right claim—when Charles IV of France had died in 1328 he was childless, and the 15-year-old Edward was a potential heir through his mother’s side, but a French Assembly chose Philip of Valois—but historians don’t know whether he really meant to try for the throne or was just using it as a bargaining chip to either gain land or divide the French nobility. Probably the latter but, either way, he called himself the "King of France."

Alternate Views

As well as a conflict between England and France, the Hundred Years War can also be viewed as a struggle in France between the crown and major nobles for control of key ports and trading areas and equally a struggle between the centralizing authority of the French crown and local laws and independencies. Both are another stage in the development of the collapsing feudal/tenurial relationship between the King-Duke of England and the French King, and the growing power of the French crown/tenurial relationship between the King-Duke of England and the French King, and the growing power of the French crown.

Edward III, the Black Prince and English Victories

Edward III pursued a twofold attack on France. He worked to gain allies among disaffected French nobles, causing them to break with the Valois kings, or supported these nobles against their rivals. In addition, Edward, his nobles, and later his son—dubbed "The Black Prince"—led several great armed raids aimed at plundering, terrorizing and destroying French land, in order to enrich themselves and undermine the Valois king. These raids were called chevauchées. French raids on the British coast were dealt a blow by the English naval victory at Sluys. Although the French and English armies often kept their distance, there were set-piece battles, and England won two famous victories at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), the second capturing the Valois French King John. England had suddenly won a reputation for military success, and France was shocked.

With France leaderless, with large parts in rebellion and the rest plagued by mercenary armies, Edward attempted to seize Paris and Rheims, perhaps for a royal coronation. He took neither but brought the "Dauphin"—the name for the French heir to the throne - to the negotiating table. The Treaty of Brétigny was signed in 1360 after further invasions: in return for dropping his claim on the throne. Edward won a large and independent Aquitaine, other land and a substantial sum of money. But complications in the text of this agreement allowed both sides to renew their claims later on.

French Ascendance and a Pause

Tensions rose again as England and France patronized opposing sides in a war for the Castilian crown. Debt from the conflict caused Britain to squeeze Aquitaine, whose nobles turned to France, who in turn confiscated Aquitaine again, and war erupted once more in 1369. The new Valois King of France, the intellectual Charles V, aided by an able guerrilla leader called Bertrand du Guesclin, reconquered much of the English gains while avoiding any large pitch battles with the attacking English forces. The Black Prince died in 1376, and Edward III in 1377, although the latter had been ineffectual in his last years. Even so, the English forces had managed to check the French gains and neither side sought a pitched battle; stalemate was reached.

By 1380, the year both Charles V and du Guesclin died, both sides were growing tired of the conflict, and there were only sporadic raids interspersed by truces. England and France were both ruled by minors, and when Richard II of England came of age he reasserted himself over pro-war nobles (and a pro-war nation), suing for peace. Charles VI and his advisors also sought peace, and some went on crusade. Richard then became too tyrannical for his subjects and was deposed, while Charles went insane.

French Division and Henry V

In the early decades of the fifteenth-century tensions rose again, but this time between two noble houses in France — Burgundy and Orléans — over the right to govern on behalf of the mad king. This division led to civil war in 1407 after the head of Orléans was assassinated; the Orléans side became known as the "Armagnacs" after their new leader.

After a misstep where a treaty was signed between the rebels and England, only for peace to break out in France when the English attacked, in 1415 a new English king seized the opportunity to intervene. This was Henry V, and his first campaign culminated in the most famous battle in English history: Agincourt. Critics might attack Henry for poor decisions which forced him to fight a larger pursing French force, but he won the battle. While this had little immediate effect on his plans for conquering France, the massive boost to his reputation allowed Henry to raise further funds for the war and made him a legend in British history. Henry returned again to France, this time aiming to take and hold land instead of carrying out chevauchées; he soon had Normandy back under control.

The Treaty of Troyes and an English King of France

The struggles between the houses of Burgundy and Orléans continued, and even when a meeting was agreed to decide upon anti-English action, they fell out once more. This time John, Duke of Burgundy, was assassinated by one of the Dauphin’s party, and his heir allied with Henry, coming to terms in the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Henry V of England would marry the daughter of the Valois King, become his heir and act as his regent. In return, England would continue the war against Orléans and their allies, which included the Dauphin. Decades later, a monk commenting upon the skull of Duke John said: “This is the hole through which the English entered France.”

The Treaty was accepted in English and Burgundian held lands—largely the north of France—but not in the south, where the Valois heir to France was allied with the Orléans faction. However, in August 1422 Henry died, and the mad French King Charles VI followed soon after. Consequently, Henry’s nine-month-old son became king of both England and France, albeit with recognition largely in the north.

Joan of Arc

Henry VI’s regents won several victories as they readied for a push into the Orléans heartland, although their relationship with the Burgundians had grown fractious. By September 1428 they were besieging the town of Orléans itself, but they suffered a setback when the commanding Earl of Salisbury was killed observing the city.

Then a new personality emerged: Joan of Arc. This peasant girl arrived at the Dauphin’s court claiming mystic voices had told her she was on a mission to free France from English forces. Her impact revitalized the moribund opposition, and they broke the siege around Orléans, defeated the English several times and were able to crown the Dauphin in Rheims cathedral. Joan was captured and executed by her enemies, but opposition in France now had a new king to rally around. After a few years of stalemate, they rallied around the new king when the Duke of Burgundy broke with the English in 1435. After the Congress of Arras, they recognized Charles VII as king. Many believe the Duke had decided England could never truly win France.

French and Valois Victory

The unification of Orléans and Burgundy under the Valois crown made an English victory all but impossible, but the war continued. The fighting was halted temporarily in 1444 with a truce and a marriage between Henry VI of England and a French princess. This, and the English government ceding Maine to achieve the truce caused an outcry in England.

War soon began again when the English broke the truce. Charles VII had used the peace to reform the French army, and this new model made great advances against English lands on the continent and won the Battle of Formigny in 1450. By the end of 1453, after all, English land bar Calais had been retaken and feared English commander John Talbot had been killed at the Battle of Castillon, the war was effectively over.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Hundred Years War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Hundred Years War. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Hundred Years War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).