Dictionary and Thesaurus
Western Europe in 1328
The Battle for Flanders
Flanders had grown to be the industrial center of northern Europe and had
become extremely wealthy through its cloth manufacture. It could not
produce enough wool to satisfy its market and imported fine fleece from
England. England depended upon this trade for its foreign exchange. During
the 1200's, the upper-class English had adopted Norman fashions and
switched from beer to wine.
(Note that beer and wine were very important elements in the
medieval diet. Both contain vitamin and yeast complexes that the
medieval diet, especially during the winter, did not provide. Besides,
the preservation of food was a difficult matter in that era, and the
alcohol in beer and wine represented a large number of calories stored
in an inexpensive and effective fashion. People did get drunk
during the middle ages, but most could not afford to do so. Beer and
wine were valued as food sources and were priced accordingly
The problem was that England could not grow grapes to produce the wine
that many of the English now favored and had to import it. A triangular
trade arose in which English fleece was exchanged for Flemish cloth,
which was then taken to southern France and exchanged for wine, which
was then shipped into England and Ireland, primarily through the ports
of Dublin, Bristol, and London.
But the counts of Flanders had been vassals of the king of France, and
the French tried to regain control of the region in order to control
its wealth. The English could not permit this, since it would mean that
the French monarch would control their main source of foreign exchange.
A civil war soon broke out in Flanders, with the English supporting the
manufacturing middle class and the French supporting the land-owning
The Struggle for Control of France
The English king controlled much of France, particularly in the fertile
South. These lands had come under control of the English when
Eleanor of Aquitaine, heiress to the region, had
married Henry II of England in the mid-12th century. There was constant
bickering along the French-English frontier, and the French kings always had
to fear an English invasion from the South. Between Flanders in the North and
the English in the South, they were caught in a "nutcracker".
The "Auld Alliance"
The French responded by creating their own "nutcracker." They allied
with the Scots in an arrangement that persisted well into the 18th
century. Thus the English faced the French from the south and the Scots
from the north.
The Battle for the Channel and North Sea
The French nutcracker would only work in the French could invade England
across the English Channel. (The French call it "La Manche," "The Sleeve,"
for what reason I do not know.) Besides, England could support their
Flemish allies only if they could send aid across the North Sea, and,
moreover, English trade was dependent upon the free flow of naval traffic
through the Channel. Consequently, the French continually tried to gain the
upper hand at sea, and the English constantly resisted them. Both sides
commissioned what would have been pirates if they had not been operating with
royal permission to prey upon each other's shipping, and there were frequent
naval clashes in those constricted waters.
The Dynastic Conflict
The last son of King Philip IV (The Fair) died in 1328, and the
direct male line of the Capetians finally ended after almost 350 years.
Philip had had a daughter, however. This daughter, Isabelle, had married
King Edward II of England, and King Edward III was their son. He was
therefore Philip's grandson and successor in a direct line through
Philip's daughter. The French could not tolerate the idea that Edward
might become King of France, and French lawyers brought up some old
Frankish laws, the so-called Salic Law, which stated that
property (including the throne) could not descend through a female. The
French then gave the crown to Philip of Valois, a nephew of Philip IV.
Nevertheless, Edward III had a valid claim to the throne of France if
he wished to pursue it.
An Aggressive Spirit in England
Although France was the most populous country in Western Europe (20
million inhabitants to England's 4-5 million) and also the wealthiest,
England had a strong central government, many veterans of hard fighting
on England's Welsh and Scottish borders (as well as in Ireland), a
thriving economy, and a popular king. Edward was disposed to fight
France, and his subjects were more than ready to support their young
(only 18 years old at the time) king.
THE COURSE OF THE WAR
War broke out in earnest in 1340. The French had assembled a great
fleet to support an army with which they intended to crush all
resistance in Flanders. When the ships had anchored in a dense pack at
Sluys in modern Netherlands, the English attacked and
destroyed it with fire ships and victory in a battle fought across the
anchored ships, almost like a land battle on a wooden battlefield. The
English now had control of the Channel and North Sea. They were safe
from French invasion, could attack France at will, and could expect
that the war would be fought on French soil and thus at French
Edward invaded northern France in 1345. The Black Death had arrived,
and his army was weakened by sickness. As the English force tried to
make its way safely to fortified Channel port, the French attempted to
force them into a battle. The English were finally pinned against the
coast by a much superior French army at a place called
Crecy (pronounced "cressie"). Edward's army was a
combined force: archers, pikemen, light infantry, and cavalry; the
French, by contrast, clung to their old-fashioned feudal cavalry. The
English had archers using the longbow, a weapon with great penetrating
power that could sometimes kill armored knights, and often the horses
on which they rode. The battle was a disaster for the French. The
English took up position on the crest of a hill, and the French
cavalry tried to ride up the slope to get at their opponents. The long
climb up soggy ground tired and slowed the French horses, giving the
English archers and foot soldiers ample opportunity to wreak havoc in
the French ranks. Those few French who reached the crest of the hill
found themselves faced with rude, but effective, barriers, and, as
they tried to withdraw, they were attacked by the small but fresh
English force of mounted knights.
Nevertheless, facing much the same battlefield situation some ten years
later, the French employed the same tactics they had used at Crecy,
with the same dismal result, at the battle of Poiters (1356). The
French king and many nobles were captured, and many, many others were
killed. Old fashioned feudal warfare, in which knights fought for
glory, was ended. The first phase of the war ended with a treaty in
1360, but France continued to suffer. The English had employed
mercenaries who, once they were no longer paid, lived off the country
by theft and plunder. Most French peasants would have found it
difficult to distinguish between war and this sort of peace.
END OF THE CONFLICT
As the war dragged on, the English were slowly forced back. They had
less French land to support their war effort as they did so, and the
war became more expensive for them. This caused conflicts at home, such
as the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the beginning of
Western Europe in 1382
Nevertheless, in the reign of Henry V, the English took the
offensive once again. At Agincourt, not far from Crecy, the French
relapsed into their old tactics of feudal warfare once again, and were
again disastrously defeated (1415). The English recovered much of the
ground they had lost, and a new peace was based upon Henry's marriage
to the French princess Katherine. These events furnish the plot for
Shakespeare's play, Henry V. With Henry's death in 1422,
the war resumed.
Western Europe in 1430
In the following years, the French developed a sense of national
identity, as illustrated by Joan of Arc, a peasant girl
who led the French armies to victory over the English until she was
captured and burned by the English as a witch. The French now had a
greater unity, and the French king was able to field massive armies on
much the same model as the British. In addition, however, the French
government began to appreciate the "modern" style of warfare, and new
military commanders, such as Bertran du Guesclin, began
to use guerilla and "small war" tactics of fighting.
The war dragged on for many years. In fact, it was not until 1565 that the
English were forced out of Calais, their last foothold in continental France,
and they still hold the Channel Islands, the last remnant of England's
medieval empire in France.
Western Europe in 1470
This war marked the end of English attempts to control continental
territory and the beginning of its emphasis upon maritime supremacy. By
Henry V's marriage into the House of Valois, an hereditary strain of
mental disorder was introduced into the English royal family. There
were great advances in military technology and science during the
period, and the military value of the feudal knight was thoroughly
discredited. The order of knighthood went down fighting, however, in a
wave of civil wars that racked the countries of Western Europe. The
European countries began to establish professional standing armies and
to develop the modern state necessary to maintain such forces.
From the point of view of the 14th century, however, the most significant
result is that the nobility and secular leaders were busy fighting each other
at a time when the people of Western Europe desperately needed leadership.