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The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453


The Hundred Years War: England and France at War c.1300 c.1450


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The Hundred Years War: An Analysis of the Causes and Conduct of the Longest European War
The Hundred Years War: An Analysis of the Causes and Conduct of the Longest European War
by Patrick J. Shrier

The Hundred Years War between England and France from 1337-1453 is best viewed as a series of interconnected wars with the same basic objective instead of as one long war. There was not continuous fighting during the period nor did England and France keep armies constantly in the field, rather it was almost a game between the two countries with clearly defined rules as to when to fight and when to rest. The period was marked by many truces some for just a season and some lasting years. The most striking thing when one studies the wars of the period is how the English army was almost invariably superior to the French in capabilities yet somehow the English managed to lose the war. The reasons for this are many but the most important is England's inability to maintain any sort of strategic plan over the long run.

The 100 years war ostensibly began in 1337 in a dispute between the French and English kings over the county of Guyenne and whether it was sovereign or held by the English king in fief to the French king. The French king Philip VI confiscated Guyenne from the English whereupon Edward III of England declared that a state of war existed between England and France, thus began the longest war in European history.[1] Edward III did not at first lay claim to the French throne; in fact, upon Philip's ascent to the throne in 1328 he journeyed to France and paid homage for his holdings in France. Edward III held Guyenne through Eleanor of Aquitaine wife of Henry II. It was the link through Eleanor who had also been the wife of French king Louis VII and whose granddaughter Blanche of Castile had been Queen of France[2] on which Edward laid his claim to the throne. The French claimed the English king was unable to inherit the throne because of the Salic Law which barred succession through the female line, but this refutation did not occur until 1410 when Jean de Montreuil denied the claim of Henry IV.[3] While in the beginning the war was a result of economic and jurisdictional issues, over time it evolved into the first national struggle and marks the boundary between the medieval and modern worlds.

The war began with much sound and fury but little action on the English part while the French undertook a series of devastating raids against the coastal towns of southeast England. These raids ended for a time after the Naval battle of Sluys in 1340 in which the English under Edward III decisively defeated the French navy. The war would continue for the next 116 as a series of raids and sieges with a few large campaigns and many truces. There were few decisive battles during the Hundred Years War and the most notable among them are Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), Agincourt (1415), the Siege of Orleans (1429), Formigny (1450), Castillion (1450), and the Fall of Bordeaux (1453).[4] In addition there were several non-military events and peasant revolts in both England and France that impacted on the waging of the war the most notable being the Black death in 1348 and its periodic reappearance throughout the war. The Dukes of Burgundy also played a notable part in the war as the English and French both constantly sought Burgundy as an ally in the war.

The decisive battles of the Hundred Years War did not decide the outcome of the war; that was decided by the different strategies employed by England and France. The differences in the strategies used by England and France are amazing when the similarities between their cultures are considered. England utilized a mostly offensive strategy but assumed the defense tactically, while France assumed the strategic defensive while pursuing the tactical offensive. This was to result in the eventual French victory in the war but the rash French tactics added to its length through their tactical failures which allowed the English to gain a large foothold in France.

The following table provides a list of the most important battles and events of the Hundred Years War:

Key Battles of the Hundred Years War
Battle Date Winner
Sluys (Naval) June 24,1340 England
Crecy August 26, 1346 England
Poitiers September 16, 1356 England
The Jaquerie 1358 French Peasant Revolt
Peasants Revolt 1381 English Peasant Revolt
Agincourt October 25, 1415 England
The Siege of Orleans 1428-1429 France
Formigny April 15, 1450 France
Castillon July 17, 1453 France
{table above: footnote #5}

The war was characterized as much by the clash of tactical systems s it was by its indecisiveness. The English placed a much greater reliance on archers than did the French who scorned their use as being unmanly. This English reliance on a strong contingent of archers in their field armies was to be the key in their successes against the French over the next hundred years. England had relied on archers since the time of the conquest and this reliance only increased after the conquest of Wales under Edward I when the Welsh had used their traditional longbow to great effect.[6]

. The English did not totally rely on the long bow building their army around a hard core of Men-at-arms who had gained combat experience in the frequent Scottish border wars of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

The French army was mainly a mounted army relying on the mounted knight and his awesome shock power to overcome enemies. The French did not totally disdain the use of missile infantry employing Genoese bowmen on occasion as mercenaries; they were even present at Crecy and Agincourt.[7] French nobles and commanders looked down on foot soldiers thinking them barbaric and even worse un-noble and an impediment in battle. This lead to most French field armies to mostly consist of mounted knights and Men-at-arms. They were also impetuous, believing that action was better than inaction and attempting to force the pace of battle; this led to disaster at both Crecy and Agincourt.

The strategic aims of both parties to the conflict were also seemingly at variance. The French war aim was that the king would rule as sovereign over all the territory of France. The English on the other hand seemingly changed their war aims at times but they basically wanted control of all the lands inherited from Eleanor of Aquitaine and they wanted to hold those lands as sovereign and not as vassals of the French king.

The Hundred Years War saw the rise of many notable people on both sides of the conflict. The war made the fortunes of some and destroyed others among the most outstanding characters to arise on the English side perhaps no one stands out more than does Edward, the Black Prince, who was so successful in the early years of the war that the very mention of his name in the ranks of the English would strike terror into the French. Edward's reputation was well founded though; he had fought at Crecy, and been in command at Poitier in 1356 when he captured the French king John II. He was an able commander and led his armies to many victories.

Other notable fighting in the side of the English was John Chandos who was an outstanding English commander during the middle years of the war. Jean de Grailly III the Captal de Buch who first fought for the English then the French before flipping back to the English before being captured by the French and dying in prison in Paris in 1376.[8]

Of course no English leader is as well known as Henry V, King of England who was immortalized by the Shakespeare play of the same name which recounted his victorious 1415 campaign in which he defeated the French at Agincourt.

The French also produced some standout leaders although not until later in the war when leaders such as Charles VI, Philip II of Burgundy, and of course Joan of Arc. The French never truly produced any leaders with the status or reputation of the great English war captains but what they did was produce a series of competent commanders especially in the latter part of the war who carried the war to a successful conclusion.

Joan of Arc was the pivotal figure of the war for the French; she was a simple peasant girl who was convinced that God spoke to her. She convinced the Dauphin to take the crown and assume his title as Charles VI and led a French army to victory at the siege of Orleans in 1428. She was captured by the English, tried as a heretic, and burned at the stake as a witch in Rouen on 30 May 1431.[9]

The most successful English campaigns were those in which they sought decisive battle even though reluctantly. The great English gains always occurred after the English had decisively defeated a French field army such as after Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt; after all these battles these battles the English made the most of French reluctance for battle in the following years and made large territorial gains. After Crecy in 1346 the English laid siege to Calais for a year before capturing the city which they would hold for 211 years until they lost it to the French in 1558.[10] After Agincourt in 1415 the English drove the French from most of Guyenne and Normandy over the next 15 years, years which saw the English controlling more French territory that even the French king controlled. The English did not always pursue a strategy of decisive battle but when the decisive battles were thrust upon them they always tried to pick the best ground and generally assumed the tactical defensive.

The most consistent strategy employed by the English was their use of economic warfare in the form of Chevauchee's and their sponsorship of the guerilla bands known as Routiers. Most years the English campaigns in France were no more than large scale raids during which the English laid waste to the countryside and sacked towns along their route of march in search of booty. The English kings attempted to make the war pay for itself as they were perennially short of cash and parliament grew weary of providing new taxes as the war went on.

The English war effort was clouded by their insistence on the conquest of France. It is hard to imagine how they ever thought they could conquer the largest country in Europe. The English decided early in the war that conquest would settle the question once and for all however they insisted on ruling with such a heavy hand that eventually even the population of their own French territory forsook their loyalty and declared for the French king. The Black Prince in particular levied such heavy taxes in Guyenne that the local lords and peasants turned against him;[11] this type of rule was typical of the methods the English used throughout occupied France. The heavy taxes levied in France were a result of the English tendency to try and make the war pay for itself.

French strategy during the war varied with their fortunes, in the early years of the war the French were very offensive minded which led to their decisive defeats at Crecy and Poitiers. After Poitiers during the Regency of the Dauphin the French assumed a defensive almost Fabian strategy of attempting to hold strongpoints and conceding maneuver to the English. This made sense at the time as the Dauphin was trying to deal with a rebellion by Charles "The Bad" of Navarre who held lands in fief to the French crown and was also pressing his own rival claim to the Duchy of Burgundy.[12]

During the middle years of the war during the reigns of Charles V and Charles VI the French were stuck on the defensive due to recurring outbreaks of the plague and a peasant uprising in France known as the Jacquerie in addition to a quasi-civil war between competing factions. However during the latter half of Charles VI reign the French regained the initiative until the battle of Agincourt when the initiative returned to England.

After the siege of Orleans was lifted by Joan of Arc in 1428 the French went onto the strategic offensive which culminated in the successful battles of Formigny (1450) and Castillon (1453) which brought the war to successful conclusion for the French. The battles of Castillon and Formigny saw the French use gunpowder weapons to decisive effect. The French adaptability and use of the new technology was one of the contributing factors to there victory.

The striking thing about medieval warfare is the lack of many battles during the 116 year course of the war there were very few large battles and none can truly be considered decisive except for perhaps Castillon which brought the war to a close. The war was largely a war of sieges and raids instead of pitched battles. What makes the pitched battles so notable is the way in which they illustrate the direction of tactical thought of the respective countries. Both countries tactical systems remained relatively static throughout the course of the war. The English relied throughout on archers backed up by dismounted Men-at-arms and because this combination seemed to work for them during those few battles that were fought they continued to use it. They saw no reason to play with a winning combination and the only battle they tried to fight differently wasn't there idea they were reacting to French changes. At Castillon the English attempted a mounted charge of the French artillery park and were decimated by accurate fire.[13]

The English tactical system consisted which they used at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt was essentially the same with minor variations based on terrain. They organized their force into three battles or divisions with the outer battles being almost entirely archers with a leavening of infantry. The center was mostly dismounted Men-at-arms with some archers for support. They meticulously prepared the battlefield at Crecy and Agincourt and used existing terrain to their advantage at Poitiers. The English longbow-men were formed up as Froissart says "the archers there stood in the manner of a herse"[14] which is generally considered to mean a wedge shaped formation. The English also prepared the battlefield using stakes to form an obstacle in front of the archer's position or using a preexisting hedge as they found at Poitiers[15].

The other important feature of the English methods was that while they generally assumed the strategic offensive they almost invariably used the defense tactically. The tactical defense was the hallmark of all their successful battles during the Hundred Years War. They were very good at using the terrain to their advantage and the fact that the French assumed the tactical offense helped them too.

The French adjusted their tactical deployment throughout the course of the war in an attempt to find a combination that would break the English. At Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt the French deployed three battles ranked one behind the other. They generally had a mounted front battle with the second battle consisting of dismounted Men-at-arms and the final battle was mounted to serve as an exploitation force. In all three battles the French attempted to force a breach with a mounted charge and then follow up with a dismounted assault. This system failed all three times owing to the English use of archers to disrupt their attack. To compound the failure the recoiling cavalry ran into the advancing Men-at-arms causing confusion. Once the French lost the initiative in all three cases the English pressed their advantage leading to a French rout. One difference is that at Poitier the English executed a flanking movement led by the Captal de Buch which resulted in the capture of the French king.

Another failure of the French early in the war was their improper use of missile weapons. At Crecy and Agincourt for certain and probably also at Poitier the French had the services of Genoese crossbowmen who they had hired as mercenaries. The Genoese were renowned for their skill with the crossbow, but the French nobility in their arrogance did not give them time to be effective before beginning their attack. While it is true that the crossbow had a lower rate of fire then the longbow it could just as effective when employed by skilled troops such as the Genoese. The French failure to use them may not have caused the loss but certainly contributed to the scope of the French defeat.

The French used English tactics against them at Castillon which led to their victory. The French who were besieging Castillon had established an artillery park which they were using to bombard the town. This bombardment induced the English relief force under Lord Talbot to lead a cavalry charge against the artillery position which was bloodily repulsed whereupon the French went over to the attack and completed the rout of the English.[16]

As the war dragged on both came to be more and more war-weary the English suffered more from this than the French did. The French were fighting for what they considered their homeland and maintained their will to fight if not necessarily their vigor. The English on the other hand became more disillusioned especially in the later years of the war when booty and riches did not flow back to England so copiously. The English king had a harder time convincing the parliament of the need for taxes and at times was reduced to pawning his plate and crown jewels in order to borrow sufficient money to finance the war effort. The English crown became increasingly in debt, indeed when Henry V died the crown had a deficit of £30,000 and a debt of £25,000.[17]

Throughout the war the English concentrated on taking territory but did not do a good job of holding it because of poor administration. They also wasted effort in fruitless attempts to gain more territory instead of consolidating their gains. This continual offensive eventually sapped their strength to the point that the French were able to drive them from all France except for Calais.

The French maintained their focus throughout the war, they had a simple goal that of evicting the English from France. It was this singleness of purpose which allowed them to triumph. The French were ill served by their leadership during most of the war with the outstanding exception of Charles VI who chose the right strategy for his reign. One of the main reason's for France's eventual victory was the simple fact that France was too large a meal for the English to swallow in whole or apparently even in part. While the French could not always immediately make up battle losses their manpower pool was so large that there was never a real shortage of manpower except for locally at times.

Realistically the English never had much hope of defeating France and the English conduct of the war was such that France would stay outraged and continue to fight. The single largest factor in the overall English defeat in the Hundred Years War was their loss of focus in the strategy they employed during the course of the war.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2007 Patrick J. Shrier

Written by Patrick Shrier. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Patrick Shrier at:
scout1067@yahoo.com.

About the author:
Patrick Shrier is a 19D Armored Cavalry Scout and 16-year Army veteran currently assigned to the US Army Operational Test Command. He holds a BA in World Military History and is currently working on an MA in European History. He plans on teaching at the university level and writing when he retires from the military.

Published online: 07/15/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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