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The Hundred Years' War

The Norman-English king, Edward I, who ruled from 1272 to 1307, had married into France's royal family. His son and successor, Edward II , was forced to relinquish his crown in 1327 to one of his sons, who at age 15 became Edward III, and he held to the belief that the French throne vacated in 1328 should be his. French king, Charles IV, died in 1328 and left no direct descendant to carry on the Capet dynastic line.

Edward III was denied adding what had been Charles IV's territory to his own. It went instead to Philippe of Valois, at the age of thirty-five, Philippe taking the title Philippe VI. It was to be the beginning of the Valois dynasty.

Within a few years, King Philippe VI of France intervened in a conflict in Flanders, on the continent side of the English Channel, which was not yet a part of France and where the English were dominant. Edward III retaliated and claimed again to be the legitimate ruler of France. Philippe retaliated by declaring Edward's fiefs in France as his. Philippe's retaliation created a war that began in 1337 and was to last, on and off, for 100 years, a lot of strife and bloodshed over a couple of vain monarchs in conflict over who should rule where.

An End to Chivalry

The major occupation of nobles had been warfare, and among these nobles were those who had earned their knighthood through long and hard training on horseback from early childhood. But on the field of battle, knights on horseback were becoming an anachronism. Feudalism was in decline as kings were gaining over nobles and acquiring a monopoly on war-making and violence. Edward III supported the trappings of chivalry. Heraldry, tournaments, banquets, courtly love and the writing of epic romances flourished during his reign. But in the place of knights, mercenaries were being hired. Edward's military was armed with the longbow, with arrows that hit effectively at a range of 250 to 300 yards. Ten arrows could be shot per minute, faster and with greater range than the crossbow being used by the French and like the crossbow able to pierce chain link armor.

Some historians speak of an infantry revolution taking place. The dominance of men on horseback was being challenged. As historian Max Boot writes in War Made New: "English longbow men and Swiss pikemen proved to be more than a match for cumbersome heavy cavalry, the pikemen winning their first notable victory at Laupen in 1339" – a battle of Swiss against feudal landholders of Burgundy. note30

Europeans were using gunpowder and firearms but with less range and accuracy than the longbow. The longbow, however, required more training, conditioning and skill than previous archery. There was on the field of battle advantages in the use of firearms, and English nobles saw killing men with gunpowder and shot as cowardice. According to the fourteenth-century Italian scholar, Petrarch, anyone captured by a noble who had been using such weaponry might have his hands cut off and his eyes poked out.

The Battles of Crécy and Poitiers

The Hundred Years' War began in earnest in 1346, with England in control of the English Channel and the North Sea. At the Battle of Crécy, Edward’s army of 12,000 faced a French army of 36,000 across a battle line 2,000 yards wide. Edward’s army had 7,000 archers, and they devastated the assaults attempted by France’s armored knights on horseback and foot soldiers with crossbows.

Ten years later, at Poitiers, the British defeated the French again, French knights and their horses falling in heaps. The English captured and held for ransom the French king, John II (son of Philippe VI) and many French nobles – captivity and ransom a major goal and source of wealth for combatants.

The Jacquerie, Robin Hood and Other Unrest

Peasants near Paris disliked the increased tax burden that accompanied the Hundred Years' War, and they were fed up with being forced to labor on castles and fortifications and fed up with marauding English and French soldiers. In 1358 near Paris, peasants called the Jacquerie went on a rampage, moving through the countryside, killing nobles, raping the wives and daughters of noblemen, setting fire to castle interiors and destroying estates. The aristocracy united against the rebels. They were better organized and had a larger army, and thousands of peasants were slaughtered – the guilty and the innocent alike.

In 1360 the first phase of the Hundred Years' War ended in a treaty called the Peace of Brétigny. In France, out of work mercenary soldiers who had been hired by the English, were living off plundering the French. In England, knights idled by a truce in the Hundred Years' War were trying to keep up with the fading culture of chivalry by resorting to their old habit of robbery and abuse of the poor. A group of vigilantes formed who would become known as Robin Hood and his band of followers, living in the Sherwood Forest. According to legend they were opposed to corruption and abuse by aristocrats, grasping landlords and wicked sheriffs.

In 1381 English peasants rose as they never had before. Peasants feared the lords would be taking back lands they had given them after the Black Death. Peasants were unhappy about having to work on Church land, sometimes twice in a week, making, as they saw it, the Church rich and leaving them unable to do needed work on their own land. The most pressing grievance was increased taxes – demanded by government to help pay for the Hundred Years' War. An incident regarding resistance to the poll tax sparked rebellion. Peasants marched from Kent to London, along the way burning to the ground buildings that housed tax records and tax registers. People in London opened their city's gates to them, and in London King Richard II (r 1377-99) met the peasants at Mile End, gave them what they asked, and invited them to return home in peace. Some did not. Discipline among the rebels was lax. There was the drinking of alcohol. Some executed ministers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sudbury, and they sacked the mansions of some bishops and lords.

War into the 1400s

The war picked up again in the new century. England's King Henry V (r 1413-22) resumed the war in part as a distraction from social tensions in England. In 1415 the French blocked him as he led his force on the road from Flanders to the port city of Calais. The Battle of Agincourt followed. In that battle, French knights charged against the British and were compressed by the terrain, with England's archers mowing down the leading wave of knights and the fallen horses preventing other knights from advancing. In a half hour of battle thousands of French knights were taken prisoner. The fear of a second attack prompted the English to kill them on the spot. In a single day, France's nobility had been decimated. For France the use of knights in warfare was at an end. The French king from 1422, Charles VII, would create France's first standing, professional, rather than feudal, army. No longer needed in battle, the knights would take refuge in the tournaments that were merely staged pageantry.

Joan of Arc

Birthplace of Joan of Arc

Birthplace of Joan of Arc

After Agincourt, French morale was low, with some believing that only a miracle could save them from the English. Among the French appeared the illiterate daughter of a modest but locally prominent farming family. They were devout Catholics. Joan heard voices, and in 1428 at the age of sixteen a voice told her that the English had to be expelled from France. Joan was noticed more than would an independent individual who made declarations in the more densely populated mass society of 21st century. Her story was accepted by several leaders of the French army, and the following year, 1429, Joan persuaded Charles VII to support her effort at relieving the city of Orléans, then being besieged by the English. She knew little of warfare, but she believed that if the French soldiers with her would not swear or visit prostitutes they would win.

The English had been weakened by disease and their supplies were low. They pulled back from Orléans, and the French defeated them in a number of battles. The English were allied with the Burgundy, it being common to have as an ally a power that was a neighbor of one's enemy. And in 1430 Joan and four or five hundred men attacked the Burgundians at Campiègne. Joan and her army were driven back. Most escaped, but Joan was captured, and the Burgundians turned Joan over to the English. The English, suffering from attacks by forces under Joan's command had come to see her as a witch and as an agent of the devil. Wishing to have her discredited before she was executed, the English turned her over to ecclesiastic authorities – the Inquisition – at the French town of Rouen, then under English rule.

The Inquisition pondered the question whether Joan's visions were genuine or delusions of the devil. The British wanted her executed and were displeased when it appeared that she would be allowed to recant. In her cell, Joan was given a dress as a part of her recantation. But Joan was found back in her usual men's garb. Her recantation a failure, Joan was charged with sorcery (witchcraft) and burned to death in the marketplace at Rouen.

End of the Hundred Years' War

After Joan's death, the war continued in desultory fashion as before. There were changes in military organization. National armies were replacing armies belonging to noblemen. Infantry had been growing and cavalry diminishing. For a while the French had been hurting because of their slowness in making these changes. But France was a larger and more prosperous nation and eventually developed superiority in weaponry, especially in mobile field artillery. The English longbow could not match France's new artillery – which had a devastating effect on the ranks of an advancing English army.

Hand guns were used with more regularity, convenient because of their small size, but hand guns were effective if at all only up close and often as threatening to its user as to the target.

England lost its alliance with Burgundy, both countries were exhausted by the war, and the insistence on total victory had dissipated. Both countries welcomed peace. England had won nothing. Except for Calais, on the channel coast, the English withdrew from the continent. The end of the Hundred Years' War marked the end of attempts by English kings to hold territory on the continent. And with the end of the Hundred Years' War, in October 1453, came a revival of trade and an end to economic depression.

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