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46: The Hundred Years' War (1336-1565)

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[Western Europe in 1328]

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 nobility.

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.


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 expense.

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.


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 civil wars.

[Western Europe in 1382]

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]

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]

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.


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